Posts Tagged ‘Myanmar’

After visiting the mountain regions of northern Myanmar I decided to go on another 10 hour bus ride to Inle Lake further south, which is one of the most touristic regions of the country and a beautiful and fascinating place to visit. And even though there are more tourists than in most other regions in Myanmar, it is easy enough to escape the crowds and to mingle with locals, as the lake spreads out far enough to provide space for everybody. Furthermore village life around the lake is still as traditional as everywhere else in the country and it is fun to watch local craftsmen and fishermen using techniques that didn’t change in many decades or even centuries.

The best ways to discover the lake region is either by bicycle, which is fun and cheap but quite exhausting during the heat, or by boat, which costs you a little bit more money, but which gets you into areas you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. I did both and I have to say that I quite enjoyed my days around the lake.

Fisherman

Fisherman

One of the first thing one recognizes around the lake is, that many villages are completely built on posts or stilts and located actually in the lake, rather than on land. Many of those water villages consist of many individual wooden houses which are not connected at all and can only be reached by boat. Even some restaurants and shops are located along the water ways and can’t be reached without any sort of floatable device, or without getting wet 😉

Another unique characteristic of Inle Lake are its floating gardens, fields and markets. The lake is not only used as fish supply, but actually to grow vegetables of all sorts on floating fields. All around the lake one can spot rows of tomato fields which are harvested by hand from aboard small traditional long boats. Furthermore boats are used for trading on floating markets. The fishermen on the lake are quite a unique sight as well (in fact they are used as characteristic symbol for the whole region). What makes them unique is the way of manoeuvring their boats. In order to move the fishing boat, the fishermen stands on the far edge of his boat and wraps his leg around a single paddle which he then uses to move and steer the boat.

The region is also known for quite a few handicrafts. Cigars, umbrellas, clothing and silver jewellery are still made by hand with traditional tools, but unfortunately most workshops have quite a touristic touch to them, even though it is still fascinating to see how those products are still produced in the same way as they were many decades ago.

Traditional Cigar Rolling

Traditional Cigar Rolling

Traditional Silk Weaving

Traditional Silk Weaving

Besides all of that it is just fascinating to stroll around markets and small villages and to observe traditionally dressed villagers going after their daily business.

Wine from Myanmar???

Redmountain Estate Shiraz

Redmountain Estate Shiraz

Who would have thought that Myanmar is a wine producing country! Well, not me, and therefore I was quite surprised when I heard about the two wineries that exist in this country. First I didn’t expect much. After tasting Indian wine before, I didn’t really expect any wine from a tropical climate to satisfy my palate. Doing my research however, I found out, that one winery is owned by a German and the other one has a French winemaker, the vines and equipment are imported from Europe and both wineries aim to produce European style wines. Furthermore both wineries are located on higher altitudes and are therefore affected by a more moderate climate than the rest of the country. All this made me very curious and so I ventured out to taste some Burmese wines.

The First Vineyard I visited was the Red Mountain Estate. The winemaker is French, the equipment from Italy and the vines from France, Spain and Israel. They seem to experiment with quite a few different grape varieties and they have a nice range of white- and red wines bottled. Unfortunately however they refused to open all but one red wine for tasting or even to sell it by the glass (apparently because it was off-season and not worth opening them) and furthermore there was no knowledgeable staff present who was able to answer any questions. Some of the wines were better than I expected from that region, but it would have been nice to taste all of them and it would have been nice to have somebody around who could give you at least some information (especially as I work with wines myself, and I had to leave with many unanswered questions).

The second vineyard was Myanmar Vineyard (Aythaya Vineyard), which was the first vineyard in Myanmar. It is owned by German, the head wine maker is German and the vines and equipment imported from several European countries as well. Even though the wines don’t quite reach the quality of the ones from the Red Mountain Estate in my opinion, we were pleasantly welcomed, the staff was knowledgeable and we ended up talking to the German owner and the German wine maker. The world is truly a small place and so we found out that the owner used to live a few hundred meters away from where I grew up. We exchanged a few words in our local dialect and when he heard that I am working with wines myself he offered us 2 glasses on the house. I’ll definitely have to come back to try his Dornfelder and Tempranillo when they are ready for bottling.

Conclusion: I really enjoyed traveling around Myanmar and I would definitely like to return rather sooner than later. One of the big advantages of visiting Myanmar now is the relatively small amount of other tourists around. The country is quite new to tourism and there are many regions which are surprisingly untouched. Of course there are many problems and critical issues, especially evolving around the government, but that’s no reason not to visit. One should make sure that the money goes to the people and not to the government, other than that there is really only one thing to do: Go, visit Myanmar and have a good time!

Stay tuned, Rock’n Roll, Nico

 

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After Mandalay it was definitely time to experience some country-life and some more traditional regions far away from the big cities. So I went on a 10 hour long very bumpy and very uncomfortable (though very scenic) train ride to Kyaukme. As I decided to save the $2 for the more expensive first class ticket ($5 instead of $3) I had to sit on wooden benches for the whole period of time while being tossed around more than your average baseball. But hey, who said backpacking was gonna be good for your bum 😉

Train from Mandalay to Kyaukme

Train from Mandalay to Kyaukme

Kyaukme was an insider tip by a fellow traveler who said that it was far less touristy than Hsipaw, which is a little bit further up the road, and indeed, we didn’t really meet any other travelers and there was only one licensed guest house in town. The latter was quite unfortunate as they took advantage of their position and charged quite horrendous room rates. However, the trip was still well worth it. We met Joy, a 23 year old native who spoke Burmese, Shan, English and Mandarin and who started showing tourists around at the age of 16. He is an excellent example how education paired with motivation can be a way to make a decent living. He probably makes much more money during one day by showing a couple of tourists around than most farmers make during one week. Before we left on a two day trip into the mountains we went to visit his English class went for dinner with his students. It’s nice to see young people so eager so speak English and it’s a pity that this kind of motivation is often lacking in European countries (yes, I’ve been one of the lazy unmotivated ones myself).

Traditional Clothing

Traditional Clothing

Family at home

Family at home

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The day after, we were heading into the mountains to the north. We went on a couple of scooters in order to get further into the rural areas and walked around some villages from time to time. This is actually one of the times where it makes sense to get a guide as there are no maps of that area (except for a roughly correct hand drawn map) and as locals don’t speak English whatsoever. The landscape was just stunning; we went through forests and fields and along many tea plantations as most locals in the northern Shan state live from growing tea. We got invited into houses for tea, met some traditionally dressed local women and slept in a small mountain village.

How many chairs can you fit?

How many chairs can you fit?

The Kitchen

The Kitchen

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It was very interesting to see how traditional the village life still is in these mountain regions. Most houses are

made of wood and have a small stone square in the middle of the room which is intended as a fireplace and for cooking. The houses we’ve been to consisted of 2 or a maximum of 3 rooms and accommodated up to 10 people and if the village was big enough they even had some electricity from a turbine in the river, at least for the 6 months of the year when there is enough water to run it. Some of the smaller villages didn’t have any electricity at all. We’ve been invited for tea by a Nepalese family which basically didn’t own anything except for the wooden shack it lived in and the few pumpkins and tea plants on their fields. They asked us to stay over-night but Joy turned down the offer and told me later that he wasn’t sure if they even had enough blankets for the whole family and a couple of guests. But despite all the poverty it is still always nice to experience the great amount of hospitality from those people and how gladly they usually share food with you even though they have so little.

 

All those villages are quite isolated by the way; the “roads” leading there looked sometimes like a random accumulation of rocks rather than an actual road and getting up there on a motorbike felt more like a roller-coaster ride than anything else. I am actually surprised that all of us survived without severe injuries 😉

I am glad I went on this tour with Joy and if I had more time in this country I would love to discover more regions like this, far off the beaten track. Instead I am heading off to Inle Lake to visit the only 2 wineries of Myanmar.

So stay tuned and keep on reading (if you have any questions regarding this beautiful country drop me some lines), Rock’n Roll, Nico

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Flashy Buddha

Flashy Buddha

I have to admit that I am not the biggest expert in religious matters, neither in Buddhism nor in any other religion, but I have to say that I am questioning even my most basic understanding of Buddhism while travelling in Myanmar.

As far as my understanding goes monks try to abdicate materialism and to concentrate on inner values (hence the robes and the shaved head etc.). Through meditation they try to reach the ultimate state of undesire so they can reach Nirvana eventually and through good Karma and good deeds they try to be reborn into a better life. So the perception we have of a Buddhist monk in the western world is characterised by a modest person who dedicates his life to kindness, good deeds and meditation.

Now while travelling in a country where nearly 90% of the population are Buddhists and where you can see monks in every corner of the counry, I see a lot of things that don’t really fit my idea of Buddhism.

First of all there are the temples and pagodas. There are places where you can find dozens or even hundrets of pagodas in a very small area. I can understand that a place for meditation and worshipping is needed, but why do you need one every 10 meters down the road. Every single one covered in gold and some even being ecorated with valuable gems etc. Why do you need to express your devotion by covering Buddha statues in real leaf-gold, I am sure Buddha wouldn’t have cared abot gold given to him as a sign of faith. Wouldn’t there be better ways to spend all that money which is put into all those temples?? And last but not least, why do so many temples look like a religious Disney-land? Why are there flashy neon-lights behind every second Buddha statue and temples blinking like christmas trees? Why are there temples with souvenir shops selling chocolate bars, plastic toys and Barbie umbrellas? How does all of this make sense? Are they still places representing modesty, suitable for meditation and seeking a state of undesire? It certainly doesn’t feel like it! Give me some more flashy lights!!!!!

Disney Pagoda

Disney Pagoda

More neon-lights

More neon-lights

Secondly there are the monks. There are certainly quite a few who live somewhere in a pagoda and who dedicate their lives to meditation, but then there are so many others. I’ve seen monks on a Harley Davidson cruising down the street, monks wearing sunglasses, listening to their i-Pods, smoking cigarettes, watching stupid action movies, buying expensive mobile phones and playing playstation. I know that monks live from alms and donations, but there are certainly wrong ways do ask for donations. I encountered two monks who “requested” money from me in a, in my opinion, quite rude way. The first one came up to me in front of a temple and asked me (not the other way around) to take a picture with him, after I took the picture he requested “now give me money”. The second monk asked me where I was from and probably thought that speaking 4 words of English was legitimation enough to request some money from me as well.

Mr. Cool Monk

Mr. Cool Monk

I don’t know yet what to make of all of this but it makes me question why some people actually become monks. Our local guide told me that there are a lot of “fake” monks, who put on a robe and act as a monk, but that they don’t really follow the path of Buddhsim. I would still be curious to talk to some monks who speak good enough English about all of this. After having experienced this sort of Buddhism in Malaysia already and now here in Myanmar, I am curious to see if there are any differences to other South East Asian countries.

Smoke Up

Smoke Up

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Myanmar or Burma?:

When I told people I was going to Myanmar most people wouldn’t understand which country I was talking about and just after mentioning Burma they would seem to get an idea. So which name is correct, Myanmar or Burma? Well, in 1989 the military junta decided to get rid of the name Burma (including other names remaining from the British colonial-era) and replacing it by Myanmar. The name Myanmar is officially recognized by the UN but most opposition groups in the country (as well as the US) still refer to the country as Burma, as the name was changed without any reference to the will of the Burmese people.

Edit: I just had a conversation with a local guide and he had a different opinion on that matter. He explained to us that the term Burma actually only refers to the Burmese people and calling the whole country Burma is therefore wrong, as there are many other ethnic groups living in it. In fact Burma is only a state within the country and Myanmar comprises all ethnic groups, no matter if Burmese, Shan or Kayin etc.

Considering this I will refer to the country only as Myanmar from now on.

Young Monks

Young Monks

Some Facts:

As most people seem to know little about this country as it was (and still is) quite isolated from the rest of the world, I decided to begin with a short introduction to Burma itself, just to give you an idea of what this country is all about.

Population: ca. 60 million
Capital: Nay Pyi Taw (since 2006)
Ethnic Groups: Bamar (69%), Shan, Kayin, Rakhain, Mon, Chin, Kachin, Wa
Religion: Buddhist (89%), Muslim (4%), Christian (4%), Animist & Others (3%)
GDP: $435 – $1200 (depending on source)
Internet Users: 0.1% of the population
History in a few words: Country divided into several kingdoms -> 3 Burmese empires -> Colony under British rule -> world’s longest running military dictatorship -> elections (1990), military refuses to accept results -> elections (2010) which are flawed -> officially moving towards democracy, but the military is still pulling the strings

I can only compare Myanmar to Iran, but as far as I can tell the country shows the typical symptoms of a strict dictatorship. Oppositional movements are suppressed and thousands of political prisoners occupy the country’s prisons. The media is strictly controlled by the government (as is the internet to some extent) and most western countries have embargos against Myanmar making international trade mostly impossible. The only countries Myanmar is really trading with are China and Thailand. International Bank Cards don’t work, in fact Myanmar is a cash-only economy, and neither do international mobile phones.

On top of that Myanmar is a very poor country. Most people earn less than $2 a day and even well-educated teachers would earn far less than $200 a months. Considering how much money people earn it is shocking how expensive many things are in this country. A long distance bus costs around $10, a train ride $5-$35, hotel rooms at least $10 in many places and a local SIM-card sets you back a staggering $230. Basic products such as food or washing powder on the other hand are fairly cheap.

Furthermore the whole country has major electricity blackouts (at least a few times a day) even in the bigger cities and I’ve been to mountain villages without any electricity whatsoever. Internet is rare (even though not hard to find in any mid-sized city) and very slow.

Myanmar is rather new to tourism as the government just opened the borders for tourists in recent years and as the newcomer in South East Asia Myanmar is still far behind most other countries in this part of the world in terms of visitors, but it seems that there are more and more people coming every year (so now is the time to go 😉

Despite of all their problems and their government Myanmar people are very friendly and welcoming and Myanmar is a great country to travel in.

My travels so far:

Shwedagon Paya

Shwedagon Paya

I flew into Yangon which is the former capital and the biggest city in Myanmar with 4.35 million inhabitants. As most big South-East Asian cities it can be described as loud, dirty and polluted. Nonetheless Yangon is a good starting point to get familiar with Myanmar culture and food and there are some beautiful sights in and around the city. By far the most amazing sight in Yangon is the massive Shwedagon Paya (Paya means pagoda/Buddhist temple), which is built on a hill and completely covered in gold, so lit up at night in can be seen already from quite far away. Despite being very impressive and beautiful itself, the whole temple-complex also has bit of a tacky Disney-like feeling to it (which is the case for many temples in Myanmar). Buddha statues are backlit by flashy neon lights and buildings covered in fairy lights. These tacky “accessories” in contrast to the historical and religious significance of these buildings create a rather unreal atmosphere. We made the same experience in Malaysia already and I will encounter many more temples like this in the following weeks; I will state my opinion about all of this in a future post dealing with Buddhism in modern times.

Besides the very impressive Shwedagon Paya, there are many smaller temples scattered around town (one in the centre of a roundabout) and a few museums which I didn’t visit, mainly because the entrance fee goes to the government. So after 1.5 days in Yangon I decided to head on to Bagan, around 12 hours north of Yangon. A girl staying in the same guesthouse (Claire) happened to travel the same way, so we ended up sharing many taxis (and horse-carts) etc. during the following days, which is always a big financial advantage compared to traveling on your own.

The Bagan area is the area around the town of Bagan which is scattered with thousands of temples and temple-ruins. Around the 11th century the Kings of Bagan decided to go a little bit over the top and commission 4000 temples in a period of only 230 years. Therefore the whole area is like a massive playground for temple fanatics. Some are still actively used, some are just ruins, some areincredibly big and some are so small that they look like fancy garden sheds compared to the big ones. There are so many temples, that when standing on a hill or on top of one of the temples one can see dozens and dozens of temple-roofs peaking up from the landscape in any direction right up to the horizon, which creates a magical atmosphere. The best time to stroll around the temples seemed to be 5am (I am actually used to getting up that early by now, who would have thought) when Buddhist monks start walking down the streets in order to collect donations and when the temperatures are still pleasant. During the afternoon the temperatures in this area went up to 44 °C, which is almost bearable from the back of a horse-cart, but cycling through that heat (as I did on the second day) comes close to self-inflicted torture.

Even though one could spend a week in Bagan in order to visit all the temples, I reckon 2 days are enough as there is not much to do in that area besides temple crawling. Therefore I decided to catch the bus to Mandalay after 2 full days of heat and temple mayhem. Before leaving Bagan however we got invited for dinner by a local family. As usual this was one of the more fascinating evenings, as we could get an insight into local life and discuss national matters including politics. And even though the parents were well educated and worked as teachers it was shocking how basic the standards of living are in this country even for those who are not considered poor in Myanmar. The house was a simple wooden structure, the whole family sleeps in one room, fire is used for cooking and when the electricity went off (as it does very often) we used candles to light the room.

In the end it was an enjoyable evening with good food and informative conversations, and I really hope that things in this country are going to change for the better, so that all those people can actually use their smart minds to achieve some of their dreams.

Young and Old

Young and Old

After another long bus ride without getting much sleep I arrived in Mandaly in the morning. It appeared to be another big city with the same amount of pollution, noise and dirt as Yangon. It was worth however to hang around for a couple of days, as there are quite a few things to see around the city. One temple with a particular significance was Mahamuni Paya, which is covered in a particularly thick gold layer. Sticking very very thin leaf-gold onto a Buddha statue is common in many temples, but in this temple it is so popular, that the whole statue is covered in a 6 inch thick layer of real gold.

In the evening we were planning on visiting a teak temple, but unfortunately the temple was closed at night. Instead we happened to wander around the Mandalay suburbs and observed hundreds of monks sitting in front of a TV watching stupid action movies. Unfortunately it was far too dark to take a picture of that quite entertaining scene.

U Bein Bridge

U Bein Bridge

The next morning I met up with three other travelers at 5am in the morning in order to share a taxi to visit a few sights which are further away from the city. We went to U Bein’s Bridge for sunrise, which is the longest teak bridge in the world which is quite scenic especially at sunrise and sunset.

6 inches of gold

6 inches of gold

Unfortunately the light conditions haven’t been good for amazing photographs during my whole stay in Myanmar, as it is rainy season and even when it is not rainy the sky is cloudy and grey most of the time. Nonetheless the bridge is an amazing spot in the morning to watch monks crossing over the lake when the place is the least crowded. Afterwards we went to Sagaging Hill, again a place which is covered in temples, and to Inwa, a small rural village which takes you away from the busy city into an area of small villages, horse-carts and wooden houses. I will finish this blog entry here as it seems very long already. The next entry about my journey into rural mountain regions and villages off the beaten track will be following soon. As usual, comments, questions and criticism are highly appreciated.

Stay tuned, Rock’n Roll, Nico

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Smiley Monk

Smiley Monk

Sleepy Monk

Sleepy Monk

Say cheeese

Say cheeese

Mr. Cool Monk

Mr. Cool Monk

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