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Tamarra’s Travel Diary

Monday, 14 Jan 2013

Location: Myanmar

MapHey Everyone! SORRY!

Well better late than never. We (my friend Denise who I met 13 years ago in Africa) spent 24 days traveling around Myanmar. Wow! What an amazing place! Over and above, my favourite thing about this country is the incredible people that live here! Never in my travels have a found people to be so generous, helpful, happy, smiling and wonderful! All of them!

There is so much left to explore. Now, we did our best, to see as much as we could but much of the country is off limits to tourists due to certain national and international conflicts. Tourists need special permission to enter certain areas and that can take months to have approved.

Myanmar is also a predominantly Buddhist country and we spent a great many days touring incredible temples, pagodas and stupas. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we have seen more than ten thousand Buddha images in our time here. Wow!

We flew into Yangon on November 22nd and were picked up at the airport by Diego, a childhood friend of mine. We stayed in Yangon for 3 days and saw the famous Shwedigon on our first day with Yuey, Diego's girlfiend. This is an enormous complex (for lack of a better word) which has many stupas, pagodas and temples inside. We wandered the market in downtown Yangoon, ate street food - awesome and visited a small village across the Yangon River that produces cotton for weaving and pottery for domestic use.

At Shwedigon we spent time and wandered around before Denise was be befriended by a monk. We chatted for a while and then he inquired if we would like to come with him for the rest of the afternoon. Well, you know me, always up for adventure... this led us to a monastery with a beautiful view of the city and golden bananas and teaching an English class for an hour and a half. You got it! First day in Myanmar! The class consisted of 20 students taking turns asking us questions and answering our questions in English. When asked the difference between Canada and Myanmar I mentioned the driving habits: In Canada.... well, you know. In Myanmar, the prevailing rules are the following: honk constantly, don't use lanes, pass when there is oncoming traffic (it doesn't matter), create a lane if others are in the one that you want to be in, did I mention honk constantly, transport as many passengers in any and all vehicles as will fit uncomfortably and feel free to pile on as many parcels as high as possible or seemingly impossible (not to worry - someone can just climb up on top of the two stories high parcels on the top of the truck to lift the electrical wires for the truck/car to move underneath). That tirade had them in stitches! And the final winning moment was when the cell phone belonging to the monk that brought us to teach his English class rang and he answered! I gave him the speech on no cell phones in the classroom and I thought the monk and the rest of the class were going to bust their guts!

We took a night bus to Mandalay and we spent our time in the city taking in the recreation of Royal Palace Grounds (completely destroyed in WWII bombing), a breath-taking teak monastery (it is the only surviving building from the palace as it was moved out of the palace grounds due to the King's belief that it was haunted by his predecessor), the Pagoda that hosts the 'World's biggest book' (each page is on a marble slab and is hosted in its own stupa - there are hundreds of stupas), we saw two incredible sunset from great viewpoints and a Buddha image that has gained 12 tonnes in gold leaf that has been applied to its body by reverent male followers (females are not allowed near the Buddha). This Buddha has become bulbous and lumpy over the years and looks quite ... unique now. The only part of him that remains true to the original image is his face which is lovingly washed at 4:30 am every morning. We didn't make it to that.

We took an incredible day tour to Inwa, Amurapura, and Sagaing - this was a day of visiting pagodas, temples and historical capitals of Burma. It was a Buddhist holiday and therefore all the local people where visiting the all the sites as well. It was crazy busy but made the day even better. Inwa was our favourite place with so much history and the sites were breathtaking. We finished the day with the sunset at and on U Bein's bridge which it the world's longest teak footbridge - 1300 yards. Sunset was gorgeous!

By then we needed to head out of the big cities. Ugh! It gets to be too much! So we took a bus to Hispaw and spent an afternoon hiking through three nearby villages. We were serenaded by a school room full of children who then followed us on our walk. So cute!, While walking through rice fields we got caught in the rain and spent a half an hour with a woman and her three children in their tiny hut.
The next morning, we left on an overnight hike, with a guide, in the hills to see the country side and see how different life is in the hill tribes and villages. We passed through four different Shan villages until we reached the top and the Palung village where we stayed the night. We slept in the home of a couple in their 60’s. They welcomed us heartily into their home and cooked us tradional Palung meals; interesting flavours – mostly sour for the lunch meal but dinner and breakfast were quite yummy. A picture of our hostess was printed in the March 2010 issue of National Geographic! Someone from Poland sent them a copy of the magazine. It was a steep climb but well worth it and the walk back down, via a different route was great. We walked down the opposite side of the valley and could see homesteads and the crops and the people tending them.
We left the same day from Hispaw and travelled by bus to Pyin Oo Luin where the colonials made a vacation town to escape the heat of Mandalay. I can sympathize. We spent the night and the next day exploring an enormous cave with incredible stalactites and 8000 Buddha images (that number is not a typo). This cave was a natural wonder with a little bit of Buddha theme park mixed in. The other memorable thing in Pyin Oo Luin was the Botanical Gardens. AMAZING!!!Gorgeous and peaceful we spent three hours walking through the flowers and vegetation. There was an orchid garden and a small aviary as well.
After a full day we intended to catch a bus back to Manadaly (2 hour trip) as we had a boat to catch at 6:30 in the morning. But we found out there are no buses to catch…. You have to flag one down and there wasn’t likely to be another that evening. So….. we ended up in a ‘pick-up’. This is a pick-up truck that has a re-enforced roof over the truck bed but no sides or back. There are usually benches along the sides but ours was packed level to the benches and there packed almost full when we arrived. The drvier insisted that there was room for us. So we hopped in with our packs and a massive reorganization took place. The five women (Holy cow -5 women are in here!) manoeuvred our luggage to the back, pushed all the men out to the back and contorted themselves and us around the luggage to fit us all in, like a new batch of puppies all curled around one another. When I first got in, I squeezed in beside a woman with her chin tucked into her knees (she fell asleep that way). It was a chilly ride in the open air and we were not prepared. Another woman was picked up with bags of blankets. She moved me around and tucked us in and cuddled right in for a long winter’s nap. So funny! Meanwhile the top of the roof is pack about 4-5 feet high and the pick-up keeps stopping to load more things on! Then add the 6 men that got booked out of the truck bed hanging in various states of comfort out the back of the truck. Just casually hanging on… with their eyes closed…. Napping. The ride included lots of stopping and dropping things off and picking more up… people and any matter of other items. Eventually, we got to the outskirts of Mandalay and had to drop off a large amount of the roof luggage in a shanty town on the edge of the city. The problem was that the electrical wires were too low for the no 5 foot high mountain of luggage that was piled on the top of the roof. Every man (and his dog) came out and shouted directions to the driver’s assistant who had the unenviable task of lifting the phone and power lines as the truck was manoeuvred in and out of the neighbourhood. Just a regular day at the office.
The next day we hopped on a 10 hour boat ride to get to Bagan where, at sunset we arrived to a horse and buggy waiting to take us to our guesthouse. Hundreds of years ago, Bagan was once the capital of the country for about 500 years and the thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas left behind gives testimony to the faith of the people. We loved Bagan! There was an earthquake here in the 70’s and almost half of the historical buildings were destroyed; however, one can still see in all directions thousands of others over the landscape. ! It was small and spread out. Most of the ruins the ruins, temples and pagodas are in the Old City but many are in the open areas travelling between Old and New Bagan or on the outskirts… really they are everywhere! We did our best to see as many as possible in our 2 days there. We saw amazing sunsets and sunrises from the top of incredible pagodas and even though we can honestly say we have seen thousands of stupas and hundreds of pagodas and temples. Each is unique in its own way. Wow!
Bagan is also the home of laquerware making. We went to a village workshop and toured among the artists to better understand both the process and the talent involved. It takes a long time to make one piece as the process is done in layers. Lots of patience and lots of time needed. We had a local woman paint our faces with what all the local people use on their skin. It is a type of wood that is ground down and mixed with water to make a paste. Local people use it for several things; make-up (foundation but it is often not evenly applied all over the face), sunscreen to prevent their skin from getting darker and to make their skin look lighter as it is very light coloured (but not as white as me). It is mostly applied on the cheeks, forehead and nose. After our application, we received stares of a different kind because, for me, it is darker than my skin!
We were sad to leave Bagan with its slower pace and the magic that lives there but we were equally excited to get to Kalaw to do a three day hike to Inle Lake. We took the bus across the centre of the country and arrived in Kalaw in time to arrange our hike for the next morning. We met up with a lovely young man named Tim who we have seen in our travels several times and convinced him that if he went hiking with us we could guarantee that we would make him laugh the whole time. He did. We all did.
The hike was incredible!!! It was a bit more than 60 kms and we stayed in villages for both nights. Our guide was fantastic; knowledgeable, friendly, on excellent term with all the villages and people that are our route and he always spent a little extra time greeting and playing with the children. In addition to Denise, Tim and I, there was a French couple that joined us for the walk. We walked through villages, fields of celery, rice, squash, chili peppers, sesame, sunflower, lettuce, papaya, and so much more! We passed a train station on route and waited to see the local market in action when a train pulled in! The colours, the smells, the people, the chaos!!!! Our guide spoke excellent English and had a wicked sense of humour. He told us stories about mishaps and misunderstandings with other clients because of language or cultural practises.
We arrived in Inle three days later after a wonderful time and boated across the lake. Inle is a very special lake where they farm most of the tomatoes in Myanmar in the water gardens around the edges of the lake. We took a long boat to get to the city where we could stay and watched along the way the farmers tender their crops in dugouts. In the lake are the fishermen using both modern nets and nets made that are unique to the area. The fish with both hands while they wrap one leg around the paddle and paddle the boat with it. I have never seen anything like it and apparently it is unique to Inle Lake. We went on another boat tour the next day and visit silversmiths, weavers of wool, cotton and lotus stem. The lotus stem was especially interesting to me as an inch of the lotus stem is cut and there are silky threads that stretch between the cut pieces. This thread is rolled with each of the successive cuts and is made into a thicker, longer thread that is used in weaving. Usually scarves are made of the lotus stems as it takes 2000 stems to make one scarf. Don’t ask how much the scarf costs: Silkier than silk and totally unaffordable on my budget. We also went to a winery called ‘Red Mountain’where a Frenchman has started to make some pretty good wines from European wines. The climate is like the Okanogan Valley in B.C.
From Inle we took our adventure and Tim with us, south to Bago. We wanted to go to ‘Golden Rock’ which is a very important pilgrimage site for Burmese people. So, we took an overnight bus to Bago. Now overnight buses in Myanmar are more like arrives-in-the-middle-of the-night-busses. We arrived in Bago at about 3:30 am, then we caught a pick-up to Kinpun which is at the base of the Mt. Kyaiktiyo which hosts the ‘Golden Rock’. In Kinpun, we hopped aboard a converted dump truck which chauffeurs people up the mountain. Now the language I used in the previous sentence may imply some luxury. No. These enormous trucks are outfitted with seven rows of benches (by bench, I mean 2X4) and then 6 people are loaded onto each bench. The truck holds about 42 sitting and then some times children stand at the front. There were other trucks that take people all the way to the top but tourists are not allowed on those trucks because it is too dangerous. ????!!!! But not too dangerous for the Myanmar people… Hunh!
The ride was like being on a rollercoaster. Climbing, climbing, climbing, air brakes and all and then sudden stops (I fell off my bench twice into the lap of the man behind me – more laughing). Once we reached the halfway point we walked the rest of the way to the top. It was a very steep incline and when we got to the top we saw….the ‘Golden Rock’! Now this is a rock that is painted gold and balances on another rock on the edge of the mountain. The rock is a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site and only men are allowed to touch the rock. So, Denise and I went down below and took pictures where it looked like we were holding the rock and pushing the rock off the mountain and jumping under the rock. We had the locals laughing.
After the ride down (roller coaster), we waited for three hours for a bus that didn’t look like it was coming, so we hopped in another pick-up to get us at least halfway. We were in the pick-up for 5 minutes and a bus pulled up behind us and honking and the steward pointing at us. We finally communicated with hand gestures that the bus office had sent them after us and that this was our long lost bus! So, onto the bus we go. We sat on tiny stools in the middle aisle and were happy to be headed to Hpa-an after being awake for 36 hours looking forward to a bed for that evening.
Hpa-an was gorgeous! This was somewhere we didn’t even know to visit until we met the French couple on our Inle hike. The landscape reminded of the east coast of Vietnam and the hills that jut out of the water. It was so different than anywhere else in Myanmar. We went on a day tour and saw a couple of amazing Buddha caves, a wandering band of monkeys, and scenery that was to dreamy. Such a great place, we just wished that we had had more time.
We left Hpa-an on an overnight bus to Yangon, which would have arrived at 2 am if we hadn’t been held up in a highway search for two and a half hours on route. We arrived at 4:30 and took a taxi to Diego’s place, where he had left the key under the mat for us. We crashed for 4 hours, and did the key things we need to get done before our flight the next morning: Laundry, seeing the enormous marble Buddha and the white elephants and getting a massage. Done! We even got to say good-bye to Yuey when she dropped by that evening. We left Myanmar with mixed feelings: sad to leave the people and wishing we had more time and more opportunity to explore the country, and happy to go to where we could get food that was not fried!
I hope that you all had a Happy Holiday and best wishes for a Happy New Year.