My Burmese days
Despite reports of fighting in the North of the country and temperamental border crossings in the South, we decided to spend two weeks travelling through Burma. And I'm so glad we did! We travelled from Mandalay to Bagan, Kalaw, Inle Lake and Yangon. Throughout the country there are temples galore, everywhere you look there's a golden pagoda peeping through the trees, or a life size statue of Buddha hidden behind protective gates.
As soon as we arrived, I felt like I'd stepped back 50 years in time. Farmers plant their crops by hand and use oxen to plough the land. Power cuts are commonplace and horses pulling carts are as popular as tuk-tuks. Female street vendors carry large, circular metal plates stacked upon their heads. They're often heavy and laden with fruit and snacks of all kinds; yet the women remain elegant, with their cargo gently swaying left to right in sync with their movements. It's incredible to witness this authentic Asian lifestyle, pre-tourism and Westernisation.
Bagan is a must-see: there is nowhere quite like it in the world.
Thousands of temples spread over miles make up Bagan. We hired E-bikes and spent our days scooting around the different sites, avoiding the harsh heat of the day. One morning we got up early to watch the sunrise from high up on one of the temple's walls. All you can see for miles are other temples, pagodas and stupas. Watching the sun turn from burnt orange to a brighter and more blinding yellow as it rises over all these temples is a truly awesome experience. Similarly watching the sunset over such a unique backdrop is incredible. It was too cloudy for the conventional 'perfect sunset' on 2/3 nights we were there. But each night, sat on the walls of a magnificent temple with my boyfriend, watching the sky change from its brilliant brightness to a misted violet-blue, I felt like the luckiest person alive to be witnessing such natural beauty.
Kalaw to Inle Lake
Another of my favourite experiences in Burma was an overnight trek we took from Kalaw to Inle Lake. We trekked 30km over two days through amazing countryside and mountain scenery. Interestingly, the scenery changed from an almost traditional English countryside, filled with rolling hills and alpine trees -planted by the British when Burma was a colony- to a typical Asian one, with terraced rice paddies and hand-ploughed fields.
Our guide told us all about life for Burmese locals; their struggles with the government, their spiritual beliefs, and their varying opinions of tourists. Most people living in the Shan state make their living through agriculture; tribal villages still trade goods with one another instead of using money. They use a yellow paint, called 'thanakaka' to block out the sun; each tribe has its own pattern that distinguishes them. Similarly, the headdresses worn by the women identify which hill tribe they belong to. Speaking to these women, (through our multi-lingual guide) I learnt that some of them had never left the borders of their small villages and had upwards of 6 children each.
On the trek we were also treated to amazing and authentic home cooked Burmese food: peanut and tomato salad, tea leaf salad, curries, herbal soups, lots of fresh fruit and enough tea to drown a fish! I really enjoyed learning about Burmese culture and traditions.
We arrived at Inle lake, tired and worn out, but super happy with our experience of rural Burmese villages. Inle Lake was much larger than I expected, with floating vegetable patches, flower gardens, and houses built on stilts. We didn't visit the tourist attractions such as the long neck tribe or the dancing cats, but we did see local fisherman searching for their daily catch, steering the oar with one foot whilst controlling the wire fishing nets with their hands. Witnessing this daily routine as an invisible observer was a highlight: what was merely a way of life for the fisherman was mesmerising to me.
Final stop: Yangon
Our final stop was the former capital, Yangon. There is an abundance of tea shops, restaurants, street food markets and hotels, yet surprisingly few bars: Burmese people much prefer to gather in tea houses than pubs. The streets of Yangon are noticeably stained with deep red splashes of Betel juice. Men all over the country chew this flavoured tobacco and spit the burgundy residue of the Betel nut onto the streets. It's supposed to give the user a mild stimulant (a similar buzz to cocaine) and every Burmese man you walk past has telling red teeth from years of use.
There's a brilliant fusion of cultures that permeates Yangon more noticeably than anywhere else. Men still wear the traditional 'Longi': a long piece of patterned material, tied at the waist and stretching down to the ankles. Yet on their top halves, they don the shirts of premier league football teams. One evening in Yangon, I noticed a group of 10 or more Burmese men (herbal tea in hand), crowded around one old television set, sheltered under a makeshift tent. They were all intently watching a crucial football match, cheering on their team and yelling at the screen. It made me wonder if the likes of Rooney, Messi, or Ronaldo know just how much of an effect they have on people in forgotten corners of the world.
Surprisingly, the food in Burma is pretty good, and in Yangon, there's a range from fancy restaurants to yummy street food stalls. Being a thrifty backpacker, I sampled my fair share of the latter! We found the best way to choose a reliable food stand was to go to a busy one with a queue: they have a much higher turnover of fresh food! From Indian nut breads, to a variety of deep-fried goodies like samosas, spring rolls, sweet corn cakes and prawns. From heavily flavoured savoury noodle soups to sweet sticky rice treats, I was always spoilt for choice! I only wish took more pictures to share.
|A selection of deep-fried snacks offered on every street|
|The tastiest indian veggie curry from a street food stand|