Off limits for tourists for so long, Myanmar is still in the early stages of its tourism development. There is no official Tourist Board but, working with private sector partners in the Myanmar Tourism Federation, I was privileged to be invited on this introductory tour. What you see and experience in Myanmar is raw and genuine – nothing is staged for tourists – you get to experience a culture that is complex, bewildering, overwhelming at times. Its no secret that there are many issues still to be addressed but, by travelling there and speaking to locals, who are now at liberty to freely express their views, you learn so much. One recurring theme emerges; a sense of optimism for the future – the key focus is education and health but there is also a growing recognition of the importance of well managed tourism to the economy.
Flying via Bangkok with Thai Airways, my trip began in Yangon. Travelling in early April, with the temperature nudging 40c, those first few days in the city took some acclimatising. Its busy, noisy, chaotic and the traffic is awful. The up side of slow journeys by car is time to absorb and take in daily life, much of which happens kerbside with markets, street vendors and people rushing here there and everywhere.
The famous Shwedagon Pagoda, 99 metres high and visible from many parts of the city, is the key highlight. Adorned with gold from over 22,000 bars, the pagoda is dazzling both in sunlight and when illuminated at night.
The crumbling buildings of downtown Yangon represent one of the world’s greatest collections of colonial architecture and the area makes for an interesting walking tour – some have been restored but many are simply fading away. Chinatown and Indiatown provide further assaults on the senses – renowned for their street food but, proceed with caution, from where I was standing the levels of hygiene consideration given to storing and prepping food were, um, minimal! When you tire of walking or get fed up with sitting in traffic, other options for seeing the sights include rickshaw rides and, for a real slice of local life, take the ferry across the Yangon River to Dalah or ride a few stops on the circular line train.
The best way to get around the country is by domestic flight – with only a one hour check in and speedy luggage delivery at the generally tiny airports, its a painless way to cover a lot of ground. Our first 30 minute flight took us to Bagan. Hard to imagine a starker contrast with Yangon. Set in a semi desert plain, Bagan is one of Myanmar’s, if not Asia’s, greatest sights. It was the home to the first Myanmar Empire. Covering 42 square kms, the archaeological park is peppered with over 3000 temples built between the 9th and 13th centuries – each and every one is different and en masse they are breathtakingly beautiful, particularly at sunrise and sunset. Around 400 or so were damaged by an earthquake in 2016 and the rising numbers of tourists is taking its toll on others. Rumour has it from October 2017, no-one will be allowed to climb the temples but, for now, two are officially open to climb for the 360 views so don’t expect to be alone for this experience – having a good local guide makes all the difference in finding a prime spot. Another popular option is to take a dawn balloon flight – not cheap at c$300 a head but surely unforgettable. Renting an e-bike is also popular. Silent and speedy, it looked like a fun way to zip around and avoid the crowds.
In the heat, a full day looking at temples is enough – for our second day in the area we drove out to Mount Popa, another temple to see but this time one seemingly impossibly perched on top of a volcanic outcrop. There are 730 steep steps to climb before you reach the dizzy heights of the temple with crowds and mischievous monkeys to combat along the way.
From Bagan, a one hour flight took us north to Mandalay. Built on a grid centred around the walls of the old palace, the city is easier to navigate than Yangon but is just as hectic and especially busy with motorbikes rather than cars. Like Yangon its a city that, given time, you feel you could warm to but, with only one day in town we were on a mission. First stop, the famous U Bein teak bridge, the world’s longest at 1200m spanning Lake Taungthaman. In summer the water levels are low enough to reveal land used for tomato and peanut crops. Once the summer rains come the levels rise significantly making boat trips beneath the bridge possible. Another Mandalay highlight is to visit the workshops of the silk weavers and hand bashed gold leaf workshop – a first taste of the incredible variety of crafts and cottage industries in Myanmar. We ended our day with the obligatory ride up to Mandalay Hill for view back over the city – the view is rarely completely clear but even in the haze, it’s impressive.
Another change of scene with our next flight to Heho, gateway to Shan State, by far the largest region in the country and home to many different minority groups. We were ultimately heading for Kalaw but first a detour through farmland and villages to Pindaya. In winter, after the summer rains the fields are, I am told, a patchwork of vibrant colour. In summer though, even though bone dry, the scorched, iron rich soil is an amazing red colour. Making stops along the way we came across a family just returning after a hard morning’s work in the fields. Unflustered by the arrival of western tourists keen to take video, they invited us in to their home and made us feel extraordinarily welcome.
Pindaya is a small town set on a pretty lake and a lovely place for lunch by the water – its main attraction though is the Shwe Oo Min Cave set on a limestone escarpment above town. Just when you thought you were all Buddhaed out, along comes a cave with over 8000 of them! Individual families have been donating the buddhas of all shapes, sizes and materials since the late 18th century. Before leaving town we also swung by the Shan paper and umbrella makers workshop. The creativity in this country is seemingly endless.
Arriving in Kalaw was like a breath of fresh air, literally, the temperature was a good 10c lower than Yangon. This small town surrounded by pine clad hills was a much favoured retreat for the colonialists. Small wonder with the cooler air and surrounding green landscapes reminding them of home. Kalaw is often used as jumping off point for two day walking trails to Inle Lake. With time against us, we took the two hour drive instead to Nyaungshwe, the main base for long tailed speed boat trips on the lake.
Inle Lake was certainly a highlight of the tour for me – its stunningly beautiful and at 22 kms long by 11kms wide, there’s a lot of water to cover and plenty to see. Lots of room too for the many boats ferrying tourists from the stilted villages to the floating gardens and the many craft workshops. It never felt in the least crowded and its enormous fun, skimming over the glassy water at speed. One of the first things you will see is the famous fisherman who have developed the skill of rowing using one leg and manipulating their circular net with the other. There are still real fisherman using this method and you may see a few if you are lucky but the main ‘catch’ these days is tourists, especially those willing to part with a few dollars to capture the perfect shot. But aside from the fisherman, the whole lake and the people seeking out a living from its waters and banks are fascinating. Each village has a different specialism, with skills passed down through the generations. Silversmiths, lotus fibre weavers, cheroot makers and blacksmiths are just some of expert crafts you will see. The Shwe Inthein Paya is also well worth seeing – another ‘hidden’ collection of over 1200 17th and 18th century stupas. Once all adorned in gold, now they are in varying states of repair after being neglected for so long as well as damage caused by heavy fighting in the 90s.
I could easily have stayed longer in Inle Lake, particularly enjoying some relaxation in one of the shoreside hotels but it was time to head back to Yangon and two more days in the city before heading home.
Cathy travelled as a guest of the Myanmar Tourism Federation. Participating private sector hosts included the following:
The Chatrium, Yangon – http://www.chatrium.com/chatrium_hotel_yangon/default-en.html
Sule Shangri La, Yangon – http://www.shangri-la.com/yangon/suleshangrila
Sedona, Yangon – http://www.sedonahotels.com.sg/yangon/
Amazing Bagan Resort, Bagan – http://www.bagangolfresort.net
Hotel Marvel, Mandalay – http://www.hotel-marvel.com
Royal Kalaw Hill Resort, Kalaw – http://www.royalkalawhillsresort.com/kh/
Sanctum Inle Lake Resort – http://sanctum-inle-resort.com
Local tour operators:
Ethical Seven Star Tours – http://www.myanmartraveler.com
Sampan Travel – http://www.sampantravel.com
Adventure Myanmar Travels & Incentives – http://www.adventuremyanmar.com
Tour Mandalay – http://www.tourmandalay.travel
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