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BULLOCKS, BOATS AND BICYCLES: MY MYANMAR TRAVELS

The journey is as important as the destination.

In Myanmar, this rings true. I’ve trekked, travelled by car, wooden canoe boat, motor boat, large boat, small plane, large plane, bicycle, tricycle, horse cart, bullock cart, horse carriage, train and motorbike. Phew! The piece de resistance is yet to come here in Bagan, where I’ll be flying on a hot air balloon to watch sunrise over the land of 2,000+ pagodas! I can barely wait!

If different modes of transport float your boat (poor pun, I know) a journey through Myanmar will prove unforgettable.

HORSE CART
The only way to get into the soul of many old villages, such as Innwa in Mandalay where I visit the oldest teakwood monastery and the former Royal Palace, is to take a horse cart. Passing through narrow dusty lanes and into the heart of extremely local villages, this seems the most unobtrusive and natural transport by which to see lush agricultural plantations, watch women toil the grounds adorned in conical bamboo hats and wrapped in colourful lungis (full-length sarong skirts), their weathered skin soaking in the harsh sun and children playing with tyres in the dusty alleyways. Horse carts blend into the scenery and enable tourists to become almost invisible whilst gaining a glimpse local life.

I see women sitting in groups outside their houses on modest verandahs, watching their babies play freely in the shade. The emphasis for men seems to be on building. At each humble home I pass, I see men sawing wood, hammering away, cutting various locally available materials such as wood and bamboo, as they build on their home or build something for their livelihoods. Any money earnt in a day’s work directly contributes towards building or maintaining modest houses. The homes are perfectly charming; built entirely of bamboo and even featuring two floors with bay windows, designed to catch nature’s breeze. At the centre of each village, one of several glistening Pagodas (Buddhist temples) and stupas form the crux around which life revolves.

Mandalay is a big and busy city. It’s not to everyone’s liking. I love it as it has a vibrant energetic buzz. The pace of life is quick. Traffic is crazy; bikes everywhere, shops open till late and the sheer volume of people like ants over sugar. It reminds me very much of India’s Amritsar or Chandigarh city streets. Pollution fills the air as a layer of dense smog. And the dirt gets into your nostrils and soils clothing. But it’s the energy that resonates with me.
Mandalay is a great city to visit several nearby towns and villages, and the vital Irrawaddy (Aueyarwaddy) River.

BOAT & TRICYCLE
I begin at U Bein bridge, the world’s largest teakwood bridge, in the former capital Amarapura. This place is astounding. On a misty morning, the bridge is breathtaking as it’s tall teakwood columns fade into the horizon. Golden spires of Pagodas glisten in the distance in the hazy morning sunlight. Locals convene on shaded benches along the bridge, Buddhist monks and nuns sashay across in their claret-clad robes, Myanmar ladies gracefully balance a basket of mango and watermelon upon their heads, crossing to sell their wares. With no walls or boundaries either side, the bridge is a test of one’s mettle. As I cross, I stand aside for passing motorbikes, bikes and dogs. On foot I gain one beautiful perspective. But if time permits, hire a wooden canoe boat with one of the locals below. For the equivalent of £3, I’m taken out onto the waters to cross below the rungs of U Bein bridge. This perspective helps to really appreciate its grandeur and beauty. The bridge proudly rises from the surface of the water. This is the best spot for creative photographs. A tip: if there’s more than one of you, get someone to stand on the bridge while you take photos from the boat. This vantage point is simply fantastic.

From Mandalay, I head to the banks of the Irrawaddy River. A vital lifeline for Myanmar since inception of the country, the Irawaddy is the country’s very own river, both starting and stopping here. Along it, humbling signs of life are clearly visible. People live in tiny huts on the banks and use the river to survive; for transport, food, water and agriculture. The banks of the river are very fertile making it a valuable spot for farming. But during rainy season the grounds are immersed. I learn an interesting fact: Once rainy season ends, the land is re-claimed on a first come first serve basis. So the men who get there first can set up their home and livelihood in the best spots.

LARGE MOTOR BOAT
I cruise an hour upstream on board a large wooden motor boat. Captains are ready and waiting on the river and this segment is pre-booked. I’m headed towards Mingun, famous for it’s unfinished pagoda which would have been the largest in the country, Myatheindan. There’s also a gorgeous monastery here. And for those interested in local art and crafts, Mingun is a haven of cute & eclectic roadside galleries. The artwork is similar in many so shop around for a piece that really stands out to you. I fall instantly in love with an oil on canvas painting of an elderly Padaung tribal woman, laughing, with no teeth and face full of lines. She emits resounding happiness & fills me with hearty laughter. I purchase it for my hallway as an instant mood uplifter.

The boat ride back is soothing after the dusty intense heat. A fresh river breeze provides free natural a/c as I fall asleep on the top deck, to the hum of the motor and sway of the tide. A boat ride on the Irawaddy is a must.

BICYCLE
Back to Mandalay, a blissful way to explore some localities is to hire a bicycle. There are plentiful stalls offering the option and they cost £1. I ride a bike along the banks of the river and just watch life pass. Photographers should use this option. I stop wherever I spot something of interest, speak to people along the way, stop for a fresh coconut water (costs around 60pence), and bike through serene and picturesque alleyways where children play and dogs roam in dusty streets. This is perhaps the best way to get a true glimpse of local life, at my own pace. I feel unhurried and free of concern. Usually, opportunities like this are rare either due to safety concerns or lack of availability & lack of time. This is luxury, to me.

BULLOCK CART RIDE
Mandalay is also an ideal spot for a bullock cart ride! Be prepared for a bumpy one in this most traditional form of transport. But what a way to see the world! It’s a unique experience, though not one I’d be in a hurry to repeat.

SMALL CANOE BOAT
If small wooden boats are your idea of fun, Inle Lake is a treat. I shift from a motor boat to a small canoe boat to get right into the tiny waterways of the floating villages. Literally at water level, it’s the next best thing to swimming through the lake and it’s vicinity which, by the way, is impossible due to dangerous reeds. Although I’m not sure my insurance covers me for this type of jaunt, it’s unmissable! I think it was one of my favourite modes of transport, as the boat owner paddled us gently through the waters steering us left and right snaking past fishermen’s homes and agricultural floating farmland on the lake.

TREK
Trekking, I must admit, is not my preferred mode of transport in 37 degree heat. But a light trek in Kalaw to the village of Indein proves absolutely worthwhile and even a trip highlight! After completing the 2 hour trek uphill through awe-inspiring mountain scenery, I happen upon a very local village wedding! I’m invited in with such warmth and genuine hospitality it moves me no end. That made the trek more than worthwhile! Kalaw is a trekker’s paradise, with charming boutique hotels and stunning trails varying in length and difficulty.

TRAIN
Train journeys can provide the most telling mode of transport in a new country, particularly if there is bountiful countryside, mountains and lakes, all of which exist in Myanmar. A great train journey is through Kalaw / Inle… I don’t have enough time in my journey to do this. Still keen to hop on a local train, I take one around Yangon. It circles the city and a whole round-trip takes 3 hours. This is incredibly insightful as the station houses street children, homeless and some of society’s extremely poor. The train itself is currently an open plan carriage with benches running along either side. I’m told Chinese / Japanese investment will soon upgrade most infrastructure. Whilst on the train, street hawkers pass through selling fresh mango, watermelon and other fresh produce. It’s quite tempting. The train passes the back of Scott Market, which is Yangon’s biggest & busiest indoor & outdoor market. It’s open every day bar Mondays and reminds me of Chatuchak market in Bangkok.

FERRY & TRICYCLE
An unusual spot to bike is the village of Dalla. Take the huge passenger ferry from the port in Yangon across the river. An experience itself as people push on afraid of being left behind (no-one ever is).

At the other end, Dalla is extremely poor. Hit by Cyclone Nargis in 2009, the place was left destitute for too long, before aid was allowed to reach it. Because it was a side of Myanmar that the then-rulers didn’t want to show the world, they cut off all foreign aid. It was only when a venerable Buddhist priest from within the country started to collect donations to take there himself , that aid began to filter through.
In Dalla, I hope on a tricycle to ride around the village. The poverty is stark and the remaining effects of Nargis still visible, but only remnants. It’s also very beautiful to see perhaps the most local neighbourhood ithat remains the essence of traditional Myanmar. I don’t last longer than an hour though as the tricycle seats are hard and the roads very bumpy! Sore bottom on the ferry back!

INTERNAL FLIGHTS x5
Internal flights are hairy. I can’t describe them in any other way. I have taken 5 internals on all the various carriers: Air Mandalay, Bagan Air, ASEAN Wings… The most memorable landing, for all the wrong reasons, was getting into Heho (gateway to Inle), en route to Ngapali. The plane landed with such a thud that the entire flight jolted up, bouncing hard off the wheels, as it hit the tarmac.
A major grievance around internal flights is timings. They’re often late or early so keep a close check! Flights can be delayed the entire day or take off 2 hours before they’re scheduled.

HOT AIR BALLOON! (Eeeeek!!)
Saving the best till last in style, I’m eagerly antivipating my hot air balloon ride over Bagan at sunrise. Bagan is a deeply spiritual land. It’s entire landscape is littered with golden stupas and antique pagodas, piercing the horizon like a string of prayer beads above the arid red earth. Bagan boasts 2,744 pagodas (temples) to be precise. And at sunrise, the views from a hot air balloon are going to be exquisite!

I think the latter may become my favourite mode of transport abroad. What’s yours? Do you have a memorable journey or travel? I love to hear stories so please feel free to share yours with me…

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