Discoveries and adventures from a fortnight on the road across Myanmar
The monks woke us at some ungodly hour. Their amplified chants rose from behind a row of trees, drifting across the Irrawaddy through the darkness, low, monotonous and strangely beautiful. There was no way to tell what time it was on board our silent boat but it must have been about halfway between the dying gasps of last night’s camp fire and dawn.
As the pious alarm clock rang out relentlessly, figures started to stir under the mosquito nets strung up along the deck. More and more passengers gave in to the noise and waved goodbye to their dreams, settling into hard wicker chairs made comfortable with life jackets to contemplate their surroundings and stir up the first coffee of the day. A distant and invisible sun eventually lit up the scene and the crew emerged to set us off again, moving with slow but dogged splutters north towards Mandalay.
There’s not a great deal to witness along the Irrawaddy between Bagan and the former royal capital. The river offers none of the Mekong’s proscenium arches of verdant fronds and the scenery varies between nondescript and forgettable depending on which side of the boat you’re sitting. However, there’s something oddly captivating about the hours of featureless sandy banks, the odd gilded stupa top breaking the horizon, and the glittering hoof prints shimmering on water the colour of builder’s tea. Plus the long two days of languorous drifting can’t help but slow down your internal clock and kick start an imagination set on the back burner by modern life.
By the second day on the river my mind wandered as the boat gently pursued its course, passed occasionally by narrow boats full of locals putting methodically north.
It conjured images of the exiled last King of Burma, Thibaw Min, forced from his palace downstream in the opposite direction in 1885, bound for India at the command of the invading British. As the craft wended its way in its own time around bends and under bridges, my thoughts drifted further, concocting imaginary lives and loves for the tent-dwellers that cropped up sporadically on the river banks.
This sparse itinerary, broken only by a regular call to come below deck for fish curries, watery soups and fried chicken, threw up several hidden delights when the boat did finally dock at small settlements and the deckhands pole vaulted onto the mud to set up an impromptu gang plank.
A stop at a local pottery cooperative was a chance to see locals at work without the gift shop, a rare look at a truly cottage industry that saw us invited in, and through, the homes of the workers, where cows stood patiently in living rooms and primitive tractors dumped earth on kilns that imbued the whole town with an unholy aroma.
A scratched and peeling temple, meanwhile, left unloved by the locals but a pastel-coloured treat for visitors, was another highlight. Curious local kids aligned themselves in a brochure-ready pose to the delight of the photographers among us (which was all but one of us), already au fait with the desires of the image-hungry foreigners and happy to oblige, while a local family continued working at their small brick-baking business oblivious.
Back on board, over tea and sesame-topped biscuits, our guide told us that the Chinese, who are investing heavily in the country, have been trying to build a dam for domestic hydroelectricity further up the river. Although it would bring in cash to Myanmar in the short term it would prove disastrous in the long term, should the Burmese government sanction the plan, he insisted.
Finally, after a few more blissfully interminable hours slicing through wide expanses of water dusted with mist and wood smoke, we docked at the bottom of Sagaing Hill outside Mandalay. We jumped into the back of a truck and drove up the hill, passing betel trees, groups of giggling young nuns, and an al fresco barber using a mirror hung from a tree.
At the top perched a grand Buddhist terrace known as Umin Thounzeh. It’s a classic Myanmar gem, simultaneously breathtaking, intriguing, and deserted, full of photogenic scenes like the Buddha-packed colonnade so familiar to brochure daydreamers but bereft of anyone to look at it.
Dusty alcoves betrayed a sense of neglect and the air of dilapidation called to mind a holiday resort way out of season. One lonely local squatted with a bucket of ice lollies, hoping to get passing trade from young monks to no avail.
Sure, there were a couple of cars and a stall or two at the end of the road nearby, but this discovery – like so many we were to make across the country – is yet to be flooded with tourists and tainted by commercialisation. It’s indicative of the temporarily suspended state the country is in – full of wonder and not yet accustomed to the influx of wanderers that that attracts. It was on this quiet yet unforgettable hilltop that Kipling’s quote really made sense...
We’d arrived in Myanmar five days earlier with heads full of preconceptions. My main expectations were shaped by Orwellian ideas. Of course I expected some sort of oppressive government echoing 1984, but it was George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days (1934), that had peppered my brain with images.
Written after he'd spent several years as an officer of the Imperial Police Force in the 1920s, it’s a tale of bored Brits living out humid, sordid lives deep in the Burmese jungle, attempting to alleviate the heat and the tedium with stiff drinks and questionable liaisons with the locals.
It’s an incredibly anti-imperialist effort and a testament to the effect Myanmar had on the impressionable writer. As Emma Larkin notes in the introduction, during Orwell’s own Burmese days, “he was transformed from a snobbish public school boy to a writer of social conscience who sought out the underdogs of society”. This is how the novel begins:
Above all, Burmese Days is a helplessly evocative book, thrusting the reader into the same state of wonder that struck the protagonists. When one of the key characters Elizabeth arrives she’s left dumbstruck by “scents of coco-nut oil and sandalwood, cinnamon and turmeric” which “floated across the water on the hot, swimming air”.
The book also evokes the sun-baked feel of the country like few others. Drinks are consumed before the ice melts, characters lament “this heat, this heat” and the displaced Brits spend their days paralysed by the temperature.
Somewhat more sentimental, but no less popular and hawked by hopeful vendors across the country is Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace (2000), whose plot takes in several generations and as many countries but is rooted in Rangoon (or Yangon as it’s now known). A fictionalised, but accurate, account of the country’s history from the fall of Thibaw to the late twentieth century, it’s full of Burmese characters that make you feel like you’ve lived in the place for years.
One of the best accounts of modern Myanmar, although it’s over ten years out of date in a fast-changing country, is perhaps Andrew Marshall’s The Trouser People (2003), which sees the Reuters journalist retrace the steps of Scottish journalist Sir George Scott, who hacked through uncharted territory to establish colonial rule in the 1880s.
Marshall, visiting in 2002, finds a country plagued by power cuts, is pursued by government officials and sees “an unsettling glimpse of the machinery of a modern dictatorship at work”.
Sir George Scott wrote his own book on the country too. The Burman: His Life and Notions (1882), penned under the pseudonym Shway Yoe, is a fascinating record of Burmese people and culture, written with a passionate interest unique among colonial works of the time, that covers every aspect of life in the country, from birth to death, via weddings, food, religion, architecture and everything in between. At times laughably dated and at others remarkably consistent, it’s a treasure trove of meticulous detail and witty observations.
Of course all the reading in the world doesn’t prepare you for the sensations Myanmar burns onto the virgin mind upon arrival.
Our street in Yangon alone, from the Asia Plaza Hotel to Bogyoke Market five blocks away, was a humid riot of fried snack stalls, betel nut merchants and curiosity shops, a crumbling pavement awash with DVD sellers and boxes of puppies for sale, shrouded in smoke and splattered in phlegm, where booksellers laid out Russian Harry Potters and old engineering manuals, enterprising locals placed landline telephones on small tables as rudimentary phone booths and mini jeeps threw open their doors for impromptu palmistry sessions.
Young children, faces smeared in thanaka, a tree pulp used as a cosmetic, giggled while wizened locals made smooching sounds to get their attention. Market sellers crouched by their wares for the locals’ perusal while nuns quietly made their alms rounds amid clouds of steam from vast cooking pots. It was a classic Southeast Asian baptism of fire and set the standard for a fortnight of discovery.
Ebiking around Bagan
You can’t visit Myanmar and skip Bagan. Well, you could, but it would be a howling shame: the temple-studded plain is a phenomenal sight and rivals some of its more famous Asian neighbours.
Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat is a justifiably popular place, and as the tourism floodgates creak ever wider it’s becoming overrun. Thousands of barefoot foreigners traipse up the stone steps of the biggest stupas to watch the sun rise – and return hours later to watch it set – over a spire-filled horizon while locals congregate noisily at the bottom offering plastic concertina wallets full of postcards or photocopied Orwell books.
We grabbed a couple of battery powered ebikes and ferreted out some of the smaller, unloved stupas, crawling up dark, damp tunnels and unearthing contemplative buddhas away from the stampeding herds. Our electronic rides offered freedom from the temple fatigue that seemed to strike many of the coach trippers, allowing us to disappear for a swim, meet a monk for meditation – although endless sitting quietly resulted in more dead legs than nirvana – and to pause for pumpkin soup at veggie institution Be Kind To Animals The Moon.
A Burmese wedding
I’ve never been so touched by a packet of tissues. This particular clump of cheap paper was presented as a parting gift by the hosts of my first Burmese wedding, at the culmination of an unforgettable morning spent ensconced in a family home in the Shan hills.
We’d set off just after breakfast, crammed into the back of another jeep and bumping down dusty roads, past farmers coercing buffalo into pulling rudimentary ploughs and groups of labourers breaking rocks in the sun, through patchwork fields of burnt orange and ochre, to park under the shade of a banyan tree in a remote hilltop village.
Whisked past a queue of locals joining the party and straight into the bosom of the home, we were showered with tea and snacks and sat on the earthen floor, blinking at men huddled in the corner through a cloud of cheroot smoke while the women of the house prepared breakfast. Our guide, from the Intrepid tour company, had organised the impromptu invite - proof that travelling in a group can be better than solo travel. Unfamiliar pop music blasted through ancient speakers set on mud steps as we descended into another room to sit down to an immense feast of cubed meat and fat (one hour after breakfast) in honour of the teenage bride and groom.
The trembling and naïve couple reminded me of Scott’s observations on Burmese weddings I’d been reading in The Burman the night before in my hotel.
Misogynistic perhaps, but no doubt an accurate observation at the time. It went on to insist that the average age for matrimony “has become very much younger. Most lads get married when they are eighteen or nineteen; thirteen or fourteen is a common age for the girls”.
Our blissful duo were both eighteen, and attitudes have changed a little since Scott’s time, but the pair did look nervous as hell. The guests, on the whole, seemed more interested in us and our cameras.
Partying in Kalaw
The saturday night halfway through our trip was spent at Kalaw's famous Seven Sisters restaurant. After an exceptional meal of chicken steamed in banana leaves, spicy noodle soup, and gallons of local Red Mountain wine - plus a crazy tour of the kitchen by four of the titular seven sisters - we sat back while locals launched fireworks down the main street, passed round bottles of local moonshine and cheered (somewhat too loudly in sober retrospect) a tiny girl singing karaoke. Later on we hit the tiny bar at Hi Snack & Drink, where the few night owls in the area congregate to take turns on a battered guitar until the early hours.
Kalaw was the one place on the trip I could imagine myself lingering longer, a cool hill town in Shan State once popular with the British, who ascended to avoid the heat of the central plains. Populated with Nepalis and Indians, who came to build the roads and railways during British rule, it’s full of great little restaurants, a smattering of shops and not a lot else.
Hiking to meet hill tribes
I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone as outwardly happy as Tun. Our guide, a member of the Danu tribe who was taking us to meet the Palaung people of Pain Ne Pin village near Kalaw, wore a permanent Cheshire-cat grin and burst into infectious laughter on a regular basis.
Gregariousness personified in a pair of pink Converse, he smirked as he pointed out trees full of bananas, peppers and oranges, giggled while preparing little paper boxes as gifts for each member of the group and broke into full-on guffaws when we paused in pockets of shade to catch our breath and engage in broken banter.
His humour was all the more remarkable considering his backstory; he’d spent most of his adult life working in tourism, including a stint at Yangon’s famous Strand Hotel for tips only, to send money home, while also looking after his father (now sadly deceased) and elderly, infirm mother. He told us he hoped to head to Singapore to study hospitality, and of several other plans and dreams currently on hold while he cares for his family.
The Palaung people themselves were phenomenal hosts, offering cold towels after our trek, a sumptuous three course banquet, and a dressing up box of locally-made clothes for us to buy and take home. Their village, Pain Ne Pin, was a quiet mountaintop spot surrounded by breathtaking valleys. We really didn’t want to hike back down home again.
Meeting monks and counting buddhas
“Avoid the tourist spots” seems to be the mantra of true travellers (whoever they may be) but it was the most people-choked bottlenecks that yielded the best opportunities to meet those elusive locals. Tourism is still new to Myanmar, and its inhabitants are gaining as much from the exchange as visitors. Monks in particular loiter around key sights like the U Bein Bridge, looking to practise their English and learn a bit about the outside world. Their interests seemed confined to Arsenal FC and its proximity to my house, but we had a lot of fun communicating.
Shortly after we left our friend on the bridge, we passed a funeral service for an elderly monk. The body was in the final stages of cremation, unrecognisable among ashes on a raised catafalque that were being carefully raked by some thirty-odd other monks paying their respects. It was a moving experience.
The journey took a turn for the surreal after that as our guide served up Jack Daniel’s shots at 9.30am and whisked us to a cave full of buddhas, guarded by a giant spider and flanked by a sign detailing the causes for ripening in hell. The Pindaya Caves need to be seen to be disbelieved; a damp maze of some 8,000 statues dating back several hundred years, they also feature a tiny meditation cave deep in the rock, accessed via a crawl space and lit by a flickering bulb. As spots for quiet reflection go, I’ve seen less scary. I passed.
The country is called Myanmar. Burmese people only make up about 70% of the population.
Some prefer the British name Burma, but Myanmar is more accurate. The country is made up of 100+ distinct ethnic groups that make up eight official “major national ethnic races”: Bamar (or Burmese), Shan, Mon, Kayin, Kachin, Kayah, Chin and Rakhaing.
Hotel standards haven’t caught up with the rest of the world.
Tourist numbers have gone through the roof in recent years, but the country hasn’t built enough hotels to meet the demand. Hence the existing places, which have struggled for years, are now inundated with business and naturally complacency has crept in.
Take our hotel in Nyaung Shwe, for example. They greeted us with a fanfare, all drum choruses, refreshing towels and fruit juice, but then ushered us into the most depressing digs I’d seen since a weekend in a Chelmsford Travelodge. Bugs and geckos crawled round a prison cell of a room that also featured a Daewoo TV from the dawn of the moving image and stained kids’ towels in the bathroom. It looked out onto a fetid swamp of a moat that we quickly christened “dengue ditch”.
Tour guides are no longer afraid to speak out against the government.
“My grandfather said the military government are worse than the British” our guide insisted – a sentiment that has been passed through the generations. “They don’t like educated people” he added, before telling a long joke about a military man sitting in a tea shop reading an English newspaper upside down.
“Today it’s a bit better but the military are still superior”, he reflected on another journey. “We call it the Burmese army not the Myanmar army. Because non-Burmese can’t rise very far in the military.”
The press are free to criticise the government too.
We spent our last morning poring over the latest issue of The Irrawaddy magazine by the pool in the Traders Hotel (the Yangon institution once known as Heroin Hotel due to its erstwhile part ownership by a drugs baron and the site of a bombing several years ago).
The mag, which has covered Myanmar since 1993, has only been available in the country for a year. Possession of its pages used to land you in prison apparently. Now it’s free to say largely what it wants, and the edition we had featured Aung San Suu Kyi and Christine Lagarde on the cover with the line “As Myanmar opens up, a spotlight shines on the need to address the shortage of women in public life”.
It was an editorial inside that really shocked us though. Written by the editor and entitled “Criminals at Large”, it carried the subheading “[Former Chief of Intelligence and Prime Minister] U Khin Nyunt and his former Military Intelligence minions deserve to face justice for their crimes against Myanmar society”. It was the sort of hard-hitting journalism that would have been unthinkable in Myanmar until recently.
The government keep a low profile, but eagle-eyed visitors can get a sense of things.
Propaganda posters line the barracks in Mandalay and one of the most striking buildings you can see through the haze from Mandalay Hill is a semi-circular prison that still holds a couple of thousand political prisoners.
There’s still a great deal of resistance from groups in the fringe regions.
One of our guides had a brother in the Arakan Liberation Army, one of many splinter groups fighting the main army, and told us quietly about his covert ways of communicating with him.
A bucket shower is a refreshing way to cool off.
We saw loads of people starting their day with one of these.
Mandalay isn’t as evocative as Kipling would have you believe.
A traffic-choked grid of hectic streets with very few sights, it’s probably worth skipping in favour of a few days elsewhere - unless you’re into tours of gold leaf or alabaster “factories” (read: gift shops).
Mobile phones are a massive novelty here.
Those that do own them set their ringtone to the loudest possible setting and let the thing (invariably a retro brick) ring out until everyone nearby is aware that the owner possesses such a status symbol.
It’s wrong to exploit the Padaung women.
Myanmar’s famous “long-necked” ladies, who actually don’t really wear the rings except for the amusement of foreigners, are still ruthlessly exploited by hotels and shop owners and people still line up to take photos of them. On the other hand, most don’t seem to mind, and one local celebrity had posed for a glossy photoshoot for a Nyaung Shwe coffee shop.
Not everyone is after a sale or a handout.
The locals will often approach you with no ulterior motive – usually they just want to have a chat and find out a bit more about you. The cynical exchange between visitor and host doesn’t really exist in Myanmar yet. On my first day in the country a small boy chased me down the street to give back a few dollars I’d left on the table of his restaurant; the concept of a tip was apparently unfathomable.
That said, some of the traditional industries have turned into tourist shows.
The leg fishermen of Inle Lake probably make more out of kyat handouts for posing than actually flogging fish.
A buddha can always be enhanced with a few LEDs.
Some of the flashing displays were almost as impressive as the statues themselves.
The tension between Buddhist monks and Muslims seems to have died down.
Last year saw an influx of reports of normally peaceful Buddhist monks attacking Muslims, a symptom of worrying religious strife in the country. One monk, Ashin Wirathu, was even labelled “the face of Buddhist terror” by Time magazine as his 969 campaign encouraged the public to boycott Muslim businesses. The numbers are still visible over shop fronts, marking the places as Buddhist friendly – while 786 is emblazoned over Muslim spots in defiance – but the people we met insisted nobody took heed of the boycott, or counter-boycott, any more.
You should skip the hotel breakfast.
Unappealing eggs on sliced white bread get a little boring after a while and most towns are full of teahouses offering delicious mohinga (rice noodle and fish soup) for a few thousand kyat (a couple of pounds).
Many of the tourists here are monks.
They're as keen on a travel selfie as the next tourist.
Longyis are far more comfortable than trousers.
Once you’ve mastered how to knot the traditional fabric, coupled with a crisp white shirt, longyis are a more respectable outfit for visiting temples and ignite much hilarity among locals.
Should you go?
Yes. While Myanmar’s political situation is still very much a work in progress, a great deal has improved over the last few years. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy dropped their travel boycott in 2012 and the international community has been gradually unfolding its arms over the last year. President Thein Sein visited the UK for first time in 2013, the US and others have relaxed their sanctions and the country had just finished hosting the Southeast Asian Games when we visited.
The military still holds a shadowy power in places and it’s generally agreed you should try and ensure your money stays out of their hands, which is possible on the whole.
For much more information, check out the The Rough Guide Snapshot.
When should you go?
Now. A million people visited Myanmar in 2012 after the tourism boycott had been lifted. By the following year that number had hit two million.
ATMs are now available in the country (you used to have to take all spending money, in crisp US dollars, with you) and internet facilities are springing up. Many hotels now offer patchy wifi.
Who goes there?
We travelled with Intrepid, a small group adventure company, on their exceptional Best of Burma trip. A fifteen day itinerary that takes in Yangon, Bagan, the Irrawaddy, Mandalay, Kalaw and Inle Lake, it offers a great introduction to this beguiling country. Intrepid also offer a sailing cruise round some of Myanmar’s untouched southern islands.
Visit the Rough Guides site for everything else you need to know about Myanmar.