“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes”
First of all – thank you for the positive feedback to my previous posts. It gives me the feeling of being connected to the people that matter to me.
I was aware that the amazing first weeks with Meggie and Tyler and the stay at the Thabarwa meditation centre would set high expectations for Myanmar. The funny thing about Myanmar is the way foreigners are basically pushed into the “famous areas” of the country. No camping is allowed, foreigners can sleep only in specially authorised guest houses (something like family hostels) or hotels (not relevant for my budget). And these exist only in the big cities or in the touristy areas.
The main challenge for the second part of my Myanmar trip was to keep the great impression of the first weeks even after visiting the touristy areas of the country. A task, for which I got some support from Norway.
Yangon and Shwedagon pagoda
Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon is undoubtfully the most famous pagoda in Myanmar. It is indeed a special place not only because of the enormous golden pagoda in the center but also due to the many temples with various shape and style around it. Even the huge amount of people (mostly tourists) couldn’t ruin the experience. Still, the moment it started raining and everybody hid somewhere – the real magic of the place appeared.
Just a day after Therese arrived, we were on our way out of the traffic and noise of Yangon to the sacred land of thousand temples.
Bagan is the probably the most famous place in Myanmar. And there is a reason for this. More than 2200 temples rise on the small area of 104 squaremeters. It’s often compared to Angkor Wat but with higher density of the temples.
The first experience in Bagan wasn’t the best though. At 6am, all foreigners were told to get off the overnight bus in the middle of nowhere because the bus apparently wasn’t going directly to Bagan. Then we were directed to the only nearby standing “taxi” which would take us there. A small detail was the fact that the taxi driver “secretly” gave money to the bus driver. After taking us to the guesthouse, the taxi driver requested from me and the others a unreasonable high amount for the ride. This resulted in me teaching him some not-that-nice words in Bulgarian and giving him one third of what he wanted (still too much). Well, I suppose he tries to feed a family as everybody else but he’s definitely doing it in the wrong way. Welcome to touristy Myanmar! 🙂
The nice thing about Bagan is the freedom to create your own experience. The whole temple area is accessible and connected by gravel ways and there are enough temples for everyone. We hired bicycles and spend two days wandering between the temples. We had a glance at the famous stupas but for the most of the time we took random turns and stopped at lonely temples which showed up around the corner. In this way, we found some great places like this small dark temple with amazing Buddhist wall paintings shown to us by an old man with flashlight. Often kids at various age would run around trying to sell us post cards, paintings, drinks. Several times I just had to reward their acting talent and their persistence.
Indisputably, the magic of Bagan reveals when seen from the top of a temple. There are several famous temples for this purpose but the hordes of tourists kind of destroy the vibe. Fortunately, following the advice of a local woman, I could find a smaller temple that I climbed on and enjoyed the tremendous view on my own. The calmness and quietness of this place was indeed remarkable.
Two days were enough for Bagan. I was positively surprised that the area gave us the opportunity to experience the place without following tons of other tourists.
Inle Lake & Taunggyi
As a second, the second most visited place in Myanmar – Inle Lake. We were dropped off at 2am but this time actually in the city we wanted to go to. The guesthouse belonged to an adoring, always smiling and very helpful family (internal tip: Nuang Phak Pin).
The first day, we set our check mark on the main Must-do – a boat ride on the lake. Two of us together with two American fellows spent the day visiting craftsmen workshops and villages on the lake as well as admiring the smooth precise movements of local fishermen, obviously a result of many years experience. Despite being partly created for tourists, the workshops (especially the waving one) were quite impressive. Another interesting place were the floating gardens, where locals grew tomatoes, pumpkins, rice etc. in the middle of the lake. And the lake “restaurant” – that fish tomato curry was probably my best meal in Asia.
Still, I couldn’t close my eyes for some negative aspects. The increasing number of boat rides leads to water pollution affecting the local fishermen. In addition, we saw several plastic islands floating around. Which brings me to the Myanmar garbage issue. It can only partly be related to the increasing presence of foreigners. The main reason is the lack of a garbage recycling/depot system combined with the increasing (plastic) consumption and lack of a environmental consciousness among the locals. The habit of trowing everything in the water (from the old days when it was all organic) is transferred in a society where everything is double/triple packed in plastic. The garbage problem was not limited to Inle Lake but could be observed all around Myanmar. On the day after the boat trip, I was happy to visit a Norwegian NGO in Inle Lake which develops various projects on this and other problematic matters.
Now, back to the positive! The area of Inle Lake is impressive not only because to the lake and its villages. The surroundings are a great place to explore on your own and find some hidden gems. Again on bicycles, we got lost, got found, discovered some old temple ruins, visited a winery (better view than wine), an amazing local “art gallery” (meaning the home of the artist where he showed us his paintings while his wife was cooking something nearby). The cultural day ended with a puppet show, which is an old Myanmar tradition sadly being slowly forgotten after the British colonisation of the country. I did not leave Inle before trying the Shan full body massage (3,50€ Ha!) on the wooden hut floor of a local family… again with a woman cooking something next to my head! 🙂
Fortunately, the monks from the Thabarwa meditation center (see previous post) were visiting the town of Taunggyi – the Shan state capital located 50km from Inle Lake – on one of the days when we were in Inle. We used the opportunity to visit the city and attend several Dhamma talks (although they were in Burmese). We could even stay at the monks’ guest house after being kindly invited by them. Even though few Buddhist traditions and beliefs contradict with my understandings, I’ll remember the Buddhist monks as extremely kind and smiling people which live connected to the society and not isolated from it.
As last stop in Myanmar we chose the small town of Hsipaw located on a plateau in the north of the country – a place famous by its trekking opportunities. Late at night we were on “the road to Mandalay” (as Robbie was singing) on the bus from Inle. We planned to take the famous train Mandalay – Hsipaw leaving at 4am from Mandalay. And we got lucky there. The bus arrived at 3:45 (luckily near the train station, no one could give us this information before), we rushed into the train station at 3:55. The ticket counter was closed but there was a man sleeping on the floor in front of it (why not?). After we woke him up and said we want tickets, he obviously panicked – “No, no ticket, no time” and pointed us to follow him. 3:58 we jumped into the train without tickets just to be asked one minute later by a very serious guy in military uniform – “Your tickets?” (trains belong to the military government). In this moment, the train departed. Luckily, we could buy the tickets from the guy (or actually give him the money without getting any ticket or recipe back).
The train ride was (in my opinion) amazing. 11 hours for 210km (5h for the first 60). You can imagine it as a very long, very slow but also very dynamic and very cheap roller coaster. On times the train was shaking and bumping that much that my body would separate completely from the seat. And the mountain/countryside scenery was gorgeous. Often we stopped at the villages for some food and drinks from the local markets. The highlight was the Goteik viaduct – a truly impressive engineering achievement considering that it was built in 1900.
The town of Hsipaw did not impress me that much (except the Shan noodle soup…). The streets were way too busy and hectic. So, we decided to spend the few days there escaping the crowds.
Trekking was a must in this area so I (Therese didn’t feel very well) dedicated a day for that. Most of the guided treks were visiting the mountain villages of the Palaung people and there were no trail maps whatsoever so I decided to go with the main stream this time. It was more of a long walk on a well beaten track than a challenging trek. Luckily, I got lost in some rice and corn fields and several times had to walk around some unfriendly looking oxes so I brought some excitement in the trek. I found the north Myanmar countryside very interesting and quite different from what I’ve seen. Rice terraces and corn fields separated by small huts were spread like a blanket on the hills.
After 5 hours I arrived at the Paw Kaw village. The houses were simple but very spacey and, for the Myanmar standards, quite developed. Almost every house had a solar panel. I had finished my water and snacks just before the village so now I was wandering between the houses looking more for people than anything else. My dialog with the first people I saw – an old woman and her monk grandson: “Sorry, can I find a market here to buy some food?”, “Yes, yes, you can eat in my home” and then invited me in their house. The Paula people are known as protectors of the tea which is also their main source of income. Respectively, I was served tea leaves soup, tea leaves salad (yummy), rice and eggs. While I was eating, the rest of the family was watching some Thai soap opera 🙂 Their good English and their behaviour supposed that they are used to the foreigners coming on guided tours so I wasn’t surprised when they asked for some money for the food at the end. Still, a fair price for meeting such a kind family and getting some good food. The way back was easy and pleasant in the company of some Alan Watts lectures.
The second day I decided to try the challenge of a scooter ride in Myanmar. The quality of the roads, of the scooter, of the other people’s driving – everything was one (or more) level/s below Thailand. But I guess that was the whole fun. We went on one of these day trips which are hard to summarise. Driving on the countryside, visiting small villages, being invited from locals to rest at their place, chilling next to a wooden monastery in the middle of a lake, swimming with some kids in a brown stinky water, off road driving to a waterfall… Now I understand why driving a motorbike is related to the feeling of freedom. Despite few risky situations, I loved the feeling of biking around!!
All good things come to an end
The overnight bus took us back from Hsipaw to Yangoon where we spent the last night in Myanmar. I gave my best to fill myself with fresh fruits (oh my god, that Dragonfruit) and delicious Myanmar food. On the last evening, I even allowed myself to go to the movies and watch “Everest” – just to get even more inspiration for my next destination.
Even after visiting the tourist part of Myanmar, I can confirm that it’s a true hidden gem. Yes, on some places you can find hordes of tourists but everywhere it takes just a bit of effort to get off the beaten path. And then there are some great experiences awaiting. I also found it to be one of the safest places I’ve ever been to (except if you mess up with the government laws). My recommendation – go there and go soon!
I found myself being sad to leave Myanmar. I learned about their culture, lifestyle and way of thinking, I met some great people here but most importantly – I found so much that I want to take home from this place. There are some big challenges for the country in near and far future – political change (elections in a month), environmental issues (the garbage problem), cultural challenges (by the increasing western influence). An Italian guy, who lives in Myanmar for 20 years now, told me that Myanmar will never become like Thailand. I hope so!
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