Magical Mesmerising Myanmar

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July 1st 2019
Published: June 1st 2019
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With a bit a sad feeling we already have to leave Myanmar. It has been truly wonderful. Things have changed for Myanmar and especially for travellers over the past few years. It’s now very easy to visit, we arranged a 28 day visa online for Myanmar. We only left the country at the ultimate day, which was hardly enough. We feel we have only scratched the surface of this beautiful and welcoming country with the gorgeous and warm, fun, friendly and cheerful people. We really have only visited the highlights and we already know we have to come back one day.

Entering Myanmar from Manipur, one of the Northeastern states of India, somehow felt like a relief, after having travelled for about half a year through countries like Iran, Nepal, Bangladesh and India. Not to say we’ve had a difficult time but just by crossing the border some things immediately struck us and felt different.

The most distinct feature in the landscape are the golden stupas. We will see a lot of them in villages, on top of hills, in valleys and in the big cities. We see a lot of monks walking around, both male and female and also a lot of youngsters. A large part of their day is spent going around town to collect food or gifts from the people. There are literally tons of monasteries in the country and as we understood every man is expected to serve as a monk at least part of his life, some remain monk and others return to a normal life.

Almost all women and also a lot of men and children have smeared their faces with a light brownish kind of paste. This, we find out later, is the Birmese thanaka powder made by grinding the bark of a special tree and applied to keep their skin beautiful, cool, healthy and protected from the sun.

Coming from some ‘dry states’ in India (meaning there is no alcohol) suddenly we found many beer stations along the road, in all villages and towns. Even the bus stops for a tea break or lunch at a teashop converted to beer station. We don’t really think it’s in any way important to have alcohol available but it does set a scene, it creates a certain atmosphere where people are free to decide what they want to drink and are allowed to have a bit of fun. The Myanmar beer is a great tasting beer and the people of Myanmar love it and so do we.

Another striking difference is the attire of the people and the totally different feeling it gives us. Suddenly we feel we can wear whatever we want and that when it’s hot we don’t have to cover up too much without being disrespectful. Although the women in Myanmar generally wear beautiful long skirts (and even the men wear kind of the same) we feel less restricted and we wear shorts when hiking and uncovered shoulders when it’s just bloody hot outside.

The people are so friendly, welcoming us, smiling, waving and saying ‘mingalaba’ all the time everywhere we go and although we have a serious language problem we feel the people connect with us, they are happy to see and meet us, they love to take selfies with us and they enjoy themselves which is just a great thing to see.

Myanmar is a buddhist country and people are quite (very) religious, the country is littered with buddhas and stupas everywhere, but there is not a single Burmese that tries to sell us his religion or convince us to read up on Buddhism which, while we are very interested in all religions but are totally atheist ourselves, gives us the feeling we are free to choose and respected no matter what choices we make.

We crossed the border at the recently opened border post Moreh-Tamu and we got stamped into the country by a happy smiling guy wearing a very tight t-shirt covering his round belly. He helped us getting into a motorcycle taxi to the village where we arrange a local sim card while we wait for half an hour for a minivan to bring us to the nearest city Kalay where we sleep in a good modern hotel before travelling to Monywa by shared local pickup truck. Because the border only recently opened this part of the country is not visited much by tourists so we rent a motorcycle and ride around and visit buddhist pilgrimage sites with hundreds of buddha statues in caves, thousands of buddha statues in a garden and a huge multistory standing buddha in which you can climb up many floors filled with statues and informative (and sometimes terrifying) murals.

We take a local bus to Bagan which is somewhat famous but still totally underrated. It’s a huge site with hundreds of temples, pagodas, monasteries and thousands of buddha statues in and on top of these. It’s a magical place and we spend three days riding around on an electric scooter visiting as much as we can. We wake up early to see the sun rise over the temples and we stay at a secret spot where a monk opens up a small temple with stairs to the roof for us to watch the sun set. It’s also very hot (temperatures of around 42 degrees, but feels like 47 degrees Celsius on some days)… so the afternoons we spend at the side of the pool in the shadow. One day we stumble upon a great procession of people in a variety of traditional clothes, on foot, in bullock pulled carts and riding on elephants. We don’t really get what the procession is for and about but it is very special to be able to see this.

With a convenient small bus we travel to Mandalay, where again it is very hot, so we try to slow down a bit, but we do climb the covered stairs to a temple on top of a hill and we visit another temple with hundreds of white and light blue pagodas which contain the world’s largest book scribed on different slabs of stone. We also just enjoy a cold beer at a riverside beer station and a variety of meatballs, fishballs and cuts of meat at a barbecue place.

We travel to Pyin Oo Lwin where the next day we take the very local, old, slow and very beautiful train through rural Myanmar, across valleys and a famous and scary narrow, high, steep, rickety bridge to Hsipaw. This day it is clearly about the ride and not about the destination. In Hsipaw and while walking around the town and through the paddy-fields and banana plantations we see the variety of people and cultures, beautiful wooden houses, bullocks and buffalos working the fields and pulling carts. Time has stood still and this is actually a good thing here.

We take the same train back and enjoy the long ride to Mandalay from where the next day we go by bus to Nyaungshwe at the shore of Inlay Lake. We stay in a bamboo hut at the edge of the village where we attend another procession iof locals in beautiful dresses n honour of buddha’s birthday , some singing and dancing, most carrying around some kind of offering and all of the guys chewing heavily on the betel nuts that give them a little buzz. We hire a long tail boat for a day and visit the lake and its villages. Most of the villages are actually floating or built on stilts and all local transport is on quite fast long slim boats. We visit the villages and the local entrepreneurs that build boats, roll cheroots (kind of cigars) and weave lotus stem and silk clothes.

Next we go to Hpa-An where we find a good international bunch of travellers to share a tour with. In a 8 person tricycle we visit the many caves around Hpa-An which are filled with buddhist relics, statues and sometimes whole stupas and temples.

A very local bus brings us to Mawlamyine, a small town with some old colonial buildings where we walk around and picture the colonial times described in the books we recently read The Glass Palace and Burmese Days (George Orwell actually lived in Mawlamyine).

Our last destination is the Dawei peninsula, in the southeastern corner of Myanmar, bordering Thailand. We stay 4 nights in a nice bamboo hut in Maungmagan from where we explore the deserted hidden beaches of this part of the Andaman coast. The rainy season, or the premonsoon, has started so one day we don’t make it to the beach because even with the acquired ponchos we are soaked to the bone and cold. Some other days are quite nice and the beaches are just incredible. There is not a single tourist and no buildings or whatsoever on these beaches. This state is one of the latest that opened up for foreigners so we expect things will change rapidly ,but for now we we were so lucky to have had the beaches to ourselves.

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