From our small group tour in Burma that set off from 1st – 10th November 2014 comes the tale of Alexandra, a 30 year old lawyer from London. Here you will find her impressions of Burma – Flashpacker Style…
Yangon, the snake temple, cycling and dumplings!
Arriving under cover of darkness into Yangon, I hoisted my rucksack for the final time and walked into the arrivals hall of the airport where several blinking fluorescent money changing booths were eager to swap my pristine $50 bills into a thick wad of kyat (“chat”), the local Burmese currency. I was then warmly greeted by my taxi driver; smiling broadly (which will turn out to be the nation’s default expression). Arriving, exhausted, at the hotel, I curled up in my beautiful, teak filled hotel room for a few hours’ sleep before joining the group at 5.30 the next morning complete with our enthusiastic young guide ‘coffee’ and our impeccably dressed at all times driver Mr Aye (“Mr A”). We were whisked up to the city’s most iconic religious site, Shwedagon Pagoda to watch the sun rise. This tiny village of temples focused round the 325ft golden stupa feels like part place of worship, part fun fair with Buddhas back lit by flashing disco lights. We ambled around, soaking up the incense heavy atmosphere as the locals laid offerings of gifts, money and flowers. The rusted crimson robes of the monks are also a frequent sight here, although, in keeping with this country’s laid back approach to life, monk-hood is something the worthy can dip their toes into with stints as brief as seven days.
After a cat nap back at the hotel and traditional Burmese lunch, sat on the floor at a low round table (a little unforgiving on Western limbs) we headed Downtown to Bogyoke Aung San Market or Scott Market by its old British name. This sprawling indoor market is home to stall after stall of cotton, silk, jewellery, jade, carvings, paintings and souvenir Buddhas. That evening saw us enjoying a delicious noodle supper before heading to 19th street, this narrow bustling street jam packed with bars, plastic chairs spilling out on to the streets, is one of the centres of Yangon nightlife.
The next morning, we boarded the local ferry across the Yangon river. A far cry from my daily London commute with people scattered everywhere, hawkers offering everything from tobacco to watermelon and members of the local youth football team complete with their home made ghetto blaster (picture a huge gramophone on a shopping trolley and you’re not far off). Once safely across the river, our minibus took us through the poorer suburbs of Yangon. We stopped briefly to join a street party in celebration of a novice monk and found ourselves dancing with the locals and becoming the subject of many a locals’ photo. Then, jumping on to our mountain bikes we whizzed through the countryside down dirt tracks and over paddy fields, occasionally stopping off at local houses for well earned breaks. Our main stop was at snake temple, a tiny little temple set in the middle of a lake and home to around 20 (vegetarian) pythons.
Having handed back the bikes we rested awhile at a river side restaurant our table stacked high with a vast array of dishes. Then it was time to head back to the city centre, donning life jackets we clambered aboard a little six seater motorboat as we set off down the middle of the wide stretch of river. The sun was shining. The water was calm. The beer was flowing. Until the clouds rolled in, the wind picked up and the heavens opened. With the rain thundering down on us so hard we couldn’t see, ricocheting off the water’s surface, no hope of shelter and the glittering vision of Yangon’s golden temples still glinting far off in the distance there was nothing to be done but laugh and make pathetic attempts to bail out the boat with empty beer cans. Soon enough, the sun re-emerged and we washed up at the city’s harbour and clambered, soaking, back into the minibus. That evening we headed to a local tea house, much to the local clientele’s amusement and feasted on the most delicious pork dumplings. An early night awaited us in preparation for the next morning’s flight to Heho and the drive to Pindaya.
Pindaya, rescued elephants and the wonders of Inle Lake
After touching down in Heho airport we journeyed to Pindaya and the Shwe Oo Min Natural Cave pagoda. Accessed by a staircase of over 450 steps, this massive limestone cavern is crammed full of golden Buddhas. Twisting our way through the underground complex, every step was met by Buddhas of all shapes and sizes (over 8,000 in total), some tucked up with ornate blankets as protection from the cold. After taking the easy route (an elevator) down from the cave, we wandered awhile around a local village and watched the traditional paper and parasol makers at work before retiring for the evening and watching the sun go down from the hotel terrace.
The next morning saw us heading to the Shan Hills where our local guide led us on a two hour trek through the lush green countryside in search of a rescued elephant camp. Reaching the river we quickly swapped our shorts for the local cotton trousers and gleefully clambered into the river to splash and bathe with two magnificent elephants. Back at base camp we met the rest of the herd, 7 in total including two orphaned calves, and dished out pumpkins and other treats, straight into waiting trunks. It was then time for our lunch and we gladly gorged on a delicious Indian feast before sitting to soak up the late afternoon sun.
Over breakfast the following day we learnt that an annual local street party was just about to start. Grabbing cameras we jumped aboard the mini bus and set off to join in the fun. It felt like the whole of Pindaya was in attendance with everyone from toddlers to pensioners dressed up in their Sunday (well, Wednesday) best. The procession is made up of homemade floats, stacked high with offerings for the monks (toothpaste, deck chairs and washing powder to name a few) with the main purpose of the celebration to offer new robes to the monks following the end of the rainy season.
Leaving the locals to continue the party we drove down to the harbour to board boats that were to take us the full length of Inle Lake. The views were incredible as we seemingly floated through marshes or slid across the silver pond past villages of stilt houses dotted across the water. It seemed no boat journey was to be complete without a torrential downpour. However, this time, our boats were equipped with all encompassing ponchos and sturdy umbrellas. We continued to the Southern most tip of Inle Lake by watching the world go by through our own individual slithers of window, framed by poncho and umbrella plastic. Arriving at a beautiful little guest house we curled up under turrets of mosquito nets, fit for a princess.
The plan for the next day had been to trek across the Shan hills in search of Kakku, home to neat rows of ancient stupas sprawling across the countryside. However, even if it did stay dry, the recent rain meant it would have been a dangerously slippy undertaking. Instead we opted for the mini bus, hoping to cover the ground by road and reach the garden of stupas by sunset. After making it to within 4 miles of our destination, though, we were urged back by locals, the road up ahead too treacherous to pass.
Our final aim for the day had been to attend the annual balloon festival featuring a vast array of homemade balloons (like Chinese lanterns) being sent soaring into the atmosphere and a party on the ground to compete with the spectacle in the sky. Once again, though, the unseasonal rain was to spoil our best laid plans. Instead we enjoyed a cocktail (or two) and were treated to a private viewing of the hotel staff releasing their balloon, watching until it was just another glittering speck amongst the stars.
The Shan State to Bagan
After a leisurely morning the next day, we ventured out in search of a local vineyard (one of only two in Myanmar). Whilst the wine was a little sweet for my tastes it felt very fitting to have a glass of red to wash down a steak lunch (temporarily indulging my Western palate). Then we set off for the airport and after a quick hop, skip and a jump arrived in Bagan – home to hordes of beautiful Burmese temples. On route to the airport, though, we declared a desire to hear Myanmar music. We decided not to let the language barrier be any kind of barrier and sang along at the tops of our voices anyway – to the accompaniment of raucous laughter from our guide. But I digress…
Arriving just as the sun was setting in Bagan we were whisked off to our most luxurious hotel of the tour and made a beeline for the beautiful swimming pool.
It was back to the bikes the next day as we grabbed intrepid by the horns and hit the road; and the field; and the sandy paths. The countryside is breath-taking here with ancient temples littered across the landscape, scattered in all directions like handfuls of ruby dice. The blue sky, lush green grass and dusky red temples make this a photographer’s paradise.
From the 9th to the 13th century, this ancient city was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom and during the Kingdom’s heyday, wealthy Pagan rulers commissioned over 10,000 thousand temples, pagodas and monasteries. Whilst many have not stood the test of time (or survived the earthquakes) there are thousands still standing today and it was atop one of these that we sat and watched the sun go down (to the steady rhythm of our camera shutters).
Bagan to Mandalay: birthday celebrations, monks and… karaoke!?
Early the next morning we set sail on our personal boat cruise along the Irrawaddy river. Smooth and calm, with barely another boat in sight we chased the clouds across the seemingly endless sky. Putting us lot in a boat usually spelled disaster for any sunbathing plans but finally our fortunes had turned and it was glorious sunshine all the way. And so it was that the sun shone as I opened my birthday present from the gang.
A long drive lay ahead of us and so we packed our trunks and swapped stories on our road trip to Mandalay. We stopped briefly at an academy for monks and nuns, the vista suddenly awash with robed figures, previously notable by their rarity. Arriving in Mandalay we soaked up the gold and marble surroundings of our home for the night and then enjoyed a delicious Burmese meal in a candlelit garden.
Burmese night life hasn’t quite caught up with the hijinks of some of its South East Asian neighbours but a running topic throughout the trip had been the possibility of a karaoke night. On the promise that there was one on our doorstep, a few of us ventured round the corner from our hotel in search of a microphone or two. Arriving in what appeared to be a children’s fun fair from long ago, we eyed the peeling paint and rusting rides with a faint air of suspicion. Having wandered further into the complex to no avail, we were ready to admit defeat until, finally, we were ushered down a darkened path to a distinctly unremarkable building. How wrong we were. Inside was a suite of VIP karaoke booths and we took to the microphones for several hours, making light work of the song catalogue’s English offerings. At times, notes were flat, intros were missed and harmonies were less than harmonious but we laughed and sang until the early hours of the morning.
And then all too soon it was time to come home.
What a tale! The Flash Pack would like to say a massive thank you to Alex for allowing us to post her brilliant blog about her experience on our group tour to Burma – Alex you’re a superstar!