Picture raucously happy children swaying in a fairground boat ride that’s flying precariously through the air. Below them are women selling longyis (like sarongs) and other kids enjoying tamarind candies and fresh pineapple juice. There’s a dragon ice sculpture that soon turns into a melted serpent in the scorching heat. Novice monks in saffron robes with big smiles. Nearby, a boat race taking place on the Ayeyarwaddy River — the leading boat team sporting Arsenal shirts — and with, seemingly, the whole town as spectators, all waving their hands and scarves in the air. This is the festive scene in Bagan, Myanmar (Burma).
Bagan — which Marco Polo described as one of the finest sights in the world — is probably magical every day, all year round. But it’s particularly special at night on an exclusive tour in the moonlight. After watching the sunset from a bridge, we start our night ‘temple safari.’ Candle-lit lantern in hand, we set off by foot to visit some of the 3000 temples spread across the Bagan Plain. Ananda temple —with its shimmering gold, 170-ft high hti (the pinnacale of a stupa) lit by the silver light of the moon is both spooky and enchanting. Afterwards we’re served some ‘temple’ snacks at Minn Oo Chantha pagoda, food that’s normally served during festivals. Items such as rice pancakes and penny wort akyaw (like tempura) off a traditional lacquerware tray. It’s with a spring in our step that we retire to our room at The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate.
We’re in Myanmar on a 21-day bespoke family trip. A vacation that sees us hiking among remote, stupa-topped hills, travelling along red-mud tracks in ox carts and taking local tuk-tuks to visit and eat in village stilt-houses; not to mention clopping along in a horse-drawn carriage to the ancient imperial capital of Ava, and a historic train ride in ‘upper class’ over the dizzyingly high (318 ft.) Gokteik Viaduct.
Our itinerary covers Yangon with its wondrous golden Shwedagon Pagoda; historic Mandalay with Mahamuni Temple’s heaven-high, gold-covered Buddha; a cruise downstream on the mighty Ayeyarwaddy River aboard the all-teak Ayeyarwaddy Discovery (the latest addition to the country’s upmarket cruise scene); Bagan with its temples; and, finally, Inle Lake with its floating gardens and Intha fishermen ‘leg-rowing’ their boats on lakes midst purple river hyacinths. But we also follow the Burmese road rarely travelled too — some places only opened up to tourists recently….from seldom-visited Loikaw to far-flung Samkar, about which more later.
After Bagan, we go to Heho, in southern Shan state. We have one of the high points of our trip at Green Hill Valley Elephant Sanctuary, an elephant conservation project located just beyond the colonial hill station of Kalaw. On the reception area wall we discover, much to our surprise, a vintage photograph of my grandfather, Charles, and his mahouts and elephants. (He oversaw timber forests here and then stayed on to fight the Japanese in World War II).
I think I’ve found my spirit animal – these heffalumps chomp away merrily for 20 hours a day, eating up to 200 kilos. Bliss or what? After a ‘light’ snack — just a few kilos of banana stem leaves and golden pumpkins — it’s shower hour i.e. time for a dip in the river. Both my family and the elephant, Hin Sit Wai, seem to be in ellie heaven sploshing around in the fast-flowing water. Scrubbing away with acacia bark (which smells fruity, nutty and woody all in one), I wash Babar. She sits there calmly whilst my sister and I scrub away. Of the many adventures I’ve been privileged to go on, this one goes down in my book as one of the best. Ever.
We go afterwards to colonial Kalaw with its half-timbered buildings and British south-coast vibe. We stay in the Kalaw Heritage Hotel – a Fawlty Towers-esque place, but one that has ceiling fans, plantation chairs, bedrooms the size of small airports and a truly colonial range of gins and whiskies. I can really picture my grandfather staying in this quintessentially British, colonial building with its menu offering a ‘Full English Breakfast’ and ‘Roast Beef with trimmings’ — all in the middle of a remote, military town. Bizarre and wonderful at once.
After a two-hour drive then a short and scenic train ride from Pinlaung (“The train schedule often changes, so we can’t specify an exact time,” says the guide), we are welcomed next day for a Shan lunch in a local family home, not too far from the opium fields. (Spicy soup followed by rice with vegetable curries. Then jackfruit served with avocado: two of my favourite foods, on one plate.) After lunch, we stroll over to the remains of a wooden palace that belonged to the last Sawbwa (prince) of the village Pinlaung, and collapsed due to lack of resources for renovation. “He was sent to prison,” says our guide, Naung Naung, “and his wife slept in a simple hut in the garden of the dilapidated palace, waiting for him to come back.” The princess eventually died a few years ago, still next to the old palace.
It’s another 90 minutes by car to reach Loikaw, way off the beaten track and in the tiny state of Kayah. Here we ready ourselves to go on a so-called trail of the ancestors, to see local tribespeople: the longneck communities who believe in spirits. We trek through Pemsong village and suddenly there they are….the women who wear thick, heavy bronze necklaces which — slowly over time — stretch the neck up to roughly 20cm longer than normal or natural. Strange but strikingly beautiful. Afterwards we enjoy (yet another) delicious lunch at a local village house – chicken curry, sticky rice in banana leaves. Then a bit of retail therapy in the next village, Kasae Kum: doling out Kyats, the local currency, on handmade bronze bracelets and rings, bamboo cups and the like.
Our next stop is Hta Nee La Leh village to meet the Kayan community. There we meet a gentle soul, Daw Soe Mya, 70 years old, with seven children and 30 grandchildren: standard around here. She plays an instrument that resembles a violin-cum-guitar in sound but looks like a small didgeridoo made of bamboo with strings. Afterwards, we take a short — and very, very bumpy — oxcart ride to see spirit houses, totem poles, and a shaman and his chicken bones (used for prediction). I take my (conical bamboo) hat off to the locals who rely on this uncomfortable mode of transport. I cushion my butt at lunch — a Kayah BBQ, served under what looks like Teletubby-meets-Zaha-Hadid bamboo house, resembling an upside-down boat.
Naung Naung takes us next with our boatman in our private longtail boat, which we ride over Pekon Lake to the beautiful and serene hotel, Inle Sanctuary. Put it on your bucket list now. Six contemporary wooden houses balance on stilts on a pier overlooking the calm waters. Fuchsia water lilies float amongst earthy green moss. Children from Phayar Taung Monastery splash about in the water a few hundred yards away: an exciting break after class is over, our guide reveals.
Next day, we make our way up the hill to the Phayar Taung Monastery itself. There we meet with Pongyi, the head monk, over cups of green tea. He is a fascinating man, full of wisdom which he shares whilst smiling and laughing. His eyes are kind yet tell a story and you can tell he is sure to have many tales to share. Naung Naung explains that Pongyi takes responsibility for the accommodation, living expenses and food for over 1,300 children, many of whom are orphans. He receives no support from the government.
Myanmar is a wonderful and multi-layered country. A place of contrasts, colours and smiling people. Of 135 ethnic groups, Buddhists, Animists and Christians. Somewhere boasting stupas, history, wildlife, stunning landscapes and vibrant markets. A place you should go at least once in every lifetime, if you’re lucky enough to have many.
There’s also a slight twist in this story. At the end of the trip, I find myself saying good-bye to my family. Nervous and excited, I’m ready for my next adventure. I’m volunteering for Pongyi at the Phayar Taung Monastery where I will teach English to the children. A holiday so good that I’ve decided not to go home? Now that’s a first.
A trip like Anya’s can be organised by Arakan Travel, an organiser of experiences to Myanmar. Based in the country for the last 12 years, they have an intimate knowledge of the people and its places. To start the journey, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.arakantravel.com.
A special recommendation is to read more about the monastery in Phayar Taung, and to support this charity – visit www.inletrust.org.uk/our-book.
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