Back in May, Lucas and I spent three weeks in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. Piecing it all together all these months later, I am reminded again why I loved it so much.
Myanmar was so different from anywhere else I’d been in South East Asia; not yet tainted by crazy tourism and over-westernisation. But much more authentic, with fascinating customs and traditions still much a part of everyday life.
The way of the Burmese people was something else and their kindness, eagerness, warmth, and generosity knew no bounds. No matter where we were; the busy city, ancient UNESCO town, rural mountain village, or lakeside, there was always an unspoken but unmistakable community feel.
We’d often see courtesy water containers left on the side of the street with communal cups for anyone and everyone to use (it was best not to dwell on the hygiene), and if you stopped at a local restaurant there would be pots of green tea on the tables, free to drink. Apparently, it was offensive to refuse a cup if anyone offered.
Another image I’ll never forget is that, despite the simplicity and poverty of the Burmese people’s lives, the locals always looked so turned out.
The women would be dressed in fitted blouses with beautiful patterned wrap-round skirts, decorated with nothing but creamy tanaka paste, squared across their cheeks and foreheads.
They believed tanaka to have many beautifying properties which is why it was applied liberally. Even boys would indulge every so often, dabbing at a rogue spot or two.
The men also rocked the ‘smart casual’ look with their rolled up shirt sleeves and traditional floor-length longhis – but their elegance was slightly offset by their blood red mouths, stained by the addictive betel they chewed.
But back to May. We started off our Myanmar travels in Yangon where we stayed in a skinny townhouse, 7 floors up, near the city centre. You can see it was hard not to indulge in a bit of voyeurism.
One of the first things we did was visit the huge golden Shwedagon Pagoda, dating back over 2600 years; one of the country’s most famous religious buildings, by all accounts.
In the hazy sun of the late morning, even as we approached it from afar you could see the pagoda’s 362 feet of (real!) gold like a beacon of light. Up close you could barely look at it.
Inside, the whole complex was dazzling, from the white marble floor, to the painted buddhas, not to mention the mini pagodas and shrines all around adorned with gold bells, diamonds, and other jazzy gems.
It was quite a sight.
We lasted all of fifteen minutes before searing our eyes to near blindness – but at least we were able to take some good photos.
In search of some exotic ‘street food,’ that evening we went to Yangon’s so-called Chinatown to dine in the night market.
It was bustling with people, music, lights, and open-fronted eateries with plastic chairs and tables spilling onto the street and we feasted on countless delicious meaty sticks of (debatable) chicken heart, pig ears, spicy beef, and pork belly….
As an appetiser Lucas ate a whole bag of crickets, too, from a man wheeling a cart down the street. He didn’t need any encouragement to finish them all. I didn’t have the balls to try one…
The next day we decided to buy tickets (each at £0.40) for a three-hour round trip to see the city suburban sights on the Yangon Circular train.
Once you had your forty pence ticket you were effectively one of the locals and it was up to you to sit, stand, hover, or hang out the window for the duration of your journey.
Little did we know that the trains in Myanmar were notoriously slow – so slow that many people actually advise against using them – and the one we were on was no exception.
But speed aside, it was worth it – and quite the experience, not to mention the ultimate opportunity for indulgent people watching (I am not shy of a good stare).
What I also realised in those three hours was that the people of Myanmar are some of the most vocally expressive I have ever come across. They would raise the decibels of their voices as if they were running scales before an opera. Each following word was at least an octave higher or louder than the one before it. And those having the conversation would usually only be sat two feet away from each other.
There was certainly never a quiet moment throughout the journey.
Alongside Lucas and I were women on their way to the Sunday market with their ‘goods,’ selling everything from wooden side tables to hot steaming curries, and there was one guy roaming the carriages selling fresh ears of corn.
The route took us out of the city and through smaller suburban villages made up of simple shacks right on the railway, next to sad piles of rubbish heaped everywhere – and right on their doorstep. It really was an eye opener into the poverty of the country. Yet the children we saw seemed so content and innocent, happily playing with sticks in the mud with their friends.
Although not the most conventional of experiences, it was a great insight into local life and the whole three-hour experience (averaging a speed of no more than 10km an hour) felt like a National Geographic documentary.
After the excitement of the city, our next planned stop was Bagan. I naively had assumed that getting from A to B in Myanmar would be much like our Sulawesi experience (ie: a challenge) and organising travel would be a torment of teeth pulling and misunderstandings.
Namely, I was recalling the frustration on Lucas’ birthday; irritably negotiating with the locals in the bus station.
But here it was so easy, you just had to go up to the desk at your hostel and they would make a call on their mobile and within five minutes you’d have two £3 tickets on a VIP air con bus for a 10-hour journey. It was that easy – and the ride was pretty luxurious.
Arriving the next day in dry and dusty Bagan was a total climate change from Yangon. I could feel an oncoming nosebleed as soon as I got off the bus. It was super arid and felt much like it would standing in an oven.
Note: for those planning on going to Bagan, get used to showering 2-3 times a day and bring a good book as you’ll want to hide out in the comfort of your airconditioned room for a decent part of the day.
We learnt quickly that if you wanted to do anything – mainly temple hop – you had to head out early morning or later in the evening otherwise you’d wilt in a heap on the side of the steaming tarmac.
So, adhering to the laws of the land, Lucas and I hired some bicycles and with a crumpled A4 paper map of Old Bagan went exploring the ancient temples that the UNESCO Heritage Site is so famous for. Apparently, there are 2,200, says Wikipedia.
Needless to say we got lost (not naming names) and by no means did/could we even try to see them all.
The highlight was watching the sun set behind the silhouettes of temples in the hazy heat of dusk.
We took a break from the bikes one day to rest our saddle sores (it was easy to rack up over 45k of cycling in a day alone) and left Bagan to visit Mount Popa, an extinct volcano with a precariously balanced temple atop its mound, for a change of scene.
The views both of this incredible feat of engineering and architecture and from it, the neighbouring valleys and Irrawaddy River, were equally as impressive, but the most entertaining thing about the place were the hordes of monkeys who about outnumbered the tourists.
Claiming their territory, they lay lazily but menacingly across the temple steps, nibbling at stolen half-empty crisp packets and cans of Mirinda from the rubbish.
After five days in Bagan and god knows how many bike rides and temples (it gets to a point when you think ‘seen one temple, seen them all’), we set off for the cooler climes of Lake Inle at the end of another typical journey of 7+hours by bus.
Our drive from Bagan to Lake Inle reminded me of the road to Pai in Thailand, as we drove up and around the mountains of Kalaw, holding onto our seats as we were flung from side to side as the driver navigated the sharp hair pin bends at speed. But we made it to Lake Inle with no nausea to report, and just in time for a refreshing thunderstorm which shook the windows and thrashed rain against the tin roof of our new room.
I say refreshing; we hadn’t seen rain in months so it felt quite the novel experience, not to mention the temperature dropped a good 5 degrees so that it felt (dare I say it) cold.
Lake Inle, we discovered, was much like Bagan when it came to transportation: the way to get about was to cycle. So the next day we rented some more bikes to explore the area and taking our two wheels up to the local vineyard to watch the sunset. Who knew Myanmar was a wine producer?
We ended up sharing a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (which actually wasn’t that bad and at £1.12 a glass who could complain) and a table with a Canadian travel blogger and a Welshman who lived near my grandparents in Abergavenny. Such a small world.
We spent the rest of the night bonding over travel tales, along with our impressions of the local wine, and we found out the pair had also been on the cooking course we planned to do the following night.
They promised us we weren’t to be disappointed and advised us to arrive with empty bellies.
Nursing slightly sore heads the next day, we lay low and waited with rumbling stomachs for our Burmese cooking course at Bamboo Delight, later that afternoon.
Sue and Lesley, the owners, couldn’t have fed us better and we cooked up some of the best hangover cures ever.
The space was simple with tables of makeshift cookers (coal-filled wooden buckets) and fresh ingredients bought that morning from the market.
Recipe-wise, it wasn’t that complicated. The hardest thing was choosing what to make.
We – us and 3 Brits – ended up with a feast to share with everything from spicy river fish curry and spring onion rice dumplings, to banana flower salad and chicken and lemongrass coconut curry.
There was so much we even boxed up what was left and took it for our lunch the next day. Waste not, want not.
Although we were in Lake Inle, we hadn’t actually seen the lake yet so anticipating the boat trip we’d booked for the next day, we cycled to a tiny village on the west side of the lake and found a local man who took us on his longboat across to the other side – with our bikes! – to get a glimpse of the water.
On our real boat tour, we were met by an enthusiastic guide called – or pronounced – Ee Ee, a bright eyed 19 year old who lived in one of the stilted villages on the lake. She wanted to be a tour guide so badly that, although she lived three hours south of where we were, and even though she had had to travel up the night before to meet us at 8am, she said it was worth it for all the practice she would get on these smaller ‘tourist’ boat tours.
I respected her enthusiasm and was keen to help her practice her English. You had to take your hat off to her – not many young Brits her age would be that driven…
We travelled up, down, and across the lake, admiring the fishermen using their ancient traditional techniques – very successfully, may I add – and puttered through villages and floating gardens of hyacinths and tomatoes, meeting the local people and drinking green tea at every available opportunity.
After four serene hours on the water and very burnt shoulders – alas even after months in Asia my fair Scottish skin was still susceptible to singeing – we called it a day and waved goodbye to our wonderful guide and packed up for our next adventure: a three-day trek across the mountains of Kalaw.
In hindsight, we planned this the wrong way round as we had to leave Lake Inle, only to hike back to it after 3 days of trekking through the surrounding mountains and valleys. But hey ho, that’s what you get for doing zero research.
We decided to brave the train again – knowing full well it could take twice as long – but we thought we’d get some good views, and if anything it could prove for a good anecdote.
We arrived at the local train station with half an hour to spare – ever the keen and punctual travellers – and were told by the only other 2 foreign people that they had been waiting since 8am for their train which had been cancelled without them knowing why and that our train was also delayed but by how long, no one knew.
An hour plus later, the train mercifully came chugging in and we piled into upper-class (which cost £0.67 a ticket and bought you a cushioned seat and not a wooden bench) and got settled in by the window. Credit where credit is due, the carriages were quite roomy and the seats very comfortable.
Twenty minutes later, we still hadn’t left the station due to some technical faults and we sat listening to the metallic screeches of plyers and hammers working at the underside of our carriage…
We didn’t want to jump to any conclusions but it didn’t seem like a good sign. And certainly didn’t sound it either.
We abruptly jolted to a start and crawled – literally, a crippled dog could have moved quicker than we did – about 30m down the track before shuddering to a stop and then jerking backwards, retracing our crawl all the way back to the station where some more banging of the mechanics ensued.
Bemused, we wondered if we would ever end up in Kalaw, quietly calculating how much it would cost if we were to get a taxi there instead and at least be guaranteed to arrive. But no one else in the carriage seemed too perturbed, especially not the Burmese. Clearly this happened all the time…
To cut a very slow story short (Lucas even wondered aloud, ‘do you think this is the slowest train in the world?) we puttered down the track for four hours at 10km an hour – breakneck speed – and arrived in Kalaw in time to check in with our hiking guide for the next day and enjoy a cold beer in town.
The journey was worth it though and we soon forgot about the locomotive drama the day before as we set off into the beautiful hills straight after breakfast with our congenial guide, Hein (pronounced ‘Hey’ with an n at the end): a young twentysomething guy, born and bred in Kalaw. He couldn’t have been nicer or more open and honest, and we had some great chats as he answered my one and every question about life as a young person in Myanmar, the popular culture, and dating scene. (Some things you don’t read about in the guidebooks.)
Hein’s obsession with romantic Bollywood films and Indian women will be something I’ll never forget. He even had the hand movements and lyrics down to a t.
Our 3 day, two night hike would take us from Kalaw and down into the valleys ending up at the lake in Inle itself. Hein had managed our expectations very wisely the day before: day 1 we’d be hiking around 21km, day 2 about 25km, and day 3 about 16km, stopping at viewpoints, resting and recharging with cooked local lunches, and refreshing on plenty of green tea along the way before arriving at the homestays for the evening.
The first day consisted of a lovely green hike along rice paddies and a railway line, as well as a jungle forest. I even managed to find a leech stuck to my ankle within the first half hour. I suppose it wouldn’t be a jungle trek without one and it made me nostalgic for our selvatic explorations in Borneo.
For lunch, we stopped off at a lovely local hilltop ‘caf’ whose patron had a very affectionate bald little baby who I don’t think had seen many foreign people. She was all dribbles and grins and wanted to touch everything we had. It was probably the only baby that has ever warmed to me, not being much of the maternal type.
After Hein expertly rustled up a spicy Shan style chicken noodle soup with lots of exotic fresh fruit, we sped off extremely full, excited to see our homestay.
Lucas and I have quite a pace when we walk – we had been told this before by our guide at Mount Kinabalu and when we outpaced our group to the top of the Pinnacles. Poor Hein had to make excuses for us as we arrived at our homestay much too early and took the girls by surprise, sending them into the house in a flurry of activity, abandoning their work, to make our beds and set out our space for the night.
Hein had told us the homestays we would be staying with were true local Burmese families, who let trekkers stay in their home for free, in exchange for the trek chef cooking their breakfasts and dinners.
As every member of the family works from the crack of dawn to dusk at backbreaking work, not having to cook a meal at the end of a long day, or at the beginning of the next – let alone pay for it – could be seen as very much of a good deal.
Our homestay consisted of a one-room bungalow, an outdoor kitchen in a separate thatched hut, two outdoor hut toilets (beside the pigs), and an area of pegged tarp around a well of water with a bucket, which was the shower.
It was simple but it had everything you needed and just made you realise how lucky we were to have more – and did we need it?
All the land around their house was being farmed with mustard plants which the girls had been tirelessly dividing into little bags of soil for hours, then planting seed by seed into each one, lining them up meticulously in the front plot.
The little village and their house was the epitome of ‘rural:’ we even watched a huge black water buffalo walk right through their garden on a leash, with a farmer at the end of it. The scene was so in keeping with where we were that it was like watching someone cross the street walking a dog.
Lucas and I were staying in the family’s house, a very simple bungalow with a raised ledge to sleep on and a shrine in middle of the longest wall, with one light in the whole space.
Control of the light and the biggest ‘room’ was allocated to us, which was overwhelmingly generous as this family of five (all adults bar one young boy) squashed into the adjacent ‘room,’ which was merely the rest of the bungalow behind a partition and a scarf forming a makeshift door, who slept on a mattress on the floor.
The fact that they had sacrificed their space and their room for us was just another show of the hospitality of the Burmese.
Unfortunately, we were unable to fully express our gratitude in so many words, but I hope Hein was able to convey it for us.
The next day, we woke at 6am to set off with 25km to go, heading to our second homestay a few mountains and valleys away….
The landscape on the second day was different to the first: we’d emerged out of the jungles and forests and into open wide farmland, with rolling hills and box hedges, much like a country scene in the UK.
It was surreal to be somewhere so familiar, but so different – it wasn’t the landscape I’d expected!
A local old woman showing us how to weave traditional Shan scarves.
Because we’d marched ahead so fast on day one, Hein told us we’d have a mandatory 2.5-hour lunch break so that we could a) nap and b) not finish as quickly yesterday. So after a lunch of steaming vegetable noodles, we happily lay down on the floor of an unused house on some straw mats for some well deserved shut-eye, before setting off through valleys of tall karst ridges and cliffs, getting in at the homestay at a slightly more acceptable time.
This homestay was a bit bigger than the last, and we didn’t have to turf the family out of their own bedroom, thankfully. Their livelihood also didn’t seem to be farming mustard seeds. We soon learnt what it was, after the family’s sons arrived half an hour later from their labour in the fields, with a truck full of potatoes which were brought in by the sack load.
By the looks of how strong they were, it seemed gruellingly hard work. And we thought the 25km we’d walked to get there that day was hard…
Needless to say, we dined like kings again and practically fell asleep in our plates at 7.30pm, barely able to keep our eyes open and function after nearly 50km of walking in 36 hours.
On the third and final day there was (only!) 16km left to reach Lake Inle – hurrah! – and we arrived back in time for lunch. I was knackered but overwhelmed with appreciation for the wonderful country we’d been able to explore more intimately and the people we’d been able to meet. Not to mention overwhelmed at the distance we’d walked in 35 degree heat. But the trekking had been great, shout out to Hein.
Because we’d already been in Inle for a week, we had pretty much seen and done everything we had set out to see and do, so we left the next day on a 12 hours bus back down to Yangon to splurge in a ‘fancy’ hotel with a pool, where the plan was to chill out and recoup (and not have a bucket shower) for our last 2 days in Myanmar before Lucas flew back to the US and I flew to Sri Lanka.
I remember even at the time thinking how quickly our visit to Myanmar seemed to have gone – and looking back over the three weeks, we did loads so it’s no wonder it flew by!
I can safely say that Myanmar is one of my favourite Asian countries and I’m so glad we went there before it got crazy commercialised and mega touristy. The beautiful culture and landscape has certainly made an indelible impression in my mind, but most of all I’ll remember the amazing people.
Writing all this makes me want to go back again so badly…