Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Burma Blog - Rangoon Rant or Yangon Yodel?

Burma bound
With mind sound
Travelling around
With $ and £
We were really keen to visit Myanmar (Burma) for a long while, generally because the entire Indo China region is very beautiful (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia etc) – also, its extremely interesting to see how Indian influences have been transformed by the cultures in these places. Now that the new government in Burma has relaxed its controls and opened up the country, tourists are flocking. We took advantage of Easter Holidays in April 2013 to visit. At least 3-4 people we know travelled here in previous months, so we were fortunate in getting their trip highlights to follow. 

Our first impressions were rather charming. The airport looked to be quite decent even though basic and small. We arrived late in the night, deceived by the sparse traffic on the roads, only to find the next day that daytime traffic can be painfully choking. 

Our hotel, the Savoy, was close to the key attraction Shwedagon Pagoda, and is done up beautifully with indigenous handicrafts and paintings and antiques. One really sweet thing is that they dress up all the statues with jasmine flowers hanging from their ears or neck or wherever space allows! The atmosphere is very laid back and colonial. They have some antique pieces like an electric fan that I really loved. 

There are other things about Burma that make it interesting for us Indians. Buddhist influence is very strong: we were told over 85% of people here are Buddhists. We have a shared history of the same colonizer, i.e. the British. And it appears we won independence around the same time, Burma in 1948 vs. us in 1947. The similarities don’t end there. Our last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was extradited to Burma by the British where he spent his last days. We saw his mausoleum – a rather nondescript building. Cant help but feel sad about what the Mughal Empire represented and what an insignificant end it came to. Similarly, Burma’s last King Thibaw was extradited to Ratnagiri in India by the British where he died, again, rather insignificantly. 

The key difference is our countries’ different paths after independence. Even though we lurched our way through the last 50+ years of independence, I think we have to seriously congratulate ourselves that we have managed to maintain the rule of law and a really vibrant democracy. It may not have given us as quick progress as China, but at the same time, we have done much better for ourselves than Burma, which started off at around the same place (lots of valuable raw material like jade, rubies, silks, etc. but also heroin and other drugs). 

I get the impression though that the Buddhists here are not as peaceful or mild mannered as our stereotypes would suggest. Lately there has been some violence against the Muslims near Mandalay. It’s the usual story: the indigenous population unhappy with the immigrants who probably work harder and smarter and therefore take away opportunities. It was also interesting that the guides don’t take us to all the places we ask them to. Is this the government’s way of ensuring that tourists only stay in the places they expect them to? The guides also seem reluctant to talk about the king’s descendants who are still living in Myanmar. But they were very happy to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi, who they refer to as “Our Lady” – never take her name. We drove by her residence. We saw her home from the backside too: there is a lake right behind: do you remember the incident wherein an American surreptitiously swam across this lake to visit her (unbeknowest to her) – and her house arrest was extended by another year as a result?

Yangon has many an interesting sight
Pagodas display The Buddha's might
Shwedagon needs time not too tight 
Cos it's a sight to behold in evening and daylight

We saw a number of pagodas and stupas which were rather sadly re-made into very modern styles. The best of all was the Shwedagon Pagoda. The inner complex was beautiful and ethereal: lots of Buddhas with different seating/standing positions and with different mudras. Because we had done the docent course in the Asia Society, we were able to appreciate the finer points of the Buddhist representation, including the Mahayana/Theravada differences, the various hand positions, the typical features of architecture in this region, the disciples names etc. The Burmese names for these are not quite the ones we know in India but very similar: interesting! Not sure if any of you have read stories with Burma in the background: I read Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace - these books always have the Shwedagon in the background. So over a period of time I have developed this image of Shwedagon, and I am happy to say the reality was that and even better: It feels like this Pagoda is the presiding monument benevolently protecting Yangon: you keep looking out for its silhouette at various vantage points in the city, and feel like you get this feeling of security when you can see it. Even more peculiar was what happened to me when we were inside the Shwedagon complex: our guide was really keen to explain everything but I was in no mood to listen at all. I just kept shutting down into myself and wanted to be really quiet to allow the atmosphere and experience to gently wash over me. Or maybe I had had too much of the sun and was really tired. :-) 

The food here is also very good: lots of vegetarian options. They eat a lot of rice here, not much wheat. We had a tasty thali like meal at a local joint. They give you lots of little plates of salads and cooked veggies, so we can try out many options. Severe overeating is eminently possible!!! 

Unusually for me, I  managed to read a wonderful travelogue called “The Trouser People” by Andrew Marshall as I travelled through Burma. The book gives a very good sense of the culture here. And the choice of words and descriptions are very poetic and evocative: a real treasure. Funny too!

Another thing that's everywhere is "Burma teak" furniture. Remember how, while growing up in India, people used to refer to Burma teak in hushed tones as the Real McCoy? Out here it's so casually used in furniture. Solid pieces: beautiful!  If I could, I would've carted back some pieces for sure.

Another similarity with India (in not such a great way) is betel leaf chewing. People keep eating this and spewing out gobs of red stained spit - marking a number of pavements and walls. Chee!

A third interesting thing that's everywhere is that girls put turmeric/sandalwood like paste (thanaka) on their cheeks and walk around. Apparently keeps them cool. I saw some having gone really overboard and covered their whole face with it: they look like strange and non fearful ghouls: skinny bodies, grinning faces with this weird mask.

  I also like the way everyone here wears the national dress rather than pants. Both men and women wear longyis which looks exactly like our lungis. But thankfully I don't see them making it "half mast"...

Yangon is very charming
When the sun is rising
Yangonese are very polite 
In the day and in the night

You can see our pictures from Yangon in our album here

Reporting from Inle Lake
After a short flight, we're at Inle Lake without a doubt 
Haven't quite begun checking the place out
At the resort we've only just checked-in
And saw this huge umbrella (with a tiny one snuck-in)

On March 31 we set off very leisurely from Yangon bound for Inle Lake. We sat in this really small plane with just around 20 seats. Very efficient local bus like operations by Air Mandalay. Flight was a hopping one, so spent just 20 mins to board a few of us at Yangon and then we were off. Within an hour we were at Heho, which is the airport closest to Inle Lake where we were headed. The airport is really cute and small, almost like a shed. Reminded us of another airport we saw at Kerry in Ireland many years ago. Most of the local travellers didn’t even have a carry bag on board. Just a newspaper or some other small effect – so they literally walked out of the plane and walked away “into the sunset” while we had to wait for all of…two minutes for our bags. Even our pee took longer than this!!! We bundled ourselves into the car and we were off.

A quick note about the cars here: all seem to be Japanese made. We saw Toyota models that we haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. I was very impressed that the cars on the roads all look quite clean and non-dented despite the amount of dust here. Also the ac in the cars work very well and all of them had bottled water to welcome us. The drivers are really quaint. They wear pristine white full sleeved shirts on top and a longyi bottom. I read in my book that Burma used to be left hand side of the road like India (British influence I suppose) so all the Japanese cars they import have right hand drive. Suddenly one of the generals was told that it was astrologically bad for his government for left hand drive and so overnight they changed to driving right side of the road. Don’t know when this happened, but we noticed that drivers are not too adept with turning and overtaking with a right hand drive car and driving on right side of the road – all confusing. (if you remember, in India we drive on left hand side of road, and driver sits on right)

After a 45 minute drive on a one track road we were at our resort on Inle Lake, appropriately called…Inle Lake Resort. This is a typical resort in Asia: has a nice spa, nicely appointed rooms with balcony overlooking the lake, four poster bed with mosquito net in colonial style, and people dress up for dinner etc. we lounged around and relaxed and went to bed early since we had an early day next day. 

Next day was April 1st. We got up bright eyed bushy tailed at 5am to take a boat down the Inle at 7am. So early in order to visit the local market before the other tourists got there. There are a number of villages around the Inle Lake composed of many houses and buildings built on stilts in the water. Feels like an Asian Venice! We take the boat right upto the house or building and then climb up some makeshift stairs into the building. 

There is a five day local market that keeps moving from one village to another around the lake. The day we decided to tour the lake, the market was at the southern most tip village, so we got a good excuse to have a long ride of about an hour on the river, with a gentle breeze blowing through our hair and the fishermen still out for their daily catch before the sun became too hot. The fishing is a little strange: the fishermen stand on their little boats, one foot on an oar which they use to paddle or turn the boat this way and that, while their hands are occupied with their fishing nets. They look a little like those freak tall men on stilts that we used to see at our school circus. What was really considerate was that our boatman used to slow down and reduce the engine noise everytime we passed these fishermen: so respectful of one another’s professions. Quite impressive. 

The market was what you may expect: started off being a market for local produce and the locals, but over time, it appears that it became more lucrative to sell touristy stuff like jewellery and trinkets rather than agricultural produce. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see the kind of things being sold – not much by way of meat. There was a whole paan stand. Lots of papads – but these were thali (big) size. They were also selling Indian shampoo. Jaggery, tamarind, other spices most of which we are familiar with. We took photos of the sellers: many of them wearing fully black costumes but an extremely colourful headgear on which they carry wicker baskets of produce. Lots of cute children, some of them manning stalls too. We had carried some nuts and some pens, so we distributed them here and there. 

Then we boated (drove? Floated? Steered?) to our next destination on the lake: just like in Laos, there is a lot of cottage industry that thrives in the area. Textiles, silver, paper etc. is made in small home run factories around the lake. We visited a textile factory: can you believe it – they make textiles out of lotus stems! We saw the process: laborious indeed. You need kgs of stems to make one small thread. Better them than I is what I said…We also visited a silver factory. Burma traditionally had silver mines but I think they have all been used up over the years, nonetheless there is still a bit of silver smithy going on here and there. Quite skilled workmanship. Piece de resistance is a male and female fish which they manage to construct so that they move like they are swimming, with their fins moving vertically and horizontally respectively. 

An entire ecosystem is Inle Lake 
It's rural beauty simply takes the cake
Here, fabric and silver villagers make
From weekly markets, produce they take

We had lunch at Inthar Heritage House, to which is attached a Jumping Cats Sanctuary. Burmese cats are dark black or brown, but they weren’t jumping at all. All were sleeping or curled up here and there in complete torpor trying to brave the heat. But the lunch was great. Salads and starters made out of unusual veggies like spring onions and green tea leaves! The restaurant also had interesting paintings and artefacts. The owners were probably people of curious interests: there were lots of books about cats and herbs in the shelves. 

By this time, the sun and the food had got to us, and we slept most of the way back to the hotel. We relaxed at the bar, went to a nearby hillock to watch a rather lovely sunset, and then I came back to the spa for a foot reflexology treatment followed by dinner at our hotel and another restful night. 

Inle Lake Day 2

Was a day of extremes. We began the day in a very relaxed way with a full body oil massage in the hotel spa. We then decided to be adventurous and took a boat to the north part of the island as planned. We hired bicycles and began riding on the dirt track. Initially it was great fun. We were headed to a winery for lunch and wine tasting but on the way saw a notice saying “Farmer’s ShanVegetarian Food” pointing to another dirt track leading into another village. Intrigued, we cycled for 10 minutes and came upon this shack. It was literally a hut with a big deep freeze. We were the only guests. We decided to be brave and have our lunch there. The menu consisted of just one option for lunch, and two options (beer and water) for drinks. There was only one lady and a child. She began pounding spices after we came and our hearts sank: how long was this going to take? Amazingly, she put together a wonderful meal in 20 minutes. Soup with veggie like gourd/winter melon floating, tomato salad, fried mixed vegetable, tofu curry and rice. We were so glad we stepped off the beaten track to enjoy this. Her kid was also very cute with the customary “thanaka” (that sandal like paste) on her cheek: we distributed some nuts and played a bit of hide and seek with her. I remember also making the comment that little girls engage with people around a little more than little boys, who are normally bent on taking apart (ie destroying) whatever they can get their hands on…

We then went onwards to the winery and tasted their “Red Mountain” wine. Red wine I think is difficult to make, but their white and rose wine seemed ok. We had a rather average banana pancake dessert and were quickly on our way. We were looking for a resort that was highly recommended by Fodors and my friends who had already been to Burma. This was the Inle Princess resort, which we had tried to get a booking for but failed. We thought we would go there for tea. So we cycled. And cycled. And cycled. There was no resort for miles and miles, but in the process we got quite an overdose of heat, dust and grime. The so called road was a marked contrast to what we had been used to seeing in Yangon. One track, muddy in most parts rather than well concreted, so even though traffic was not huge, the few buses or tempos or bikes that were plying on the road were churning up the dust quite significantly.

The Red Mountain Winery is Inle's hidden gem
It's wines and grapes will please Sahib & Mem 
It's only a short cycle ride away from town
The views it offers are the jewel in the crown

After a fruitless quest of 2 hours we returned tail between legs, to the town we borrowed the bicycles from. Luckily the hotel (Viewtop) where we had taken the bicycles from, had good bathrooms, so we spent about half hour cleaning ourselves, rehydrated ourselves with lots of lemon water, and then had dinner in the restaurant upstairs. We were so tired by then that we could hardly do justice to the food, even though the dishes were quite interesting: a novelle take on “Shan” (a tribe here) cuisine. We took a taxi back and literally crawled into bed and that’s all I have to say about that. 

Our pictures from Inle Lake are in this album

Reporting from Bagan
From Inle to Bagan we have made our way 
From lakeside to a place where Pagodas hold sway
Tomorrow, I think, will be a busy day
Looking at heritage up close - bricks, mortar & clay

The next day we sat in another small plane and very efficiently transferred ourselves from Heho Airport (Inle Lake) to Nyaung U (Bagan). We flew via Mandalay. The flight barely took off before it had to land again – only 25 minutes to each destination. We had decided to skip Mandalay because we heard it wasn’t as great as the other destinations, and later, we heard there were some tensions there between the Buddhists and Muslims, so in hindsight, this was probably a good decision. Though for those of us who have read Amitav Ghosh’s “The Glass Palace” Mandalay will always have a romantic association as the truly exotic Orient. It’s probably a boring Asian industrializing city now, so better instead stick with our dreams. Though having said that, I haven’t been too unhappy with Yangon: unlike capital cities of Vietnam and Cambodia, it still has quite a bit of charm and lack of “development” – possibly because Burma was rather closed to the outside world until pretty recently. Also, thankfully the government was not communist, so they seem to have allowed traditions and cottage industry to surivive. In fact they have built many Buddha statues and temples too: admittedly some of them are a bit too “modern” for our liking, but at least its not some monolithic squat ugly square construction spoiling otherwise magnificent views. 

Enough of my tirade. Our first impressions of Bagan – took our breath away. Any visitor to Burma MUST visit Bagan. Its like the earth just decided to sprout monuments every few seconds. Felt a bit like Siem Reap in Cambodia. Lots of brick like pagodas (or stupas) and temples all around. Our resort was only 20 minutes away from the airport. We freshened up and had dinner in the hotel itself. Another marvelous meal: we had a thali/bento box type arrangement with different vegetables/salads/curries and rice, walked around for a wee bit before making it another early night. 

The following day, we arranged a guide and car through the travel desk of our hotel. We started off early at 8am to avoid most of the sun. Great arrangement: sight seeing until 11am, then visiting a lacquer factory, then siesta for four hours after lunch and more sight seeing until sunset. This day was a special day in the village around our hotel: there were some tiny tiny kids (6 to 10 yrs) being “initiated” – not sure if its like the Brahmopadesham equivalent that we are familiar with. Anyway, it’s for boys and girls who are each bedecked and made up and made to sit on a horse and taken in procession with loud live music accompaniment. They parade around the village and then go to the monastery for their initiation rites. The guide told us they are given the choice to be a monk/nun or return to normal life. The blaring music was through big speakers on a hand drawn cart with a picture of the Buddha on it: reminded me a lot of the god processions through the streets we used to witness in Madras when we went there on holidays.

In Bagan, the day has unfolded with a tranquil dawn
On the banks of the Irrawaddy this lovely morn
Pagodas silently tell the tale of times gone
But like all things in life, Time moves on

Then we started our sightseeing in right earnest. We began with a stupa to see panoramic views, and then visited a number of temples.  There are over 3000 monuments to see, but our guide had chosen the following:

Bulethi Stupa - for its panoramic views
Shwezigone Stupa – served as a prototype for most other pagodas including Shwedagon in Yangon
Gubyaukgyi Temple – has pictures from Jataka Tales! Modeled after Bodh Gaya I read
Htilominlo Temple
Ananda Temple – most holy, to me, most beautiful, seemed to have the most Indian influence. In fact, the Indian government has donated USD3m for its restoration. But Ananda does not mean what you think it does: apparently it is derived from the Sanskrit word “anantapinya” which means “endless wisdom”. Also Buddha’s first cousin and secretary apparently
Dhammanyangyi Temple
Shwesandaw Stupa for sunset views

We had our fill of Buddha statues. Buddha sitting, Buddha standing, Buddha reclining, and with different mudras (bhumisparsha, vitarka, abhaya etc. – ask us if you are interested). Indeed, we actually started educating the guide about Buddha representation! One interesting aspect we learned was of comparison between Indian and Burma version of the Buddha. Skip this table if this sounds like Greek and Latin to you, but very useful in case you do visit Burma.

Indian Style
Burma Style
Ears don’t touch shoulder
Ears touch shoulder
Fingers are not all same length but more representative of reality
Fingers are all same length and many times joined up
More chubby overall
More slim overall
Hair and head bump (ushnisha) is like jackfruit
Hair is more slicked back
Eyes look downcast
Eyes look ahead
Can see knees
Cannot see knees
Use thin robes
More heavy robes; Mandalay style even more decorative than Bagan style

We also visited a lacquerware factory to see how it was done: lacquerware is everywhere in Burma: large cottage industry, and some really beautiful artistry done very painstakingly. Not surprisingly, most of the artists are girls: needs patience and ability to work with minute designs – perhaps guys don’t have that kind of patience?

We went to another wonderful vegetarian restaurant called “Moon Restaurant” for lunch. This seems to be an institution. Once again we had very exotic food including tamarind leaf curry with peanuts, papads with guacamole, papaya salad, green tomato salad etc. likely we will return there for another meal. There are two other veggie restaurants that have set up in competition around this one, can you imagine! Repeated dinner at our hotel out of laziness. Hopefully we will have more initiative tonight. 

Burmese food is a culinary delight
Tea Leaf Salad is just so right
Green Tomato salad & Tamarind curry
We ain't forgetting that taste in a hurry
Eggplant Salad with peanuts is yum 
Green tea with sesame makes us go mmm
The accompanying coolers are slurp slurp 
All in all, it's really tasty! Burp Burp!

A word here on water and rest rooms. Very thoughtfully there are earthenware pots like matkas placed everywhere along the road even in remote villages for the general public to slake their thirst: haven’t seen this anywhere else. Very socially aware populace it appears. On washrooms: we keep visiting them with some dread, but although some are rather basic, they have been maintained quite spotlessly clean. Oftentimes I feel a nation’s culture is exhibited by the state of their toilets…

Our picture album from Bagan can be viewed here.

On Mount Popa 

To Mount Popa we went and climbed steps aplenty
Prayed to deities for a world less argumenti
You may wonder: What?!? Why so senti??
Maybe it's the Myanmar effect, please dont be offendi

My personal view of this is it was an anticlimax. Particularly compared to the beauty and the history of the rest of Bagan. We started off quite early to this mountain which was supposed to be formed out of a volcano. Its around 40km from Bagan, so we took 1.5 hours. The climb up to the top involves 777 steps which sounds substantial but isn’t. The only problem was that we had to remove our sandals and walk since its considered holy. But because they allow a lot of monkeys to run amok, there is a lot of junk in the form of peanut shells, monkey poo etc to look out for. In fact, that is one of the issues in Burma: all the temple and pagoda watching comes with dirty black feet, so wet wipes are a huge help. Just plan for a relaxing pedicure after your trip!

It seemed to be a cloudy day, so while the views from the top looked promising, truth be told we didn’t see too clearly or visibly. Nonetheless, we had the time and were glad of the exercise. Makes us feel less sinful when we hog all this lovely food. From there we went to a Mount Popa Resort for lunch which was really average compared to all the yummy food we have been accustomed to here. It was good to sit out al fresco though. We are trying hard to do as much outdoor dining as we can given the lack of it in Hong Kong.

Came back for our customary siesta. At 5:30pm we set out again for a boat cruise down the famous Irrawaddy River to view the sunset. It is all that the books promise and more. Not too many tourists, so apart from a few luxury liners parked along the shore, ours was one of maybe 10 boats in the river. The boatman took us to a point in the middle of the river, switched off the engine, and then we had 20 minutes of silence in the middle of the Irrawaddy, the setting sun on one side,  the silhouttes of the pagodas and payas on the other, and the gentle swish swish of the water lapping against the boat, with a few birds flying in formation back to their nests. Was a very meditative moment for me. Very restful indeed. 

We came back onshore once the sun had set and set off to another restaurant we had heard about called Star Beam café where we had amazing French baguettes and mint lemonade apart from the traditional Myanmar food like eggplant salad and tea leaf salad. Walked back to the hotel past the ghostly temple structures: lovely evening walk.

Next day was agenda less. We wanted to get as much of our fill of the pagodas here, so went out for a walk again this morning to see early morning scenes of Bagan: the people walking to work with tiffin boxes (indian style) in the hands or on their heads, devotees going to the temple for early morning prayers, sellers of thanaka, flowers and other small items for the temple, and horse cart drivers looking for passengers: as always its really interesting to see a city come to life.

We flew out to Yangon and Hong Kong over the next 24 hours. It was a wonderful trip and I highly recommend Burma as a place to visit before the tourist hordes become too much. Perhaps we could have squeezed it in 6 days but spending 2.5 days at each place made it truly relaxing. Burma reinforces our love of the Indochine region including Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos: glimpses of things we find familiar, and yet different. A perfect holiday. 

And here's a glimpse of our Faces of Myanmar

Visit the Vixabs Wanderlust page for other trip descriptions.

1 comment:

Viv said...


Very interesting. Sounds wonderful but more importantly great to see the effort you have taken to write this up and provide the links.

- Vivek Shinde