In November 2013, Comanche Trace residents John and Maria Swann journeyed to Southeast Asia to spend ten days in Myanmar.
It’s 6:30 in the chilly morning, and we’re heading for the airport for an early flight. We’re in a small, open, long-tail boat, skimming across Inle Lake, and we have our ponchos and tiny umbrellas to shield us from the pouring rain. Today is the Nat festival and we’re lucky to have this boat. Life is good.
And that’s when the engine begins to sputter and the boat slows. “Seaweed,” offers Njong, our guide, “seaweed in the propeller.” But the engine is dying. When the boat finally comes to a stop, we’re in a side-channel amongst high reeds that protect us from the worst of the weather. It’s really quiet.
A week earlier we had arrived in Myanmar’s capital city, Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Before our journey, we had watched documentaries and searched the Internet, and we were a little concerned that this In November 2013, Comanche Trace residents John and Maria Swann journeyed to Southeast Asia to spend ten days in Myanmar. trip might be difficult. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is tucked between India, China, and Thailand. The country has been politically isolated for decades, and has only recently opened its doors to western tourism. We really didn’t know what to expect, and were we in for some surprises!
The first surprise was a pleasant one. The airport arrival hall (often an indicator of things to come) was clean and modern. The immigration and customs officers smiled a big “Welcome to Myanmar.” Outside, instead of the expected crush of porters and taxi drivers, we found our guide easily and were driven to the city center. On the roads, we were surprised to see no motorcycles, no heavy trucks, no oxcarts, no cows, and no smoky buses. There were hardly any car-horns. Instead, there was orderly traffic on fairly modern streets. The only thing that was odd was that they drive on the right side of the road, but all the cars have the steering wheel on the right!
Our hotel, The Traders, is an icon in Myanmar. Three weeks earlier it had been the target of a bomb attack. Understandably, security was now tight, but once inside, we found magnificent hospitality. Things were looking good.
The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River runs through the heart of the country and connects the main tourist areas, but we had chosen to fly from place to place. We had a different guide in each area, and every two days we were dropped off in an airport departure lounge. We flew for 30 minutes to the next city, where our new guide greeted us on arrival. About a dozen flights make the circuit daily. Each guide is a licensed expert for their particular location, and each is well-educated, and speaks good English. The whole process is very efficient.
Our first stop, Bagan, sits on a fifty-square-mile dusty plain on a bend in the river. Eight hundred years ago, visitors would have found as many as 13,000 temples and holy sites on this plain. Today 2,000 of these sites survive (in an area roughly equivalent to the valley between Kerrville and Comfort!). The first view of the plain is breathtaking. There are temple spires everywhere. There are redbrick temples and monasteries, capped with intricate sandstone carvings. There are gilded temples glinting in the bright sunshine. And we had it all to ourselves! The few tourists who visit the area were spread out amongst all the sites.
Inside each temple, our guide used a flashlight to point out the myriad paintings and carvings as she explained their meaning. Much of the artwork is original from the 11th century, and the brightest images are found in the darkest corridors, protected from all but the faintest sunlight. Statues of Buddha, some original and some replica, are located in every place of significance. We visited temple after temple; each one was unique.
In the late afternoon we climbed the steep flanks of a tall bell-shaped pagoda to see a magnificent sunset over the plain. The Ayeyarwady River was in the background with mountains beyond. We shared the view with a few hundred visitors; the tourists now concentrated in this one special location.
Mandalay was our next stop. This was a royal capital in the 1800’s, and is now the second largest city; it’s home to about one million people. It’s a bustling city with some really unusual attractions. We walked across the longest, oldest and perhaps creakiest teak footbridge in the world. Built with timbers reused from old wooden buildings, the bridge itself is more than 200 years old, and on the 20-minute (3/4 mile) walk across, we saw more Burmese people than foreign tourists. Buddhist monks and nuns use the bridge daily. Then, at a nearby monastery, we saw 1,500 monks and novices lined up waiting for the bell that signals their daily meal. With their alms bowls, they file along the road to accept donated rice. Then they all move to long dining halls, already set with dishes of lentil soup, chicken curry, vegetables and fruits. There’s a three-month waitlist to donate this daily food to the monks.
A one-hour boat ride across the river brought us to the village of Mingun. Ox-cart taxis ply the streets and take visitors to see the world’s largest pagoda, and to see (and hear) the world’s largest functioning bell. You can crawl inside the bell – it’s an eerie feeling to stand beneath 92 tons of ringing metal.
Life on the Ayeyarwady is fascinating. We shared the river with rafts of bamboo, barges loaded with hardwood timbers, and all sorts of boats big and small. The river meanders across its floodplain, and floodwaters fill its banks every rainy season. But now, with the rainy season over, the mid-river islands are dry, and are being cultivated to produce a single crop before the floodwaters return.
Our next stop was Inle Lake. With a cool climate and a beautiful setting Inle Lake is idyllic. Lakeside resorts are accessible only by boat, and we rented a long-tail boat for two days. Our hotel was on the water, and our guide led us across the lake to visit temples, stilt houses, workshops, and fishing villages. The lake is famous for its boatmen who use one leg to row their tiny canoes (leaving both hands free for fishing), and for its tomatoes that are grown on floating gardens.
There are electricity poles and satellite dishes outside many of the stilt houses, but these villages seem to be entirely self-sufficient, almost from another era. Even the “seaweed” is harvested, by hand, from the lakebed to fertilize their floating crops.
Much too soon, our two-day lake visit was over and we were on the long-tail boat one last time. And soon we were stuck in a side channel in the rain. Of course, almost immediately an empty long-tail came gunning down the channel and after brief negotiations we made the transfer into the new boat, and we continued on to the airport with time to spare. It was that kind of trip, like a round of golf where every putt goes in.
Throughout the trip, there were lots of opportunities to visit handicraft workshops, and some are quite unique. As in most Asian countries, there are silk weavers. But at Inle Lake, there’s a thread that costs ten times more than silk. The fine thread is removed from the stem of a special lotus flower that grows in only one other place in the world.
At another workshop, gold leaf is hammered by hand from a small ingot of pure gold. Using mallets, men hammer for hours to produce the leaf that is then used by worshippers to adorn statues of Buddha. On some statues, the gold leaf has accumulated to become several inches thick, turning the revered statue into an unrecognizable ball of gold.
Myanmar is a beautiful, friendly country. New to the tourism business, it’s quickly gaining ground. Each hotel we stayed in provided a modern, five-star experience, and in Yangon, the old British colonial buildings are being renovated to become firstclass hotels. This may be a perfect cruise destination, and cruise companies are introducing new boats to tour the Ayeyarwady River. And Myanmar is training new tour guides just as quickly as possible.
Even so, a visit to Myanmar is like going back 40 years; it’s like so many other countries were in the 1970’s. Most Burmese men wear their traditional sarong called a Longji, while the women adorn their faces with pale yellow fragrant Thanakapaste. Horsecarts and ox-carts provide transportation in many rural areas.
We were so lucky to visit during the Natfull-moon festival. This is the time when donations are made to the monasteries. The whole country was in a festive spirit, and we became part of the celebrations. Twice, our van became part of village parades, and we shared the roads and temples with pilgrims and partiers. There were so few tourists that it was easy to become part of the local crowd. The Natslowed our progress time and again, but what a treat!
The grand finale for our trip was the Shwedagon Pagoda. In the heart of the capital, the golden spire rises 326 feet above Yangon. Twelve and a half tons of gold adorn the pagoda; at the top is an orb, covered with over 4000 diamonds with a single 76-carat diamond at the very top. Surrounding the pagoda are hundreds of ornate pagodas, stupas, temples and statues. Arrive here at sunset and the whole world glows golden. On our last night in Myanmar, we shared the pagoda with crowds of local visitors, family groups, worshippers, monks, nuns, and many foreign tourists. Everyone, even the monks, had cameras working overtime to capture every magical moment. This is the holiest site in Burmese Buddhism, and the perfect place to wrap up an amazing trip.