My Burma chronicles are nearly done but the memories will live on forever. The more I have written, the more I want to make sure I go back in 2015, ideally as an election observer (unlikely, as there are far better qualified people) or simple to join in with celebrations, which I hope will come with change.
2015 feels a long way off still and anything could happen. In the meantime, I will dwell on the final leg of my trip, a relaxing visit to Inle Lake.
In my head, we were going to be staying right on the shoreline, watching the sun set over this beautiful lake. Had I thought about it a little harder, I would have realised that unless you are an ‘exclusive’ traveller, this would be unrealistic. Why would we want the banks of this lake spoilt by clusters of backpackers hostels and guesthouses?
Sensibly, whoever has developed the burgeoning tourist trade here has made sure that a nearby village has become the restaurant and guesthouse hub. It’s a sweet place…relaxed, friendly and delightful to cycle round. It reminded me of a little places like Banos in Ecuador (I’m talking 1996 by the way, so the comparison may be redundant now!) or Panajachel on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (ditto!).
The highlight of a trip to the lake is – of course – a trip on the lake. The light was stunning, even at 8 a.m when we set out. There is a clarity out there that – again – put me in mind of South America and Lake Titicaca. When we set off, I was nervous that a day on a powered long boat would feel like being on a tour bus, as there were dozens of them, all jetting off at the same time down the canal leading to the lake. How could this be a peaceful day? As soon as we reached the lake I remembered a key fact from my guide book. Inle Lake is 13 miles long and 7 miles wide, with hundreds of tiny canals winding away from it to little settlements and villages. Other tourist boats were soon lines on the horizon and we only felt the tourist scene at the major sites, such as Indein, the biggest village on the day trip trail.
The on shore visits were fine rather than mind-blowing but that’s not important. The magic of came from watching everyday life as we streamed past. The fishermen seem like a tourist cliché, given how many award-winning photos of them appear in our press and online, but when I put the camera down and just watched them, the elegance of their rowing was a joy to see. Once in his ‘spot’ the fisherman stands at the end of his low, long boat (which were similar to Oxford punts) and balances on one leg, with his free leg woven around a long oar. This leaves both hands free to handle the nets. It amazed me that this style is unique to Inle, as it seemed such a sensible way to operate on a calm lake, as it means no pause in fishing when they need to move the boat a few metres this way or that.
As we motored down the canals, the variety of life on the banks or at the edges of the waterline was fantastic, from a man riding a water buffalo, to people growing veg in floating gardens.
Just as we were all enjoying the ease of swanning about in a motorised dugout, (relative) disaster struck. The boat I was in cracked over something as we puttered along a shallow canal. ‘Oh,’ said Bernadette, who was at the back, just in front of the boatman, ‘we’ve got a bit of water coming in.’ A ‘bit of water’ turned out to be fast-flowing and within seconds we realised we were sinking fast. Thankfully, the second boat for our group was behind, not in front and they arrived just in the nick of time. As we held bags and cameras aloft and urged the others to grab them from us, we stepped into their boat and looked round. What had been a boat just seconds before was now a wreck.
Thankfully, Paddy prioritised photos over sitting down safely! We thought she was mad at the time but I’m grateful now, as it’s funny to look back on it. I should point out that accidents are very rare indeed, so do not let this put you off an iconic tourist experience!
We motored on to the lunch stop and borrowed a friend’s newly purchased fisherman’s trousers. I inadvertently caused hilarity among the waiting staff when I emerged from the toilets with the trousers on back to front. Sorry, no photo to show but needless to say I was immensely grateful that Will had bought them just before lunch. As Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood would say, I had a soggy bottom, which is never a good thing.
Our biggest concern was for the poor boatman. This was a borrowed boat, as his had engine trouble earlier on in the day. Over lunch, we discussed with our tour leader how the accident would affect him. Time taken to med the boat would mean him losing about two weeks’ worth of income. So we decided to club together to help out. It was easy for us to do and when we gave him the money the next day, it was clear that it meant alot to him.
There’s not much more I can say about my wonderful day on the lake that my photos can’t, so enjoy I hope you enjoy this final gallery.
The lucky few among us who have been to Burma shouldn’t make complacent assumptions when it comes to the burgeoning democratic process in Burma. Quite the opposite. I believe that anyone who stayed away for years because the NLD asked for a tourism boycott and has then visited in the 18 months or so since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked responsible travellers back in, has a duty to help keep the flames of change alive.
We are witness to the colourful diversity of life in Burma, the tremendous faith that people are willing to invest in the process of change and the gleaming hope they have for their country. If we visit and take away nothing but fond memories and pretty longhis then we betray the wonderful people who made us feel so welcome.
The good news is that we have to do so little and it will mean so much. In fact, I think it’s five easy things and a sixth for the more committed:
Become a member of your country’s Burma Campaign (I have given the links for the US, the UK and Australia below)
Act when they ask you to
Sign up for Burma news and campaigns from Amnesty International
Act when they ask you to
Share links from these organisations, comment and urge your friends to act too
Ask your favourite development charity what work they are doing in Burma. Ask how you can support that work by donations or fundraising.
Above all, I hope everyone who visits will stay informed about what’s happening in Burma. Elections are promised for 2015 – with the world’s people watching we do stand a chance of helping to make them happen but only if we do our bit and hold world leaders to account on Burma.
I’m near the end of my Burma trip, so I’m going to prolong the blogging pleasure by posting photos of the journey to Inle Lake, not just writing about the lake itself.
It was a wonderful journey. As always in Burma, there were some great bits of traffic and scenery en route.
It was Christmas Day and although not a soul on our trip was remotely fussed about celebrating (well, we wouldn’t have escaped our home countries if we wanted fireside, satsumas and too much food, would we?), it was good to have a decent lunch stop. This was our view – I don’t know the name of the little lake but it doesn’t really matter. Just being somewhere so different at a time of year that I really don’t enjoy Britain much, was superb.
Just before we arrived in Inle Lake, we went to Shwe Yaungwe monastery. I think these are probably the most photographed monks in Burma but they don’t mind. In fact, the young boys doing their chanting at 4pm seemed happy to have a distraction. They looked so serious in the photos and then when the cameras went down, they waved and grinned!
Here’s a puzzling thing. Back home when I think of young boys and girls going off to boarding school before their teens, I feel a sense of outrage, that they are too young to be shipped off and if their parents wanted them, why are they sending them outside the home. So how come I had none of that feeling in Burma, seeing young monks and nuns in a similar situation? I have no explanation for my double standard.
I wonder whether it’s because going to a monastery can give a young person an education in a country where there is no compulsory education at all. That’s right, not even the most basic primary education is free in Burma.
These are some of my favourite photos from the trip to that monastery.
Before we went to Kalaw, our tour leader warned us that it would get cold at night, very cold. Well, the Brits and Yanks among us scoffed, as we had left Britain in the depths of winter. The Australians simply couldn’t imagine cold. We had layers; they didn’t. Cue frantic market shopping in Mandalay’s night market for blankets and sweatshirts.
It wasn’t as crisp as we thought it would be but it was chilly, as Kalaw is a hill town.
Our first sight as we got off the bus was a wedding car complete with very cute dolls. I couldn’t resist a snap.
After our shocking hotel in Mandalay (as I said before, avoid The Classic unless you have a particular fondness for pigeons, barbed wire and dust), the welcome in Kalaw was superb. The hotel owner stood at the door and ushered us in with a warm smile. When it came to our rooms, we were like kids on their first day at a boarding school, running in and out of each other’s exclaiming joyfully at the size, the cleanliness and comfort of the beds.
It was just as well that the beds were comfy, as I spent 95% of my time in Kalaw in mine – the other five per cent was shared between the bathroom and the street market on the morning we left.
By the time we left, on Christmas Day, I was well again and loved the next episode of Burma. We had a lovely bus journey, filled with pretty countryside and photogenic traffic.
The came Pindaya. Now, some people feel that a huge cave filled with 8,000 golden Buddha images is a) a bit over the top and b) only deserving of a few minutes ‘look see’. As for me, I loved every little nook and cranny of this labyrinthine maze of a place. Yes, it’s a crazy ostentatious treasure chest but it’s also beautiful and rather touching. People from all over the world donate these Buddhas and while I struggle with the ‘build/buy for karma’ side of the religion, it is testament to the devotion of its followers.
Here’s my selection of the best from Pindaya.
The highlight, though, was undoubtedly seeing how parasols were made. I bought one of these traditional laquered paper umbrellas in Bagan, so seeing how they are made was a real treat.
Even the ‘not interested’ couple from Wisconsin bought homemade paper. Now, that’s magic!
The day we left Mandalay, we stopped at the world famous U Bein Bridge.
I was feeling mighty peculiar – a bit vague and drained. Little did I know that I had a bug and fortunately that wasn’t revealed until the middle of the night. If it had come on sooner, that six hour bus journey between Mandalay and Kalaw might have been tricky.
So when we went to the bridge I singularly failed to get a decent picture of the bridge. Here’s some snaps of rural life going on around it instead – from ploughing to fishing.
If I make it back to Burma, I will definitely go there at dawn to get some of the pictures that you see winning travel photography competitions. For an example, you just need to pick up the new edition of fantastic travel magazine, Wanderlust! It’s a great article, by the way, and anyone who has been or wants to go to Burma should definitely buy it.
Mandalay Hill is a very special place. It’s not the sunset that makes it so, although if there was nothing else to entertain you and you hadn’t been spoilt by sunsets over Bagan and the Irrawaddy River, the sunset would seem spectacular.
The fabulous thing about a trip up to Mandalay Hill is the monks. Monks go there every evening, knowing that they will be able to practice their English with tourists. It’s a decades old tradition, not a new thing. From late afternoon the whole temple complex and viewing platform comes to life with the buzz of warm, happy chatter.
We arrived and I had a fleeting anxiety – how does one start a conversation with a monk? I shouldn’t have worried. Eventually, you see a group of monks who have just finished one conversation or you simply smile and wander over.
It was a lovely experience because it stems from the best motives; people simply happy to while away half an hour or so exchanging trivialities or philosophies, world views or slang.
One monk asked me if I liked Myanmar. ‘I love it!”, I replied, and then asked how I say ‘I love it’ in Burmese. I haltingly learnt the sentence. When I relayed it proudly back to our tour leader, he chuckled. The monk had taught me to say “I like you very much”. Cheeky Monk!
Mandalay is a weird place. It’s not the beautiful colonial town most imagine but it is much better than the guide books would have us believe.
It’s a dusty, busy city full of motorbikes, smiles and colour. It is a street photographer’s paradise.
We started with one of the best meals of our trip. We were off to see The Moustache Brothers, a comedy act banned during the repressive era and even now only allowed to perform for tourists. We needed to eat before we saw the show and so headed off to a local restaurant. No tourists in sight, which was fantastic. The only free table was sandwiched between two guys who were undoubtedly secret police – menacing, observant – and a large group that included a very drunk young guy, who insisted on coming up and toasting our health with deep glugs of beer. It was a classic night and I’m sure it doesn’t translate well into a blog!
The next morning we were up early to catch the morning trade in the sprawling street market area of town. The photo opportunities came so thick and fast that it was hard to choose. As long as you ask permission, people in Burma are very up for having their photo taken. This woman with her cheroot was my favourite that morning.
And here’s a selection of my other photos from that walk.
On the way back, we had our best luck of the holiday. We stumbled upon a novitiate procession. Young boys and girls often go to become monks and nuns for a few years, at a very young age. It was such a surprise and such a feast for the eyes.
We spent the rest of the morning at Mandalay’s main pagoda (where we saw the novice nuns again) and looking round the wood carving and stone masons areas. It was shocking to see the conditions the stone masons worked in – no mufflers on their ears and no face masks to protect them from the heavy dust.
First, the Pagoda
And then the wood and stone-working workshops
My highlight was our trip up to Mandalay Hill but I’m going to have to wait ’til tomorrow to write about that!
By Carole Scott
Cruising along the Irrawaddy River sounds implausibly romantic. I’m sure it is when you’re on a teak cruiser with luxury cabins. For a group like ours, we were much more interested in the views than the boat itself. We had been promised simple food and a relaxing ride.
We hopped aboard our lovely little boat and headed up to the top deck, where deckchairs beckoned under the canopy.
As the diesel motor started to chug and we sank bank into the chairs, a slow, stealthy sleep descended on all but two of us. Resistance was futile and I, for one, gave in for at least two hours.
When I did rouse myself to join some others at the prow of the boat, I was woozy but relaxed. With nothing to do for two days chat and relaxation were the order of the day.
The Irrawaddy wasn’t as I had imagined it. I had pictured a densely wooded riverbank and instead we were greeted by wide open vistas dotted with an occasional hamlet. It seemed much quieter than I had anticipated. Gradually, though, my eyes became accustomed to picking out the detail – women washing clothes in the shallows, children playing, the odd farmer driving an ox cart – the river is so wide that it takes a while to see what’s going on.
Simple food, said our guide. We feasted on some of the best food of our trip, with four or five different dishes at each meal, all cooked in a tiny galley down below.
Five was deemed beer o’clock. Lazing on a boat deck, beer in hand, awaiting a spectacular sunset is as good as it gets. The sunset exceeded all expectations. When I went to Egypt a few years ago it rained when I went on a Nile felucca trip, so I missed out on the great photos you’re supposed to be able to achieve on a river. The Irrawaddy more than made up for that disappointment.
Night fell quickly and half the group got tucked up in their sleeping bags on deck straight after supper. The rest of us walked the gangplank to the beach and ran up the steep sandy bank. As the stars began to wink and shift, we instigated random conversations that took us on winding paths of childlike laughter.
Our tour guide and the crew were a few metres away, watching a film that was making them roar with laughter. Our tour leader’s laugh is irresistable and each time they chuckled we started laughing. No-one would have believed we were sober! Despite our imaginings the four horsemen of the apocalypse didn’t come to claim us and we returned to the boat in the dead of night, which when we looked at our watches was roughly 8.30pm.
It was a cold, damp night but none of us would have missed it. Waking on each hip-crunching turn, a quick glance of stars made me smile and fall back to sleep. Best of all was being awake before dawn. It was outrageously cold and the chanting from a nearby monastery was relentless but the colours were the most beautiful I have ever seen.
Thick mist cloaked the entire landscape, casting mauve, grey and pale pink across the water. No-one spoke. It was too sacred a time to break the peace.
Ghostly fishing boats emerged as the light changed and slowly, slowly there was a hint of the dawn.
I have never experienced a spectacular river dawn. I doubt I’ll see another quite so special.
Later that day we stopped off at Sagaing Hill on the way to Mandalay. A hill crowded with monasteries and temples, it is a lovely place to while away a few hours. Smiles and waves greeted us the entire time we were there and the buddhas and stupas were as glorious as ever.
Two days on the Irrawaddy were the perfect pause before hectic and dusty Mandalay. Coming in to dock, we saw a living tapestry seething with life.
And, when we climbed off, a magnificent rooster greeted us.
I had to have a go, so I took one of the Bagan Balloon ride pics and put me in it – it’s a pic taken when I did a tandem skydive. It has really made me smile and has given me lots of ideas for birthday cards for friends!