Myanmar Days: Part 2

Antoine and I took a shared taxi for the two hours up from Mandalay into the former British hill station of Maymyo, now renamed Pyin Oo Lwin. There are two parts of the town. The downtown core is along the main Mandalay to Lashio road that continues into Yunnan in southern China at the border town of Mu-se.  The central core was congested with truck traffic and resembled a somewhat cooler mini-Mandalay.

It was in the leafy older suburbs that the very British appeal of Maymyo came back. The highlight for us  was the Kaundaugyi botanical gardens, and spending the afternoon among the quiet, and now faded, elegance of the quieter suburbs. We had stayed at the Cherry May Inn, charming in its own way, but somewhat inconveniently located about seven kilometers south of downtown Pyin Oo Lwin.

Shortly south of the hotel, however, is the access point to the gorgeous Anisakan Falls. The staff at the hotel took us by free motor taxi to the beginning of the hiking trail.  The hike involved a descent of a little under one hour. The falls come down in three separate cascades. We decided to take the steep alternate route back that allowed us to go to the  top of the falls where another set of waterfalls came  into view. The path was very steep and Antoine and I were accompanied by  three young and slight Burmese girls. As I was going up the steepest sections, I could feel the young girl behind me pushing at my day backpack to help me make my way further up.

The following morning, just at dawn, we were dropped off at Anisakan railway station to take the train to Pwin Oo Lwin. The first 45 minutes to the main town seemed to have been for free. At the station we bought our upper class tickets to Hsipaw, a further six hours away for US$6.

The train is narrow gauge, and the easily the  tippiest and bounciest “rock’n’roll” train I have ever been on.  Yet ultimately it was uncrowded and fun. A little less than half way along the trip, we crossed the Goktiek Viaduct, spanning a dramatic canyon, which had been built by the British in 1904.

Hsipaw is a charmer. Although Lonely Planet ‘s observation about “only a trickle of travelers” making it there is no longer accurate, it felt much more lightly visited than other destinations.

One gently haunting highlight of Hsipaw was visiting the Shan Palace, and talking with the  soft spoken and articulate Fern. There were a handful of other travelers who quietly walked in during the late afternoon and then Fern started to speak.  She initially provides a sense of the history of Shan royalty from a human family perspective, complete with sepia toned family photographs in the living room, and then shifts into the painful history in recent decades starting with the military coup in March 1962, and the killing of the last Shan prince, Sao Kya Hseng  (her husband’s uncle). His death has never been acknowledged officially.  Her husband (Donald is his Anglicized name) was arrested in 2005 and was sentenced to 13 years in prison for operating as an unlicenced tour guide among other charges. She was only allowed one fifteen minute visit every two weeks and had to drive hours to get to the prison.  Donald was released in a general amnesty in 2009.  Even now, this is a place that remains a “word of mouth” destination for those travelers who want to learn more about the country than merely getting the travel guidebook perspective.

The trek from Hsipaw up to the Padaung village of Pankan, was one of the highlights of Myanmar. We were a group of eight and walked with our guide for a little over five hours, stopping briefly in a Shan village, then doing the substantial and often steep hike from roughly 400 meters to 1200 meters. The Padaung  are ethnic Khmers who grow tea up in the higher altitudes of Shan state. Our Shan guide, Maung, noted that of the 20,000 kyat we paid for the tour (about $23) 10,000 goes directly to the community so that the children can go to school for free. The food served in our Padaung home, made only of local ingredients, was perhaps the tastiest I had in all Myanmar. Nine of us slept upstairs on lightly padded thin mattresses.

The following day Antoine and I left before dawn for the one hour motor taxi ride back to Hsipaw. The sun rose just as we went over the high pass of our previous day. From Hsipaw we went up to Lashio, a rather non-descript and dusty city, despite its hilly location. From there we flew to Heho airport and on to the main travelers town for Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe. The city is not on the lake proper, but the lake can be accessed by a several kilometer long canal.

More than any other place in Myanmar, this crowded city packed with visitors, gave an early indication of what much of the rest of touristMyanmar might look in another five years. The ten hour boat trip along Inle Lake was great, but there were hundreds of other boats, from the time we departed to the time we got back, transporting other visitors to different places along the lake. The timing for the entrance from the canal to the lake proper was perfect for photography.  The early morning mists were still rising as the Inle Lake fishermen paddled the boats with one leg while standing, slapping the water with another paddle to scare fish  into the trawl nets that they had set up.  The same phenomenon could be observed ( without the paddle slapping), just before sunset as we returned.

Antoine decided to go to Angkor Wat as I headed, once again by the charming “rock’n’roll” train, to Kalaw. Along with Hsipaw, it is my favourite town in Myanmar. Situated at 4200 feet (Myanmar, along with the USA, is one of the last countries in the world still not converted to metric), Kalaw has a wonderful hill station climate.

Almost all other travelers were trekking to Inle Lake. I decided to head in the opposite direction deeper into the mountains to the Palu  village of Nyaungone. Completely bereft of other travelers or even a single store, and with vistas to additional hills and mountain ranges,  it was a joy to spend a few hours there.

The magic of Myanmar and the charming interpersonal dynamic that is such a feature of travel here, despite occasional discomfort and inconvenience, still exists. I would echo, however, the advice I was given last summer. The time to visit is now.

Myanmar Days: Part 1

By the old Moulmein pagoda lookin’ lazy at the sea….
There ‘s a Burmese girl a settin’ and I know she thinks o ‘ me
And the wind is in the palm trees and the temple bells they say
Come you back, you young backpacker, come you back to Mandalay…

I am currently in Myanmar, for the first time since May, 1978. This is a busier place now,  yet there is much in this country that remains timeless,  especially off the lightly beaten path.

In addition to returning to a place I last visited almost 35 years ago,  there is also a wonderful déjà vu of being in a special place at a time of transition.  To this I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend and work colleague, Bob Paquin who, last summer, advised me that Myanmar/ Burma is the place to go…..NOW.

Globalization is the dominant paradigm of our age. Precisely because of this, visiting places and countries just as they become open or  more accessible has always had an appeal. I first felt it, perhaps naively, when visiting Cuba  in 1974.  This trip reminds me slightly of spending a month in China in 1983,  Tibet in 1986, Vietnam and Cambodia in 1992,  or Albania in 1995 as there is a tangible sense of visiting a place opening up and on the cusp of transition. While it is fully understandable that the people of Myanmar would want to modernize and be an integral part of the international community,  being here now is an opportunity to experience something authentic and different, in a country where the effects of globalization are only now beginning to be felt.

Myanmar, since the lifting of sanctions, has suddenly become a popular destination. Its most obvious manifestation is a dramatic increase in accommodation costs and, to a slightly lesser extent, in transportation. There is a real squeeze on hotels, so booking accommodation at least a day or two in advance is prudent.  That said, all of the other aspects of independent travel proved easier than I was anticipating. Air travel has been easy to arrange.  Train travel is uncrowded and inexpensive, if slow. And in most towns, there are dozens of travel agents ready to arrange air transport, bus journeys, treks and other services.

Unlike some other destinations I listed above, travelers have been coming to Myanmar, albeit in limited numbers for a long time. On my long trip in 1978, Burma represented the great travelers divide of Asia.

Back then, there  were a large group of travelers going from Europe overland to India and  Nepal. To the east, in southeast Asia, there were a lot of Australians and others concentrating their travels in that region. Burma did not permit land entry into the country. In those days you were restricted to a “fly in – fly out” seven day visa. It thus  required a certain financial outlay for the two flights. Those traveling on the cheap who were in Burma at that time were likely to be on an around the world trip. Thus I was fascinated to meet those, like me, on low budget long-term travel who had chosen to stay in the wooden beds in the dormitory of the Rangoon YMCA. With the seven day restriction,  I made it to Bago, Mandalay and Sagaing, but not Bagan before time ran out. I recall the train journey to and from Mandalay as being excruciatingly uncomfortable, taking seventeen hours rather than the advertised twelve.

Back to 2013.   I teamed up with Antoine, a great young French doctor Ii met at the departure lounge of Bangkok airport and we were to spend much of our  time in Myanmar together. Yangon was much the same as I remembered, though much busier with traffic. I enjoyed  visiting the Shwedagon  pagoda, among the world’s most beautiful Buddhist shrines, both during the day and, even more magically, at night.

The following day  we took a ferry across the Irrawaddy to the grubby town of Dalah, then hired a car to take us to Twante, sight of yet another superb pagoda, the Shwesandaw, but in a timeless rural setting.  We also visited a simple pottery factory.

From Yangon we flew to Bagan, which is among the greatest archaeological sites in the world. We were four days there, exploring the temples by bicycle. In theory, balloon rides over Bagan were fully booked for the next two months.  Still, we expressed our interest and the next afternoon we were fortunate to find that there had been a cancellation. The following morning we were up before dawn and were in one of the eight balloons that lifted off about fifteen minutes before sunrise. For most of the fifty minute ride we were flying fifty to one hundred meters above the temples. About two- thirds of the way through, the sun broke out, bathing the temples in a deep rich red light. This was my first balloon ride ever and it was awe inspiring to see the temples of Bagan from the air in this way.

We then went by ” fast boat”  to Mandalay. This is a relative term in Myanmar. Anywhere else this would either be a regular ferry or even a slow boat. In total it took us 13 1/2 hours. Save for watching the sunrise, there was not really much to see on the boat journey. What we could see was mainly of flat fields and the occasional small village. As we approached Mandalay,  after dark had descended, we could see the temple lights of Sagaing on the banks to our left. Yet as a method of transportation  for getting from point A to point B, it was a thoroughly enjoyably experience.

Some places do not live up to their romantic name. Alas, this is now the case with Mandalay. I enjoyed returning to the temples of Mandalay Hill,  but otherwise I found the city to be crowded, dusty, polluted and noisy.   Poor Rudyard would turn in his grave if he were to visit the city as a somewhat older British soldier today…..