Burmese Days

Trip Start Sep 25, 2003
1
15
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Trip End Apr 23, 2005


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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Factoid of the day: The Shwedagon Pagoda is topped with 5448 diamonds and 2317 Rubies

Abstract: Having finally got to Bangkok airport after two and a half hours on the bus, we flew into Yangon (Rangoon) and shared a taxi into the city with a Spanish couple, after trailing round five or six hotels only to find them full we settled on a place next to Sule Pagoda. After a day or two wandering around the city and the studendous Shwedagon pagoda and enjoying Indian Thalis and biriyanis we settled on a driver and car for our trip round the country. Headed off to golden rock via a war cemetary, and climbed up the holy mountain to watch sunset, climbed down in the dark. Spent two nights in Taungoo, an old colonial town then moved on to Kalaw for some walking in the hills. Next we visited Inle Lake (home of leg rowers).

Nitty Gritty:
From the moment we set foot in Myanmar it was like stepping into a time warp. Even the capital has few cars and no motorbikes, lots of cyclists, but not the vast numbers of China. The 1950's buses left by the British still predominate in the city, and although they are just as cramped as those in Laos, if not worse, once you get the hang of the curious rounded script alphabet (well numbers at least) they are a very cheap and enjoyable way of getting about. The wearing of Longyi (like sarongs) by the men still predominates which also gives the place a faraway feel.

The airport has a dusty feel to it and once through the bureaucracy we managed to get a taxi into the city with a spanish couple. Unfortunately all our first choice accommodation options were full and after a frustrating hour we found a place next to the Golden Sule Paya slap in the centre of town, from the trusty Mark Elliott guidebook. We were pretty tired so I had a bit of a go at the hotel owners regarding the Aircon we had paid for but didn't work, I subsequently felt pretty embarrassed because it didn't work due to the powercuts that beset the country, hardly his fault. The other thing we learnt was that accommodation in our price range of US$10 or less was generally going to be pretty grotty, by comparison it turned out that for US$15-20 you could get really good rooms.

We were rudely awakened at 4am by the local mosque and therefore got little sleep, but the new country high kept us going, we met a Canadian guy at breakfast who agreed to introduce us to his trusty black market money changer. You have to change money (cash only) on the black market as the official rate of 6 kyat (pronounced chat) to the US$ is vastly inferior to the 850Kyat we received!! Suitably cashed up at the Boyoke market we set about exploring the city, which quickly became my favorite of our travels so far, a mixture of ethnicity's from SE Asia and the subcontinent, Myanmar people continued to fascinate us for our whole trip. They are incredibly religious, mostly Buddhist, but with sizable Muslim and Hindu minorities, the backdrop to the place is the distinctly unspiritual military dictatorship that continues to beset these people, forced labour, forced evictions from their homes and detentions are all part of their day to day existence. We got a taxi up the 'royal lake' and after wandering the inadequate pathway approached the Shwedagon Pagoda. Set on a hill top overlooking the city it totally dominates the vista, a massive golden pagoda topped by countless diamonds and other jewels. We spent the rest of the day at the pagoda chatting to monks and other locals and after leaving for some lunch at a Bamar (selection of curries and rice) restaurant returned to the pagoda for sunset. Much chanting, gonging of bells and burning of incense lends an otherworld quality to the place, and the devotion on display was a moving and spiritual experience. We dined again at a place serving Thali, indian all you can eat, G had Dosa pancakes with some dhall and other sauces, R rice on a banana leaf with 4 diferent veggy curries and whenever it seemed that it was running out a chap with a stainless steel bucket would come round and refill you, all for 300Kyat!

We had negotiations with a couple of different taxi owners and decided on the company that took us from the airport, Golden Swallow, at US$26 a day for driver and all his expenses it was pretty reasonable, and turned out to be a great way to travel the country. A route was decided and agreed on and the next morning we were on our way to the Golden Rock. On the way we stopped at the war cemetery honoring the 15,000 commonwealth soldiers who perished in WW2 fighting the Japanese. The cemetery was very well tended and very thought provoking, for many of the 18 year olds Burma must have felt impossibly far from home. We passed through the town of Bago on the way and had a look at a few temples and a huge (55m) reclining budda.

When we arrived at Kinpun, the 'base camp' for Mt Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock) our driver 'OT' took us to a guesthouse with several options from bunglows $20, Rooms $15 and 'shoeboxes' $8, he soon realised we were cheapskates as we chose the shoebox next to his, thus he had our measure and subsequently only took us to cheaper hotels, he also figured we liked local food and we ended up having some very large lunches... OT showed us the pilgrims 'loading area' where the truck to the top left, we had left it too late for the walk so elected to be packed like sardines into the truck with the other pilgrims. What followed was a hairaising ride up switchbacks to the top ridge where we walked the last 40 minutes with the pilgrims to the top. The golden rock is one of the three most holy shrines in Myanmar and has a mystic quality as it is associated with the 'Nats', spirits worshiped by the Bamars and enmeshed in superstision and legend, certainly the rock is very precariously balanced and at dusk the chanting and praying did make it very atmospheric. We were now faced with a 4 hour walk back down the mountain as the last trucks had left and foreigners are not allowed to camp at the top. In Myanmar when the government say something is banned you take notice, so after a tasty chicken curry in a café on the ridge we set off down, three hours later we were getting to the point where we're tired when an empty truck came down and we managed to hitch a lift, very gratefully we put up our mossy nets and went to bed.

After the typical egg and bread breakfast we set off to Taungoo with OT at the wheel, he would stop for photos everytime we saw a water buffalo working in the field or a pony and trap, however, we soon realised that this was the way life is here and if we were to stop for every ox cart/pony trap and water buffalo plough it would take us a year to do our trip so we contented ourselves we watching the scene, unchanged for 1000's of years go by the window, the road was seldom good enough to be travelling at any speed anyway so we could enjoy it at a reasonable pace. Now and again a pickup crammed to the gunnels with dozens of travelers would zoom past, with its mixture of monks and women inside and men clinging onto the bumpers, roof or sides. Travelling this way in Myanmar would have been a major physical ordeal and we were grateful for OT and the car (a blue Toyota corona, the only blue car in the country). We arrived in Taungoo and borrowed bikes (rented it turned out) from the hotel and went off exploring, our pace never quickened because a) G's bike was cronky and b) it was impossible to make progress when it seemed we had to say hello to everyone in the town. Taungoo soon captured us and we wandered the market and temples, padding around bare foot. We decided to stay an extra day, G had the cheapest haircut ever, less that 10p, and we sat by a lake for hours before cycling off again.

Sorry to leave the charming Taungoo we headed off to Kalaw in the hills for a day trekking, unfortunately the government recently deforested the area, leaving the local tribes with difficulty making ends meet, but it was still beautiful. Had Nepalese curry and chapattis cooked over an open fire for lunch and visited a school where the kids in the middle of nowhere where being taught English! We also tasted the best Avocados ever. This area is famous for its markets where the hill tribe women come to town (often walking for many hours) to sell their wares, it was interesting, markets being about chatting rather than selling things more often than not, but poorer and not as colourful as those in N. Vietnam.

En route we stopped in at Pindaya for the huge hill tribe market and the budda caves, yep, another cave filled with thousands of buddas...

Next on the agenda was Inle Lake a huge lake with floating markets and famous leg rowers ringed by mountains. It was absolutely stunning but unfortunately G was at this stage coming down with what turned out to be Giardia (dysentery) and although we did get out on the lake to markets, floating villages and temples, the enjoyment at least for G was tempered by a very sick feeling and the runs... The lake is also home to the bizarre 'Jumping Cat Monastery' where, you guessed it, the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops, weird. It was a nice place though and we spent a funny hour on the first evening watching monks playing soccer (very much banned for monks) some where actually pretty good. On the second sick day, R took herself off in a canoe with a tribe's woman and had a go at rolling cheroots a cottage industry in the area.

From Inle we were off on the 'road to Mandalay' and we couldn't help singing the Nellie the elephant song....
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