From Chiang Mai it was time to head to the border crossing at Mae Sai and head to Keng Tung. The scenery was amazing, especially when the sun was setting. A bit of a walk and a visit to a local village where a small community lived was great but hot and sticky. The village was up a hill, so it was a good bit of exercise after so much sitting around on transport. The community have their own calendar, but don’t know how old they are – a different form of time keeping! The people were very friendly. The ladies kept on trying to sell their goods with a nice smile which sometimes revealed black teeth. This was down to many years of chewing the black betel juice from the leaves which is a local form of dental protection. The ladies also wore what looked like a white paste brushed on their faces. This was meant to be a good cosmetic, as well as prevent the harm of UV rays and is done by rubbing the bark of a Thanakha tree with water to produce a liquid. The country is fairly religious and Buddhism is the most popular religion. Some customs are also quite strict e.g. No affection to be shown in public by couples. Local sticky rice – was very sweet!An internal flight from Keng Tung to Heho was fun as it was a little byplane which seemed to take off as soon as it has landed and exchanged passengers.Then travelled on to Nyaungshwe on the outskirts of Inle Lake. This massive freshwater lake houses many different businesses and lots of families. Racing around the lake and its surroundings in a little boat was incredible. There were lots of fisherman who are famous for paddling with their legs while their arms are used to manoeuvre the nets in the water. It was an impressive balancing act.
Many businesses include making a form of paper out of tree bark and carpenters producing lovely parasols.A group of long necked women with rings around their neck were weaving scarves. The metal rings remain on their necks all the time – even when asleep. This has been a long standing tradition of the Padaung tribe on the lake and was compulsory to do so (only until 20 years ago) by order of the tribe leader. Rings get added gradually from quite a young age, and women can have around 35 rings in total. According to a legend, this was done because a tribe leader had a dream that a tiger would have attacked his baby daughter by the neck, so the rings were added for protection. Back on the boat and it was a visit to Inlay Shewe Inn Tain Pagoda. This was a complex full of a mixture of stupas, both old and new and the site is around 1000 years old. In the main temple, there is a separate place for women to pray, and they cannot enter the most sacred part. This is because women can distract men from their concentrated prayer. On the way, I tried some little spring onion dumplings from a street vendor which were very tasty. Another business on the lake is making silver jewellery. The silver was mined in the mountains nearby, but has to be separated from the other metals in the rock. This was done by using a very high heat which makes the other components evaporate leaving the silver. Then it is combined with a tiny amount of copper for strength, as the silver can be quite soft.A visit to the Phaung daw Oo Pagoda showed five original old Buddha statues. It is said that bad luck has happened if they are removed from the sacred place. Again, women are not allowed to enter the central section. Weavers make a lot of different types of clothes using thread which has been taken from the stem of the lotus plant. These are quite thin, so they are combined together and dried out to start weaving. I got some Thanakha on my face at this point and hoped it would add to my suncream protection on my face.
Cigar and cigarette making are also a popular produce. They were made using bamboo leaves and sticky rice was the glue. There were many different flavours that could be mixed with the tobacco including star anise. Going from place to place, there are a lot of floating gardens on the lake where are a lot of crops are grown including tomatoes which are a local delicacy in this part of Myanmar. I tried a fish ‘curry’ with a tomato sauce and it was amazing.The last place to visit was the jumping cat monastery where there are a lot of old artefacts….and cats. They were trained to jump over certain things by a monk, but he had died, so they stayed at the monastery. I explored a bit of the backpacker town which had an interesting market. There were lots of local goods.A cycle into parts of the countryside in the rain was great, although being completely drenched wasn’t so great. Lots of lovely farms were seen including a cashew nut and chilli plantation. Getting the bike over a rickety bridge was a test as the bike could have easily fallen through the gaps of the rickety bendy wooden boards that made up the bridge. I sampled some amazing coffee which was sweet and a tea leaf salad which was mixed with garlic and nuts. Then sampled some Burmese wine at a local vineyard. Not sure I’d try the wine again but it was good to give it a go!An overnight bus to Bagan was windy and bumpy. But the arrival was just in time to see the sunset over the 2000 pagodas and temples that pop out from the grass over a huge area. It was amazingly peaceful and quiet, and I really appreciated the lack of tourism at this point. I hate to think that in about 10 years, there will be a McDonalds or a Starbucks popping up too. There was one large hotel complex, but you could tell that it had tried to blend into the surroundings. This complex is stunning, but is not officially recognised by UNESCO due to clashes with the government over building construction in the area, so relies heavily on donations from locals and tourists to support the upkeep of the temples. The temples were mostly funded by the royalty of the time when they were built – 11th/12th century. Food (e.g. Rice) is offered for certain special occasions, as well as supplying the local monastery for the homeless. Donations are also offered to ensure certain things in the next life e.g. Water is for peace, flowers for beauty.
One of the temples was Manuha which housed some very large buddhas, one of which was a sleeping one. It is one of the oldest temples (built in 1067) and is named after the King who sponsored the construction.Gabyauk Gyi is another amazing temple which is covered in old murals inside. These included images of the Buddha, white elephants (which are an important symbol) and hermits. It was built in 1113 and has its number (out of approx 2000) inscribed on the outside – it is Number 1323. Dahammayan Gyi was also visited and this is the biggest temple which was built in 1163. Ananda temple is the largest and one of the most famous temples; built in 1105.There are two original massive Buddhas inside where the face changes depending on the distance you keep from the statue. Up close, it looks angry, while far away, it smiles. This is to distinguish the status of the worshippers. Wandering around some of these temples can make you believe you’re in a maze. Then went to Shwezigon Pagoda which is meant to house a relic of Buddha’s rib. It was an amazing pagoda and built in 1090. It was stunning and was actually covered in bamboo rugs while the gold leaf is being preserved and restored. Visiting the local area was also good. A trip to Toddy Palm workshop where coconut juice is made from the fruit of the trees, and brewed into a beer was interesting. The coconut syrup is also combined with different flavours including ginger to make confectionery. There were lots of gourds hanging around which I almost walked into on many occasions. Peanuts are also farmed and collected and crushed to produce oil. Mount Popa is an extinct volcano in the region and I went to the top which included climbing 777 steps and trying to ward off the cheeky monkeys who try and take your belongings – just like the ones in China. The views were great from the top. There is a temple at the base (and a temple at the top) to nat spirits, each of whom is responsible for a different aspect of life. You pay your respects to the one who you want to bless you in that particular aspect. I then visited a lacquerware producer who explained the process of lacquering bamboo to craft lots of different things including bowls, cups etc. Laquer is made from bamboo sap which has been oxidised. Lots of patterns are etched by hand – it can take 6 months to make just one cup. Then got taken to Min Nan Thu Village and was shown round. I was surprised how clean it was. A sunset from a high point was spectacular. One night was on a temple and another was from a high tower where you had a great view over the land.Next, onto Mandalay: this visit included temples and a sunset at the top of Mandalay Hill.One of the sites to see was Kuthodaw Pagoda which is massive and is surrounded by lots of white structures each containing a marble slab – there are 729 in total – which depict Buddhist teachings. The U Bein Teak bridge was also a highlight which was used to connect the old capital city to where the royal palace used to be. It is 1.2km in length and the oldest wooden bridge in the world, although parts have been restored for obvious reasons, as it was a it wobbly! Then a visit to Mahagandhayon monastery to see the 1000 monks and apprentice monks (young children wearing white robes instead of red) queuing to eat their main meal of the day as food is not consumed after 12pm.2 further temples were also visited on Frock hill before an overnight bus to Yangon, the former capital.On arrival into Yangon after another night bus, it was a lot cooler as the rain has been heavy. A quick walk after a shower (both rain and actual) to see Sule Pagoda and some of the old colonial architecture was good, apart from the heavy rain starting again. Some of the nice buildings looked a little bit run down.
Shwedagon Pagoda was amazing and very big. It is the oldest in the city, and possibly in Myanmar and houses a couple of relics. It looked great lit up at night.I learnt that my Myanmar Buddhism zodiac sign is a dragon because i was born on a Saturday. Around the temples there are individual Buddhas with the corresponding animal for each day as they each mean something different. You are meant to bless the Buddha and the animal statue that belongs to your birth day a certain amount of times with water. I also walked past the building where Aung San and his colleagues were assassinated. It’s a lovely building, and only open to the public once a year on the anniversary of his death. That is one thing that surprised me when I was in the country – I heard no mention of any politics. I never heard ‘The Lady’ referred to. It’s still a delicate situation, and I guess it’s similar to Cambodia where politics is a taboo and cannot be spoken about in public too much. Visiting the Scott Market was nice – the old building houses a large collection of jewellery and wood work. Speaking to some students studying English in a monastery was enlightening. They were so keen to learn and talk to improve their language skills so that they could have more career options e.g. Becoming a teacher or a translator. Sometimes, I thought they were the ones teaching me English! You see a lot of men wear the traditional clothing called a longi. This is a long piece of material which is wrapped around the waist and almost looks like a long skirt. There are ones also for women which are a bit more colourful. Chit (my tour guide) wore one occasionally, especially in the temples. On my last night, the whole group was invited to his house for a home cooked meal with his family which was so humbling.
Next stop: Thailand