An Unforgettable Journey in the Land of the Military Junta
Where: Rangoon, Nya Pyi Taw, Kalaw, Nyaungshwe, Pindaya, Mandalay, Bagan. Burma, south east Asia.
When: December 2013—January 2014
What: Colonial architecture, Shwedagon Pagoda, Inle fishermen, Nuns and Monks, Karaweik Barge, Aung Sang Suu Kyi's home, Bogyoke Aung San Market, Hot Air Ballooning, Giant Reclining Buddha, Nampan Bamboo Village, Cloth Weavers, Long-Necked Women, Pindaya Cave, Mandalay Royal Palace, Irrawaddy Ferry Journey, Ghostly Capital City,
How: Flight, Taxi, Horse and cart, Ferry, E-bike, Hot air balloon, Long boat, Pick-up Truck.
Counter: 1 country
Mishaps or illnesses: The bag 'snatch' incident that never was, an unpleasant reaction to anti-malarial drugs, struggling to regain my land legs after being on a long boat on Lake Inle for nearly twelve hours.
What's in a name? Is it Burma or Myanmar? Rangoon or Yangon? Well, I need to make a choice for this Chronicle. Myanmar is a name-change initiated by the military government without any reference to the people. Aung Sang Suu Kyi herself has stated that, because the Burmese people were not consulted, the name should remain as Burma. Burma is the people's name for their country and so, as a small symbolic act against the military dictatorship, in my Chronicle Burma it shall be called. Rangoon and Yangon are one and the same - it is just a question of spelling - the British spelling is Rangoon, the Burmese rendition is Yangon (think Spain and Espagne and you'll get the gist). So Rangoon it is. Glad that's sorted.
Think Burma and among the cliched things which may spring to your mind is a closed military country, a subjugated people, the military Junta, and Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Burma has, for years, been a bit of a pariah state - isolated from the international community with sanctions and embargoes because of the military dictatorship's appalling human rights record. Burma was invaded by the British colonialists, who stripped its forest bare of teak wood and other natural resources, was bombed by the Japanese in WWII, after which it gained independence. It was not long before a band of military generals stole the country from the people and, for over five decades, the Burmese have been brutally suppressed. Things were so bad that travellers, for many years, were strongly advised that, on moral grounds, they should not travel to the country because spending money there effectively propped up the military regime. The Junta ruled with an iron fist and crushed any dissent - the unquestionable personification of which is the face of Suu Kyi herself, kept under house detention for daring to promote democracy. In the last few years the band of military generals running the country, has seemingly begun to lessen its grip. Whilst the international community's instinct is to remain wary, many agree that the country is making welcome changes and is moving in the right direction - albeit at a glacially slow pace. Consequently, many travel writers, pundits and state organisations have lifted the moral imperative to stay out of Burma - opening the country up to the world and shooting it to the top of many a globetrotter's must see list. Aware that the opportunity to experience a former pariah state opening up to the world does not come along that often, we took the decision to spend our Christmas and New Year of 2013/14 with the Burmese people. We didn't need to think about it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Arguably this is my most 'hardcore' travel destination to date: there is Dengue fever, Tuberculosis and some serious malarial mosquitoes - not to mention the unappetising fact that your mobile phone is unlikely to work and that cash machines are a touch-and-go affair. The lack of cash machines connected to an international banking network means that travellers are in the unenviable position of having to carry all of their money around with them - and having to decide how much they will need, including any emergencies, before setting off. We did see ATMs owned by two banks - KBZ and CB. We did not try any. It goes without saying that, if you do find an upmarket eatery which accepts credit cards, chances are your bank will block it as Burma is a "sanction country". Check with your bank before you leave (Halifax blocks all transactions, whereas Barclaycard doesn't). Thus crisp US Dollar notes are the order of the day - any folds or marks and your currency risks being refused. It's a scary situation to be in, but then again, what did you expect?
Among the first things you will notice about the Burmese are their smiles - for good and bad. Burmese are prone to smiling at you such is their general warm and welcoming disposition ("welcome warmly the tourists" street signage declares). This, at the same time, reveals their red teeth, coloured by the chewing of tobacco - which is unceremoniously spat out. Pavements are stained with large red splatters. The problem comes when you are required to take your shoes and socks off at the entrances to pagodas and holy places and it all becomes a little too close for comfort. Also immediately noticeable are the faces painted in a beige paste called Thanaka, normally the cheeks, as a form of sunburn protection. The final thing is the little bow you will get from proprietors, stall owners and anyone you speak to; humility, respect and passivity encapsulated perfectly in a single gesture.
I guarantee you that in Burma you will experience some of the most heart-warming moments travelling that you will ever have. It's a travel cliche to say that it is the people that make your trip but, in the case of Burma, it is more true than of anywhere else I have been. The smiles, the warmth, the waving at us by adults and children alike, and the helpfulness of the Burmese, will stay with me forever. Of course, there are some sharp operators out there who are keen to take advantage of a country's poor infrastructure and the influx of rich westerners. Even though the state's transport infrastructure is poor (the trains are unbelievably slow and inter-state buses run overnight - not great for a good night's travel sleep), you won't be left stranded. In Burma you only have to look like you're looking for transport and you'll be deluged with offers from drivers of motorbikes, trishaws, boats, horse and carts, pick-up trucks and the ubiquitous taxis. If you are in a more remote area, someone will offer to drive you - or they'll ring a friend or a friend of a friend. You quickly learn that no-one in Burma will let the opportunity to make a bit of money pass them by and, as a traveller, you can use this to your advantage.
There are, however, some parts of Burma where no driver will take you. At time of writing, parts of Burma were closed to foreigners and the British Foreign Office had issued a warning against all but essential travel to parts of Shan state because of fierce fighting. Areas of the newly-relocated Burmese capital, Nya Pyi Taw, are also off-limits to tourists with only a certain route being allowed - one which misses out all of the newly built government palaces. What's more, all of Burma's borders are closed to land entry. Finally, in November 2013, an improvised bomb exploded outside the five star Traders Hotel in central Rangoon. It is a hotel owned by the military government and it is a fair assumption that this bombing, which was small and caused no damage, was a protest against the regime's iron grip on the Burmese economy. Arriving in Rangoon, I realised that our chosen hotel, the modest Clover City Centre, was next door to Traders - which now comes with a 24 hour police guard, a telling reminder to tourists that this is a country where many are deeply unhappy - and a reminder to us all that we should be extra mindful about where our money is going. The military government will benefit financially from your visit no matter how hard you try (visas, flight taxes and so on), but the key thing is to minimise that amount and to try your best to offset it. Book at independent or family-run hotels and guesthouses and avoid the large, glitzy hotels catering for rich westerners which are often directly linked to the regime. Other ways you can help trickle down to the real people of Burma some of the financial benefits of your visit are obvious: leave tips in hotel rooms on check-out, tip restaurant staff, buy more souvenirs than you might normally, take private tours and take trips on trishaws and horse and carts. These people are often lowest down in the pecking order and have most to gain from your trip. An American couple we met in Bagan stayed at an exclusive five star hotel plonked right in the centre of the Bagan pagoda plain and owned by none other than a nephew of one of the military generals. I was quite appalled by their self-centred ignorance. Although these issues add extra complexity to your visit, if you are not willing to make this moral commitment, I advise you to put the Burmese people first and stay away.
Burma has wonderful things to see and do... but, at the risk of sounding trite, its people are the star attraction. This was my Burma, my 53rd country...
the former burmese capital
Rangoon, which was the capital of Burma until 2006, in some ways feels, sounds and smells a little like India but the people are far less predatory - the majority will just say "hello" (or "ullo") and leave you to it. They will not badger you or get in your face which was a real bug bear of mine in India and which went a long way to spoiling our time there. For me, first impressions count and our taxi driver from the airport was wonderful - he had an infectious smile and was ever so slightly mad. We booked him for the following day for a tour around the former capital at the cost of $50.
Rangoon's sights are truly stunning. The Shwedagon Pagoda has got to be one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. Greeting you as you enter any one of four entrances is a pair of giant stone lions. Shwedagon, the most sacred Buddhist temple in the country, is a religious complex of world significance comprised of golden pagodas, stupas and as many Buddha statues as you care to photograph - and all the while monks and nuns drift past your lens. I hazard that the only reason this complex is not included in the list of the 'new7 wonders of the world' is because of Burma's recent isolation and status as pariah state which has lasted for over five decades. Only now is Shwedagon being lifted from relative obscurity to basking in a new-found international prominence - and rightly so, I believe. A visit inside the golden Sule Pagoda - a mere stone-throw from our hotel, resulted in me discovering that I was born on a Monday (meaning I am a 'tiger') and me worshipping the Monday god by splashing water on a stone tiger six times and rubbing a gold leaf on a statue dedicated to the family. When in Rome...
Also worthy of a visit is the Karaweik - a giant reproduction of a royal barge which sits imposingly on Kandawgyi Lake. The gigantic reclining Chaukhtatgyi Buddha statue is also a sight to behold. Rangoon's central law courts building, with its clock tower, is strangely reminiscent of civic architecture back home. Grand brick-built buildings, painted greens and blues, stand as decaying reminders of the country's imperial heritage / hangover (delete as applicable). But one of the undeniable highlights of Rangoon is its street life: the noise, the smells and the stalls selling a whole manner of unidentified fried objects and even more unidentifiable plastic ones. Rangoon is a place which is a delight to be in. Every square inch screams culture, colour and intrigue - so much so that immersing yourself in it for any length of time is quite exhausting. Here's a tip: stand on any street corner and let your video camera roll: women carry buckets on sticks, little pink nuns trail past in single file, monks browse the lively street stalls. Rangoon is a thrilling place to be - and I got the impression that the Burmese appreciated us visiting. Some just stop you for a quick chat and love hearing from you that you think their country is beautiful. I could have walked up and down those streets for hours such is their raw, feverish intensity. Indeed, a random decision to walk down one street and not the next brought us face to face with a group of pink-robed nuns chanting to an illuminated Buddha with a flashing head.
Rainbow Rangoon: the pastel colours of some of Rangoon's British-built colonial-era buildings make a pleasing impact on the eye. I love the electric blue satellite dishes!
The Botataung Pagoda in downtown Rangoon with its wonderful Buddhist flags creating a festival air.
The rather special Karaweik - a giant reproduction of a royal barge which sits imposingly on Kandawgyi Lake.
The 99 metre gilded stupa of the Schwedagon Pagoda - the most revered and sacred Buddhist pagoda.
nya pyi taw
burma's ghostly new capital
The military government started building a new capital called Nya Pyi Taw (translates as 'Royal City of the Sun') some 300km north of Rangoon on former scrub land and, in 2006, the capital city of Burma was officially moved. Commentators are dubious as to the real reasons behind this relocation. Many believe it is about the band of military generals consolidating their seat of power by building a defensive city away from the main urban centre. Surrounding what has been dubbed the 'ghost city' are military personnel bases and police boxes. All government departments have been relocated here but international diplomatic staff have vowed to stay put in Rangoon. I suspect that the building of this new capital is less about re-shaping the country away from its colonial past, and more about the military indulging in an expensive act of self preservation. Leading up to the city are huge 20 lane superhighways - all but deserted apart from the odd truck and our car. It is grandiose arrogance on a monstrous scale.
Troubling the mind, and adding an unnerving tone to your visit, are the supernumerary police booths at every intersection and junction for miles around. There is no one in them, but empty or not - psychologically they fulfil their function: to make you feel that you are being watched. Foreigners have only recently been allowed to visit the city. Like anyone would want to - except out of a misplaced curiosity. Most puzzling of all are the scores of super-sized hotels which line both sides of the highway. Their sheer size and number beg the question, are there enough people visiting the place to actually stay in them? It's a surreal place to visit - and we didn't hang around for very long, only stopping for a bite to eat and a trip to the hastily built, and rather underwhelming, golden pagoda. Nya Pyi Taw feels surreal and very 'police state', an immense folly built for the government and not the people. You may notice that I have no photos of government buildings nor of the Presidential Palace: photography is strictly prohibited - and I wasn't going to take any risks in a military state. Incidentally, google fails to yield many photographs of the city, too.
It was in Nya Pyi Taw that we had what was the scariest experience of the entire trip. We'd left our rucksacks in our driver's boot as we went to visit the pagoda. On our return the driver had vanished. Walking up and down the road in the searing heat I was convinced he'd driven off. Not a problem? All our money was in those bags - and good luck finding a cash machine in Burma that works with UK cards. Stranded in the heat, in a ghost city - and with no money. Terrifying. How could we have been so stupid?! Luckily, our driver had just driven to the end of the street and parked in a car park which was hidden from view - but what a stupid risk to have taken. After that, we made sure that all of our valuables were relocated into our day bags. It did get me thinking, though, about the best way to avoid this happening for real and things I will make sure I do in future. Firstly, get your driver's photograph at the start of your trip and pretend it's a tourist thing. No driver will try anything if he knows you have his mugshot. If your driver refuses, alarm bells should ring. Also, get a photo of the car before you set off making sure you include its number plate. Good, practical tips triggered by being in what could have been a real situation. Phew.
The road to the capital: the bizarre sight of a ten-lane super highway virtually deserted. Notice the Police box.
At the foot of the steps to the Uppatasanti Pagoda.
shan state mountain town
Kalaw is a small town in the Shan mountains whose origins date back to the British colonial days. It is now a bit of a hub for trekkers and hikers (oh, before you go running off into the hills, just bear in mind that Burma is prime poisonous snake bite territory). Kalaw is interesting enough for a pit-stop if you're passing through but isn't worth a special detour if you're not. Of note is the faded glittery stupa of the Aung Chan Tha Zedi pagoda and the vista over the marketplace which can be had by climbing the steps to the modest Buddhist monastery on top of the hill. With these steps climbed, and with photographs taken, we were on our way to our final destination for the day: Nyaungshwe, home to the iconic Lake Inle.
The Kalaw horizon at dusk.
tribal lake adventures on lake inle & beyond
The time we spent at Nyaungshwe and Lake Inle was some of the best time travelling I have had. We arrived in Nyaungshwe from Kelaw at night - it was dark and cold, I was tired and hungry and the smoky smell of camp fires filled the air. Checking in to the family-run Aquarius Inn where the family's children carry your bags up to your room (and where geckos live in your bathroom), we headed for a restaurant recommended in our Lonely Planet guide - hardly adventurous but that shows just how tired we were! This is a high altitude part of Burma making it very chilly. The large lake itself, the biggest in the country, cools the place down even further. This caused us to don extra layers and an additional pair of socks on several occasions - such a contrast with the sticky humidity of Rangoon.
The next morning we headed for the series of jetties lining the lakeside to do what everyone comes to Nyaungshwe for: a boat tour on Lake Inle. Inle is Burma's essence in lake form; it is quintessential Burmese. Indeed, one of the lake's most iconic sights is used as the signature image on the front page of the Lonely Planet guide to the country - that of a fisherman with a conical bamboo basket. For 20,000 Kyat (about £15) we spent the entire day (and some of dusk) on a longboat with a motor on the back, steered by a young Burmese man with characteristically red teeth. As we hurtled down the channel from Nyaungshwe and into the lake at an exciting speed, the first thing we saw were the iconic fishermen who were happy to strike 'the pose' for our camera. You'd think they'd get fed up - but clearly not. We motored onto Nampan, a village built entirely on bamboo stilts. Sights of daily village life are all around you: washing dangles on balconies, people row their boats along their watery roads, and villagers wave at you from their windows which are no more than squares cut into the bamboo lattice. It was both beautiful and humbling to behold. Next stop was a hand weaving centre where women work on wooden weaving machines to produce all manner of cotton, silk and lotus cloth goods which you can buy in the shop. Aware that this shop is likely to be a crucial part of the local economy, and all too aware of Aung San Suu Kyi's call for travellers do do what they can to support local people, we bought a few bits totalling $50 - the equivalent of a month's average wage of an employed person in Burma. You get to see the women weaving it 'live' as well as a woman extracting lotus thread from the stems of a lotus flower.
Our Inle Lake adventures continued with a visit to the women of the Paduang tribe who wear heavy gold coils around their necks in a bid to unnaturally elongate them. Girls start at aged nine and have their coils gradually increased until they reach their sixties. Our trip to the famous 'Jumping Cats Monastery' was a disappointment as the monks, who had trained the stray cats to jump through hoops, had decided some time ago to stop as they had deemed it cruel. Whilst disappointed, I agree that this is the right decision on their part. Knowing we were looking forward to seeing the cats, our driver grabbed a stray cat and got it to perform a jump which I was quick enough to capture on video. This is yet another example of how I found the Burmese to be: warm, respectful and thoughtful. We stopped for a noodle lunch on a floating restaurant on the lake, walked on the floating gardens at Ywama (a very strange sensation) and spent a couple of hours exploring village life and its old, crumbling pagodas of Inthein located on terre firma on the far western edge of the lake. As if that wasn't enough, our driver had also timed our trip accurately enough to ensure we caught the sunset over the lake on the way back to Nyaungshwe.
It took my body a couple of hours to get over the swaying sensation of being on the boat; laying flat on the bed and completely still, I still felt like I was floating on water. This did not bode well for my ten hour boat journey down the Ayerwaddy River from Mandalay, nor my 1400 feet high hot air balloon ride over the pagoda-covered landscape of Bagan. I was later to realise that this sensation was exacerbated by the anti-malarial tablets I was taking.
An iconic lake fishermen looks straight at the camera with a cigarette in his mouth.
Nampan, a village built entirely on bamboo stilts. Sights of daily village life are all around you.
Arriving in the lakeside village of Inthein. This is the main market square.
Inthein's ancient and crumbling brick stupas. I love the one with a tree growing out of the top.
Pindaya in eastern Burma is home to a large mineral cave stuffed full of Buddha statues donated by Buddhists from all around the world. The Shwe Oo Min Natural Cave Pagoda is surrounded by rolling hills and humble tin and bamboo dwellings, the vista of which you can sample before entering the cave itself. The soft glow of the electric lights in the cave gives the statues, there in their hundreds, an otherworldly quality. It's certainly extraordinary and worth a visit, if not just for the chance of a quick pit-stop if you're on the arduous journey to Mandalay. Expect to have to pay a fee to enter the area of the pagoda by road, a fee to use your camera and then a fee to enter the cave itself. An atheist like me was left feeling even less spiritual after being fleeced...three times to see the same thing. Luckily, leaving your shoes and socks at the entrance to the temple was free (for now, anyway).
The view across Pindaya in Shan State as seen from the elevation of the caves.
Inside the Pindaya mineral caves where thousands of Buddhas have been assembled and consecrated.
travelling the fabled road to mandalay
To the British, Mandalay will always have a special resonance because of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'The Road to Mandalay'. Taking the road, however, is a little less poetic and more dangerous than the poem describes. Winding narrow roads clinging to mountain edges make half of your journey a hair-raising experience. Don't expect to sleep, either. If the nerves won't keep you awake, the bumpy and uneven roads certainly will. I would make sure you book your journey with a driver who has a decent car - going in a battered old thing is just asking for trouble, especially considering the remote nature of the journey. We were in a modern saloon - and our driver had to make two stops at roadside mechanic huts (the second because of a six inch nail which had embedded itself into the rear left wheel - our driver intends to keep this in his glove compartment for posterity). Many people choose to fly this route rather than take a driver. It is far quicker and probably cheaper. We chose not to, solely because Burma is not known for its aeroplane safety record. An added benefit is that you taste Burmese life like you never would 36,000 feet up in the air - up close and personal.
In this part of Burma things are far greener than I had expected. Impressive mountains soar above a patchwork quilt of farmland in agricultural shades. You pass all manner of farm vehicles which, through sheer human endeavour, continue to work, their motors and belts whirring out in the open for all to see whilst, all along, being stuffed to the brim (and beyond) with bamboo sticks, logs, cabbages, crisps or just people. Expect buffaloes pulling bales of hay, cows tilling the land, goats wandering onto the road and red-robed monks zooming past on motorcycles. Of course, agriculture is a way of life for most Burmese people - nearly half the country is employed in this toil. But it is Burma's ordinary which is our extraordinary. In Burma, the journey is just as fascinating as your destination. Destination: Mandalay.
Mandalay does not make a very good first impression. The buildings are anonymous and apartment-blocky - much of the city has been rebuilt having been heavily bombed during WWII. There is a distinct lack of pavement, too, so going for that early evening stroll to and from your restaurant is a dangerous affair - especially as motorbikes are not banned in Mandalay as they are in Rangoon. They zoom frantically in all directions and are the transport of choice for younger Mandalayans. Add to this the noticeable absence of any street lighting with the only light coming from shops or apartment blocks themselves. Roads are not clearly sign posted either. You can quite easily see that the stroll to your restaurant may be far trickier than you'd initially anticipated! Take a torch! Our journey to the restaurant was made easier by helpful locals who approached having seen us looking at the guidebook's map. In my cynical way I thought they must be after money. They weren't - they were just being helpful. We ate at a vegetarian restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet which described it as "stomach friendly". Terrified that I would develop the sort of stomach problems which had laid me up in bed for two weeks with two courses of antibiotics after travelling around Romania, we ate there for both of the nights we were in Mandalay. Boring - but safe. I am glad to report that Mandalay improved on our first, and only full, day there.
Using a map from our hotel, and making our own itinerary, we picked off Mandalay's key sights on foot, in a taxi and on the back of a pick-up truck. For 1000 Kyats (66p) the pick up truck took us to the top of Mandalay Hill. These trucks are independent operations covering short distances, almost always run by two men (one the driver, the other hangs on the back shouting the destination, collecting money and acting as a scout for new passengers). We were packed in the back of the truck with locals of all shapes and sizes - including one very aged nun and three monks. If you want to sample local colour and get up close with the Burmese people, taking truck trips like these is essential. A bonus is that it's far cheaper than taking a taxi, too. They seem to have a fixed fare of 1000 Kyats every time. Memorable for the right reasons was the long conversation we had with two students and a monk at the top of Mandalay Hill. Be prepared to be used as an opportunity for the Burmese to practise their English on you (they relish the chance to speak to a 'real' English person to see if what they have learned actually works). Memorable for the wrong reason was the short one kilometre walk to the Mandalay Royal Palace - through the headquarters and barracks of the Myanmar Army. Photography is strictly forbidden until you reach the palace itself, which is nice enough to warrant your effort (it was re-built by the Junta in the 1990s). A huge red banner high up along the palace's city walls ominously warns, both in Burmese and English, "Tatmadaw and the people cooperate to crush all those wanting to harm the Union." Not very welcoming but a reminder, if any were needed, that you are in a military-run country now - so you'd better watch your step.
One of the most touching moments of the trip took place in Mandalay. A wonderful trishaw driver asked us if he could take us to our hotel after our meal - he'd had no customers all day as most tourists wanted motorbike rides. He was still waiting for us when we had finished our meal. Without hesitation we jumped on and he took us just the two blocks to our hotel. We had a lovely chat (he was 57 and had six children) and I tipped him $8 for a two minute trip (about half a week's salary). He was really down on his luck and was a real gentlemen. I think I gave one old timer a little bit of hope. My only regret was that I didn't give him more.
The following morning was an obscenely early one - 5am was the call to pack bags and head out to Mandalay harbour to catch the 7am Malikha Express boat departure to Bagan down the Ayerwaddy River. For £20 you get to sit on a boat for ten hours in the freezing cold (morning) and the sweltering heat (midday onwards) for what is probably the easiest route to Bagan after flying. Impressively, I booked this journey months beforehand and paid for it using paypal. The tickets were delivered to my hotel in time for my arrival there. After walking the plank to board the vessel - literally, the journey was a pretty unremarkable one except to say that all people on-board were tourists representing nations from most continents. Our departure was delayed because of the fog, but once it had lifted we were on our way and full steam ahead. The journey was as tedious as it was long but talking to a French couple helped pass the time.
The 8km-long walls of Mandalay Palace, with it's red bastions, reflect in the waters of the Ayerwaddy River.
Three novice monks pass the time in the grounds of Atumashi.
The impressive arrangement of white gold-topped stupas at Kuthodaw Pagoda.
Mandalay Palace, to get to which you have to walk through two kilometres' worth of Myanmar Army headquarters where photography is strictly forbidden until you reach the palace itself.
The mirror-clad technicolour of the Sutaungpyei (literally wish-fulfilling) Pagoda.
A man fishes at Taungthaman Lake in Amarapura, Burma (Myanmar).
Sunrise over the River Ayerwaddy on our Mandalay to Bagan boat journey.
hot air-balloon adventures above the iconic pagoda plain
Bagan is famous for its ancient pagoda-covered landscape and, along with Lake Inle, is the must-see sight for anyone visiting Burma. Better still, to 'do' Bagan properly you have to see the pagoda landscape at sunrise or sunset. We went one better by booking a hot air balloon ride at sunrise on New Year's Eve with 'Balloons Over Bagan', a company with a very good reputation and whose pilots are all English (they are also the single biggest employer in the city). Because Burma is still officially a "sanction country" it means money from countries like the UK, USA and Australia cannot go directly to the country through the international banking system. Paying for the ride in advance (to secure our place) was a bit tricky involving, as it did, a telegraphic transfer to an intermediary bank in Singapore. But don't worry - there is nothing underhand or dodgy about this. The balloon rides are not cheap - coming in at over £250 each for 40 minutes in the air. This was for the 'VIP' balloon service involving eight rather than sixteen passengers in the basket. As part of the deal we had transfers to and from our hotel in the Nyaung U township of Bagan, coffee and biscuits on arrival (in the middle of a field in the dark), champagne and croissants on touchdown, as well as a photograph (taken up in the air by a camera suspended on ropes) and a baseball cap saying 'Balloons Over Bagan'. Just an aside at this point: don't make the mistake of wearing this cap anywhere in Bagan. Locals know how much a ride costs and, therefore, in their eyes you are uber-rich - cue hawkers and street sellers pestering you up until the moment you change your head wear. You may as well walk around the roadside stalls dripping in gold with a sign on your forehead in Burmese script declaring 'I have loads of money'.
As you will see below, the vista from the balloon basket of Bagan's old pagodas at sunrise was rather special. We drifted as high as 1400 feet and as low as a few hundred across the pagoda plain and over the Ayerwaddy River. Local villagers tending the land, and kids playing, waved up at us as we passed overhead - their subsistence life on the ground an uncomfortable contrast with the expensive, frivolous VIP balloon ride I found myself enjoying. Our pilot was called Peter, an experienced balloon pilot of fifteen years. We were joined by two pairs of Americans and a Chinese couple. Despite my abject fear of flying in aeroplanes, going up in the balloon felt completely natural and relaxing. The landing was textbook - bending our knees and gripping two rope handles embedded in the basket weave, there was a slight bump as we glided to the ground. This was quite clearly the best way of sampling the Bagan plain in all its magical entirety - expensive, but well worth it. I'm only in Burma once, right? Sometimes money should not get in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime experience - you only live once - just do it.
My final few Bagan hours were spent on an e-bike, which we'd hired from 'Joy Bike Hire' for 4000 Kyats (around £2.50). With these we were able to zip up and down the motorway and up to the pagodas themselves. The sun was close to setting so we headed for the nearest large pagoda, climbed up it to join around sixty or so other travellers in watching the sun drop below the horizon. With sunrise and sunset bagged in Bagan with the use of a hot air balloon and an electronic bike, our time there was done. The next morning we were on the Shwe Mandalar first class coach departure back to the city of Rangoon - the place where it had all begun eleven days previously...
The iconic pagoda-covered landscape of Bagan seen from on-board our hot air balloon.
Up above the streets and houses... high above the Bagan plain in the air balloon.
In front of the Thatbyinnyu Paya pagoda - the tallest in Bagan.
travel tips, links & resources
- Take account of local sensibilities when packing your clothes; the more flesh you show, the more offence caused. I saw a number of ignorant Westerners wearing what they liked and, to be honest, it was an utter disgrace.
- Avoid discussing politics with locals unless they bring the subject up. Even then, you'd be advised to be careful.
- Try to direct as much of your spends to local people as possible. Avoid five-star, expensive hotels and restaurants as these are often owned directly by the military government. Get yourself stuck in and spend your money wisely.
- Avoid photography of any government buildings in particular. Whilst Burma is opening up, the Junta is still very uneasy about foreign eyes prying - so be careful. If in doubt, forget it.
- Always respond positively to Burmese advances to speak to you. They want to be able to practise their English speaking skills on you and, in many ways, see you as evidence that their repressive country is opening up. Humour them - and they'll pay you back in spades. In my experience, their approaches to speak to you are nothing untoward - so refreshing in south east Asia.
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