Everyone asks me “why on Earth did you want to go to Myanmar”. Well you know when you are a kid, you get some names that just act on your imagination. The sound of their name is so evocative and romantic. For me it was Samarkand, Casablanca, Marrakesh and Mandalay. So the time had come for me to actually visit Mandalay. You would think I would have learnt by now that the real thing is never as romantic as your imagination. However, Mandalay and Myanmar were wonderful in other ways.
The country has only recently been open to tourism due to the military government’s tight control over the country. The country is still run by a military government and the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi is still trying to fight this and bring democracy to Myanmar. So you do have to be a little careful about the way you behave and take photos of, as some things that you may consider of no consequence are taken very seriously by the government. You also need to be careful asking the locals about the state of the country and their thoughts on the government, so that you don’t put them at risk.
People talk about a country being relatively unspoiled, but given the amount of rubbish lying around (mainly plastic bags), this doesn’t quite apply here. However the people are as yet, relatively unspoiled by tourism. Unlike many other Asian countries you are not besieged by hawkers every time you appear in the street or turn up at a tourist site. Sure there are people there trying to sell stuff, but they are polite and don’t hassle if you obviously don’t want to buy. In fact right through the whole country you find the people to be friendly and helpful.
I turned up in Yangon right at the start of the Water Festival – absolute chaos on the streets. Apart from the lone water throwers who get you on a surprise attack as you walk past, there are large groups of generally young people, dancing and drinking on the street. They have large hoses and buckets, ready to get any vehicle and person within range. This festival went on for about 5 days and then morphed into their new year celebrations, so the first week in Myanmar was just one big festival right through the country.
We left the hot temperatures of the city to fly up to Inle Lake. One of the most unusual things I have ever seen at an airport was the sight of a plane crash (on the tarmac) outside the terminal. Somehow one passenger plane, that was apparently being towed at the time, had crashed into another parked passenger jet. But not just a wing clip. The nose of the towed plane had hit the fuselage of the other plane! Maybe the sun was in the drivers eyes, or he was praying at the time, or something….
Inle Lake was fascinating (and a much more pleasant temperature). Life on the lake still consists of fishing off long-tail boats, growing vegetables on floating islands, and now, catering to tourists. However the presence of tourists doesn’t seem to affect the life of the fishermen or farmers. We did a lot of sightseeing on long-tail boats, which gave the local kids great opportunities to drench us with water off the bridges – luckily we had umbrellas (if you managed to grab them in time).
We were lucky enough to do a days trekking at Kalaw in the hills. The track took us through several small farming villages, where again the locals were so friendly and the kids were just typical of all kids around the world, and wanted to show off!
However our luck did run out in Kalaw – our hotel was situated right next door to the main monastery in town. Their new year celebration included over 24 hours of chanting religious verses, non-stop (they changed speakers regularly) and, in case you were deaf, on loud speaker. Needless to say, sleep was hard to get that night.
Onto Mandalay. As noted earlier, not quite as a romantic place as my childhood imagings thought it might be. However fun all the same. I should say at this point that the food in Myanmar is pretty good – lots of fresh fish and veges and fruit, and spices and chilli. Mandalay was also very hot – so we did in fact retire to an air-conditioned café one afternoon for cocktails as opposed to sightseeing. However we all agreed it was a great choice.
If we had thought Mandalay was hot (high 30’s), then Bagan was hotter. Never had a day under 40C in the shade, but at least the humidity was low. I’ll make a suggestion at this point – although cycling around the ruins may sound like a good idea, at 42C in the shade, it really wasn’t. However the 3 of us who did attempt this, found a great café (The Moon) to recover in. So the next day we tried e-bikes. These are great when they work….
Bagan is a huge ancient religious site, with over 3000 different stupas and temples in the area. The majority have been rebuilt to a certain extent. The view out over this area is quite spectacular – particularly at sunset. We also had a great sunset over the Irrawaddy River with the local fishing boats and ferries on the river. Unfortunately due to the time of year, the river levels were too low for us to take the boat trip from Mandalay to Bagan, so we had to fly, however it did give us more time to look around.
Back to Yangon – found a great place for drinks! The Governors Residence puts on great cocktails around a pool with resident bats. At Western prices – but at this stage, we weren’t concerned. Having had the majority of restaurants unaware that white wine needs to be chilled (that is if we were lucky enough to find any), the prospect of real cocktails was too much to ignore.
Having said that – who knew that Myanmar Sauvignon Blanc was so good.
If I had to sum up Myanmar in a few words –
the people are great
there is very little apparent poverty
the country is beautiful
the food is good
and the people are great.
If you ever want to go there, give me a yell for more details.