Myanmar

Myanmar - Our Route & Numbers

 Alex & Madie’s travel route in Myanmar.

Alex & Madie’s travel route in Myanmar.

Numbers from Myanmar

  • Days in Myanmar: 12 days
  • Our daily average cost for lodging and food per person: 24,000 kyat ≈ $17.50
  • Cost of a 5L water: 800 kyat ≈ $0.65
  • Cost of a medium coffee: 2,000 kyat ≈ $1.60
  • Cost of a 500mL beer: 2,000 kyat ≈ $1.60
  • Cost of renting an e-bike (2 people on 1 electric scooter): 7,000 kyat ≈ $5.65 for 24 hours
  • Cost of renting a bicycle: 1,500 kyat ≈ $1.20
  • Cost of renting a private long boat: 17,000 kyat ≈ $13.70 for the day
  • Cost of a long-distance VIP bus ticket: 15,000 kyat ≈ $12.10
     
  • Total time on an airplane: 2 hours and 50 minutes
  • Total time on a bus: 29 hours
  • Total time on a boat: 6 hours (on Inle Lake)
     

How We Got Around

 Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Myanmar.

Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Myanmar.

Myanmar - Inle Lake’s Peace

 Inle Lake boat life from above.

Inle Lake boat life from above.

James Blake - Measurements

We make our way to Inle Lake on another long bus ride - the bare countryside passing by, sadly with too much trash on the sidelines. Arriving in Nyaung Shwe, the tourist entry point for Inle Lake - a quaint and simple town, sadly famous for its population of roaming dogs (but not more than we’ve seen in the Philippines, we stray away from Burmese food, preferring the banana pancakes for breakfast, and a plate of fresh pasta for dinner. There’s something to say about the food when you can’t really eat it for too long.

 Cows feasting on hydroponic tomatoes farmed on Inle Lake.

Cows feasting on hydroponic tomatoes farmed on Inle Lake.

 One of the many thousands of wooden boats on Inle Lake.

One of the many thousands of wooden boats on Inle Lake.

A day bike ride through the area reveals the surroundings, on flat dirt paths filled with sleepy dogs. We ride by local houses, with the women bathing in the nearby stream, by hangars of tomatoes, with the worst ones saved for the cows. At a nearby village, we stop at an abandoned temple, still showing its intricate details, now rusted - a few Buddha effigies stay standing. At the pier, we’re quickly accosted by the local boat owners for a ride through the famed part of the lake, only to be turned down by the intransigent Madie.

Dinner is with Zizi, the new owner of a small restaurant - she didn’t even have time to change the sign. She has a poster of Aung San Suu Kyi, the female leader of Myanmar attempting to unify the country and finally bring peace. The country was under a military dictatorship for more than thirty years, until 2011 when the junta was dissolved, after repeatedly violating human rights (and unfortunately still criticized today for the treatment of the Muslim minority). Where a country is bloodied in conflict for the past twenty years by men, leave it to the women to bring some order. Zizi tells us about her hopes for the restaurant’s new concept, and her hopes for the country. A dinner of local food and positive thoughts, before we head the next day to visit Inle on the water.

 Inle Lake is unlike any place we’ve seen before, where townships are built entirely on the water - modest homes on stilts, hydroponic vegetable gardens, boats as modes of transportation, and gridded waterways. Oh yes, and satellite tv.

Inle Lake is unlike any place we’ve seen before, where townships are built entirely on the water - modest homes on stilts, hydroponic vegetable gardens, boats as modes of transportation, and gridded waterways. Oh yes, and satellite tv.

 Young Inthar (“people who live on the lake”) children going for a paddle. It’s possible some of them have never seen or been in a car before.

Young Inthar (“people who live on the lake”) children going for a paddle. It’s possible some of them have never seen or been in a car before.

Inle is sometimes called the Venice of the East (towns are built around a network of canals), but it would not do justice to either town. We find a much more unique place. A boat driver takes us an hour south and enters a farming village with a population living on the lake, in houses on stilts. The farmland is on the water too, growing tomatoes, water corn, and a special type of onion. Streets are canals, and quick boat rides are needed to get anywhere.

 Boats carrying tourists, transporting goods, and selling produce crowd the landing at the main temple.

Boats carrying tourists, transporting goods, and selling produce crowd the landing at the main temple.

 One of two big freshwater lakes in Myanmar, Inle is an enormous source of fish, eaten any which way. This was the largest dried fish stall at the market, its scent could be smelled from meters away.

One of two big freshwater lakes in Myanmar, Inle is an enormous source of fish, eaten any which way. This was the largest dried fish stall at the market, its scent could be smelled from meters away.

Despite a sadly blatant poverty, the place is as happy and peaceful as can be, with kids running around on decks, over bridges, and jumping into the water with little care for the passing tourists; with young adults speeding skillfully on boats full of the weekly groceries; with older men rowing slowly to the local grocery and tobacco shop; a simple, authentic, happy life in town, with the lake as its main character. The driver takes us to multiple craft shops of lotus root textiles, silver jewelry, and wooden longboats - no-thank-yous are the only things we manage to say. A cigar shop gets me my first smoke in months.

We arrive at the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda, host of five Buddha statues that now look like large gold eggs after thousands of people have placed gold leaf on them. Outside, a giant golden bird greets us, helm of a boat carrying the eggs around the lake from pagoda to pagoda. The last stop is Nga Phe Kyaung, the jumping cat monastery, called so because of a colony of cats decided to live with monks who trained them to jump for tourists. Now, the cats no longer jump, after criticism from the tourism communities, but only live lazily with the monks. A final moment of peace, amongst cats, as we read the scriptures on the wall describing the life of the Buddha. Another promise to meditate more.

 A sweet face at the monastery. After her mother took a photo of us together, she struck this pose when I asked for a photo in return. Faintly painted on her face is thanaka paste, a cosmetic made from ground bark. Women and children, and some boys, apply the cream as a beauty statement, to protect from sunburn, and to promote healthy skin. A tradition they've had for over 2000 years.

A sweet face at the monastery. After her mother took a photo of us together, she struck this pose when I asked for a photo in return. Faintly painted on her face is thanaka paste, a cosmetic made from ground bark. Women and children, and some boys, apply the cream as a beauty statement, to protect from sunburn, and to promote healthy skin. A tradition they've had for over 2000 years.

We leave Inle to finish our Myanmar story, back to Yangon for a flight to India. We were not expecting much after many months in South East Asia, but Myanmar surprised us. To call it the next Thailand would not be fair to a country with such unique history and landscapes. But I, for one, hope it will become the next Thailand, and with it, better economy, infrastructure, and life for its caring and sweet population. Let it become what it wants, as long as it retains its character.

Myanmar - Yangon’s Grit to Bagan’s Temples

 Despite how arid Bagan is, there is plenty of green around.

Despite how arid Bagan is, there is plenty of green around.

Alt-J - 3WW

Myanmar, the rough and gritty, the country you have to go to before it becomes Thailand, or so we read on many blogs. Yes, maybe, but first is Myanmar the character, the beautiful, and the troubled - a country with one of the longest civil wars between its ethnic groups.

 Umbrellas shielding the midday sun and impending storm at the golden Shwedagon Pagoda. Also, have we mentioned we have to walk barefoot at every temple, pagoda, and shrine?

Umbrellas shielding the midday sun and impending storm at the golden Shwedagon Pagoda. Also, have we mentioned we have to walk barefoot at every temple, pagoda, and shrine?

 Burgundy robed monks seeking shade and conversation.

Burgundy robed monks seeking shade and conversation.

Yangon

Madie and I land in Yangon and head over to T Venus B&B, a modest hotel near the university, in a taxi honking its way through the streets. It’s a sudden, stark contrast from our short episodes in Singapore, Taipei, and Japan. We’re back in South East Asia, back in a country still torn between the first and second worlds. Long traffic jams allow us see the small streets of rough unfinished buildings, with street vendors selling animal guts, and laundry hanging above stacks of trash and open sewers. Most cars are Hondas with right-hand drivers seats living a second life, but here we drive on the right. The buses are worn down, patched up - this one passing by has an old rope holding the engine door. They’re led by a 3-man team: the driver, the money man, and the hustler announcing stops and pulling people on board when the bus doesn’t quite stop. They’re all chewing paan, the betel leaf mixed with tobacco, mint, and spices, with deep red spit and teeth.

After settling in the room, and the obligatory mosquito net upgrade after killing one and creating a large bloodstain, we head out for a walk around town, the nearby mall and a luxurious-but-cheap lunch with green tea leaf salad and beef curries - a mix of Thai, Indonesian, and Indian food, as best as we can tell.  We can’t quite figure it out until the end of the first day but this place reminds us of the Philippines - rough, gritty, full of people simply making do with what they have. But as all guides and websites say, everyone is nice and helpful. No one seems to care about conning us, a nice change from the too-famed Thailand. We both agree that this is more a place for us than the likes of China, Singapore, or Taipei. We enjoyed all those places, but the rough edges are what attracts us. A place where we feel a bit more welcome, after all. 

 A female monk at the Shwedagon Pagoda.

A female monk at the Shwedagon Pagoda.

We make our way to the Shwedagon Pagoda, a grand Buddhist temple believed to hold relics of the last four Buddhas. We pay a small fee to enter and marvel, barefoot, at the golden stupa and the few surrounding temples for each Buddha. Tourists are seldom, and the vending stalls are not aggressive. Someone approaches us, already on our guards, but he’s simply a monk wanting to practice his English. We give our respects to the many Buddhas. I promise myself (again) to meditate more.

 Getting lost in the land of temples and pagodas.

Getting lost in the land of temples and pagodas.

 The Burmese script is so beautiful to me, full of circles and loops, blending harmoniously with the ironwork of the gate. Must be so fun to write.

The Burmese script is so beautiful to me, full of circles and loops, blending harmoniously with the ironwork of the gate. Must be so fun to write.

Bagan

A twelve-hour bus ride takes us to Bagan, the obligatory stop in Myanmar. The town and region is the home of 2200 temples and pagodas dating from the 9th to 13th centuries. For three days, our homestay wakes us up with green tea leaf salad and coconut pastries before we head out on an electric scooter to explore the area. The landscape is otherworldly, famous for its hot air balloon rides (but it’s not the season for it). We stick to the ground, driving on dirt trails to the sound of Madie’s laugh; navigating through large temples, respectfully barefoot despite the obvious guano perfuming the place; climbing hidden staircases of pagodas for the perfect sunset; and finally, heading home on an almost dead battery.

Bagan is still working on its UNESCO certification, due to the poor rehabilitation of the sites uncovered by the last earthquakes, including the 6.8 magnitude tremor that hit a month before we arrived. Despite it, it shows an incredible and unique richness we haven’t found anywhere else, in its people, history, and the infinite array of edifices of the region. We leave already, on another twelve-hour bus ride to the other unmissable region of Myanmar, Inle Lake.

 So many stupas! Over 2000 individual structures, in fact - a mere fifth of the amount that existed during the height of the Kingdom of Pagan a thousand years ago. We spent a few days exploring these brick temples, pagodas, and shrines on our e-bikes, shielding dust storms, tracking UNESCO inspectors, avoiding bat droppings, and chasing sunsets... all while being barefoot. The green crowned monument is Sulamani Pahto, sadly damaged by the 6.8 magnitude earthquake in August 2016.

So many stupas! Over 2000 individual structures, in fact - a mere fifth of the amount that existed during the height of the Kingdom of Pagan a thousand years ago. We spent a few days exploring these brick temples, pagodas, and shrines on our e-bikes, shielding dust storms, tracking UNESCO inspectors, avoiding bat droppings, and chasing sunsets... all while being barefoot. The green crowned monument is Sulamani Pahto, sadly damaged by the 6.8 magnitude earthquake in August 2016.