This is a sensitive visit given that Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a tourism boycott of Myanmar. 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, with an astonishing number of temples and pagodas. The people are shy and happy to see us. There are 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.
Myanmar - background
Early civilisations in the area included the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu city-states in Upper Myanmar and the Mon kingdoms in Lower Myanmar. The Bamar peoples followed in the ninth century in the upper Irrawaddy valley. Then came the Pagan Kingdom in the 1050s, establishing the Burmese language, culture, and Theravada Buddhism. The Pagan Kingdom fell to the Mongols and several warring states emerged. In the 16th century, reunified by the Taungoo dynasty, the country became the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia for a short period.
The early 19th-century Konbaung dynasty ruled over an area that included modern Myanmar and briefly controlled Manipur and Assam as well. But then the British East India Company seized control and the country became a British colony. After a brief Japanese occupation, Myanmar gained independence in 1948. Following a coup d'état in 1962, it became a military dictatorship under the Burma Socialist Programme Party.
Since independence Myanmar has been engulfed in civil war and conflict between its many ethnic groups. There have been two coups , when the military have taken power back from civilian governments. The country’ human rights record, particularly in regard to ethnic minorities is poor. instability, factional violence, corruption, poor infrastructure, have resulted in one of the widest income gaps in the world.
Yangon, is the largest city of Myanmar. Known as Rangoon, it became the capital of colonial Burma and then of the independent country, until 2006. But the infrastructure here, is poor, especially in the suburbs. The military government relocated the administrative buildings to the purpose-built capital city of Naypyidaw in north central Myanmar.
Yangon is most famously home to the huge gilded temple, the Shwedagon Paya, standing on a hill above the city. You can't miss it. It is is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites, believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas. These include the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and finally, eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama.
According to tradition, the Shwedagon Pagoda is more than more than 2,500 years old which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. Legend says that two merchant brothers Tapussa and Bhallika met the Gautama Buddha and were given eight strands of his hair. They presented these to King Okkalapa of Dagon who enshrined the strands along with the relics he already had. But the first mention of the pagoda in the royal chronicles dates only to 1362AD. It has been enlarged, added to and altered over the centuries.
It’s very Disneyland, with its 36 golden stupas. In fact, there are golden stupas in every direction in Yangon. Or folk making statues of Buddhas. Close to the Shwedagon is the elegant Maha Wizaya Pagoda. This is new (1980).
In the centre of town, there's yet another said to be older, golden, 44 metre tall, Sule Pagoda. I'm unsure how it can be older than the oldest stupa in the world, but that's what Wikipedia tells me. It also contains one hair from Gautama, brought by the same brothers. It's lit up at night and is the rallying point for politics, the hub for demonstrations. Downtown is also home to the largest number of colonial-era buildings in Southeast Asia. Rows and rows of small open shops. No department stores here. And our Garden Hotel. Our room, up top, necessitates climbing endless flights of stairs.
Beside the Yangon River there are bustling waterside markets where we acquire hordes of followers eager to chat (and sell things). There are boat trips to still more monasteries and pagodas. The Yele Pagoda stands on a small island in a creek. It was built in the third century BC and also contains relics from Buddhas.
Time for a drink in the faded grandeur of the Strand Hotel. The colonial equivalent of Raffles, (I believe now restored to its former glory.) Myanmar Slings doesn't have the same ring to it.
Next, an overnight (very uncomfortable) bus. It costs 28 USD and makes three stops. 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 Jumping Cat Monastery, where the friendly monks have trained cats to jump through hoops (for donations of course). And more gilded stupas, of course. It's flooding and occasionally our boat threatens to sink.
And of course, there's always shopping to be done. Here, there are shops on the islets, but most of the boutiques are mobile. Goods stacked on boats. Nick negotiates for a sarong, but it's too small and is never seen again.
Mandalay boasts a brand new airport that no-one has yet got to use. I've read that the runway isn't up to standard. And in any case the bus is much cheaper. So, it's another overnight trip, 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. There's also of course the Kipling poem, and the film The Road to Mandalay. That sound more romantic.
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. Burma's answer to the Forbidden City. The best view in here, is from the Watch Tower, though it's hot work clambering up.
Mandalay Hill, its slopes studded with pagodas, still looms over the city providing panoramic views of the city from its summit, reached by a covered stairway. Locals offer taxi trips to the top, to avoid the sticky climb - and the entrance fee, at the gate. For 3 USD a pop. They keep a wary eye out for officials who, understandably aren't keen on their enterprise. Sadly, the impact of the scene has been ruined by the Novotel (an abomination) plonked in the middle of the glittering spires. At the hill's foot, the impressive Kuthodaw Pagoda houses hundreds of Buddhist-scripture-inscribed marble slabs. They call this the largest book in the world.
The remainder of Mandalay is a haphazard medley of markets, monasteries, Indian temples, mosques, gold workshops, bronze workshops, stone masons (Buddha carving), and a bustling, working quay alongside the Irrawaddy River. We take it all in on a cycling tour. The locals are gentle and friendly. We get lost wandering the streets at night, after eating delicious Thai food. The pagodas are illuminated and reflect, shimmering, in the moat of the palace. We are rescued by a kindly local, Miet Tin. I suppose he should be nicknamed Spam, but he's known as Tin Tin.
Miet Tin arranges us a boat trip, up river from Mandalay (11 kilometres or so). The small town of Mingun is home to still more pagodas. The Mingun Pahtodawgyi, is immense, more like a mesa. But it's unfinished and garlanded with vegetation. Nearby, the Mingun Bell is a colossal bronze bell from the early 19th century. It may or may not be the heaviest functioning bell in the world. It's fun to tap it. Perhaps most impressive, is the snowy white Hsinbyume Pagoda with its wavy snaking terraces and huge stupa.
Down the Irrawaddy
South on a boat on the Irrawaddy. Myanmar's longest river is another contender for the title 'The Road to Mandalay'. It's over 1400 miles long, emptying into the Andaman Sea. We're only going to Bagan. The journey takes (a long) ten hours. There are a party of loud Americans competing to see who has the largest camera lens and pointing their equipment at everything we pass. In between, they describe every meal they have eaten over the last week, in minute detail. There are hammocks on deck, so it is possible to swing gently and watch life unravel on the banks each side of the broad muddy waters. (They also keep the chill off.)
First, the plethora of golden spires on Sagaing Hill, to the south of Mandalay. And there's plenty going on by the water's edge, the many fishing villages and boats plying their wares. When we moor up, the quay fills with hawkers touting food and blankets and trying to swarm aboard, offering their goods.
If you get bored with the scenery, you can watch the onboard movie. Strangely, the video features a stream of pouting, petulant girls.
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 relatively well to exploration by bike. I'm sightseeing on my own now (!) The tracks are bumpy and every so often I'm startled, as a body flies out of the undergrowth. 'You want to buy rubee?'
But it’s a stunning excursion, especially if I abandon my wheels at times and scramble up steps or a hillock for the views. At the end of the day I'm exhausted. Chips and bed.