80 years after George Orwell imagined these days in Burma and 35 years after our 1st visit we enter this country again. Not only its name has changed. Also everything else we expect to be different. In reality we think we’ve been a little over optimistic. Of course the old British cars are no longer being repaired constantly on the roadside. Nowadays this is the privilege of Japanese 2nd hand cars. Of course the government hopefully turned to the better. But still very visibly remains a lot to do. A huge difference to its neighbours in the east.
Yangon, 26th October
After having seen all highlights in the Plain of Jars we take the same winding road back to Luang Prabang. There it’s just parking Prado and having a nice spaghetti dinner with its “babysitter” before our departure to Yangon.
Back to Luang Prabang: the next day with Air Asia to Bangkok. The flight definitely no thrills. The stopover in Bangkok is very brief. Arrival in the dark – departure a few hours later, still in the dark. So we stay at the airport hotel and just have a couple of beers with Chinese food on the street side outside the airport – somehow like Banana Pancake generation 0 did it long time ago.
Yangon, an early kingdom and later the commercial and political hub of British Burma was known as “the garden city of the East” at that time. It got its independence in 1948, then expanded largely outwards and suffered a lot during Ne Win‘s isolationist rule. Nevertheless, politics changed a lot in recent years – hopefully.
Our first visit was in 1980. At that time our first priority after arrival was to sell our duty free whisky to the taxi driver and to buy cigarettes in the state owned duty free store in the city center to also sell them. So we nearly financed the 7-day trip thru the country we were allowed to. On another trip in 1982; we stayed for peanuts at the famous Strand Hotel and enjoyed with other backpackers their famous lobster for $ 3 a meal – imagine, nowadays you pay 450$ a night; hopefully with a simple continental breakfast.
Now we are in one of those no-name hotels between little India and Chinatown and still pay quite an amount for it. No more whisky or cigarette business. Also all the old cars, always needing plenty of maintenance, are replaced by second-hand Japanese 1s. But the overgrown, mouldy old buildings still remain the same. Next to them stand new modern high rising buildings and plenty of construction sites. By far infrastructure and services are better now; there are a kind of highways, connecting big towns, better flight connections, more reliable electricity, internet and whatever Chinese gadget you may imagine.
Our hotel is in the center of all activities. Just going out of the door we can buy everything we ever dreamed of. Nails, old drilling machines, any kind of ordinary food, clothes, fine food for the real connoisseur – among other delights, slow cooked intestines is among the local favourites …
We walk to the city center and admire all these old colonial buildings. Unfortunately, in most of them we are not even allowed to walk in – maybe they consider it too dangerous for foreigners. It’s either banks, ministries, hotels or simply accommodation for people.
Anyway Yangon is quite an astonishing town. A century ago under British rule the town was as well equipped as London at that time. This must have been quite good considering it was before the Brexit. There’s a rumour that only 95 years later UNESCO wanted to declare Yangon a World Heritage Site. Not for its beautiful well preserved colonial buildings and excellent infrastructure. No after more than 30 years of strict military rule the town should be honoured as 1 of the last remaining primary forests in South East Asia. Who knows.
Even knowing that Yangon is really in a state of change, we’re still astonished how long it takes to convert certain areas from deep rainforest to urban lifestyle. Of course some signs are clearly visible just next to beautiful but completely overgrown buildings dating from the British colonial time. We heard there is a lot of discussion going on on how or whether to preserve the old or replace it all with so-called Chinese modern architecture.
After all these old stones we feel it’s pretty hot and humid, so soon we’re heading back for some relaxation in the cold hotel room.
Time to order our flight to Heho in north east Myanmar in the hotel. On any booking platform it would definitely not work. A day later we have the flight. We should leave the hotel at 5 am to get to the Airport in time. Of course not our dream; some hours later and after the Airline has changed the flight schedule several times we’ll leave late morning.
Then the visit to the world’s most famous places in town and 1 of the most mystical places in the country: the Shwedagon Pagoda. Nowadays a place with many do’s and don’t’s. E.g. it may be a challenge if you’re a quadrocopter freak.
It’s said to be around 2600 years old. A stupa adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf, along with thousands of diamonds and other gems. We have to see it!
On the platform nothing else than gold and a lot of folks.
A couple of beers, some hesitations to buy these spicy, well fired insects and finally a huge plate filled with all kind of braaid stuff.
Well, it’s definitely street food in a pretty lively area where certain standards are not 1st priority. So the revenge comes the next morning. At least for Martin – an adventure that pursuits him for the next few days – just remembering Pink’s famous hit Blow me – I’ve had a sh… day…, of course in plural.
And Monika is happy to have refused to eat the extra tender chicken feet. The 1 carefully marinated in 6 year old fish sauce especially matured in Yangons overwhelming humidity’n’heat – before being slow cooked to a rather rare degree.
Nyaungshwe, 29th October
Nevertheless, with a little luck some time later we discover that our flight is ready to board – and for the 1st time in our life we fly Air KBZ. Never heard about this airline – no need to wiki it even if it’s there. Just trust their slogan Flying Beyond Expectations. They’re pretty ok, have a frequent flyer program and serve some food.
We take taxi to Nyaungshwe where we arrive in the early afternoon. We stay in the Teak Wood Hotel – a typical banana pancake accommodation. Who cares, thanx to Myanmar’s complicated rules for overlanders, somehow we’ve also converted to pancackers. Never mind, if the alternatives are places to share with marvellous all-inclusive tourists wanting to experience the adventure of their life before recovering from all these unhygienic circumstances at sexy Pattaya Beach, Thailand.
Anyway, what a relief after the hot’n’humid climate in Yangon. We’re at 1300m. Cool, cloudy, even rainy.
The next day the must-have-done tour to and on Inle Lake. As all other tourists we get a speedboat and drive thru the pretty busy channel to the lake.
Of course, nowadays not many of these guys are left. Their art of moving gets replaced by Chinese diesel engines making a hell of noise.
Later on we pass thru some villages built on stilts in the lake.
Finally we arrive at the village of Taung Tho Kyaung in the far south of the lake. It’s market day. Unfortunately the village is so distant that we arrive rather late. So the main rush we definitely missed …
E.g. in the villages there are many artisans producing all kind of stuff, also for tourists. So we visit what they call a weaving mill. Many tourist boats are already mooring. Us among them. Definitely it’s more of a showcase with attached shop. Nevertheless, a walk thru the village makes clear, that in every house some weaving is going on. And the scarfs and lungis they produce are pretty nice. Especially those made of lotus fibre. Until we see the prize – we have the impression they want to sell us the whole shop, not just a scarf. Well, we’re out. We ask our boatman to concentrate now on non-commercial sights.
Then to the pagoda. The holiest 1 in the area. Inside some images of Buddha, which have been covered with gold leafs to the extent that their initial form is no longer visible.
On to the Nga Pha Chaung Monastery. Also called the Monastery of the Jumping Cats. This simply because the monks living there are so much bored that they taught cats how to jump. Probably they throw them into the water – and logically the cats jump out of it. Whatever…
This ancient wooden monastery is a very authentic and atmospheric place. So difficult to believe the story with the poor cats.
On the way we pass Taunggy. It’s market day. An obligation to visit – even if it’s raining.
Kakku is 1 of Asia’s most outstanding historic pagodas. More than 2000 Stupas concentrate on an area of 1 km2. Many of them dating back many centuries. It’s the holiest place of the ethnic minority of the Pa-O and as such it has to be visited with a local guide.
Nevertheless, everybody can build his stupa here, provided he finds some space to do so.
Kalaw, 30th October
We plan to visit Pindaya; then go on to Kalaw in the western Shan Mountains. Again, little chance to do so without a taxi. Some more beers wasted.
Then on thru the Shan Mountains to reach Pindaya after 1 h.
For more than 250 years these statues and pictures have been placed by people from all over the world in the cave. Even if they all seem a little uniform, it’s a great place. Unfortunately quite touristy. So in certain places we have to queue up to enter.
Then on to Kalaw. A former British hill station at an altitude of 1300m. So we expect nice’n’cool weather. Unfortunately, it’s just pouring most of the time. Instead of an extended tour to see the decaying colonial building our activities are limited to buying bus tickets to Mandalay for the next day, having a couple of cold beer, some hot food and drying our clothes.
Mandalay, 3rd November
It’s time to find our minibus to Mandalay. As usual with real backpackers we walk to the main road.
Unfortunately they tinted the windows so dark we can just see the beautiful landscape in a kind of black’n’white. At least the space between the seats is pretty ok. Nevertheless, they installed just the usual miniature seats of all local minibuses.
When we were told that it’s air-conditioned, we imagined the cool flow of fresh air during the journey. A complete misunderstanding: when entering the dark cabin we immediately realise this distinguished smell of old socks mixed with wet dog flowing thru the car’s ventilation system. Only hours later, when we reach the hotter lowland the air-conditioning starts working and removes at least partially the old socks. Anyway, early evening, after 6h we arrive in front of our hotel in Mandalay.
Time for a beer.
Mandalay, the 2nd largest city in Myanmar. Except the few must-have-seen-sights it can only be descripted as ugly. Spreading over many km2, just a concrete jungle. An amazing mix of decaying buildings – mostly just a few years old – and more modern Chinese architectural delights.
Nevertheless, a visit to the Royal Palace gives quite a different view. As the town spreads over such a large area many hotels provide bicycles to the poor tourists. So not only that we’ve degraded from overlanders to banana pancake backpackers, now we also convert into cyclists. Just wondering what we will be next – probably alcohol free vegans eating artificial pork sausage tasting like chicken.
Back to the Royalties. Of course they’re no longer in power. So their palace is more a kind of museum – strangely in the middle of a military camp. Great view on the whole complex from its watchtower.
Then on to Mandalay Hill. The way up to the hill – quite some stairs and pretty hot. No wonder all other people have chosen to drive up. But walking up allows to visit a great number of pagodas on the way. Mostly they’re deserted, some having an almost spooky atmosphere. Others are pretty well protected by some monsters.
On the top a great view on the town, the Irrawaddy River and the surrounding plains …
… and a pagoda with a non-negligible kitsch factor.
The next day to Mingun. A village some 10km from Mandalay on the other side of Irrawaddy River. So 1st to take the boot to reach the place. Quite easy, they especially have a few 1s for tourists – and others for ordinary folks.
The must-have-seen-sight in Mingun is Pahtodawgyi. More than 200 years ago a slightly eccentric king started to build the world’s biggest stupa. Probably he wanted to make sure that his building will overtop New York’s Empire State Building. Some astrological advice let him stop his projects. What a pity; so his great stupa remains the world’s largest heap of bricks. At least tourists come, pay entrance fees, climb the steep stairs up the monument and discover just under the top of it that it’s closed to protect whatever may be necessary.
… the unusual Hsinbyume pagoda …
… and last but not least the huge shopping mall between the sights; especially dedicated to the dumb tourist still trying to fill up his cellar back home. In Mingun special emphasis seems to be given to very outstanding paintings.
Back to Mandalay. A visit to 1 of the biggest markets in town. Mainly groceries. It all looks pretty unhygienic; difficult to avoid the scabies combined with a few 100 food poisonings if staying more than 5’ here. We even have an opportunity to deepen this impression once we discover the canal flowing thru the market. Whatever; still alive – somehow.
And that’s it for today. More about our incredible adventures soon – in the next post.