Myanmar (Burma) Myanmar is the 80th sovereign country I have been to and is easily in my shortlist of favourites. It is a place of beauty (well maybe not Yangon) with some astonishing world wonders and the people we met here are incredibly wonderful and friendly. Like Bhutan it is a predominately Buddhist country with a founding principal of altruism and bringing happiness to others. It is also non-westernized. There are no familiar stores, and the country is still mostly analog. By example they handwrite on the plane tickets when taking flights. You cannot use ATMs and credit cards can only be used at the occasional high-end hotel. Your only access to money is what you bring in. Fortunately there is very little crime here to worry about.
We had a whirlwind tour visiting Yangon (Rangoon), Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake all within one week. We employed five different local guides as well as drivers on our visit to see as much as possible in a short period of time. We also had to fly between each of these regions as by land they are each at least 10 hours apart.
Yangon is the largest city in the country and its old British colonial buildings are in a serious state of decay. While the city itself looks quite drab, it is home to the phenomenal Shwedagon Stupa. This massive gold covered stupa is caped with the second largest diamond in the world. The whole area around it is filled with shrines and it is a sight to behold. We spent the late afternoon until early evening there people watching and seeing the whole area light-up.
Visiting Bagan is like entering another world. There are over 4000 stupas, pagodas, and shrines across a small lush green valley. It has a tiny population and the dirt roads and laid-back life of people here make the place very charming. We climbed up a number of the buildings and enjoyed a beautiful sunset and sunrise over the valley. When we had dinner in the evening we could see small home made fire balloons lighting up the night sky. As in previous countries we encountered people visiting from villages who starred at us gobsmacked as we were the first foreigners they had ever seen in person. I love it when this happens. This region is one of my all time favourites.
Our next visit was to Mandalay. Unlike Yangon this is an attractive city. We arrived on the day of a huge festival that takes places during the full moon this time of year. Kids were dressed in costumes and had road blocks everywhere trying to collect money from vehicles to use to party with that night. It was fun to see. The whole place had a very convivial atmosphere. We visited a long teak bridge, saw a girl selling owls, apparently locals buy them and free them on their birthday and watched monks in a nearby monastery line up for the morning meal. In the evening we watched 9000 candles lit in numerous patterns on top of Mandalay Hill where we saw the sunset and had clear views of the full moon. A head military commander was coming to the hill to see the candle offering to the Buddha. We left as he was arriving.
Inle Lake was another real gem. The lake is large, but shallow and only about 3 meters deep. It is picturesque and homes are built on stilts above the water. With no land kids play on wooden boats on the canals. We stayed in a terrific resort only reachable by water and we were greeted by a welcoming raised Canadian flag. We had a large two room villa here. We spent the entire day on the lake visiting floating islands and tomato fields, fishing villages and weaving workshops. Here we were offered to share some of the local’s lunch of tomatoes and chillies. I politely declined but Leanne obliged and had a little. Unfortunately we think this caused her a bad case of food poisoning since she would have no tolerance to the bacteria of the local water. She spent the last night in Myanmar in agony and luckily made it back through to Thailand after an unpleasant flight.
We have already posted photos and will make an effort to comment on them soon. They can be found here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=134675&id=673382190&l=8ec48feecd
I was going to avoid writing about it but since we have already met someone who questioned why we went to Myanmar (formerly Burma) I offer the following explanation. We were apprehensive about going, but did plenty of research on the situation before making the decision to visit. There has been an informal travel boycott on the country since 1995 when Aung San Suu Kyi, the lady who was elected by the people years earlier but was imprisoned by the military and never allowed to rule, publically requested tourists not visit the country until later. The military government was opening its doors after years of self-isolation for what it hoped would be a big year of tourism money in 1996. It was thought at the time that going to the country was supporting that government and the money brought in by foreigners would keep it in power. Years later the government has done billion dollar deals with India and China for rights to natural resources, making tourist money almost insignificant. As a result, since 2003 the country no longer forces tourists to change money at a horrendous rate with the government when you arrive. Tourism is now mostly privatized and outsiders now estimate over 80% of the money brought in by tourists goes directly into the hands of the people living there who desperately need it. We met people who love Aung San Suu Kyi and still consider her the mother of the country and in their eyes her call for a travel boycott was her one mistake. It has hurt the locals for 13 years much more than it hurt the government. Next year Myanmar is planning on holding elections to show itself as a new democracy, but the government has gone out of its way to ensure Aung San Suu Kyi will not be on the ballot.