Peter WhiteheadYou say Burma – I say Myanmar

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.

Our hotel on Inle Lake

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.

5000 pagodas and stupas at Bagan

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 Hill

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.

Floating tomato gardens on Inle Lake

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.

Floating Cleome garden!

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!

Water weed being harvested on Inle Lake

Water weed being harvested on Inle Lake

Stunning countryside

Stunning countryside

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Rural transport on the way to Kalaw market

Rural transport on the way to Kalaw market

Pagodas, paddies and water lilies

Pagodas, paddies and water lilies

Our Kalaw to Heho train - 3 hours of very rickety rolling fun!

Our Kalaw to Heho train – 3 hours of very rickety rolling fun!

Kids tending water buffalo

Kids tending water buffalo

Hard to tire of views like this!

Hard to tire of views like this!

Gold Leaf Galore!

Gold Leaf Galore!

Ancient ruins at Inle Lake

Ancient ruins at Inle Lake

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3 thoughts on “You say Burma – I say Myanmar

  1. AliCat on said:

    Hello Peter
    I am fascinated by the floating vegetable gardens. How are they done? They appear to be remarkably clever – is the system like hydroponics?
    Alison

  2. Your travels always sound so wonderful Peter. I’m sure it’s your wide open welcome and acceptance of everything, including the unexpected, that makes you enjoy it so much and it shows through in what you write. A lesson for all us travellers to learn! I too am fascinated by floating gardens, and how plants deal with that high water table??

  3. Hi Peter,
    I am always impressed by your travel stories, and as a result of your travels to India, I too am going there in February. I also love that you travel to such interesting and off the beaten track places, Burma sounds amazing. Please add me to your potential clientelle for your future travels. Regards and continue the wonderful writing. Lisa

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