Exploring Myanmar (Burma) with Wendy Wu Tours
Myanmar (Burma, as we used to call it) is a
tricky one - off limits to tourists for so long, it is still finding its feet
as far as tourism goes and politically, controversy never seems very far away.
That said, travel is all about opening your mind, isn't it? It’s impossible to
understand the full story unless you go and experience it for yourself.
There is no official Tourist Board but,
working with private sector partners in the Myanmar Tourism Federation, I was
privileged to be invited on an introductory tour, based on the Burma
Explorer itinerary with Wendy Wu Tours. This
is a tour that focuses on the four areas where tourism has blossomed most
readily - Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle lake - all in the central zone of
the country and far away from the troubled border regions. It was clear from
the moment we arrived in Yangon that this was going to be quite different to
other Asia travel experiences.
Travelling in early April, with the
temperature nudging 40c, those first few days in the city took some
acclimatising. It’s busy, noisy, chaotic and the traffic is diabolical. The
up-side of slow journeys by car is time to absorb and take in daily life, much
of which happens kerbside with markets, street vendors and people rushing here,
there and everywhere.
The best way to get around is on foot. The
crumbling buildings of downtown Yangon represent one of the world's greatest
collections of colonial architecture and the area makes for an interesting
walking tour - some have been restored but many are simply fading away. When
your feet get tired, take a pit stop at one of the famous tea houses which you
see all over the city - the perfect place to people-watch and a get a taste of
local life and, if you have a sweet tooth, the popular condensed milk tea.
The famous Shwedagon Pagoda, 99 metres high
and visible from many parts of the city, is Yangon's most visited sight,
crowded with both locals and tourists. It’s your first mind-blowing
introduction to the central role Buddhism plays in everyday life here. Adorned
with gold from over 22,000 bars, the pagoda is dazzling both in sunlight and
when illuminated at night.
The only practical way to travel beyond
Yangon is by domestic flight - with only a one hour check-in and speedy luggage
delivery at the generally tiny airports, it’s a painless way to cover a lot of
ground. Our first 30 minute flight took us to Bagan. Hard to imagine a starker
contrast with Yangon. Set in a semi-desert plain, Bagan is one of Myanmar's, if
not Asia's, greatest sights. It was the home to the first Myanmar Empire.
Covering 42 square kms, the archaeological park is peppered with over 3,000 -
yes that's right 3,000 - temples built between the 9th and 13th centuries. Each and every one is different and en masse
they are breathtakingly beautiful, particularly at sunrise and sunset. A
popular option is to take a dawn balloon flight - not cheap at c$300 a head but
an unforgettable experience. Renting an e-bike is also popular. Silent and
speedy, it looked like a fun way to zip around and avoid the crowds.
In the heat, a full day looking at temples
is enough - for our second day in the area we drove out to Mount Popa, visiting
some of the local Toddy Palm farms en route. The highlight at Mount Popa is
admittedly another temple but this time one seemingly impossibly perched on top
of a volcanic outcrop. There are 730 steep steps to climb with crowds and
mischievous monkeys to combat along the way before you reach the dizzy heights
of the peak. But the views make it worth the effort.
From Bagan, a one hour flight took us north
to Mandalay. Built on a grid centred on the walls of the old palace, the city
is easier to navigate than Yangon but is just as hectic and especially busy
with motorbikes rather than cars. Our first stop - and crowded even at 8am -
was the famous U Bein teak bridge, the world's longest at 1200m spanning Lake
Taungthaman. In summer the water levels are low enough to reveal land used for
tomato and peanut crops. Once the summer rains come, the levels rise
significantly making boat trips beneath the bridge possible. Another Mandalay
highlight is to visit the workshops of the silk weavers and gold leaf makers -
a first taste of the incredible variety of crafts and cottage industries in
Myanmar. We ended our day with the obligatory ride up to Mandalay Hill for view
back over the city - the view is rarely completely clear but even in the haze,
Another change of scene with our next
flight to Heho, gateway to Shan State, by far the largest region in the country
and home to many different minority groups and ever-changing landscapes from
scorched iron rich-red fields, to lush tea plantations and mountain rice
fields. The highlight of this region though is undoubtedly Inle Lake. It’s
stunningly beautiful and at 22 kms long by 11kms wide, there's a lot of water
to cover and plenty to see. Lots of room too for the many long-tailed speed
boats ferrying tourists from the stilted villages to the floating gardens and
the many craft workshops. It’s enormous fun, skimming over the glassy water at
speed. One of the first things you will see is the famous fishermen who have
developed the skill of rowing using one leg and manipulating their circular net
with the other. There are still real fisherman using this method but the main
'catch' these days is tourists, especially those willing to part with a few
dollars to capture the perfect shot.
Aside from the fishermen, the lake as a
whole and the people seeking out a living from its waters and banks are
fascinating. Each village has a different specialism, with skills passed down
through the generations. Silversmiths, lotus fibre weavers, cheroot makers and
blacksmiths are just some of crafts you will see. The Shwe Inthein Paya is also
well worth seeing - another 'hidden' collection of over 1200 17th and 18th
century stupas. Once all adorned in gold, now they are in varying states of
repair after being neglected for so long as well as damage caused by heavy
fighting in the 90s. I could easily have stayed longer in Inle Lake and would
recommend extending your stay and treating yourself to a few days relaxation in
one of the more luxurious shoreside hotels.
Beyond tourism, Myanmar has many issues to
be addressed and the future is far from certain. What you see and experience is
raw and genuine. Nothing is staged for
tourists - you get to experience a culture that is complex, bewildering, even
overwhelming at times. As always, the most abiding memories are those of
experiences shared with the local people you meet along the way - the young
monks at Mt Popa who insisted we join in their group photo, our hilarious guide
in Mandalay who delighted in his new found freedom to tell non-PC jokes,
witnessing the unbelievable skills and talent of local craftsmen and the
unfailingly warm and curious welcome we received everywhere.
I ended the trip
with more questions than answers but also a desire to go back and find out
Cathy travelled as a guest of the Myanmar
Tourism Federation and Wendy
Wu Tours. For full details of the Wendy Wu Tour's Burma Explorer trip which
follows almost exactly the same itinerary see ‘Burma
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Wendy Wu Tours.
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