Myanmar – the land of a thousand smiles

Normally I travel to a country with no expectations. Myanmar (or Burma) was a little different for some reason. I was so super excited to visit and to be fair, it took me a little while to get into things. It wasn’t quite as isolated as I was expecting, a little more Western too. And a few places were super touristy. That said, it didn’t take me long to start really enjoying the country and I’d recommend one goes sooner rather than later as things will no doubt just get more touristy and westernized as the country continues to open up.

One of the definite highlights were the people who are some of the friendliest I’ve met on my travels. As is often the case throughout Asia, people are incredibly curious and always asking where you’re from. Without fail, though, no-one had heard of South Africa. A few had heard of Africa but never South Africa. That all changed when I started doing the ‘Jazza shuffle’ and singing Waka Waka … faces would light up and they instantly beamed with excitement “Ah yes, South Africa. Shakira, Shakira”. It’s quite amazing how powerful and far-reaching sport is and I was even given the nickname ‘Shakira’ by one guesthouse up north that I spent a few days at!

I started things off by jumping on an overnight bus as soon as I landed and heading to Mandalay, Myanmar’s 2nd largest city. Just outside Mandalay is the world’s longest teak bridge and it was here that Gloria and Siri had ample practice taking jumping pictures! It took us a while but we nailed it! Thanks girls 🙂 One evening, Gloria, Siri, Waldo (yip, we found him) and I headed to the must-see satirical comedy show by a trio of brothers, who have become known as the “Moustache Brothers”. The show was both super entertaining but also quite an eye-opener as to how controlled and policed the country has been for the past 40 years.

When in Myanmar, you simply have to visit Bagan, known as the city of a thousand temples. Words really cannot describe this magical place. The best way to see the temples is to hire a bicycle and Siri (another Siri!), Camilla and I spent the 1st day cycling around with a guide book and a map to see all the ‘must-see’ sights as recommended to us by a local. (A local owns the restaurant Wetherspoons, which also happens to serve the best burgers in town!). Siri and I went back a 2nd day but this time we left the guidebook and map behind and simply got lost wandering about. Walking in a dry riverbed for a LONG while in the baking sun aside, what an awesome day and regardless of which temple we stopped to explore and climb up, we had just the most incredible view of this vista of temples everywhere we looked.

We were in town on April 1st when certain municipalities went to the polls and it was special to see the celebrations in the street when word was out that Aung San Suu Kyi had won a seat in parliament (and her party had won almost 90% of the seats on offer). People took to the streets both on foot and in cars and there was much hooting, singing and dancing. There are posters of Aung San Suu Kyi all over the country and she is revered as a national hero. One only hopes that this election is the beginning of real change in Myanmar; my word the people deserve it.

(I didn’t know this but her father was at the very forefront of the fight for independence from Britain in the late 1940’s. He is revered as the father of the nation and she was only 2 when he was assassinated).

I had met Siri and Camilla a few days earlier at a town called Hsipaw, a few hrs north of Mandalay. Hsipaw is a great place to base yourself if you fancy doing some hiking up north although conditions weren’t ideal when I was in town as it was very dry, brown and hazy (they burn all the crops before the rainy season starts). The best time to visit would be just after the rains when everything would be bright green and visibility very clear. Nevertheless, it was still very pretty and it was great seeing this different part of the country, which has a more Chinese influence to it.

From Hsipaw, I rented a 100c motorbike and headed further north to Namhsan, which was quite remote. (In fact, I didn’t see another traveler for 3 days while here). The ride up was fantastic as I rode through small village after small village, all the while people running out to greet me. The kids clearly hadn’t learnt ‘hello’ just yet so they would run out, smile and wave with a ‘goodbye mister’!

As mentioned above, while it wasn’t the best time of year to be up north, it was still very beautiful and I can only imagine what it would be like come December after the rains … I intend to head back one day to find out. While in town, I was told about a hike I should do to a monastery on a hill and so I set off early 1 morning to find it. The hike up took around 3-4 hrs and once I arrived at the monastery and started walking around, I was greeted by 2 monks who immediately invited me to join them for lunch. One of the monks could speak a few words of English so we chatted a little, over many cups of tea, while they made rice for lunch. This is we enjoyed with the other monks while sitting cross-legged on the floor of the main hall and it was fantastic experience.

Myanmar certainly threw out a few surprises … who knew for example that the country produced wine! One day in Inle, the girls and I rented bicycles and headed out some 10 kms for a super day’s wine tasting. It also happened to be my birthday! No surprises I guess but it turned into a rather indulgent day with a tasting of 6 wines, 3 bottles of red, a few cheese platters and a gorgeous lunch. Thanks for an awesome birthday girls 🙂

While in Inle, you must take a tour on Inle Lake. The tour takes around 1/2 a day and is well worth it as you visit a few temples, get to travel a long way on the lake itself seeing  fishermen at work and you also visit a traditional weaving factory which produces some stunning silk scarves, tops and the like. And be sure to eat at the “Inle Pancake Kingdom” … the best toasted sandwiches in town! And damn good pancakes too.

Speaking of food, Myanmar reminded me of India in some respects with the samoosas you find all over. In most places going for only 50chat (800 chat = USD$ 1), these are a super affordable and tasty snack (or meal if you eat enough of them!). All the corner-street sitting and chai drinking also so so reminded me of India … I’m a particular fan of the stuff and would drink many, many cups a day. My only wish, much like India, is that the cups were bigger! Chai drinking goes hand-in-hand with beadie smoking (a traditional cigarette wrapped in banana leaves) although here the beadies are HUGE and one often lasts most of the day. The local refer to them as “Burmese cigars”!

Delicious street food in Mandalay
Delicious street food in Mandalay

Finally, a word on the money. One still cannot draw money in the country so be sure to take enough! My budget was $25/day but maybe take 30 to be safe. (Myanmar is a little pricey, relative to other SE countries, in some respects. Accommodation is expensive as is transport.) Take a few 100’s, ensure they’re clean and have no marks on them whatsoever, as these get the best rates at the banks. Also take a few 20’s. 10’s and 5’s because transport and accommodation (and entrance to a few sights) must be paid in USD and you’ll get local currency back.

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