The Magic of Myanmar

Myanmar is an untouched country, for now. It’s like taking a step into a time machine going back 50 years or more. From the hospitality in Mandalay to the sunsets in Bagan, the indigenous people of Inle Lake, and the onset of modernity in Yangon, it’s a beautiful place with beautiful people.

In Mandalay, I stayed at a place called Dreamland Guesthouse, which doubled as a music school. The kids would learn downstairs and travelers would stay upstairs in the dorms. When we went, there was a citywide curfew at night and by 9:30 everyone had to be off the streets. That evening for sunset I hired a taxi to take us up to Mandalay Hill. Monks that live there speak many languages and use the tourists as an opportunity to practice. I got the chance to meet a monk named Ongong who had a genuine curiosity and friendliness about him who spoke English very well. After taking in the sight and the beauty of the sun setting over Mandalay it was a warm welcome to Myanmar.

The next day I rented a motorbike to get around and rode out to some waterfalls.

Being my luck, on the way there I got a flat tire and had it fixed by someone on the side of the road. When I finally made it to the falls, I walked down the floating huts along the graduated pools that led down to the falls. Burmese teens joined us and swam and laughed.

The next day I left for Bagan. Making sure to get a hostel with AC, we had a kid take us on horse and carriage to check out the ancient temples scattered about the land. On our way he offered us Areca nut, which is a special nut wrapped in betel leaf and is chewed, leaving the mouth red and the need to constantly spit. The effect of chewing betel leaf and areca nut together could be compared to that of drinking a cup of coffee. We saw some of the locals making their way home from work and found it quite funny to see the women carrying anything from pots to large bags of rice or flour balanced atop their heads. Very efficient.

The sunset over the temples at Bagan and climbing high to watch the big orange ball fall over the dusty, smoky plains with the spires of hundreds of Pagodas poking out, was otherworldly. Goats and cattle scattered the countryside off in the distance.

Out of all the places in Myanmar, Bagan was my favorite.

The town is split into Old and New Bagan and can be covered by using an eBike. We rode around and stopped here and there between the two parts of town. Spotting a school we stopped in to say hello and visit the kids. They were excited to see us and after hanging out with them in the schoolyard for awhile we headed out, weaving in and out of the ruins while workers slept, passed out in the shade near the entrances. Covering a lot of ground and on our way back one of the eBike’s batteries died so I had to use my foot to push the bike back into town as mine sputtered out and died, coasting into where we got them, just in time. The WiFi in most of the country is poor and there was basically none in Bagan, which was a nice getaway.

Inle Lake, pronounced In-lay, is a lake that sits between the Shan Mountains.

Our tour for the day cost about $15 and we thought it strange that the ticket had “15” for USD, Euros, and Pounds as if the idea that currency is to be converted didn’t cross their minds. “Just give us 15!” Along the way, we were told the fishermen use one leg wrapped around the oar to steer and paddle the wooden long boats. The reason for this is to free up the hand to properly cast a net. Balancing on one leg as they cradle an oar in another, using their free hands to pull fishing nets out of the shallow water. It’s really a sight to see and involves some talent. They make the equivalent of 4 or 5 dollars each day. We sat on pads and our boat skimmed across the lake as we made our way to Indein Village.

Replete with thatched stilted homes pieced together with gray boards, long boats and the Intha rowers, the lake serene, observing the pace of life suggestive of how the locals have lived for ages.

The shoreline is obstructed with floating gardens and water streets cut out to make canals. Flowers, fruit, and vegetables are grown on the lake. Our rower stands so he can see what’s around the corner as we make our way through the floating garden maze. Kites flew in the air and following the strings down they led into rectangular paneless windows on the sides of the homes. As we went by we could see children running about freely, barefoot, in the homes and on the decks playing. Thanaka, the yellowish paste made from ground bark covers the faces of children and adults to protect against the sun.

The boat met the dock and we made our way up through the village.

Children kicking a type of wicker shaped into a ball to play soccer. Fresh mud from recent rain and in the distance villagers picking up their kids from school. Little ones wearing uniforms and scarves and some even smaller being carried piggyback by the mothers. After going through a long stone structured hallway passing vendors selling everything from pipes to souvenir paper currency and coins, postcards, and shirts we made it to the Shwe Indein Pagodas. Stretched out along the hill we could see them with varying patinas; burnt umber, terracotta, aged gold, and weathered stone.

On our way back we stopped to visit the Win Yadanar, Kayan (Padaung) Tribe.

These Burmese ladies wear neck decorations from the early age of 9, the metal rings start out weighing in at 4kgs and progressively increase up to 8kgs once they reach the age of 20. The neck slowly, over time, separates the head from the shoulders and if the rings are removed they will die. To sleep, they require two pillows and they spend their time making traditional weaving and handicrafts. When we got there our guide was encouraging us to “Take picture! Take picture!”, but the scene was all too real and needed some time to process. After spending a few days in Inle we caught a bumpy night bus to Yangon.

Riding through town the buildings are covered in green streaks of mold from the ever-constant hover of moisture in the air.

Old British buildings have the look of Gothic ruins gone astray in a tropical forest that cannot accommodate their scale. Trucks try to fit down narrow streets as stray dogs weave in and out of the tight squeezes in the side roads. Our driver turns down an alleyway, and we’re at our hostel. The next day we went to the 2,600-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar. Reflecting on the time spent here I’m drawn to the pureness of the culture. The untouched parts of the country are really something special and unforgettable. The people are happy, and the smiles seem unlimited.

Joseph Pallante
Joseph Pallante
An avid traveller, Joe enjoys spending time exploring the New Zealand countryside. In his spare time, he travels around in his campervan, writes about nature and how to live a frugal and sustainable lifestyle.

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