By Chris McBeath for Travel Writers Tales
As the U Thein Sein government continues to open up large swathes of Myanmar, no-go zones are quietly becoming history. While there are still some conflict zones and truly remote areas requiring a special permit and guide, this former British colony – Burma — is becoming one of the worlds most sought after traveler destinations.
Tanaka, a paste made from ground bark, is a popular cosmetic and sunscreen
Nearly all visitors fly into Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, where golden Buddha statues and ornamental temples vie for attention at every corner although nothing competes with the Shwedagon Pagoda. Its 110 meter-high, gold-plated, diamond-encrusted stupa towers over a complex of smaller shrines, and is an impressive introduction to the country’s decorative mystique. Because of its heavy traffic and chaotic bus system Yangon is best explored on foot. Walking gives you time to absorb the city’s fading colonial history through its architecture and an intriguing authenticity such as curbside letter-writers and pop-up barbers. Check out the sprawling Bogyoke Market to find everything from Burmese rubies, black-market money-changers, and traditional lonhyis (sarongs) to stir-fried pigs’ ears tossed in chili sauce.
If time’s on your side, the overnight train to Bagan is a great way to rattle through the scenic countryside. You’ll see horizons of sunflowers glowing in the sunset; water buffalo emerging from morning mists, and landscapes of peanuts, honey melons and cotton. While monks and commuters crowd the wooden benches in open air carriages, US$20 will secure a “first class” sleeper in a semi-private carriage, complete with flush toilet and windows that open and close. The latter is considered a luxury. Windows either stave off the myriad of bugs attracted to the dull carriage light or become adventurous portals through which to purchase food from villagers vending aloe plants, curries or colas at every stop. Traveling with small denominations of local currency is a must.
The sight of balloons floating above Bagan’s stupa-studded landscape is one of the country’s signature scenes. For many visitors, the atmospheric lift is the highlight (and key expense) of their travels around Myanmar although climbing one of the temples will still get you a grandstand view – for free. The air may not whisper through your hair, and you may have to juggle your terra firma turf with other early bird photographers, but the spectacle from a temple top is a breathtaking alternative.
Leaving Bagan at 5am is a dark and early start but a day cruise up the Aveyarwadi River to Mandalay is a kinder pace than navigating Myanmar’s unpredictable roads. River traffic comprises a range of barges, steamers, and boats, and shore side trade is brisk. Even the sludgy sand means business – a full canoe of mud earns diggers about US$5. Most passenger-vessels serve simple food and drink but if you think the passing scenery will work up an appetite, bring along some snacks.
Upon arrival, Mandalay’s frenzied and swelling metropolis awaits with modern buildings sitting cheek by jowl to the Royal Palace, as well as countless pagodas and monasteries. Then there are hole-in-the-wall ‘factories’ where craftsmen pound ingots into gold leaf, or sculptors chisel Buddha statues amidst a permanent haze of white marble dust. The city is an excellent home base for travel further afield including to the Kuthodaw Pagoda where 729 stupas house the largest book in the world, the hillside farms of tea, lime and orange groves, and the 1.2 kilometre U-Bein Bridge, believed to be the oldest and longest wooden bridge in the world.
Although the floating village at Inle Lake is finding its commercial feet when it comes to tourism, it is still one of Myanmar’s must-sees. Motorized canoes launch from the lakeside town of Helo, and motor past leg rowing Intha fishermen, water-lily gardens and aquaponic farms before heading on to small factories, perched above the water on stilts, producing hand-rolled cigars, woven textiles, crafted jewelry and more. Helo and the surrounding countryside, however, seem to absorb travelers in a vibe that resonates the kindness and spirit of the Myanmarese. In the morning, watch chanting, pink-robed (lady) monks and their child-protégés walk single file from household to household to have a teaspoon of rice dropped into their bowl. Enjoy the story-telling of a back-alley marionette show. Cycle the country tracks through maize fields and past chicken farms. And relish the generosity when a family milks their cow to offer you Burmese tea. Such is the kindness and hospitality of this mythical country.
Looking for Alms is an early morning ritual
Photos (in the order they appear):
1. Bagan Balloons – photo credit: Chris McBeath
2. Monk Before Buddha – photo credit: Chris McBeath
3. Child Portrait – photo credit: Chris McBeath
4. Chicken Vendor on U-Bein Bridge – photo credit: Chris McBeath
5. Intha Fisherman – photo credit: Chris McBeath
6. Monks in Pink – photo credit: Chris McBeath