After an amazing few days in Mandalay it was time to move on. We decided we would mix things up a bit and decided to take a night bus. We were told the journey would take 10 hours: hurray we thought. We’d save a nights’ accommodation money.
We got to the bus station and all was looking rosy. Dean cast his expert eye over the bus, raised an eyebrow and nodded in agreement. With our oversized bags on board we got on. The bus had the makings inside of a good nights’ sleep. With only three well-recling seats across, fluffy (fluorescent pink!) blankets and free (almost boiling as the bus had obviously been in the sun all day!) water it had the makings of a good journey. There was only one fly in the ointment, the quality of the roads! Now for all my travels, I can be at times the world’s worst traveller as I get ill at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately this journey was no exception. As we swayed from side to side on the dark roads I felt like I was on a super turbulent flight and my stomach started to churn. Needless to say it was a long journey and I was still ill the next day! That said it actually wasn’t as long as we thought. I felt a tap on my shoulder and the voice of the conductor said, “Your stop arriving”. We looked at the clock – 3.33am – having left at 8pm it really wasn’t a 10 hour journey!! Our hotel took pity on us though and didn’t charge us for this extra bit of a nights’ stay – so thank you Good Will Guest House in Nyaung Shwe at Inle Lake!
Originally we weren’t sure how long to have at Lake Inle, but my bout of bus-induced-sickness made the decision for us. We had two full days and it was perfect. On day one we took it easy and explored town, the local markets and then headed out on our bikes to a couple of monasteries we had spotted a few hours early on our taxi ride in. One of them, Baw Ri That, was one big gold stupa surrounded by lots of smaller stupa. There were no tourists there and it doesn’t make the Lonely Planet, but in our opinion it was the best one in the area. From there we headed out to the Red Mountain vineyard for sunset and a glass of wine to settle my stomach! You may have read my previous blog about our trip there so I won’t repeat myself, but in brief Myanmar wine is surprisingly good – if only we could get it in the UK.
The next day we were up early and headed out on our longboat on Inle Lake. Whilst a bit too much of a tourist hot spot you can understand why. It’s beautiful and a must see. As we sped out onto the lake we saw the first of many fishermen catching their prey. What is unusual about these guys is the way they fish. Whilst throwing their wooden net from their sand-pan style boat, they stand at the end of boat and row using their leg wrapped around the oar. It’s hard to describe yet fascinating to watch and a technique I have never seen anywhere else in the world. We would have been quite happy to have watched them all day but we had things to see!
Our ‘boat driver’ Mon Pei took us to a number of sights during the day but the first was to see the markets which were today in Inthein. These markets float from village to village daily so it depends on the day of the week where you will find them. We were pleased they were here as it also gave us the chance to see the Shwe Inn Thein Paya temple ruins. Not dissimilar to some of the Angkor Wat complex, these ruins had trees growing amongst them.
Our next stop took us to see the Padaung tribe ladies. These ladies are famous for wearing copper rings around their neck. They are super heavy and they never take them off, resulting in their neck being stretched as much as 14cm. As they are so heavy they do not go to school or work and we’d heard lots of conflicting things about them. Some people say they like following the tradition others say young girls are forced into it and we never did get to the bottom of it. We felt uncomfortable really as it seemed like these ladies were on show much like the monks in Mandalay, but we bought a few of their handicrafts ever hopeful it would help them in some small way.
For the rest of the day we visited a couple of craft places and cruised around the stilted villages and floating gardens. The lake is home to so much life. Life that is massively different to our own. I can’t imagine walking down the stilts of my house and washing in a sarong in the lake with people driving past. But this is what these families are used to and judging from so of the smiles, they really enjoyed waving to passers-by.
Our time at the lake was over and it was time to move on. We decided to fly back to Yangon and it was the best decision. We checked in at Heho airport and waited for our flight. I saw people disappearing outside next to the tarmac so I followed! I spent the most amazing 45 minutes watching the planes land. I was so close the back draft of one it nearly blew me back inside! The pilots were stood smoking whilst the re-fuellers did their job in flip flops talking on mobile phones. I saw over eight planes land / take off and loved being closer than any other airport security would allow. Eventually my fun was over and an airport official ushered all us plane spotters back inside!
Back in Yangon and we hit the real Myanmar heat – 36 degrees! We spent a day there initially visiting Sule Paya (a beautiful monetary situated in the middle of the Yangon’s main roundabout!) and walking through some of the Colonial areas of town. It was a nice introduction.
The next day we set off for what turned into one of the highlights of the trip. I had seen pictures of Mt Kyaikhtiyo or as its more commonly called the ‘Golden Rock’ when we applied for our visas in Kathmandu and I instantly wanted to go there. It took us about four hours to reach the bottom of the rock but then the adventure really began! We loaded into the back of a 36 ‘seater’ (just a narrow bench too small for even the smallest bum!) and hung on for the ride! As the truck spluttered and lurched forward everyone held onto each other. The single track path up the mountain was VERY steep but somehow we made it! The next challenge came when the hotel we booked had lost our reservation… And was full! However this turned out for the best as we walked into the temple complex and found a pilgrim hotel with a view over the vast forests below and cheaper as well. Perfect!
We then spent the next 24 hours gazing at the Golden Rock at every time of day. For Buddhists this is a really scared and holy site and it certainly had ‘something’ special. Like all holy sites in Myanmar you leave your shoes and socks at the door (or in our case our hotel room). There isn’t much you don’t walk through! We’d become accustomed to having dirty feet, but our problem here was burnt feet! The midday sub has heated the marble flooring to such a degree that we could barely walk on some bits! We quickly learnt to avoid the black tiles and run from shady patch to shady patch!
We returned later on it the afternoon and watched the sun go down. As it did the rock almost became more golden, if that’s possible. We bought some gold leaf and Dean went and rubbed it onto the rock for both of us (ladies are not allowed). Once darkness has fallen the rock was beautifully illuminated and so we re-took all our pictures again! By this point several pilgrim groups where already chanting their mantras. Some of them we’d find in the same place doing the same thing several hours later at sunrise – that’s dedication for you!
We had a few hours rest before getting up for sunrise. Here it was almost like someone drawing the curtains on the rock as the shadows peeled back and the sun lit up the gold. It’s a difficult place to get to but one that’s truly spectacular and well worth the effort.
On the way back we spent a very enjoyable day in Bago. We visited several temples and sights, but the two most noteworthy off us were the lying Buddha (and his ever-so-slightly smaller brother next door) and Kyaik Pun. Which is four giant sitting Buddha’s each with funky sparkled nails!
On the way back from Bago we stopped at Taukkyan War Cemetery. This is maintained by the commonwealth was graves commission and contained the remains of 6374 allied service men, as well as the inscription of the names of 27,000 others whose bodies were never found. Perhaps the most powerful headstones I saw were those for shoulders killed on the exact day that Dad was born. The Lonely Planet sums up this site very well and say, “slowly, as you walk around reading the names of those who died and the epitaphs commemorating them, the heat of the sum seems to fade and the noise of the road recedes, leaving you alone in the silence of your own thoughts in this immensely sad place”. They have never said a truer word.
When we got bank to Yangon we did the rounds of all the sites, before saving the best until last. Rising up about parts of Shwedagon Paya – a magnificent pagoda both in the day and at night which is the jewel in the crown for Yangon tourism. So much so they have even built lifts up to the base, but it really isn’t that far so we walked. This Myanmar icon certainly didn’t disappoint and the longer we sat ‘watching it’ the more special it became. The diamond orb right at the top holds over 4351 diamonds of unthinkable size carats whilst slightly below, the umbrella section contains over 1/2 a ton of gold and is encrusted with 83,850 items of jewellery and 4016 small gold bells. Within the complex are many bells, Buddha images etc etc as well as an interesting photo exhibition. However the site of the pagoda as a whole stands out above all these things put together. There is a white marble Buddha for each day of the week, and tradition states that you find the day of the week you were born, then place five cups of water over Buddha praying for five different things – the last of which should be the health of your family. Dean and I both found the relevant day and joined in. We had left if until late in the afternoon to visit as the light is best. The sun initially made the gold glisten before slowly dipping. As it got dark the lights came on and again camera shutter clocks resonated out. This truly was a fitting place to finish our time here.
Myanmar is a very special place. Since it opened up tourists has flocked, mostly in groups (try and go independently as the money gets to local people more). However no matter how much or how little people have, they are always willing to give you a wave or smile and say hello. Coming from India we had our defences up. Rarely do street sellers there offer you help or advice without a catch. In Myanmar they fall over themselves to help out and it was something that we both admired and appreciated. When you’ve been travelling for a while, certain countries begin to stand out as having especially nice people and for us, they can really make or break our experience. Myanmar is special anyway, but the people here make it stand out as one of the friendliest places we have ever visited as well as one of the best. It’s simply amazing.