Moving on from Mandalay: Exploring Burma's Bagan and Lake Inle


Bagan at sunset

Boat, bus or fly? There are lots of ways to get to Burma's lost city of Bagan from Mandalay. We decided on a 10-hour boat trip along the Irrawaddy River with Malikha lines, using tickets I bought online for about $50 each. Departure time was 7 a.m., meaning it was still dark when the taxi dropped us off at the dock. Boys swarmed around us, offering to carry our bags, a good thing since boarding the boat meant walking from the road down a dirt hill in the dark - no steps or lights - then walking up and over another boat to reach ours. This was a middle-of-the-road cruise, not a luxury ship, but not a locals' boat either. A tour group filled only about half the seats, so most of us were able to sit in wicker chairs on the top deck instead of in the the air conditioned, airplane-type cabins below. 


Boat ride along the Irrawaddy River

Breakfast was hard-boiled eggs, bananas and jam sandwiches packed for us by our guesthouse. Our ticket  included a similar breakfast along with tea and coffee and a fried rice dish for lunch. I can't say the ride was all that scenic or interesting, but it beat taking the bus and gave us time to read, write, listen to podcasts and relax.

Disembarking

There are constant reminders that Myanmar still is a third-world country. It lacks the infrastructure found in more developed Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand or Vietnam. To reach land from where the boat docked in Bagan, everyone had to walk along this narrow gangplank to shore. 

Bagan Thande Hotel

We wanted to make the most of our stay in Bagan, so we splurged on an elegant, old hotel in Old Bagan, with the largest concentration pagodas, shrines and temples, built by kings starting in the 9th century. The Bagan Thande Hotel was the first hotel in Bagan, built in 1922 to welcome the Prince of Wales while Myanmar (Burma at the time) was controlled by the British. We stayed in a "superior bungalow" overlooking a Lilly pond and the swimming pool. With a buffet breakfast served on an outdoor terrace facing the river, our rate was $100, about double what we paid elsewhere on this trip.

 

 

There are more than 2,000 pagodas, monasteries, shrines and stupas in Bagan, many reconstructed in the 1990s by the military to repair earthquake damage. Art historians and preservationists have criticized the restoration work as inauthentic, and UNESCO denied the area World Heritage status in the mid-1990s (The Burmese are reapplying). Bagan is nothing like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but it's still impressive. Bus tour crowds swarm some of the bigger pagodas which double as shopping malls for local souvenir sellers. We rented an electric scooter from our hotel ($10 a day) to tool around on our own, veering off the main road onto dusty side streets to find some of the smaller, unrestored pagodas.

 

Most fun was discovering what was inside. Most of the pagodas have four entrances, with different Buddha images placed in each niche. Burmese enforce the no shoes or socks rule in Bagan as they do for all other pagodas and monasteries in Myanmar. Everyone leaves their shoes at the entrance and walks through barefoot, often on uneven, stone walkways and steps. All shoes are safe. No one would even think about taking them.

 

Bagan is recognized internationally for its handmade lacquerware bowls, trays, boxes etc. made in small, family workshops. I've never been much of a fan of Asian lacquerware (it's also made in China, Vietnam and other countries), but Myanmar's products are different, and although the quality can vary greatly according to price, the colors are more vivid and the hand-etched designs more intricate than I've seen elsewhere. 

 


Craftsmen and women produce lacquerware products from bamboo or wood, then reinforce the object with either paper or horsehair and coat it with resin extracted from the local thitsi tree. We took our scooters to a village to look for a family workshop called Jasmine. Word got around that a couple of tourists with red helmets were asking directions. Within minutes Win, the owner, pulled up on his motorbike to lead he way (and avoid having to pay someone else a commission for showing us).



Win explains lacquerware process


It took about an hour explaining the process of coating each piece with 7-14 coats of resin in between sanding and drying. Cheaper pieces get fewer coats and take less time to produce, although all are hand-etched, then colored with natural colors, and finally polished with pieces of petrified wood.

 

Bowls are made from bamboo. Flat pieces such as trays and boxes are made from teak. We bought a $35 bowl from Win in traditional colors of red, black and green, then shopped at the souvenir stalls near the pagodas for several less expensive pieces.

Golden Empress in Nyaung Shwe

After leaving Bagan, we took a nine-hour mini-bus ride through the mountains to spend our last few days at the Golden Empress Hotel in the town of Nyaung Shwe at the base of Lake Inle, a fresh-water lake housing about 70,000 members of Intha ethnic minority group who live and work in floating villages reachable only by boat. 
Nyaung Shwe is a friendly town filled with hotels, guest houses and family-run restaurants surrounded by rural villages and farms. We've tried as much as possible on this trip to support local businesses as opposed to big government-owned hotels etc. Golden Empress owner Kyaw Khaing bought this hotel five years ago, and remodeled it with wood-paneled rooms, private bathrooms and little balconies furnished with massage chairs. He's added nice touches such as a fridge filled with cold bottle water in the lobby. With breakfast, we paid about $50 a night. 

 

The lake isn't known so much for its scenery as it is for the unique lifestyle of its villagers. Khaing arranged for us to spend a full day with a boatman ($15 for the day) starting at 8:30 a.m. He did a good job of steering us close to the fishermen so we could see their unusual technique of balancing on one leg, while wrapping their oar around the other, leaving their hands free to cash their nets. 

 

The Intha people first came to Lake Inle in the 18th century from Southeast Myanmar, fleeing Thai invaders. The chief refused to grant them land rights, so they built stilt houses on the fluctuating water line of the lake, adapting to life on the water by cultivating floating gardens anchored to the lake bed (about 7 feet deep in dry season) by bamboo polls.

 

 

Many of the homes house little cottage industries. Weavers spin fabric from lotus fibers. Villagers also make thin, green cigars called cheroots by wrapping a combination of tobacco, star anise, banana and honey in leaves.

Padaung women from the mountains of Burma’s Kayah State, close to the Thai border, have settled in Inle and have established village workshops among the local people where they weave and sell their wares to tourists. Sometimes called "long-neck" women because of the brass rings worn to lengthen their necks, they are not "tourist attractions'' as they are in some parts of Thailand where businessmen charge visitors to take photographs. No one here charges for photos, and there's no pressure to buy. Their style of weaving, however, is unique. I bought a beautiful black and white cotton scarf for about $15. The women start wearing the rings on their necks at 9 and finish at age 25 with 25 rings.




Two days here would have probably been enough, but we had a third due to our air connections back to Seattle from Yangon. It gave us time to leisurely explore Nyaung Shwe. We spent one day taking a 15-mile bike ride ($1 to rent seven-speed Chinese bikes for the day, with locks and baskets) into the countryside. The destination was a winery called Red Mountain. The wine was terrible, but the ride gave us a chance to see more of village life. Housing styles vary with people's income. Many homes are like one the one below, made of wood, thatched palm and thatched or metal roofs.

 

Others use concrete blocks, painted wooden shutters and ceramic materials. Stores tend to be open-air, street-front bungalows with dirt or concrete floors. Main roads are paved, but side roads are dirt, and trucks and motorbikes kick up a lot of dust. 

 

We've come to love Burmese food, heavy on the vegetables, salads and fish or chicken. One of our favorites is pennywort salad, made with grassy pennywort leaves, sesame, peanuts, lime juice, fish sauce and garlic. We also love the avacado salads with black sesame seeds, and meals such as the one we had at a little family restaurant called Htoo Htoo Aung. With nine tables on a cozy patio decorated with twinkling Christmas lights, the owners offered a  $6 set menu that included pumpkin soup made from their home-grown pumpkins; an appetizer of rice crackers served with an herbed tomato dip; sautéed greens; rice; and a whole fish steamed in a banana leaf. 

 

Our favorite part about staying in Nyaung Shwe was becoming regulars at the tea house down the street. The town has plenty of tourist places where you can get a good cappuccino, but we became addicted to Burmese tea, sold only in the local tea shops.  It's a work of art as well as a tasty 25-cent treat. Notice the thin layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the glass. You drink it seated at low tables on child-sized plastic stools, Snacks usually appear along with the tea. You pay for what you eat, or wave them away if you're not hungry. Decorating our local tea house was a shrine, two TVs playing "Rocky" and a picture of a golden Buddha image sitting on a pile of money. Hmm...I think I need another cup.

That's all for now from Myanmar. Click here to see more photos in our photo gallery.

 

Musings from Mandalay, and how to plan an independent trip to Burma


  
Burma 101: How to travel independently, get around, eat well, sleep well, meet people and see all the sights.

We put off a trip to Myanmar a couple of years ago because I didn't feel I had time research all that I thought the trip would involve. When I finally did get around to learning enough to start planning,  I was surprised at how much information was available for the independent traveler, and how easy it was to pull together an itinerary, and book everything from accommodations to ferry tickets online.

Our nine-hour ride on the "Joyous Journeys" bus from Yangon to Mandalay ended with a nice reward for all that planning. The Ma Ma Guesthouse, recommended on Trip Advisor, turned out to be the budget equivalent of a five-star hotel. It's hard to spend much money in Myanmar. Still for $50 a night, we didn't expect the comforts that awaited us. In a residential neighborhood not far from the walls of the former royal palace, Ma Ma was a sanctuary in a busy, dusty city that's nothing like the romanticized verson of Burma conjured up by poet Rudyard Kippling.

Ma Ma's owner, Su, and her husband, welcomed us with fruit juice, and checked us into a spacious double room with a  little balcony, good lighting, two beds, a modern bathroom with walk-in shower and CNN. Dinner that evening on the terrace was a medley of Burmese specialities (Su teaches cooking classes)  for $15.50 for the two of us including beer. After a breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit and tea the next morning, Su set us up with taxi drivers for two full days of sightseeing,  one day in the city ($23 for the whole day) and one day outside Mandalay for a trip to three ancient towns ($30). With each, we had the flexibility to spend as long as we wanted at each stop while the driver waited. 

Like it is in parts of China or India, Myanmar hotels and guesthouses double as de facto travel agencies, booking bus and boat tickets; finding taxi drivers or private guides; and making sure you get onto your next destination safely and on time. All of this was especially helpful in  Mandalay where there's no public transportation, and sights are spread out and far from each other. 
 
Su outlined the stops our taxi drivers would make. They spoke some English, but not enough to act as guides, so we used guidebook to fill in the information gaps. We've become addicted to Burmese tea, black tea laced with sweetened condensed milk. Our taxi driver was more than happy to oblige when we asked if we could stop for some after lunch. He took us to his favorite tea house where a quick cup cost about 35 cents.

Burmese prize gold leaf for temple offerings, and Mandalay is one of the few places in Myanmar where it's made by hand in the traditional way. Our driver stopped at workshop where we watched workers pounding and repounding bits of gold with wooden mallets to create paper-thin sheets. Cut and packaged into tiny envelopes, it's sold in temples where Buddhists believe they earn merit or  have a wish granted by pressing the gold onto a Buddha image. In most pagodas, only men are allowed to do this. The Buddha pictured below, in Mandalay's Mahamuni pagoda, is weighted down with an estimated two tons of gold. While in the temple, we met one of the trustees who happens to be an English teacher in Mandalay. He was anxious to practice his English, and explained a few things we were wondering about such as if the pagoda's glistening pillars were made of real jade. "Yes" And why women can't put gold leaf on the Buddhas. "It's cultural, nothing to do with religion."

  
The seat of the last rulers independent Burma before the British took over, Mandalay was built in the mid-19th century. Its royal palace was destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt in the 1990s, mainly for military use.

 
Mandalay's commerce includes a busy Buddha-carving center and an open-air jade market where Chinese buyers come to haggle over slabs of raw jade mined in northern Myanmar. Using little flashlights to check for color and quality, they bargain with the sellers, usually women who also sell jade necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Myanmar hasn't yet caught on to selling fake goods made in China, so the assumption can be made that what you see for sale is real, whether it be jade, lacquerware or fabric, although the quality can vary with the price. 
 

 
Covered stairways lead to many of the major pagodas. The most well-known is Mandalay HIll, where 1,729 steps lead to the 800-foot summit. The guidebooks say it takes about 45 minutes to walk to the top; It took us about an hour. The hardest part was having to walk barefoot - a rule for entering any pagoda or monastery in Myanmar.
  
Along the way we passed many shrines with big Buddha images, and lots of souvenir and food stalls. Mandalay has some beautiful sunsets, and many people try to arrive at the top in time to take in the early evening views. We didn't realize until we made it to the top that there was an elevator. Our feet hurt going up, and our calves hurt for two days after coming down. 
 
We spent our second day exploring towns surrounding Mandalay, taking a ferry to the farming village of Inwa; visiting a pagoda said to house the world's largest book carved on stone tablets; and ending up at the U Bein Bridge at sunset. The U Bein is a teak footbridge built in the mid-1800s, stretching about 0.7 miles across Lake Taungthaman in the town of Amarapura. 

 
 
Hundreds of tourists show up at sunset to walk across and take photos. Holding the bridge up are more than 1,000 wooden pillars and a few concrete poles.

  
Onto Bagan on a ferry along the Irrawaddy River. Click here to see more pictures in our photo gallery.





Travel in the time of Trump


 

As I write this, my husband and I are on a ferry traveling along the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Began in Myanmar (Burma). Between bites of hardboiled eggs, toast and sips of tea, we photograph low-slung fishing boats and gilded pagodas rising from the hillsides like golden trees.

Today is our 41st anniversary, one of many over the years we've spent traveling to parts of the world with cultures and religions different from anything we ever encountered growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Here in Myanmar, a country moving slowly from the third world into the first with a shift from military rule to a secular democracy, we've walked barefoot through pagodas filled with giant, smiling Buddha images; strolled past Muslim mosques and Hindu temples; and stepped inside a Jewish Synagogue. We're "foreigners," or so we're labeled by signs advising us to observe local customs such as paying a fee to enter a monastery, "and take pride ( in) yourself for being (a) good citizen of your country."

 

Many American travelers might find it difficult to muster a sense of pride in the coming days and months as the Trump administration's careless immigration policies take effect, upending the United States' reputation as a nation that welcomes all, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. Reckless strongmen rule many countries. Now one rules ours.
What should we do? First off, we should keep traveling. Friends back home in Seattle have been asking me if we are "safe." I hate the question, and I hate having to give an answer. Apart from being careful about pickpocketing etc. (not an issue here in Myanmar), I've never worried about terrorism or "anti-American sentiment." 

Real Americans, the ones who make an effort to get to know people of different religions and cultures, whether at home or abroad, are our country's best ambassadors. Now, more than ever, your country needs you. As travelers, it's our job to show the world that Donald Trump's rhetoric, policies and attitude do not reflect who we are - as a people or a country.

With James Brown, our guide on a street food walking tour of Yangon

The people whom we have met in Myanmar are curious about what's going on in the U.S. under Trump. His picture appears on the front page of local papers everyday. When they ask where we are from, and we say "America," they said "Donald Trump." If you're traveling somewhere and don't know the language well enough to explain how you feel, I suggest practicing the "thumbs down'' gesture, which, combined with a smile or an eye roll, gets the point across. 

If anti-American sentiment does develop in countries popular with travelers, such as Morocco or Turkey, it most likely will be directed towards the U.S. government rather than individual travelers. This is not to say that international travel will not become more difficult for Americans. Other countries could retaliate with travel bans (Iran and Iraq already have) or cumbersome visa rules such as the ones the Trump Administration imposes on them. Americans have become a bit spoiled by how easy it is to travel. Myanmar, for instance, issued our visas overnight through a $50 online application. Our visas into Dubai, where we spent several days before coming here, were issued free on arrival with a quick stamp in our passports. 

European countries participate in the same visa waiver program for Americans as the U.S. extends to European citizens. If Trump is serious about stopping potential terrorists from entering the U.S., will he begin requiring our allies to apply for visas?  Most of the terrorists in Europe have been European citizens recruited by ISIS. If Trump's next step is "extreme vetting" and visa requirements for Germany, France or Brussels, why wouldn't they do the same, perhaps requiring Americans to verify their status with the French embassy before their next trip to Paris.

I would think the powerful U.S. Travel Association would be all over the potential economic consequences of Trump's bungling.. Spending by international travelers to the U.S. created  7.6 million jobs in 2015 and $246 billion in spending, according to the National Travel and Tourism office.

 Boycots will no doubt arrise on their own, but I'm for getting behind one now, and urging our foreign friends NOT to visit the U.S. until things change.

When cruise lines start losing bookings and hotel rooms go unfilledl because Chinese, Mexican and European travelers are no longer coming  to the U.S., maybe those with economic clout will end their silence, and convince Republicans to stop their cowering, and take action to make America great again in the eyes of the rest of the world.



Myanmar's move towards modernization starts in Yangon



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Student nuns in Yangon
Myanmar's largest city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) rolls into one everything I love about Southeast Asia's big cities. More than Bangkok in Thailand, or Saigon or Hanoi in Vietnam, Yangon has a foot planted firmly in the third world as it moves slowly into the first. Leaving the lobby of the five-star Sule Shangrala hotel where we met a guide for a  walking tour around downtown, we ran into this parade of young Buddhist student nuns making their morning rounds for alms. Stand on any street corner, and you'll hear the sound of car horns blasting, monks chanting prayers on temple loudspeakers and vendors hawking snacks fried in sizzling oil. 


Street food
 
Have a cup of Burmese tea laced with sweetened condensed milk while seated on a child-sized plastic stool on a broken sidewalk, or enjoy it in air conditioned comfort in a swank cafe. Browse through a bookstore filed with English-language titles, or choose from dozens of newspapers laid out for sale on street corner tables. 
Sule Pagoda



 
Yangon is best-known for its giant Buddha images and gilded pagodas, lighted like fields of gold at night. Impressive, yes, but a bigger reason to spend some time here before moving on to Mandalay, Bagan or other parts of the country, is to experience Yangon's vibrant street life and its gentle people, calm and unschooled so far in the art of overcharging, pick-pocketing or taking advantage of foreign travelers. 

 

After years of being closed off under military rule, with little or no foreign investment, Internet access or freedom of speech, the country is making changes as it shifts to a civilian-style government with power shared by military leaders and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Almost any guidebook information written before last year is likely to be outdated. ATMs are everywhere, so there's no longer a need to bring U.S. dollars. Most everyone accepts kyat, the local currency, although many hotels, tour guides etc. quote prices in dollar. More and more places take credit cards. The Burmese themselves use cash for most transactions, including big purchases such as homes and apartments.

Tourism is growing, but we haven't seen as many groups as I expected, at least in Yangon. There's almost no crime or safety issues, but human rights are still a concern, given the recent military crack-down on the Rohingya ethnic tribe in the northern Rakhine state. 

We've met a few Brits and Australians, but no Americans so far. With U.S. economic sanctions only recently lifted by the Obama Administration, there are no Starbucks, MacDonald's or other fast-food chains. 

Filling whole neighborhoods are streets lined with faded colonial architecture left over from when British controlled Myanmar (late 1880s-1948). It's possible to go anywhere in a taxi for $2 or less. A mojito at the Sky BIstro on the 20th floor of the Sakura Tower overlooking the city was $3 at happy hour. Dinner with drinks at the stylish Rangoon Tea House was around $17 for two. Our room at the Lotus B&B was $40 a night with breakfast and private bath (shower and toilet in one room with no curtain to separate them).



Our guide Michael Lin
  
Burmese-born guide Michael Lin, 49, introduced us to some of the cultural aspects of life in Yangon during a four-hour walk with Yangon Walking Tours our first day in town. The oldest of six children, he grew up with a mother who opposed the military rulers who staged a coup 12 years after Myanmar (then Burma) gained independence from British. Lin's mother wanted to leave Burma, but his father supported the new government, and wanted to stay. His mother died before they could leave, so Lin stayed, graduated from university and now, like thousands of locals, makes his living as an entrepreneur, acting as a freelance tour guide, dabbling in real estate and operating a gaming business. Real estate prices have soared (one report put prices per square foot higher in downtown Yangon than in Manhattan) as investors look for new places to park their cash. 


 

Our first day wandering around Yangon yielded interesting peeks into Burmese life. Almost everything is sold in the open air, either from small, walk-in store fronts or carts set up by sidewalk vendors. New rules require food vendors in some areas to move into city-controlled food courts, a move many are resisting because they don't want to pay the fees, or lose the freedom to move around. Below are quail eggs, a popular snack we found on a street food walking tour with James Brown, 29, a part-time youth minister for a Baptist church.



Many men and women enter a Buddhist monastery for some period in their lives, often to get an education. The girls below are young Buddhist nuns, out with their begging bowls which passersby fill with rice, snacks or money. 

 

Nearly every woman and a few men wear Thanaka cream on their faces. It's both a cosmetic and sun block. The cream comes from a tree bark that's shaved and mixed with water into a paste. 

 


 

Streets jammed with cars, pedestrians and sidewalk vendors give way to rural life within a few minutes train or ferry ride from the city. Tourists can take the "Circle" train, a commuter train that calls at 39 stations in three hours, for the local fare of 15 cents. 

 

A 10-minute ferry ride to the rural village of Dala , on the other hand, costs foreigners $3, but comes with a free bottle of water, and special plastic chairs labeled "foreigners only."  We preferred just to sit with the locals on bench seats, and enjoy the breeze.


 

Burmese temples are known for their oversized Buddha images. Visible from all over the city is the Schwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most sacred Buddhist shrine. The centerpiece is a 325-foot-high stupa, gilded from the metal of 22,000 gold bars, and believed to enclose the relics of four Buddhas. Rules require all visitors to walk though pagodas barefoot. Shoes and socks must be checked at the door with an attendant, or you're free to carry them around in a bag. The floors are either marble or covered with soft linoleum or carpeting, so even on hot days, walking barefoot isn't too bad.

 


 


 

There are numerious shrines within Schwedagon where visitors can sit and pray, light insense, sleep, read the newspaper, or offer gifts such as bottles of water or oranges. 


 

I alwasys wanted to own by own bakery, but someone in Yangon beat me to it. A friend told me about this place, so we found it on the map and asked a taxi driver to take us.  I bought several items just because they came in bags labeled Pucci Special Cake.

 

As I write this, we're on our way to Mandalay on the Joyous Journey Express, a first-class, air-conditioned bus with comfortable seats, snacks, tea and just a few other people on board. The ticket was $19 for a nine-hour journey. The bus company apparently has a Christian affiliation. Written on the side of the bus are the words "The Way, the Truth and the Life,: and on the front, "Thy Kingdom Come. Thy Will be Done in Earth as in Heaven."

That's what I love about Asia travel - always a surprise!

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