I’m sitting on a bus on my way from Mawlamyine to Yangon, the last of my long distance journeys around Myanmar.
It had been my intention to write a bi-weekly blog but the internet fluctuates between patchy to non-existent with slim chance of uploading photos. Perhaps this is just as well because it has given me the space to observe and absorb day-to-day life in this golden country.
I’d been warned that Myanmar wouldn’t be the most straightforward country from which to embark on my year-long travels because the path is less well-trodden and it is emerging from years of oppression. However, I thought that by throwing myself in at the deep end I’d quickly discover how well I’d cope with the challenges of deciding where to visit, finding transport to get there and accommodation on arrival.
Most places can be reached by train (slow and infrequent but enjoyable stopping for trackside meals, on one occasion shared with manacled convicts), bus (comfortable and direct but always freezing cold with loud music and cheeses soaps) or shared taxis which are a riot with granny, mum, baby, shopping, chickens etc.
This is a wonderful country. Diverse in culture and traditions where Buddhism permeates the soul, shaping people’s lives through the teachings of Buddha. This makes the Burmese people rich spiritually but poor personally because they constantly give their money to monks seeking alms and at the myriad of pagodas and shrines which pepper the entire landscape.
I got into the habit of making a daily donation and when nice things happened to me that day, which they regularly did, I tipped a nod to Buddha. That’s not to say that I expected a return on my investment, it was more that I enjoyed striking the bell outside the shrine three times after making my donation! I would have loved to be able to capture the specific tone and reverberations of the scores of bells I struck. ‘The bells of Myanmar’; a project for another visit.
Despite their material poverty, the Burmese are the sunniest, kindest, most industrious people I have ever met. The women are especially lovely, the young giggling uncontrollably when a foreigner speaks to them, older women offering food and silent company for free. The men I met always went out of their way to help me with directions, to protect me from barking dogs (of which there are thousands) and even made an effort not to spit the red juice from the betel they constantly chew, at my feet.
As for the children – they are adorable. They’re always smiling and laughing, they wave and shout “mingalaba”, which is hello and therefore the first word a foreigner must learn, and never ask for anything except a photo with us which results in more smiles and laughter. They dress brilliantly, Angry Bird onesies being my favourite look.
Education is very important, and from the classes I observed, are mainly taught by repeated chanting which builds to a crescendo then drops again at the start of a new sentence. In rural schools teachers are often teenagers and mothers themselves. My only sadness was not seeing any dancing or hearing and traditional music.
Almost every child will spend time in a monastery which is why when you see a procession of monks or nuns they descend like organ stops until you get to the pint sized, shaven-headed novice monks and nuns in terracotta and pink robes respectively.
The country prides itself on the many family businesses that use the abundance of natural resources (teak, jade, gold, silver, bamboo, stone, enamel, cotton, silk) to make Buddhas, houses, clothes, jewellery, works of art, souvenirs.
Their is no shortage of water and the soil is fertile which means that fruit and veggies are plentiful, and whilst Myanmar is no longer the rice bowl of SE Asia it once was, there are swathes of countryside covered in rice fields.
There is concern that natural resources and water are not being properly managed but as with so many of their problems, the people put their faith in their beloved First Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi to makes everything ok.
My first few days in Yangon were hard going. It was very hot and like any big city it was noisy, polluted, over crowded and dirty. I can’t say I warmed to it, apart from the astounding Shwedagon Pagoda, where I fell asleep on the floor in the heat of the day, and found 3 days more than enough.
Living in the sprawling metropolis of London, I want to spend this year enjoying the calmer atmosphere and simpler living that comes will town and village life and by being close to water as much as possible.
Having said that my next stop was Mandalay. Another big city, but here the roads are wider and, save the dust which pervades the entire country, the air cleaner with the countryside easily accessible.
I was lucky to find a wonderful guide called Mr. Saw who sped me round the sights of this once thriving, now somewhat faded, capital city and the surrounding towns of Inwa, Amarapura and Sagaing Hill on the back of his motorbike. Along the way he explained the fundamentals of Buddhism and also helpfully told me that every city has its own style of pagoda, with the main pagoda having a unique tower, a bell and a monastery. This useful bit of information meant that as I travelled around I was able to differentiate between the minority Mon, Shan, Paluang, Pa O, Intha and Karin designs and, more interestingly, the people who come from states with their distinctive traditions, dress, crafts.
Mr. Saw kindly invited me to his home to meet his wife and five children and to enjoy a meal. The last time I ate with a family was in southern India where we all ate together. Not so on this occasion. Mrs. Saw had made a huge feast which I proceeded to eat with the family watching me. Close to exploding, I insisted they join me in eating honey cake and fruit. I had wanted to take Mrs. Saw flowers but Mr.Saw told me flowers could only be given to Buddha so I took my penny whistle and played a few tunes which amused us all. Later I discovered it was Mother’s Day and felt bad that Mrs.Saw had spent most of the day in the kitchen. This was the first of many experiences of Myanmar generosity, the last being just now when the man I was sitting next to at the bus station picked up the tab for my breakfast….jus like that.
And so the days sometimes drifted and sometimes flew by. Hiking in the cool mountains of Hsipaw, sleeping in a traditional minority village home; sailing gently down the Irrawaddy River to the magnificent stupas of Bagan; crossing the hills of Kalaw to serene Inle Lake with its floating gardens and acrobatic fishermen, heading south to laid back Hpa-An and the old colonial city of Mawlamyine, watching sunrise and sunset in stunning locations, getting there on foot, by canoe, e- bike and push bike and even horse and cart. All experiences I will treasure.
But what of my fellow travellers? Organised tours (only visible at major sites) are popular with South Koreans, Americans and the French, whereas solo travellers like me who venture to remoter places are predominantly from Europe, with the majority being French and very few being from the UK.
I was slightly apprehensive that, despite being an extrovert, I would find it difficult to meet people travelling alone. I needn’t have worried. It’s easy to hook up when you want or need to. Of the people I spent the occasional day or two with, they were universally good company. In particular a delightful Italian woman, three lovely Catalan women, a charming Swiss man and a crazy Canadian man, all roughly my age and five young men who were my fellow trekkers and called me Mum!
I only shared a room once and actually both the room and the communal bathroom were cleaner than some of the over-price single rooms I took. I plan to do more of this because, experiencing extended travel for the first time, I like the camraderie of hostels plus it saves a load of money – though I’m not sure I’m ready for dormitory sleeping yet! It also results in randomly bumping into people again, which I had been told would happen but somehow didn’t believe. When it does happen, what had been fleeting encounters become greetings like long lost friends and a mandatory Myanmar beer or two.
Now back in Yangon, where I began my journey 26 days ago, it’s Union Day – a major celebration which brings together the different states. I returned to the river to watch the sunset and eat street food, only this time with more knowledge about what to choose, the ability to say please and thank you and the confidence to negotiate a good price.
I am proud of what I’ve achieved; navigating my way round a complicated country, making friends, avoiding an upset stomach (though suffering badly cracked feet from having to walk bare foot and a bizarre rash on my fingers); not loosing anything (there has already been some ruthless jettisoning of things from my rucksack) and coming in under budget.
I haven’t felt lonely or afraid and only once or twice craved the things you can’t get here i.e. dark chocolate, red wine and a proper cup of tea!
I feel a great sense of warmth for the Burmese people, they have suffered greatly for many years but now, the young in particular, are pinning their hopes on Aung San Suu Kyi delivering them a better, fairer and more prosperous future. Naturally with the military still holding so many seats this will require a willingness to change which will inevitably take more time than the young naively hope for but it’s important to believe.
Personally I feel they should keep more money for themselves. The pagodas and shrines are dripping with gold, people buy gold leaf to place on the Buddhas and eagerly give their meagre earnings away. I frequently witnessed them queue to see a holy relic and then simply throw money at it without actually stopping to take a proper look. However, it’s the Buddhist way and perhaps it’s better than our western, materialistic society.
Were it not for the restriction of a 28 day visa I would have loved to travel further north and down to the southern archipelago before developers start to build island resorts. What better reason to come back to this remarkable country, knowing a warm welcome and many undiscovered treasures await me.