09.10.2013 - 15.10.2013
WEDNESDAY 9th OCTOBER
I left hotel at 6.30am for the airport and checked in and went downstairs to the departure lounge which was chaos. International and domestic flight passengers were mixed up and there weren’t enough seats for everyone. My Yangon Airways flight was delayed and left about an hour late because of fog at Heho.
At Heho luggage was brought to the terminal building by handcart and just placed on the floor of the first room passengers arrive in which caused some confusion. I met my new guide and driver and soon we were off to Kalaw where it was market day. We stopped to walk around and it was fascinating, far more interesting than the other markets I have visited on this trip. There are several hill tribes in the area who wear different traditional dress or headgear and as the region is very fertile and has a temperate climate a greater variety of vegetables, and fruit when in season, are on display. I have tried to illustrate all this in my photos.
Then we checked in at the Amara Mountain Resort which dates from colonial times when it was the home of a senior British transport official. There were two colonial houses in the grounds both of which have four double rooms. I was assigned the VIP room, a lovely spacious room which had a private house feel about it. There was a large original ensuite bathroom with an uncomfortable-looking marble bath but luckily there was a shower too.
On the way to lunch we took a look at the railway station, which is 4,297ft above sea level, because we spotted a train picking up passengers and loading goods there. There are some relics from the colonial period still there such as the sign for the Station Master’s Office and some old Avery goods scales.
We had lunch at the 7 Sisters restaurant, or Thirigayhar restaurant, which is in one of the old colonial cottages. Lunch was superb and I hope the photos make you salivate!
Another guide joined us while I had coffee who is the local hiking expert. She and I had a wonderful walk through the mountains near the village. We drove to the starting point and the stony track climbed quickly up the side of a hill. Soon, we were in a pine forest the pines having been introduced from Australia in 1903 because the previous hillside forests had been chopped down for firewood and building. Eucalyptus trees were introduced at the same time. The entire hike was superb with wonderful views along the way.
After about an hour we began to emerge from the forest and descend into a valley. On the way we passed a cabbage patch gleaming in the sun and further down in the distance I could see bonfire smoke curling lazily, a small hut, and a man ploughing his field with an ox. We walked down and across fields to get a closer look and the result can be seen on youtube at http://youtu.be/IRVCLdgWfvA
The whole area around the lake, in fact the whole region, is incredibly fertile and many different kinds of vegetables and fruits are grown. Leaving the ploughing we passed field after field of carrots, tomatoes, chillies, runner beans and more besides. The lane we walked down was much used by farmers to take their produce to market using ox drawn carts and it was very muddy indeed and it was liberally fertilised by the oxen as well. My guide and I wore flip-flops and we had to tread carefully on the little dry islands of mud. Everything was fine until I took a step forward with my right foot only to find my left flip flop stuck in the mud behind me. I turned to take a step back to retrieve my flip flop and my right flip flop glued itself to the mud. Suddenly I was barefoot and covered in mud and just had to laugh at the ridiculous situation. I recovered both flip flops but had to hurry because an enormous oxcart was bearing down on me. I slithered and slipped to grassy patch at the edge of the lane and my guide and I tore off some large leaves to try and make the flip flops usable again. A handywipe did just that and we set off again.
At the end of the lane we entered a village and people were doing all sorts of things by their houses. We passed a man pounding something using a very large pestle and mortar. I took a photo and was told he was making gunpowder for festive rockets. Another family in another house were drying peanuts, nearby two small children were clutching a fractious baby, further on two girls told me proudly that they were ten years old, some other girls were on their way home from school still wearing their dark green longyis.
We paused at a house where I was able to wash my feet, flip flops and hands. The house turned out to be a regular pit-stop for the guides and their clients and was given refreshing oranges and some water and with the guide translating I asked them about their lives. Four generations of the same family had been born and lived at their house and I took the opportunity to ask them what life was like when they were young – the husband and wife are 70 and 64 respectively. They are very friendly and happy to answer all my questions and they had quite a few for me as well. Before we left I took their photo outside the house and you will see what mean.
We walked on past an array of stupas to a large cave system which you can walk through. In Thailand and Laos every nook and cranny in such places is adorned with a Buddha image and my guide thought that was really special, some of the Buddha statues were 200 years old she said in awe but when you have seen hundreds of Buddha statues, some much older, it didn’t make much impression on me.
The car met us at the cave entrance and we drove back to the Amara Lodge hotel. I forgot take my camera to dinner so I have no photos to show you but it was very pleasant though not in the same league as previous dinners.
I had a somewhat disturbed night because there is a new tradition-to-be of monks taking it in turns to recite the Chakras all day and night. I noticed this first in Bagan and in the daytime it is inoffensive and almost pleasant for a non-believer like me. But this time the monastery was quite near to the hotel and the recitation much clearer during the night and I often woke up.
THURSDAY 10th OCTOBER
I got up early this morning to pack, have breakfast and have time to wander around taking photos in the garden which is very beautiful and very photogenic.
I met up with my guide for the hour drive to Nyaungshwe where we took a long boat to the Inle Princess hotel which is simply magnificent. The boat takes a turn-off to the left into a narrow channel and after about 10 minutes the engine is cut and we gently pause at a stilt house where a boatman boards who leg-rows the rest of the way to preserve the tranquillity. I urge you to pause and go right now to see this part of a magical arrival at my hotel on youtube at http://youtu.be/f6ZjUzqsy64
If you have just seen the video I think you will agree it is a very very special place indeed. After a simple check-in I was shown to my chalet, 214, which has a wonderful view of a lake and the mountains.
I made a separate video of the walk from reception to my chalet and my amazing rooms inside. This video is also on youtube at http://youtu.be/d-I0PxZNWHE
We then got back on board the long boat and set off down the side channel to the lake itself. It is a huge fresh water lake, 22km long and 11km wide, almost surrounded by mountains on the slopes of which many different tribes live. We journeyed south down the lake to the Golden Moon Restaurant where I had an excellent lunch. This time my camera was to hand and the results are in my gallery. Enjoy!!
After lunch we walked between the houses to see some local paper making using tree bark as the raw material. The Mulberry tree leaves are pounded until soft and then spread evenly over a frame which is submerged in water. Once the leaves are spread the frame is lifted out of the water and left in the sun to dry. Once dry, the freshly made paper is simply peeled off the frame and is ready to use.
One use for the paper is to make traditional umbrellas and we went to a workshop to see nimble fingered women stripping bamboo with which to make the umbrellas and the cutting the paper to fit the curves. They made it look easy but I am sure it wasn’t!
Afterwards, we went to see some Long-necked women and was told that the tradition was first started in Burma and migrants took the tradition with them when they went to Thailand years ago. Such women never take the ring off – it may look like a series of rings but it is in fact a single coil and, to extend it, it has to be removed and a new longer one wound around the person’s neck. The old one is then melted down and recycled.
Back on the boat we set off for the hotel again and we passed many interesting houses and scenes one of which was tomato growing on one of the many floating islands. In effect, these tomatoes are grown hydroponically and can crop just seven weeks after sowing. I also made a video of the journey so you too can enjoy the feel and excitement of being in a longboat.
I hope you enjoy the video and the photos though I know the still shots would have been so much better if my Nikon camera had been working. This video is at http://youtu.be/oPby0-apnyk
Dinner this evening was in the hotel’s stunning restaurant. I had a free run of the menu which featured Local, European and some Thai dishes. All the choices were mouth-watering but knowing I will be eating in the restaurant for three nights I decided to eat local and have the Pa Daung (Ka Yan) Set Menu which I thought sounded good and it was delicious. Go on!! Check the photos and drool!!
FRIDAY 11th OCTOBER
I had to leave the hotel at 6.30am to witness the highlight of the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival. Phaung Daw Oo is a notable Buddhist site in Myanmar and the Pagoda houses five small gilded Buddha images which are believed to have been brought to the Pagoda by King Alaungsithu in the 12th century. For the Festival four of the images are placed on a replica of a royal barge, designed as a Hintha bird, and taken clockwise to villages around the lake. One image always remains at the Pagoda. The highlight of the 18-day Festival is the arrival of the ‘royal’ barge in Nyaungshwe, the most important and largest village on the lake.
We watched as the boats in the procession got ready. It was an amazing sight and there was a genuine feeling of excitement and anticipation in the air. Once the procession got going the ‘royal’ barge was towed by six longboats with the other longboats at the head of the line. There were about 25 long boats in total, each with 70 or more leg-rowers powering each one.
The scene appeared to be a bit chaotic with locals in their boats and some tourist boats as well all vying to get a good view of the processional longboats. All the boat movements made the lake water a bit choppy and to get a better view I tried to stand up to take the video. I managed to stay upright for a while when an urgent swell nearly tipped me over the side so I sat down fast. This video is on youtube at http://youtu.be/LET3AfqeevM
We then motored ahead to Nyaungshwe to get into position to see the arrival of the procession and the ‘royal’ barge. Our position was near to the VIP’s building and I had a good view of the boats arriving. It was a truly amazing sight and one I will never forget. It was entirely fortuitous that I was in Inle on the right day; I was very lucky indeed!
As we got off our longboat here was suddenly a commotion amongst the crowd and I turned to look at the boats on the river to see what had happened. Had I turned just seconds earlier I would have seen a shorter boat on which there were some yellow-costumed girls performing a traditional dance tip over. The girls and the five large silver cups with lids they were dancing around fell into the river. Immediately, boats turned or approached to help rescue the girls and anything that floated. Later on, after all the racing was over boats with men using long bamboo poles probed the water to locate the precious silver cups on the river bed which at that point was about 6ft deep but I imagine the bottom was very muddy. I was told later that one cup was recovered and by the time we left the others had not been found.
Masses of people from the village and other villages around made for a very interesting ethnically mixed crowd. You can usually tell which tribe someone belongs to by the way they dress as you will see in photos in my gallery and my youtube videos. This video is on youtube at http://youtu.be/gdsVmpldf_A
When the boats arrived, each boat representing a different village, cheers of excitement rose from the crowd on both sides of the river. Each boat was dressed in full regalia and each looked magnificent with the right legs of the rowers moving in unison powering each boat forward. These special racing boats are fitted with a metal bar down the centre of the boat for the leg-rowers to hold onto.
At the end of the line of longboats came the point of the whole procession which was to take a golden Buddha image, housed in a replica temple to the many different villages around the huge lake. The complete festival lasts 18 days with each village being visited in turn and sometimes more than one village is visited in a day depending on location.
As I mentioned, the highlight of the Festival was the arrival at Nyaungshwe. Being tall I was able to get a good view above the heads of all the locals in front of me but some women, older ones too, were very pushy and forced their way to be in front of me. Sometimes the jostling caused camera wobble so I apologise for that.
Once the procession finished the boat racing began though the starting point was out of my sight I did have a clear view of the finish. Two boats raced at a time and, remember, no motors and no hands, only legs and it was an amazing spectacle and people watching near me and elsewhere got very excited as the boats crossed the finishing line. I also made a video of the boat racing and this video is on youtube at http://youtu.be/_U5ubGGCzp4
After the racing finished we walked through the bustling market which, I was told, was far busier than usual because of the crowd coming to watch the longboat procession and boat racing. It was fascinating seeing so many different tribespeople, all Burmese, wandering through the market lanes and often looking at me probably because of my height. I made a video of my market walk-through so if you would like to get a real feel and a genuine sense of being there too, take a look. This video is on youtube at http://youtu.be/Qkpn4xC20is
My guide then took me to the local post office where I bought some stamps for the two postcards I bought and I took a photo of the inside. On the way we came across some school girls discussing excitedly about who was going to take the limited free seats available on a nearby fairground ride. In this photo you can see their chocolate brown school Longyis; the ones wearing a shoulder sash sang the Chakras at the temple. The fairground ride they wanted to go on was very tame by Western standards but great fun for the giggling girls.
We then got back onto our longboat and headed out into the lake to a restaurant where we had a lovely lunch. On the way we passed two longboats from the procession and they began to race as we passed which was fun to see. There were five delicious salads for starters together with chickpea poppadoms, rice cakes and crispy rice crackers. I chose what was a delicious chicken curry and dessert was a gludgeous homemade chocolate cake with a little bowl of choc sauce to pour over it. One of the things on show at the restaurant was a quirky 3-person trishaw which might be good for getting around London.
There followed visits to a weaving workshop where everything was exquisitely done by hand including stripping Lotus stalks to obtain the strings which were rolled up, joined up, and made into thread with individual dyes applied by hand. One Lotus thread scarf costs just over $100.
Next was a visit to a Cheroot making family and it was interesting to see how natural materials are used not to mention the tobacco which is grown in the hills. After that we headed back to the hotel, the end of a wonderful day, one of many that I have had so far.
It was about 4.30pm so I wandered around taking some photos of the hotel grounds and the large vegetable garden. Sunset came about 6pm making for a very attractive sky and I took some photos.
I don’t think I mentioned that there is an outside shower mostly surrounded by an Adobe wall attached to my villa and I had a shower there in the late afternoon sun and it was really lovely!!
For my second dinner at the Inle Princess Resort I decided to go European starting with Warm Goats Cheese Salad followed by Grilled Chicken on a bed of home grown Vegetables and Potato Croquette and for dessert I had a Chocolate Fondant which was served in three almost complete eggshells. I also enjoyed some glasses of Red Mountain Estate Sauvignon Blanc which is produced at the nearby vineyard and is delicious.
SATURDAY 12th OCTOBER
An 8.30am start this morning which is a bit later than usual but, sadly, this is my last full day at Inle Lake.
First, we rode our longboat to Intha market named after the Intha tribe whose market it is. It had a different spirit compared to the other markets I have visited with the stallholders and market-goers looking very different. Many dozens of boats moored right beside the market made another difference and a good photo. Some of the goods on sale were also different such as the huge bags of Poppadoms which people actually bought.
After the market we went to a longboat building yard at one of the stilted houses on the lake. The boats are made entirely by hand from long lengths of teak and, interestingly, the basic frame of each boat is made from only five planks. My guide told me that a regular longboat costs about US$3,000 but will last a lifetime.
Our next visit was to a Silversmith’s workshop where several generations of the same family worked entirely by hand making various type of jewellery. Not only did everyone work by hand but also without any magnifying glasses to assist with the very detailed work required. One young man was making a silver chain by hand by joining tiny links one by one until the right length was achieved.
It was interesting work to see but I think it sad that aids such as large magnifying glasses aren’t used to assist. Once that young man’s eyes deteriorate it will be too late for him. I wandered around the showroom but the prices were very steep not that I had ideas about buying anything.
After this we set off in the longboat turning down one of the four rivers that feed the lake. After some distance we arrived at Nyaung Ohak village where we had a very nice lunch at the Lucky Star cafe where I had a delicious Cucumber and Peanut and Chive Salads as a starter followed by a Pork and Potato Curry.
The point of going to this village was to visit a group of Stupas at Nyaung Ohak which the then Burmese King copied after a visit to Ayutthaya. The style of the many stupas is very different from those hitherto seen in the country. Many of the stupas have very detailed and intricate surviving stone carvings. Although some conservation work has been done many of the stupas are succumbing to nature with plants growing out of them or even trees too.
On our way back to the longboat I spotted something my guide missed – some locals playing Carom – and I wandered over to take a closer look. I was first introduced to this game by my Aunt Ruby Thomas (née Gordon) who brought a Carom board home from Ceylon. Much later, my father and I made our own Carom board when we lived at Huxley and I now have it in my flat in London.
In the village, two friends were playing very expertly. The game is a bit like table snooker and you flick large counters instead of hitting a ball with a cue. Some tables have four pockets, some six as this one did. It was fun watching such experts play so deftly.
We arrived back at the hotel about 4.3opm and I took the chance to try and update my blog but the internet connection was very weak.
I had another lovely dinner this evening and finished off the other half of the Red Mountain Estate Sauvignon Blanc which I started on last night.
Some time later, back in my villa, I found I had acquired a mild dose of the runs and I immediately started taking the Imodium tablets I always travel with but my stock was almost depleted. I knew there was no chance of getting any more until I got back to Thailand so kept my fingers crossed there would be no accidents.
SUNDAY 13th OCTOBER
It was an early 6.30am start at the jetty this morning for the boat journey to the village where we picked up the car to go to Heho airport and my flight to Yangon. At the airport I couldn’t stop shivering and on the flight I had to ask for a blanket to keep warm.
I was met at Yangon airport by the guide I previously had and we drove to the same hotel as before. My room this time, Room 217, wasn’t as sumptuous or as big as it was located in a more recently built wing but it was still very comfortable with great views over Kandawgyi Palace Lake, adjacent to the hotel, and the long teak walkway that joins the two ends of the lake in a long curve.
So far my health on this trip has been excellent with no problems at all but it is starting to go downhill. About three days ago I began to get the short sharp nerve-end tingles in my left leg. I have had this experience perhaps half a dozen times over the last ten years and it is extremely irritating at night, having settled down after a persistent tingle, and on the verge of sleep, another nerve tingle arrives and I am wide awake again.
On previous occasions some paracetamol or similar soon calms the leg nerve/s enabling sleep to resume. This time, however, the same trick no longer worked. The cause of the tingles is usually a pinched or trapped nerve but seems not to be the case this time round.
However, I tried to ignore my problems to enjoy the very nice lunch at the hotel’s Agnes (French) Restaurant which was superb. I was given a complimentary glass of chilled Champagne which was a nice touch. The buffet selection was magnificent and beautiful to look at. The French chef and his team are obviously able to work culinary wonders. I chose a selection of saucisson and various salads followed by Rack of Lamb which is a meat never found on Thai menus and it was excellent. The dessert was excellent too but my only regret was that I discovered the cheese board when I couldn’t eat any more.
MONDAY 14th OCTOBER
This was my extra day in Yangon and I arranged to hire my guide and his friend’s taxi for the morning and I hoped to some interesting things. Unfortunately, the big (formerly Scott’s) market is closed Mondays but I had planned to buy some t-shirts or small Jade elephants there to give my fellow teachers as presents.
I also needed to get some more money from an ATM. The one in the hotel didn’t like the cards I had so we drove to some other ATMs at another big hotel and I managed to extract some more cash though at a price no doubt.
We also visited a pharmacy recommended by my guide and although I didn’t know it then I was prescribed the correct remedy for my annoying nerve-end tingles, namely, Vitamin B12. Later, in Pattaya, I consulted a doctor and he prescribed the same tablets and they were effective.
I asked my guide to take me somewhere local for lunch and he took me to a very busy restaurant crammed full of locals. It was a kind of buffet where you select what dishes you’d like from a vast display and then it is prepared and brought to your table for you.
I couldn’t face doing any more exploring after lunch so I returned to the hotel and paid my guide and driver and settled down to rest. I felt very tired and very thirsty.
For dinner this evening I went to the hotel’s cafe just off the lobby and scanned the menu for something simple and filling and chose a Quatro Stagione pizza. It looked great when it arrived but was a bit too salty for me and, anyway, I could only manage to finish half of it.
I had an early night and I hoped that I would feel better in the morning.
TUESDAY 15th OCTOBER
I didn’t feel any better this morning but I managed to have some breakfast and meet my guide for the journey to Yangon airport. My flight to Bangkok was delayed by an hour which meant a lot of sitting around and waiting. My journey was uneventful and when I arrived at Bangkok I took a cab to the city where I wanted to leave my Nikon camera to be repaired before continuing my journey to Pattaya.
It turned out that the Nikon service centre in Silom which I have used several times before is no longer the main repair centre as well; this is now in Sathorn so I took another cab to the Empire Tower where the Nikon Service Centre is on the 45th floor.
While I was navigating my way to the Service Centre my cab circled the base of the building and I picked it up again after leaving my camera to have the electrical fault repaired.
A couple of hours later I checked into my hotel in Pattaya where I looked forward to some days of relaxation and, more importantly, to get back to feeling normal again. I still had a near constant headache, felt thirsty, felt tired and felt generally awful and off food.
Over the next few days I began to feel better and better. I arrived back at Sai Moon on Friday 25th October and all’s well.
Looking back, I had a fantastic trip to Myanmar and I am really glad I decided to go as I was wavering in the early planning days. The people of Myanmar are now free to do all the things they were previously forbidden to do under the military regime and that includes freedom of expression and being able to talk to and welcome Western visitors.
Tourist numbers are not yet huge, but they are growing. Elections are due in 2015 and the present or future government will have many agonising decisions to take not least of which is to decide the balance between development and growth and conserving what it is that attracts people to visit in the first place.
My trip had a focus on colonial history. The Myanmar Heritage Trust has been doing a stellar job recording the history of old buildings and fighting battles to prevent demolition. Many fine old colonial buildings have already disappeared, others have been snapped up for conversion into hotels.
Myanmar is very unlike Thailand. The colonial era left many marks and bequeathed many benefits and these show up in everyday life and attitudes in contrast to Thailand which lags behind and is undeveloped in so many ways.
I hope you have enjoyed my Myanmar blog and that my photos and videos have entertained you despite the fact that I was quite unable to do a daily update as I envisaged.
Sai Moon school opens for the new term tomorrow, Monday 28th October, so my regular blog will resume in due course.