Landing in Yangon one of my first observations is that the ladies have yellow stuff smeared over their faces. Initially I assumed this to be a Buddhist tradition of some sort, though it transpires to be sap from the Thanaka tree which is used as a daily sunblock. Chunks of the tree are sold by most street vendors.
Driving to my hostel, Yangonites mill the streets holding an assortment of umbrellas to protect from the alternating powerful sun and monsoon showers. At traffic lights men sell quals eggs, cigarettes and disturbing holograms of winking babies.
Once bags are dumped, I take to the streets and walk to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a vast and compact area of temples and golden Buddhas. The centrepiece is a 99 metre high gold plated pagoda. The crown which sits at the very top is adorned with hundreds of rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings attached through the links of small chains. The crown has 5,448 diamonds over 2,000 rubies.
The 21st century has made its mark as several Buddhas have flashing LED halos which oddly jar against the scene of bowing monks. And there is WiFi. And escalators.
On leaving the temple I head down to a small lake where you can pay 30p for a small bird. A lady reaches into a chattering cage of several hundred small winged creatures and expertly catches one pinched between her fingers. The intention is to pass it across and at my will it is released over the lake. Having never used force to constrain the flight of a small bird, and through the fear of breaking its delicate bones, I barely hold the thing as it swiftly escapes. I buy two more and manage to get the third under control. In one glorious moment, I raise my arms, release my grip, and Bird the Third flies to freedom. Then a large winged beast swoops from overhead and swiftly captures my small friend between its violently hooked beak. If I was under 10 I think I would have cried…
Being over 10, I chuckle morbidly and buy bread to feed the koi carp.
Soon after I find a backstreet market. The main produce is what looks like fish mixed with mud.
My sweaty day ends in Myanmar Zoological Park. For £1 entry you can feed hippos, elephants, otters, monkeys and more. Unfortunately, as is often the case with zoos, many of the animals look beyond depressed.
The next day I recruit a Jeremy from Australia for a furious amount of touristic activities. We start the day at San Pya Fish Market where we seem to have missed most of the dawn action. Alas, there is still lots of fish juices to enjoy in our open toe shoes. We then cab to Sein Lann So Pyay Gardens which are small and odd, with wooden Disney characters inexplicably lurking between the bushes.
A little out the city is an Allied War Memorial Cemetery which marks the graves of 6,000 men who lost their lives fighting in Myanmar. There is a strong band of UK funded caretakers maintaining the immaculate space.
Onto the Drug Elimination Museum. An extravagant communist pursuit across 3 sprawling floors ‘educates’ (completely terrifies) you about the use of narcotic drugs. There is some history about Empirialism and the widespread use of opium dens (6,442 across SE Asia in 1930). There is an interactive ‘Drugs Ruin Lives’ maze which houses bedraggled and broken mannequins, photos of dead people and finishes with an ominous red button which activates a motorised claw when pressed.
There are galleries showing photos of the ceremonial incinerations of heroin hauls, and rollers being driven over seized opium oil. A crude light and sound display allows you to burn your own pile of fibreglass narcotic drugs. A fun day out for all the family!
We spend the afternoon at Bogyoke Market. In the food hall (cave) the staff insist on fanning us whilst we eat our meal. I shamefully encourage them – being in Myanmar at this time of year is like living in a steamer.
After missing the sleeper train up to Bagan, I begrudgingly buy a ticket for the night coach. With time to spare I buy some supplies from a supermarket round the corner. This is then inspected with great interest by every member of staff at the ticket office (shack). They are a big fan of the single carrot.
As the coach station is outside the city I’m crammed into the back of a sweltering truck. With our belongings in the middle I’m amongst a sweaty pile of locals. It is much like in films when the back doors of a vehicle are opened to reveal resigned and overheated illegal immigrants.
This heat is promptly missed once on the coach which is Baltic with overzealous air conditioning. Thankfully, I’d met Ken from Malaysia who offered up a much needed fleece. We stick together to find accommodation in Nyaung Oo / Bagan, settling on a cheap b&b. It’s mad how you stop noticing things and your parameters of what’s pleasant and reasonable change…the corridors are mottled with mould, plugs are falling of the walls and the windows don’t close. But for $7 a night we think it’s a palace.
The day is spent on an electric motorbike exploring the bizarre landscape of 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries spread across the flat plains of Bagan. Sunset at Shwesandor gifts us a double rainbow and monsoon showers.
The next morning we head to Mt Popa, where a pagoda sits atop an abrupt lump of rock. Monkeys run riot and with bare feet you have to pick your way past their poo pellets and pools of piss to reach the summit.
Over food our UN of travellers discuss idioms from our respective countries. In Japan a small garden is referred to as being the size of a cats forehead. It also comes out in the wash that whats-his-face (forgotten) from Middleborough was the football team mascot for 3 years…Roary the Lion. Finally, I meet a celebrity.
A night bus winds it’s way down to Nyaungshwe town by Lake Inle. The driver is sprouting sporadic long hairs from his neck, but has no hint of established beard growth.
Inle Lake lounges between two mountain ranges. It is worth visiting due to the ‘floating village’, where inhabitants live in wooden shacks on stilts over the calm waters. They are supported by a ‘floating garden’ of tomatoes, cucumbers and more. The plants grow on grass rafts with bamboo to support growth and prevent the huge vegetable patch from drifting.
The obligatory silversmith, fabric workshop and umbrella factory follow. The lake is also home to several ‘long neck ladies’. These are women from the Kayan Lahwi tribe who elongate their necks using brass coils. Looking like a giraffe is seen as a sign of beauty and wealth. As we are invited to take photos, the only thing missing is a cage. It feels all sorts of wrong.
Lake Inle is also home to a couple of vineyards with ‘memorable’ wine. Good fun on a bicycle and on a budget. Before taking the sleeper bus back to Yangon, we head for a traditional Burmese massage. Brutal. I nickname my robust but quite aged masseuse The Tenderiser.
The trip back to the capital is a vast improvement on other journeys after upgrading to a luxury coach. Imagine individual armchairs placed in a bus. The only glitch was accidentally attacking the bag porter in the groin with my umbrella. He was a forgiving man.
Back in Yangon we track down the best hotel in the city and use their pool over a drawn out lunch. Our downtown hovel awaits us in the evening.
Myanmar is a surprisingly civilised and honest society. Tales of returned wallets, passports and miscellaneous other belongings were plentiful. The ‘tourist tax’ added to usual prices are minimal and quickly retracted when challenged. It’s a relaxed country (…in the areas we are allowed to travel!) of people living with contented ease.
On the down side, water bottles are always overfilled meaning they are impossible to open without spilling, power cuts are daily and the dried fish sold on the streets smells rancid. All forgivable ailments.
Big tick. I wouldn’t have wanted to end my travels anywhere else.