Two Weeks in Myanmar

It’s been exactly a month since our Burmese holiday began — we met up with another ZINK-ing couple, Maia and Dave, and worked our way south through the country: Mandalay >> Bagan >> Kalaw >> Inle Lake >> Yangon. (Links send you to our Flickr sets of each destination). After the two weeks we spent in Myanmar, we crashed with some of our best friends in Singapore; now we’re in Dalat, Vietnam, sipping frothy cappuccinos at a tiny little cafe and realizing just how negligent we’ve been with blogging. Sorry! The excuse? Myanmar is complicated and it’s been difficult to put our experience in words. But here goes it:

As our Air Asia flight descended into Mandalay, Myanmar, it was apparent, even from 10,000 feet, that we were landing into the past: no clear outlines of plots of land; no buildings, just pockets of habitation; no interstates, just curving dirt roads; a few glimmering stupas on hillsides; and a mist that blanketed much of the land. Throughout our two weeks here, we constantly voiced some version of “wow, it feels like we’re traveling back in time.” Sure, there were traces of modernity: a cellphone in the hands of our horse-cart driver, kids wearing Despicable Me-patterned fleece pajamas, and plastic wrappers from laundry detergent packs littered around watering holes and in rivers. But the lifestyle of so many of the people and the lack of public infrastructure like running water and paved roads (especially in Mandalay) was shocking to experience in person.  We’d never traveled anywhere that we felt so transported in place and time over and over and over again.

food.mandalay

Local curry dishes

As charming, enlightening, and generally awe-inspiring as it is to travel in the past, there were some side effects: e.g. a good case of Burma Belly that hit me first, then Patten, then Dave, then Maia. All of us were stomach sick in some form for the first week of our trip: mine was violent and fast, others had the lingering trots (and an occasional vomit sesh in the field). While stomach issues aren’t necessarily joyful, the worst part about getting sick in the early days of our trip was… our subsequent pussyfooting around anything and everything we put in our mouths. We became those stereotypical paranoid travelers who wiped our wet plates with tissues, only ordered vegetarian fried rice, drank Coke from the can, avoided anything described as “local” cuisine, and shuddered at street food that we’d all normally devour. I’m not convinced we were missing out on the world’s best cuisine – the cold goat curries and shrimp-pasted vegetables seen on most menus were not the most delicious concoctions – BUT there is nothing more sacrilegious to me than not experiencing a place through its food, which is exactly what we did in Myanmar.

So be it. Shit happens on the road. And we were super lucky to experience a lot of magic in Myanmar, even though none of it happened in our mouths. (Well, there was that phenomenal guacamole — of all things! — at The Moon Restaurant in Bagan). The highlights:

Watching the production process for gold leaf and applying it to the Buddha’s belly

In Theravada Buddhism, it’s believed that the more merit you build throughout your current life, the better your next life will be. Good deeds, like giving food to monks, earns you merit; buying gold leaf (and affixing said gold to sacred sites) earns you a lot of merit. Thus, locals will buy 2-square-inch sheets of gold leaf (for about $1/each), pay their respects at a temple or stupa, and affix the gold leaf on the sacred object – be it a Buddha belly or a giant rock. It’s a savings account… for their next life. Considering the 6-inch thick covering on the Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay, it’s no surprise that the Myanese spend more per capita on religion than any other Buddhist country.

We visited the Golden Rose factory/store in Mandalay where they make gold leaf, which requires a grueling amount of manual labor. You can read about the involved process here, but in short, teenage boys pound a tiny square of pure gold for 20 hours or so until they’ve created thousands of sheets of gold leaf: 1 ounce of gold can be pounded into 300 square feet. Concurrently, in a closet-like room away from the gold pounders, a woman pounds paper into tissue-thin sheets (the sound is deafening!), and in another neighboring room, more women fold the finished leaf between said paper and tie it into a little decorative sandwich. This happens all day long in dozens of shops in Mandalay; we just visited one. We bought a few sheets and took them with us to Mahamuni Temple, where Patten joined the other men and bought a bit of merit for Life #12, or whichever one comes next for him in the cycle. I’m not sure how he could possibly come back as anyone more wonderful… See, I just earned merit!

    

Patten (and a monk) applying gold leaf on the Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay

*****

Biking around the temple fields of Bagan

Bagan is Myanmar’s moneyshot. You’ve seen the pics: thousands of ancient temples and stupas nearly floating in a misty, orange-colored field. It’s called the Ankor Wat of Myanmar; some have said it’s better.

We arrived in Bagan after an 11-hour peaceful float down the Irrawaddy with very high expectations. The first day, we took a taxi around the World Heritage Site, with stops at most of the popular temples. But riding in the back of a hot van on dirt roads and getting in/out of the van at touristy entrances with postcard hawkers was less than magical. We ended our first day fairly disappointed.

The next morning, Christmas Day in fact, we hopped on bikes and our perspective of the place 180’d. We zipped over narrow dusty lanes, through grassy fields, turning left or right depending on our mood and discovered ancient, empty, rarely visited stupas. Some were in ruin from a thousand years of weather and earthquakes; others had been repaired, and were still cared for, by locals or a monk that lived in a shack on the property. At sunset, we found a very tall temple, climbed up to the 3rd floor terrace, and watched as the fields turned a hazy pink, then purple, then blue.

Temple fields of Bagan

A Buddha we located in one of the many “hidden” temples in Bagan

Wall paintings inside a Bagan temple

Riding bikes through Bagan is the BEST way to experience the place. Do it!

Some locals actually live within the temple fields

Some locals actually live within the temple fields

Bagan at dusk

*****

Chewing betel nut

Three of the four of us were inexplicably drawn to trying betel nut. Something about the rotting, red-stained gums and teeth of the local men (and the blood-red drool they spit all over the road, temple floors, sidewalk, anything) really enticed some of us. And so it was that my three co-travelers spent sunset atop Mandalay Hill chewing the leaf-wrapped nut – the size of a monarch butterfly cocoon – spitting their soured, red saliva over the temple railing. Apparently, none of them got a “mild narcotic effect” but they were all giddy from laughing. Watch for yourself:

*****

Trekking in Kalaw

We’d wanted to take a four-day, 35-mile trek from the tiny mountain town of Kalaw to Inle Lake, overnighting along the way in the homes of local mountain dwellers. But with just 13 days in the country, we realized we didn’t quite have time for it – and figured we’d just arrange a day hike. After an overstuffed (passengers sitting in the aisle!), 7-hour bus ride over a harrowing mountain pass, we arrived in an icy Kalaw at 3 a.m. We slept in the next day, which meant all trekking guides were busy when we went in search of a guy to take us up the mountain. With some rough directions from a local trekking operator and Dave’s trusty Gaia GPS app (buy this!), we took to the hills ourselves.

Sharing the path with kids on their way home from school

We hiked up a small incline on wide trails, past mountain farms and huts – the views of the forested hills and open valleys soon visible from every angle. It was gorgeous and surprisingly relaxing for a 4-mile hike up a mountain. At the top, we ate a chapatti lunch (flat bread with a small bowl of curry) at The View Point restaurant: a tiny café run by a Nepalese guy, who lives on the property and grows the vegetables you eat, like the pumpkin in that day’s curry. He told us we could stay in his home for $5/night, which includes dinner and breakfast – a good deal if an amazing view and an authentic family stay outweighs your need for running water and a Western bed.

After lunch, we were invited to follow behind a trekking guide for a “prettier way down the mountain.” This prettier way seemed to be the local footpath from one mountain village to another: we were passed by dozens of schoolchildren on their way home, effortlessly skipping along the rocky, sometimes steep path in flip-flops. The trail took us through a jungle, over a reservoir, through rice paddies – and when we diverged from the group – into a meadow filled with golden flowers. I was a bit nervous as we descended through waist-high grass on a trail that “wasn’t exactly” on Dave’s app – especially since the topic of conversation had turned to snakes and the severity of their bites. But we prevailed and eventually made it back to our hotel before dark.

We passed through a few farms on the way up the mountain

Awesome vistas from the View Point Restaurant

*****

Cruising around Inle Lake in a private longboat

Sure, it was a little touristy, but this cigar-making studio was a fun stop

Two hours from Kalaw lies Inle Lake, a freshwater, very shallow lake set into a gorgeous mountain valley. We knew little about this place, but were wooed by the iconic pics: fisherman standing at the stern of their longboats in a mystical blue sunrise. We booked a private boat through a local tour operator – only $40 for 4 seats and 9 hours of cruising around the lake.  After careening through a bird refuge, we soon saw the famed fisherman: dozens of men with their tanned, muscular legs wrapped around their oars, steering their boats through reeds. As interesting as this was, the day only got better.

We soon came upon entire villages built over the water: hundreds of woven-bamboo huts on stilts. We watched countless women squatting at the foot of their front door – i.e. the lake – washing clothes in the water; some even bathing, modestly wrapped in colorful longyis. We watched old men rowing themselves to the local coffee shop; young children teasing each other on porches; fisherman home from an early morning catch sunning on their dock. We liked Bagan, but for us, Inle Lake was where the true magic of Myanmar surfaced. We’re scared for more tourists to arrive – today, the ratio of locals to tourists on the lake is so great that you feel you get a quick glimpse into the lives of others without disrupting the norm. Sure, there were a few frustrating repurcussions of tourism: the dressed-up fisherman who wanted us to pay him for a photo op and the tourist-only gift shops that have cropped up in a few villages. But these were just blips in an otherwise ridiculously authentic experience.

A fisherman on Inle Lake pulling in his catch at sunset.

One of many neighborhoods on Inle Lake

Cruising through the shallow lake on our longboat

*****

Visiting Shwedagon Pagoda on New Year’s Day

What better day to visit the holiest place in Myanmar than on the first day of the year? After a semi-wild, expat-fabulous New Year’s Eve at the 50th Street Bar in Yangon (where Maia and Patten carried the rest of us and the drivers home on a bicycle rickshaw — Exhibit A), we were eager for a relaxing day. So we cabbed to Shwedagon, paid the $8.50 entry fee, and spent the next few hours shuffling barefoot and clockwise along a tiled patio – in and out of sub-temples – all in the shadow of the gigantic, glittering golden stupa, plated in gold donated by the people. (The precedent was set by the 15th-century Mon Queen “gave her weight in gold” to Shwedagon). There were hundreds of locals milling about: some gathered around picnics; others were napping on the warm tile; all were dressed in their finest, silkiest, sparkliest clothes. After soaking in all that gold, we made way to a rooftop bar and sucked down our last Myanmar beer of the trip.

Sporting longyis on New Year's Day at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Sporting longyis on New Year’s Day at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Finely dressed locals paying their respects

Girl monks (not formally recognized in Myanmar) walking about the grounds

Local women dousing a buddha at Shwedagon

View for Shwedagon from  Sapphire Lounge

View for Shwedagon from Sapphire Lounge

*****

General thoughts on Myanmar

We’d talked about visiting Myanmar even before we’d made our big trip official: I’d been fascinated by the place since reading Burmese Days in a Colonialism class in college; Patten was drawn to the relatively un-touristed aspect of the country – now just starting to welcome in troves of tourists, who will either damage or enhance the place depending on the effectiveness of Myanmar’s tourism policy: a classic case study for sustainable tourism textbooks. We are both super happy we made Myanmar a stop on our ZINK Year, but this country isn’t for everyone.

It wasn’t an easy two weeks: There’s a good chance you’ll get sick (we sure did!); the hotels are shoddy and expensive (cleanliness standards are very different here vs. other SEA countries — you’ll pay $75/night for a Red Roof Inn quality room); the food isn’t euphoric; and it’s not particularly pleasant overlanding from one city to the next: miles upon miles in a tight bus on unpaved roads makes for a long night and a sore back. For me, it was emotionally draining too to have underfed kids asking for food (or trying you sell you postcards instead of studying at school) and watching a lot of people living in what we’d call squalor.

Should you go? We’d say yes, especially if you’ve already toured through other parts of Southeast Asia. Seeing Myanmar gives you so much insight as to what many other SEA countries looked like before modernization. Should you go during a ZINK Year? Maybe, though had we not been on such a tight budget, the getting to and fro would have been more enjoyable. Domestic flights are 10 times the cost of a bus, so it was hard for us to justify any jetsetting. An “execu-tour” — with a day or two in Yangon and a few in Inle Lake and Bagan, flying to each destination — is the way to go if you have the extra cash. We didn’t see any of the $150/night hotel rooms, but I have to imagine that they’re significantly better than budget options.

Plenty of people in the tourism industry had told us that we must visit Myanmar before it “gets too popular.” Perhaps. But sometimes arriving late to the game — especially if the tourism infrastructure has been developed well — proves for a more enjoyable holiday. And as “untouristed” as Myanmar is compared to its neighbors (they see ~600k tourists vs. the 14 million that arrive in Thailand each year), you won’t be a lone explorer. There are plenty of people just like you sticking out like sore thumbs. Also bothersome: There’s so much of a socioeconomic discrepancy between you and the locals that there’s very little social interaction in restaurants, hotels, or at tourist sites. A tourist here equals a “foreigner,” whereas in all the other countries we’ve visited, there’s a healthy number of domestic tourists sharing the same experience with you.

This is not to deter you from going. The Myanese are lovely, friendly people and their country is stunning. I think we went in expecting to absolutely adore the experience, and… well… it was complicated.

Thanks for reading. We’ll try to write a bit more often. 🙂

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