Thursday, February 14, 2013

Magical Myanmar (Burma)


Before traveling to Burma, I heard many, many descriptions from other travelers about what it's like. That the people were the warmest and most endearing in all of SE Asia; that it has not yet been "corrupted" by tourism; that the landscape is gorgeous; that the country is in a huge growth spurt right now, trying get the infrastructure caught up with the massive influx of tourists in the last couple years,,. And that is only a small sampling of what I heard. It was impossible to not create pictures in my mind, to not have certain expectations of how it would be and what I would see. I almost felt like I'd been to Burma before I arrived. But I hadn't. Even though almost all of what I had heard was absolutely true, I still had a wholly different experience of Burma than what I anticipated.

Like each country in SE Asia, Burma has its own unique feel or "texture," if you will. These differences lie in everything from facial features to food to customs to infrastructure. Where Laos and Thai people (and, I suspect, Vietnamese) have a strong Chinese influence in their facial features, Burmese people have a strong Indian influence. They are a very hard-working culture that also takes very seriously their religion/spirituality. Several religions exist in Burma, with Buddhism having the most followers (about 60%, I believe?). Temples abound (esp. in the area of Bagan) and they are used daily by the people (they're not just tourist attractions). 

I found the people of Burma to have much more curiosity about (white) travelers than do the people of other countries I've visited... perhaps because they were cut off from them for so long(?). I was impressed -- and pleased -- with how many people had even just a basic grasp of English. I was asked, over & over again, where I was from and had numerous conversations with locals about what it's like in the U.S. and how much they love Obama.

The country at large -- and even each city -- is in transition. The buildings, roads, and services are a patchwork of fairly modern juxtaposed with surprisingly primitive. Sitting in a taxi, I can turn off a heavily-rutted dirt road onto a newly-paved, multi-lane "highway." Next door to a crumbling concrete or brick building might stand a mostly glass, 10-story office building. In the same town (Inle Lake, for example) there may exist almost no internet access (or, if it exists, it's dreadfully slow) and yet one of the 5-star hotels has every modern convenience you can imagine (including hi-speed internet and US prices for food and accommodations). 

And speaking of prices, it is not "cheap" to travel in Burma. Because the demand for accommodations (from the ever-increasing tourist influx) greatly outweighs the supply, hotel owners can charge higher prices... and get them. A "cheap" hotel in most places was $25/night (which, in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia is fairly pricey). Food, as well, was not what I'd call cheap. Until Burma, I've been spending about $1-5 per meal; in Burma I spent $4-10 per meal.

Because of -- and in spite of -- everything I've said above, Burma is a magical country. In 11 (short) days, I was able to cover quite a lot of ground and see some very different landscapes (both urban and rural) and variances in the culture. 

I left Phnom Penh on 31 Jan, flying through Kuala Lumpur (5 hr layover) to Yangon, Burma. In the KL airport I met Paul, from England, who ended up traveling with me & Nevine (who I was meeting in Yangon and, you might remember, I traveled with in southern Laos). Paul wasn't sure where he was going to stay in Yangon (very hard to reserve hotels from outside the country), so I suggested we share a cab to the hotel I had reserved. Turns out we were able to make our double room and triple, and the 3 of us ended up traveling together the rest of the time in Burma.
We had one day in Yangon (1 Feb) before heading north.... so we moved around to see as much as we could in one day. We visited some temples, took a local train ride out to the "suburbs" (then caught a taxi back),ate some local food, and tromped the city streets, watching the people live their lives. Some glimpses....
 Yes, that's a guy suspended on a very high tower on some scaffolding made of bamboo! Yikes!
 Looking through the window at a restaurant... those are chicken heads & feet. Ew.
 The railway station (above).
 From the train (above & below)
 The game (above) is like soccer meets volleyball. They can use any part of their body, except hands/arms to get the small, hollow ball over the net. Feet & heads are most commonly used.

On the night of 1 Feb, we boarded an overnight bus, heading up to Mandalay. For the most part, the buses in Burma are quite good -- quite modern. Generally, you have a choice between a really great coach-level bus or you can pay a little more and take a super VIP bus. This means one with 3 (rather than 4) seats across, with blankets, pillows, snacks, water, etc. They are have air conditioning, which is a blessing and a curse (a "blursing" as I like to say!). While it's best to travel with windows down (to keep wind & dust at a minimum), for some reason, they tend to blast the a/c, so that it's freezing on the bus. We learned quickly to take an extra long-sleeved shirt and some socks. 

We were told this would be a 10-12 hour trip, but somehow it ended up being only about 8.5 hours.... so we arrived in Mandalay at about 5:30am on the 2nd of Feb. Fortunately, we were able to check in early to our hotel, at which time we crashed for about 3 hours. [despite the fact that overnight buses are the most efficient and economical way to travel when short on time, I simply CANNOT seem to sleep on them!].

We had the better part of 2 whole days in Mandalay before our next overnight bus to Bagan.... so we got busy. The first day, we tromped the town, doing the usual: getting a lay of the land, sampling the food, visiting temples.
 Yep, that's me standing at the foot of that sculpture. Yea, it's big.
 A view of Mandalay from the top of one of the temples.

Below there's my favorite photo from Mandalay. 
I laughed so hard when I saw this...
Our first evening in Mandalay was topped off by a VERY circuitous journey to try to find a place to have dinner. After visiting several temples, we grabbed a ride, heading to a restaurant that was in my guidebook... but the restaurant wasn't there. So we picked another restaurant that was a fairly long walk away and started heading in that direction, figuring if we saw a viable restaurant along the way, we'd just stop and eat there. But there wasn't (turns out that Mandalay is not exactly full of restaurants) so we walked the entire way to this other place. Paul is vegetarian and we figured there'd have to be at least ONE dish that didn't have meat. But there wasn't. Soooo.... we walked back out to the street and noticed that there were signs for a couple restaurants down a small alley, so we headed down there and chose the Thai restaurant.

"Tommy", a Burmese man with Indian roots, was the very helpful, well-educated, and kind owner of the restaurant. We had a most delicious dinner while chatting with him. He was full of information -- both current & historical -- about Burma and it was fun to listen to him. He told us that within the next couple months Burma's land borders (at least the one with Thailand) will be opened, so that people can enter the country there, rather than having to fly in (which is the case now). As well, it won't be long before there will be ATMs at which foreigners can get access to their money (as of now, you need to bring all the money you'll need with you, as there are no ATMs for accessing foreign money; they only exist for domestic money). Both these things will bring MANY more tourists into the country -- but, as I mentioned before, there aren't enough accommodations for the current amount of tourists. So when more come in, it'll be worse for a while before it gets better.

When we mentioned to Tommy that our plan for the next day was to try to get around to a few of the (tourist) sights outside of the city, he said that he could arrange a driver for us, if we'd like. So we took him up on it. The deal was, for $15 each, his driver, Edward, would pick us up at our hotel at 8:30am, spend the day taking us around ALL day to several different sites, then take us back to the restaurant for dinner, then return to pick us up to take us to the bus station for our overnight bus to Bagan.

As promised, Edward, our driver, picked us up promptly at 8:30 am (3 Feb, for those of you keeping track), and our first stop was a factory in which pieces of gold were pounded -- literally -- to make them into gold plate. These guys hammer these pieces steadily for 1-5 hours, then the women peel them off the paper to be used.
Next stop was a temple, where we were able to watch hundreds of locals worship the gold Buddha (most are gold, btw). You'll notice that, while the men were able to get right up in front of the Buddha, the women had to worship from afar. Surprisingly sexist for a country where women seem to have a reasonable amount of involvement and power. In any case, it was amazing to witness the devotion.
Next, we visited a monastery, to see the monks lining up for alms (donations of food, as they can only eat what is given to them and cannot eat anything past noon). This, unfortunately, was a little more touristy than we would have liked.
 After the monastery, we stopped at a small weaving factory. I had no idea how intricate and complicated this work is. It's hard to believe they only charge $3-5 for a scarf that took this much work.
We then drove to a temple way up on a hill, overlooking much of greater Mandalay. Unfortunately, it was a very foggy day, so visibility wasn't great and photos just didn't pan out. But I got pics of the temple itself....
 Loved this (above)
 I called these two (above & below) "disco buddha". Just sayin'...
After this we stopped for lunch, then headed to a river area (not even sure where this was) to board a small boat, taking us to the other side of the river (2 min ride), so that we could take our horse-cart (no, I'm not kidding) around to several other temples. Apparently, horse-carts are the only way to get around in that little area.
 Then again, if someone wanted to ride their motorcycle to the temples, all they needed to do was load it onto the boat and "ride" it off, on the other side (above).
After making our way back to our driver, we headed to a beautiful, long, walking bridge to watch the sunset. We arrived there at about 4:30 and were there until about 6:15 or so, until the sun had completely set. It was much more gorgeous than my camera could capture....
Finally, Edward took us to Tommy's  -- but we ended up going to his sister's vegetarian restaurant across the alley -- for a most delicious dinner, then returned to take us to the bus station..... a wonderful day up until then. ;)

So. We had purchased our bus tickets the day before from our guesthouse (very common practice here) in Mandalay. The man at the front desk had said there are two different buses with only slightly different prices. He told us that the slightly more expensive bus had a/c and the the slightly cheaper one did not. Oh yea, AND, he said, the cheaper one would have a little bit of "cargo" on it as well. My gut told me to NOT get on a bus that was also carrying cargo, but Paul & Nevine didn't want another night on a "refrigerated" bus, so we went with the cheaper (i.e. non-a/c + cargo one). Oh my.

Edward drove us out to the bus station and we were relying on his help (language) to identify our bus, as there were probably about 50 of them out there (turns out there were MANY more going to Bagan than our guesthouse owner mentioned....). Edward had to keep stopping and asking several people, showing them our ticket so they could see what company we were using. Finally he parked and walked us over toward our bus. On the way we passed by at least 5 very nice, new buses (the way most are in Burma) then then we suddenly turned a corner and there was our bus: a broken down, rickety, vehicle with huge bags of something (turned out to be sugar) all down the aisles and blocking the door. Even worse than knowing that any ride on this bus would be utterly miserable, was the fear that it wouldn't even be safe!! We did NOT want to get on that bus. But it was now 9:30 at night and many of the buses were pulling out and it wasn't looking good that we could find an alternative.

We immediately split up and went into trouble-shooting mode. Nevine & I went in search of finding an alternative bus that was going to Bagan (so that we could beg them to let us on) and Paul went to the office of the "cargo" bus to try to get our money back. We quickly discovered that there were 5 other (foreign) travelers (4 italian girls and 1 brazilian guy) who had also been sold tickets on this bus. They also did NOT want to get on this bus and so they joined forces with us. Nevine and a few of the girls found a (very nice) bus that was headed to Bagan and was willing to delay their departure 10 minutes to wait for us (and the price was only slightly higher than what we'd paid for our cargo bus). They had exactly 6 seats left, so the 2 guys (Paul and Marcelo) were willing to give us girls the seats and travel to Bagan on the cargo bus.

After begging the cargo company to refund our money -- which they FINALLY did -- we 6 girls ran over and boarded the shiny, new bus and the guys headed back over to travel with the cargo (they're such good guys). They ended up spending the night on a hot & windy bus filled not only with sugar, but also filled with chickens! Who peeped all night! Fortunately, they saw it as a grand adventure and had a great laugh about it the next day.

Nevine & I, on the other hand, had a smooth, comfortable, & safe journey all the way to Bagan -- but the bus somehow managed to arrive THREE hours early!! We were supposed to arrive in Bagan at 6:00am and, instead, arrived at 3:00am! And, apparently, at that time of night, the only mode of transportation available is HORSE CART! So there we were, Nevine & I, riding with our luggage down the road behind a horse -- and it was COLD. Fortunately, our hotel was only about a mile away.

We arrived the hotel and proceeded to sweet talk the guy behind the front desk, so that he'd allow us to check-in, even though we were there 9 hours before the official check-in time. We smiled as big as possible and threw out a big ol' "pretty, pretty please" and he caved. We got our stuff in our room and immediately fell asleep. Paul showed up about an hour later and joined us. The 3 of us slept until 9:00am. (It was now Feb 4)

Bagan is very different than Mandalay, Whereas Madalay is more sprawling city, Bagan is actually made up of 3 separate, small "villages" all along the same road: Nyong U, Old Bagan, and New Bagan. All around, through, and between these villages are temples, literally thousands of temples.

After waking up into our first day in Bagan, we rented bikes from the hotel (featured above, btw) and headed out to grab some food and explore. Along the way we met up with Marcelo, Pauls buddy on the cargo bus, so he joined us.

Marcelo (above) in the middle.
We eventually rode all the way down to New Bagan -- where we had lunch, then zig-zagged our way back up to our hotel. A fabulous day.

On day 2 (5 Feb) in Bagan, we set our alarms for 5:00am, so we could get up an watch the sunrise (turns out we could have slept until 5:45 without missing it....). We walked down to a nearby temple with some internal stairs, climbed up and sat in wait. And iIt was worth (I'll post one -- feeble -- photo here, but the best pics are in my mind).

Later, after taking a nap, we grabbed bikes again, rode around a bit, then found our way to the river, where we hired a boat to take us upriver to several -- wait for it -- temples!! It was wonderful being on the water for a few hours and neat to visit temples and monasteries that weren't visited much.

 This man (above), whose name we couldn't quite understand, met us at the boat to take us around to some temples.
 At our next stop, we hiked up toward a monastery, where we were met by one of the monks, who showed us around. Then we sat with him for tea and bananas. :)


After returning to the boat dock, we had just enough time to ride to a restaurant for an early dinner before Nevine had to pack up her stuff to meet the overnight bus headed back to Yangon. Her flight out was on the 7th and she wanted one more day in Yangon before leaving Burma. So we said our goodbyes and off she went. :(

Paul & I spent one more night in Bagan, then headed out on the 8:30am bus, headed (directly east) to Kalaw -- the launching point for our trek toward Inle Lake. The bus ride was comfortable and easy (only 6 hrs) and we arrived in Kalaw in mid-afternoon. For some reason, I had this idea that Kalaw was some teeny tiny "one-horse" town with nothing going on. But it was actually a very cool, bustling little town and I wish I could have spent more time there. It kind of reminded me, somehow, of an old west town; it almost looked like one of those hollywood set facades. Had a great feel too.
Our hotel (above)
After settling into our hotel, we went straight to the tour company to plan our trek, then found a place to have dinner and headed to bed.
Paul & I planned a 2-day trek (Feb 7 & 8), starting with a half hour motorbike ride to the place we'd start trekking. We were meeting up with our guide and two other women who had begun their 3-day trek the day before. Our trekking companions, Lynette & Yung, are from Canada and were at the beginning of their nearly month-long trip to Burma. This is where we met them.
And then we began our trek...through forests, fields, and villages.
We stopped in a village for lunch, trekked some more, then finally reached another village, where we were to stay for the night -- in the home of some villagers. I took some time to stroll through the village and take some pics before the sun went down.
 That's Paul, reading in front of the building where we slept.
 Our toilet (below)
When I came across this group of boys playing, they really wanted to pose for me and to see all the pictures I took. Even though I had no idea what they were saying, their goofy, smart-alek-y behavior resembled many teenage American boys I've seen. Boys will be boys....
The next day we trekked for about 4.5 hours until we reached the south end of Inle Lake, where we had lunch before getting on a boat to cross the lake to the main village, Nyoungshwe, where our hotel was situated.
Local fishermen (above & below)
Nyoungshwe is a sweet, little village, that needs more hotels. It's not situated right on Inle lake, but rather down a canal that leads to the lake. There are many, many travelers visiting this town and not enough rooms. We were lucky to have booked ahead (through our trekking company), as every other hotel was fully booked. I took just a few pics of the town and them my camera went on the fritz again. (tomorrow I go to get it looked at -- and hopefully fixed).
We spent the remainder of that day (8 Feb) and the next day exploring Nyoungshwe, then both Paul & I boarded our respective overnight buses, headed in different directions. Paul headed north, having another 2.5 weeks in Burma and I headed back to Yangon, so that I'd have one more full day there before departing on Feb 11.

I was able to tromp around Yangon, exploring some markets and eating some good food before, sadly, flying out the next day. No pics for you, but suffice it to say it was a wonderful day.

I'm now back in Chiang Mai and will be here (mostly staying at Niki & Marc's) until Feb 22. Nice to rest & relax. 

Thanks again for visiting my blog and I'll be in touch soon!!

No comments:

Post a Comment