Burma or Myanmar, which one is it?
If you are anything like me then ‘who knows?’ Well Myanmar/Burma is back on the map… in many ways. And with any luck then Bob Dylan’s lyrics may run true and ‘the times they are a-changing’
No longer is it uncool to travel to or go Backpacking in Myanmar (yes that’s the politically correct name and the preferred name by locals) and support the ruling Junta with your hard earned cash. Previously Aung San Suu Kyi the co-leader of the National League of Democracy recommended to stay away but now with recent talks and with a shift policy tourism is back on the cards and supported by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Now many of those involved in the Tourism and outsource web development services Industry within South East Asia are licking their lips in trepidation of what the Source Out Code future holds for them. Already many of the larger tour companies have started to bring their loyal customers into Myanmar for group adventure and even luxury tours. There are also the business entrepreneurs who are busting their brains to figure out how they can ‘get in’ before the rush starts. And of course the huge fast food chains have possibly already signed their contracts. All in all the change is already happening, and fast!
I was fortunate enough to explore a small part of the country and to delve into the culture for 15days, which I would normally say is not enough time to understand either. And it is not…but the following is what I found.
Firstly, 15 days is not enough time!! Our initial plans were minimal;
1) Buy tickets online with Air Asia (BKK – Yangon – BKK)
2) Grab a 15-day itinerary from a travel company website
3) We are off!
Landing in Yangon is pretty much like any other SEA Airport – it is new and its clean. Post a pretty painless immigration queue, the adventure begins.
Yangon is a beautiful city with wide open tree lined streets, one can only imagine how lush and beautiful it must have been prior to Cyclone Nargis which left the city and country devastated with 240kph winds and tragically more than 130,000 deaths and 2.4million people affected back in May 2008.
If you are located downtown like we were then it is easy to explore Yangon by foot. We walked down to the river and crossed to the Dala township by ferry. On the ferry we met our rickshaw drivers who then took us on a 2hr journey through the local village. Discovering temples, a monastery and we even managed to gate crash a wedding. To my surprise our local rickshaw driver informed us that the 2004 Tsunami made it even to here!
Its always a little scary when going to a wedding in a foreign Asian country where one doesn’t understand the language or culture. It turns out that Andy and I were thinking the same thing, as we walked in Andy said ‘ mate I reckon one of us might walk out of here married and not even know it!’ It didn’t happen but we were centre stage and felt kinda guilty to take it away from the love birds.
Back in town we weaved through the Bogyoke Ang San market, changed some money on the black market and tasted the delectable street food on the way to the Sule Paya Pagoda, choosing roti’s and samosa’s and mmm they were good and cheap at only about 12cents a pop.
The not to be missed sight to see is the Shwedagon Pagoda, situated on top of the hill close to the centre of town just to the west of Kandawgyi Lake, it can be seen from all over the city but visiting it just before sunset is unforgettable. The pagoda is over 2500yrs old , 99metres tall and covered in gold plates and laden with thousands of diamonds and rubies at its peak. You can easily spend a few hours here enjoying the ambiance, chatting with the locals or like Andy did a very convivial monk.
Our next destination was Bagan with an early flight from Yangoon. In taxi from the airport I could not help but wonder why Bagan had been chosen as the capital for so many years. Looking out, observing the landscape it seemed so sparse, dusty and hot! What was the attraction?
It wasn’t long before we were peddling our Pushies through the sand in search of the ‘Old Bagan’. It didn’t take long and we found why Bagan is now an attraction, it is beautiful! As we peddled through a small local village along a sandy path all of a sudden we cam out into the open and found what we were looking for…mouths agape and Goosebumps creeping up our arms we were both silent and slowly took in the view. In each direction we looked there were ancient temples poking up out of the trees begging us to discover them…and we did!
Andy and I both agreed that Bagan is as spectacular, as Angkor Wat (although very different).
We stayed in Nuang U the backpacker/flashpacker part of Bagan, with a plethora of small restaurants offering Burmese, Shan, Indian, Thai and western cuisines it was the convenient place to be. Most of our meals were great! One tip is the Beach Bar, located on the Irrawaddy River is not to be missed, perfect to relax and enjoy the sunset with a coldie in hand or try a Myanmar wine…you might be pleasantly surprised!
Next was the cruise up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay. Leaving early in the morning we boarded the spacious 3 level river boat for a 12 hours journey to Mandalay. This is a fantastic way to enjoy a relaxing day of travel! And if you were as worked out as my travel partner was, then its a great way to catch up on some much needed zzzz’s. The journey encompasses sunrise and sunset views and some beautiful scenery and villages up to Mandalay.
The name ‘Mandalay’ always brought to mind ‘oriental romance’, however the real Mandalay didn’t really grab us, although we didn’t give it a chance as we were too keen to reach our next destination for some trekking. We did however climb up Mandalay Hill to visit the Sutaungpyei Pagoda and take in the panoramic views of Mandalay. Unfortunately we missed the Moustache Brothers which is meant to be a highlight of Mandalay.
With our minds set on trekking and the magical Shan State mountains we found the next bus out of Mandalay to Hsipaw. The journey takes 6hrs, passing through the beautiful Pyin Oo Lwin, the old summer capital of British Burma is filled with colonial houses and gorgeous gardens. It would be worth a nights stay if we had more time, although we did enjoy a short break feasting on traditional Shan food at the bust stop restaurant that rated in one of the top three meals during our entire trip!
Arriving in Hsipaw in the dark we found our way to Charlies Guesthouse which would be our base for the next five days and is thoroughly recommended. Hsipaw is a small town with much to explore both within the town itself and its surrounds including hot springs, an amazing waterfall, noodle making factories, Shan temples, lively tribal markets and the lovely Mrs Popcorn… all within 2hrs walking distance. Read more !Here was our favourite part of our trip, the amazing people such as Mr Charles’s family and his colleagues that love to sit down and chat, sharing their knowledge and experiences of Myanmar.
We were keen to trek to a small town called Namshan which was a 6hr car/motorbike journey away or a 3-day trek there and back, in the end we were a bit ‘soft’, bailing on the idea as it would suck up too much of our holiday time and instead we went for a two day – one night trek staying in a local Palaung village called Pan Kam.
Before we head off for our trek we spent some time walking around discovering what Hsipaw had to offer and we were lucky it was the Shan New Year celebration at the local Shan Temple and nearby football field. Timing was perfect we joined in the festivities and met some of the locals, fortunately we both speak Thai and smatterings of the Thai dialects which is very helpful when communicating with Shan people, some could understand us and we them. The night time event was ‘fashion shows’ as the locals called it where various Shan tribes showed off their local dress and dancing and also plenty of live music! Wow we both thought their dancing was outstanding, like Thai dancing with the moves much faster yet still as graceful. As the night wore on the young teenagers were taking over the crowd all out to mingle with old and new friends.
Our overnight trek was perfect, taking six hours to reach Pan Kam, the Palaung village. Starting out from Mr Charlies Guesthouse, Mr Bike our guide (known as Mr Bike as he also rents the motorbikes at Mr Charles GH) lead the way out of town through the paddy fields and up into the Shan hills. Traversing up into the mountains we walked through a beautiful Shan village and spotted an albino buffalow! The people we met along the way were all very friendly, the children always shouting ‘byebye, byebye’ and waving their hearts out.
The villagers were also so welcoming and kept their villages very clean and manicured, we had trekked in many villages throughout Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and never had we seen such well-maintained villages. Mostly because of the decision of the headmen to whether the villagers could keep livestock and how they were kept. Allowing the vegetables gardens to flourish rather than be turned to mud by pigs.
We did not see any opium fields, this area they all previously grew opium as their major crops but have since changed to mainly vegetables and rice from government pressure. It sounds as if the areas that are off limits to tourists are where the production may still be happening rather than just the normal story of being dangerous due to rebels. Although from the stories we heard both are true!
On returning from our trek to we decided to rent bikes and drive up some of the way to Namshan, and then to some hot springs. Which was an adventure especially to the hot springs, which we got off the beaten path through some tracks that only our bikes could make. We realised we must have taken the wrong turn, running out of fuel we left Andy behind to wait while we continued on in the search for now hot springs and petrol. Eventually we made it to two villages, one had hot springs and the other petrol…perfect! On the way back to pick up Andy we turned a corner only to have him coming straight at us flat out! He had bought a bottle of petrol from a vendor travelling the back roads on his bike.
Our last major destination to see before leaving Myanmar was Inle Lake, I had heard many stories of friends in the past of the beauty of Inle Lake and I wasn’t disappointed. It was a bit of a mission to get there from Hsipaw but it was worth it. The main access town to the lake is Nyangshwe, a small town centred around the main market with Inle Lake to the south. There are plenty to sights to see and things to do to keep you busy for a few days here. We rented bikes for a half a day and cycled up to the local winery, we tried the sample menu and some snacks for only a couple of bucks and enjoyed the view across town and down to the lake. We also rode out of town to the Pa O Temple which is uniquely designed and a great opportunity for photos, its like the novice monks purposely to sit next to the window and gaze out waiting for the tourists to say cheese.
The highlight though is definitely the lake, we met a boat driver in town who took us on a day tour around the lake and visiting the cottage industries, markets and yes another temple all for about $20usd. It is really spectacular to see the villages living on the lake, with the fisherman and floating gardens where there is massive tomato plantations floating on the lake set up as if they were in the fields.
Before leaving the lake our boat driver showed us through what looked to be the ‘real’ back canals of the villages, watching the people pick up their children from school on little canoes and daily life in action… a refreshingly simple lifestyle to keep in our memories before our journey back to Bangkok.
Myanmar has much to offer, our 15-days really only gave us a glimpse of the amazing country and people. We will defiantly be back to discover more and enjoy the conversations and cuisine of the diverse Myanmar people.