Travel in the Land of the Military Junta
Where: Rangoon, Nya Pyi Taw, Kalaw, Nyaungshwe, Pindaya, Mandalay, Bagan. Myanmar, Southeast 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.
Country counter: Country No.53
Mishaps or illnesses: The bag 'snatch' incident that never was; an unpleasant reaction to anti-malarial drugs which blighted the last few days of travel in the country; struggling to regain my land legs after journeying on a long boat for nearly twelve hours.
Think Burma and among the things which may spring to mind is a closed military country, a subjugated people, the military Junta, and Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Burma has, for years, been a pariah state - isolated from the international community with sanctions and embargoes a response to the military dictatorship's appalling human rights record. Burma was invaded by British colonisers who stripped its forest bare of teak and other resources, was bombed by the Japanese in WWII, after which it gained independence. Unfortunately, it was not long before a band of military generals stole the country from the people and, for over five decades plus, the Burmese have been brutally suppressed. Things were so bad that travellers, for many years, were strongly advised on ethical grounds not travel to the country; spending money here would only serve to prop up the military regime and ensure its continuance. The Junta continues to rule the country with an iron fist, crushing any dissent and imprisoning those campaigning for democratic freedoms, such as Suu Kyi. In the last few years the band of military generals has, seemingly, begun to lessen its grip on the reigns of power and, whilst the international community's instinct is to remain wary, many agree that the country is moving in the right direction. Consequently, travel writers, commentators and state organisations have eased the moral imperative to stay away from Burma and, in doing so, have initiated the process of opening the country up to the world's travellers. Acutely aware that the opportunity to experience a pariah state is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, we took the decision to spend Christmas 2013 and New Year of 2014 with the beautiful people of this captivating nation. We didn't need to think about it.
Arguably this is my most challenging destination to date; there's Dengue Fever, Tuberculosis and some serious malarial mosquitoes, not to mention the troubling facts that your mobile phone is unlikely to work here and that ATMs are distinctly unreliable. Because of international embargoes, the lack of cash machines connected to the global banking system means that travellers are placed in the unenviable position of having to physically carry all of their money with them, having to decide well in advance how much they will need, including any emergencies, prior to their departure. Thus crisp US Dollar notes are the order of the day. We entered Burma with no mobile phone signal and with more money in US Dollars than I have ever seen in one place in my life. It's a scary situation to be in, but then again, what did I expect? This was adventure travel indeed.
Among the first idiosyncrasies you will notice about Burmese culture are their smiles - for good and bad. The 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 and which is unceremoniously spat out at regular intervals. Indeed, pavements are stained with large red splatters, the unedifying result of the chewed, juicy remnants being projected forth with great force. The bigger problem manifests itself when you are required to take your shoes and socks off at the entrances to pagodas and holy places; avoiding red splatters with your bare feet means this all gets a little too close for comfort. Then there're the faces painted in a beige paste called Thanaka, normally applied to the cheeks, as a form of natural sunburn protection. On women the paste is sometimes applied in intricate leaf-like patterns which is all rather beguiling. Finally, there's the endearing little bow from proprietors, stall owners and anyone you are lucky enough to speak to; humility, respect and passivity reified beautifully in to a single gesture.
I can almost guarantee that in Burma you will experience some of the most heart-warming moments in your journey around the world. It's an oft-declared travel cliché to say that the people 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 coupled with a steady growth in visitor numbers. Despite the country's poor transport infrastructure (the trains are unbelievably slow and inter-state buses run overnight - not great for a good night's sleep), you won't be left stranded. In Burma you only have to look like you're searching for transport and you'll be deluged with offers from drivers of motorbikes, trishaws, boats, horse and carts, pick-up trucks and 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, this is something you can draw upon to get around: it's a win win for all concerned. Indeed, engaging such transport options almost guarantees that your money will go straight into the pockets of those who most need it.
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 routes allowed (a route which omits newly-built government palaces). Finally, in November 2013, an improvised bomb exploded outside the five star Traders Hotel in central Rangoon, a hotel owned by the military government. It's a reasonable assumption that the attack, an amateurish effort, was a protest against the regime's iron grip on the Burmese economy. Upon arrival in Rangoon, I realised our carefully-chosen hotel (the far more modest Clover City Centre Hotel) was a stone's throw from Traders. All of this is a telling reminder to visitors, if any were needed, that this is a country where many are deeply unhappy. It's also a reminder to us all that we should be circumspect 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 try to minimise that amount and offset it. 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 its star attraction. Burma, now more commonly referred to as Myanmar, was my 53rd country. People often ask what my favourite country is. I often obfuscate and struggle to answer the question definitively but, between you and me, I confess that Burma comes pretty close to the top.
rangoon / yangon
Rangoon was the capital of Burma until 2006. It has all of the intoxicating colour, culture and cacophony which entrances travellers like me. Among the undeniable highlights of Rangoon is its street life: the bartering, the sweet and sickly smells wafting from stalls selling a whole manner of unidentified fried objects; the sights which just make no sense. Rangoon is a scintillating and energising place to be. Each and every square centimetre screams culture, colour and intrigue. Indeed, immersing yourself in it for any length of time is quite exhausting. I took to standing on random street corners and just letting my camera record: women carrying buckets on sticks, little nuns dressed in pink trailing past in single file, monks browsing the cute street stalls. I could have walked up and down those streets for hours such is their raw, feverish intensity. You never really know what you'll happen upon next. Indeed, a decision to turn down one street and not the next brought us face to face with a group of pink-robed nuns chanting to a giant Buddha with a flashing head. In Rangoon, everything is a photograph and everything is fascinating. I quickly got the impression that the Burmese appreciated our visit; perhaps we represented, more broadly, evidence that their country was changing. Some just stop you for a quick chat and love hearing from you that you think their country is beautiful. Which, of course, it is.
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. Always one to reward a bit of madness, we booked him the following day for a tour around the former capital at the cost of $50. Rangoon's sights are as varied as they are 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 its 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 in saffron-coloured robes and nuns in pink saunter past your lens. 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. The Karaweik Palace, a giant reproduction of a royal barge, is of relatively recent construction but no less worthy of a visit to see it; surrounded by the green waters and pink water lilies of Kandawgyi Lake, it cuts a spectacle straight out of a fantasy film.
Rainbow Rangoon: the pastel colours of the city's British-built colonial-era buildings . I love the electric blue satellite dishes!
The Botataung Pagoda in downtown Rangoon with its fluttering Buddhist flags.
The architectural detail of Karaweik Palace on Kandawgyi Lake.
The Botataung Pagoda in downtown Rangoon with its fluttering Buddhist flags.
nya pyi taw
The military government started building a new capital called Nya Pyi Taw (translates as 'Royal City of the Sun') some 300 kilometres north of Rangoon on former scrub land. In 2006 the capital city of Burma was officially transferred. Some are dubious as to the motivation behind the relocation of Burma's capital city, believing it to be a grossly expensive act of self-preservation on the part of the country's military generals seeking to consolidate their power by building a defensive city away from the main population centre. All government departments have been relocated here but international diplomatic staff have vowed to stay put in Rangoon. Dotted along all routes leading to what has been dubbed the 'ghost city' are military personnel bases and blue police sentry boxes. As we entered Burma's new ghostly capital, I couldn't help but notice that, zooming along the huge 20 lane superhighway was us... and one other truck. If you wish to experience what it feels like to approach a capital city in Asia, which is completely devoid of visitors or traffic, then Nya Pyi Taw should be firmly on your itinerary. Troubling the mind, and adding an unnerving tone to your visit, are the supernumerary police booths at every intersection and junction. From what I could see there seemed to be not a single soul in them. Nevertheless, empty or not, psychologically they are likely to fulfil their function: to make you feel like you are being monitored. 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 such a place to sustain this hotel hyperbole? There is no doubt about it, Nya Pyi Taw is an utterly surreal experience. It is absurd and unsettling in equal measure. Suffice to say that 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, Uppatasanti Pagoda. I have no photographs of government buildings nor of the Presidential Palace; photography is strictly prohibited and I wasn't going to take any chances in this, the land of the military junta.
Adding to my sense of unease in Nya Pyi Taw was what what I can only summarise as as being the scariest experience of the entire Burma journey. We'd left our rucksacks in our driver's boot as we went to visit the Uppatasanti Pagoda, obligatorily removing our shoes at the entrance and taking to sauntering around the complex without a care in the world... On our return the driver and his car had vanished. Increasingly frantic, we took to marching up and down the road in searing heat, growing more and more convinced that he'd driven off - with our rucksacks in tow. Not a problem? It had hit us like a punch in the face. All our money was in those bags - and good luck finding a cash machine in Burma that works with bank cards from the United Kingdom. We were stranded in the heat, in a ghost city, with no money and, indeed, no prospect of getting any more. My stomach collapsed; it's that dreadful sinking feeling most of us have experienced at some point in our lives when some terrible realisation dawns; a terrifying epiphany, a sudden, sickening moment of enlightenment. The joy of the journey so far dissolved instantly. We both took a few seconds to take in the enormity of our situation. How could we have been so foolish?!
Luckily, our driver had just driven to the end of the main street and parked where the car was hidden from view. I lamented at what a stupid, foolish thing to have done. My conceit about being a worldly-wise traveller was punctured - my travel ego bruised. After that, we made sure that all of our valuables were relocated into our day bags (split across two bags, obviously) which we never let out of our sight. We learnt a valuable lesson - the easy way. We resumed our journey in the car, sheepishly shuffling into the back seats more relieved to be back on track than the driver could ever have possibly imagined...
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.
Kalaw is a small town in the Shan mountains whose origins date back to the British colonial days. It is now a hub for intrepid trekkers and hippie hikers. Kalaw is interesting enough for a pit-stop if you're passing through but probably isn't worth a special detour if you're not. Of note was the faded glittery stupa of the Aung Chan Tha Zedi pagoda and the vista over the marketplace which can be sampled by climbing the steps to the modest Buddhist monastery on top of the hill, which we did at sunset for a misty, evocative view over the town. With steps climbed and with photographs taken, we were on our way to our final destination of the day: Nyaungshwe, home to the truly iconic Lake Inle.
The Kalaw horizon at dusk.
The time we spent at Nyaungshwe and Lake Inle was some of the most memorable I have experienced travelling. We arrived in Nyaungshwe, from Kalaw, at night. It was dark and cold, I was tired and hungry and the smoky smell of camp fires filled the air. We checked into the family-run Aquarius Inn, a friendly place where the children carried our bags up to the room and where geckos were permanent residents in our bathroom. We headed for a restaurant recommended in our Lonely Planet Guide to Burma (hardly adventurous, I know, but that shows just how tired we were). Nyaungshwe is located in a high altitude part of the country making it distinctly chilly. The large lake itself, the biggest in Burma, cools the place even further. This necessitated the donning of extra layers and an additional pair of socks on several occasions - an unanticipated contrast with the sticky, humid weather back in Rangoon. I secretly congratulated myself for my foresight in packing warmer layers in my backpack.
The next morning we headed for the series of jetties lining the lakeside to do what absolutely everyone comes to Nyaungshwe for: a boat journey on Lake Inle. Inle is Burma's essence in lake form; it is quintessentially 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 featuring, as it does, a fisherman with a conical bamboo fishing basket. For 20,000 Kyat (about £15) we spent the entire day (and part of dusk) on a motorised longboat, steered by a young Burmese man with obligatorily-stained red teeth. As we thundered down the channel from Nyaungshwe and into the mouth of Inle we were greeted by half a dozen of the iconic fishermen. To see in person that which I had marvelled at on the front cover of my travel guide for months previous was all rather exciting. An undisputed icon of Asia photographed and enjoyed beyond words, we motored onto Nampan, a village built entirely on bamboo stilts. Sights of daily village life ebbed and bobbed all around us: washing dangled on balconies, people rowed their boats along watery roads, villagers waved from their windows - mere square holes sliced into the bamboo lattice. It was all rather humbling to behold and incredibly serene. Our watery tour continued to a small hand weaving centre where women grafted away on wooden weaving machines producing a plethora of cotton, silk and lotus cloth goods which you can buy. In doing so, you have the chance to contribute invaluably to this very local economy. Aware of our responsibility as travellers, and with Aung San Suu Kyi's call to support local people reverberating in my mind, we bought a few bits and pieces totalling $50 - the equivalent of a month's average wage of an employed person in Burma.
Our Inle Lake adventures continued with a visit to the women of the Paduang tribe, renowned for wearing heavy gold coils around their necks which, gut wrenchingly, stretched them. Girls begin at the age of nine and have the number of coils gradually increased until they reach their sixties. Seeing women of the tribe hovered uneasily between beholding a cultural marvel and feeling ethically grubby having paid an entrance fee to see a freak show. 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, deeming it cruel. Whilst a little deflated, I couldn't help but agree with their decision. Knowing we were looking forward to seeing the cats, our young driver with the red teeth grabbed a stray cat, which was walking along the wooden jetty, and got it to perform a quick jump for us - another example of the thoughtfulness of the Burmese. We stopped for a noodle lunch at a floating restaurant on the lake, walked on the floating gardens at Ywama (a very strange sensation) and spent a couple of hours exploring the crumbling ancient pagodas of Inthein, located on terre firma on the far western edge of the Lake Inle. As if that wasn't enough, our boat driver had also timed our return to Nyaungshwe to coincide with the the sunset over the lake which I took great delight in watching from our longboat. With the engine shut off, the sun's sinking glow was accompanied only by the sound of the lapping waters around us. A fairy-tale ending to an incredible day in Burma.
Unfortunately for me, it took my body several hours to recover from the swaying sensation of being on a boat; laying flat on the bed and completely still, I continued to feel like I was bobbing to and fro on the waters of Lake Inle. 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 plain of Bagan. I was later to realise that these strange sensations were, in part at least, exacerbated by the anti-malarial tablets I was taking at the time. I have no doubt that traveller tiredness had also played a role in this rather uncomfortable experience.
An iconic lake fishermen looks straight at the camera with a cigarette in his mouth.
Nampan Village built entirely on bamboo stilts. Sights of daily village life are all around you.
A woman proffers a bunch of water lilies as we make our way through Nampam village - a village built on bamboo stilts. We were passing by in our longboat.
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 from its top.
Pindaya in eastern Burma is most famed for its large mineral cave packed full of Buddha statues which have been donated by Buddhism's most devout from 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 gave the statues, carefully positioned there in their thousands (nine thousand to be precise), an luminescent quality. If you're on the arduous but legendary "road to Mandalay" then Pindaya is a worthwhile pit stop. 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. After being fleeced three times to see the same thing I was feeling decidedly un-spiritual. Luckily, leaving your shoes and socks at the entrance to the temple was free of charge.
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.
To the British, Mandalay will always be synonymous with Rudyard Kipling's poem The Road to Mandalay. Taking the road, however, is a little less poetic and more dangerous than the poem lets on. Winding narrow roads clinging to mountain edges make half of your journey a hair-raising experience even if, like me, you have none. Don't expect to sleep, either. If the nerves won't keep you awake, the broken and bumpy roads certainly will. I would make sure you book your journey with a driver who has a decent car; travelling in a battered old thing is just asking for trouble, especially considering the remote nature of your journey. Even though we were in a modern saloon our driver was compelled to make two stops at roadside mechanic huts (the second time 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 certainly far quicker and cheaper to do so. However, we chose not to, solely because Burma is renowned for its poor airline safety record. As always, travel by road means that you get to sample Burmese life up close and personal. Fly 36,000 feet up in the air and you'll miss the lot. In this part of Burma things were much greener than I had expected. Impressive mountains soar above a patchwork quilt of farmland rendered in a satisfying array of agricultural shades. You'll 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, people... Expect to see buffaloes pulling bales of hay, cows tilling the land, goats wandering onto the road and red-robed monks zooming past, incongruously, on motorcycles. Of course, agriculture is a way of life for most people in Burma. Indeed, 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 any destination you are going to. Our destination was Mandalay.
Mandalay does not make a very good first impression. The buildings are anonymous and generic with much of the city being rebuilt after its heavy bombing during World War II. There is a distinct lack of pavement, too, and thus going for that early evening stroll to and from your restaurant is a truly dangerous affair - especially as motorbikes are not prohibited in Mandalay as they are in Rangoon. They zoom crazily 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 illumination there is coming from small shops dotted along the route, and it's safe to say that the simple evening saunter you had in mind may be far deadlier than you'd initially envisioned. Our journey to the restaurant was made easier by helpful locals who approached having seen us looking at the map in our 'I'm a Helpless Tourist' guidebook. In my cynical way I thought they must be after money - after all, that's what I've experienced in other countries. But this is Burma and people are lovely here. We satiated ourselves at a vegetarian restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet which reassuringly described it as "stomach friendly", quote unquote. 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 every night. Boring yes. Safe, also yes. This trip was too important, and there was too much to see, to start taking silly risks. I'm a cautious traveller.
Using a map given to us by our hotel, and devising our own itinerary, we checked 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, and tend to have a fixed fare of 1000 Kyats. Memorable for the right reasons was the long conversation we had with two students and a monk at the top of Mandalay Hill. Indeed, we learned to grab these opportunities when they arose. We discovered that the Burmese relish the chance to speak to a 'real' English person to see if what they've learned actually works! Memorable for the wrong reason was the short one kilometre walk to the Mandalay Royal Palace, a trek which took us through the headquarters and barracks of the Myanmar Army. Unsurprisingly photography was strictly forbidden until we reached the palace itself, which is nice enough to warrant the effort (don't get too excited: it was re-built by the Junta in the 1990s). A huge red banner hoisted high up on the palace's city walls ominously declares, in both in Burmese and English, that "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 we were travelling in a country controlled by the military.
One of the most touching moments of the trip took place in Mandalay at night. It involved a wonderful trishaw driver who asked us if he could take us to our hotel after our meal. He'd had no customers all day; he explained that most tourists these days wanted faster motorbike rides. We thanked him for this offer, but told him we didn't require his services because the hotel was not far away. Having eaten and digested the day, we exited the restaurant only to discover that he was still waiting. Without hesitation we jumped on and he took us the short hop, a mere couple of blocks, to our hotel. I had a truly heart-warming chat as we rode. I learned that he was 57 with six children. I paid the fare and then tipped him US$8 for the trip (about half a week's salary). He was really down on his luck but, despite this, was a real gentlemen. I think I gave one old timer a little bit of hope. In hindsight my only regret was that I didn't tip him a little more.
The following morning was an obscenely early one. Five o'clock was the time to pack bags and head down to Mandalay Harbour to board the 7 o'clock sailing of the Malikha Express, a ten hour trip south westward down the Ayerwaddy River to the magical Bagan. We had booked the journey months beforehand and paid for it using PayPal, with the tickets being delivered to my hotel in time for check-in. After walking the plank in order to board the vessel, the journey was a pretty unremarkable one except to say that all people onboard were tourists representing nations on most continents. Day broke around us, and the darkness of a freezing cold morning dissolved into the sticky heat and humidity of daytime. Our departure was delayed because of the fog, but once it had lifted we were on our way and full steam ahead. Occasionally a golden stupa glittering above the trees on the shoreline would fix my gaze but, aside from this, the long journey was admittedly as tedious as it was long. I took comfort in the fact that we were not, for a change, travelling by road. Talking to a French couple helped to pass the time.
The 8 kilometre-long walls of Mandalay Palace, with its red bastions, reflects 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.
The mirror-clad technicolour of the Sutaungpyei (literally wish-fulfilling) Pagoda.
A man fishes at Taungthaman Lake in Amarapura.
An elephant is decorated as part of a novice Monk procession which we stumbled upon by pure chance.
The joker character kindly poses for my camera as part of the novice monk ceremony.
The wonderful trishaw driver who took us two blocks home. People in Burma are gorgeous.
A girl selling flowers wears thanaka paste in the formation of leaves.
Sunrise over the River Ayerwaddy on our epic Mandalay to Bagan boat journey.
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 experience Bagan in sufficient depth you have to see the pagoda landscape at sunrise or sunset - or, indeed, both. 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 an unblemished reputation and whose pilots are all British (BoB is the single biggest employer in the city). Being a sanction country meant that paying for our tickets was a labyrinthine, Kafka-esque affair involving, as it did, a telegraphic transfer to an intermediary bank in Singapore. The balloon rides were not cheap, either. 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 high up in the air by a camera suspended on ropes. We were also given a souvenir baseball cap with the company logo on it. Just an aside at this point: we made the mistake of actually wearing this cap around Bagan. Locals know how much a balloon ride costs and, therefore, in their eyes we were clearly filthy rich. Indeed, we may as well have sauntered along the roadside stalls dripping in gold with a sign on our foreheads in Burmese declaring "We have loads of money". Hawkers and street sellers pestered us right up until the point we removed the offending head gear. Lesson learned.
The view of Bagan's old pagodas at daybreak from our unique balloon basket vantage point was incredible. The landscape drifted by in slow motion, accompanied by the calming sounds of the basket's rhythmic creaking. We drifted as high as 1400 feet and as low as a few hundred across the pagoda plain and over the Ayerwaddy River - the river we had sailed down only the day before. Local villagers tending to the land, and kids playing, waved up at us as we passed overhead - their subsistence life on the ground admittedly an uncomfortable contrast with the expensive, frivolous V.I.P. balloon ride I found myself enjoying. Our pilot was called Peter, an experienced balloon pilot of fifteen years. We were also joined by two American couples and a couple from China. Despite my abject fear of flying in airplanes, going up in the balloon felt completely safe. Our landing was, thankfully, a textbook one - bending our knees and gripping two rope handles embedded in the weave of the basket, there was an unremarkable bump as we glided to the ground. This was quite clearly the best way of sampling the Bagan landscape in all its magical entirety - expensive but, as I reasoned at the time, I was only going to be in Bagan once in my life. Often money gets in the way of travel. The important thing in travel is to realise when it shouldn't.
The dwindling hours remaining on the Bagan clock were utilised well thanks to the hiring of an e-bike, rented from Joy Bike Hire for 4000 Kyats (around £2.50). With these little motors under us we were able to zip up and down the motorway and up to the pagodas themselves. The sun was preparing to set and thus we headed to the top of the nearest large pagoda, ascended and joined scores of others in watching the sun drop below a horizon punctuated by the stupas of pagodas. With sunrise and sunset both bagged in Bagan through the deployment of hot air balloon and e-bike, our time in the city and, indeed, in Burma, was done. The next morning we were on the Shwe Mandalar first class coach departure back to the city of Rangoon - the place where this unforgettable adventure had begun a mere eleven days earlier.
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 hot air balloon.
In front of the Thatbyinnyu Paya pagoda - the tallest pagoda 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 broach the subject. Even then, you'd be well advised to change the subject.
- 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. Spend your money wisely.
- Avoid photography of any government buildings in particular. Whilst Burma is opening up, the Junta is still very uneasy about prying foreign eyes prying. 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 changing. Humour them - and they'll pay you back in spades.
- Check with your bank before you depart to verify whether your bank card will work in Burma.
- If you are taking foreign currency with you, ensure your notes are in mint condition. This applies particularly to US Dollar notes. Any creases or tears and you'll struggle to spend your money.
- Consider other ways you can share the financial benefits of your visit with normal, local people. These may include: leave tips in hotel rooms on check-out, tip restaurant staff, buy more souvenirs than you might normally, take private tours and 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.
- If you're travelling by private hire car get your driver's photograph at the start of your trip and pretend it's for posterity. 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 I thought of only after our unpleasant Nya Pyi Taw experience. Also, if travelling by car, ensure your driver comes with a modern vehicle. Roads are in poor condition and you'll want to make sure it will last the distance.
- In Burma you only have to look like you're searching for transport and you'll be deluged with offers from drivers of motorbikes, trishaws, boats, horse and carts, pick-up trucks and 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, this is something you can draw upon to get around: it's a win win for all concerned. Indeed, engaging such transport options almost guarantees that your money will go straight into the pockets of those who most need it.
- If you're thinking of flying domestically in Burma, do you research on airlines first. Head to airlinerating.com to get safety ratings on the country's airlines. Some airlines have an appalling safety record.
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