Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Road Less Travelled

Myanmar.  A country still struggling with it's military dictatorship past & ongoing civil war.  It is also a country of immense beauty and complex history.  Rapidly changing, it is a country I have wanted to see since seeing images of the temples on Bagan Plain in Ron Fricke' Samsara, and one I want to see before tourism ruins it like so many others (I am aware of the irony).  It is also a destination I seem to have been putting off going to because it just hasn't fitted into my plans.  And because I spent so long in Pai...

It is not an easy country to gain access to.  While it has several border crossings into Thailand, these can only be used for day visits into the country, nominally for renewing your Thai visa.  So the only way in is by air - via either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur (exiting is far easier).  These cities are also the only places you can get a Myanmar visa in South East Asia, although thankfully the ever increasing number of tourists seems to have forced the embassies hands a bit and this process is easier than a few months ago.  I got my visa from Kuala Lumpur in a 'same day' process - this used to take a couple of days.  Also, in order to obtain a visa you must provide proof of both your inbound and outbound flights, thus setting a time limit on how long you wish to stay (unless you but another flight).  I gave myself 21 days.  The maximum allowed on your visa is 28.

In addition to this, not all of the country is open to foreign visitors yet, either due to civil unrest that could be dangerous for us to wander into the middle of, or maybe because there's something that the government would rather the world doesn't see just yet.

It is also not an easy country to organise anything in either.  I have a tendancy to use Hostelworld to book my hostels through, usually only a day or so in advance.  They had nothing, although I put this down to places being fully booked and a lack of awareness from hostel owners that this service exists.  My saviour on many occasions would turn out to be Agoda, through which I got some decent rooms at acceptable prices.  Myanmar is an expensive country to stay in!

The final thing which was noticeable was the lack of information, or rather how outdated it was.  My trusty Lonely Planet guide advised to take US$ (crisp, new notes) as there were not many ATM's available and also not to use the airport or banks for changing money - the black market apparently had much better rates.  I acknowledge that the information in the guides is usually a couple of years out of date, and Myanmar is changing quickly, but even scouring the internet did not present a greatly improved picture - there seemed to be a few more ATM's, but only in the big cities, and they may not accept foreign cards.  So, armed with a fistfull of dollars and my now quite battered cash card I set off for Yangon...

To find it's a complete load of rubbish!  ATM's were everywhere - even in temples - and more than happy to chuck their Kyat (pronounced chat) at me.  Airports and banks exchanged dollars at the market rate, much better than hotels.  If the black market were doing even better rates then they clearly haven't got the concept of Capitalism.

So, to Yangon.  It is a vibrant city, on the surface much like any other.  But walking the streets you see signs of it's personal past - abandoned edifices of British rule left to rot, decaying old colonial buildings inhabited by the need for  roof over ones head, and many buildings less than 30 years old showing worse signs of ageing.  On the streets you cannot move for food vendors selling generally unidentifiable but delicious food - noodle soups, a vast array of fried goods - just take the risk and enjoy, it's so cheap!  Fruit and veg stand side by side with DIY stalls and hifi stores.  I have never seen so many speakers for sale.  Or heard so many being tested.

But for all this there is little to actually see.  There are, of course, a few pagodas, the main attraction being the vast Shwedagon Paya.  Sitting 99m high, covering 14 acres, and surrounded by 82 other shrines and buildings, covered in gold leaf and jewels, this is pure excess.  The highlight for me was stumbled on by chance.  While flicking through Tripadvisor trying to find something to do I read about the circular railway.  Costing a mere $1.20, and lasting 3 hours, this is a train journey through the Yangon that lives by the train tracks, from city slums to colonial neighbourhoods, to railway station markets, and out to the surrounding countryside and villages.  A first glimpse at the everyday lives of the Burmese people.

Next stop was Mandalay.  This was like a quiet Hanoi.  Wide boulevards, lined with trees, humming with scooters, make up the downtown area, showing signs of large Chinese investment in building projects.  But step away a couple of streets and you get a feel for what it was like only 5 years ago - dirt-packed roads lead through wooden houses and shops into monasteries and temples.  Just outside my hotel was a hue market selling nearly everything you could think of.  Except food stalls, which I found insanely difficult to find anywhere in this city.

A $10 ticket will get you entry to some of the main attractions in  Mandalay, such as the (reconstructed) Royal Palace and the worlds largest book (a large temple complex where 729 marble slabs tell the Tripitaka canon - covering several acres).  You can avoid paying this though if you go late in the day, or go through the wrong entrance.  The fee goes to the government, and it is clear that while some people are happy to take money off their government in working to collect the fee, they are much less interested in helping the government by actually doing their job.  Which is good for us!  It became a mission to avoid as many camera fees and entrance fees as possible as this money does not go to the people.

Outside Mandalay are 4 historic cities, former capitals of Myanmar in themselves.  Mingun is a half-day trip by boat up the Ayeyarwady River and it's main sight is the Mingun Paya.  Destroyed by an earthquake before completion this was to be  massive 150m high stupa, which huge elephants providing a gateway from the river.

The other cities - Amarapura, Sagaing & Inwa - are generally done in a touristy day trip.  The tourist trail starts with Ganayon Kyaung, a monastery where 1200 monks gather in  procession to lunch at 10am everyday.  Watched by 500 tourists.  I felt very awkward at this sight.  The younger monks still showed an excitement at being the centre of so much attention, but you could tell in the eyes of the older ones that by the time you get to about 15 years old, thousands of mornings of this takes its toll. I saw many monks walk back to their rooms to eat their meal away from the prying camera lenses.  Even mine, I am ashamed to say - but I did try to use maximum zoom rather than shove my camera in their faces.

Sagaing is home to many temples on a hill, and, frankly, is barely worth the walk up the hill and around the top.  Inwa was much more interesting.  Only a few signs remain of it's past - a ruin of a temple, crumbling city walls, a watch tower on the verge of falling over. Being taken around the site in a horse cart (a necessity born from it being late in the day and the size of the site - I kept an eye open to make sure the driver didn't use their whip excessively, but I feel the horse would have stopped without it) it felt much more like a village,  farming community, which is essentially what it now is.  My favourite stop was a teak built monastery, still in use, in need of a bit of dusting, and complete with it's own cat.

The final stop of the day was U Bein's Bridge, a 200m long teak bridge.  It was a stunning sight at sunset, not lessened at all by something which had become apparent during the day - the hundreds of tourists being bused about on tours seeing the same things at the same time.

As I had been in a private taxi with a friend I had been able to take my time seeing various things and had become distanced from them in a way. But here they all were.  In their inglorious hordes.  A sight which would be no less familiar at my next destination - Bagan.

Quick travel tip: don't get night trains in Myanmar.  The seats are uncomfortable, the train rocks crazily and the loosely bolted seats make it even worse.  I barely got any sleep.  Saved a few bucks on taxi fares to the bus station though.

Bagan was my inspiration for coming to Myanmar - over 4000 temples and pagodas scattered over a plain next to the Ayeyarwady River.  Just one shot in Samsara, of the sunrise relfecting back off the brick structures was enough for me.  And it didn't disappoint.  Although I could never get out of bed in time to see the sunrise.  Plenty of sunsets though.

It took a couple of days of exploring to be satiated.  First I went around most of the main sites by bike, marveling at the stupas and buddhas, in various states of disrepair or reconstruction, but found it difficult to escape the crowds or tall owners, who wanted to show you 'their' buddha, or 'their' temple, and then force 'their' unique trinket on you.  I hate to be cynical on this, but it really gets on your nerves after a while.  The following day I rented an electric bike to cover more ground and find a few more remote sites.  And was thoroughly rewarded.   Not only was the bike very capable at being being thrown around sandy dirt tracks, it got me to some quiet temples with amazing views over the plain to see temples at sunset, silhouetted against the setting sun, or other large but remote temples that had not been as extensively renovated as other easier to get to places.  These were the delights of my stay.

After a couple of days of temple-ing though, I was in need of a change of scenery so headed to Kalaw and the start of a 2 day trek across the hills to Inles Lake and Nyaungshwe.  This was exactly what I needed, although the countryside was a bit bemusing.  I had come to Myanmar in the dry season.  It was hot and dusty by day, bitterly cold at night, the leaves were turning orange and there was a definite autumnal feel in the air around dawn and dusk.  But when the sun blazed down in the afternoon the scrub trees, cacti and agave made it feel as if you were in South California or Mexico.

Our guide spoke amazing English, self taught over 2 years as a trekking guide, but she herself only knew bits of the tribal languages spoken in the villages we walked through.  This was very much unlike the experience I had had in Sapa.  These were real farming communities.  They survived growing crops and making local handicrafts for sale in the nearby towns.  The homestay we stayed at also had a more authentic feel - our hosts invited us to sit with them around their fire after dinner and slept in a room partitioned off from our sleeping area, as is the norm in Burmese households.  But still the signs of encroaching tourism could be seen.  Most of the treks overnight from Kalaw to Nyaugnshwe stay in the same village, and just outside this village large hotels of bamboo bungalows are being built by businessmen from Mandalay and Yangon to feed the demand of the growing number of tour groups for whom staying in an authentic homestay would be anathema.  That the land these hotels are being built on was sold by locals after being given to them by the government does make you scratch your head a bit, but then, the land being used could not be farmed on so how else could they make money?

The trail meandered long cart tracks and footpaths through some beautiful countryside before descending beside a river to Inles Lake, where villages have been built on stilts in the fertile reed beds for centuries.  People here have made their living the same way all this time, until the tourists got here.  The lake is dotted with fisherman in their canoes, balancing precariously whilst maneuvering their fishing traps to better spots; a floating garden has been built over the years, a layer of compost that grows everything needed from flowers to tomatoes.

Now this life is starting to change.  Boats that taxied local villagers from one side to the other have now been joined by boats full of tourists being taken around the usual sights - a lakeside market selling all sorts of trinketry and handicrafts(but nothing remarkably different from each other),  small factories making local cheroot cigarettes, gold & silver smiths, and a large weaving mill producing high quality scarves and clothes from cotton, silk and lotus threads, all significantly out of the affordability of the villagers, but bringing in lots of money from the tour groups (if not the travellers, who still strive for a good bargain).  Te most annoying sight though were the 'fishermen'.  Discernible from actual fishermen by their lack of fishing and spending most of their time posing for the tourist hordes, showing how well they can balance on their boat, one leg wrapped around the oar and the other holding up the fish trap in a very inefficient manner before holding aloft a clearly long dead fish for a photo op, hoping to get some money for this charade, and then retiring out of the way to wait for the next gullible boat load to come along.

To combat this I went on a second boat trip the following day, this time a private tour in a boat paddled by a restaurant owner who offered to take me around her village.  Without the sounds of the motors coming from every direction this was much more tranquil, drifting on the glass like surface of the waterways between the houses that make up the network of streets for these communities.  Everything is here for them - schools, temples and even post offices!

Also in Nyaungshwe I managed the unexpected - a continuation of my ceaseless quest to do a cooking course in every country (thanks Tripadvisor!).  And this was a special one.  With a severe lack of internet access, and communication issues with the locals, finding Bamboo Delight and arranging a class was not easy.  And with less than 3 hours cooking time it seemed a bit short.  But Su took us on a wonderful tour of the local market, a very rural experience (contrary to what I said in my last post, sometimes buying fish & meat is a bit different - in depends on the existence of health and safety regulations.  Not for the faint-hearted this one.), making up the days menu on the spot depending on what was available and what we liked the look of.  There were only 5 of us in the class and Su's husband, Leslie, ensured that we all got to cook at least one dishes each.  Given that most of the dishes had the same methods this was not an issue, and being a small group we were always milling around seeing what was going on, having a look at Su's house and talking about the dream she made come true.  As a child in the early 1990's her father had opened a restaurant when people started to come into what was then still Burma. Rather than advertise, he simply drew passersby in off the street, who invariably wanted to know how to cook what they were eating & take these recipes home with them.  Over the years Su was able to learn to speak English from their guests and when her father died she took over the business turned it into a cooking school.  And she was able to give back to her neighbours.  We made a lot of food - much more than we needed.  Anything remaining is taken to the local orphange to help feed the children there.  Su also takes time out to help teach them English and cooking skills, as well as assisting the community financially.  By any standards she would be a success, but what she is doing in Nyaungshwe is truly a wonder and I am so glad I found her and grateful to have been part of this experience.  We actually convinced her to sell some of what was remaining to a French couple who had dropped in thinking this was a restaurant - something she had never thought of doing.  The couple thought our cooking was excellent.  It was.

I then had to go back south again (flights out of Yangon are cheaper than from Mandalay, so this sort of makes sense) as I wanted to see the Golden Rock at Kyaiktyo.  From the base camp it is an 11km hike up the mountain to this site of pilgrimage, mostly through a forest, with little to see except stalls selling food and drink to people going up.  Of which there were decidedly few, as there is a truck which will also take you up for just $2.50, but as always I wanted to do it properly.  I also decided to make it a mental test as well as a physical one by acquiring a drunk Thai gentleman who claimed he was a guide but only wanted a friend so he wouldn't charge me (which he didn't) but just wanted someone to talk to.  I was thinking, cool, I get to have a chat to someone about the area and Burmese culture.  Wrong.  He was so drunk that the conversation revolved around how he wanted a friend and someone to talk to, whilst hanging off my arm and making it even harder work.  After about an hour and half of this, and the conversation not really getting any further, I decided that Buddha would agree I'd done as much as was reasonable and not frown on me too much, so sat him down to rest (for the umpteenth time) ans strode of up the hill at a pace I was sure he couldn't keep up with.  The hike proved to be more memorable than the rock, which is a big rock, covered in gold leaf, balancing on top of another rock, overhanging quite considerably.  They say they are not sure how it balances.  I reckon it's to do with the large quantity of gold leaf stuck on one side of it acting as a counterbalance.  But I could just be being cynical again.

While this would have been an impressive sight it was lessened by the temple precinct which again seemed created for tourists rather than devotees, with tiled walkways and shops.  I decided to get the truck back down the hill which was one of the scariest things I have done so far.  The truck is filled with people sitting on benches on the back of a flatbed lorry.  At the back of this is a caged enclosure for people who have to stand.  Which included me.  With nothing to keep me in except holding on for dear life the truck descended at sometimes silly speeds down the steep slopes and hairpin bends, and along the twisting roads of the valley floor.  It was so much fun I wanted to do it again.

I spent the night in what the Lonely Planet call 'a crime scene', but at $8 it was the cheapest place I had found all trip, and the next day headed for Bago.  Not originally on my itinerary, I had passed through on the way to Kyaiktyo & felt I could fit it in on the return rather than spend another day in Yangon.  Home to not a lot except the tallest stupa in Myanmar, at 114m, and the longest reclining Buddha, 55m, it is a small town with a little charm, but does have an exceptional cafe for breakfast.  This is what places not geared up for the tourist trail feel like, and I guess the closest I will get to how it would have felt just a few years ago. I caught the train back to Yangon, catching me somewhat off guard by being a whopping 90 minutes EARLY.  I thought the British had given them their rail network?  We surely didn't teach them this...  The journey back was far more relaxed than by bus (where karaoke is played at full volume no matter what time of day it is) and as I looked out on the countryside one last time I had chance to look back on my 3 weeks in this country.

It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and special countries I have visited.  The people, on the whole, are friendly and want to talk to you and help you without any expectation of personal gain.  But still I have found it difficult to fall in love with Myanmar as so many have done so before me.  Maybe I have just got here a couple of years too late, when the streets were full of bicycles instead of cheap Chinese motorbikes, before large scale development had taken place and towns like Nyaungshwe were a community of villages with a central market rather than a collection of suburbs.  Maybe it's because you feel as if you are on the tourist trail, going to the same places as everyone else because it's too difficult to get to some of the more distant cities, or that we can;t have access to.  Or maybe it's because, due to both these factors, that the infrastructure for travellers, rather than tourists, isn't as comprehensive as the rest of South East Asia, resulting in a lack of reasonably priced hostels with dorm rooms, forcing you into more expensive twins or double rooms in hotels of which there are still not enough (tales abound of people having to sleep in the streets in Nyaungshwe at times last year because even the monasteries did not have rooms to fit everybody in); that lack of haggling in recent years by more affluent tourists has set expectations higher for the locals of what they are able to make for accommodation and transport.  This makes Myanmar an expensive and sometimes trying place to visit, and I happy to settle for one of those, but not both.

Maybe in a few years, with more investment, things will become cheaper or easier.  Maybe I would return, at a different time of year to see the lush, green rice paddies and jungle, and when the authorities have opened up more of the country.  But maybe, most likely, the country will have been radically changed by then.

1 comment:

  1. It was very interesting to read your article about Myanmar, as I have been there not too long ago. It was a bit easier for me/us, as we were traveling as a couple (--> double rooms) and we have been there in a season less touristy. So, I can totally understand your criticism, but for myself, I have experienced it much less worse. Though, it is a fascinating country. I hope you're doing fine, wherever you stay at the moment.
    Best wishes from Sybille