Myanmar – Here We Are!

I currently find myself in Switzerland, far from the exotic lands of South East Asia, and more than 2 months have past since my last day working in the lab in Singapore. However, that is not to say I have not been busy. Much has gone on between since then and it is only now that but have finally found a bit of time to sit down and write the missing chapters of my travels so far. This particular entry concerns my last trip within SE Asia and my final farewell to Singapore before I returned to Europe. The chosen destination: Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

On Friday 8th May this year, I walked into the lab and donned my lab-coat for the last time (mostly just for washing up!). I had managed to submit my research report – 60 pages of rambling nonsense and far fetched conclusions – early in the week and as such was feeling considerably lighter, despite wearing jeans on this particularly humid day.* I had not completed all the research aims I had set out to achieve in my 9 month project, but it seems that that is not uncommon and besides, I had no motivation post-handin to gather any last minute results, despite the persistence of my professor. Instead, I relished the idea of my imminent freedom and enjoyed my last afternoon with my work colleagues.
*All days in Singapore are particularly humid!

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In the evening we went out for a farewell dinner as a group and then I joined the other exchange students for a final big night out. I’m very fortunate to have made many new friends in my time in Singapore and the evening was a bitter-sweet celebration for the end of an incredible year. The weekend was rather surreal as I packed up my room and moved out of halls. Although I would be coming back to Singapore in order to fly home, I was not permitted to keep the accommodation until then so I moved my luggage to the lab and left it by my vacated desk. In the late afternoon I said a couple goodbyes to others beginning their travels and left campus to go to my friends’ place. Orla, Benja and Ollie (my travelling companions) were still in the process of packing and sorting when I arrived and it wasn’t until late at night that we closed our eyes for a couple of hours, with the taxi booked for 4am.

Tired-eyed but buzzing inside, we lugged ourselves to the departure gate and onto the plane where we could sleep until arrival. We woke to find ourselves on the approach to Yangon, the country’s captial and biggest city. “Myanmar, here we are!”, we cheered (though mostly internally so as not to get weird looks). Immediately evident was the change in landscape. Equatorial Singapore, with a lack of seasonal variation, is 32°C pretty much all year round but the high level of moisture content in the air makes it feel about 10 degrees hotter and allows plenty of green plants life to flourish (picture tropical jungle meets concrete jungle). 2000km (~1250 miles) north north west from Singapore, Yangon in the south of Myanmar has considerably greater climate variation as I was to discover over the next 10 days. On our arrival in early May, the weather was typical of the end of the hot-dry season, around 35°C, and the ground near the airfield was a dusty brown dirt, sun-baked and cracking. I thoroughly enjoyed the dry air which did not cling to my skin, though the heat of the noontime sun was still too much and we hopped into our pre-booked car to head to the city centre.

Yangon

Yangon

Having just finished my placement and the other three their exams, we hadn’t read as much as we could have about Myanmar but had planned our 10 day route around as much of the country and interesting sites as possible. We only spared one day for Yangon and spent it wondering around the indoor market and visiting Shwedagon pagoda – a 99m high, shimmering gold Buddhist temple. The pagoda was built some time in the 6th century and was certainly impressive to behold, particularly in the hot afternoon sun. We spent quite some time walking around the complex perched on the hill, admiring the ornate white and gold structures and historical artefacts. Walking barefoot is compulsory in all temples in the country, as is the wearing of long trousers or sarongs to cover the legs and shoulders. This was particularly uncomfortable due to the heat and we burnt our feet on the hot white tiles, running between patches of shade.

Temples and temples

Temples and temples

All that glitters is gold

All that glitters is gold – burning feet!

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Trying to show some scale!

Looking good in the shade!

Looking good in the shade!

That evening after some not-all-that-spectacular local food, we walked to the bus station and boarded our night bus to take us further north to Kalaw. The bus tickets cost us 20500 Kyat (£10.50) including the extra fee for a VIP coach which meant that the chairs could recline (rather like a cheaper version of Malaysian coaches). Although the seats were surprisingly comfortable, the journey overall was unfortunately not so, and we were pretty tired when we were dropped off in Kalaw at 4am. As it was still dark and the poorly lit streets eerily still, we decided to stop at the nearest hostel and sleep for a few more hours. The only place we found was “Winner hotel” with a cockroach-filled but otherwise clean(ish) room for the four of us.

In the morning we walked the much more welcoming streets to Uncle Sam’s – a recommended tour-guide of the local area. We met with Sam and he introduced us to our local guide (who’s name, I am ashamed to say, I have completely forgotten) and we handed over our bags, keeping only valuables and a change of clothes with us. Around 10am we were off, led out of the little town and into the countryside. We trekked for the entire day, visiting small working communities and farms. It was hot but not unbearably so and we enjoyed chatting amongst ourselves and gleaming insight into the lives of the local people from our informative guide. The ground was rather muddy in places, and whilst Benja and I were well equipped with suitable shoes for walking in, the others provided us with some hilarity when Orla’s flipflops were destroyed in some sticky mud, and the soles of Ollie’s shoes all but fell off.

Starting our two day trek

Starting our two day trek

Ginger harvested as we walked by

Ginger harvested as we walked by

Stopping in a tiny village

Stopping in a tiny village

We spent the night in one of the wee villages that we past on our trek. Our chef had gone ahead of us by motorbike and dinner was ready by the time we arrived. It was delicious – a multitude of small fragrant dishes, rice, vegetables, nuts, and chicken. There was plenty of it too, and we were certainly well tended for as we ate by candle light, sitting on the dusty rugs of the dark wooden shack. After dinner the locals offered us rice wine, infamous for its strong taste and high alcohol content. Only Oliver was brave enough to have a glass, the girls and I just giving it a sniff which was enough to make my eyes water. Our room was an empty wooden-planked space upstairs which had four roll-mats with blankets laid out in it. We played a quick game of cards or two, and then decided we were tired and the light was too poor (despite the precariously placed candle atop an empty water bottle… in a wooden house…) and we dosed up on mosquito repellent before going to sleep.

My view when I woke

My view when I woke

Breakfast is ready

Breakfast is ready

I woke before the others from the light coming through the open windows (there was no glass) and enjoyed the early morning sun and listening to the waking of the community. One of the women living in the house must have heard me rise as she brought me some tea and toast. When we were all up and fed, we were on our way again (Orla borrowing my flipflops and Oliver persevering with his broken shoes). The landscape changed gradually as we walked, our trail leaving behind open farm lands for drier sandy areas and then into denser vegetation with tall thin trees. By the mid afternoon, just after lunch, we had reached Inle lake (pronounced in-lay). We said goodbye to our guide and were directed onto a long, thin wooden boat shaped like a open canoe, with four seats directly behind one another and a fifth perch for the driver by the motor. The lake was full of growing plants and ‘floating gardens’ and we sped in narrow waterways between them at remarkable pace. After 15 minutes or so, we came to a floating town on the lake: wooden houses, similar to the kind we had spent the night in but raised 4 metres off the surface of the lake by wooden stilts. Elevated walkways crossed between a number of neighbouring properties but it was immediately apparent that if you wanted to go anywhere – tend to your ‘garden’, visit a friend or go to the shop – then by boat was the only means.

Morning trekking

Morning trekking

Working the land

Working the land

Always leading the way...

Always leading the way…

Water-based community

Water-based community

As part of the trekking package, we were shown around the water community and taken to different workshops demonstrating local crafts (presumably in the hope that we would buy something). We were shown to the silver smiths, the sweet cigar makers and the weaving looms where the women make all kinds of raw and treated silk garments. We then powered back through some of the water gardens spotting tomatoes, cabbage and other vegetables before heading out onto the open lake. I think, personally, the lake itself was one of the most spectacular things to behold. Vast, open and yet incredibly still, it wasn’t possible to see exactly where the expanse of water ended. The weather was beginning to turn, the sky darkening with orange sunlight piercing through the menacing black clouds and somehow this made the landscape even more beautiful, the greens of the gardens more vivid and the dusty earth of the distant hills more vibrant. As we skimmed along the lake we could admire the skills of the local fisher men. They work on long wooden boats, flatter than the one we were occupying and without motors, and they stand at the very back with a long paddle. At first the image of punting comes to mind such as that seen in the canals of Cambridge, but these paddles are far from reaching the bottom of the lake. Instead, a skilled fisherman balances on one leg and raps the other around the paddle shaft, resting his foot on the blade. He lifts is leg in and out of the water and thus propels the craft forward. The nets they use are large wooden or wicker cages. I imagine it must take some skill and patience to make a catch.

Local women with extended necks, weaving

Local women with extended necks, weaving

Fishermen on the lake

Fishermen on the lake

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We arrived at Nyuang Shwe, the final destination for our trek, just as the clouds burst above us. We were quickly drenched as we searched for our hostel, and it was wonderful to have a shower and get clean again once we found it. We spent that evening and the next day in the area, relaxing and cycling. We visited a vineyard and did some exceptionally cheap ($2) wine tasting which was great fun (especially for Oliver and I because the other girls weren’t too fond of wine). That night we took another night bus, heading east to Mandalay.

Wine Tasting

Wine Tasting

I guess this blog post will be 100,000 words long if I describe everything, so I should let the pictures do most of the talking!

Mandalay was nice but we were not particularly well prepared for a big city and hadn’t planned our activities. We walked around some of the white pagodas and enjoyed relaxing and playing cards to avoid the heat of the day. In the late afternoon we climbed a large series of steps up Mandalay hill in order to see the sunset over the city from the temple at the top. We spent one night in Mandalay and in the morning took a 4 hours bus to the ancient city of Bagan.

"we've got to get up there?!" - Mandalay Hill

“we’ve got to get up there?!” – Mandalay Hill

Monk-eying around at the top of Mandalay hill

Monk-eying around at the top of Mandalay hill

Bagan is definitely the most famous attraction in Myanmar and, although this means that the area is heaving with tourists, it certainly didn’t disappoint. More than 2000 Buddhist temples and pagodas are dotted across a dusty, tree-littered expanse covering more than 100 km2 (40 square miles)! The temples were all constructed between the 11th and 13th centuries at the height of the Kingdom of Pagan, and at some point there stood over 10,000 of them in the area. Having already been privileged enough to marvel at the size of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom in Cambodia in February, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Bagan, and was amazed to behold a sight I found even more impressive. Though the temples are generally much smaller than Angkor Wat – some the size of large castles and others smaller than a single house – standing atop a moderately sized pagoda gave a spectacular panoramic view across the top of hundreds of ancient stupa, stretching endlessly towards the horizon as far as the eye could see.

Magical Bagan

Magical Bagan

Bikes through Bagan

Bikes through Bagan

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Hundreds of Temples

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Taking a break in the shade

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Sunrise

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Sunrise

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We spent three nights in a family room of a small hotel in a nearby town and rented electric scooters each day to get around and see as much of the area as possible. As we were there in May, with the monsoon season fast approaching, it was low season for tourists and we often found ourselves on deserted streets and stumbling on empty pagodas. I found the experience quite magical, and though the time of year meant there were no hot air balloons rising amidst the temples at sunrise (the famous sight of many photographs of Bagan), I think we may have been there at the best time of year – as long as we could escape the sun every so often. The bikes were excellent for getting around on, though pretty easy to skid, especially on the sandy earth off road, and we did have a couple of hilarious moments when we ran out of power!

Bikes!

Bikes!

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We got up early to see the sunrise on two occasions as the first was a bit cloudy. Sadly, Oliver’s back tyre slipped on the second morning as we raced to get to a good temple and he was flung off his bike, grazing his legs and arms. Orla took good care of him and Benja hopped on the back of my bike instead. We also enjoyed some sunset views and fairly decent food, though none as good as the local dishes on our trek to Inle lake.

Before the sunrise

Before dawn

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Grace enjoying the early morning sun

Grace enjoying the early morning sun

People on the neighbouring temple watching the sunset

People on the neighbouring temple watching the sunset

Suddenly we found the week had flown by and it was time for us to part ways. Benja, Orla and Oliver took a night bus back to Yangon before flying off to Thailand, whilst I stayed a couple hours longer in Bagan and then journeyed overnight once again to Mandalay. It so happened that it was on that night, the only time I was alone on the trip, that the long awaited weather changed. Originally I had planned to go explore a new town for my last two days in the country, but when I discovered that my friend David was alone in Mandalay, we decided we should meet up. He gave me the name of his hotel but without internet I had no means to look it up. I hoped that presenting the name of the hotel to the bus driver would be enough to get me there but I quickly began to doubt when neither driver nor assistant recognised the name of the hotel. No-one on the bus spoke any English. I had already bought a ticket and was seated so I hoped that I would manage to find the hotel once I arrived in Mandalay. As soon as we left Bagan, the rain started pelting it down, heavier even than some of the tropical rain storms in Singapore, and I admit that I was a little nervous. The driver sped along regardless on the winding, unlit streets, with his windscreen wipers widely swishing back and forth as if ticking to the beat of some heavy dance track. 2 hours of so went by and then with a squeal of the breaks (at least I would have heard the squeal if it weren’t for the pounding rain and howling wind) we stopped abruptly. A huge tree lay across the road with a large muddy puddle building in front of it. The driver paused, clearly contemplating what course of action to follow, as his 15 or so passengers (myself included) peered outside helplessly and watched as the angry sky flashed and roared. The driver decided that turning round was not an option and proceeded off road, through the mud and flooded field, around the tree with some branches smacking the windscreen. Fortunately we didn’t get stuck and managed to continue on our way with the driver, seemingly encouraged by his achievement, driving faster than ever. At the midway stop, I sat alone at a sheltered table (I would have rather waited on the bus but it didn’t seem to be permitted) and wondered to myself if I’d ever make it back to Singapore. When we continued on our way again, the driver’s assistant and I tried to communicate without language in desperate attempt to find where I was staying. Fortunately one of the other passengers had some insight: it turned out I had taken down the Burmese name of the hotel incorrectly and had a spelling error! Once resolved I felt happier that I might meet David after all. And that is indeed what happened. At some time in the small hours, when I was the only passenger remaining on a strange bus on a dark and stormy night in an unknown land in which I didn’t speak the language, I was placed directly outside of the nicest looking hotel I had stayed in on my entire trip with a concierge who was expecting me. My relief was tremendous. I was very happy to see David and then have a hot shower before going to sleep in a clean bed.

David taking advantage of 'male privilege' in Myanmar. (The sigh reads "Ladies are not allowed to enter")

David taking advantage of ‘male privilege’ in Myanmar. (The sigh reads “Ladies are not allowed to enter”) Apologies for the poor photograph

Friendly monks

Friendly monks

As luck would have it, the rain was a little less persistent the following day and David and I opted to hire a car to get around the various sights and fit in as much as we could whilst saving ourselves from getting too wet. We still managed to get trapped in a little wooden monastery by a sudden downpour but we considered ourselves lucky. We ate lunch at a restaurant recommended by our driver which was a very interesting collection of incredibly pungent, predominantly cold local dishes with rice. The soup and tea was my favourite (mostly because after 9 months in Asia, I was longing for some of the familiar tastes of home).

A different view of Yangon

A different view of Yangon

Cyclist struggling on the flooded road whilst we were warm and dry in the car.

Cyclist struggling on the flooded road whilst we were warm and dry in the car

That night we took a far more comfortable night bus (they gave us complementary cakes and drinks and it even had individual movie screens) south to Yangon. Whilst the effects of the coming monsoon had been evident in Mandalay with heavy rain and road-wide puddles, nothing could prepare me for waking up in the streets of Yangon. The scorching hot city I had left just 9 days before was unrecognisable with flooded streets and dark skies overhead. I was amazed to see shops still open and people still going about their business, wading through murky, ankle-deep water on the pavements. There were even people cycling, their bike wheels almost completely covered as they made slow progress along the flooded road. The reality of life in a tropical developing country where monsoon season lasts for 5 months of the year, every year, gradually dawned on me.

Last view of Shwedagon Pagoda

Last view of Shwedagon Pagoda

We stayed in a nice hostel in the Chinatown district and spent most of the day there playing cards. David took a taxi to the airport later that afternoon and I went back up to Shwedagon Pagoda in the evening when the rain lessened. The following morning, after 10 incredible and rather tiring days in Myanmar, I flew back to familiar territory of Singapore. It was an incredible trip and I would definitely recommend a visit to anyone, especially to those who are keen to see a more authentic side to SE Asia, with rougher edges and slightly less catering for tourists (particularly compared to neighbouring Thailand, which I have decided to save for another point in time). My favourite parts were definitely riding the bikes around Old Bagan, Oliver pretending to be the character in the game ‘Temple Run’ to our great amusement, and the beautiful serenity of Inle lake.

Returning to  Singapore for the last time felt like some sort of strange dream. It is an odd feeling to become so familiar with a place that is so different to anywhere else you have been, a place you feel so comfortable and yet uncomfortable at the same time, a place you live in for a while and that you might never see again. I had only 12 hours between returning from Myanmar and catching my long awaited flight home and spent that time travelling to and from the airport, making final farewells and enjoying my last Singaporean meal. It was only when I sat at the airport waiting to check in that it really hit me that I was going home, I couldn’t wait. I don’t know if I will ever go back to Singapore, but I can say with certainty that I’m very glad I went. Although I missed my friends and family, my kayaking and hiking, good tea and chocolate, I learnt so much in 9 months abroad and had many incredible experiences, with new friends made along the way. I am very fortunate to have been able to share in so many adventures, and my advice to the reader is to seize each and every opportunity that arises to travel, to explore and to expand your horizons. Though my year is over, these memories will stay with me always.

Sacha

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