Myanmar ... The land of smiles and friendly inquisitive people.
As a country that only a few years ago escaped from a military junta to a democratic government, Myanmar has only recently been opened for tourism. Since very little is known about the country, before leaving I had to face several people and their warnings concerning this "dangerous" country.
It has been my pleasure to overturn all their doubts and find that Myanmar is not only a lovely country to travel to, but actually now one of my new favorites. It is almost surreal how traditional the country still is despite global pressure for internationalization. Most men still wear a skirt-like longyi and women take pride in their thanakha paintings (make up paste from tree bark that is worn on the face). All while chewing the betel nut that results in mouth-full of blood red juice that occasionally gets spat of the road. Similar to other South East Asian countries, one can find a fair share of motorbikes on the road, mixed with occasional trishaws/tuk-tuk's and traditional ox carts. I even had a pleasure of witnessing a man and his son riding their water buffaloes.
It was an absolutely welcome change to see streets lined with local brands with only a very few global brands being present - I can count the brands I recognised on my two hands. Since my visit timing happened to be during one of the hottest months of the year, the amount of tourists on the roads was almost non-existent, luckily.
The first place I visited was Bagan - a centuries old temple town. A charming low-key area with thousands of stunning temples/pagodas connected with bumpy sand tracks. I started my day with an air balloon ride at sunrise, that promised to display the wonder of the area in its full glory. And it certainly did - the bird-eye view of the temple complexes helps you realize the total scale of the area.
Following the breath-taking ride, I could not wait to get myself one of the electric motorbikes to explore the temples up close. For any future visitors, may I advise to rent one with a basket up front - it is a life saver and takes all the weight off your back to greatly enhance the experience.
It should be no surprise that the temples were as marvelous as they seemed from above. Many had been restored to former glory, many still displayed the aging scars. Each of them hiding statues of Buddha.
As a sign of respect, the visitors need to remove their shoes and socks when entering temple-grounds. It is pleasant to explore the grounds bare feet ... until the mid-day sun heats up the ground like hot stones cooking station, encouraging you to spend more time discovering the fresco paintings inside the temples. And by the end of the day, you'll be guaranteed some pretty dirty feet :)
Another day, another location - after admiring Bagan, I moved forward to Inle lake. I was joined there by Kaylynn - someone I know from my previous travels. We were both exited to get on one of the traditional long boats and hit the water. The warm day and the wind on the water gave a feeling of total relaxation.
We explored the floating gardens, local villages and the workshops of several local handicraft artists: a Kayan Lahwi woman (who displays a long neck supported by golden brass rings) weaving intricate scarfs, a family weaving lotus flower scarfs (as well as cotton and silk ones), iron smiths, boat makers, cigar rollers. We were amazed at every step on the complexities involved in any of these processes. True art.
The area around Inle lake is also known for it's wineries. We grabbed a trishaw and made our way to the top of a mountain to taste the local wines. The selection included Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat and a rose wine. While each of them certainly had a punch, we must admit we enjoyed more the deep fried vegetables and tofu sticks. A gorgeous sunset added to the charm.
On the lake we also got a chance to admire the well-balanced fishermen who row their boat with one leg, while balancing on the other on the boat nose to distribute and collect nets. Now that is a skill.
Early next morning we took another boat ride to enjoy the sunrise on the lake. The pain of waking up at 5am (as on every other day this trip) was forgotten as soon as our boat carried us into the fog hovering over the water. It was enchanting. And then the sun started rising behind the mountains and lighting up fog in warm colors ... It was truly magical.
During the mid-day it was time for me to move forward to Mandalay, where I was hoping to see the famous century-old wooden U Bein bridge in sunset colors.
I was unsure how to feel when I first stepped on the bridge - there was almost no space to walk as the sides of the bridge were full of hagglers trying to sell their wares with rest of the space filled by other people coming to enjoy the sunset. But fortunately that passed as I moved forward on the bridge. The people dispersed over the length of the 1,2km bridge and I was only occasionally met by smiling local faces who seemed more delighted at the sight of my white skin than the grand bridge. I cannot count the number of pictures that were taken of me or with me. But I certainly will never forget the joy in their eyes.
As I continued along the bridge, smiling, an older monk said "Hello". I responded with my best possible "Mingalabah" ("Hello" in Burmese) and was invited to join him on the bench for a chat. At first I was very worried about sitting next to him on the bench, as I had read from before this to be an inappropriate act. But he kept insisting and I finally allowed myself to sit in a respectful distance to continue our conversation. I learned that his name is U Ott Ta Ma and he lives in a nearby monastery. He has two children and a grandchild, his family lives in the neighboring village. It was an absolute pleasure to spend the rest of the sunset time with him, discussing Myanmar history and monk life.
I woke the next day, that was to be my last in the country, and headed out for a walk in the center of Mandalay. It was not long until a local lady with her bright red dress and green scooter stopped to offer me a ride to the nearby temples. Although short in time, I agreed, and she took me to marvel at something I had not expected. Kuthodaw and Sandamuni pagodas painted in gold and white, surrounded by countless little pagodas. The most stunning end to my trip to the country of the most lovely people.
All in all, I doubt I have managed to write down even a fraction of my emotions from this short trip. But I assure you, without exceptions all of the rest were also positive. This country gave me a good feeling the moment I landed and continued to surprise me every step on the way. I cannot express enough how friendly and helpful the locals were, how intricate was the artwork they made, how stunning were the sights I saw and how timely everything worked. Myanmar has secured itself a place very high in my favorite trips list.
See the full album of the trip here.
See the video from the trip here.