Going wine tasting was the last thing on my mind when I decided to holiday in Myanmar. However, I unexpectedly found myself sipping on a cool glass of sauvignon blanc in a vineyard that overlooked Inlay Lake in Myanmar’s Shan State. This lakeside mountain scene could easily have been mistaken for the wine regions of France or Italy, and somehow seemed out of context in a country that has just come out of a 49-year long military dictatorship.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is changing and changing fast. The military junta was dissolved in 2011 but still retains power in many government departments. This, combined with Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010, has meant that tourists are now starting to pour into the country. Many go hoping to explore Myanmar before it becomes homogenised by globalisation. But for now, it still has no McDonald’s or 7-Eleven, and ATMs were introduced just a few years ago.
These changes have produced visible contrasts; many of the men wear traditional skirts called longi, yet many of the teenagers are dressed like Koran pop stars. Buddhist monks still do a daily ‘alms round’ but it’s not unusual to see them on their smart phones. Many farmers work the land with basic hand tools yet multinationals and foreign investors are setting up shop in the big cities.
Myanmar is a country rich in natural resources, yet little of this wealth has trickled down to the great majority. Still, its people were the friendliest I’ve met anywhere in the world. ‘Mingalaba’ is their greeting and I heard it many times per day, usually accompanied by a warm smile. I was invited for tea by strangers and a countless number locals took my photo.
Facilities for travellers are underdeveloped; accommodation is in short supply and there is poor infrastructure. This means that independent travel, while rewarding, can be difficult and time-consuming. I travelled with G Adventures, a Canadian tour company who organised the itinerary, guides, accommodation and transport. This meant we covered a lot of ground in just two weeks.
Our trip started in Yangon, a city that many tourists pass though quickly but is well worth scheduling an extra few days to explore. It’s busy and dirty but has a vibrancy to it that is consuming. Once you step outside your hotel you’re confronted by Indian and Chinese influences. There are plentiful opportunities to taste the street food and mosey through the open air markets.
Another quirk to Yangon is the merging of its old colonial charm with awe-inspiring Buddhist monuments; the most impressive of which is the glittering bright gold Shwedagon Pagoda. Its large golden spire is visible from almost anywhere in the city and is the country’s most sacred Buddhist site. The stupa is believed to be 2,500 years old and is said to contain eight strands of hair from the Buddha. The golden stupa is surrounded by a dazzling white marble platform where monks and laypeople walk around clockwise chatting, praying and burning incense and candles.
From there we high-tailed it from one glittering site to another. Golden Rock is Myanmar’s second most important religious site and seems to defy the laws of physics. It’s a huge egg-shaped granite bolder that sits precariously at the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo (1,102 meters) and is said to contain more hairs of the Buddha.
At sunset a misty light bathed the pagoda and even though there were hundreds of people at the rock, the atmosphere was very peaceful and enchanting. The air smelt of musky incense and there was a hum of chanting, punctuated by the ringing of bells.
Only the men are allowed to go up and touch the rock and most of them painted it with golden leaves. Later, I realised that Golden Rock is not painted gold but is essentially a gilded stone.
In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, I visited a workshop in its gold-pounders district and watched the gold leaf being made. From seven hours of manually pounding a tickle of 24 karat pure gold, two thousand thin gold leaves are made. These golden leaves are then used to decorate temples, Buddha statues around the country and are sometimes eaten for good health.
The most extreme of this worshiping with gold was in Mandalay’s biggest temple and pilgrimage site, Maha Myat Muni Pagoda. It has a Buddha statue of 12 feet high that has become disfigured from 15cm deep of gold leaf that have being placed on it. Buddha looks more like a Lint chocolate teddy bear than a religious icon.
Just like there is no avoiding Buddhism in Myanmar, there is also no avoiding politics. Mandalay’s Moustache Brothers perform a politically satirical show nightly in the living room of one of the brother’s house. Two of the brothers spent seven years in prison for holding the regime up to ridicule at a performance before Anung San Suu Kyi in 1996. Their show is officially banned by the government but a blind eye is thrown when they play to tourists only. It’s not exactly the slickest of productions but worth seeing to hear the anti-government gibes.
In contrast to the flashy golden temples of Mandalay are the temples of Bagan. They were built between 1057 and 1287, and is one of the world’s great archaeological sites. It is estimated that an astonishing thirteen thousands temples once stood on this flat forty-two square kilometer area. Two thousand two hundred temples remain today in various states of disrepair. Many have being preserved by UNESCO, and contain frescos, and carving of the Buddha.
Just like Marco Polo, I was awestruck by this magical scene. He visited Bagan back in the 13th century and described it as “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes”. Thankfully, centuries later, Bagan has retained much of its charm.
The temple site is too big to explore by foot. A good option is by bike, or if you want a more sedate journey through this otherworldly landscape there are many horse-drawn carts for rent. A dusk or dawn hot air balloon ride is a popular way to get a bird’s eye view of the temples.
From the hot dusty plains of Bagan our next stop was the cool mountain town of Kalaw. Founded as a hill station by British colonialists, it now feels like a high-altitude holiday resort and has some of the best trekking in Myanmar.
We hiked the surrounding valleys and pine covered hills. Although rural, there was much life on the mountains. We visited a Buddhist monastery and on the track we passed by a lone monk and a farm girl walking her buffalo. We also stopped-off at a Palaung tribe village and shared some roasted green tea in the home of an elderly Danu couple.
A three-hour drive over the mountain range took us to Inlay Lake. This is Myanmar’s most popular tourist destination and the development that is taking place acts as a reminder of what may come to other parts of the country. But despite Inlay’s growth, a day out on the lake will cast you back a hundred years.
Surrounded by mountains, it measures 22km long and 11km wide. From a long tail boat you can see the fishermen as they practice their distinctive rowing style, standing on one leg and wrapping the other around the oar. This allows them to navigate their way through the vegetation that grows on the surface of the water and also leaves their hands free to cast their nets. Another unusual fishing method employed is the slapping of the surface of the water with the oar to scare the fish into their nets.
Many of the villages on the lake are built on the water and accessed only by boat. The homes are stilted houses made of bamboo and teak and line the banks of the lake, and the narrow canals that feed into it. We visited a market where the surrounding hill tribes come to buy and sell produce and also watched crafts people work in a sliver smith and silk workshop.
One of my favorite stops on the boat ride was the impressive labyrinth of floating gardens. In this huge expanse, cucumber and tomatoes grow on mounds of soil floating on the lake. Not a Massey Ferguson in sight, these farmers canoe between the rows of their crops.
And not so far away from these primitive farming and fishing methods was a state-of-the-art winery where I enjoyed my sauvignon blanc.
I traveled in Myanmar with G Adventures. For more information visit www.gadventures.com.