So I’m back on the road again, and this time I’m in Burma (or Myanmar depending on who you talk to). It’s a long flight via Bangkok but I got here eventually and spent the remainder of the first day by the pool, lounging in 30C – back to my optimum operating temperature! I have decided to call Burma Burma and not Myanmar after our guide explained that Myanmar is what you call Burma if you like the military regime (BBC also say Burma so I’ll go with that).
Interestingly, motorbikes are banned in Yangon so there isn’t the mass of bikes at every traffic light however the volume of cars makes the traffic an absolute nightmare. On the way in from the airport I couldn’t work out what was strange about the car. Then I realised it was because the driver was sitting on the right but he was also driving on the right. There are many little quirky things like this that we’ve found along the way and apparently it was a case of changing as many British things as possible when the military came to power.
Usually I travel solo but for Burma I thought it might be easier to do something organised. So I’m on a 10-day tour of the mainland and then flying down to the southern islands and sailing around the Myeik archipelago for 9 days on a catamaran. So day 1, I met my fellow travellers who are mostly Australian and are all very nice. There are a few single travellers too so it’s a good mixture and makes a lovely change to have plenty of people to talk to and dine with.
We headed out in the evening to a local restaurant for dinner. Burmese food is an interesting mix of influences and we’ve had curry pretty much every meal.
The last two days have been seriously full on but we’ve covered a lot of ground. On Wednesday we took our bus downtown and were dropped off by the Sule Pagoda, an ancient pagoda all in gold that is in the middle of a roundabout. We strolled through the neighbouring park that has the Independence Monument, past a protester camp (campaigning against what they deem to be illegal land grabs by the government – most of the protesters are in prison) and on through the streets to the river.
Before coming to Burma I expected it to be fairly undeveloped but what I now realise is that it is actually quite developed (as much as say Cambodia and parts of Thailand) but it’s just the tourist industry that’s undeveloped. Laos for me was more much more simple and unaffected by Western influence. Here they haven’t seen many tourists but there is still a huge BMW showroom on the road from Yangon airport.
We continued with a visit to the amazing Shwedagon Pagoda, the iconic gold temple in the majority of photos of Burma. There were lots of local people praying there and not many tourists at all. The locals were dying to take photos of us and that made it easy to take photos of them too. We walked around and everyone prays at the corner of the day the were born on. The day you were born is very important here and the guide could work out immediately the days we were all born by looking at our birth dates. He told us they don’t use surnames here, it’s all about your birth day and you can tell from your name usually what that day is.
Most ladies have a creamy coloured paint on their faces and this is a special bark that is pounded on a hot stone with some water to form a thin paste. It is said to have anti-aging properties and lighten the skin.
In the afternoon we flew to Mandalay and spent the evening in the night market – a far cry from the usual night market full of crap. This was all food, very dark and we all had a bowl of Burmese mohinga soup (the national dish).
The next day we set off early and took a boat down the Ayeyarwady River from Mingun to a small village where there are some ruins and a beautiful white temple.
In the afternoon we stopped off at the flower market, marble district and the gold pounders district to see the fascinatingly medieval job of pounding gold to flatten it into gold leaf. It takes these poor guys five hours of hammering with seven-pound hammer per leaf to flatten it out.
We made it back in time to get to the U Bein Bridge at Amarapura (the longest teak footbridge in the world), where we had a beer and watched the sun go down over the Taungthaman Lake.
Today has been exhausting but amazing. We started early and went to the world’s biggest book – a big complex with over 700 carved marble slabs, and then the Golden Palace Monastery, a teak temple with golden inlaid on the inside.
We stopped briefly at the local flower market then drove to an old British hill station town called Pyin Oo Lwin (or May Town) where we had lunch, went to the National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens and then on the way back into town we bumped into a Novice Initiation ceremony. Villages have huge parties to celebrate their local children entering the monastery (everyone spends some time in a monastery, anything from 3 days to life). It was amazing to witness and everyone was so delighted to welcome us there. We finished up on Mandalay Hill to watch the sun go down.