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Burma road

 

There was something in the sound of the word Burma that made me excited. The country is now called Myanmar, which is not the same at all, and when I finally got to the country it gave me great pleasure to hear people there still referring to their land with the name that Rudyard Kipling made famous in 1898 when he wrote “This is Burma and unlike any land you know about.

Shwedagon Temple
Shwedagon Temple

Why had I always dreamed of going to Burma?

I booked at short notice online through a local travel agent, One Stop Travel. My itinerary was arranged by Mr Tun. The booking condition was that I paid the price of the trip - which was half that charged by the big international agencies - in cash to him in US$, which had to be Mint fresh. With a leap of faith I handed over a couple of thousand US dollars that I had ordered through my bank - all crisp and freshly printed, to a man I had never met before, in his cramped office in Yangon, up several flights of dingy stairs. In return I was given vouchers for every hotel he had prebooked for me in a packed schedule, and airline tickets for my zig zag journey across the huge expanses of country. I also had a voucher for a balloon flight over Pagan, which is hotly prized, and a ticket for an “Express” boatride up the Ayerwaddy, of which more later.

“There was something in the sound of the word Burma that made me excited.”

My first night in Yangon

I had a delectable mint fizz in the Victorian bar that is fitted out with the carved dark wood style that I have seen in the Australian outback and in Colonial buildings in Africa. Dinner in the coffee shop was slightly spoiled by the insensitivity of a woman speaking a Slavic language who was having a screamed conversation through Skype on her laptop with a husband or lover who was obviously deaf. It took a while for the staff to move her to the furthest corner. I smiled to think of Rudyard exploding and threatening to throttle her.

“I had a delectable mint fizz in the Victorian bar that is fitted out with the carved dark wood style that I have seen in the Australian outback and in Colonial buildings in Africa.”

The cavernous room I was given was what I had dreamed off when I longed to come to Burma. It had high ceilings and a sumptuous old fashioned bathroom with a separate loo. So civilised - and the room came with a butler! This was what I call travel rather than tourism.

The next day I met my first guide Mr Si Thu, who spoke excellent English and was able to enlighten me on life in Burma, sorry, Myanmar. He and Mr Ooh were taking me to Golden Rock via Bago. We stopped first at the Taukkyan War Cemetary, which has over 6,000 Allied graves and a memorial listing 27,000 lost whose bodies were never found. There is an uncanny feeling in Burma about those who have gone before. Perhaps it is because of the thousands of temples to Buddha and the spirit gods, called Nats. Maybe those temples buzz with prayers because people are aware of the ephemeral nature of our mortal life. Whichever way round it is, there is a constant theme of spirituality throughout the country.

On the road

We called in to the Kyaikpun Pagoda with its four huge buddhas seated back to back, one of many temples in Bago, which used known as Pegu, a former capital of ancient Burma in the Mon period from 1365 to 1635. I learned for the first time from the knowledgeable Si Thu that each temple has small corner shrines for every day of the week - two on Wednesday for the morning and afternoon.

He and I were both born on a Tuesday, we discovered from his little reference book of birthdates, so we went to the Tuesday shrine and poured water over the Buddha. Apparently our symbol is a lion. I needed lion like courage for what came next.

We drove in our comfortable modern car to what seemed like an aircraft hanger and with just an overnight bag, boarded a pick up truck with benches and iron bars to hang onto. 42 passengers were squeezed into each open truck, and we rocketed up a concrete road for 11 kilometres to over 3,600 feet.

“Then we all staggered down a kind of platform with steps onto Golden Rock mountain. The view was breathtaking with one mountain range after another.”

It’s easy to write that, but doing it with convoys alternating in each direction up the one track was hair raising and I may never quite recover from it. Then we all staggered down a kind of platform with steps onto Golden Rock mountain. The view was breathtaking with one mountain range after another. I seemed to be in a tsunami of Burmese pilgrims sweeping me up wide steps and I was lucky to disgorge myself when I spotted the Mountain Top Hotel for which I had a voucher from Mr Tun.

Louise travels in a truck
Louise travels in a truck

My room clung to the mountainside below the reception like a random packing case, and getting down to it reminded me of going down a companionway on a yacht. I went backwards holding onto the rail. At least I had some shelter from the fierce cold. Many of the local pilgrims spent the night on the cold tiled terraces around the Golden Rock because there is such a shortage of accommodation at the mountain top. Golden Rock is an enormous boulder covered in gold leaf, with a little spire on the top called Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. The rock hangs on to the edge of the bare mountain and looks as though a gust of wind would send it crashing thousands of feet to the valley below. On close inspection one can see that there is a gap underneath the rock big enough to pass your hand.

How does it balance there?

A miracle of Buddha, a hair from whom is reportedly enshrined in the pagoda. I remembered that I was in an earthquake zone and was wary about standing on the terrace below it. Thousands of brightly dressed Burmese chatter and pray and burn incense at numerous shrines all over the terraces, monks walking solemnly amongst them. The few foreigners are greeted with “Mingelabar” - the hello that is always warm and heart felt. Burmese are football crazy and a shout of “Manchester United” goes down well.

A hot water bottle

The sun set in a haze behind the folds of mountain ridges and I realised that my feet were frozen solid. A hot water bottle is a must to travel in Burma. Every temple requires you to be bare footed and many have cold tiled floors. Golden Rock is considered a temple and shoes come off as soon as you arrive. As darkness fell the shops, restaurants and hostels on the rock lit up with multi coloured fairy lights and the night sky was clear and bright but by the time I got to my hotel room all I wanted was a hot shower. Thankfully my very basic bathroom obliged.

Golden Rock at night
Golden Rock at night

“Being self-punitive however, I got up in the dark at 5.00am the next morning and headed back up to the terraces to watch the sunrise on the other side of the mountain.”

Being self-punitive however, I got up in the dark at 5.00am the next morning and headed back up to the terraces to watch the sunrise on the other side of the mountain. There were dozens of people huddled under brightly coloured blankets who had slept the night on rush mats. I presumed on their hospitality and stood my bare feet on someone’s sleeping mat to take the edge off the ice cold darkness. The dawn was spectacular and I was rewarded with a vast red sun which rose slowly and majestically. I hear a young Burmese man say “Beautiful” in English to his friend who turned out to be Chinese from Taiwan. They pointed out three helicopter pads on the mountainside which are apparently for “the Generals” to visit.

This is a theme when you travel through Burma. The local people are all aware of how the invisible but ubiquitous ruling clique live. I wished I knew a General with a helicopter because the only way down the mountain for me was back onto a chicken truck leaving my stomach on the bends as we lurched back down the single concrete track. My relief at seeing Mr Ooh and Si Thu warmed me down to my feet as I curled up gratefully in the smoothness of the car and they drove me to the Shwemawdaw Pagoda in Bago.

Shwemawdaw Pagoda

Shwe means gold and the tall stupa is richly covered in gold leaf - this is another theme in Burma and there is a sense of relief in knowing that the country has its own gold mines. The dress code in the temples is strict - no shorts or uncovered shoulders. I needed to pack more long cotton trousers.

Bago has a replica palace and throne room to replace the Mon original, which being made of teak, burned down. The new constructions are actually astonishing and worth a visit to see the scale of the massive teak pillars holding up what must have been a very impressive palace back in the fourteenth century. Then I was taken to a reclining buddha believed to be 1000 years old but only discovered covered in jungle foliage in the 19th century.

“Yangon has a lot to see and still a colonial atmosphere along the waterfront, although many of the 19th century buildings are empty and crumbling.”

It is 180 feet long and so freshly painted it looks brand new. There is a teak temple built around it and as I sat by one of the pillars eating a tangerine a monk in a red robe stopped to take a photo of me. On the way back to Yangon we called in to see the Generals’ White Elephant Collection. There is a belief in Burma that power resides with the ruler who has white elephants - the more the better. Wars were fought over them. In fact the British were never forgiven when they deposed the King in Mandalay and when his white elephant died its body was dragged through the streets to be disposed of. Very disrespectful.

Mindful of this belief the Generals have white (albino) elephants scattered around the country. I saw three, chained in an enclosure and rocking to themselves. They are allowed to roam at night apparently. There was a story that one of them recently killed his keeper who had the same name as a government minister. For a while the Burmese people were very cheered that the Minister had met a just end until the truth emerged. I was told that the Generals call their private ‘planes White Elephant 1, 2 3, and so on.

White elephant
White elephant

Yangon has a lot to see and still a colonial atmosphere along the waterfront, although many of the 19th century buildings are empty and crumbling. The big draw however is the Shwedagon pagoda, which is like a small town. You can easily spend half a day there and go back at night to catch the moonlit atmosphere. Apparently there is more gold leaf on the stupa than Australia’s gold reserves and a massive 76 carat diamond in the spire - along with countless items of personal jewellery donated by citizens anxious to earn merit.

The pagoda is there for every eventuality. Students pray on a terrace within a tiled star to get good grades. There is a shrine for pregnant woman to pray for the sex of their unborn child. At night the hundreds of buddha images are lit by neon halos that pulsate in multi colours. It is fascinating, but I think I prefer the quieter buddhism of Japan or Tibet. The garishness of Burma’s buddhist images was not what I expected.

Schwedagon Temple
Schwedagon Temple

Tun had booked me into Trader’s hotel for a couple of days and this hotel provides what it says on the tin. One of the few places where the internet worked and where I could change money. There is a security bag search at the door because a bomb exploded in one of the rooms recently. The hotel is opposite Scott’s market which is a great place for souvenir shopping. I bought a shoulder bag to replace my collapsed backpack, and this sturdy woven bag for $5 lasted the rest of my trip.

Bagan

The first internal flight I took with Air Bagan was from Yangon’s tiny domestic terminal to Bagan. Everything worked efficiently and there to meet me in Bagan was my guide Myu and a new car and driver.

As it was too early to go to my hotel I had a tour of the local market, which was unlike anywhere I have been for years. The amount of fresh local produce was staggering, and I couldn’t help wondering why we never see fabulous organic fruit and vegetables from Burma in Western supermarkets. The rumour is that Burma supplies China - there is a huge natural gas pipeline that runs right across the country from the coast to the Chinese border and that the natural resource is sold with a rake off to someone in power. Similarly, the supply of huge teak logs which I saw on barges down the Ayerwaddy - all China bound. Do the locals benefit from anything their rich country produces? The market in the village near Bagan seemed to be subsistence based - large quantities of produce in season, with bloody meat and fish in buckets, all displayed in a simple makeshift but huge warren of stalls. It was overwhelming.

Many of the locals have their faces decorated with sandalwood, which leaves a white imprint on the skin to protect them from the sun. The effect is ghostly. Myo took me to the Shwezigon pagoda, which is the prototype of the Burmese stupa style and also has a Nat temple for the spirit worship which preceded Buddhism. However the real purpose of a trip to Bagan, which used to be called Pagan, is to see the Mon temples that are masterpieces of Indian style Buddhist shrines going back 1000 years.

Bagan, which used to be called Pagan, is to see the Mon temples that are masterpieces of Indian style Buddhist shrines going back 1000 years.

“The best booking in Burma was Balloons over Bagan. It really is a top of the bucket list thing to do.”

There are over 2300 left from an original 13,000 - constructed to gain merit for the builder. The Ananda temple is the masterpiece of Bagan Mon architecture. It is built in a square pattern with windows on the outside lined up with windows in the inner square so that the light penetrates to the centre. Finished in 1091 it is in the shape of a perfect Greek cross. On each of the four sides of the central square stands a massive teak Buddha, the faces lit up by light coming through slits in the roof. There are tiers of niches with over a thousand buddha images in the long inner corridors. The temples are astonishing both from the outside and from inside, but they all require bare feet and I could feel a rotten cold starting. The evenings in January were cold, and I could see that many of the guests at my hotel, the Amazing Bagan Resort, had not anticipated this, and like me, were swathed in layers. The wise ones had brought the fashionable quilted jackets that you might normally pack for a ski resort - however for nights in a country where most of the restaurants are outside they were a great idea. The best booking in Burma was Balloons over Bagan. It really is a top of the bucket list thing to do.

Another dawn start with an efficient pick up. Bagan is so much more mystical and untouched than Angkor Wat and there is the added element of the mighty Ayerwaddy river bending and sweeping around it, with early morning mist on the water and small plumes of smoke from the village breakfast fires causing a haze through which the sunrise burns revealing more and more shrouded temple spires amongst the scattered trees. It is actually a dream of paradise from an ancient time, which you drift over silently as though you are asleep and you cannot reach out and touch anything you see.

There are few roads in Bagan and most temple visits are done on dirt tracks by bicycle or horse drawn buggy so there is a prevailing silence with just the sounds of chatter as you sail through the rose tinted sky over the houses on stilts and the temple compounds. I would like to have stayed in Bagan for a few days longer and just cycle around, but there is a limit to the number of temples you can take in unless you are a fanatic. In Burma fanaticism is probably essential because it is Temple Heaven. However I could have done without the visit to Mount Popa, which was a three hour drive away from Bagan, although the scenery was stunning.

Mount Popa

Mount Popa is a Nat temple on top of a volcanic plug jutting out from the surrounding plain. Nats are spirit gods who speak through oracles who have to get drunk first and go into a trance. The temple complex at the top is reached by climbing hundreds of tiled steps, mostly with bare feet, avoiding the monkey droppings. People wipe the steps in front of you asking for a ‘donation for cleaning’ when all along the sides of the steps there are mounds of litter. Actually, Burma is covered in litter and wherever you go views are marred by piles of plastic bottles.

After visiting the gaudy shrines at the top I was relieved that my driver had had the forethought to give me a pack of wet wipes to clean my feet before I put my shoes back on. The view of the temples from the Mount Popa resort across the valley is a more romantic and restful experience than actually visiting it - although the resort is apparently owned by a “crony” of the regime and should therefore be avoided.

Another resort built by a “crony” is the Aurum in Pagan, which is opulent in an “out of scale” way to the surroundings. Local people are incensed by a “watchtower” faced with teak planks, from the top of which one can view the 1000 year old temples across the plain. It completely spoils the view from everywhere else.

Onto Mandalay

It was time to move on to Mandalay and instead of flying I was booked on an “Express” boat up the Ayerwaddy from Pagan to Mandalay. It left at dawn with thankfully only a dozen passengers. If all of the 72 seats had been filled I might have been quite uncomfortable on a rusty old boat with only two ancient loos. As it was it became quite a jolly excursion. Luckily I had a food supply as the fried rice in the canteen ran out fairly quickly and the journey that was supposed to take 7 hours turned into 13 hours.

The river in January is so low that the boat had to zigzag to avoid the sandbanks, with a man on the prow testing the depth with a long pole. The banks are part of the floodplain that disappear when the rains arrive in September. So there were few towns to see and only a couple of gold panning barges and huge barge loads of teak being ferried along the muddy waters. I arrived in Mandalay in the dark and negotiated two planks off the boat straight onto a muddy bank. Not for the fainthearted.

A new driver Zaw Zaw was waiting and took me to the Ayerwaddy River View Hotel, which is adequate. River view however also means road view as a main road runs along the river bank and the traffic is very very noisy. The best place to stay in Mandalay is the Red Canal Hotel, which is a small boutique hotel with a wonderful Indian restaurant where I had one of the best meals of my Burma trip.

I later moved to the Mandalay Hill Resort that is everything you would expect from a modern hotel and was very comfortable. Mandalay was where I realised that the delicate infrastructure of Burmese tourism is already overstretched and that there are too many tourists chasing too few sights.

“At the Mahagandayone Monastery where 1300 monks in red robes queue each morning to receive their food rations the feeding frenzy was amongst the tourists with long lenses pushing and jostling in …”

At the Mahagandayone Monastery where 1300 monks in red robes queue each morning to receive their food rations the feeding frenzy was amongst the tourists with long lenses pushing and jostling in such a disrespectful way that I left. Actually a tour of the “kitchen” where the food was being prepared with stray dogs scratching around the giant cauldrons had already made me queasy. The trick in Mandalay is to get ahead of the convoy of tourist buses and I arrived in Ava to catch a horse drawn buggy in good time to enjoy the teak Bagaya monastery without the hordes.

In the cool dark interior with 267 enormous wood pillars an elderly monk was teaching three novices who all sat cross legged on the floor, writing. I like this ancient wood building best and got a sense of the peace that must have prevailed when Burma was closed to the outside world. After a trip to Saigang that has over 500 monasteries the day ended at the famous and iconic U Bein bridge which features as a silhouetted sunset shot with monks and parasols in countless guide books. The bridge is 1.2 kilometres long and was built 150 years ago on teak stilts.

U Bein Bridge Mandalay
U Bein Bridge Mandalay

It should be a peaceful place. There were hordes of tourist buses with quite frankly overweight people hunting for their sunset shot and as I started to cross the bridge I noticed it wobbling under the massed feet of the tour groups. So I got off and watched the sunset from the shore.

Note to travellers - go there at dawn and hopefully have it too yourself. I followed my own advice by going up Mandalay Hill in the early morning instead of at sunset. You can walk all the way up by steps under an articulated iron roof that looks like a long snake from above. Since I was struggling by then with a rasping chest cough, along with many other foreign visitors I noticed, Zaw Zaw drove me to the top where you can catch an escalator - in bare feet!

The view from the terrace is beautiful and there is a plaque to the Ghurkas who were killed storming up the hill in World War 2 to overcome the occupying Japanese army.

Mandalay sprawls in a grid pattern like an American city and there are NO traffic lights. Traffic just edges forward “showing consideration.” It could never work in London.

There are many temples in Mandalay and one of the most astonishing is the Maha Muni image which is believed to have been blessed by the actual Buddha 2000 years ago, making it a “living Buddha” - it has its face washed and teeth cleaned by the monks every morning. There is a tradition of sticking a small flake of gold leaf onto the image as an offering, and over hundreds of years this has completely distorted the shape of the statue.

A trip to a Hill Station where the British colonialists used to retreat to from Mandalay in the heat of summer was in my schedule and I should have avoided this as my cold was by then one of the worst I have ever had and what I needed was to stay in the warm.

Ever intrepid I set of with Zaw Zaw and my guide to Pyin Oo Lwin at 3500 ft. However, in January the air was freezing and my room at the Royal Park View Hotel was an icebox. The small hill town has a beautiful Botanical Gardens built by Turkish prisoners in World War I and I could see that this would be wonderfully refreshing as a summer weekend escape.

I ate at the Club Terrace, which is an old colonial bungalow, which had the feel of Bognor Regis in mid winter with the waiters in multiple jumpers and one in an overcoat! Winter time in Pyin Oo Lwin in badly insulated houses must have been gruelling for the isolated colonialists - I felt a pang for the wives stuck up there in the middle of nowhere.

On the way back to Mandalay I drove past an extraordinary sight - an enormous army base entrance with three huge statues of mythical Burmese Kings in conquering poses and a logo about the triumphant elite - this is the psychological link with ancient Myanmar, which the present rulers are trying to evoke. The Burmese kings did defeat invading Chinese and Thais - but disease and terrain also played a part in those victories that are not transferable to the present day. I wondered who they are kidding?

Along my journey I heard the tales of the generals building the new capital city of Napidaw that is in the middle of Burma between Yangon and Mandalay. From the air I saw the four lane highway which links all three cities - with NO traffic on it! Apparently the generals were concerned after America captured Saddam Hussein and killed Osama Bin Laden and they now live in bunkers around Napidaw under hillsides where they cannot be viewed by drones. So the locals told me anyway.

Not all airports are the same

Yangon is not an international airport that can take jumbo jets, but Mandalay airport can take the full size planes and there are regular flights from Korea and China and this links by new motorway to Napidaw. Mandalay airport is a true white elephant with most of the shops closed, no noticeboards and vast echoing emptiness. It’s a fantasy built with the sweat of the Burmese people. I took a flight from there to Heho.

The planes were delayed by mist on Inle Lake so the lounge was crammed with tourists waiting to take off. It resembled a refugee camp with people wearing every layer they had - flip flops and socks are not a good look - and by now so many people were coughing that we didn’t care how we looked as long as we could keep warm. I had a new Chinese fleece jacket which was blue with white spots and cost me $5. (Nearly everything in Burma is from China, including the hotel toilet paper that does not tear along the perforations.) There is a clever system in Burmese aviation that avoids the necessity of flight announcements. At check in everyone is given a coloured sticker badge with the tail logo of their airline, so you just have to watch the movements of people around you with the same sticker.

At Mandalay airport we all gradually moved out onto the tarmac and set up little camps to await our incoming planes. Passengers arriving merged with passengers leaving but somehow we all seemed to end up on the right flights.

Heho is the airport for Inle Lake that is another culture and way of life completely. Thousands of people live on the lake in villages on stilts with floating vegetable gardens tethered to the lake bottom by bamboo poles. The lake gives life to people who are self sufficient because of the clear water. The fishermen are famous because they row their boats standing with one leg around the oar, which leaves both hands free to cast their nets. It is truly extraordinary.

Fishing on Inle Lake
Fishing on Inle Lake

I travelled by canoe from Nyaung Shwe to the Paramount hotel which is entirely on stilts. This was a wonderful place where kind staff brought me hot water bottles and soup as by then I had lost my voice completely. I would love to go back to Inle Lake and recommend it highly. The peace and calm is fabulous.

My final stop was to fly to Thandwe and Ngapali beach, which is still unspoiled and must be one of the most natural resort beaches in the world. My final hotel voucher was at the Amata that is low and natural and hidden in the palm trees. I had a balcony and view over a long curve of white sand beach with warm turquoise water gently lapping at the shore line. It was truly bliss and finally I was warm and lay in the hot sun. Burma had exhausted me and I was not alone in not being prepared for the extremes of temperature. However I loved the beautiful country and the delightful kind people and I was so glad that I had trusted One Stop Travel. They looked after me and showed me a place that is truly not like anywhere else. Burma’s most famous woman Aung San Su Chi said about politics: "You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right." Experiencing Myanmar was right for me.