I am writing this while sitting in the cockpit of Sanuk in Noumea. We are back in the water and it feels good 🙂
A couple of weeks ago we were sitting on a nightly 10 hour bus ride from Hpa-an to Kalaw. After a not so comfortable ride, we arrived early in the morning in the centre of Kalaw and found a taxi to take us to our beautiful hotel, “Hillock Villa”. We had a fabulous breakfast and went for a walk back to town to find a hiking tour company we could join the next 2 days to Inle Lake. After visiting 4 of those we decided on not the cheapest (too many people in a group) and not the most expensive, Uncle Sam looked like a good choice and Trip Advisor confirmed this.
While in town we bought a hat for Stefan since he had left his other head 😉 somewhere in a restaurant.
The scenic view at the start of our walk from Kalaw to Inle Lake. It is clearly the dry season ! The only crop in the ground is ginger. They are waiting now for the rains to come which will be in July.
The fun part of hiking with a guide is that you are able to connect so much easier with the people working in the farms and on the land.
Beautiful women from the Pa’O tribe.
Kun-ya or betel nut chewing is one of the most popular traditions in Myanmar with men and women (a bit less). It is a mixture of betel nut (the areca nut) with slacked lime (calcium hydroxide) and catechu (black shiny piece) wrapped in a betel leaf. You have to place it between your cheek and gums and suck on it. Soon a red liquid will form in your mouth which you have to spit out. (hence the red spots on the pavement and streets) It is addictive and causes severe tooth decay and oral cancer in the long term. Everybody knows this but apparently it is too difficult to quit. The government has launched a anti-betel campaign because it is one of the leading causes of death in Myanmar.
At 76 years old she is still working hard, sitting on just a mat weaving. I admire these strong women.
The typical Burmese woman, smiling with thanaka paste on their face. Thanaka is worn as a protection for the sun but mostly as a make-up. It is said that Burmese have been using thanaka for over 2000 years.
The thanaka is paste is made from grinding the bark on a flat wet stone and then immediately applied to the face as it dries quickly.
Our guide was happy to show us how it was done and apply it on our faces. According to the Burmese it is not only good as sun protection but also lightens the skin and even works against acne. I brought a jar of thanaka powder home :-).
The dry land, hard to imagine in the next months this will all be green. Some time I want to come back in november at the end of the raining season, it must be such a difference.
Another typical image for Myanmar, so much is still done by hand. We saw these men in the fields weaving baskets from bamboo.
In the evening coming back from the field. An ox cart is still a very common sight in rural Myanmar.
The girls getting water. I do not think long hot showers are an option here.
We spent the night with a local family. They prepared wonderful meals for dinner and breakfast, sleeping accomodation is very basic but for these people the tourists are an important source of income. Several houses in the little town were housing tourists with a local guide. Our group was really fun : on the right Celine (FR), Stefan (BEL), Helene (FR), Melanie ( GER) and in the back Alexander (GER), in front with the twin boys was our host family, Ilse (BEL) and one of our guides.
Our trekking continued through lots of dry fields but really beautiful scenery and friendly people. Unfortunately I lost all my pictures from the second day because something went wrong with the transfer to the computer :-(.
Inle Lake is the second largest fresh water lake in Myanmar and the highest (900m).. About 70.000 people are living on and around the lake, most of them are Intha people.
We rented a boat for the day at our hotel (beautiful Innthar Lodge on the lake) so we could get a taste of the life on the lake.
We made a stop at Indein village to visit the Shwe Inn Thein pagodas. A little girl tried to convince Stefan to buy a scarf.
We could not resist her smile and bought a scarf for 1000Kyat (60c).
While we were walking in the little town we noticed a lot of dressed up Pa’O Hill people. It seemed we were at the right place at the right time, to witness an important rite of passage, the Buddhist Novitiation Ceremony in Myanmar. The Novitiate ceremony is when boys do their service to Buddhism and are entered into the order of the monks for a week or longer. Novitiation is the obligation of every parent and the most important gift to their sons. It is believed that this deed will prevent the parents from having an evil afterlife in Buddhist tradition.
The Pa’O hill tribe is the seventh largest minority in Myanmar.
The Pa’O have been in Myanmar since around 1000 BC.
Forced to wear dark indigo-dyed clothing after the defeat of the Mon King Makuta of Thaton by King Anawratha in 1057, today the Pa’O are known for their brightly-coloured turbans.
It was so great to see all the beautifully dressed men and women for this novitiation or Shinbyu ceremony.
The Pa’O people were called“Black Karen” by the British colonialists because of the dark blue or black clothing. Here they are carrying offer money for the monastery.
The boys heads are shaven apparently earlier in the day. They are dressed in yellow, pink and green satin costumes with colourful make up .The costumes are symbolic of the look of a royal prince.
The procession with the monks-to-be protected from the sun by the golden umbrellas.
Like a little prince but not for long. After the ceremony the boys are undressed and the typical maroon robe is put on.
This was such a beautiful and unexpected event that we did not venture further to see the pagodas but just enjoyed watching the people. Happy with these impressions we looked for our boatman and returned to the lake.
The famous leg-rowing Intha (‘”sons of the lake”)fisherman.
Reeds and other floating plants rise high out of the waters, so that when they are sitting low in a boat, it can be hard to see and to steer through the vegetation. It is for this reason that, while the local women still row their boats in the usual manner, the local fishermen developed their distinctive standing rowing style.
The water hyacinth (purple flower) is not native to Inle Lake but grows fast, clogging the smaller streams and depriving local plants and animals of light and food.
The fishermen like to show off their balance to tourists:-).
Roughly 25% of Inle Lake is covered by floating gardens where lots of manual labour produces tomatoes, beans and cucumbers. The farmers gather lake-bottom weeds from the deeper parts of the lake, bring them back in boats and make them into floating beds in their garden areas, anchored by bamboo poles. These gardens rise and fall with changes in the water level, and so are resistant to flooding.
The garden “shed” on the water.
We visited one more monastery, forgot the name. It was 100 years old and the wooden walls were painted in gold. I find these places so peaceful and enjoy just walking around watching the lifes of the monks.
How would it be to enter a monastery for a week or two ?
Next stop : Mandalay, Monywa and Bagan
March 8th, we arrive in Yangon around 6PM after a short flight from Hanoi. Men in longyi offer their taxi services but we take our time to get a SIM card, get money and install the GRAB (UBER in Asia) app. Five minutes later we are on our way to our hotel.So easy,we are getting used to this :-).
Myanmar has borders with Bangladesh, India,Thailand, Laos and China. We traveled the following itenerary: from Yangon to Mawlamyine, Hpa-an, Kalaw, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Monywa and Bagan before we returned to Yangon. We used the train, boat, motorcycles,e-bikes, buses, vans, tuk-tuk and our feet to get to our destination. We loved the train for its colonial experience but the motorcycle is definitely our preferred option. The military junta changed the name Burma to Myanmar in 1989 and also changed Rangoon to Yangon. Burmese people will mostly use “Burma” in daily life and “Myanmar” more in a formal, official way because this reeks of government. It is OK to use both. Myanmar has a population of 53,7 Mio in 2018, 82 people per km2. For comparison, Vietnam has 96 Mio people and 311 inhabitants per km2.
In front of the Shwedagon pagoda we bought a little sparrow to set it free but horror struck: when the bird flew up in the blue sky, a crow caught it and flew of with it. Was this an “omen” for bad luck?
The Shwedagon pagoda stands 99m tall and is the most sacred Buddhist stupa in Myanmar. The gold seen on the pagoda is made of genuine gold plates and to make it even better, the top part is decorated with 5448 diamonds and 2317 rubbies. The very top – the diamond bud- is a 76 carat diamond!
We were amazed at how much flowers, food and money is offered to Buddha. Myanmar is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of number of monks and income spent on religion.
In Myanmar, buddhist nuns do not get the same respect as monks simply because they are a woman.
Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. (Rudyard Kipling of his 1889 visit to Myanmar)
In Myanmar it is very common that children become a nun or monk for a week or a month. During school vacation many sign up to gain merit for loved ones or to learn more about Buddhist teachings.
Since 2003 no motorcycles are allowed in the centre of Yangon.
The Shwedagon pagoda at sunset.
Morning or evening, week-end or middle of the week, there are always a lot of worshippers at the pagoda.
Yangon central rail station was completed in 1954 and is the largest railway station in Myanmar.
Windows and doors open, local people selling food and drinks, a lot of shaking on the rails, so much fun…
At 30km/h the train is an excellent way to enjoy the scenery.
A little town seen from the train.
Along the way there are sooo many stupas.
The yellow rice is ready to be harvested.
A railway station along the way.
Golden Rock or Kyaiktiyo pagoda, only men are allowed to touch the rock. According to legend the rock is carefully balanced on a strand of Buddha’s hair.
Only men are allowed at the Golden Rock. We bought some gold to stick on the rock and hope this would bring good luck :-). It is one of the three most religious sites in Myanmar again with many devotees.
Win Sein Taw Ya near Mawlamyine, a 30m high and 180m long reclining Buddha, the longest in the world.
Inside the Buddha there are 8 floors but only 4 can be visited because of “work in progress”. Instead of just donating money we bought 4 red tiles so they could complete the outside dress from Buddha.
Inside the Buddha there were dioramas both finished and under construction about the life of Prince Siddharta before he became Buddha.
In the hills surrounding the lying Buddha there are even more statues and stupas. It was good to have our motorcycle and drive around and take it all in.
Seindon Mibaya Kyaung monastery in Mawlamyine, 100 years old, was built for the wife of King Mindon.
Today only 9 monks are living in the monastery and although still very beautiful it is in dire need of repair.
Beautifully carved reliefs on the doors in red and gold.
One of the monks turned on the lights for us and wanted us to sign a visitor book with our names and the amount of our donation to the monastery 😉
While we were in Mawlamyine we visited Bily Kyun (Ogre Island) with its many workshops. One of them was making elastic bands.
The rubber for the elastic bands drying in the sun made for colorful pictures.
Cutting the elastic bands, a lot of manual labor for about 4USD a day.
Making hats from bamboo all by hand.
Once used in all the elementary schools in Myanmar slates are now becoming rare but still used in some schools. We visited one of the last slate making businesses in the village.
From Mawlamyine we went to Hpa-an by boat (6 hours) and on the way we made a short stop to visit the U Nar Auk monastery.
Two Buddhas each made from one trunk of teak and covered with gold leaf.
The monk’s hairdresser, according to Buddhist scripture the hair needs to be shaved with a razor every 2 months.
One of the monks preparing tea.
While on our way back to the boat we saw a cockfight although it is illegal in Myanmar, it happens (betting is not allowed) .
In Hpa-an we climbed Mount Zwekabin (722m) early in the morning. At the foot of the mountain, in Lumbini Garden, there are 1100 Buddha statues.
On our way to the top Stefan was stopped several times by Burmese girls to have his picture taken with them. Some were very enthousiastic :-). Stefan was happy with this sudden success.
A monk was filling bags with sand which worshippers take up the mountain. The sand is used for construction of the pagoda on top of the mountain.
Burmese worshippers enthousiastic take the sand bags up the mountain for Buddha.
Once at the top we could see more stupas all around us. I was definitely not climbing there!
The country side in Hpa-an with its many karst mountains.
Saddan cave in Hpa-an, lots of Buddha’s, a stupa and an exit at a lake.
The Burmese like to take pictures of foreigners.
Exiting the cave. We had to leave our slippers at the entrance which was on the other side so we had to continue barefeet. Luckily we could take a boat but because of the low water we still had to walk through the fields for about a km.
Rice and Karst mountains when we walked back to the entrance of the cave.
More beautiful scenery on our way to the next cave in Hpa-an.
On our way to Kawgun cave with our motorcycle, this reminded us of North Vietnam
Kawgun cave is another spectacular cave in Hpa-an, with many seated and reclining Buddha’s but most importantly because of the little Buddha’s carved in the limestone walls.
Thousands of little carved Buddahs. Some of them are very old but they are constantly adding new ones and removing the crumbled ones who suffered from rain, wind etc.
Kawgun cave has been used by local Mon Buddhists since the seventh century. Unfortunately many of the older statues have been destroyed by tremors resulting from the work of the nearby cement factory.
Many small Buddhas images were carved unbelievably sophisticated on the wall and all the way to its ceiling.
Kyauk Kalat Pagoda, a stupa balanced on a limestone pinnacle. Visitors can only go halfway to the top but even there the view is gorgeious.
A typical house in a small village near Hpa-an
Sunset on our way to bat cave. Unfortunately the thousands of bats only left the cave when it was already dark so no pictures 🙁 In my next blog we will travel from Hpa-an to Kalaw near Inle Lake, hike to Inle Lake and visit Mandalay.