This is Burma

Trip Start Oct 01, 2011
Trip End Dec 22, 2011

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hello everyone,

We will start by warning everyone that this is going to be a long entry. We apologize but there is just so much to write about in Myanmar (Burma). 

After a smooth (but separate seated) flight from Bangkok, we arrived in Yangoon. On the drive into the city we were able to catch a glimpse of the glowing Shwedagon Paya and we knew Myanmar was going to be a special place. Although we were not sure if we had a hotel booked or not (sent the email right before boarding the plane), they took us in for a night. 

Our two and a half days in Yangoon were largely spent exploring the city on foot. The first morning we ventured from the outskirts to the centre of the city taking in how life in Yangoon is lived. The temples, old colonial buildings, vibrant markets and friendly people were a great start. The highlight of our morning was the completely out of place Sule Paya (Buddhist temple) located in the middle of the cities main traffic circle. We dedicated the entire afternoon to Shwedagon Paya, the city (and arguably the nations) largest attraction. The golden stupa is an incredible site and one which is a major pilgrimage for many Buddhists. The stupa is covered in more gold than all the banks of England have. This made the temple appear to glow as the setting sun hit it. We spent the afternoon just scratching the surface of the Paya's design and history and watching the setting sun change the color of the stupa. We wandered away from Shwedagon looking for some diner, and only after dodging thousands of sewer booby trap holes, found a fantastic Bamar (local Burmese) restaurant. We feasted on soups, jumbo prawn, venison, vegetables, nuts and tea all for 7,000 Kyat. We had been hoping there would be a no show or someone would check out at the guest house but no such luck and we ended up sharing a single dorm room bed! 

Day two included lots more walking and a visit to Kandawge Lake (rather polluted and surrounded by young teenage love birds) and Chauktatgy Paya. Chauktatgy Paya is home to a 70 meter reclined Buddha and 78 surrounding monasteries. The highlight however was meeting some nice young students who took us though their monastery and explained and answered all of our questions about Myanmar, Buddhism and monastery life. 

That evening, we took a relatively comfy night bus to Mandalay with our new Spanish friend Mireia who is currently living in Bangkok. Mandalay is Myanmar's second largest city but seems much busier and more congested. We arrived at 4 am so opted for a quick nap before breakfast at our hotel. We walked by the Mandalay Palace / Fort (but not in due to the $10 government fee) and hiked up to the top of Mandalay hill. After a busy morning of walking, we decided to sample the cities public transportation system (pick up trucks with benches - see photo). We slowly made our way out to Amarapura on our packed city bus / truck filled with bags of rice and red betel nut juice spitting locals (betel leaf + betel nut + lime + tobacco = local equivalent of cigarets) while young boys hung off the back yelling and trying to commission more customers. It was certainly an experience and 10x cheaper than taking the tourist transport. Amarapura is just outside Mandalay and home to the worlds longest teak bridge (U Bein's Bridge). The remarkably long wood post bridge, locals transporting produce, monks commuting and old men on bicycles, complimented by the beautiful sun set backdrop, makes for a truly serene atmosphere. Sitting on the edge of the bridge taking in the sun set was a perfect way to unwind after a hectic day in busy Mandalay.

Our bus to Bagan started off pretty good, though deteriorated drastically once we turned off the main Yangoon-Mandalay highway onto a true Myanmar road. The next 5 hours were hot (A/C didn't work too well), dusty (front door wouldn't close), wet (drove through a river) and of course bumpy (no suspension). Needless to say, we made it and after a beer or so were back in a good mood.

Old Bagan and the surrounding area is the archeological gem of Myanmar (and in many respects contends with the Temples of Angkor). Bagan houses the remnants of over 4,400 religious temples built between the 9th and 12th century. The shear number of these brown brick temples set on the vegetated plains of central Myanmar is truly amazing. Although there is certainly a portion of big bus tour travelers, they are generally confined to a few well known temples leaving the others to everyone else.
We spent two days exploring the Temples of Bagan by bicycle which was a perfect way to navigate the small paths out on the plains. Although the temples are in general much smaller and individually less impressive than the temples of Angkor, the density of temples is what is spectacular. Although we visited most of the bigger more well known temples, we were not overly impressed with any of them. The smaller temples out in the plains with hidden staircases (often the third level even more so than the second) up to incredible 360 views of Bagan were our favorite and where we spent most of our time. We took in two wonderful Bagan sun sets on such temples by ourselves or with a few others seeking sunsets away from the crowds (if you are in the area there is one in particular we can recommend). Overall Bagan was an incredible place to visit but the pictures are needed to truly describe the vastness of temples.

The Bagan - Inle Lake Disaster (Bus)
Well we are nearing the end of our travels and think we can officially crown the worst bus ride ever to the solo Bagan to Inle Lake bus (Indonesia - Lake Toba to Sabolga was a close runner up). We should also preface this by telling you that both of us had a bad flu for the ride and were already in terrible moods. Somehow, there is only  one bus running between Myanmar's two largest tourist attractions...and it leaves at 3:30 am. Ok bad start. Well it shows up and it is an ancient 32 seater with of course no suspension (not ideal for unpaved mountain roads). Of course we are at the back (always bumpier) but this time the back seat was 6 inches higher to the point that our feet couldn't touch and we basically had to stand / lean against the seats. The bus drove all 12 hours with the door open making for an incredibly dusty, fumey and hot ride making stops only when the bus driver deemed it necessary. Combined, likely the worst day of traveling we have ever had.

Inlay Lake (worth the bus ride)
After sleeping off the worst of our flu's, we rented bikes to explore around the lake and Nyaungshwe (main town). It is hard to figure out exactly where the land becomes the lake because of all the hydro farming surrounding the lake. The crops (and water buffalo) are tended to by incredibly balanced locals on canoes on the mirror calm waters contributes to the area being one of the most scenic in South East Asia.

Day two was our big boat trip day to explore the main are of the lake and it's floating villages. For a very reasonable price, we had our own (3 of us) long tail type boat with nice comfy chairs to take us around the lake for the whole day. We started with a trip across the lake to the 5 day market in Nam Pan. The market was enormous, with all of the surrounding villages present to sell and trade their goods. Some of the goods were local hand crafts and clothing aimed at tourists but the bulk was fish, fruits, vegetables, etc.. After the market, we explored the many floating villages (with floating gardens!) on the lake which are absolutely stunning. We had a chance to visit many of the hand craft shops including a silver smith, cigar factory (twice actually due to some quality control issues with some cigars we bought), hand weaving centre, and fibre paper factory. No matter how many times we saw them on the lake, it is hard to not stop and gaze at the amazing traditional leg paddling fishermen (see photos) tending to their nets. 

After Inlay Lake we said bye to our Burma travel buddy Mireia, and took a collection of packed pick up trucks to Kalaw (always shocked when they found room for us in or hanging off the truck), one of the major trekking centers in Myanmar. We had wanted to do the trek from Kalaw to Inlay Lake on the way in, but due to the flu's, it didn't work out. We decided to do a two day trek around Kalaw and visit the highland countryside.  Kalaw has a large variety of ethnicities including Nepali, Indian, Burmese and dozens of Burmese minority groups. The trek turned out to be more of a "walk" but visited some amazing view points (one with excellent chapatti) and villages along the way. The highlight by far was our excellent Nepali guide who also cooked us feasts of Nepali cuisine. It was also nice to have some cold weather up in the mountains (sub zero nights) which reminded us of what we are coming home to soon! 

Another day in Kalaw and Yangoon and it was time to head home. Myanmar was an amazing place to visit, though much more expensive than expected (even more so if you didn't change money on the black market), as the government has specifically targeted large package tours making it less set up for independent travelers. Having to bring all of your cash into the country (no ATMs or such) is a bit nerve racking, but with careful watching of our bags it was fine. The people we met along the way were fantastic and so interested about life outside Myanmar. It was quite easy to spend money with private companies and avoid most of the travel dollars spent making their way to the government. With the upcoming election as well as the diplomatic visit from the US (Hillary Clinton...whose plane we saw at the Yangoon airport), it will be a very interesting country to keep an eye on as it will certainly see much change over the next few years.

For a full set of photos, click HERE or copy the following link:
We are off to Thailand now for a vacation from backpacking with my sister and her family on Koh Samui. 

Hope everything is well at home,

Steve and Audrey
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