He is waving, we are waving, everyone is waving!
This country has only been accessible to tourists since 2011. Before that time the borders were closed and the country suffered under a military coup for more than 50 years. The established junta raised all democratic governing bodies and means, including the constitution. They nationalized the means of production and banned all independent media. Since the arrival of the military junta's in Burma, the country was considered a dictatorship. The rulers had nothing to do with political dissenters and only pursued personal economic interests. Mass protests from the population, in which even monks demonstrated, were tackled with harsh measures (Monks have a very high status with great authority in the country where 90% is Buddhist).
In 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi, with her party the NLD, came on stage for the first time and is probably the most famous protester / resistance fighter of Myanmar. She lived in house arrest for 20 years because of her democratic convictions. In 1991, just after her release, she received the Nobel Peace Prize. However, since the beginning of this month, the country finally has a democratically elected citizen as president. He is a member of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi's largest confidant. Why does she not act as president herself? The constitution states that someone may not have foreign children. This article has been included in the constitution by the junta specifically with regard to Aung San Suu Kyi, since she has two children who also have British nationality.
Arriving at Mandalay airport we waited for the free airAsia bus which would take us to the city. But do you know those guys that waited and waited and waited and the bus didn’t show up…..well same problem here. Lucky us that more than a dozen taxi drivers are waiting happily to bring you to town, costs $10.00. Many other tourists have the same problem and after a short introduction we got into a taxi with a Chinese and a Belgian.
Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar and is still under development. Many roads miss pavement - resulting in a large dust cloud that drives through the entire city. Many people live and sleep on the streets, traffic lights are scarcely to be found and waste is scattered all over the city. But despite all these points, it has its charm. The people are friendly, laughing and waving at us as if we are royalties. Many ugly buildings are interspersed with beautiful white gold-coloured pagodas and monasteries, some of which are made entirely of wood. The city even has a castle in the middle of the city.
Because the day was far from over, we decided to view some highlights of this city by bike. On the way we see trucks with open loading space that are filled up to the ridge with men and women. Some men even hang on the outside of the car to use the last free space. The people in the car kindly wave at us as we pass them. They look surprised at how we move on a bicycle in this heat. We look back in amazement, because what do we see there? The men wear a skirt! Later we find out that many men (almost all men in Myanmar) have a kind of skirt. It is actually a long wrap that is called a Longyi and offers both men and women a comfortable and modest piece of clothing.
We cycle further to the wooden temple where we briefly look around after we continue to the largest book in the world in the Kuthodaw temple. Do not expect a paper version, but rather large white stones on which the story is carved. These stones are protected by small white stupas that are built like a house around the stones. In the middle you can find the temple itself, which has a golden point. There are many locals hanging around these buildings to sell their goods, from cards to umbrellas. They turn out to be real go-getters and keep pushing and pushing with their red mouths. This is due to the use of a substance called Betel, which is made from the seed of the tree called Betel nut, the leaf, tobacco and a substance that smells like glue. Fold all of this together into a package and you've discovered a new form of smoking. After their constant bombard with the few words of English they know such as "Lucky money" and "Maybe Later", I succumb, but offer her far too little money, so she turns away. "Those are some tactics," says Inge.
When the sun almost sets, we cycle on to Mandalay Hill. Above you have a panoramic view of the city and that is ideal to shoot beautiful pictures. There are different ways to get up, such as walking or with a car, but we are with our bikes and so we follow the cars up. Bad choice afterwards, because the climb turns out to be a lot tougher than we expected and the bikes are anything but suitable for a steep road to the top. Sweaty and breathing heavily we arrive. Fortunately, we can do the last part with the escalator and once upstairs we can relax while we see the sun sinking behind the city.
Because cycling in this heat is a bit too much, we take a scooter the next day. We drive to Sagaing Hill which is half an hour drive from Mandalay. Sagaing is an ancient capital of Myanmar and is popular because of the more than 100 gold and white pagodas and monasteries that surround the Sagaing Hill. At the highest point there is a temple, like almost every high point in Myanmar, that gives a beautiful view over the entire area around the Irrawaddy river all the way to Mandalay.
Through the Yadanabon bridge we drive back towards Mandalay to see a sunset again (yes all it does not stop with those sunsets ;-)), but now at the U-bein bridge. This bridge is made entirely of wood and with a length of 1.2 km it is the longest wooden bridge in the world. It was built in 1870 and the wood used for this was from an abandoned palace that had become unnecessary after moving the capital to a different city.
We take an in-between route and quickly arrive in a more remote neighbourhood. But here too you do not have to worry, because the people are so incredibly friendly and laugh and wave at us. While we drive on, we pass small bamboo houses (this is no more than 4 thinly woven bamboo walls with a roof of leaves). The laundry hangs to the left of the houses to dry, while they catch the following dust cloud caused by a scooter that passes by. Children play between the waste that is left and right of their home, while men and women are busy at work: on the land or busy weaving and colouring a hammock.
A group of nuns, with a bowl in their hands, walk past and men and women return to their house to give them a bowl of rice or a small contribution. Even with so little what they have, these people are willing to help others. What a wonderful gesture.
It is very busy at the U-bein bridge. People from all over the region have come here in their best outfits. It seems that everybody has a few days off which they spent, among other things, on this bridge. Here, too, the vendors swarm again, but there are also palm readers on the bridge. Inge is intrigued by the palm readers and address one of them to read her palm. After the session is over she comes to me with amazement. This man has, based on her hand, her name and age, been able to find out how she ticks and what kind of type she is (Toing Toing Toing course: P). As we return home, Inge is still lost in thought as to what this man has told her. Hopefully he is right, because that would mean that one of her dreams will become a reality.
Did you know that about 80% of the population in Myanmar uses a palm reader? They use them for marriages, when they expect a child, when they travel, or when they buy something.
BAGAN - The City of Pagodas
Also called Pagan, was the capital of the Pagan kingdom from the 9th to the 13th century. This kingdom was the first empire to unite the area, better known as Myanmar, and lay the foundation for Burmese culture as well as Theravada Buddhism. During their rule, more than 10,000 temples have been built around the capital. After the invasion of the Mongols, the city was decimated into a small settlement. Fortunately, the king and his people had already left and many temples were saved. Today there are still thousands of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins which remains the largest collection in the world to this day.
Packed to the teeth (again, yes again) we continue our bumpy road in the back of a mini-van to Bagan to see all these temples. On the way we see dry and sandy fields with here and there a tree and we imagine ourselves back in Africa. "Hey, what do we see there?" "Is it a giraffe? Is it an elephant? ..." ... Noooooo….it's a pagoda (the heat sometimes do strange things to you), and a little later, another one and another one. Finally, we have arrived.
We take the afternoon to recover and decide to rent an e-bike the next day and hit the road. If you travel to Bagan, rent these devices at one of the many desks in the centre. These are a lot cheaper and saves you $3.00 per day.
We quietly glide on our vacuum cleaner through the dry and dusty landscape (the month of March, April and May are the hottest periods in the country) and pass a pagoda every now and then.
There are so many that you do not know which one to visit. But as usual, the routes off the beaten track are the most fun and so we end up at a temple where a man is drawing in the entrance. He turns out to be the pagoda guard, which means that he and his family are responsible for their well-being. He has been doing this work for 13 years and has taken this over from his grandfather. To kill time, he draws (also learned from his grandfather) and tries to sell it to the scarce number of tourists who pass by. We are persuaded by his art and story and buy a painting (probably more than the market price), but our hart tells us that this man needs it more than others and with that feeling we leave the temple and drive to our final destination to see the sun go down. However, we are not the only ones and when we arrive at the temple we see that it is already half full. We quickly pick up a spot on the 2nd level and slowly see the temple fill up from there. At half past seven we finally watch the sun slowly sink behind the temples.
The sunrise may be even more beautiful than the sunset. We dare to say with certainty that this is many times more beautiful. The reason for this are the hot air balloons that fly through the air in the morning to give the best view of the area (prices are around $ 360.00 per person). This may provide the people on the ground with an even better picture, because we see both the temples and the balloons, while the red sun rises slowly and illuminates the land little by little.
We drive back to our hotel, while the city slowly wakes up. After breakfast we are picked up to go to Mount Popa. We drive a shared taxi through a dry and brown landscape. It is very hot and the thermometer is hitting the 40 degrees. You can clearly see and notice that we are in the hottest months of the year.
Mount Popa is a volcano mountain of 1500 meters high and is located in the central part of the country about 50 km from Bagan. The special thing about this mountain is the fabulous Taung Kalat, a mythical monastery that covers the entire surface of the volcano mouth. This monastery can be seen from afar and provides the most beautiful photos. To get to the monastery, you have to climb 777 stairs barefoot. The reason that they do not have shoes or slippers is out of respect for the gods as they are unclean and foul in this holy place.
As we walk up barefoot, we pass various stalls left and right where woodwork, cloths, flowers, and food are sold. Monkeys and dogs keep an eye on you and wait for food to be thrown to their side. Cleaners are on the stairs ready to clean the spot before your feet only to ask for money a second later. However, as soon as you enter the first few steps, you quickly notice that these men are more concerned with asking for money than cleaning. Everywhere there are empty bottles of liquor, cigarette butts, candy paper and shit. While Inge tries to avoid a begging cleaner, she steps into monkey’s shit. There goes the feeling of entering the monastery pure. When we arrive on top it is also not visible that the building is kept clean and that while we see crates full with money. We really do not understand this. You would say that there would be some money to put those cleaners to work and also repair the dilapidated state this complex is in. The magical feeling that we had while below, has disappeared.
Myanmar has many different transport options, from airplanes, trains, buses to mini vans. The trains are known to be the slowest in Asia. The track is creaky, causing the train to pivot from left to right continuously. It is therefore probably the cheapest means of transport. The plane, on the other hand, offers a fast and comfortable ride, but this does not exactly fit into the backpacker's budget and so most of the trips are by bus or mini-van. An organization that succeeds in giving you a comfortable trip is JJ Express. They still offer limited rides, but the buses are super deluxe with large chairs that you can put in a reclining position, own TV screen with a choice of the latest movies, soft rugs to keep you warm while the air conditioning keeps you cool.
Kalaw is a lovely little mountain village that lies at 1500m altitude and you notice that because the temperature here is a lot cooler and more pleasant. While we are getting our bags out of the bus, there are already a few locals waiting for us to sell their services as a guide. The hectic we have encounter many times stays out as the touts keep their distance and aren’t persistent at all. We kindly refuse their proposal before we make our way towards our hotel.
Because we are tired of traveling we decide to go to bed early. Although a monotonous voice blares through the speakers of the local temple (from 05:00 in the morning to 0:00 in the evening) we are so tired that even this does not get us out of our sleep. And we need that sleep since we are going to do a 3-day hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake which is about 60 km.
The next day we arrive at the office of Every Smile, the company that takes care of our hike. It is not really an office, but the home of the friendly owner. After a proposal round, we set off with a fun and fresh team consisting of 3 French, 2 English and us. From minute 1 we are already talking to each other as we share our travel stories, talk about the here and now, life and many other topics. Fortunately, because it would be very boring if it would stay silent for 3 days straight.
We start with a climb as we walk through a mountain landscape to the first viewpoint. Here we have a spectacular view over a huge valley. In the distance we see small villages where people are working on the many tea plantations and orange groves. We take a moment to take in this beautiful image, but Phy Phy, our smiling guide, reminds us to walk on, because we are almost at our lunch stop.
A little further we see a wooden shed with small wooden huts where hikers can sit and have a view over the valley. Cows, chickens and dogs walk across the grounds, while we hungrily attack the extensive lunch that is ahead of us. Phy Phy meanwhile takes a nap, because she has not been able to sleep all night, because her cat is ill.
After lunch we walk on and after an hour downhill we encounter the first village. People say hello to us while they are busy harvesting their crops or preparing their land for a next harvest. It is not just men who work ... the whole family up to the youngest (some not older than 4 years) help. Ginger, curry and tea lie on large canvases on the side of the road to dry, while a little further a man in a wooden cart with wooden wheels which is pulled forward by an ox brings a load of his harvest to the city to be sold. What are carefree scenery. I can believe that these people don’t have stress either. I also do not think these people want to trade with us in terms of job.
When we descend further down the mountain, we end up on train tracks (which are still being used) and follow this track for a few kilometres to a small village. Our thoughts go straight back to the movie 'Stand by Me' where a group of friends go on an adventure to find a boy who has been missing for a few days. Now we are not looking for someone, but the scene of the group of friends who walk on the track does give the feeling that we also feel: Friendship and freedom.
Our first sleeping place tonight is a ... barn (in our eyes), because here these are standard houses. The "barn" has 2 floors, the lower part is used for livestock and the upper part is the living area. These people are slightly richer because their house consists of two floors, while there are also many people who only have one floor.
We take the stairs up and see that 7 mats have been neatly laid down with a thick blanket against the cold. The mats are as thin as a rug, so you guys do the math how good we slept that night, hahah. The weird thing is that there is no cupboard or chairs to be found, except for a small altar with a Buddha statue on it. The people live, sleep and eat here on the ground and have nothing of materialistic value.
We look around and ask Phi Phi where the shower and toilet is, since we can’t find them in the house. She asks us to walk outside and when we are behind the house she points to 3 corrugated sheets with a curtain to close it off. That's the shower she says. Inside the shower we find a bucket of water that is freezing cold, but we are so filthy with all the sand that even this looks more than welcome. The toilet is slightly behind the toilet. It looks like a Dixy only of wood with nothing more than a hole in the ground. 'Great' how primitive this is. Meanwhile, the rest of the group is sitting at the table enjoying a well-deserved beer while the blisters are counted. Inge is in the lead with 5 of them, but she is in good hands as our medic James is taken care of her with his first aid kid. Occasionally we hear a cry from behind the house and we know that someone has thrown the first bucket of water over him/herself. Damn we are next :-(.
When everyone has had their shower, a delicious meal is put on the table and after a little chat, we all go to bed. But sleep is difficult to grasp with the continuous twisting to find the best position. Damn this is going to be a long night ....
We wake up at 7 o'clock. Fresh and fruity? More like broke, overcooked and tired in one. Our legs are so stiff that even stretching exercises do not even help anymore, but we have to go on. Before we leave we receive some local sun location from Phy Phy as the sun is already high in the sky and it will be very warm today. The lotion is called Thanaka and is a make-up unique to Myanmar. It has been used for more than 2000 years to protect the inhabitants from the heat and the bright sun. It also seems to be good for the skin. It is made from a tree with the same name, Thanaka, and is converted into powder by adding water. After that you can apply it on your face, legs or arms. It has a transparent colour, but once it dries, it gets a more yellowish colour.
Again, we walk through the beautiful area between Kalaw and Inle Lake as we cross small villages while the bright sun burns our skin. Meanwhile, the conversations are lively again which makes this hike a lot more enjoyable and easier. At the lunch break we get to hear that we will soon reach a river where we can swim. Oops ... we have no swimsuit or swimming trunks with us, since we weren’t aware we would cross a river. No problem for me, because I can go into the water in my boxer, but I do not know if the women and locals appreciate when Inge goes into the water in her little thong. The cold water is so pleasant that we extend our break here and when everyone has dried up, we walk the last few kilometres before we arrive at our second stop for the night.
We secretly hope for something better than the first night, but this is soon gone when we see the place. It turns out to be a similar kind of construction, only we have a few cows that sleep under us tonight. Despite the mooing of the cows and the snoring of the lady next to Inge, we are so tired that we fall asleep.
BAM BAM ...... light seeps in while all the shutters are thrown open. The owner steps over us to do her prayers just behind Inge at her altar. Slowly our eyes open while Phy Phy calls us from below to indicate that breakfast is ready. We stand up and notice that our legs have recovered somewhat. We even feel a bit fit. The breakfast with delicious banana pancakes provides extra energy ... even the house dog Foxy enjoys it. She enjoys the food and the attention so much that she decides to walk with us ... all the way to Inle Lake which is about 12 km away.
Halfway through it appears that Inge's blisters are a lot worse than we expected. Unfortunately, all the plasters have already been used and the last few kilometres has to be done slippers, but we are almost there. In the afternoon we walk into the village where we take the boat to Taunggyi.
The boat appears to be a long canoe with at the end an outboard engine with the famous whipped cream whisk. The boat is driven by a muscled local who seems to have a lot of fun in it. He travels through a narrow raft and through the narrow ditches surrounded by enormous floating fields of fruit and vegetables in high speed. We are completely silent for the first time as we pass wooden houses on stilts. We occasionally wave to the locals who are crammed in small canoes and watch as fishermen, with their unique rowing art (hereby balancing one foot on the boat while the other leg wraps the oar), try to catch their fish of the day. We will soon arrive in Inle Lake to have a break after 3 days of hiking.
From Inle Lake you can take the night bus to Bago, which is 2 hours away from Yangon. You will be dropped in the morning at 5 o'clock and from there you have to figure out how to proceed further. Fortunately, there are people waiting for you to take you to a next destination, but they ask too much money, so we look further. We come upon a hostel and arrange a bus ride to Hpa-An that is way cheaper than the price that was offered to us. However, after 3 hours of waiting, the bus still hasn’t shown itself and eventually we are sentenced to a minibus again. In itself not a bad thing, because you are faster than by bus, but we had a maniacal, suicidal driver who just barely came above the wheel, was busy with anything but the road and especially had an eye for Singe (you probably understand that this must be Inge).
While shabby Shalallalal music comes out of the speakers ("🎶 he's a maniac, maniac, I knowwww ...... and he is been riding like he is never been riding before 🎶” would have done better with this),
the driver again passes another car in the curve while an oncoming car is coming straight for us. He even looks back for a moment, to Inge of course. But Inge doesn’t give a damn and is even busy preparing our will. Fortunately, it doesn’t come to this as we are now writing this blog on a boat while our skipper brings us to Mawlamyine.
Hpa-An is a small sleepy town that has not seen many tourists yet. And that is a loss, because it is beautifully situated on the river surrounded by flat green landscape with kars stone mountains. And it is this landscape for which most tourists come here with lots of mountains, caves and temples to discover. This was also our plan but after a little less than 5 minutes we were already stranded, because on the way we saw something so bizarre, that we had to stop to experience this up close.
It is a tribute to a Hindu festival in honour of Lord Muruga. Believers are all in a row in golden-yellow trousers. All red and white dots have been drawn on the bare upper body. They are all deep in trance and ask the gods for support for what is to come. Some even go so far in trance that they start to scream, have rolling eyes or make weird convulsions. Perhaps this is part of it, but I would also scream when old men attack you with needles, long, large needles (+/- 25 of them) that are pierced into the skin to support a gantry, the size of a puppet box, that is placed on top of your head.
Meanwhile, other boys are provided with MEAT hooks that are pierced in their backs while a doll box on wheels is placed on the other side of the hook. Finally (you obviously understand that I save the best for last) we see two boys who both have around 20 meat hooks per person in their back. On top of that (as if they do not suffer enough pain) a 2-meter-long skewer (with which you hang a pig above the spit) is drilled through their cheeks. But the pain doesn’t stop here. There is still a long walk to show the village how brave these men are. Yes, really ... not a joke ... we did not believe our eyes either ... they had to make a trip of at least 1 hour to a temple where the final party is. Along the way they are encouraged by locals while Indian women kneel in front of the group's feet. In the meantime, young Indians are completely unleashed on Indian Garage and House beats that pops out of their mega loud speakers. And we may all experience this and are even asked to go all the way to the temple to see this until the end. WOW, WOW, WOW ... .. what a highlight of our journey through Myanmar. Never had we hoped to experience something so spectacular, but especially personal.
MAUNG MA CAN
What should have been a VIP night bus turned out to be a VIP karaoke mini-van. The reason for this change is not clear to us until this day, but that is the way things go here in Myanmar. The van had everything to make your night as uncomfortable as possible: hard bad Myanmar music, disco lights and little to no legroom in a too hot and too little room. You're looking forward to that right?
After having been in this van for 8 hours we are finally there, demolished and well !! haha .... a nice ending for our public transportation experience in Myanmar. We arrive in the middle of the night and wonder if we can still get to hotel. We take a tuk-tuk and just go with the flow. And yes, at the gate, a sleepy guard opens the door for us. Pfieuw ...We would have had a big problem since this is the only place where you can sleep in this village. He takes us to a bungalow where we can finally have a good nice sleep.
The next day, we notice that we are in a nice place. Everybody is sharing their experiences while enjoying breakfast. We are all in the same vibe!! We decide to rent a scooter and go to St. Marie Beach with 2 other girls (1 from Poland and 1 from Russia). The beach was not as nice as we expected, but it was completely deserted, only some local children who are playing here. After we had taken a delicious dip in the sea, the children had come to sit down with us out of curiosity. We have entertained the little ones as an animation team the whole afternoon. Full of satisfaction we went back to our hotel at the end of the day. After dinner we were invited to go to the beach. Campfire, a musician with guitar, beers and nice people, with nice conversations on a (not yet) tourist beach. This is the backpacker's life and we like it.
The next morning, we were full of courage to drive to another beach a little further. But time passes with nice conversations and before you know it it's time for lunch ... on the beach of course ;-). Life is so good when you are having fun. And so we spend our last days in Myanmar with a nice group on the beach. Our last stop will be Yangon, where we will meet old acquaintances again.
Yangon is the old capital of Myanmar and has 4.5 million inhabitants. The Burmese moved this in 2005 to Naypyidaw which is somewhere in the middle of the country. However, many countries such as Belgium and America do not recognize the new capital and for them Yangon is still the capital. So, the question is: are we in the capital or not? Whoever has the answer, continue on for the microwave.
In Yangon, also called Rangoon, you can find the most important temple of Myanmar, 'the Schwedagon pagoda'. This temple is more than 2,500 years old and it is even said that Buddha's hair is incorporated in it (I thought Buddha was bald though). The complex is more than just the Shwedagon Pagoda. You will find dozens of smaller pagodas, temples, beautiful murals and (golden) Buddha statues.
Another temple that should be on your list is the ‘snake temple’ which can be found half an hour drive on the other side of the river. It houses about 50 snakes which can be up to 7 meters in size and the journey itself is also a nice experience as you have to take the ferry to other side of the river.
The ferry is bustling with live as people and even children, walk along all the seats to sell their food or drink. It is very nice because even the smallest try to have a conversation with you with the few words of English they know. Keep in mind that you as a tourist have to pay tourist prices.
The area 'Little India' may not be missed on your list. Here you will find hundreds of small stalls that sell everything from clothes to shoes from fish to vegetarian snacks and dishes. A wonderful event where you can wonder for a lot of hours.
And of course, this city also has a China town that comes to life especially in the evening with its many restaurants / bars (19th Street is the place to be). A perfect location to end your last evening with our dear friend’s T-bone Tyler and Jack Daniels J.
Our beautiful journey in Myanmar has come to an end. This is definitely a country where we will come back to!