Myanmar, we will be back

With the Rohingya situation making almost front page news of late we debated whether we should visit Myanmar. If everything we read was true we certainly didn’t want to add any legitimacy to the current government by spending our money in their country. The country is a young democracy but the military is essentially still in control. We seriously gave this some thought but concluded we were there to see the country, meet the people and eat the food because 99% of the population has absolutely nothing to do with the current situation so why should they suffer for something they have absolutely nothing to do with. This was our logic, right or wrong and we heard some very interesting stories, one from someone very close to the action and many from the youth and older people who actually live in Rakhine State where this crisis is happening but what we ultimately learned is there are many sides to this story, many more than we would hear from mainstream media and there is supposedly another country quite involved in maintaining the instability to further their global desires.

Htin Kyaw is the President of Myanmar although most people think the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Sun Kyi leads the country. She is only a State Councilor, a sort-of Prime Minister and could never lead the country because she married a foreigner. She has very little control over what happens in the country geopolitically and is essentially an advisor to the President yet everyone wants to charge her for crimes against humanity. She suffered over 20 years of house arrest for defying the military junta and finally won a little taste of democracy for the population and now she is committing crimes against humanity? Give your heads a shake and dig deeper. The old military still runs the show here my friends.

Myanmar was a surprise to us. A country that has lived under military rule for decades surely must be quite under developed we thought, but we very wrong. Aung San does have some influence on infrastructure, healthcare and education improvements and this has been obvious. Yes agriculture is still a primary day-to-day existence for many but the roads are paved, there are several telecom providers, ATM’s are in most villages, there was no obvious poverty in the context of poverty you see in India or many African countries, food was plentiful and affordable, busy food stalls lined the roads and everyone seemed to be very happy. Education is now free for all until level 12, highway tolls have been introduced to upgrade and maintain the roads and a 5% GST is applicable on all purchases with the money going to further improve the social and infrastructural projects needed to move the country forward. I keep bringing this up but I can’t  help but to compare everything we have seen to date with India. The world’s largest democracy, thousands of years of civilization and a place that is still massively underdeveloped and in a sad state of affairs in many places. The standard has been set very low so everything else looks just peachy. But, this is not fair to Myanmar (or any other country) and I guess because we loved the people here so much our judgment could be slightly biased but we don’t think so because we think Myanmar has set a new standard for us and one we will use to compare with all other so-called 3rd world/developing countries and the post is set quite high.

I posted a semi-summary a post or so ago so I won’t repeat myself other than to say the people are beautiful, the history incredible, the landscapes incomparable, the food so delectable and the society so respectable. What more could you want? We loved Myanmar…especially the people.

Yangon and our final day in Myanmar

Tomorrow we fly back to Thailand to spend a few weeks so today was our final day in Myanmar. We are sad to be leaving however we had to make a point of seeing some of the sights around Yangon. As mentioned in our last post the traffic here is civil but very congested and today was no different and we did learn one interesting fact through noticing there were no motorcycles in the city. They are banned and the reason was too many people were dying in accidents so they are not allowed in the city any longer and so this explains why the roads are so congested. Our first stop was to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda. This pagoda is the most sacred in Myanmar and has a very interesting history which I’ll quote from the map they give you at the entrance. We didn’t take many pictures because it was so hot and uncomfortable. You must be barefoot when you visit any pagoda and the tile flooring was scorching in areas.

Brief history of the Shwedagon Pagoda

“In about 588 BC, Gautama Buddha obtained enlightenment and while He journeyed in seven places two merchants, Taphussa and Ballika offered Him alms-food. Having obtained eight strands of hair from Him as a blessing, they returned to Okkalapa land where they were welcomed back by the multitudes led by King Okkalapa. King Okkalapa enshrined Buddha’s hairs together and the relics of three Buddhas before him…the staff of Kakusanda Buddha, the water filter of Kawnagamana Buddha and the netherrobe of Kassapa Buddha in a ceti 66 feet (44 cubits) high which they consecrated as the Shwedagon. Because it contained the relics of four Buddhas who had attained enlightenment, it was known as Shwedagon, the Reliquary of the Four. From about 588 BC to the  14th century, the Shwedagon was maintained by 32 kings of the Okkalapa dynasty and since 1372 AD by kings Banya U, Banyayan, Banyagyandaw and others. In 1453 when Queen Shin Saw Pu (ha ha) ascended the throne she had it raised to a height of 302 feet and in 1774, King Sinbyushin had it rebuilt to a height of 326 feet.” It is a very impressive pagoda.

The pagoda is surrounded by small temples interspersed with a specific temple for a  specific day of the week called “Planetary Posts”. Each post has a Buddha image and devotees will leave offerings of flowers and pour water over the Buddha and pray for good luck and good health for themselves or others. It is a good Karmic deed. Below is Joyce at her sister’s planetary post.

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 Drenched in sweat we cooled down in our AC taxi stuck in traffic on our way to Kandawgyi Lake to see the famous Karaweik, a concrete replica of a Burmese royal barge built in 1972. We actually thought it was a palace but it is a very nice restaurant and you couldn’t go inside unless you were going to eat there. Oh well.

 Time for lunch so we asked our driver to find us a place where we could get some good Shan noodle soup. He didn’t disappoint. We stopped into the Shan Noodle House and each had a great soup. Delicious and sadly our last truly ethnic Burmese meal.

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Comfortably full our last stop was Chauk-htat-gyi Buddha Temple. The reclining Buddha inside the temple is 216 feet long and is one of the largest in Myanmar. Construction started in 1899 by a wealthy Burmese Buddhist and was completed in 1907 by a different construction company. The image was not proportioned correctly and the Buddha had an aggressive expression on its face so in the 1950’s, the old Buddha image was demolished and work began to replace the image under the supervision of a master craftsman. It is a BIG Buddha!

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Yangon

I had to do a little research on the aircraft we flew on from Heho to Ngapali and Ngapali to Yangon as it seemed similar to an old Soviet aircraft we thought we were going to die in on a flight in Cuba several years ago. The Cuba plane was dual prop and rear loading but had no windows while the dual prop plane in Myanmar was rear loading but did have windows and an air conditioning system that didn’t spew fog and freak everyone out thinking the plane was on fire. It was a much nicer plane, an ATR 72, built in France and Italy. We had never flown in one of these so this was a first and second. It took off, it flew, it landed so a very good airplane as far as we’re concerned. Yangon has a sparkling new airport but maybe it only sparkles in the International arrival section. It is small and nice in the domestic area and there is no hassle when you leave the arrivals area. The taxi guys are nice and non-pushy, typical of this country so far, and the drive to our hotel was pleasant, The roads in Yangon are good. There are traffic lights that people respect. They don’t blow their horns, they drive in their lanes and it is oh so civil. The city, what we have seen so far is clean and litter free. There are next to no motorcycles, only cars and a few bicycles. The air is clean but traffic jams do seem to be a bit of a problem from the little we’ve seen so not fair to lay judgment just yet.

So, we had a late lunch at Hard Rock Cafe, Yangon. Who would a thunk. Located in the  great big new Myanmar Plaza, Yangon’s first international retail shopping centre, we decided it was time for a burger. A quite expensive burger. Two burgers with cheese and bacon, fries and a shared Caesar salad, about $58.00 CAD. Ouch, but we haven’t had a beef burger since the airport in Male airport (Burger King) in the Maldives and I think it cost pretty close to the same. Moral of the story, don’t eat junk food, especially American chain junk food. It’s expensive but it fills this little craving that you get from time to time and then sits as a great big lump in your stomach and you want to go to sleep and your thirst keeps you awake and then you want another one. Hmmm.. I see a pattern here.

Tomorrow we will set out to explore this city of close to 8 million people, the largest in Myanmar. The city boasts the largest collection of colonial era buildings in SE Asia and is home to the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda.

Ngapoli Beach

Today is our last day at Ngapoli Beach before heading to Yangon tomorrow to what we’re told is a busy and congested city. We shall see. We’ll have spent 6 nights and 5 full days here and we were lucky to find a great place at a reasonable price. The beach here is pristine, palm-tree-fringed white sand with crystal clear waters lying on the Bay of Bengal and apparently has the reputation as Myanmar’s premier beach getaway but through either luck or time of year there were very people here so all we could hear on the beach was the birds, waves, wind in the palms and the very occasional boat motor. Local women (and a “lady boy” in the women’s words) occasionally stopped by to sell us fresh fruit and coconuts and were never bothersome or insistent if we didn’t want any. They always had a poise and grace and happy smile and you just couldn’t help but to be happy and smile along with them. This is actually the description I’ll use in my Myanmar summary so please excuse the repeat when you see it because this is what stands out in this country. The people. All ages, all walks of life, all so very warm and welcoming with their beautiful happy smiles. They are lovely people and it was so refreshing.

We didn’t really do much here except chill on the beach, swim, eat, drink and watch the sunsets and then eat again and crash after a very tough day of walking 100 metres from our hotel to the beach, getting up from our lounge chairs for a dip, slowly meandering back to our chairs, flipping sides, snoozing a little and then repeating but hey, somebody has to do it!

We stayed at the River Top Lodge which we would highly recommend. It is located across the main road from the beach which is about a 100 metre walk. The staff was all fantastic and obviously well trained. The housecleaning staff was impeccable, everything worked perfectly in the room, and the restaurant served up a very nice buffet style breakfast which was included in the room price. We could honestly say that this hotel is the best run establishment we have stayed at in a very long time. It may be rated as a 3-4 star hotel but it is definitely rated a 5 star in our books due to the high level of service and attention to detail. My only negative is everything was priced in US Dollars and the price of a beer was quite expensive at $4.00 except during happy hour but this was offset by the very affordable food pricing although still in US $. In Myanmar, all hotel pricing is in US dollars and they charge you US dollars or the equivalent exchange rate of the day. Maybe these places are foreign-owned but I’m not so sure. I can understand if their currency is being ravaged by inflation but outside of the hotels at the local establishments the prices are quoted in Burmese Kyat (pronounced “chat”) and prices are definitely cheaper. We need to dig a little deeper into this to find out why. My only warning to the business people of Myanmar is, be careful. Don’t price yourselves out of the middle class and backpacker crowd. They are your bread and butter tourists and if you cater exclusively to high-end tourists and charge high prices you will soon see your idyllic beaches and villages ravaged by foreign hotel operators who will build big ugly resorts, filled with big ugly people who have no respect for your way of life and you will soon be very upset and regret the way things have changed. We have seen this time and time again.

Damn, that sounded like my summary of Myanmar. I’m sure I’ll think of much more to say.

Kalaw to Pindaya

Today was our final road journey before flying to Ngapali Beach tomorrow for 5 full days of beach time. We had a short day which started in Kalaw where we headed East then North to the village of Pindaya. There is a small lake in town where we did a pit stop to  have a look and then proceeded up into the nearby hills to visit the Shwe Oo Min natural cave temple.

Before driving up into the mountains we stopped at a local craft shop where they make beautiful umbrellas, writing paper, envelopes, light shades and a multitude of other paper oriented products. The paper is made from the bark of the Mulberry tree. The bark is dried and then soaked in brine for 12 hours. Once soaked the pulp is well, hammered to a pulp for about 15 minutes and then put into a small pot and then stirred. They then take the pulpous sludge, spread it onto a screen submerged in water, spread it around evenly and then drain the water from the screen and set the resultant mash in the sun to dry. The result is Mulberry paper which they peel off of the screen and use for a myriad of applications. One very talented man works in the corner preparing bamboo to use as the umbrellas support and locking mechanism. It’s hard to describe but we were wowed! A very simple procedure to make paper yet so foreign to us.

The Shwe Oo Min cave temple is the same name as the Shwe Oo Min temple we saw outside of Kalaw. It is the She Oo Min Temple Pindaya. It is a huge natural cave that hosts thousands? of Buddha figures in a cavernous mountain cave that stretches probably about 750 metres into the mountainside. Buddhas everywhere! We spent at least an hour in the caves and then caught some fresh air and a view of Pindaya from the cave entrance. I will probably say it later but the people of Myanmar love their Buddhas.

Kalaw

After a long day we arrived in Kalaw where we will we spend two nights. Nestled in the Shan Mountains, the town is like every other village we have seen. Clean, organized and relaxed. We have said several time to each other that we are amazed by the difference between this country and India. I know, two different countries, different populations etc. but when you invoke an image of Burma, Myanmar for us anyway, we imagined far less development. It has been a very pleasant surprise. The next morning we headed out to explore two cave temples and a visit to the Nee Paya where a 500-year-old bamboo Buddha is housed.

Shwe Oo Min Cave Temple

Hnee Paya and a 500-year-old bamboo Buddha

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Myin Ma Hti Caves

Kalaw by day and night

 

 

Kakku Pagodas and Aythaya, Myammar’s first winery

Today was a lot of driving but worth every minute. The beauty of driving versus flying is obvious. You get to see the real Myanmar and we headed off from Nyaung Shwe over the Shan Mountains to the hills East of Inle Lake. The Kakku Pagoda site is believed to date back to the 3rd century BC and is one of Asia’s largest and most spectacular ancient monuments. There are 2,478 pagodas at present but many were damaged by a tornado in 2016 so repair work is underway. Our guide Robbin explained that there were at one time more than 7,000 pagodas but earthquakes and time have taken their toll on this magnificent site.

The Aythaya Winery was established in 1999 by a German expat. The area is perfect for grapes and the white Sauvignon Blanc was exceptional. The wine industry in Myanmar has nowhere to go but up. They have quality soil, temperature and elevation so keep your eyes open for some good vintage wine coming out of this area in the future.

Aythaya Winery

Inle Lake

Yesterday we spent a full day on a narrow longboat cruising the lake and myriad canals that finger out in the south-western area of the lake. Fisherman dot the waterways but there were also many who were not fishing but clearing the water hyacinth that is seriously invading the lake. Like many other fresh water lakes in the world this rapid infestation is caused by farming on the surrounding land. Fertilizer and livestock poop runoff feeds the plants to the point that the lake is being choked and if not controlled will probably lead to the destruction of the small fishery that exists on the lake and the eventual death of any life save the hyacinths. This is not exclusive to Myanmar. Where I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Lake Winnipeg, among the largest fresh water lakes in the world is now severely threatened by the same cause. It doesn’t matter if you are 1st world or 3rd world, developed or not, this is a serious world-wide issue that needs immediate attention and probably radical solutions to reverse this course of destruction. Sorry to sound so gloomy.

The lake is 22 km long and 10 km wide and is located in central Myanmar. It is fringed by floating marshes and floating gardens. Stilt house villages rise above the water and along with fishing, handicrafts, silk and lotus weavers and silversmiths add to the lake based economy. Our first stop after about a 45 minute ride through the lake and then a winding twisting canal was the village of Indein which is famous for it’s crumbling groups of ancient pagodas, Nyaung Oak, and Shwe Inn Thein Paya noted for the 100’s of densely packed stupas.

Nyuang Oak

Shwe Inn Thein Paya Pagoda

Our final stop before heading back to our departure jetty was Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery.  At over 200 years old, it is the oldest and largest in the Inle Lake region. It is built on wooden stilts and is set among floating gardens.It is also known as the “Cat Monastery”. The monks trained cats to jump through hoops when boredom set in but apparently this tradition has faded and we didn’t see one cat. The wooden monastery houses a collection of Buddha images in Shan, Tabetan, Bagan and Inwa styles. On our way we navigated through a mesh of canals passing Shan and Intha villages on the banks.

 

Bagan to Shan State and Inle Lake

We reluctantly left Bagan today and made our way by car through plains and the Shan mountains to the town of  Nyaung Shwe. We actually stayed about a 15 minute drive from the town and the jetty in a very nice colonial style hotel near the town of Shwe Nyaung. As has been the case so far in Myanmar, the staff were over the top friendly and helpful and within 5 minutes after checking in we had our next day planned to tour the lake, villages, monasteries and ancient pagodas all dotted around the second largest lake in Myanmar. The Shan Mountains shadow the lake and reach a height of 2,000 metres and offers a beautiful contrast to the views on the lake. Tomorrow we’ll leave the hotel early and spend the day on the lake. Before departing Bagan we set up a plan and arranged transport for our next 5 days of exploring Shan State. The map below shows our intended route.

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