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Adventures in Myanmar

For those with insufficient time or interest to read the full account, let me tell you that I've recently returned to Bangkok from Myanmar, where I had a lovely time. I flew to Yangon, visited Mandalay, Bagan and some other places too, and you can see my photos here. I'm of to India in a few days, so wish me luck. If there's anybody who has time on their hands after reading the whole email, and wants to read more of my ramblings, then check out my cyber journal from Myanmar.

Before I went to Myanmar, I'd read of Yangon having a neat facade that hid many of the realities of the city; that wasn't what I found at all. I was struck by the dirt, the dust and the noise; astounded by the throngs of people everywhere: sat at pavement stalls; crowding the streets; jammed into, and hanging off of, buses. The variety of people took me by surprise too: there were pale faces with Chinese looks; darker folk of Indian descent, their children's eyes lined with kohl; black-skinned Tamils; and others similar to the inhabitants of the rest of South East Asia. All around were men wearing checked longyis, tubular sarongs tied in the front; women with thick black hair down past their bums, their faces smeared with beige, thanaka paste. The pavements were buckled and cracked, barely hiding the drains that lurked under them; they were covered in red splashes, the spit of betel-nut chewers. There were Hindu temples and Sikh temples, Mosques, Synagogues and Churches, and above all else Buddhist temples. So many people said "hello" to me; some of them, admittedly, were touts or moneychangers and had ulterior motives, but most were just being friendly. It is impossible to visit Myanmar without being overwhelmed by the affability of the people.

Whilst in the city I visited Shwedagon Paya, which sits atop a hill overlooking the capital. The site dates back over 2,500 years, and the main stupa is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha. It is 98 metres high, and is covered in over 30 tons of gold, and is surrounded by countless smaller zedi and shrine. On the hti the tiered umbrella on the top countless items of donated jewellery are hung, bracelets and necklaces wound around the metalwork, rings threaded through chains, and earrings attached in between. It is of course impressive, but I couldn't help feeling slightly sickened by the amount of gold in a country where an estimated 25% of the people live below the poverty line. Shoes and socks must be removed before entering all temples in Myanmar; I met one young man in Hsipaw who had lost his foot to a landmine, and so was unable to enter temples as he had a his prosthetic foot. It is the norm for boys to become novices at least once, and common for them to spend time as monks also, once they are past twenty. Many young girls do a stint as nuns, giggling pre-teens dressed in pink and orange. It sometimes seems that the sangha (monastic order) is a license to beg, as some red-robed monks collect cash in their alms bowls instead of food, as they walk around smoking, or chewing betel.

I had a couple of days to kill before travelling up country to Mandalay, and took a side trip to Kyaiktiyo, a holy site where a rock that has been covered in gold leaf balances precariously atop of a hill - all thanks, it is said, to the careful placing of a couple of hairs from the Lord Buddha. There are meant to be spectacular views from the top, but the place was buried in a thick cloud when I visited. It was the one place in the country where I found the people to be unfriendly and money grabbing - at least the guys running the trucks up the hill to the boulder were most unpleasant. I was sorry I had visited the place so early in my trip, as it coloured my view of the Myanmar people at first, although it wasn't long before I realised that these rip-off merchants were the exception rather then the rule.

I took the train to Mandalay rather than the road (Kipling never travelled the road to Mandalay either, or even visited the city), travelling in style in an upper-class sleeper. The dusty town fails to live up to the evocative image its name conjures up, and open drains lie in wait beneath missing paving slabs, like mantraps. I enjoyed a stroll to the top of Mandalay Hill (which gave its name to the city), dodging dog shit and spit in my bare feet, and looked out across the stupa-strewn land below. I didn't do as much as I would have liked to in Mandalay, as I lost a couple of days to sickness. Once I was fit for travelling, I squeezed into the back of a pickup for the journey to Pyin U Lwin, a popular hill station during times of British occupation, where the local taxis are miniature stagecoaches. Flowers are cultivated in the temperate climate, and many of the buildings have a colonial look to them. I was glad to be out of the cities, and found I was enjoying the country more and more.

My next stop was Hsipaw, and I caught the train there so I could see the impressive Gokteik Viaduct, which was built over a hundred years ago and considered the greatest viaduct in the world at the time. I'd looked forward to taking photographs, but was thwarted by men in uniform, who said it was forbidden. I cheered up when I reached my destination, the friendly town of Hsipaw, which I think remains my favourite place in the country. I explored the town alone, and trekked into the countryside with the excellent Mr Bean, meeting waving children along the way, and turning down a chance to sample bee soup. I returned to Mandalay by pickup, a seven-hour journey which I spent with my knees pressed against chest, as the body of the truck was filled with cargo. Back in Mandalay, I did a day trip to three of the ancient capitals, and found them to have more charm than the modern city. The highlight for me was sunset at U Bein's Bridge, which provided a whole host of photo opportunities, although a bank of cloud claimed the sun before it reached the horizon.

My next journey was in more style than my last, as I took the express ferry down the Ayeyerwady to Bagan. The relaxed trip takes most of the day, and I got to laze around and enjoy great scenery. The old capital of Bagan was home to some four thousand temples, around half of which are still recognisable today. Tourists were thin on the ground, so I was able to spend time exploring in solitude, clambering around the monuments absorbed in the peaceful atmosphere. I watched the swollen, red sun glide into view one morning, silhouetting the graceful shapes of the temples in the morning mist. My preference remains with the Khmer temples at Angkor, but Bagan is still a sight worth seeing. One evening I enjoyed a traditional marionette show put on by a nearby restaurant, even though I was the only member of the audience; one person clapping is a pitifully small sound. I was persuaded to take a side trip to Mount Popa, an important centre for nat worship. The nat are a collection of spirits, who can dole out good luck or bad, so must be kept sweet with prayers and offerings.

I insisted on riding in the back of the pickup to Lake Inle, rather than taking the slightly more expensive front seat like they wanted me to. Consequently I spent an uncomfortable twelve hours being unable to straighten my neck, cursing my argumentative nature. Travel in Myanmar is mostly a little on the tough side . . . but that just makes it more fun! I'd take a cramped pickup over the boredom of being hermetically sealed behind the tinted windows of a VIP bus any day (not that VIP buses were an option there, I heard that the buses in Myanmar were pretty rough and ready - I can't really judge myself, as I tended to stick with pickups or the train). When you travel with the locals, the journey is all part of your trip, rather than just getting from A to B. I loved the way the hawkers would crowd around the truck, each shouting their sing-song sales pitch trying to drown each other out.

My first impression of Nyaungshwe was not too favourable. The rubbish, piled up at the side of roads or floating in the canals, was excessive even for Myanmar, where I felt that each town I visited was dirtier than the last. I warmed to the place though, especially after taking a trip on Lake Inle. We began before dawn, and watched the reflections of sunrise on the rippled surface of the water. We sped to a village on stilts where we watched a floating parade, accompanied by the discordant sound of Myanmar traditional music (scroll to the bottom of this page if you don't believe me, and play the sound file). The day continued at a relaxed pace, with visits to silk weavers, cheroot rollers, blacksmiths and silversmiths, and the famed jumping cat monastery, where monks persuade fat, lazy cats to leap through tiny hoops; top stuff.

From there I made my way to Bago, spending 25 hours in two days in trains. The trip from Shwenyaung to Thazi was on a slow, local train, where many passengers chose to ride on the roof (only the men, though, as it would be a cultural insult for a mere woman to get up there; for the same reason, women are not allowed to take the upper berth in a sleeper carriage). Sacks of vegetables were bought at mini-markets held on the stations, and stashed behind the seats and in the luggage racks, by women who squatted in the corridors. The second leg, from Thazi to Bago, was equally fun to begin with, although I was ready to kill someone by the time we arrived, almost three hours late. I'd thought I was templed out, but it is a credit to Bago that I thoroughly enjoyed the sites the town had to offer - and also to Myo, my chauffeur and guide for the day.

Almost a month after my arrival, I returned to the capital in good time for my flight back to Bangkok. Interestingly the city seemed cleaner to me this time around, a sure sign of the litter in the rest of the country. I paid my last visits to a great institution: the tea shop. Here you can sup milky, sweet tea accompanied by as much free, weak, Chinese tea as you can manage, and nibble on tasty cakes and pastries, all for a paltry sum. I had enjoyed Myanmar immensely, and took back fond memories of the friendly people I had met there. There is a saying in Myanmar that many of the hotels display: "you are warmly welcome". That was certainly how I felt there, and I was very glad that I decided to visit.

Back in Bangkok, I had planned to go to Ko Tao for a week or so, and indulge in some diving. First I had to go to the dentist, though, as a sizeable chunk of tooth had fallen out whilst I was in Myanmar. There I learnt that I needed to have root canal treatment, so my plans were somewhat scuppered - hanging around the capital, visiting the dentist, as opposed to chilling on a beach and going diving - as you can imagine, I was gutted. My flight to Delhi is booked for 6th November - it would have been cheaper to fly to Calcutta, but I want to get to Pushkar for the camel fair, if I can. I'm actually feeling a tad nervous about visiting India as the time draws nearer; it has nothing to do with the earthquakes, train crashes or bombs of recent weeks, but more to do with the groping and crap food that I keep hearing about. I'm sure I'll be fine once I get there, though; and you can be sure I will keep you updated.


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