We just spent 21 days in Myanmar (Burma). This country has only really opened itself to tourism fairly recently. Indeed, ruled under a powerful military junta for 49 years, the country remained closed for a long time. The tourism boycott called for by the opposition party (lead by Aung San Suu Kyi) was lifted in the early 2010s, the land borders with Thailand became open to all nationalities in 2013, and the online e-visa application system was started in 2014. Consequently, the number of yearly visitors has been growing exponentially as of late. The country is changing incredibly fast, and any information from 1 or 2 years ago is already outdated.
Although we landed pretty late in Yangon, everything went surprisingly smoothly : we passed immigration quickly thanks to the e-visa (no questions asked, you show the piece of paper and you get the entry stamp), there was an ATM at the airport to get some Kyats right away, we bought a local sim card at the airport so that we could have 3G everywhere (well, at least in the main cities), and we shared a taxi to the downtown area. Tired, we went straight to bed in our dusty room full of mosquitoes. Over the next 2 days, we visited the centre of the city and its golden pagodas.
Botataung Pagoda : For the first time of our stay (but not the last), we had to pay the “foreigners fee” and were confronted to government employees who scanned our passports and took our pictures before we could enter the site. This pagoda is mostly known for the golden interior of its main stupa, housing several Buddhist relics including “Buddha’s sacred hair”. Surprisingly, while visiting, several groups of Burmese people wanted to take pictures with us (but no group photos, we had to pose with each of them individually).
Shwedagon Pagoda : The most visited building in Yangon, it is also the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in all of Myanmar. This gigantic pagoda is entirely covered in gold leafs (a process that has to be repeated every 5 years in order for it to keep the same appearance). It is so wide and tall that it is actually quite difficult to take a good picture without a wide-angle lens.
Bogyoke Aung San market : Yangon’s main tourist market. You can find pretty much everything as Myanmar souvenirs go: local clothes, jewellery (the country’s speciality is jade), sculptures, paintings, puppets, lacquer-ware, etc… The atmosphere there is pleasant enough, especially in the morning when the market is nearly empty. Although we were not fooled by the “I made it myself” that we heard a lot (all the stands have the same products), or by the “real jade” bracelet costing 1$, we quite liked this market that didn’t look like anything we had seen before.
The Burmese way of driving : Myanmar being a British colony until 1948, people drove on the left side of the road until 1970. Today, they either have old cars that still have the steering wheel on the right, or second-hand Japanese cars. This means almost every vehicle has the steering wheel on the right side with the cars driving on the right side of the road. But that’s not a problem, because there is the honk 🙂
It took us a while, but we think we finally figured it out : one blast of the horn when passing on the right, one blast when passing on the left, 3 blasts when getting close to an intersection, one blast before each turn, one blast when passing a pedestrian, and 3 blasts when it’s been more than 1m20s without anything happening. All this constant honking contributes heavily to a huge noise pollution that makes most Burmese cities quite overwhelming.
We were therefore quite happy to get out of the city to take a night bus to go to Kalaw. We had 2 choices: a normal night bus set to arrive at 3:30am or a VIP bus set to arrive at 5am. We went for the more expensive one in order to gain some comfort and some sleep time. It was indeed very comfortable: pillows, blankets, food, entertainment system, coffee on arrival… we didn’t regret our choice !
We arrived at 5am as planned and got taken by surprise by the cold (luckily, we’re always dragging our winter jackets along with us). We went to our hotel to see if we could at least drop our bags and were greeted by a smiling old man who just asked us joyfully “early check-in ?” before bringing us to a basic room with just a mattress on the floor while miming and repeting “rest sleep !”. We finally understood that we were supposed to come back to see him at noon to get our room, and that we could use this to finish our night. And this much appreciated service turned out to be free ! The owner was such a nice guy that we had to insist to round up the price of the room.
The aim for the day was to book a 3 days trek in the area. Most of the tourists coming to Kalaw opt for a trek going straight to Inle lake (pretty much everyone we met was doing that, and most trekking agencies really try to push you towards this option to make bigger groups). We decided to stay around Kalaw, and asked to go in villages where there aren’t too many tourists passing through.
The next morning, we left with our guide, Wim. The landscapes were pretty nice, as was our guide, but the schedule just seemed a little odd (for example, lunch at 10:20am although breakfast was at 8:30). We finally realized that there had been a small misunderstanding: Wim thought that what we wanted was not seeing other tourists. His solution to the problem was therefore to bring us to the same villages as everyone else, but at different times. We also started to be bothered by the fact that he did not seem to understand that we wanted to interact with people. Not even trying to be an interpreter, he just put us in one corner of the room while talking with the locals, always finishing the exchange by turning towards us to say: “You can take pictures”. To top it off, nobody seemed happy to see us, and we started to feel uneasy about the whole thing.
The first day of trekking stopped around 3pm at a very nice viewpoint. It quickly became clear that the only thing planned for us was to wait until dinner at 7pm (we had paid for a cook that never showed up, Wim actually had to cook everything himself). We ate alone, before our hosts and our trekking guide (we didn’t think too much of it as our guide-book said this was common). After the meal, we insisted to stay with our hosts next to the fire in order to start a conversation, but unfortunately, apart from the father who had drunk a fair amount of alcohol, we were not very successful. We just started to have doubts the next morning when we realized that everyone could speak English very well but that apparently nobody wanted to do so with us.
Trying not to get completely disheartened by all this, we started talking with Wim to try to make things better. He offered to shorten the 2nd day of the trek by sleeping in his home village (even though this meant a longer 3rd day) and told us that a yearly Buddhist festival was starting this very evening.
We arrived in his home village rather early, and he introduced us to everyone in his family. He showed us all the preparations for the festival, like the sticky rice pancakes that are prepared once a year for this special event (the rice is steamed then crushed until some kind of paste is obtained. This paste is then spread over banana leafs into a pancake. After letting set for a while, it is then cut in little pieces that are dipped in cane sugar syrup).
While Wim was preparing dinner, we walked around the village and stumbled upon people playing Chinlone: some kind of acrobatic football/volleyball combination, the national sport in Myanmar. See for yourself in the video 🙂
We already had a few doubts about the fact that the food Wim was preparing was really Burmese, but that night we had french fries and bananas flambées. We asked him whether these dishes were often eaten by Burmese people, and he answered straight away with a smile “No! Just for tourists!”. Continuing the discussion, we learned that most people in the village have actually never seen such dishes, let alone eaten them. Eager to try proper Burmese food, we asked him if that would be possible, but we were faced with the unequivocal “No, you won’t like it”.
We then insisted to go to the opening ceremony of the festival with him, and once again there was a lack of understanding between Wim and us: “But it’s not interesting for you!”. We told him that if it was interesting for him, it would be very interesting for us, and that we would be really glad to share this moment with him. He seemed very happy to hear that, and the three of us started to walk towards the pagoda sitting at the top of a nearby hill.
That night turned out to be the total opposite of the rest of the trek, ad brought us all that we were wishing for: good interaction with the locals, cultural exchange, laughs and most all some authenticity. Everyone there seemed very happy to make us discover such an important part of their culture, and we got invited to participate in the candle procession as well as the traditional dances. Wim explained that from 10pm, the men would spend the whole night cooking so that everyone who came to the festival the next day could eat (about 1000 people).
While getting back to his house, we asked him if we could stay there the next day to enjoy the festival and get back to Kalaw without visiting any other village. It was not a problem for him as Kalaw is only 3 hours walk away with the direct route.
Unfortunately for Clement, a small case of food poisoning forces him to shorten the trip: he has to get back with a motorbike-taxi while Tracy stays a few hours more. During the festival, the people are more welcoming than ever: it is mandatory to sit in turn with everyone to have some tea and try all the different dishes that they have prepared (at least 6 times each). While going around, we visited the blacksmith’s house as well as the tattoo master/doctor of the village (a traditional tattooing technique with medicinal inks). An experience that warmed our hearts and that we won’t forget any time soon.
Located just south of the small town Nyaung Shwe, Inle lake is one of the major tourist points of interest in Myanmar. A boat trip on the lake is therefore strongly advised in order to see the floating villages and local fishermen who have developed an interesting fishing technique. This is something that boat trip operators have understood very well, as visiting the lake on one of the many motorized small barges is a well-oiled practice designed to make tourists buy overpriced goods. Each boat operator has partnerships with several different merchants/shops on the lake so that tourists don’t run into each other but each group is going to see a silversmith, a goldsmith, a hand-weaving shop, a cigar-maker, etc etc. Each time, you can see the people working hard at their craft for about 10 minutes before being politely but firmly escorted to the ‘shopping’ area where the clerk is going to follow you around to try to put everything in your hands while giving you incredibly high prices. If you remain polite but firm, you can get out of there in 5 mins without any problem, but this whole thing gave us the impression of visiting a human zoo of ‘traditional handicrafts’, especially one of the hand-weaving shops where long-neck Karen women were working (they are not originally from Inle lake and were seemingly put there for tourists to take pictures). Apart from these forced visits to the shops, the lake is indeed very beautiful and the floating villages very nice to see.
To finish the little tour in spectacular fashion, our boat driver stopped just next to an “actor” (for lack of a better word) dressed in traditional fisherman clothes who was posing for us just in front of the setting sun, so that we could all get the perfect picture. A lot of people seem to hate this and see in it a total lack of authenticity (which is fair enough), but it’s probably also a good idea to see it as a service given in exchange for a few Kyats and which gives you the opportunity to bring back the perfect picture (something totally impossible with real fishermen as you would completely disrupt their work by coming too close to their boat). In the end, we had a nice relaxing day on the lake, but it’s a place that already lost part of its soul thanks to the constant influx of tourists.