06 Mar 2010

Mystery and Intrigue Surrounding Myanmar

'Where'? 'Is that safe to go there'? 'Is that near India?' 'Why do you want to go there?' were the responses I got when telling people that Alisa and I were going to Myanmar (Burma) for our holidays. There is certainly a lot of mystery and intrigue surrounding Myanmar- and any traveller thinking of going there is faced with the personal dilemma of ' Should you or shouldn't you go?' There are those that say that visiting Myanmar is 'condoning the regime', whereas others insist that isolation only strengthens the government's position.

Do the dollars that tourists spend help directly fuel government repression or does boycotting the country only put off possible good changes that otherwise wouldn't happen? It's a difficult decision to make but one that we didn't regret for a second as Myanmar has to be one of the most amazing countries I have ever visited, mainly because of the people who are the most genuinely friendly, kind and interested people I have met anywhere. May I say that this was a sharp contrast to Thailand (where we went for a few days of beach and relaxation afterwards) where, in comparison, the people appeared harsh and rude and generally 'over' tourists.

We started our travels in Yangon - a hectic city in a developing country but even with its hustle and bustle we were struck by how clean the city was. This was something we noticed throughout Myanmar- we were amazed as to how clean it was everywhere. No rubbish on the streets and every house we went inside was spotless. Not being big city people, we both found ourselves looking for calm within the city. This was surprisingly easy to find. Aside from the Shwedagon Pagoda, an oasis of calm, Yangon is full of large parks and lakes where you can spend time strolling around with a parasol taking yourself back to bygone days when Myanmar was a British Colony. The highlight of Yangon is, without a shadow of doubt, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is absolutely heart stopping at any time of day. We visited it both at night and early in the morning, and both times its beauty left us speechless. Families, groups of young people, elderly monks and young couples alike gather there, and the serenity and peacefulness we felt was fascinating.

From Yangon we took an overnight bus to Mandalay- another big city but an essential stop in order to see the famous teak bridge at Amarapura. This was a great day trip from Mandalay - the teak bridge at sunset makes a unique backdrop with the silhouttes of monks and villagers crossing the bridge, whilst we watched the sunset slowly light up the sky from our little long boat on the river. The other ancient cities also make great day trips from Mandalay, which is also renowned for its traditional night performances, the most well known being the Moustache Brothers performance, the famous brothers who served a prison sentence for their humour.

Next it was on to Bagan and WOW the first thing that hit us was the heat- it was almost stifling. But the second thing to hit us was the delightful change in pace - gone was the hustle bustle and rush of the big cities - Bagan has the lazy feel of a country town - the perfect place to spend a few days cycling around exploring the temples and pagodas, and the evenings eating a delicious mix of Indian, Nepalese and Burmese food. The temples of Bagan rival Cambodia's Angor Wat in terms of scope and jaw dropability. Its tallest and most majestic temples are mightily impressive and a great spot to catch sunset, as long as you're willing to share it with many others, including locals competing against each other to sell you postcards, paintings and other souvenirs. However, the magic of Bagan is that you can still find yourself completely alone, peddling along in the misty early hours after dawn, stumbling across deserted pagodas which you share with no one except a couple of monkeys .


From there we bussed it to Kalaw- a lovely mountain village in Shan State - and the start of our 3 day trek. Thankfully the temperature in the mountains had dropped to a pleasant 28 degrees so it was perfect for walking. Our fantastically knowledgeable guide led us through scenic paddy fields and hill tribe villages where children ran up to us in excitement and adults watched us in amusement as we walked through. The purity of these children and the happiness they take from the simplest of things is beautiful to see and spending time in these villages watching their everyday lives is a lovely memory I will have forever. We finished our walk at Inle Lake - a massive lake with stilt house villages and floating gardens dotted around. Nyaungshwe was where we stayed - a laid back town at the north of the lake with a chilled out backpacker vibe - the perfect place to hang out for a few days and rest our weary limbs. We filled our days by taking boat trips out on the lake to neighbouring villages and markets, cycling around, and eating good food. It was the perfect place to relax after almost two weeks of travelling.

Our time in Myanmar had come to an end so with some sadness we said goodbye to Inle and flew back to Yangon for some last minute shopping before Thailand. Whilst in Yangon this time, we visited two hotels, the Strand, and the Kandawgi Palace Hotel. Both 5* star hotels, they are certainly very different. The Strand is a beautiful colonial building with a classical contemporary interior, whilst the Kandawgi Palace Hotel is more resort style, with the most beautiful pool merging into jungle like gardens on the edge of Kandawgi Lake.

We would have loved to have had more time to spend in Myanmar, exploring the more out of the way parts, the beautiful beaches on the west coast and just enjoying the delightfully simple life and beautiful people. A lot of people are put off travelling to Myanmar - it's certainly not a well known tourist destination but this also adds to the appeal and means that you are not sharing the sights with hoards of noisy tourists. We would definitely recommend Myanmar for adventurous people of all ages - a beautiful country with beautiful people that we will remember forever.