Exploring Myanmar (Burma)
Exploring Myanmar (Burma). This summer my boyfriend and I decided to spend our holidays in Myanmar (official international name since 1989 to unify all the different denominations given by the various States, such as Burma). We had been watching this destination for some time, fascinated by the fact that it was one of the least touristy, the last untouched paradise of Southeast Asia. And in April we finally decided and we bought the tickets to spend our summer holidays here, the first 17 days of August.
Finally I can share here on the blog our travel itinerary, a really intense and also exciting one!
Exploring Myanmar (Burma): what to see and our travel itinerary
Mingalaba Myanmar! The former capital welcomed us on the first day of August under heavy rain, which in some ways made the atmosphere even more unique. After a long flight from Italy (of which I will tell you in detail in a separated blog post), we reached the first stage of our trip to Myanmar and also the first hotel. Novotel Yangoon welcomed us with a wonderful floral welcome on the bed and in the bathtub, but not only: a very welcome selection of pokè bowls from one of their restaurants, specialized in poké of all kinds… Good food! Just what we needed to recover from 15 hours of flight!
The first day was completely dedicated to rest, and in the evening, we decided to go out and walk near our hotel, where we discovered a typical night market, among stalls selling all kinds of fruit and vegetables and many people who ate sitting around colored plastic tables. We will then discover this is so common in Myanmar!
The next day, as well as our only day in Yangon, before leaving to travel all over Myanmar, we went to discover the city, the economic capital of the country. The first stop was one of Burma’s most important temples, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Shwe means “gold”, in fact the temple is completely covered with gold. Unbelievable! Every five years it is closed so that they can add more gold, gold that is given by the Buddhist faithful in the hope that the good actions of this life will lead to better conditions and possibilities in the next one. Currently the temple is covered with 8 tons of gold, plus hundreds of diamonds and rubies, so it became very difficult to estimate the weight.
In the photos you see me barefoot because in almost all Buddhist temples it is compulsory to walk barefoot and cover the legs, as a sign of respect. At the entrance they sold beautiful colored sarong, so I chose to give me this beautiful golden model!
Mandalay and Mingun
The next day we left Yangon and reached Mandalay with an internal flight of about an hour and a half: here we find a beautiful sun waiting for us! Yangon is, in fact, very close to the coast, so during the Green season the rainfall is quite copious; Mandalay instead, is located in the center of the country, and here the climate is drier and more pleasant.
After landing, we head for one of Myanmar’s most famous and great monasteries, Mahargandaryoun Amarapura. It was 10:30 am and the monks were already all lined up, waiting for the daily food ration to be distributed. There was an endless row of monks of all ages: the bordeaux tunic, the shaved head, the bare feet, their good eyes. The monks can not own anything beyond 3 cassocks, a razor, a cup, a thread for water and a bowl for the alms that they ask every morning, at dawn. Lunch is their last meal of the day and is consumed between 10 and 12 am. After eating, all together they pull out the basins and wash their dishes, more like bowls, and pots. Almost 90% of Burmese are Buddhist and for families, especially for the poorest, it is a great honor that their male children can become monks and follow Buddha’s teachings. However, the choice to become a monk is not necessarily definitive: in the course of life, in fact, the monks can decide to change their path, leave the monastery and even get married.
Another temple to visit in Mandalay is the Golden Palace Monastery, completely made of teak wood: marvelous!
Continuing our tour of Mandalay, we then moved to Kuthodaw Pagoda: this is not just a temple, but it is the largest book in the world and contains the Buddhist canon written in the Burmese language. In each niche there is a page, that is a large stone stele, and there are 730 niches for a total of 1450 pages!
The following day our guide arranged for us a trip to Mingun, a small village reachable with a 45-minute cruise on the Irrawaddi River.
In Mingun there is the biggest ringing bell in the world, and tourists, to hear the melody, have fun tapping it with a wooden stick.
In Mingun there is Hsinbyume Pagoda, the temple that I liked the most. Imposing, completely white, with a golden point: does not it remind you of a beautiful cloud? For Buddhists, on the other hand, it represents a mythological mountain.
On the way back we headed to U Bein Bridge to enjoy one of the most beautiful sunsets of the entire trip. This is the longest teak wood bridge in the world, almost two kilometers long. The colors of the sky and the shadows on the bridge, where the locals love to get together, make the atmosphere very suggestive.
Another place not to be missed if you come to Mandalay is Mandalay Hill, the hilly area of the city from which you can enjoy an enchanting view of the countless pagodas of the surrounding temples. There are so many: just look out to see the green expanse from which their golden points emerge.
In the pictures you can see me wearing one of the typical Burmese straw-tipped hats, a gift from Manu, bought the day before in Mingun!
From Mandalay we reached Bagan via ferry boat. We left at 7 am and sailed for over 9 hours, making a small stop in a local village where the population specializes in creating beautiful terracotta vases.
In this village there were also some children who had fun playing soccer with Manu!
From the river, Bagan is immediately recognizable: its red-brick temples soar from the banks. Over 3000 temples in just 42 square kilometers. Can you imagine the wonder?
In Bagan I saw my first local market and I immediately became fascinated: the atmosphere, the scents of the spices, the people staring at us, a crib created with a net and made to sway gently over the tea leaves. It was for me the first time that I came across such a true and intense Myanmar.
The next day we go to some villages near Bagan. In the first one lives a family that makes fabrics, following step by step the entire production process from raw cotton to yarn and finally to the actual fabric. To make a blanket it takes about two weeks of work and they sell it for just 30 euros.
The second village is called Pakokku and here is produced most of the wood with which the “tanakka” is made. In Myanmar it is usual to see women and children with their faces colored by a yellow paste, used both as a make-up and to protect their skin from the sun: this is obtained from a particular type of wood, which is made dust and used by people in their everyday life. Try it and having it applied by a local woman was a very beautiful experience: I was absolutely not used to this type of treatment so after about an hour I removed it because my skin got very dry. Next to the place where they were selling wood, there was the truck that you can see below where they were loading pineapples to sell them at a nearby market: we could not resist and we started to help them!
About Pakokku I will always remember the faces of people: always smiling and so interested in us, as they are still not used to seeing tourists walking through their streets.
The fourth stage of our trip to Myanmar is a half-hour flight from Bagan. And from the airport still an hour and a half drive, during which we had a small stop to a new market, a little different from all the others we’ve visited so far. It is a “5 days market”, a market that moves every five days to a different place. I think it was one of the most colorful markets I’ve ever been and the thing that struck me the most were the colorful headdress worn by women in this region of the country.
In Kalaw we stay in a hotel located on a hill, completely surrounded by greenery: its rooms are actually small chalets made entirely of wood. We came here to enjoy a day of trekking surrounded by nature but due to an ankle problem I could not join Manu in this adventure that led him to the “foot of Himalaya”, on the border with the mountain range of the Himalayas, from which the Everest rises.
In the afternoon we visited Pindaya Caves, which are a couple of hours drive from Kalaw. It is a cave with more than 8 thousand Buddha statues made of gold. They have been discovered about 300 years ago: nobody knows exactly who brought them there and for what reason. But the result is really impressive!
Finally we reach one of the most famous places of all Myanmar, Inle Lake, which is an hour’s drive and a canoe from Kalaw. One of the main activities here in Inle Lake is fishing, so all along the lake it is very easy to come across agile and friendly fishermen who are rowing in a very particular way: standing on the bow of their boat, balanced on one foot, while with the other they help in the movement of rowing, fishing or cultivating their floating gardens. Their boats remember our Venetian gondolas: they are tapered and made entirely by hand, in wood.
Here in Inle Lake people live and work on stilts suspended over the water and the other typical activities of this territory are the realization of canoes and the processing of fabrics made from the filaments of the lotus flower plant, very rare and very precious!
Even the hotel we stayed during our days in Inle Lake, the Amata Garden Resort, is located along the lake, and this is our beautiful room with terrace and panoramic view!
The next day, after 11 days of non-stop visit, we decided to dedicate it completely to us: a day of total relaxation spent in the beautiful swimming pool of the resort!
Always on board the typical canoes of Lake Inle we moved to a new destination. 5 hours of navigation, between clouds, wind and pouring rain (sheltered only by a small umbrella) towards the sixth destination of the trip: Loikaw. During our journey, we stop at Shwe Indein Pagoda, currently undergoing restoration, but still very impressive.
The first day in Loikaw begins with a visit to the local market where we taste the typical pancakes with cinnamon and coconut: delicious!
The day continues with a two-hour drive to Pampet Village, the village where “Long Neck Ladies” live. One of the oldest, age 67, welcomed us with a huge smile and allowed us to enter her home, giving us one of the most incredible and touching moments of this trip. Thanks to the translation of our guide, she explained to us that in this village it was customary for women to wear their neck rings as a child. At the age of 7 they started wearing 7, as they reached 20 years old they added 20, for a total of 27, which could be increased up to a maximum of 32 rings, weighing over 4 kg. When they could no longer add small rings to the head, they began to add larger ones towards the shoulders, thus forcing them to go lower. Pampet Village is one of the last places in the world where you can see women with long necks, which are currently about 60 and, in twenty years, they will be destined to disappear. This is because young women no longer want to do this because they fear to be discriminated as they want to go and study in the city or to travel.
The most frequent question I received when I told you about this village is: what is behind this custom? In reality there are 3 different stories from which the tradition of putting the rings around the neck to lengthen it is born. The first is that they started to put rings to protect themselves from the attacks of tigers who lived many years ago in these areas, the second is that they were put by their fathers to protect their women and daughters from the British men (it is said that when the British colonized Myanmar, they kidnapped many women and then the Burmese thought that with the rings their women were less beautiful and, therefore, attractive), the third is that they were put by the masters to identify their slaves. Nobody really knows which of these three stories is the real reason behind this particular custom.
The “Long Neck Ladies” love to play musicl instruments, to carve bronze necklaces and spin wool creating beautiful fabrics. Before leaving, they gave me a bronze circle, a lucky charm for all my future challenges. I could not wish for a better wish!
Another village that deserves to visit is Daw Damagyi. It is about two hours by car, one of which on a dirt road, from Loikaw and there, between the ethnic Kayan, live the “Long Ears Ladies”, because of the very heavy earrings they wear in order to lengthen and widen the lobes. To visit this village we had to ask for a special permit ten days before the arrival. During 2017 due to repeated civil wars with neighboring populations no one could have come here and throughout 2018 we are the second couple of tourists who were allowed to visit it.
The Kayan are very poor: they live in wooden houses without electricity, they sleep on the floor and drink rainwater. But they are happy with what they have and possess the greatest wealth: love. For their traditions, for their family and for the nature that surrounds them. Women with long ears usually wear heavy black lacquer rings at the knees, which after being placed are no longer removed and help prevent cramps that may come after days spent working in the fields.
As with the tradition of the “Long Neck Ladies”, this tradition is no longer passed down to new generations and currently the youngest “Long Ears Lady” is 50 years old.
Our trip to Myanmar has come to an end! I sincerely thank Swam and the tourism board Visit Myanmar for helping me to organize it to the smallest details and to have suggested me to visit a truly unique country in the world.
In order to make this post not too long and fluent, I decided to separate the travel tips. Soon another one dedicated to this topic will be out, with some unpublished photos … Stay tuned!