Times are changing in Myanmar, and for the better. Jack and Jake are seduced by its unspoilt landscape and the remarkably welcoming locals.
The water festival is a fine introduction to the country; even the locals seemed in extra special celebratory mood.
A warm if wet welcome
'Here is your plastic bag; you might need this,' our guide informs us, en route from the airport to downtown Rangoon (1, see map). Jack and I looked at each other, bemused, before jumping out of our skins as our minibus was pelted with a bucketful of water by a Burmese kid displaying a triumphant smile. 'Welcome to Thingyan. You might need your swim shorts too.'
As instructed, we popped our valuables in the plastic bag and kitted ourselves out as if heading off to the beach, even if we were surrounded by former British colonial buildings and local teashops, and took in the atmosphere of arguably Myanmar’s most important (and certainly its most amusing) annual holiday: the water festival. Although a little worn around the edges, Rangoon’s architecture is delightful, conjuring up images of a bygone era.
The water festival, too, is a fine introduction to the country on everybody’s lips at the moment; even the locals seemed in extra-special celebratory mood after this year’s political wind of change. There were frantic shouts of "Welcome to Myanmar" and mad waves from young children armed with an array of water hoses and guns.
After being invited to appear on satellite TV to talk about the water festival, we were told that few foreign faces normally make it onto Burmese screens, and the fact that we were suggests things really are changing. Visitors and locals alike seem to be embracing it.
I wasn’t entirely convinced I was going to enjoy the scene of village life if I was constantly worried about falling in, but thankfully a pretty young Intha tribe girl stepped aboard and relieved me of the oars and my embarrassment.
One legged rowing
Jack: 'There’s no way I can move the boat with this one-legged rowing action. I can barely row with two arms let alone one leg.' Jake: 'But you’re an Oxford boy, Jack. You’re more of a punt specialist than I am.'
And so it was decided. I nervously boarded the shallow boat with oar in hand as Jake sat proudly cross-legged in yoga fashion at the other end. The sun was warming up the sky in a delicious orange glow over this very tranquil floating village in the middle of Inle Lake (2).
I wasn’t entirely convinced I was going to enjoy the scene of village life if I was constantly worried about falling in, but thankfully a pretty young Intha tribe girl stepped aboard and relieved me of the oars and my embarrassment. She had definitely done this seemingly awkward rowing technique before, and with unexpected speed we took to the narrow waterways.
The crops and flowers on the metre-deep floating beds are numerous and so it is no surprise that much of the country’s produce is grown in this region. Even vineyards occupy the surrounding hills — another spot around Inle Lake where one of the many beautiful sunsets can be fully appreciated, glass in hand.
Heading back to the makeshift jetty, a few young boys were keen to impress us with their newly learnt English words and school notebooks. I thought for a while. Maybe I should give them English lessons in payment for teaching me how to row with one leg. They all seem so good at it. Even the little ones have got the knack. The huge expanse that is Inle Lake is beautiful at any time of the day; morning prayers echoing out from temples, flocks of cranes settling on tiny tufts of green during the day as fisherman trawl beside, soothing sunsets showing all gradations of red and, on occasion, forks of lightning bringing the mountain backdrop alive. There’s no question that Inle is certainly a perfect spot for winding down on your travels — so long as you leave it to someone else to row you around.
An elephant eye view
'Shift over, Jack, my legs are killing me.' It’s awkward getting into the right position, nestled on the top of this placid beast of the jungle. It’s worth the effort though, taking in the forest surrounding The Elephant Project, just outside Kalaw (3), from pachyderm height.
After reaching the bottom of the valley we followed a stream, with a flurry of yellow butterflies in tow, before turning a corner to find mother and daughter pachyderms being bathed in the river below. Strangely you could see from the elephants’ faces that they were enjoying every minute of being pampered at bath time. After our breathtaking four-hour trek, taking in hilltop landscapes and verdant woodland, I was tempted to join them, but Jack wasn’t so keen on clambering onto my shoulders to wash my hair.
Most of these gentle giants, like the family that runs this project, have been involved in tree logging at some point in their lives. But now there is a much greater focus on conservation rather than deforestation, and visitors are encouraged to engage with nature by planting their own saplings and helping the mahouts to tend to the elephants. For those who like to do a little exploring, Kalaw also offers some of Myanmar’s most easily accessible trekking options.
Handing over a fan emblazoned with the Manchester United crest (to a Liverpool supporter of all people), the village elder said, 'You, Mr. Rooney.'
Getting out on a bicycle is also very rewarding as, taking a short detour into the surrounding hills in the outskirts of Pagan, it is still possible to pass through villages where very few Westerners — if any — have been. Admittedly, I must have looked quite alien when I came over the hill into one particular community, togged up in a colourful crash helmet, sweating profusely in the 42 degree heat and panting a little too audibly to go unnoticed. But once I had uttered the word ‘mingalabar!’ (hello), the village folk emerged from behind trees (their inquisitiveness too much to contain) to welcome us outsiders.
The snazzy mountain bikes caught the eye of the kids who took great pleasure in racing each other up-and-down the road. As we continued, my thoughts had now very much turned to an ice-cold Myanmar beer. Handing over a fan emblazoned with the Manchester United crest (to a Liverpool supporter of all people), the village elder said, 'You, Mr. Rooney'. We both felt as far as is possibly imaginable from the UK while we sat around a bowl of freshly roasted peanuts, sweet sugarcane candies and carefully selected cheroot cigarillos. “And you," turning to Jack, 'Eyes like a Burmese.' which is arguably a much nicer compliment to make.
The extended family — possibly the entire village — sat in wonder as the sham Man Utd forward ate his first sugary sweet and Mr. Brown Eyes ogled the roll-ups. A big thumbs-up from ‘Wayne’ that the sugarcane was indeed palatable for Westerners was greeted with beaming smiles of satisfaction. For the both of us this experience on the outskirts of Pagan was the highlight of our trip. With the little they have it was truly humbling to feel so welcomed into the family home.
Visitors are drawn to Pagan (4) for its 2,500+ temples and pagodas, and yet 20 minutes away in the countryside, here is a small township where making bamboo into ornate table mats and spinning cotton to weave into scarves is how they make their living and, my word, they certainly work to earn their keep. As we say our goodbyes, albeit not as eloquently as we would have liked (thanks to the potent rice wine we willingly helped the village to consume), yet another glorious sundown dipped over the hills to bring a fantastic day to an end.
Reflections on the past
We'll both admit that being told we'd visit Myanmar brought with it quite a bit of trepidation along with the excitement. It is easy to invoke an image of the country from what we hear in the news, and I suppose with a great deal of naivety we were just literally unsure of the place.
How wrong we could be? With vast change on the horizon, Myanmar is making its presence known throughout the world. This is Southeast Asia of yesteryear — behind closed doors, the country has been stuck in time and this is one of its many charms.
Seeing Myanmar differently
With Pagan’s iconic temples becoming increasingly busy, hop in a 4x4 through unspoilt countryside on the pilgrimage trail of King Anawrahtra's four pagodas instead — an early start’s required as your wish will only be granted if you visit all four before noon!
After visiting the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, head to 19th Street. Located in Chinatown, it’s perfect for watching the crowds hustle and bustle, meeting locals and enjoying an ice cold beer and a fresh snack.
Most tours travel the waterways by noisy long tail boats, so there is something rather magical about being alone on the canals in a wooden canoe at sunset, with only the sound of the rower deftly steering his way through the floating villages against a deep orange sky.
One of the best ways to see the iconic U Bein’s bridge is by boat — not only are you away from the crowds but not walking on this beautiful structure helps to protect it.
Most people will head to Kalaw for a trekking experience, or overnight homestay, however we recommend combining a trek though the teak forests with a project supporting the rehabilitation of former logging elephants.
When to go to Myanmar
Year-round, although October to March is the optimum time and advance planning is needed to secure hotels. The monsoon falls between June and early October. In brief: An exotic land beckoning to be explored, Myanmar is back on the map and welcoming visitors to experience its wealth of highlights and meet its charming hosts, the Burmese people themselves. Read our full guide about the best time to visit Myanmar.
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