Hilary and I have just spent two blissful weeks of the second half of October in Myanmar and we are still dreaming about this amazing country. I guess everyone can recall Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic and incredibly brave leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma, but little else. We were no different!
Recent positive changes from the government have enabled Myanmar to ‘be brought back from the brink’ and now the country is opening up and welcoming tourists. The country is now so popular as a destination that there is hardly a spare hotel bed to be had! We went with Travel IndoChina whose ‘on the ground organisation’ was spot on.
There is a fairly established tourist trail but it is still in its infancy and you don’t get the feeling of ‘wall to wall’ tourists anywhere. The Burmese are incredibly grateful to see western tourists, they smile, are so keen to see the continuing changes with a wonderful air of optimism, there’s no begging and one feels entirely safe at all times.
We started off in Yangon (Rangoon) which I had visited in the mid 60’s when in the Merchant Navy. The city was in a pitiful state then but has much improved whilst retaining the wide boulevards and crumbling colonial architecture. Yangon is renowned for the incredible Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest in the world and covered in over 90 tons of gold leaf. We visited at dusk after a clearing thunderstorm so the light and air was perfect. It’s the sort of place you walk around in a daze of ‘Am I really here?’ – It’s that awesome!
We didn’t really see any startling or unusual plants – perhaps we could have had we been independent travellers. However, the monsoon having just finished, everywhere was brilliantly green and lush with many palms including the Betel Nut Palm plus cannas, cosmos, cleome, poinsettias and cassia in full bloom everywhere.
Short plane flights are the best way to get around and the next stop was Bagan in central Myanmar. The broad flat plains bisected by the mighty Irrawaddy River are peppered with over 5000 temples and stupas most of which date to the 11th and 13thcenturies.
One can climb a few to get a perspective of the sheer enormity of this sacred area. The countryside is very rural with small farm plots of potatoes, corn, sesame and vegetables whilst the trees were mainly acacias and in towns the ubiquitous eucalypts. Bagan is absolutely breathtaking and a tour highlight.
Mandalay was a 25 minute flight away and yes, we did think of ‘where the flying fishes play’ but in reality don’t! Trips on the Irrawaddy from Mandalay gave us a different perspective of life in rural Myanmar. Huge river barges were laden with massive teak logs – one hopes that there is a limit to the logging. Everywhere we went there would be smiles and waves. It was here we visited the largest book in the world – 792 individual white stupas each with an ancient inscribed tablet inside – hence the book. It covers several acres and there were many sacred bodhi trees in the compound.
We took a fascinating 3 hour train trip through beautiful rolling countryside heavily farmed with vegetables. Never saw a tractor – all oxen and buffalo with wooden ploughshares and carts.
To Heho next and once again, yes there were little songs of ‘heho heho….’ This was to visit Inle Lake for 3 unbelievable days staying on the lake in a cabin over the water. The lake is surrounded by hills and all transport there is by long boat. We visited extensive floating vegetable farms – mainly tomatoes and beans that can only be tended by boat. Water weed is the main source of fertiliser and compost. Fascinating and to see the villages all on stilts with floating flower gardens of cleome and coleus! A visit to the centuries old ruins at Inde were a highlight – akin to a mini Angkor Watt but without anyone there and absolutely no tourist infrastructure at all – long may it last that way.
People asked ‘Why go to Burma?’ My answer was ‘Why not?!’ The country is desperately in need of the tourist dollar and there are positive political changes for the better. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people. You go with an open mind and plenty of unused post 2006 US dollars as there are no ATMs and credit cards aren’t accepted! Go in late October or in November. Any later, the countryside will take on a parched look and Inle Lake will ‘downsize’. It is hot – very and very steamy but most Aussies are used to that!