After three weeks in Burma, October/November 2014, I am convinced that there is only one way to travel – by road. I needed no further convincing after being delayed on the only internal flights between Sittwe and Yangon. One of these flights meant a change of airline as well. Had this been repeated on other legs of the journey, the time wasted would have been tremendous. This experience also demonstrated the importance of having an agent in Burma, who kept me informed of any change of plans. Internet was at best painful. As a photographer, being able to stop almost anywhere or stay longer in any one place, is only possible with one’s own transport.
I was very fortunate in having the services of Gabriel Ko Lay, who has been driving in Burma for over 20 years. Along with his son, both provided exemplary service, which meant no hassle and dawn to dusk assistance. Gabriel was provided via my agent Tony Shwe – email@example.com. Tony’s name had been mentioned in other travel reports/blogs. He was one of several agents I contacted in Burma. We agreed that a driver as well as a guide, would not be necessary. An itinerary was agreed and I booked all of the hotels, except two, online via the excellent Agoda.com and AsiaTravel.com. Tony booked the others, the Balloons over Bagan flight, and flights to and from Sittwe. Given the problems with these flights, Tony’s input on the ground was invaluable. $100 per day was agreed for Gabriel’s services. This proved to be considerable value for money. I had not expected him to be at my beck and call, but he was happy to set off before dawn and not return me to my hotel until well after sunset, which meant that every hour of daylight could be utilised. If needed, he would also drive me to a restaurant in the evening.
Tony wanted a hefty deposit before travelling from the UK. I decided to send him almost all of the costs, to avoid having to take more cash than was necessary. Transferring £2,000 via Western Union to someone I had never met in a country of which I knew little and had some distrust, was rather scary. I was not to know if my trust would be rewarded until arriving in Mandalay, where I hoped Gabriel would be waiting. I could have made a bank transfer to an account in Bangkok, which I felt would be safer, but involve more hassle for Tony. The transfer went extremely smoothly and within hours I received confirmation from Tony. Having now met Tony, I would do the same again but it is understandable that would be Burma travellers might be reticent at paying for a trip this way. The bank account alternative would offer some security, but no guarantees the recipient is genuine.
This is not the first time I have made travel arrangements via someone mentioned in a travel blog. I did the same for a driver in Bolivia and just prayed that he would be waiting for me at 3.0AM in La Paz.
Having read that accommodation in Burma can be difficult to obtain, if not booked well in advance, I thought best to do just that. Certainly when booking, some of my choices has limited or no rooms, according to the various websites. However Gabriel suggested that it would be better not to book so much in advance. Then if I wanted to stay longer in anyone place or area, I could. I am not so sure – perhaps out of high season this might be possible and would be worth taking the risk. Certainly I would have liked longer around Mandalay and would have liked to travel to Monywa.
I had expected considerable security and a strong army presence. Both were notable in their absence. Judging by the number of old and new army barracks everywhere, the army must be vast but is almost invisible. However my Burmese contacts made it quite clear who was still in control. I suspect the fear that existed a few years ago is now tempered by the greater openness that prevails today and the need for the tourist dollar. It is quite clear to whom the country is in greatest debt – the Chinese. “Go now, before it changes” is oft quoted, but I find it difficult to believe that Burma can change in the near future for the betterment of its people. The rush to obtain the tourist dollar and bow to China’s needs, will simply add to the impoverishment of its people who are not in the army, police or a monastery and to the continued destruction of the environment. Amazingly the people are always smiling, in spite of the slave labour endured by many. In this Burma appears not have changed at all.
Not wishing to waste time backtracking, I decided to fly into Mandalay and out of Yangon. This worked very well, with Gabriel driving up to Mandalay from Yangon to meet me. Inevitably on a first visit, the itinerary followed the usual tourist trail, with 2/3 days in and around Mandalay, Inle, Bagan, Mrauk U, Yangon and Golden Rock. No time was wasted after arriving in Mandalay and we immediately set off on a tour, ending up on Mandalay Hill for sunset. The following morning I was up before dawn. I had chosen to stay near the Royal Palace but had not realised how vast this site is, but an early morning walk along the Moat was revelatory, and well worth while, seeing the city come to life. One of the highlights in Mandalay is the Kuthodaw Pagoda, with its 729 white pagodas, housing the entire Tipitaka, carved on white marble tablets – the “world’s largest book”.
The Royal Palace itself was interesting and impressive for its size but not enough to really warrant a visit. Relocated to its current site from Amarapura, most of the treasures were looted in 1885 and much of the Palace was razed by Allied bombers in 1945.
Sunset at U Bein Bridge is essential and employing a boatman who empathises with the requirements of a photographer is essential. But returning before dawn the next day was, if anything, even more inspirational and even more beautiful.
This is not a blow by blow account – readers can contact me for more info. – just a few highlights and impressions. The drive to Kalaw, Inle and Bagan offer one way of getting closer to rural life and takes one through the hills of mid Burma. I would recommend a trek into the hills from Kalaw – a guide is not essential but helpful when trying to communicate. It was depressing to find so much deforestation in favour of citrus fruit farms. It was depressing to see so little wildlife anywhere. Even my agent decried the loss of butterflies, for example, and I heard little bird song.
I changed my first choice of hotel (Paramount Inle Resort) on Inle Lake when I realised that it was on an island and only accessible by boat. My second (Inle Lake Spa and Resort) was not much better, as this time I had not realised that the distance to it by road, meant that slipping out in the evening to Nyaungshwe was not possible, even though Gabriel would have been happy to make the return trip. I also had not realised that the boatmen would all be coming from the same town as well. Thus I would have forsaken a desired hotel lake view for a room nearer to the action. As it was, I found the Inle Lake resort hotel rather soulless and far too big for my liking, but the room was superb. As at U Bein, employing a boatman who understands a photographer’s needs is essential. One just has to be out at dawn and be on the lake for sunset.
In Bagan I choose to stay at the Thande, thinking that I would walk or cycle around the site, and this hotel seemed to be conveniently situated. I had not realised that cars were allowed amongst the hundreds of pagodas etc. My fault, for making assumptions, and not checking with Tony. I could have stayed anywhere, as once again Gabriel was waiting for me before dawn and we only returned to the hotel long after sunset. I did like being able to take breakfast on the bank of the Ayeyarwady each morning as well as the odd evening meal. Fortunately the Balloon trip took off as planned – the day before had been cancelled. Expensive, but well worth it, but do try and make sure you get in the basket so that you are at the front and not ‘behind’, looking over others’ heads in terms of looking ahead. Balloons Over Bagan have 10 or more and a new company, Bagan Balloon, appear to have 3 (green) balloons. I was a bit non-plussed to see that some of BOB’s baskets were half empty while mine was crammed full. A better distribution of passengers would not have gone amiss.
If you really want to find particular temples a good map or guide is essential. Even in November it was very hot and even with a driver very tiring. After awhile temple fatigue inevitably sets in, so being able to rest one’s eyes on something else is very helpful. For me a highlight was watching life on the river bank at New Bagan as well as seeing the sunset here. I slightly regret not having taken a river trip, as fellow guests at the hotel said this was a highlight for them.
The new dual highway built with Chinese help from Mandalay to Yangon is perhaps the most monotonous road trip one is ever likely to make. Travelling at dawn saw a spectacular sunrise. Stopping off for the night at Taungoo helps to break the journey but the town itself has little to offer the tourist. This was really designed to fit in with a flight the next day to Sittwe for onward travel to Mrauk U. Apart from hotels the boats to and from Mrauk U had not been prebooked. Tony assured me that it would not be a problem. On the flight I met up with a couple of fellow travellers and shared a taxi to the ferry, early next morning. This was to be one of the slower ferries, but in fact took only about 4 hours. There appeared to be no empty seats by the time we departed. Prebooking the return trip turned out to be essential – had we left to the morning of departure we would have been out of luck – at least for the faster ferry, which took just over 2 hours. This may have been the result of ferries having been cancelled the day before due to a cyclone.
The departure from Sittwe to Marauk was another highlight. It is like a time warp. The slow ferry was a rather rusty vessel from times gone by on an unappealing river tributary, with gang planks for embarkation. Watching passengers and cargo, including a motor bike, being loaded on was fascinating. All around other vessels which have clearly seen better days, await their departure.
Mrauk U is so different to Bagan, which makes it all the more worthwhile. However it is extremely hot and humid. If I was going to see any mosquitoes, I thought they would be here in their millions. Fortunately there were none, which was so for the whole of my three week trip. I never bothered with my anti-malarials. Indeed, except for open meat stalls and some food stalls, I hardly ever saw any flies. Only once did I think I was about to fall ill with a stomach lurgy and that was probably because I had foolishly tried a piece of custard apple a local was selling and eaten a banana my driver had bought. Thankfully the symptoms passed quickly. I did exercise caution everywhere as to what I ate or drank and only ever brushed my teeth with bottled water.
Like so many destinations Mrauk U is best seen at dawn and sunset. The main temples are quite compact and easily walkable. A group of us did use a tuk tuk and driver for the more remote temples and to get to a particular stupa for sunrise. One of the reasons for also going to Mrauk U was to visit the Chin tribes with the spider web tattoos. I was rather apprehensive as I had read that the Chin women were being presented as ‘exhibits’. A trip up the River Lemro was arranged through Aung Zan (& Mr Fix-It). This was another pre-dawn start. Combining with fellow travellers makes a lot of sense, making the cost per person more reasonable. Aung Zan took us first to a market and then on a trek through different Chin villages. No one in Burma (except army personnel) seem to mind having their photo taken and the Chin women and children are no exception. I did think that our presence was somewhat voyeuristic but the women were genuinely pleased to meet us and show us their basic village life. Some of the villagers were ill, fever etc. and there did not appear any way of obtaining medial help. Our group distributed pens, writing /drawing books and paracetamol. These had all been purchased in the local market in Marauk U. Interestingly many of the books appeared to come from UNESCO. Had these been donated only to be purloined to be sold? There was no expectation of exchanging money for photos.
It is worth planning a trip around a Burmese festival. It was leading up to the full moon and the Festival of Light, celebrated throughout most of Burma. Temples become theatres of lighted candles and preparations were being made for the Balloon festival in Taungyi, when homemade hot air balloons of extravagant proportions are set off. We passed groups on various modes of transport, overladen with balloon materials and makeshift tents.
One of the most moving candle lit scenes was at Golden Rock. Yet another highlight. Trying to book a hotel at the top for the night through the usual web sites proved impossible, but both direct contact and via Tony secured a room. Another destination, where dawn and dusk viewing is essential. On arrival the mountain was shrouded in thick cloud and fog. Then as if by magic, an hour before sunset, all cleared to reveal the gleaming Rock. Just as magical was the slow burnishing by the sun at dawn, gradually illuminating the Rock, until it shone in its entirety. Being the Festival of Light, there was a constant stream of pilgrims, night and day. Prebooking a hotel at the top is essential.
On the way I would recommend Bago – definitely visit the new modern and huge outdoor reclining Buddha, built and financed by the monks themselves, to ensure complete freedom for visitors, without controls by the army, which is the case for the Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha, within its huge hangar. Also visit the bizarre spectacle of boa constrictor snake worship nearby at the Snake Monastery and the four seated Buddhas of Kyaikpun Pagoda.
And so toYangon. By now I was ready to return home and did not do justice to the city. The circular railway was on the itinerary, but I found it rather disappointing. Had I not travelled so much by road seeing a lot of rural life, I would have found it more interesting, but in hindsight my time would have been better strolling around the city. Another trip suggested by Tony was also largely a waste of time – to Thanlyin and Kyauktan – the remains of a Portuguese Catholic church are just that and the Ye Le Paya temple, a short boat trip did not make much of an impression. A long traffic jam return to Yangon snatched more precious time on the last day.
The main objective in Yangon has to be Shwedagon. After three weeks one has seen enough Buddha images and temples, stupas and pagodas, but Shwedagon is breathtaking. I choose to stay in a hotel (The International) close by so that I was within walking distance for both predawn and dusk entries. Arriving in the dark at 4.30AM at the west entrance is quite awesome. Burma may have electricity shortages (which occurred twice at the Mandalay airport) but there is no shortage of power to illuminate the religious edifices. The flood lit west stairway is quite something. Entering the complex with hardly a soul in sight was also exhilarating. Yet once at the upper terrace, I had already been beaten to it by many pilgrims. Suddenly a sound I had heard about but never actually heard in reality, carried through the darkness. One of the most beautiful sounds I have come across – that of a conch shell. The blower was leading a large group of pilgrims, all from one village. Along with the sounds of a large gong and a Burmese bell, the pilgrims were being led from shrine to shrine, paying their respects to each and every image of Buddha, until taking breakfast in one of the many halls. Another magical moment. Look out for a video clip on my website.
I think it was $5 entry and for cameras. Fortunately this covered the whole day, so I could return again before dusk. By now the temple complex was heaving with pilgrims and tourists. Watching dawn over Yangon when there were far fewer visitors was a bonus, but even with the crowds the sunset was spectacular. The Pagoda is being reguilded. People are paying for new gold tiles which are transported in a ‘boat’ to a collection point halfway up within the bamboo scaffolding. So be warned – the whole pagoda is encased in a scaffold honeycomb, which at first site is a disappointment. However I found the whole fascinating and photogenic. Seeing the scaffolders in bare feet constructing the case with just pieces of string to tie one bamboo pole to another was very absorbing.
As it was still the Festival of Light, Shwedagan once again came to light once the sun had set, both with candles and floods. On my last night in Burma this was a fitting end to what had been a very memorable three weeks. After what had been a very exhausting trip (of my own making) I was ready to return home, feeling that I was in hurry to return. However as I process the thousands of images, I am thinking about the next trip, with if possible, my trusty driver Gabriel and ground agent, Tony.