We left Bagan by boat before sunrise and headed up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, where we arrived after sunset. It was a very smooth ride (a nice contrast to the train!) but not much to look at along the way except for a few golden pagodas that seem to crop up everywhere. Wait, that made it seem like they aren’t fabulous. They ARE fabulous… there are just so many of them it became a joke to say, “Oh look, a pagoda!”
A cold kept me down for the better part of two days, so I saw more of my hotel room than I did of Mandalay, but reports from the rest of the group said I didn’t miss too much. I did, however, manage to venture out for meals. For one such lunch, I wandered around my hotel looking for something nearby while the others were touring the city. I saw a rather busy local place and took a seat. As I waited for a menu, I looked around and noticed it was full of men drinking beer. Hmmm, beer house not meant for solo females, maybe I better skedaddle. I stood up and found another, smaller shop down the street that at least had women working. There was no menu so I just said “soup?” and the man nodded, then pointed to a bowl of noodles to which I nodded. I wasn’t sure exactly what would arrive, but was pretty confident it would include some combination soup and noodles. A woman brought a bowl of clear broth, pickled vegetables and noodles with a bunch of ingredients on top. She motioned for me to stir the noodles and then waited for me to taste. I took a bite and said, “mmm, really good.” She smiled and left me to eat my lunch. The soup had a roasted garlic flavor and the noodles were spicy, but not overly so. I ate everything and finished the meal with a cup of hot tea which they sweeten with condensed milk to produce a dessert-like concoction. The entire meal including tea was $.50, and it was delicious.
The next night a bunch of us went to dinner, followed by a tourist show called The Moustache Brothers. Two brothers and a cousin formed a comedy group years ago, and two of them were thrown in jail for speaking against the government. Par Par Lay died last year and two remain, although they are only allowed to perform for tourists. Our show only featured one member, and it was a mixture of anti-government comedy (there were many references to cops taking back-handed bribes and links to the drug trade), local dance performed by members of his family and snipets of “help Burma” celebrity campaigns that he played on DVD. We all left with bewildered looks on our faces, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.
From Mandalay we headed to Inle Lake by bus. Yes, it was our own tour bus, but at least it was of the smaller variety. About an hour outside of Mandalay, the bus stopped. Apparently a belt broke and our tour guide made the driver pull over (uh, yeah, you think??). Thankfully the next town over had a shop with the proper belt or they would’ve had to head back to Mandalay. About an hour later we were back on the road.
Instead of driving straight through to Inle, we broke our journey in the small town of Kalaw. This town is used as a starting point for treks to the lake, but for us it would be a place to explore and lay our heads for the night. We had the evening and part of the morning to walk around, which was sufficient. The biggest highlight was the train station in an old colonial building, but it was the train’s passengers more than the architecture that made it a worthy visit. A few of us happened to be at the station while one of the few daily trains was stopped, and we spotted a group of young passengers through the window. When they saw “the foreigners” they donned huge smiles, giggling and posing as we started clicking our cameras. Their cheeriness was infectious and made Kalaw a memorable pit stop.
We toured Inle Lake by small boat, starting early in the morning. It’s not just a giant lake; there are small waterways, houses perched on stilts and islands throughout, making it much more interesting to explore. Fishermen use nets or large cone-shaped bamboo “traps” to bring in the day’s catch, but the leg rowers are the star of the show here. Instead of sitting and rowing with their arms, many inhabitants navigate the waters with leg power. They stand at the front of the boat and wrap their leg around the oar, moving it in a circular motion. It actually looks like something you might do in yoga class. While not conventional and a little strange at first, it makes sense in the plant-covered lake. Standing provides a better view for navigating reeds and other flora. Plus, legs don’t tire as easily. Those crafty Burmese.
I was quickly reminded we were on a package tour when we stopped at the silversmith. Boats of tour groups were ushered inside to see how silver is heated and separated from the other elements. Then lo and behold, there was a huge shop to purchase said silver in a multitude of forms. Then we visited the weavers, which was also full of tourists, but much more interesting. There was a woman creating string out of lotus stems and another spinning cotton into thread, all to the clickety-clack soundtrack of hand looms. Men and women (mostly women) threw the spool back and forth while pushing bars with their feet in a specific order, determining the pattern. 1 and 3, then 2 and 4. 1 and 5, then 3 and 4 repeated in a rhythmic pattern as both hands were busy with their own tasks. It was like watching a skilled organist, with stunning fabric the result. How they focus on all of that without making a mistake is beyond me! Naturally at the end we were spit out into a shop with woven goods for sale. I’m glad tourists are supporting these trades, I really am. I just wish it could happen in a slightly more organic way. But despite this, the day on Inle Lake was one of my favorites.
And then… there was the winery! Yes, Myanmar has a winery in the hills near the lake. Looking over the vineyards, it could ALMOST be California (except for the hanging laundry). Six of us sat outside overlooking the vines as we tasted Myanmar’s finest. Ok, so it wasn’t fantastic, but that wasn’t the point. I was wine tasting in friggin’ Myanmar! We even ordered the cheddar and blue cheese plate. The “cheddar” just came from a processed block, but the blue cheese was legitimate. A little taste of home (sort of) in the hills above Inle Lake, watching the sunset. It was perfect.
After a flight back to Yangon, we hopped in another mini bus and headed up to Golden Rock, about 4 hours away. It’s a Buddhist pilgrimage site with a pagoda built on top of a giant gold-leafed granite rock that balances precariously on top of another rock. Getting to the rock was no small feat. The bus took us as far as it could before we transferred into a huge truck with benches in the back. Our group was tightly packed with five people across, but every other bench had seven! Thanks to our tour guide for purchasing extra seats for the giant westerners not accustomed to sitting on peoples’ laps. Those of us in the front row stood up, hands on top of the truck cab as we twisted and climbed. With the wind in our face (as well as a few branches we had to duck), we swayed left and right in unison. It was kind of like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland and I loved it. The ride up and down was the highlight of our pilgrimage. When we finally arrived I blurted out, “It’s just a big, gold rock.” The area was teeming with people, mostly locals, but it was all a little lost on me. No spiritual awakening here. Maybe Buddha took the day off. On the upside, our hotel was beautiful and provided a pleasant sleep up in the hills.
We returned to Yangon the next day and had our final dinner together as a group. While we moved much faster than I would have on my own, it was a great experience and I enjoyed having people around me to share it with. That was the biggest benefit- the people. I even got some good advice on Angkor Wat, since Cambodia was my next destination. The downside of the tour is that we didn’t veer from the tourist track, and I wish I’d stayed a week longer to see more on my own. Myanmar is a beautiful country with welcoming, friendly people. Hopefully one day I’ll return and explore a little more deeply. My two-week tour was just the appetizer platter.
Below are more photos from throughout Myanmar, including monks, who I just loved seeing everywhere in their oxblood robes- a nice change from the usual saffron.
Next stamp: Cambodia