MYANMAR’S MYSTICAL MAGIC
As the U Thein Sein government continues to open up large swathes of Myanmar, no-go zones are quietly becoming history. While there are still some conflict zones and truly remote areas requiring a special permit and guide, this former British colony – Burma -- is becoming one of the worlds most sought after traveler destinations.
Nearly all visitors fly into Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, where golden Buddha statues and ornamental temples vie for attention at every corner. But nothing competes with the Shwedagon Pagoda. Its 110 meter-high, gold-plated, diamond-encrusted stupa towers over a complex of smaller temples and statues, and is an impressive introduction to the decorative mystique you’ll discover in caves, on hilltops, and in every home throughout the country. With its heavy traffic and chaotic bus system Yangon is best explored on foot. Walking gives you time to absorb the city’s fading colonial history through its architecture as well as a grainier side that offers an intriguing authenticity such as curbside letter-writers and pop-up barbers. Check out the sprawling Bogyoke Market to find everything from Burmese rubies, black-market money-changers, and traditional lonhyis (sarongs) to stir-fried pigs’ ears tossed in chili sauce.
[Photo: 3.child portrait] Tanaka, a paste made from ground bark, is a popular cosmetic and sunscreen
Ride the rails to Bagan
If time’s on your side, the overnight train to Bagan is a great way to rattle through the scenic countryside. You’ll see a sunset glowing across horizons filled with sunflowers; morning mists clinging to buffalo in shallow waters; and funnels of smoke from brick-baking kilns floating over fields of corn, peanuts, honey melons and cotton. While monks and commuters crowd the wooden benches in open air carriages, US$20 will secure a “first class” sleeper in a semi-private carriage, complete with flush toilet and windows that open and close. The latter is an important feature. Closed, windows stave off the myriad of bugs attracted to the dull carriage light. Open, and they are adventurous portals through which to purchase food from villagers vending aloe plants, curries or colas at every stop. Be sure to travel with small denominations of local currency as the train doesn’t wait for change or missing passengers.
The sky filled with balloons floating above Bagan’s stupa-studded landscape into the sunrise is one of the country’s signature scenes. For many visitors, the atmospheric lift is the highlight (and key expense) of their travels around Myanmar although climbing one of the temples will still get you a grandstand view. The air may not whisper through your hair, and you may have to juggle your terra firma turf with other early bird photographers, but the spectacle from a temple top is a breathtaking alternative. And it’s free.
A slow boat to Mandalay
Leaving Bagan at 5am is a dark and early start but a day cruise up the Aveyarwadi River to Mandalay is a kinder pace than navigating Myanmar’s unpredictable. River traffic comprises a range of barges, passenger steamers, and boats, and shore side trade is brisk. Even the sludgy sand means business - a full canoe of mud earns diggers about US$5. Most passenger-vessels serve simple food and drink but if you think the passing scenery will work up an appetite, bring along some snacks.
Upon arrival, Mandalay’s frenzied and swelling metropolis awaits. Mandalay’s modern buildings sit cheek by jowl to the Royal Palace and cultivated gardens, as well as countless pagodas and monasteries. Then there are the hole-in-the-wall ‘factories’ where craftsmen pound ingots into gold leaf or sculptors chisel Buddha statues amidst a permanent haze of white marble dust. The city is an excellent home base for travel further afield including the Kuthodaw Pagoda where 729 stupas house the largest book in the world, the hillside farms of tea, lime and orange groves, and the 1.2 kilometre U-Bein Bridge, believed to be the oldest and longest wooden bridge in the world.
Travel lakeside wonders
Although the floating village at Inle Lake is finding its commercial feet when it comes to tourism, it is still one of Myanmar’s must-sees. Motorized canoes launch from the lakeside town of Helo, and motor past leg rowing Intha fishermen, water-lily gardens and aquaponic farms before heading on to small factories, perched above the water on stilts, producing hand-rolled cigars, woven textiles, crafted jewelry and more. Helo and the surrounding countryside, however, seem to absorb travelers in a vibe that resonates the kindness and spirit of the Myanmarese. In the morning, watch chanting, pink-robed (lady) monks and their child-protégés walk single file from household to household to have a teaspoon of rice dropped into their bowl. Enjoy the story-telling of a back-alley marionette show. Cycle the country tracks through maize fields and past chicken farms. And relish the generosity when a family milks their cow to offer you Burmese tea. Such is the kindness and hospitality of this mythical country.
PHOTOS: By Chris McBeath
1. Bagan Balloons – photo credit: Chris McBeath
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