After enjoying the beautiful beaches of Philippines, my next stop was Myanmar, or Burma, as it used to be called. It is a country that recently opened its borders to tourists and after the last democratic elections the internal conflict calmed down. I have spent there two weeks, including Christmas, and I left the country just before New Years Eve.
My general impression about Myanmar is that it is a bit weird. I arrived at midnight in Yangon and I was welcomed by the taxi drivers all wearing skirts (longyi). I know in some places this kind of dress is used for special occasions, but I wasn’t expecting men to wear them all the time. When I woke up next morning and went for a walk, I’ve seen all the woman with this yellowish paste on their face. Again, I knew some cultures paint their faces for some rituals, but I was in Yangon, the biggest and most developed city of Myanmar. Thanaka, the name of the paste, is made out of a tree and it is applied usually to the cheeks as a make-up and sun screen. I’ve seen even boys wearing it, so I don’t know exactly what the rules are.
Other weird things worth mentioning are that they drive cars with the wheel on the right on the right side of the street (wrong!), some men are chewing this very addictive leaf mix (Paan) and they spit their red saliva on the streets or in a bottle (disgusting!) and the funniest one, to get the attention of a waitress/waiter in a restaurant you have to make the kiss sound twice (muah, muah!). In western countries you will get a slap on your face, not the bill.
On the normal side, people are nice, hostels are good and cheap, buses are comfortable and food is eatable. In terms of security, I felt safe in Myanmar. The different armed groups that are fighting for long time are now on ceasefire and only a few incidents happen now and then, none of these affecting tourists.
Yangon is a biggest and most important city in Myanmar. It used to be the capital until 2006, when the government moved it to Naypyidaw, a fake city in the middle of nowhere. The most touristic attraction in Yangon is the 2500 years old Shwedagon Pagoda, a 100m high stupa covered in 60 tons of gold that has relics of the four previous Buddhas. Without a guide, this is just a big Buddhist shinny temple.
Another less expensive and more interesting attraction is the circular train ride. For a couple of dollars you can take a slow local train from the main railway station and do a loop around the city. During the 3 hours ride, you can enjoy the views of rice fields, cows, villages and buy random stuff from people in the train.
The old capital and the city of temples, Bagan is the photographers’ top attraction in Myanmar. Comparable to Ankor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan is the place where you can find over 4000 pagodas and take the cool sunrise and sunset photos. For only 300$, you can get on a hot air balloon for 30 minutes and enjoy the sunrise from above.
The poor tourists often rent electric bikes ( 3$ per day ) and ride around Bagan trying to find the highest pagoda with the best view.
Bagan was my favourite place in Myanmar!
Trekking in Hsipaw
Six hours away by car from Mandalay or 10 hours by train (which passes the 100 years old Goteik viaduct), Hsipaw is the starting point for the treks to the Shan villages. The treks here are less touristic and more beautiful (?) than the ones from Kalaw to Inle Lake. I did a two days trek to Pankam village, a community of a few hundred people living in the mountains.
The trek was not difficult (a Japanese guy from my group did it in flip-flops) and the paths were accessible. Each day we had to walk around 16km, pass through some villages and military checkpoints. The region is under the control of Shan State Army that is still active in the region even though they signed a ceasefire with the government. As a tourist, this is nothing to worry about, since they are mainly preoccupied with protecting the borders of Shan region from illegal drugs or guns.
When we arrived at the village, I was surprised about the high number of kids around. The population of this small village has grown since it was founded around 300 years ago. Because the families here are poor, the young people don’t have money to move to a big city and they stay in the village. The main source of income for this community comes from agriculture. Shan people are cultivating tea and other vegetables and they are selling or exchanging them for other goods.
Our guide, Omo, was the leader of some Shan villages, including Pankam. With a really good English, that he learned from other tourists or movies, he was able to answer all our questions and explain many things about the community. He told us how he managed to get some funds from United Nations to build a water pipe from the water source located a few km away to the centre of the village or to support the locals with installing solar panels for electricity. Also, all the money from tourists go to an association that helps the community. Last year they managed to buy new furniture for the local school with these money.
During our night there, we gathered around a fire (it is really cold in the night), had some beers and enjoyed the night sky. It was an interesting experience to sleep in a traditional house, learn about the community and enjoy the nature.
Second most touristic place in Myanmar, Inle Lake is famous for the boat tours to the floating villages and for the treks from Kalaw. The “ultimate” boat tour will take you to see the lotus factory (where they make textiles out of lotus fiber), a cigars factory, a floating temple, the local markets and ruins of stupas in Dein that look like from Indiana Jones. At the end of the tour you will bump into the acrobat fisherman that are posing for tourists in the sunset. Good show, great pictures.
Another good spot for sunset is the winery where you can also do a wine tasting. After reading the reviews I’ve decided not to do it, since my wine tasting standards are quite high. The views apparently are worth it.
Spending Christmas while backpacking
It was my first Christmas away from my family and the first Christmas spend in warm weather. It was different and weird. Starting from Philippines I could see Christmas trees on the streets, decorations and hear Christmas songs. If you were born in Europe, this will not give you the Christmas vibe. It feels funny. Why would someone dress as Santa in 30 degrees weather? For me Christmas involves cold weather, traditional Romanian food, a stupid Xmas jumper and my family. I had none of those, so Christmas 2017 will be remembered as the day where I’ve seen fisherman doing acrobatics in the sunset and a 12h night bus back to Yangon to catch a flight out of the country.
From Myanmar I will stop for two days in Kuala Lumpur and then fly to Sri Lanka for more beach time and to party on New Years Eve.