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Northern Myanmar


urrently rainshere is something of a hype surrounding Myanmar. Everybody seems to want to go to this recently opened up country before the effects of mass tourism strike. We already visited the really off the beaten track south, click here to read more. But when people talk about Myanmar, they mostly mean the more northern areas with the temples and hot air balloons over Bagan, the Inle Lake and the golden payas (a.k.a. pagodas) of Mandalay and Yangon.

Our first stop on our journey to the north is Kyaiktiyo Rock or Golden Rock. This massive pebble covered in gold leaf is dramatically perched on the edge of a mountain. According to local lore a single hair of the Buddha is all that keeps it from tumbling into the valley below. This miracle makes it into a sacred place for the Myanmarese Buddhists who flock here by the tens of thousands. The Rock is not only covered in gold leaf but also surmounted by a tiny golden paya. Whoever built that paya on top must have been praying all the way through, you definitely don’t want to be the guy who toppled the holy rock…

Before you reach this shiny coconut-shaped rock, you have to climb all the way up. Or you can take the less merit-full truck-bus to the top… We’ll let you imagine how penitent we decided to be. On the way to the top you get to offer money at every turn, which the local pilgrims enthusiastically do. But since every monk in our truck-bus already has a fancier smartphone than us, we decide that the expensive entrance ticket is support enough. At the bottom of the temple of the rock you have to take off your shoes, because the holy spot has to stay clean. Sadly that doesn’t stop people from spitting paan everywhere. Always a joy when your feet are suddenly sucked to the floor by red ooze…

Granted the dangling rock and the surrounding rituals are pretty magical. All day long, male pilgrims rub additional squares of gold leaf on the rock face (women are not allowed up to the rock itself, so far for gender equality in Myanmar’s strain of Buddhism). Meanwhile nearby images of the Buddha are doused with water and there is plenty of kneeling and praying going on. We mainly enjoy the beautiful setting between the mountains, the setting sun, the jingling little bells, twirling pieces of gold leaf and a whole lot of people watching.

As soon as we decide we have done our best to merit our doubtful place in heaven (or the more complicated Buddhist equivalent), we decide to continue on to the former capital of Yangon. We roll into town after another awesome train ride (read here more about trains in Myanmar) and are well prepared to enter the big city fray. Yangon may have recently lost its capital status to the planned city of Naypyidaw, but it clearly feels like the beating heart of the country. The city is a bit of a mix between British colonial India (e.g. Calcutta) and more Myanmarese elements: big colonial buildings that often look like they haven’t been maintained since the British left, interspersed with golden paya’s and a few more modern(ist) buildings.

The most famous of the paya’s is of course Shwedagon Paya, the ancient paya where Aung San Suu Kyi held her first public speech in 1988. An impressive golden stupa ornamented with diamonds and studded with other precious stones in the middle of the metropolis. We visit the paya as the sun begins to set, when the stupa glows fiery and lights up spectacularly in the orange sun, and when the Yangonites come to circumambulate the temple and chat with each other. All of Yangon seems to come here to pray, scores of people ceremonial brush the paya grounds, others offer flowers or light rows of candles. We sit down and take it all in, while children play and bells jingle in the wind. A beautiful point of rest in a city with dusty little markets, busy streets, peppered with dilapidated buildings where strings lead up to separate bells -which are also used to pull up groceries and newspapers-, delicious Shan noodle shops, excellent Japanese restaurants, and even a beautiful synagogue.

After the first paya’s we are ready for the real paya-fest of the famous but (according to us) not too touristy Bagan. Bagan is set on a wide dry plain in a bend of the Irrawaddy river where countless Buddhist pagoda’s rise up through the arid vegetation. A lot of these temples are very much active places of worship, but since this means they keep on being restored and added to, critics claim they have lost part of their value. Therefore Bagan has not made it unto the UNESCO-world heritage list. Some of these pagoda’s have been extensively covered in frescos and there are always some Buddha statues in all sorts of positions and styles. Some Buddha’s fill an entire paya others a hole in the wall, others have their best time behind them, some are completely covered in gold etc. We rented bicycles to go out and explore, which, as we have found out in Angkor (read more about that here), is the perfect way to get off the beaten track and travel at a leisurely pace. That way you can take your time to ride around on sandy tracks between thousands of temples.

When you stay at the ground level, you do lose the overview a bit. The best way to correct this is probably by taking the balloons over Bagan trip. This is a bit too expensive for our budget, so we get our elevation from climbing to the top of the highest temples. This last option is free but since you have to do this on bare feet, it can get pretty painful on the scorching hot stones. But still definitely worth the climb on steep little stairs and with sore soles. The views are invariably magnificent, with thousands of pointy white, red or golden pagoda’s dotting the landscape in all directions. This climbing up the paya’s is probably more advisable in the cool mornings, but we are too lazy to get up. We make up for this by doubly enjoying the sunset which bathes the paya landscape in a warm glow.

After a few days of cycling between the impressive pagoda’s with peaceful Buddha’s and grand sunsets, we decide to trade in this sand-scape for a few days on the water. We head towards Inle Lake, where both the surrounding shores as the lake itself are more than worth exploring. You will find quite a few fellow tourists here, but you can see why. This place is just very scenic and pleasant. To explore the lake we rent a small long wooden boat with a boatsman at the helm of the put-putting motor at the back.

Once you are floating on the lake, you feel like you are on a mirror flat sea, because as far as you can see there is water. The only thing crossing your eyes on this mirror are the famous fishermen of Inle Lake, wooden huts, swampy fruit and vegetable gardens and floating mangrove like plants. The fishermen of Inle Lake manage to propel their narrow wooden boats by peddling their only oar with one of their legs while standing upright. Pretty amazing how they manage to get to fishing with their freed up hands while making circular motions with this huge piece of wood jammed between their armpit and one of their legs. The famous gardens of Inle Lake float in long rows separated by the water, built on swampy sandbanks and extended on the surrounding layer of water plants. Here and there you see little huts pop up from the fields and boats going through the canals to harvest the produce. A whole different kind of aquaculture.

Life is still based mostly on the water for the Inle Lake communities who have constructed entire villages on poles in the water. And along the shores of the lake or on the larger sandbanks this has led to entire villages, paya’s, monasteries, mixed with often touristy marktes, and purportedly authentic artisans e.g. silversmiths, (lotus)silk weavers etc… There sure is a lot to do on and besides the water. We loved it but there is no denying that tourism is rapidly changing this place. After a day on the boat in the scorching sun, we returned home tired but satisfied, but not before we had one last look at the enchanting sunset mirrored in the lake. That is one thing we loved in Myanmar, sunsets are magnificent here, with indescribable colours and intensities.

Relaxing after a tiring day on the water is also possible here. We rented bicycles and pedalled away to enjoy the landscape around the lake. Here we spoiled ourselves by visiting a few nicer restaurants, as the street stalls in Myanmar have been very disappointing in general. Around the Inle Lake you are already in Shan state, so you can enjoy the much better Shan-style cuisine. We happily gorge on affordable quality food at Bamboo Hut restaurant and Thanakha Garden restaurant. To top it all of we indulge in the local winery Red Mountain, which is definitely worth the steep cycle. You might think that wine grapes are not cut out of for this climate and you won’t see them exporting much anytime soon, but some of the varieties are very drinkable and after four dry weeks anything will do. So we enjoy the view and local drop from a real glass and enjoy another stunning sunset.

The sun is also setting on our Myanmar adventure. After Inle Lake our visa term has almost expired and we decide to finish our trip in Mandalay. “The road to Mandalay” evokes exotic and fairytale like scenes for most people, thanks to the famous poem. But in reality the poet has never been here, and even in the best of times Mandalay was far from being a paradise. Currently it is a dusty, disorganised city, with very little cohesion or amazing must-see sights. On top of that it is covered in heavy traffic on unfinished roads and booming on Chinese business. The large shopping centers that have been built to increase the standing of the place, have failed to look more than shabby copies of a decades old Thai mall.

You have Mandalay Palace and Mandalay hill, but from a tourism perspective this city doesn’t have the big draws its name might conjure. It is mainly the region around Mandalay laden with paya’s and ancient capitals that is worth visiting. We therefore rent a scooter to explore the area, head past the U Bein bridge, towards Inwa, the monasteries of Sagaing and some impressive temples. To be honest, by now we are a bit templed out.

After a tiring, hot and dusty day we head up to Mandalay hill to finish off the sightseeing tour, but somewhere around dusk things turn awry. Heading into a small street, suddenly somebody heads straight towards us, and our evasion manoeuvre – thanks to a big oil puddle on the road – doesn’t end well. A second later our scooter skids out from under us and we are on the pavement. After many weeks on a scooter, we have joined the stereotypical legions of injured backpackers that get into an accident in South-East Asia. Luckily we are always prepared, by wearing long pants, a helmet, closed shoes (!) and a long-sleeved shirt. Kate manages to get away with a scrape on her handpalm and a cracked cellphone screen, and Maarten bruises his elbow and tore up his shirtsleeve. You can imagine what the tally would’ve been if we had been wearing the hotpants, flip flops and wife-beater ensemble that most backpackers on scooters seem to prefer. Luckily we also always carry our first-aid kid when out on a ride, so are disinfected and bandaged up in no time.

A few dollars fix the minor damage to the scooter and we are back on the road. Calling home, our story suddenly sounds really minor as Maarten’s parents have just managed to avoid a (usually violent) carjacking in South Africa by revving up, and slamming full speed through the improvised barricade while big rocks were thrown into the side of their car by the baffled thugs. And then we get to hear we are the ones travelling dangerously 🙂 .

Would you like to see more pictures of our time in the north of Myanmar, take a look here. Curious about our adventures in the south? Have a look here. Would you like to know what surprised us in Myanmar, click here. Would you like to read some tips on travelling Myanmar? Have a look here. Have a look here for our story about trains in Myanmar. 

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We love exploring, writing stories, housesitting, but especially love having no plans, enjoying small things, travelling and eating. So that's how we now live.

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