Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Discover Burma

Fly into Sydney over it’s signature red roofed houses, fly into Yangon, Myanmar where red is replaced by blue… 

Yangon Myanmar, the old Rangoon Burma, a bustling city with a mix of traditional Asia - markets, narrow laneways, hustle and bustle, combined with old colonial buildings, only some of which have been restored. 

As you become accustomed with the frenetic pace of the city, suddenly you realise that unlike every other Asian city, Yangon has no motor bikes.. The story goes that motor bikes have been banned in the city ever since a general was knocked over by one.  Myanmar has also recently lowered the tax on vehicles and as a consequence Yangon is struggling with busy intersections. They are building new flyovers and roads but the influx of cars and vehicles has exceeded the pace of the new road infrastructure. Add to that very limited space to park and it all adds up to chaos with peak hour lasting nearly all day . 

When Burma changed from driving on the left to now driving on the right is that they did not introduce a rule to only allow right hand drive vehicles. (Again reportedly, the move from left hand drive was because the generals astrologer said that politically Burma was leaning too far to the left !) To this day over 90 % of the cars and indeed buses and trucks are all left hand drive, mostly second hand vehicles from Japan… So not only when you cross the road do you have to look to what we think is the wrong way for oncoming traffic you get even more confused with seemingly driverless cars !

The highlight of Yangon is definitely the Shwedagon Pagoda majestically sitting high on a hill that overlooks the city. The shrine dominates the landscape with it’s golden stupa glowing in the sunshine during the day and floodlit at night.
Time to move on from the city, it is the country regions where Myanmar comes to life..

Bagan a small town who’s population was forced to move in 1998 from the old town to establish a new town area without being provided with the basics like electricity and water. But over time that has changed with services gradually being provided.  Bagan has it’s own character and unlike other Asian towns, it is seemingly ordered with plenty of trees, making it quiet and laid back. 

The surrounding countryside is dominated by a mix of over 3,200 stupas, pagodas and temples. A short climb up one of the stupas and you can appreciate the number, as far as the eye can see, in every direction. Building amongst the stupas and temples is forbidden however farmers are allowed to plough the fields and grow crops adding to the beauty of the view. In the dry season when winds have died down and the weather favourable, at dawn the sky is littered with hot air balloons adding to this amazing scene, it would be hard to choose between being in the hot air balloons floating over this landscape or indeed being on the ground having these huge hot air balloons adding to the majesty of the stupas, temple and fields of Bagan.

A short flight brings you to the small airport at Hiho, the gateway to what I consider to be one of the most beautiful areas of Myanmar. 30 or so minutes drive from the airport is the town of Nyuang Shwe at the Northern end of the amazingly delightful, Inle Lake.  Time to leave road transport behind for a few days, for the duration of your time on the lake you experience if from the comfort of a long tail speed boat.  Witnessing daily life continue as if you were not even there. Passing fisherman that wrap one leg around an oar so they can manoeuvre their boat around, leaving both hands free to so they can fish. Your boat effortlessly making it’s way amongst the houses on stilts in the middle of the lake, occasionally stopping to see some home based manufacturing, like silk weaving or cigarillo making. Time for lunch your boat stops at one of the restaurant on stilts so you can dine on some of the most tasty food you will find in Asia.

The cuisine in Myanmar is a combination of what we think of as being traditional Asian cuisine with a large influence of cuisine from neighbouring India. Wow what an amazing mix of flavours and textures undoubtably the food in Myanmar is some of the best I have tasted. Farming on the lake is a major part of the inhabitants livelihood. Amazingly the farmlands you pass on dryland are replicated on Inle lake. Of course there is an amazing twist, floating reed farms. Row after row of crops like cherry tomatoes all flourishing in beds of mulch on top of carefully prepared floating reeds, an unexpected sight as your boat glides around the lake.

A few days witnessing life on the water and the banks of Inle Lake is truly worth your while. Typically after a day of amazing sights and meeting the local people your experience is usually punctuated with fabulous views of sunsets over the water from the accommodation dotted around the edge of the lake itself. 

As you read this Burma or correctly Myanmar, will either be preparing for, or just had national elections to choose it’s next government, perhaps moving the country into a new phase… Regardless of the outcome of the election I firmly believe that tourism should flourish, not for the benefit of who ever is in power, but to benefit of the everyday people of Myanmar who’s lives are increasingly improving from the influx of tourism, it is the people of Myanmar we need to support by travelling there, not whoever is in power.

Tourism in Myanmar is still in it’s infancy compared with it’s regional neighbours, but that is rapidly changing with more and more 3, 4 and 5 star hotels being built, roads and tour infrastructure being put in place. Now is the time to travel to Myanmar to see and experience this emerging country before it changes even more over the next few years. 

While some parts of Myanmar are difficult to get to, except for the most resilient and seasoned travellers,Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake are all easy to travel to with excellent accommodation and touring options. Bagan and Inle Lake are must see destinations for your visit to Myanmar, easily accessible and both affording amazing experiences - seeing monks strolling around the temples and stupas in one direction while in the other bullocks and cattle in the fields. The fisherman and people treating Inle Lake as if it was just another piece of land to grow crops to make a living for their viability and existence.  

Travelling in developing countries can be difficult, however there is way you can travel to Myanmar without the hassle of long travel days and moving from hotel to hotel. Like Europe and the rest of Asia, river cruising is booming in Myanmar with the number of companies operating cruise boats increasing every year. Taking advantage of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers allowing travellers to effortlessly experience rural life and remote places that are hard to get to, sometimes impossible to get to by road. River cruising in Myanmar is an excellent way to be able to visit Myanmar, combining some truly unforgettable and amazing experiences as you relax on a river cruise boat. 

If you are considering a trip to Myanmar, now is the time to visit  so you can experience Myanmar before tourism levels increase and before the influences of the western world take hold.  Glenn Jarvis

Glenn was recently a guest of Thai Airways, Helloworld and Insider Journeys on a educational experience through Myanmar.

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