Myanmar, Golden Pagodas, Thanaka makeup and Heartfelt Hospitality

I arrived Myanmar and Yangon late in the evening and had a bus booked for departure to Inle Lake, early the next morning. The next morning I felt lucky to arrive at the bus station alive going through the morning rush zigzagging traffic honking the horn as if I were late for an appointment with the president. I was wondering if my 13-hour bus ride to Inle would be the same. The bus was a surprise package of huge reclining seats and they served food packages and water along the way and stopped for toilet visits every 3 hours. The other people on the bus were locals but a couple of women in the front spoke really good English so we ended up talking to them along the way. They were on their way to Inle Lake to donate monk ropes to one of the monasteries there. When we asked to get off the bus at a crossroad in the mountains in the darkness, late at night 13 hours along the way, the two ladies were getting off as well. They had organized a pickup van to take them to a hotel in the same village we were going to and offered us a ride to our hotel free of charge. They gave us their cards as we left the van bowing with gratefulness, realizing this was the owners of the bus company.

The next morning, we booked a boatman to take us around the lake, visiting the water villages and the most important sights. Ancient temples, alongside newer ones, silversmiths making jewelry, the young girls making cigars, the building of boats and weaving fabric from the lotus flower. The thing that was most amazing however was the way the fisherman did their fishing, with one oar pinned to their right foot, rowing whilst throwing and pulling the net with their hands balancing with one foot on the boat.

I had my first Burmese avocado salad that evening. The food in Myanmar complies with my taste. Small portions, but just what you need and the taste is lovely. My next visit to Myanmar will include a cooking class. The avocado meals and the seafood they make are the best I ever tasted.

From Inle lake, I booked the night bus to go to Bagan. I slept most of the bumpy road listening to Sigvart Dagsland and his “Gyldne land” with mostly tourists going the same way. This Norwegian song captures this beautiful country perfectly. The songwriter must have been there to experience it himself. Arriving Bagan at 05:00 in the morning we were all haggling with taxi drivers and I ended up sharing a mattress in the back of a truck with two girls from Columbia and a German boy. I managed to get on top of the hotel roof, just in time to watch my first sunrise in Bagan.

This is without a doubt the most stunning sunrise you can see in this lifetime. The ground gets cold at night and when the sun starts to warm the air, the fog from the green vegetation creeps low on the ground between the thousands of pagodas that has been there for centuries. And then the balloons rise to the skies and fly over the golden landscape as the sun rises over the horizon to a new day. If you see this once, the thought of seeing it again will get you out of bed at 05.00 every morning.

In Bagan, I entered a shoebox airport to go to Ngapali for some beach and water activities. This little town in the Bay of Bengal offers a few hotels along a beautiful beach, next to the village. So, on half the beach the village people were working, fishing, and going on with their everyday work and on our side of the beach, there were foreigners sunbathing. This is a quiet village and few tourists were there so we got to experience authentic village life. Some of the village people had restaurants on the beach serving local dishes, and I tried as many as possible instead of eating at the hotels. An amazing place, still authentic and not ruined by mass tourism. The friendly locals were eager to talk to me, curious about who I was and generous and proud to share their life with me. Being here you understand why Myanmar was named the world’s most generous country in Charities Aid Foundation’s 2016 World giving Index. This is probably due to the Theravada Buddhism practiced by a large proportion of the population in Myanmar, whereby followers donate to support those living a monastic lifestyle.

I was so busy soaking it all in, I did not have time to sunbathe. I rented a boatman to take me around the area snorkeling and visiting fishing villages one day.  The Bay of Bengal is warm like a bath tub and clear turquoise blue. One of the hotels had paddle boards for rent. That was a fun and great exercise for arms and legs and laughter muscles. Tree days was way too little time in this tropical paradise, but Yangon was pre booked so I had to go for now.

Arriving Yangon, the heat was back. After the lovely 25 degrees, celsius in the northern Ngapali, Inle and Bagan, the 30+ in Yangon was hot. Yangon is the largest city in Burma and used to be the capital. The city is still the doorway to Myanmar and where you will probably arrive from other countries. The Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset with chanting and monk’s praying, spinning the prayer wheels meditating as well as people praying and bowing in respect, is not to be missed. Remember to cover shoulders and knees before entering this sacred place. Sule Pagoda in downtown is beautiful from the outside and from the park. This is a pagoda and a roundabout, and around the outside along the pavement, there are fortune tellers not to missed, and birds to buy and set free for good karma. The streets leading from Sule Pagoda is a beautiful architectural scenery of colonial-style buildings from the British era. The city council is planning to give them back their former glory as they try to make a city plan deciding how to incorporate the new architecture with the old. A stroll along the markets between Sule Pagoda and 19th street will give you an overview of what life is about for the inhabitants of the city, buying and selling food, as well as used and new items in the streets. 19th street is where you should go at night to experience the local hawker food and drinks at bargain prices. If you want to try European, American, Japanese or anything else, there are many amazing restaurants opened in Yangon to choose from. I have never eaten so much good food in one city in my life so a post addressing food would be easy to write. There are several parks to visit in Yangon if you have time.

The first few days in Myanmar I just could not get enough pictures of everyday situations. The men in their longyi skirts, chewing areca nuts and tobacco wrapped in a lime-coated betel leaf and spitting this blood red tobacco mix all over, smiling openly and welcoming with their brown betel teeth. Walking the streets, you are met with smiles from young and old, girls and boys, wearing thanaka makeup on their cheeks, curious to know where you are from. This is a traditional society, just about to open to the world. I felt lucky to be there again.

My first encounter with the country was in 2009. The military junta was in control of the country and a friend and myself paid a guy to get us in and out of the country, going through five military checkpoints where armed men entered the boat to check papers or receive money, depending on how you look at it. These open, smiling and welcoming people have survived on hope alone for decades. The military coup led by Ne Win in 1962 took over the government and ran the country with iron hands. In 1988 demonstrations forced him to step down. The opposition started National league for Democracy, NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi. They Junta held a free election in 1990 and NLD won by 80%. The military junta did not allow them to rule and gave the power to an even worse military system. State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, known to use torture, slavery, rape and ethnical killings to suppress the people. Most of Aung San Suu Kyi`s followers had to run and have lived in exile for decades. Aung San Suu Kyi, also known as “the lady” has been arrested and set free numerous times and lived under house arrest since 1989. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded miss Suu Kyi in 1991 for trying to find a peaceful, non-violent resolution to the problem.

Most of Aung San Suu Kyi`s followers had to run and have lived in exile for decades. Aung San Suu Kyi, also known as “the lady” has been arrested and set free numerous times and lived under house arrest since 1989. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded miss Suu Kyi in 1991 for trying to find a peaceful, non-violent resolution to the country’s problems.

In March 2016 Myanmar got the first democratically elected president. It is expected that president Htin Kyaw will lead the country towards a more democratic future. The presidency would have been Aung San Suu Kyi`s but she was banned from the constitution to become president. She is said to run from behind the scenes. The political scene is still complex as the former SLORC, now called State Peace and Development Council, SPDC is still controlling the situation, and with the problems up north, people is afraid of another military coup.


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