BEYOND RYE: Burma (Myanmar) Beckons
For intrepid travelers who are also curious about other cultures and enjoy exotic destinations, it was welcome news to hear that Myanmar (Burma) has opened its doors to tourists after years of isolation.
By Mary-Liz Campbell
For intrepid travelers who are also curious about other cultures and enjoy exotic destinations, it was welcome news to hear that Myanmar (Burma) has opened its doors to tourists after years of isolation. This does not mean that travelers are free to explore this entire fascinating country. Border areas and parts of some states remain closed due to conflict with minority ethnic groups and military activities; but it is possible to travel independently without a set itinerary in the more popular tourist areas. Myanmar is changing rapidly as it opens up to the world and whether or not its infrastructure is able to handle all the changes as well as the increase in the number of travellers is questionable. Consequently, arranging private travel, however, can be problematic due to the sudden huge influx of tourists and package tours.
On a recent 16-day trip we experienced good hotels with most modern conveniences, good food, excellent beer. Transportation of all types was fairly reliable and the people were very friendly and generous. There were frequent power outages and no Internet service in most places. ATM’s were just starting to make an appearance and credit cards were not accepted. Cash only.
We started our trip in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), a sprawling city on the Ayeyarwady River delta. Compared to other South East Asian cities it is relatively quiet due to a ban on motorcycles, but its roads are congested with cars making it extremely difficult to get anywhere. A walking tour of the central area was the solution and gave us a taste of the city – its bustling markets, the ubiquitous traditional Burmese tea shops, mosques, temples, British colonial architecture, and the busy waterfront area.
Myanmar is a devout Buddhist country and the highlight of Yangon was the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar – the Shwedagon Pagoda also known as the Golden Pagoda. Situated on a hilltop overlooking the city, it covers more than 12 acres. The main structure is an enormous golden dome (stupa) surrounded by smaller pagodas, temples, pavilions, and shrines all of which are connected by wide expanses of white marble. Visiting it in the late afternoon was a unique experience. It is a dynamic place with devotees walking clockwise around the structures – families, monks in their maroon robes, members of minority ethnic groups in their tribal dress, and tourists from all over the world. The ringing bells and chanting mixed with scents of incense and jasmine. As evening fell, the main pagoda glowed a reddish-gold and there was a palpable spiritual energy.
Our next stop, Bagan, is one of the most important archaeological areas in Asia. Bagan is situated in central Burma on a remote 26 square mile plain scattered with more than 2,000 temples, pagodas, and shrines most of which date back to the 11th and 13th century. There are many ways of exploring them. It is possible to rent bicycles or visit by horse and cart or tour bus, but the most spectacular way to appreciate the splendors and the immense scope of Bagan is to take an early morning hot air balloon trip over the plain, or to climb one of the pagodas at sunset.
One day, we drove from Bagan to Mount Popa, which is a sacred extinct volcanic peak topped with a stunning gold Buddhist temple that overlooks the vast plain below. In the village at the foot of the mountain is a colorful shrine dedicated to nats – pre-Buddhist spirits who have the ability to punish or protect believers. The worship of these 37 nats coexists with Buddhism in Myanmar.
Thanks to film and literature, the city of Mandalay conjures up the romanticism of exotic Asia. The present reality is quite different. The Japanese occupied Mandalay during World War II after the city suffered heavy damage from bombings. Today it is a hot and dusty city with architecturally unappealing concrete buildings. Nevertheless, it is a cultural and religious center of Myanmar with many monasteries, nunneries, and pagodas, along with stone carvers, gold leaf pounders, a jade market, and traditional dance performers.
We traveled by boat up the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay to visit Mingun the site of a massive unfinished pagoda and stopped at a village built entirely on a sand bar. We went by horse and cart across fields to the ancient deserted city of Inwa, where we visited an elegant ethereal teak monastery with intricate carvings and a soaring prayer hall.
After the heat of the plains, it was a relief to arrive at the much cooler Kalaw, a town in the hills of Shan State that is a center for trekkers. Here we were able to visit various villages of the Palaung, Danu, Pa-O, and Danu hill tribes, a large morning market, as well as huge mysterious sacred caves filled with Buddha statues. It is possible to hire a guide in Kalaw for a day or two trek into the hills or over to Inle Lake.
Inle Lake is likely one of the world’s most exotic places. All our traveling there was by dugout or motorized canoes. Thirteen miles long and 7 miles wide, it is home to the Intha tribe who live in stilted houses on the water. They make their living from the lake and can be seen fishing in their long flat boats maneuvered with a unique acrobatic one legged rowing style. They also grow vegetables on extensive floating islands formed from silt and compost.
We spent a few idyllic days traveling on the lake, visiting villages, markets, craft workshops, and temples. Some of us rose early to enjoy a bird watching boat trip in the nearby conservation area.
One day we meandered up a narrow canal reminiscent of “Heart of Darkness,” walked through a dappled bamboo forest, and climbed up a hill to visit a complex of over a thousand ancient pagodas, some weathered and crumbling (and robbed), and others newly reconstructed.
Our accommodations at Inle Lake were superb – stilted, spacious teak villas each with its own deck on the lake. Wooden pathways landscaped with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and fragrant jasmine connected the villas. Atmospheric walks through the jungle led us to the exotic spa, dining hall and reception areas. On our last night, we gathered at the lakeside bar to sip our Mandalay rum sours while we watched the sunset over the lake and the surrounding mountains. We toasted Myanmar, each other, and a fabulous, enlightening trip.