The first two weeks in Myanmar
Stepping over the border from Thailand into Myanmar (formerly known as Burma or Birma) takes you back into another time. There are very few cars and the ones you see are at least 20 years old. There are also far fewer motorbikes, instead people ride bicycles or use horse carts. It's very quiet and peaceful in the small towns and every motor vehicle stands out because its noise sounds louder against the near silence. You hear birds, roosters, dogs and people talking in the streets. Those Burma people are friendly but much more shy than say the Cambodians. Some kids don't know what to do if we wave or talk to them. But on the other hand, some of them come up to us and give us flowers and are very happy when we accept them.
Various parts of the country are off-limits for foreigners and when crossing by land from Thailand, as we did, you cannot reach the main sections of the country by road, so we had to fly. The airport we used is small and basic but the planes are modern 100 seats propeller planes. The domestic flights start in Yangon in the south and then stop 3 or 4 times on the way to Mandalay in the north to pick up and drop off passengers. This makes the flight much longer for most people but for us it didn't matter because we did only one stop and it was nice to see a country from the air for a change. As we hoped, there are much less tourists about, in the first town we saw six besides us but there are more touristy parts where there are more 'whiteys'. We spend a lot of time just strolling around the towns and the nice markets which are still very much open air rather than in modern buildings as in Vietnam. In Kengtung we did a day trip trekking up the mountains visiting several hill tribes on the way. The hill tribe people living here have no electricity or running water and live in very basic wooden huts. They are also less used to foreigners than those tribes I've seen in Thailand, Vietnam or even China. Our guide spoke the local languages and we spend some time in the central hut along with pretty much the whole tribe gathering around us. Another day trip was on a boat on Inle lake, a beautiful lake sandwiched on two sides between mountain ranges. There are many floating villages and markets on the lake as well as monasteries. Traditionally people are fishermen or farmers in the water gardens, but tourism had an impact here already and there are now many restaurants, souvenir shops and handicraft workshops.
Our accommodation so far is fine, between 6 and 10 US dollars for a double room in family run guest houses. This always includes breakfast which is nice, as we don't have to look around for a place before we head out. The main roads are alright but it gets pretty bad in remote areas. Even though it is more expensive, we like to take the train rather than the bus. It is very slow and shaking a lot but riding in the old carriages with the locals is great and the scenery so far was beautiful. Some locals ride on the roof but as foreigners we have to sit in the upper class, as they wouldn't sell us tickets for the ordinary class. What they call local buses are basically pick-up trucks with benches on the back. There is usually a roof and people sit on it as well. I tried this and it's fun as long as you hold on tight to something and avoid the evenings when swarms of insects fly into your face.
The second week we spend in the Bagan temple area. They have over 2000 temples dating back from 1000-1200 A.D. dotted over a wide plain. This is an amazing site/sight and when you up on one of the temples looking over the plain it feels like a scene from a science fiction movie when they have a city on an alien planet. As in Angkor Wat in Cambodia we cycled around all the temples, but while most of the Angkor temples are located within thick and high forests, the temples in Bagan are all in the open and it gets really hot there, we had up to 41 degrees celcius.
The last two weeks in Burma
After Bagan, we took a slow local boat on the Ayeyarwady river to Pakokku, a small town a third up the way to Mandalay. The next day our guest house owner took us to a local festival where people give money, food and other gifts to a long monks who walk in a long procession by the locals each one having a young boy with them to carry all the presents. Quite interesting and we had a lot of fun with the local kids.
Mandalay is the second city in Burma and the metropolis of the north. It's dominated by the huge imperial palace which I'd say is at least twice as big as the whole Forbidden city complex in Beijing. However it's not that interesting inside, mostly there are army barracks with only a few buildings open to the public. We climbed up Mandalay hill which is dotted with temples and has hundreds of souvenir shops along the steps to the top but has nice views all the around. We also explored some of the huge monasteries and observed the life at the Ayeyarwady river banks. Make sure you don't miss the Nylon milk share and ice-cream place. We continued further north by bus to Hispaw. It's much hillier up here and there are patches of fine forest. Later we learned from an American who first came here in 1971 that the whole of the north of Burma was covered in thick forest and it was really sad for him to see it in its current state. In Hispaw we did a really nice trek through some small villages with a local guide. There were about 6-10 tourists in the area at any time, so it's not commercialized at all and the people did welcome us into their houses and offered tea. The second day we went walking on our own and had a fantastic swim in the local river, very clean and cool.
By train back to Mandalay via an overnight stop in Pyin-Oo-Lwin and from there all the way south to Yagon by overnight coach. Rangoon as some people are still calling it is by far the biggest city in Burma. We enjoyed the markets and the food and the whole atmosphere so much that we decided to stay there our remaining days and not explore other parts of the south. We were particularly keen on the Indian food with free refills, not that you can usually finish the initial portion, but it's nice to know. Our guest house the 'White House' had a huge a good breakfast buffet in the eating area on the 7th floor, you could go there at 8 and then again at 11 so you wouldn't need lunch. The buffet would put some of those in hotels to shame. It was also at the breakfast buffet that I met Jacqueline again, the Dutch girl I travelled with for a while in China, but she was leaving Burma the same day. The highlight of every visit to Rangoon must be the visit to Shwedagon Paya
which is actually big complex of temples with a huge stupa in it's centre. Definitely the most impressive and interesting active temple complex I've been too on this trip. We spend several hours there, normally I get bored after 15 minutes. We had the 'Pagoda view' room on the 10th floor with great views over the city and the pagoda on a hill in the north, the only problem was that there is no lift in the guest house. We spend some good time in the roof garden, right next to our room with fellow travellers. An interesting fact about Rangoon is that they banned all motorbikes and even bicycles in the city and there are cars only, which makes it different from all the other cities in the region.
At one point we were in the sales office of a Bangladeshi airline to book cheap flights to Tokyo to finish off our time together we a week in Japan which we both love. But in the last minute we realised the cherry blossom season was already at it's end and it would be stupid to go for such a short time, so we decided to spend 3 more weeks in Loas and Thailand together.