Some say Ngwe Saung… I say paradise

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I’m writing this from a swanky airport lounge in Doha; somehow Tania’s misadventures at the beginning of the holiday turning into an unexpected boon as we wile away 6 hours in relative comfort (or at least, with free food and unlimited Nespresso!) It’s a welcome place to reflect on what’s been a great break, and one that’s come to an end far too quickly. Don’t they always, though?

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Our last few nights in Burma were spent in Ngwe Saung, a sleepy but beautiful beachside resort for wealthy Yangonites (and the site of the sailing event at the much-advertised SEA games later this month). We arrived to the most perfect sunset yet, and raced to the sea to take photos before our bags had even been unloaded from the car. There are some moments you just can’t miss.

We had chosen Ngwe Saung after some last minute trouble near Ngapali Beach put us off, but it is a laborious 6 hour drive from Yangon. Still, the sea was blissfully warm, the seafood fresh and delicious, and we wished we had more than just two nights.

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Myanmar, Burma, has been a dream. It’s a world away still from Western life – no McDonalds or Starbucks, no sign of Western celebrity culture (except for one young girl in Bagan who was singing Justin Bieber – there is no escape!), men eschewing trousers for longyis, women painting their faces in pale patterns of thanaka and – probably most striking of all – everywhere pockets of monks going about their daily business… Some collecting alms, yes, but some playing on their iPads, straddling motorbikes through town or sitting in teashops. It’s hard to think of another place in the world where men and women of faith are so ubiquitous – except for at the Vatican, I’ve rarely seen a Catholic priest or nun mingling casually with the public.

Yet unlike in other places of extreme culture shock (in Dehli or Nairobi), I never felt uncomfortable in Burma, and rarely hassled. As always, making an effort to fit in with local customs helped, but the people were so friendly despite any fumbles we might have made along the way.

If I had basic tips to offer for travel in Burma, it’s:

1) Bring toilet paper and hand sanitiser with you everywhere, but if there’s a basket for the paper, use it!

2) Try local style of dress (longyis for men and women) at least once – they’re lightweight and comfortable and it’s much easier to chat with locals that way!

3) Follow all the trusted advice, but know that Burma is a country that is rapidly changing – they exchanged a rumpled and folded up US note of Lofty’s without question, ATMs were everywhere and basically all the Lonely Planet’s advice was out of date… But still worth bringing for the history.

4) Try to go with at least some idea of the context of the country’s history and people. The events are so recent – in the last 20 years and still ongoing, especially if you listen to the Moustache Brothers – and the scars are fresh just beneath the surface.

5) Don’t be put off by said aforementioned events – go! And independent travel is possible and even easy in most places.

Normal life and the run up to Christmas awaits… But what a journey it’s been. Goodbye Burma! I wonder what changes will have been wrought, next time I see you…

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Inle Lake, stilts and cool water

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Drifting across the inky black water in an oversized canoe, it’s all too easy to feel the real world is oh so far away. Inle Lake in Shan province is a world of its own, a community built on stilts and floating gardens, where kids get picked up from school in long paddle boats and traders sell their wares while simultaneously bailing water from their canoe.

We’ve got a stunning view of life on Inle lake from the Golden Island cottages, a slice of luxury on this otherwise budget trip. The best moments come from just observing the people – once out on a boat ourselves, I found Inle lost some of its charms.

As one of the most visited spots in Myanmar (and probably on every tourists’ itinerary!), Inle is something of a floating shopping mall, and our boat driver took us from lotus silk shop to cigar shop to boat-making shop to umbrella making shop to basket-weaving shop… You get the picture. Some of it is very interesting, but it gets less so when you realize that the same (lovely) silver knot bracelets they’re selling as ‘local’ are the same you bought to promote your book with. Hmm. Also, we’d done most of our souvenir shopping in Yangon, which is still the place to get the best quality and prices, it seems.

Still, once I’d firmly conveyed the words ‘no thank you’, there were many delights to be found. The village of Inthein was gorgeous, with its ancient ruined stupas and over 1000 new ones. The Jumping Cat monastery (can’t quite recall the Burmese name!) was also very cool, and different to anything else we’ve seen.

We stopped at a market (not the right day for the floating market, unfortunately) and while we weren’t tempted by any of the goods, we WERE tempted by the hot fresh doughnuts being cooked up by the entrance. At only 7p a pop, they were an awesome mid-morning snack! Plus, there was delicious Shan noodle soup, simple and comforting.

Retreating from the balcony of our little cottage-on-stilts to avoid the mosquitos, the sky opened out to a blanket of thousands of stars. Out here, there’s very little electricity or light pollution to mar the sky, and for that sight, it might be worth visiting all the lotus silk shops in the world.

(Pictures to come – Inle internet too slow!)

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Temples, temples and more temples… Bagan, Myanmar

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The Road to Mandalay isn’t a road at all… It’s the Ayeyarwaddy river. (Line stolen from a Myanmar infomercial we watched on repeat!) In total, we spent 9.5 hours on the Ayeyarwaddy, travelling from Mandalay to Bagan. We sailed on the Malikha 2, which was actually quite relaxing, and I managed to fit in all my required reading for the holiday.

Bagan is probably the most anticipated part of this trip for me, the most photogenic collection of temples anywhere in the world. More than 2,000 temples dot the plain, which is lush and green after the summer rains. We stopped off for sunset photographs straight away on a lonely stupa (see previous blog photos!), avoiding the overcrowded Shwesandaw Paya. What a magical way to start!

We lucked out with an English-speaking taxi driver, so we wasted no time signing him up for a day trip. We picked Mt Popa, known as the ‘Mt Olympus of Burma’, and once I heard it was he home of ancient Burmese alchemists, I couldn’t resist! About an hour’s drive from Bagan, Mt Popa springs up out of the ground, an extinct volcano topped by a glittering gold pagoda and said to be the spiritual home of the ‘nats’, or Buddhist spirits. The volcano itself is also overrun by macaques – the pesky monkeys – some of which tried to steal Lofty’s lychee juice in quite a violent manner! A local fended the monkey off with a well placed slingshot.

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Our taxi driver then gave us a tour of some of the major Bagan highlights, including the stunning Ananda Pagoda. He, of course, found us another amazing abandoned pagoda for sunset – you just can’t beat it.

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As if sunsets weren’t enough, we got up this morning for sunrise! Adam and Tania sprung for the hot air balloon, while Lofty and I climbed the aforementioned Shwesandaw pagoda, which was still extremely busy, even at 5am! Still, it’s popular for a reason… The view was absolutely amazing.

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For the rest of the day, we rented bicycles and cycled the temples ourselves. Luckily, it wasn’t too hot, although the bikes were far from in the best nick. We had to stop for repairs, but luckily the locals are used to rescuing flat-tire ridden tourists. It was amazing just being able to cycle around at our own pace, finding hidden temples away from hawkers and other tourists. Some of it felt very Indiana Jones!

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The subject of food is never far from my mind, and so far, we’re still not disappointed. The vegetarian food in particular has been amazing, and we indulged in amazing guacamole and poppadoms at Be Kind to Animals the Moon restaurant in Old Bagan.

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Bagan

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Ancient wonders, golden sunsets, long walks…

In his apartment in Yangon, our host Nick had a photo hanging on the wall of a silhouetted bridge against the backdrop of a blazing orange sunset. This was U Bein’s bridge, the highlight of almost any trip to Mandalay – ours included. We knew we had to get that magical shot for ourselves!

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The day started early, with a taxi ride to Mingun. I’d read a fair amount about the tourist boat, which arrives at 10am, so we set out to get there by 8.30am. This was definitely a good decision, as the drive was scenic, and when we arrived there were virtually no other visitors. Mingun would have been the site of the world’s largest pagoda, but it remains unfinished as an earthquake destroyed the foundations. What remains instead is a very atmospheric massive collection of bricks, and an enormous bell – the largest (uncracked) bell in existence.

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The drive back took us to Sagaing, which must have the most monks per square mike of anywhere in Myanmar! A major religious site, there are golden stupas dotted everywhere among the hills. A few highlights were the Umin Thounzeh complex, with 45 Buddhas in a crescent shape and Soon U Ponya Shin, where we had a great view of the surrounding area.

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Our driver spoke very little English (our fault for booking through the hotel as we met many English-speaking drivers throughout Mandalay, and so he refused to stop anywhere other than the pre-arranged places). That meant we had 4 hours to kill in Amarapura while we waited for sunset at the aforementioned U Bein’s bridge. We filled the time with an interesting lunch of tiny whole fish, deep-fried and staring at us with googly eyes, and deep fried sweet corn (something about deep fried food feels comfortably bug-killing), then took our time strolling across the rickety bridge. We stopped at a (pretty insulting!) fortune-teller for a laugh, and watched the daily comings and goings of the people on the bridge. We also posed for many photographs!

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Sunset came up quickly, and we didn’t expect the rush for the little boats! While most boats carried only 2 people, we crammed 6 in ours, as it was the last one available! Still, the boat was by far the best way to see the sunset, and we got some pretty spectacular pics of our own.

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Dinner was at a delicious vegetarian restaurant called Marie-min, then Lofty and I stopped for a Burmese massage. Lovely!

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For our last day in Mandalay, we took it easy – strolling to an old Buddha so covered in gold leaf that its body and features have become all lumpy, and then to a gorgeous teak monastery. Lofty and I wandered through the back streets of Mandalay, to the delight of school children everywhere, and stopped for tea in a local tea shop where they kept trying to feed us rice. The tea in Burma is made with thick condensed milk and is quite sweet, but a fun atmosphere. I always find the best part of any trip is just getting out and meeting the locals, and the Burmese people are always happy to have a chat, or to let us join in on their games.

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Tomorrow is an 11hr boat ride to Bagan. Wish us luck!

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