We were all brought up to believe that the world is round and that we will not fall off at the end of the horizon. How happy I am that there are no horizons. The last month saw me travel on 13 flights to 5 countries. All different and unique in its own, special way!
But every now and then you stumble upon a jewel, the one that jumps out and surprises you! That was the case with Burma… or Myanmar. Call it what you like, the fact is that it was amazing in so many ways. We decided to spend a week in Myanmar. The fact that there were not a lot of people around to ask information about Myanmar as well as the lengthy visa process, should have been a sign of things to come… fascinating, unexpected! What would you expect from a country that deviates half hours from normal time zones (6:30 GMT – one of 7 countries that uses half hours)?
So we were told to bring $$$ as banking is problematic. Not uncommon advice for travels to 3rd world, developing countries. Big difference is – there are NO, zero, nada ATMs in the country! The banking system is non-existent. It is impossible to imagine, I know.
Burma or Myanmar for dummies
It is the 2nd largest country in South East Asia and the least developed as well. It is rich in culture and has some of the oldest civilizations in South East Asia. The government recognizes 135 ethnic groups, so it is a hugely diverse country. It received its independence in 1948, but from1962 – 2011 it saw military rule, which had a devastating effect on the economy with wide spread human rights concerns. Aung San Suu Kyi (Noble peace prize winner) won the 1989 elections, but was not endorsed by the military junta and she has been in house arrest 15 years out of the last 21 years. Myanmar has seen drastic changes in the last year with democratic rule (still to be tested). There seems to be positive signs for the Burmese people on the horizon, so let’s holds thumbs.
So we arrived at Yangon International Airport not knowing what to expect. It has been a while since I’ve travelled so unprepared for what lay ahead, but that’s what makes the journey so much more interesting. Steve Jobs said, “travel often, getting lost will help you find yourself”. It is especially true for a country like Myanmar.
We only had half a day to explore, almost old colonial city feel Yangon, as we were keen to experience the annual Taunggyi hot air balloon festival which is in a different province up country. Yangon’s energy is due to the markets and mix of Asians, Indians and everyone in between. We were fortunate to be in town for the most special day on the Buddhist calendar, November full moon, and thousands of people visited the most sacred temple the Shwedagon Pagoda. An awesome sight and just the sheer size of it is overwhelming.
From Yangon we travelled by propeller plane (mini & a little scary) to Heho in the Shan Province. We spent our next 3 days just outside the town of Taunggyi on a wine farm(1st and one of two in the whole country). The area is famous for Inle Lake, Shan culture, and the various sustainable villages and people that make a living on and from the lake. It was fascinating to experience the floating islands where tomatoes, beans and various other vegetables are cultivated; one-leg rowing fisherman pass you by; villagers living in small communities in stilted houses, travelling by longboat to daily rotating markets to sell goods; and a monastery where the monks have trained the cats to jump through hoops.
The annual hot air balloon festival in Taunggyi can only be described as mad and chaotic! On this occasion people enjoy fun and merriment through firework-launching competitions, eating, drinking (lots), gambling (even the monks), etc. There are also hot air balloon competitions during the day and night. Day balloons are usually in the form of Pagodas (temples), and animals such as elephants, dragons or ducks. The night balloons are either candle balloons (huge elongated paper balls with small lighted multicoloured paper lanterns hung around their sides) or fireworks balloons (looks like traditional hot air balloons, but instead of a basket at the bottom there is a container that holds all the fireworks). This event will definitely not pass any health and safety inspection in SA!!!! Thousands of people scatter when fireworks go astray or a balloon struggles for lift-off and the fireworks have already been set alight. For outsiders like us, it was awesome and definitely a highlight to experience something so cultural and not knowing whether it will be around for much longer.
Our next stop was Bagan, the capital of Buddhist temples and Pagodas. There are 2 200+ temples scattered across a beautiful plain within a 40km2 area. An earthquake in 1975 destroyed a lot of the temples which once had more than 5,000 temples during the political height. Most of them date back to 11th - 13th century. We wondered through the valley on bicycles and the majority of temples and places we had to ourselves. We felt a bit like Indiana Jones at times. Upon arrival in Bagan our taxi driver told us that we were fortunately as our accommodation was opposite a temple, which has festivities on for the month. We didn’t have the same take as the taxi driver on being fortunate… How we hated it as the monks praying over a megaphone, howled all through the night… all good fun and memories to take with you.
Asia has all the colours, flavours, personalities that you can dream of. It is certainly not a drive-by destination and the more time you spend the more there is to learn. It reminds me of my travels through the African continent – simple people with big hearts and lots of stories and experiences to tell.
Like someone once said. You (the West) created the watch, we have time……