Country number: 56
Territory number: 61
When? June 2001, coming from Bangkok, returning to Bangkok, going on to Cambodia
How? Bus, boat, bike
Who? With Nick
‘My top priority is for people to understand that they have the power to change things themselves.’
Aung San Suu Kyi
- This is a sensitive visit given that Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a tourism boycott. We fly into Yangon on Thai Airways, use the buses and stay in local hostels to avoid feeding any money into the state system. It’s quiet and beautiful. The people are shy and happy to see us. There are also road blocks on nearly every corner and checkpoints where we have to sign our names and give our passport details. This becomes tedious very quickly, so we begin to invent more and more ludicrous monikers: Mickey Mouse etc. No-one notices.
- It’s also a mad visit. I encountered Nick in Flores, Indonesia for one evening and we’ve agreed to meet in Bangkok and travel together. There are a few ups and downs.
- The previous capital city, Yangon is most famously home to the huge gilded temple, the Shwedagon Paya. It is believed to enshrine eight hairs of Gautama Buddha and is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. It’s also extraordinary. To start with I think the locals are very poor at applying their make-up but it seems that (both sexes) apply a cream coloured paste made from ground tree bark to their cheeks, nose and neck. It’s to prevent sun damage, they tell us. Both men and women wear sarongs known as longyi, though the women’s designs are tied differently.
- Next, an overnight (very uncomfortable) bus to Lake Inle, home to Myanmar’s most idiosyncratic sights. This is very much a place where life is lived on the water, so we’ve to take to the water too, in a long tailed boat. Most of the buildings are on stilts. The Intha people on Inle Lake grow vegetables on floating islands, which are a mix of weed and water hyacinth. These floating garden islands are cut, rearranged , towed around by boats and even sold, like a piece of land. The fishermen on Inle have an unusual and difficult technique. They strap an oar to one foot and row with this, leaving their hands free to fish using big conical nets. There’s still more. There’s a gloomy lino floored monastery, where the friendly monks have trained cats to jump through hoops (for donations of course).
- Another overnight bus, even further north to Mandalay, which I had heard about from reading Kipling and Daphne du Maurier, the latter giving it an eerie connotation I find oddly hard to shake. Mandalay is the second-largest city, the last royal capital of Myanmar and the cultural capital. At its hub is the restored (Mandalay was bombed flat in WWII) Mandalay Palace from the Konbaung Dynasty, surrounded by a moat. Mandalay Hill, its slopes studded with pagodas, still looms over the city providing views of the city from its summit, reached by a covered stairway. At its foot, the impressive Kuthodaw Pagoda houses hundreds of Buddhist-scripture-inscribed marble slabs. The rest is a haphazard medley of markets, monasteries, Indian temples, mosques, gold workshops, Buddha construction sites and a bustling, working quay alongside the Irrawaddy River. The locals are friendly and we eat the best Thai food I have so far encountered, even in Thailand.
- South on a boat on the Irrawaddy. There are hammocks on deck, so it is possible to swing gently and watch life unravel on the banks each side of the board muddy waters. Bagan, is another marvel. Here is the world’s largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins. When it was founded in the second century AD, the kingdom is said to have contained over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Earthquakes have wreaked havoc over the years and now ‘only’ 2,000 temples and pagodas remain, many of them in a poor state of repair. The terrain lends itself well to exploration by bike and it’s a stunning excursion, especially if I abandon my wheels at times and scramble up steps or a hillock for the views. Though after a whole afternoon one pagoda begins to look pretty much like all the others.
- A final bus back to Yangon. A visit to the waterside market and a drink in the faded grandeur of, the Strand Hotel. The (colonial equivalent of Raffles, I believe now restored to its former glory.)
Myanmar was known as Burma until 1989 when the military junta renamed the country Myanmar. The capital, Rangoon, became Yangon.
In 2006, the capital city was moved, rebuilt and named Naypyidaw, a purpose built modern (much smaller) city.
Burma was part of the British Empire from the mid-19th century and was then occupied by Japan during the Second World War, before gaining independence in 1948.
Myanmar was under the rule of an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of national hero Aung San, spent a total of 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and 2011, was the most vociferous opponent to the junta. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.. During this time, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (or NLD) called for a tourism boycott, saying that the income generated helped to support the government. Finally, in November 2015, the NLD opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi were able to form a government.
Ironically, Suu Kyi and the NLD face international criticism for their handling of a crisis. The country has been accused of ethnic cleansing in the Muslim-majority Rakhine region
Myanmar is one of only three countries not to adopt the metric system of measurement. (The other two are Liberia and the USA.)
To see more of my photos of Myanmar, visit this page.