Friday, January 10, 2014

Mingalar Ba Myanmar!

Myanmar (formerly Burma) had been high on our ‘travel dream’ list for a long time.  For many years, its military dictatorship and consequent abuse of human rights, meant that visiting Myanmar was not an option for ethically minded travellers.

In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and the democratically elected leader gave the green light to tourism, and finally three years later, here we are on New Year’s Eve 2013!

Air Asia were kind enough to organise a free shuttle bus to downtown Mandalay.  The bus took us from the tiny airport along a narrow lane until we hit the dual carriageway to the city.  We were dropped off and walked the twenty minutes to our hotel, The Emperor, where we received a warm (lovely, lovely staff)

The streets are on a grid system, similar to many U.S. cities, so it was pretty easy to find your way around, although at the same time, not particularly pedestrian friendly.

We went straight out to have lunch at a rooftop Indian Vegetarian restaurant called Marie-Min.  It was basic, but the food was good and cheap.  We paid 9,500 kyat (about £6.00) for three bottles of water, a large beer, an egg curry, dhal, two portions of rice and some poppadums'!

We took a taxi to Mandalay Hill and climbed the 1729 steps to the summit barefoot (no footwear allowed).  There was plenty to keep us entertained en route including many shrines, statues and stalls selling flowers and incense.  We were befriended by a monk, who we walked with.  Every now and again, he would stop to offer prayers to Buddha and then catch us up again.  We exchanged details about our lives and he seemed especially interested in English football and T’s affinity to Liverpool!


The pagoda at the summit was pretty impressive and was surrounded by brightly coloured mirrored walls and arches, glistening in the fading sunlight.  We watched the last sun of 2013 go down over the Ayarwaddy River.

Many of the pagodas in Mandalay are grouped together and on New Year’s Day, we set out to explore them.  We wandered between monasteries and temples, all of them unique in their own particular way.


Everywhere we went, the people were friendly and helpful, pointing us in the right direction and requesting nothing in return, or simply waving and smiling as we passed.  In many Asian countries, you do become accustomed to persistent hawkers and people offering themselves to you as guides.  Here, most folks seemed genuinely friendly and pleased to see you, which was refreshing.  It seemed that the people were not yet jaded by the mass tourism present elsewhere.

We walked round the moat that encloses the Royal Palace and through the military zone to the palace itself (we weren’t allowed to veer off the road or take photographs).  Disappointing, after all the beautiful temples we had seen, it was also controversial, having been re-constructed using inappropriate materials and using forced labour.

The following day was a ‘bus’ day – a midday checkout and a bus to Nyanungshwe at 8.00 pm.  This time we went to V Bar, a slightly kitschy seventies style bar/restaurant, where we wiled away four hours drinking watermelon martini’s (T) and Myanmar beer (Ku).  Dinner was at the Rainforest, a rooftop restaurant crammed with antique buddhas and other artefacts.

For the equivalent of just a couple of pounds more, we had gone for the VIP bus.  Free donuts and coffee were served (although not good!) and we were given a boiled sweet half way and a refreshing wipe and toothbrush/paste upon leaving the bus!

We were dropped off outside of town at about 3.40 am.  It was pitch black except for the incredibly bright stars above.  Luckily for us, we could just about make out some taxi touts for a ride to The Aquarius Inn, our accommodation for the night. 

After a couple of hours sleep and some pancakes for breakfast, we had a walk around town and along the river where boats took their passengers to Inle Lake.  We found yet another lovely temple and had lunch.  For various reasons, we decided not to do the trip to the lake, but enjoyed a relaxing day in Nyanungshwe.


The bus to Bagan was a long, hot and bumpy road.  As with Nyanungshwe, we had to pay an area fee of US $15.00.  Unfortunately, this money goes to the government, who have botched up the restoration of Bagan’s temples anyway.  Apparently, they didn’t pay attention to the original architectural styles and have used modern materials.  Because of this, Bagan hasn’t been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Despite this Bagan was amazing – our favourite few days of the trip so far.  We explored by bicycle, cycling down dusty tracks and stopping off at any temple that we liked the look of.  Between 1044 and 1247, Bagan’s rulers constructed over 10,000 religious monuments within an area of forty square miles.  Each day we arrived back at our guest house weary, but happy, Bagan’s magic having cast its spell on us.

Many men, women and children wear a gold coloured paste on their faces.  Called 'thanaka', it is made from tree bark and a very popular beauty product.  Never one to resist a beauty product, Ku thought she would try some and may well start a new trend when returning to Brighton!

We also decided to splash out on a car and driver to take us to Mount Popa (£13.00 each).  It was a tricky place to get to, but we really wanted to see it.  En route, we stopped to see how peanut wine was made.  They used a traditional method of crushing peanuts involving a cow walking in circles attached to some wooden machinery!  Ku helped out in the procedure and is now a bona fide peanut crusher!

We continued on the road to Popa.  It was very rural and we passed more cows pulling carts than cars.  We wound our way up into the mountains, through Popa market until we caught our first sight of Mount Popa.  It was stunning – a golden temple literally perched on a mound-shaped hill, looking like something out of a fairy story.



As usual our ascent of the 777 steps was done barefoot.  Monkeys scampered around and men cleaning the steps requested ‘cleaning donations’.  Not a pleasant job with all those monkeys around!  Not helped by the fact that ‘monkey food’ was sold wrapped in paper which the monkeys discarded having eaten the food.  At the summit were several shrines and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.

That evening we went to one of the quieter temples to watch the sun go down over our magical time in Bagan.

Our visit to Myanmar had been a fleeting, but fascinating insight into a country hidden away from the rest of the world for a long time.  2014 brings election time to Myanmar and we can only hope that the process is carried out fairly and that the situation for the people continues to progress in a positive manner.
Our abiding memories will be of the smiling faces and friendly waves of the people of Myanmar, who despite having been through so much, have a disposition rarely seen in the western world.