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Travellers from around the world chose not to visit Burma (now known as Myanmar) while the leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest in Rangoon (now known as Yangon) by the Military government. She spent 15 years of the 21 years from 1989 under house arrest and was eventually released in November 2010.
1996 had been declared “Visit Myanmar Year” but no one went as Suu was still under house arrest. Having taken a knock during previous years, tourism has now returned to Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi asking that visitors come to the country in small groups and book through independent companies and not through Military government agencies. I did as requested.
On October 10th 2012 I left Heathrow with Explore and a group totalling 17 for a flight to Rangoon via Kuala Lumpur. We were met at Rangoon by our Explore tour leader KoKo Aye Kyaw, quite a mouthful of a name but known as Aye which is pronounced Aitcho. Time for a wander round in the afternoon before our early evening tour briefing than out to dinner all together, A nice meal, Thai curry. Burma is bordered by Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand so its cuisine is influenced by its neighbours.
Early start the next morning to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda – an amazing confection of gold. Aye was our guide, he was extremely knowledgeable but, unsurprisingly, I do find a native English speaker easier to concentrate on. We visited several other places on our morning city tour before lunch at a local restaurant; rather spit and sawdust but excellent varied and plentiful food and a very busy lady owner shouting at her staff. But all in good fun. On to the airport for our internal flight to Heho – what a lovely name! Most of the main places of interest in Burma are a flight away from Rangoon and Heho, at 1,200 m. was popular with the British when they occupied the country and wanted to escape the summer heat of the big cities. The flight was followed by a short drive to Lake Inle where we were to stay for three nights.
This was a great area with so much to see. We went across the lake in long-tail boats, fast speed boats, each seating four or five passengers sitting behind each other, Local people fish the lake and row their boats by standing up and paddle the boat by twisting one leg around a long oar which leaves both hands free to throw and pull in their nets. More pagoda, stupa, temple and monastery visits at various places around the lake. This was to be our routine during the whole holiday. But at Lake Inle we also visited various artisans workshops: weaving sheds, cheroot making, carpenters making long boats similar to the ones we were travelling in and blacksmiths making iron work, not horseshoes. We also visited the Jumping Cat Monastery, so called as the monks used to train cats to jump through hoops, when they were not praying. The monks, that is, not the cats. But apparently people complained it was cruel, the jumping, not the praying, so it is no longer practiced. There were cats around the place but sleeping, not jumping. There were interesting floating gardens around this area. Incredibly fertile, on these gardens the farmers can grow three crops a year, mainly tomatoes. I struggle to achieve one crop in my garden.
After Lake Inle our tour took us by train to Kalaw, another highland town. We chugged up the hill back to Heho which was very busy with vendors going up and down the platform selling fruit, vegetables, biscuits and other unidentifiable stuff. The scenery was lovely, very green and fertile and it was a joy to chug through the countryside. Our coach met us at our destination but by now the rain was coming down in biblical proportions and a visit to a cave with Buddhas (they are everywhere…) had to be abandoned as it was flooded.
Next day was to be a trek up to a hill tribe. Not being in the first flush of youth I was a bit apprehensive about this. The walk, well for me it really was a trek, was very well organised: three guides, one in front, one in the middle of the group and one at the back, and we were to walk for 30 minutes and then have a five minute rest. However, as I was always at the back, with one of the guides, by the time I caught up with the rest of the group they had completed their five minutes and were on their way again. Little cups of tea and palm sugar lumps were very welcome at a local house at the top of the steep hills, where the owner showed us how she did her own weaving. Purchases were made and we continued on our way. After the five-hour trek, with stops, we went back into town for lunch, dodging some more torrential downpours which, luckily, had held off during the trek.
Some tour operators fly from Kalaw to Mandalay, or to Rangoon depending on which way round they do the tour, but we went by coach. Although it was an eight hour journey the scenery was amazing and there was always something to see. The first part, down from Kalaw, was mainly hairpin bends and awesome scenery; mercifully there was very little traffic coming the other way. The road eventually flattened out and the scenery changed to agriculture land, fertile farmland with rice fields, chillies, vegetables and lots of cattle. Further on there were herds of sheep and goats. If a farmer’s wealth is gauged by the number of animals he has, they must be very rich in this area.
Mandalay was a bit of a shock. Ugly buildings, noisy traffic and thousands of motorbikes and mopeds. These had been mercifully absent in Rangoon. Apparently a government minister there had been knocked down by a motorbike and had promptly banned them from the city! Sadly not so in Mandalay. Crossing the road was hazardous and Aye warned us to carry torches if we went out at night, power cuts were quite common.
But we did not stay much in the centre of the city. The next day we went on a small boat, just for our group, up the Irrawaddy (now known as the Ayeyarwady) River to Mingun,a small village with more stupas, pagodas etc. A lot of vendors were milling around the boat when we tied up. This was to be the norm from now on and unfortunately they were very persistent; but open to haggling for their hats, fans, skirts, trousers and all manner of locally made items. After a second day of sightseeing in the Mandalay area we went south to Bagan on a very pleasant 11 hour boat trip, this time with other passengers who had arrived before us and bagged the seats in the shade. It was a very enjoyable cruise downstream looking at the scenery, plenty of temples and pagodas, though it was very hot . We preferred to be up on deck though there was a cooler option sitting inside downstairs on benches. We arrived at Bagan at about 6 p.m. in time for another beautiful sunset.
Bagan is a must-see place on the Burma tourist trail. Over 3,000 pagodas, temples, stupas and monasteries. An amazing sight when viewed from the top of some of the buildings. I had wanted to go up in a hot air balloon to view the Bagan plain and its temples from the air, but it was fully booked (note: if you are interested, book in advance. Contact numbers of the operating company are in the Lonely Planet guidebook) We visited no fewer than five temples on our first morning. Htilominio Pahto which Lonely Planet calls Vendor Central. These people are a nuisance and are so persistent; they speak good English but don’t seem to understand NO. And Ananda Pahto described as “one of the finest, largest, best preserved and most revered of all Bagan temples” were amongst the ones we visited. But it was not all temples (though jolly nearly) and we spent a pleasant hour on a horse and cart going through the countryside to, yes you guessed it, another temple, to climb to the top to view the sunset. There were crowds there doing the same thing, And there are not supposed to be many people visiting Burma. Yet.
Armed with exercise books, pens, pencils, rulers etc. Aye took us to visit a local school run by one of the monks. I had bought some of these things at my local 99p shop at home and lugged them out to Burma with me. The others in the group simply went to a mini-market near our hotel and bought them locally; a far better idea. I’ll know better next time. Always assuming that there actually is a local mini-market selling these things. The children, of course, were thrilled though it was up to the teachers to hand out the booty. We also visited a local village which was preparing for a festival due the same evening. Our sleep that night at our hotel was shattered by loud disco music then religious chanting from a loudspeaker which went on all night.
We finished our second morning at a lacquer workshop. Apparently each item has seven layers of lacquer and it takes three months to make each item. No wonder they were so expensive. Exit through the gift shop. We did find some cheaper items at the airport on our departure but maybe not the genuine article. How would one know? We also visited an excellent puppet show. They were amazing and a curtain was raised every so often to show the men actually working the puppets, incredibly dexterous, some puppets even raising their eyebrows or wiggling their moustache. But we were having dinner at the same time so maybe it would have been better to go to a show where one was not distracted by eating. I noted in my diary “It was a very expensive meal – £9 – including drinks”!! By this stage of the tour I had obviously got used to paying the equivalent of around £4 – £5 for meals. Food on the whole was very good, mainly either Chinese or Indian influence, sometimes quite spicy but always tasty and never expensive.
We flew back to Rangoon and had a free afternoon. My travelling companion and I walked round to the Strand Hotel, a wonderful old hotel dating back to the time of the British. We had afternoon tea here ($20 each, and I had grumbled about £9 for dinner!!) amongst potted ferns, ceiling fans and very smart people. Then we took a taxi to the Governor’s Residence, another very smart hotel (complete contrast to the one we were actually staying in) where I swam in the most beautiful swimming pool I have ever seen before having dinner there.
Our group consisted mainly of over 60’s but one 30 something and one 50 year old. They were all very well travelled, especially round South East Asia. One elderly man in the group arrived with only one pair of shoes for the whole two weeks. As we had to take our shoes and socks off at every temple or monastery we visited and as that could be at least five each day he spent a lot of time taking his shoes, a sturdy lace-up pair, and socks off and on each time. And it was very hot. Hopefully he had more than one pair of socks….So take a pair of flip-flops or sandals if you go.
And go you certainly should. There is so much to see in Burma. There are already 300,000 visitors a year and tourism is increasing rapidly. Neighbouring Thailand has 4 million visitors a year. Go to Burma now before it becomes another Thailand.
69 people found this review helpful
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