Myanmar’s second biggest city, Mandalay, felt slightly less modern than Yangon. The streets were chaotic and stop signs could be added to every city block intersection. Although my inability to walk limited our activities, Nick and I still felt like we left seeing the sites of the city. Like in most Asian cities, we enjoyed the local markets, ate street food and took in the sights around us. Nick didn’t even get sick after eating pig parts from a communal boiling pot. And, he wasn’t charged, as the locals were so impressed by his appetite!
In the evening, we saw a popular comedy act by the Mustache Brothers. These brothers are best known for their criticizing voices against the government in a nation silenced by fear. 2 members of the comedy trio served 6 years of hard labor after joking about the government in 1996 during a performance in Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. Par Par Lay (who is now diseased) stated, “You used to call a thief a thief; now you call him a government servant.” Since their release, the brothers have been banned from performing in their native language, Burmese, and from performing anywhere but in their home theatre. This comedy show and cultural performance was an interesting and entertaining experience.
On our second day in Mandalay, Nick and I drove 11 km out of the city to explore U Bein’s Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge, 1.2 km long and 200 years old. We continued south to stupa-covered hilltops overlooking the Ayeyarwady River. With over 500 stupas and monasteries, Sagaing felt like a small temple town with windy backroads and rewarding views. From Sagaing, we headed back to Mandalay to see the unique Starving Buddha.
world’s longest teak bridge
For sunset, we headed to a lookout point 2 km from the city center and our guesthouse. We looked to the left and saw where the sun just dipped below the hills. We looked to our right and saw a river village, something we’d never expect to see so close to the city.
As, we took in the view, a local man pointed to a boat on the river. He simply said, “Buddhist.” We watched the boat, but didn’t exactly know what we were watching. Next, the man pointed to my foot, acted out crutching and we thought he too hurt his foot. We said, “Ah, yes” and pointed to his foot. He left eagerly. After sitting for 30 minutes the river began to glow and although we didn’t understand the meaning, we learned that every full moon a Buddhist boat lines the river with candles. As we sat observing, the local man returned, out of breath, after running to his home to fetch tiger balm. He reached for my leg and without and hesitation started to massage my swollen ankle. As I watched candles sparkle on the river, I sat in awe, reflecting the kindness of the Myanmar people.
From Bagan, Nick and I took the bus to Nyaungshwe to visit Inle Lake. The drive was spectacular and the landscape was our favorite we’ve seen in Southeast Asia. The view was dynamic, both dry and mountainous. Desert plants in red sandy soil and water buffalo lined the side of the road. The mountains in the distance reminded us of the foothills in Colorado as we zigzagged down passes.
The next day we arranged a tour on the lake with boatman, Ko Lay. We were on the lake by 5:45 am and it was extremely chilly. As we reached the middle of the 45 sq mile lake, the motor shut off and we waited for the sun to pop over the mountains. The haze began to lift and the water reflected the sky. As we soaked in our surroundings we saw a dancing fishermen in the distance. Inle Lake is known for fishermen that paddle with their feet. It seemed too early to fish. As the boat came closer to ours we noticed he wasn’t actually fishing. Ko Lay soon told us that this man was not fishing for fish but for tourists to photograph him for money. We soon saw another tourist boat with a single middle-aged man with serious camera equipment. His boatman called over 2 fishermen and the tourist directed them as he snapped away. The photo shoot lasted a few minutes and the tourist proceeded to pay both fishermen.
This left me puzzled. Fake fisherman? At first I thought, tourist trap! And, of course, Inle Lake is an extremely touristed area, however for a good reason. From a photography perspective, sure, this was cheating. From a tourist’s perspective, this was not an authentic experience. However, from an economic and opportunity point of view of the locals, what was wrong with this? Tourists get their photos, the fishermen aren’t bothered when they are fishing, the local culture is preserved and locals make money. Later in the day, Nick and I passed real fishermen. However, what we couldn’t figure out was if the tourist fishermen and real fishermen were one of the same. Did fishermen pose for photos to make some extra money in the morning when they weren’t catching fish? We also couldn’t figure out if it was still the norm to fish with the cone shape baskets. We passed by a handful of fisherman fishing this way, however we also passed fishermen using nets. Although some things were left unclear, the way that fisherman and local boys paddled with their feet was elegant and unlike anything I have seen.
Ko Lay proceeded to take us to a local market where an ethnic minority group sold a variety of produce and Intha’s sold fried breakfast goods. Nick and I walked up a hilltop to Inthein where we viewed pagodas overlooking the lake. We visited the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery and various floating villages. The homes were made of bamboo, however newer houses were built with wood. Neighbors all helped in the construction of new homes and an outhouse was attached to the exterior (some homes even have attached pig pens.)
Constructing a new home
We visited a weaving facility, where we watched woman spin and weave cotton, silk and lotus fibers. It takes 1 month to make a 6-inch x 3-foot lotus scarf. Ko Lay mentioned that 30 years ago there was only 1 weaving shop, however now that there is so much money in Inle (from tourism) there are 7. There are also a variety of black smith, jewelry and wood working shops located on the lake. Nick and I ended our 12-hour tour by visiting the floating gardens. These gardens take up 25% of the lake. Intha farmers grow flowers, cucumbers, gourds, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, other fruits and vegetables and it is all sold at local markets. Although fascinating, we learned that the chemical fertilizers used were damaging the lake’s ecosystem.
Nick and I stayed in Nyaungshwe, the closest town to Inle Lake. Nick biked me around and we visited the night market, The French Touch (beautiful photography) and found the best ice cream in asia at a small bakery. We celebrated my birthday with a nice dinner and had a candle to blow out!
Anyone interested in an excellent boatman at Inle Lake, contact:
Ko lay, Boat driver
Nick and I entered Myanmar through Mai Sot, which has only been open to foreigners for a year. We found this border crossing to be the least regulated and least developed we’ve experience. As we left Thailand, I was surprised that no one checked the first page of my passport to make sure that it was mine. As we walked across the bridge over no man’s land, we observed a homeless family and watched boats illegally (and obviously) take people across the river. As we entered Myanmar immigration there were no ques, no other foreigners, unexperienced workers and my passport was stamped upside down. Although, the process seemed unorderly for foot traffic, the truck loads of produce, motorbikes, toys and other goods seemed to be more regulated.
After crossing the border, Nick and I arranged a ride to Mawlamyine in a car full of bananas. During the 3 hour ride we must have stopped 10 times to grease some hands at military checkpoints. We drove past water buffalo, pagodas, and thatched homes (these homes used large dried leaves to construct the roof). My first observation was the drastic difference between Thailand and Myanmar. It’s was night and day. It’s unfathomable how one day someone decided to draw a line on a map, call it a border, and now it changes the way people live. The amount of opportunity and development in Myanmar lacks without hesitation in comparison to Thailand. Myanmar is dirty, poor, the roads are outdated and there is civil conflict. However, what this country lacks in development makes up for in generosity and curiosity among the people.
We arrived to the small town of Mawlamyine (Myanmar’s 3rd largest city) just in time to observe the sunset over the river. We didn’t know what to expect, some people said traveling in Myanmar was off the beaten path, while others said it felt like the rest of the Southeast Asia tourist loop.
Here were some of our first impressions:
– Woman and children wear white paint on their face which is made from ground bark (Thanaka). It is believed to be fragrant, cosmetic, contain natural spf, is an anti- fungal and helps to promote smooth and blemish free skin. Some wear it as makeup and it’s painted on in designs (large circles on their checks and forehead, lines under their eyes, or swirls) while others simply paint their entire face.
– Men and woman (most commonly the older generation but also seen among young adults) have stained black teeth. This is from chewing betel nut which is a dark red nut mixed with other spices wrapped in a banana leaf and provides a similar buzz to chewing tobacco.
– We’ve seen traditional skirts worn by women throughout Southeast Asia, however not only does the majority of the population in Myanmar wear them, the majority of men wear them. They are called Longhis and are quite stylish. Locals more freely express their individuality through their dress and hairstyles in comparison to any other Asian country we’ve visited.
– There is an enormous Indian influence as the British brought people from Indian to Myanmar to work during colonialism.
– The older generation (mostly males) can speak English, due to American’s presence during WWII.
– The locals are interested in discussing politics (when they feel it’s safe) and will pull over on their motorbike to ask you about Trump, Putin, etc.
– Woman carry goods on their head, and as in the rest of Asia, seem to do all of the work.
– Pagodas cover hill tops and every poor town will have a large gold pagoda peaking out above the trees.
– Nick and I question our choice to travel in Myanmar. By traveling here we are financially supporting the government. Should we have skipped the country entirely? The local newspapers are a constant reminder of the darker issues at hand.
– Everything is done by hand in Myanmar. We’ve watched woman and children create, asphalt and pave roads and sidewalks.
Th next morning we walked around the market while locals smiled, waved or simply stared. Although there are a handful of tourists in this city, their presence is extremely low. We walked around town and watched horse and buggies transport goods or people. We observed a mosque located directly across the street from a Buddhist temple and children monks collecting their daily offerings. Later, we loaded onto a large canoe with 20 locals and headed to Ogre Island. Here we experienced how locals made rubber bands, coconut rope, coconut mats, bamboo hats, and wooden pipes. We returned to Mawlamyine to enjoy some delicious dollar Indian food.
Smoking the rubber
Cutting the rubber
The local ethnic minority group, Karen’s, celebrated their New Years a week earlier and Nick and I were unsure how we’d celebrate our New Years, if at all. We saw a slip of paper at our guesthouse that was printed in English, “You are cordially invited to our New Years celebration!” and listed some details. We didn’t know what to expect. Maybe there was a small expat community or maybe it would be a small local party? We arrived at an extremely wealthy gated home that doubled as a fitness gym, salon, custom dress design and modeling agency. What was this place? We were greeted with excitement by some local women in extravagant dresses and told to eat, drink, dance and enjoy. There ended up being 5 other foreigners and after about a half an hour, it clicked. We were among Mawlamyine’s transgendered community watching a talent show in the yard of a home that catered toward women in the industry. We were baffled as we did not think the people of Myanmar or government would be accepting, however because we were so close to the Thai border maybe they were more open to it. We rang in the new year with the largest fireworks in town, ate freshly made dosais and danced on stage with 15 ladies. It was a fun, funny, and an unique experience that I will never forget. Here is to a 2017, a new year, hopefully full of world peace, compassion and environmental improvement.