When in doubt, smile – Ten days and nine nights in magical Myanmar

Written in bits and bursts in present and past tense while traipsing about Myanmar (Burma) between Sept 20 and Sept 30, 2013.

Jin, elvish pixie and I are heading tonight towards the enigmatic, problematic and hydromatic (oops) country of Myanmar. The old hindi song “mere piya gaye rangoon, kiya hai wahaan se telephoon, tumhaari yaad sataatee hai…” comes to mind (my darling went to Rangoon and phoned me from there to tell me he misses me) though ironically I am not sure I will have cellphone reception on the Burmese plateaus (spoiler alert: I didn’t). Our route is Yangon-Bagan-Heho-Inle-Mandalay-Yangon. This will include two days of trekking and home stays on the Shan plateau. On my last day, I will be by myself in Yangon and hope to make the most of it. I’ve borrowed hazel’s backpack and haven’t even managed to fill it up. 3 pairs of linen pants (shamelessly island-style), a long Indian skirt, 9 old and boring-looking teeshirts, a sports bra, flip-flops, a bathing suit, medicines and toiletries. No heels, no dresses, no finery – this is strangely liberating.

I am in inn tain (indein) village an hour ahead of jin and elvish pixie because my body gave up on me. After trekking through 5 hours worth of forestry and rice fields and slush, 3 of which were throught heavy, constant rain, I could not imagine another 4 hours of continuous hiking – at least not with my periods in full, pardon the pun, flow. This month’s session could have come at a worse time and could not possibly have been more painful. Having your underpants’ own version of The Shining can put a dampener on things. I fell several times and have a sprained ankle right now. But even that pain pales in comparison to my dreadful cramps – the ibuprofen that succeeds in keeping the former away from my mind fails with the latter.

crazy mudslide in the mountains that halted our hike for about 45 minutes

crazy mudslide in the mountains that halted our hike for about 45 minutes

waiting for the mudslide to die down

waiting for the mudslide to die down

Nonetheless the hike through the Shan plateau was rewarding – the unspoilt countryside, the neat terraces of rice fields, the flowering trees,  gigantic black completely vertical mountainfronts and the colourfully dressed people with their majestic and well-taken care of cattle and buffalo – it felt surreal to be transported into such a different world, even if briefly so. We ate beautiful dishes made of freshly cut vegetables and herbs – asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, you name it – all cooked in front of our eyes and on open firewood-stoked flames; the same flames warmed our cold, wet hands and feet as we munched freshly salted and roasted peanuts in a home with no electricity, running water or gas (and an outhouse-toilet). To say that this house was out of place in the 21st century was an understatement. But was it cosy and beautiful and did we sleep like babies as early as 8pm? Yes and yes. Breakfast was as delicious as dinner – toast, fried eggs, sweet pancakes with bananas and peanuts, dragon fruit, tea and instant coffee. The girls set about their second day of hiking while I relaxed, pottered about the village and visited the school our home-stay hosts (58 year old mother and 23 year old daughter) taught at. Barracks and a large compound deceptively similar to the one I myself went to. The hosts’ son/brother and his motorbike were my ride to Indein. It was a beautiful, breezy ride that afforded me lovely views of the Shan plateau. Considering I had had both awful cramps and diarrhoea just 15 minutes prior to my ride, I was immensely grateful for it and relieved I didn’t have to walk.
Myanmar is ridiculously undersold. I write this from the whimsical and immacutely decorated bar of the inle princess hotel – a fantastic and luxuriant contrast to my village homestay just 24 hours ago. I’ve had a delicious facial and a pampering body massage and my “room” is a large, decadent villa with a boat-shaped bath-tub, outdoor showers and did I mention a large deck over a pond of lotuses and waterlilies? Inle lake is calm, placid, with mirror-like waters laced with hyacinths and fisherman in flat plank-like canoes that they steer in a unique fashion by way of levering the oar through the right leg as they perch precariously on their left.
my favourite picture from Inle Lake and from the trip overall

my favourite picture from Inle Lake and from the trip overall

Yangon is old, charming and colonial with buildings in odd and lovely colours like bright turquoise or amber and some that are so old they are grey and green with lichen and moss and creepers covering their entire facades. And yet Yangon doesn’t feel decrepit but rather comfortable in its lush rain-soaked antiquity. The shwedagon pagoda – presumably the city’s number one tourist destination – is unabashedly opulent. The temples and pagodas have their tops gilded with gold leaf, pillars and walls and pretty much everything is made of teak wood, and the floor is all marble. It rained the entire time we were in the pagoda premises but for what it’s worth, the off-peak season has in general precluded thinner crowds every place we’ve been to.

The most delightful thing you can see while driving around Yangon at night

The most delightful thing you can see while driving around Yangon at night

Bagan was magical both by car and by bicycle. The internet is rife with comparisons between bagan and angkor wat. What can I say? Just go see both, there are differences and there are similarities and it’s pointless to wonder if one is better than the other. Angkor Wat is definitely smaller and more concentrated. It is grey stone hindu temples converted to buddhist ones with heads of erstwhile shiva statues lobbed off. It is the awe-inspiring ancient trees with towering, tenacious roots that have come up from the ground and permeated stone walls and will make your jaw drop. It is the larger-than-life, entrancing stone faces on the facades of Bayon. Bagan is more temples and pagodas spread out over a larger area; it is wide red bricks; it is ogres and lions standing guard at entrances, it is floor-to-ceiling murals of jataka tales and several ancient scripts and 1400 niches filled with buddha statues in a single temple and sunlight pouring through elaborate iron grills. It is tranquil panoramic vistas of hundreds of lit pagodas as the sun sets over  the aye yar wady river. Just like Angkor Wat, Bagan, is unforgettable.


That Bin Yu Paya, the tallest temple in Bagan

We are so mesmerised by our tranquil surroundings here in Inle lake that we have decided to stay a day longer and enjoy the yuppy pleasures of a lovely bar, a spa with immaculate treatments and a restaurant with a terrace out on the lake.

And thank god we did because Mandalay, where I am right now, is an utter dump. We are yet to find one redeeming quality (other than the numbered grid system for streets) in this awful, dirty and charmless city. Last night we had our most expensive dinner of the trip at the tacky Mandalay hill resort which is overrun by groups of pensioners. Our own hotel, the Mandalay city hotel, is decidedly horrible. Our bathroom was a pool this morning and everywhere I go, I sneeze and my eyes water presumably because this filthy hotel is covered in spores and dust. My only respite was to go out into the muddy vegetable market where I proceeded to get splattered with mud.

Even our sightseeing expedition yesterday – right off the plane – was lackluster at best. The horse-cart ride on the stoney, uneven streets of Inwa (with pissing pigs and cows on either side) was by far the single lowlight of my entire trip. Painful, nauseating and hardly justified to see a crappy leaning watch tower and two monasteries. Our guide I am convinced, was a maniacal serial killer. She would turn around from the front seat of the car with a deranged look on her face and fake laugh with us as if she really understood our jokes. Or she’d launch into rote-memorised monologues about myanmar filled with such gems as “myanmar is in south east asia”. Or answer our genuine questions with a toothy grin and vacant eyes and “yes (grin) yes”. Needless to say, we were sick of her quite quickly and despite her good-intentions and enthusiasm. We didn’t go sightseeing in mandalay the following day. Sagaing hill – home to over 600 monasteries, nunneries and meditation centers – was our next stop after inwa. It was decidedly pleasant and had a nice view. Amarapura’s famed U Bein bridge – a revered and quintessential Myanmar landmark was our last stop. This fantastic bridge is the world’s longest still-standing all-teak bridge; walking on it alongside several other locals, many clearly on dates, was a charming experience. And no, our pictures don’t look as nice as the cover photo of “the river of lost footsteps” or even that of the lonely planet.

A rare quiet spot on the U Bein Bridge

A rare quiet spot on the U Bein Bridge

And in case you’re curious the two redeeming things about Mandalay are the amazing chapatis at the Indian and Nepali joints near 80th and 27th streets and the “Mandalay spice” vodka cocktail at the Mandalay hill resort. The club sandwich at the v cafe is also nice if you, like me, are feeling “curried out”.
Today I am in yangon by myself. Jin flew out of Mandalay yesterday and elvish pixie, early this morning. So far I have had an amazing day. I went longyi shopping at Scott’s market and had fresh mint tea and a delicious chicken avocado baguette for lunch at the lovely dutch deli “bar boon” next door. I then headed to the more affluent kamayut and bahan townships that are home to several local art galleries. Nothing that caught my eye was in my budget (or to be more specific, was under the 300 USD in cash I currently hold). But I had a long and delightful conversation with a pa-o man who owned one of the art galleries. He took pictures of the book I was reading, showed me his photos of the Shan plateau and I in turn showed him mine. I showed him the book I was reading – The River of Lost Footsteps. He was so affected by the pictures of U Thant and General Ne Min in the book. He rubbed his eyes and talked about how he was born right after the country went into dictatorial rule – he’d never known freedom, he said. But he thinks it will come in 2 years. It is moving to talk to people so desperately waiting, so ready for change. Their eyes seem hopeful and sad all at once. I really hope they get what they deserve.

I walked about two hours, checking out galleries and antique stores and lamenting that the first (the one with the nice man) had been the best. When I couldn’t find a cab, a local couple let me ride their cab with them and take it forward to my next destination – the traders’ hotel. I had a nice (and very cheap) manicure and am currently at their cushy peacock lounge waiting for an order of their homemade crab cakes. Nom. (Spoiler: more like crab and prawn cakes but still delicious.)

Table for one at the beautiful, colonial environs of the Monsoon restaurant in the bototaung township. My mandalay rum mojito is stiff as a board. My grilled eggplant salad is laced with peanuts and sesame and is truly scrumptious. My Cambodian tomato soup is so spicy it’s making me sweat. I will probably skip straight to dessert seeing as I have little room in my stomach for more.

I’m at the airport now waiting for my rather annoyingly timed 1 am flight back to honkers. I’m tired from the day’s activities and hoping that my request to block the seats next to mine will be granted so I can sleep the entire way. In any case 3 hours won’t suffice before a manic Monday of budget work.Still this trip has been worth every effort and every penny. Not just for the spicy curries and magical pagodas and magnificent sceneries and pretty longyis but also for the privilege of interacting with the Burmese folk who speak English and are honest, cultured and helpful (not to mention well read). And yes, they are always smiling and welcoming.
The sign when you arrive at Yangon international airport says “When in doubt, smile”. That sign is right as rain.

One thought on “When in doubt, smile – Ten days and nine nights in magical Myanmar

  1. Pingback: 3 stars: 2013 – A year in review | Juice

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