Fresh from our reminder that Myanmar is home to more species of deadly snake (52) than anywhere else in the world, we leave Mandalay and head into the countryside, to Hsipaw (pr. Seepaw), a little farming town in the hilly Shan plateau to the north east that boasts some attractive hiking spots.
After a typically slow and painful bus journey (180 km, seven hours), we are debouched on the quiet, dusty high street, feeling like we’re lone cowboys striding into a typical Western ‘one horse town’.
Actually, Hsipaw is busier than that, but not much. We spend two days here, walking through the surrounding hills and farmland, exploring waterfalls, crumbling pagodas and peaceful monasteries.
Life in the countryside is refreshingly basic here. The handful of little villages in the surrounding area are accessible only by foot and populated by bamboo and palm-thatch houses constructed on stilts for protection from floods and reptiles. They are generally inhabited by few buffalo and oxen (for ploughing), the odd pig and the occasional mother hen scratching around with her chicks.
Cheery locals, their heads protected from the ferocious sun by conical rattan hats, give us cheery waves and toothless grins.
But any images of an old-world bucolic utopia are swiftly shattered with each new conversation: the impoverished and feared tatmadaw (the Burmese army) regularly raids rural villages just to feed itself (generally partaking in a little rape at the same time) and rural incomes make those in the cities look positively munificent.
The Gokteik Viaduct
We can’t face another bus journey in this country.
So we decide to get a train back towards Mandalay, stopping at an old colonial hill station, originally named Maymyo (‘May’s town’) by the British but recently changed to Pyin oo Lwin.
Unfeasible as it might seem, the train journey is even slower than the bus we caught to get here; the train itself even older than the Yangon – Mandalay ‘express’.
The highlight of the seven hour journey, covering just 130 km, is crossing the rickety and ancient Gokteik Viaduct. Built in 1901 as the British solution to crossing the mighty Gokteik Gorge, it is 318 ft high and 2257 ft across and received no maintenance until 2001.
Even now, trains crawl across the fragile looking structure so as not to put undue pressure on the steel joists. Despite some alarming creaks and groans as the train inches its way over, we make it across without disaster.
An old hill station
We stop in Pyin oo Lwin for a night, mainly to wander round its quiet, pine shaded country lanes and admire the colonial mansions which have remained here, unchanged, since the early 20th century.
Pyin oo Lwin sits more than 1,000m above sea level and is refreshingly cool and dust free, unlike most of the rest of the country. At night, we can actually see our breath for the first time in months!
Wandering round here feels rather like strolling round a smart Surrey suburb; say Esher or Weybridge, in the 1930’s. There are virtually no cars, the principle mode of transport being horse and cart or bicycle. The lanes are lined with neatly pruned hedges and wide grass verges are thick with bougainvillea.
Behind the hedges and cast iron gates, red brick mock-Tudor colonial mansions rise up at the end of gravel driveways, some are in fine condition (now lived in by high ranking generals) whilst some have fallen into sorry disrepair.
We have to keep pinching ourselves that we’re still in Myanmar, although when we return to the centre of the town and walk through the pungent dried fish aroma of the produce market, all nostalgic thoughts are quickly banished…
We head back to Mandalay briefly to catch an express boat down the Irrawaddy River to Bagan, a 22 square mile plain that is home to some 4,000 ancient Buddhist temples; arguably Myanmar’s (and possible southeast Asia’s) greatest archaeological attraction.
The express boat naturally not being very ‘express’ (11 hours) we arrive in Bagan at 4pm, rather weary and fearful that we might be stumbling into Myanmar’s ‘tourist central’.
Happily, our fears are unfounded. The area is so vast and transport links so limited, that the 600 or so tourists who can feasibly be in Bagan at any one time are so spread out that it feels as though you have the place to yourself. Bliss!
We spend two days on incredibly uncomfortable bicycles, exploring dozens upon dozens of intricately and individually decorated red brick temples, all built between 1050 and 1287 during which time Bagan was a thriving Pyu city state.
It is a temple basher’s paradise. There are enormous ones, like the multi-turreted and spiked Sulamani paya; gold ones, like the shimmering curvaceous dome of Ananda Pahto; pentagonal ones, like the imposing domed Dhammayazika paya; and thousands of others, large and small, proud, crumbling, gilted, stuccoed, decorated with murals and bas-reliefs, etc etc etc.
As an added bonus, the burgeoning tourist scene here actually means it’s possible to get a decent meal too – and each evening we treat ourselves in excellent yet laid back Indian or Thai restaurants, the first time in Myanmar we’ve had so many consecutive decent meals!
We leave after three days, replete with temples, well fed and with saddle-sore arses and stiff legs. It’s definitely been the cultural highlight of our trip so far.
Back to Yangon
By now we’ve had enough of all forms of overland public transport in this country; we decide to fly back to Yangon. A 45 minute flight versus 20 hours on a bus: no thought required!
It’s nice to be back in the erstwhile capital, even if there’s not a lot more sightseeing we want to do here.
We celebrate our return to a civilization of sorts with a visit to The Strand Hotel, one of the few privately owned and maintained colonial era hotels. It’s immaculate cleanliness, wood panelled walls, high ceilings, calming atmosphere and genteel staff put it out of our reach for a night’s accommodation, but a couple of excellent Singapore Slings ($8 apiece) over a game of pool in the bar is definitely what we were after.
A daytrip in the delta
On our final full day in Myanmar, we decide to take a short trip south into the delta region, closed off to foreigners for most of the past four years since Cyclone Nargis swept through, killing 140,000 people.
The junta steadfastly refused foreign aid in the aftermath of the disaster, finally and grudgingly accepting assistance when it was far too late. Since then, they have struggled to rebuild the shattered local infrastructure; transport is still difficult and often impossible in this area.
Twante is a little town only 30km to the south of Yangon, yet it takes us around 1 ½ hours to get there. The first leg involves crossing the Yangon River, one of the many huge tributaries of the vast Irrawaddy.
We arrive at the jetty at dawn, in the hope of boarding the thrice weekly ferry that would transport us serenely in two hours directly to Twante. No such luck – Monday’s ferry has been postponed until Tuesday, apparently…
So we have no option but to pay a dollar each to simply cross the river (it’s the same cost if we were to get the boat all the way to Twante), and find a local pick-up to take us overland the rest of the way. The ferry is a typical floating Asian affair – a swarm of humanity, sitting cross legged or lying, smoking, chewing betel nuts, spitting, hawking or selling the usual manner of inedible produce.
Happily the crossing is just ten minutes and the ancient pick-up truck isn’t hard to find (it almost finds us).
The delta landscape is some of the most basic and backward we’ve seen in Myanmar – occasional villages of stilted bamboo houses, virtually no traffic, the odd murky rivulet, farmers male and female toiling in the fields, some ploughing with oxen, others ploughing by hand.
Nothing is mechanised, everything is hard work. It’s pretty enough, pan-flat verdant paddy fields dotted with the occasional sugar palm copses, but not a place you’d chose to live. It doesn’t take us long to realise why such a place would offer so little protection against violent tropical storms.
Arriving in Twante (itself flattened by the cyclone) it’s hard to realise anything catastrophic ever happened here. Despite the government’s isolationist attitude, the locals are an enterprising and tenacious bunch and have determinedly rebuilt their lives and livelihoods off their own steam.
We wander along the dusty main street, attempt to find a little breakfast (difficult) and a decent cup of lapye choze (Burmese sweet tea, made with condensed milk). Despite being basically the national drink, the tea down here’s pretty rough too, so we make do with a couple of bananas and a bottle of water.
There’s little to see except the 250 foot tall, 1000 year old golden paya that dominates the outskirts to the town, and the town’s busy pottery industry. We don’t spend much time at the paya (pagoda fatigue has set in) but the potteries are interesting.
An unemployed local attaches himself to us as a guide and shows us through the river clay mixing warehouses, the age-old brick built kilns and the wheeling and moulding workshops, all located under a handful of palm thatched roofs. Like the rest of the town, everything was flattened in the cyclone, but was quickly rebuilt – pottery is the town’s only sizeable industry. Locals are working here happily, but not in conditions which will endear them to a happy and prolonged old age.
Rock and roll
It’s worth mentioning that the Burmese have fantastic taste in music, a world away from their sub-continental neighbours. No Bindi music here; instead – in every tea shop, market and on every bus – we listen to Bon Jovi and Guns’n’Roses style rock music, produced by scores of local bands. The level of talent and creativity is astonishing – thankfully: had it been terrible, our bus journeys would have been torturous!
An ex-pats view
On the flight back to Bangkok, we meet Steven, a hilarious Brit who lived in Myanmar for four years; he’s just been back for a week to visit an old friend.
Over a beer at the airport and later on the flight, we chat about our brief experience of the country. Steven’s longer held views are mostly similar to our hastily formed perceptions. “Can they really not cook for sh*t?” asks Charlie. He laughs. “In my four years here, I lost nearly 40 pounds, and that was even with my own Indian chef”. Not just us then!
Steven arrived in 2001, and set up a furniture recycling business. All went well for four years, despite the virtually un-navigable bureaucracy, the antiquated banking system and the endless corruption of the officials at levels. But he refused to tow the political line; ultimately the government, in their own invisible way, made his business untenable.
He’s pretty convinced nothing will change soon, not least because it’s not in the interests of the Myanmar’s neighbouring countries.
China is very happy with the status quo and is dealing very profitably with its impoverished and handicapped neighbour; Thailand is home to some 4 million Burmese refugees who do all the dirty work the Thais are too idle to do (besides which, Thailand is heavily reliant on Myanmar for natural gas); Singapore makes 1$ for every $100 that passes through Myanmar (being the only country with any financial clout that’s prepared to defy economic sanctions and provide financial infrastructure to the country); the rest of the southeast Asian countries have their own problems to contend with.
“When I arrived, I was pleased to be here before everything changed. But then I met an NGO out here who’d said the same thing when he arrived 11 years before me”. Its eight years since Steven arrived, and nothing has changed in the slightest.
The great cover up
“These guys [the junta] are absolute masters at control. You can’t beat them” he says. As a tourist you’ll never see an inkling of the secret police; you can live here and not realise they exist. But they really do control absolutely everything”
Despite some of its discomforts, this country has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. Culturally it’s very hard to beat (only India is comparable) and we’ve been lucky to share enough conversations with locals to get an idea of what really happens in this most secretive of countries.
The Burmese as a nation are naturally tenacious, friendly, welcoming and relaxed. In spite of all the problems beyond their control, you won’t find them crying into their terrible curries.
Than Kyi said to us before we left him “We need independent tourists. People who come here on their own, who spend their money locally, who learn and talk to people. We don’t need big Western package groups who come for the temples and don’t learn anything”
So there it is. Just don’t come here for the food…