This story for Lonely Planet Traveller from February 2014 covered an amazing trip around Burma, a country that’s really starting to open up to the outside world after many decades of isolation.
A few years ago it would have been pretty much impossible to put together a trip like this, as much of the country was still closed to outside visitors. Thankfully it’s now surprisingly easy place to visit, and the people are some of the friendliest and most welcoming you’ll find anywhere in SE Asia.
We travelled all the way from the old city of Mandalay right down to Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon, where George Orwell was once stationed as a colonial policeman). We also visited the ancient temple complex of Bagan, the hill country of Kalaw, the stilt villages around Inle Lake and the coastline around Ngwe Saung. I’ve posted a short video taken in the canals of Inle Lake here.
The story was published in the June 2014 of the magazine with photography by Andrew Montgomery.
Early morning is always the busiest time of day on Mandalay’s harbourfront. Moored along the riverbanks, scores of crafts are being loaded for their journeys. Passengers cram onto ferries, searching for space on the crowded decks. Porters carry on crates of fruit and sacks of rice, balancing loads on their heads as they cross planks leaning against the boats’ gunwales. Beside the keels, children splash and somersault in the water, and gypsy villagers from the nearby shanty-town rinse their clothes in the shallows. Then, cargoes stored, the boats pull away from the banks, turning into the current with a chug and a belch of diesel smoke before disappearing downstream.
Known to the Burmese as the Ayeyarwady, the Irrawaddy is the country’s longest river, unfurling for 1350 miles from its source near the Tibetan border to the Andaman Sea. Bisecting the country’s west and east, the Irrawaddy is to Burma what the Ganges is to India; it’s a geographical boundary, but also a line of transition, half spiritual symbol, half industrial thoroughfare.
In the days before the British built Burma’s first roads and railways, the Irrawaddy carried most of the country’s traffic, and it’s still busy with boats. Barges stacked with timber and shipping drums hug the deep-water channels, chugging past ramshackle ferries commuting between the river villages, and fishermen casting their nets in the currents.
But the Irrawaddy is more than a glorified motorway; it’s a sacred river, too. Along the banks, whitewashed stupas line the water’s edge, containing the ashes of saints or holy relics. Monasteries appear along the shoreline, their tiered roofs rising from a canopy of palm and bamboo. Occasionally, golden pagodas glint amongst the trees, their gilded tops flashing in the sunlight.
Captain Thein Swe Oo has been a boatman on the Irrawaddy for a quarter of a century. He started as a deck-hand, graduating up the ranks as he learned to navigate the river. Dressed in a loose shirt and the baggy Burmese culottes known as long-yi, he’s now in charge of his own vessel, a double-decked ferry called the Tai Win.
“It takes many years to know the Ayeyarwady,” he says, manning the helm while his son Min Min scans the river ahead for obstacles. “There are many sandbanks and channels, and the currents change often. After twenty-five years, I know it quite well, but even now the river sometimes catches me by surprise.”
The setting sun dips towards the trees, turning the river from tea-brown to terracotta red. Puffing on his cigar, the captain guides the boat towards its overnight mooring at the village of Yandapo, cutting the engine to let the keel bump against the shoreline. River sounds replace the drone of the motor: screeching birds, keening crickets, the slap and gloop of water against the banks.
As Mr Oo weighs anchor, Min Min dishes up the evening meal: river catfish, cooked on an iron stove that sends swirls of grey smoke into the sky. Dusk turns to darkness, and the boat’s deck-lights flicker on, white bulbs reflecting in the black water. Somewhere downstream, the whine of a boat’s engine signals another fisherman returning home for the night.
“It is a good life on the river,” Mr Oo says, leaning against the boat’s wheelhouse. “I have worked my whole life on the water. Now, I find it hard to be in the city – too much traffic, too much noise. The river is where I belong.”
For a moment, he watches the boat’s lights dance and shift in the water, then disappears below deck for dinner.
“This way,” says novice monk Ashin Wila Tha, as he removes his sandals and steps from the fierce afternoon heat into a crumbling temple somewhere in Old Bagan. It’s cool and dark inside, but a few threads of light are enough to illuminate the temple’s inhabitant: a huge reclining Buddha, forty feet long and fifteen feet high, fashioned from stone as smooth and white as marble, face fixed in a permanent beatific smile.
“This is one of the largest reclining Buddhas in Bagan,” he explains, pulling some candles from beneath his scarlet robes, which he lights and arranges on the statue’s outstretched hand.
“Some people say he is just sleeping, but to others he is in parinibbana: the moment of death and enlightenment.” He leans over the candles and says a prayer, then pads into the darkness to light sticks of incense in one of the temple’s alcoves, filling the air with the heady aroma of jasmine and patchouli.
In any other country, this great statue would be thronged by tourists, but amongst the great temples of Bagan, it’s almost a forgotten footnote. Sprawling along the sunbaked banks of the Irrawaddy, Bagan is Burma’s largest sacred site, a complex of more than two thousand temples covering 40 square miles. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries by a succession of Burma’s ancient kings, it’s thought that Bagan once boasted at least twice as many temples as it does today, but many have long since crumbled into dust, victims of the ravages of time or the frequent earthquakes which strike central Burma – including a devastating one in 1975.
Since the last major earthquake, a massive restoration programme has saved Bagan’s most important temples from collapse – including Ananda, with its four giant golden buddhas, and Shwesandaw, the tallest temple in Bagan at 127 feet high. The most famous are often crowded at sunrise and sunset, but hundreds more lie far off the beaten track, lost along dusty lanes, obscured by tangled thorn-bushes and thickets of cotton-grass. Inside, thousand-year old frescoes loom from the walls and crumbling statues meditate in the darkness, guarded by bats and overrun by creepers and vines.
“I don’t think anyone has seen all of Bagan’s temples,” says Ashin Wila Tha, emerging from the shadows into the light of early evening. “There are too many. And anyway, I think it’s good that some things stay secret.”
He slips on his sandals and shuffles across the pagoda’s flagstones. Beyond the gate, a pony cart rattles past, and the domes of the nearby temples disappear behind a cloud of orange dust.
High in the hills above Kalaw, the people of Pein Nel Bin village are preparing for a feast. It’s Full Moon Day, the most auspicious day of the month in the Burmese calendar, and the villagers are getting ready to make the journey to their local monastery.
They’re dressed in their best outfits – stripy turbans, pink long-yi and purple velvet jackets, spangled with sequins, all sewn on by hand. A few of the women are preparing a picnic, cooking chickpea-flour pancakes over a smouldering wood-fire. Others sort gifts for the monks from a pile of newly-woven blankets in the village’s meeting house. Once they’re ready, they set out along the valley, chatting and giggling as they trek past tin-roofed houses and terraces cloaked with plantations of orange and tea.
Established by British governors as a summer hill-station where colonial families could escape the suffocating heat of the surrounding plains, Kalaw stands at an altitude of just over 1300m. Ringed by hills and furrowed by valleys, the local climate is ideal for farming, and it’s become one of Burma’s most important agricultural regions, producing much of its fruit, vegetables and tea.
More recently, Kalaw’s hills have become a magnet for trekkers. Hundreds of old paths zig-zag over the hillsides, linking villages and plantations with the lowlands below. The most popular is the three-day path between Kalaw and Inle Lake, which winds across the spine of the Shan Mountains, and includes overnight stops at hilltop villages and a remote mountain monastery.
Than Win Tun has spent his life exploring Kalaw’s trails, and now works as a professional hiking and nature guide. “I don’t think I could get lost here if I tried,” he says, striding along a dry path fringed by tea bushes, his feet clad in a pair of battered flip-flops. “To me the hills are home.”
He stoops to pick some leaves sprouting by the trail’s edge. One is a type of wild mint, he says; the other a natural antiseptic. “It’s good for cuts and bruises,” he explains. “And you can make a tea from it when you have a cold. Nearly every plant can be used for something.”
Where once Kalaw’s hills would have been covered in ancient forests of teak, fig and banyan, over the last century much of the land has been cleared for logging and agriculture. But gradually farmers are realising the benefits of keeping the forest intact, as a way of preventing soil erosion and retaining underground water reservoirs.
“For a time, people forgot why the trees were important,” says Tun, running his hand along the trunk of a gigantic fig tree. “But now they’re remembering. That makes me feel positive about the future.”
He rounds a bend in the trail and emerges on the outskirts of another village, where a group of pink-robed nuns are laying offerings in honour of Full Moon Day, sweeping the platform of the shrine with bamboo brooms and laying wreaths of jasmine flowers.
“Life in the hills never changes much,” Tun says, as incense smoke fills the tree-tops, and the shrine’s prayer bells tinkle in the cool breeze.
Five days of every week, there’s a market somewhere around the shores of Inle Lake. Today it’s the turn of the village of Taung To, and the log-jam of longtail boats tied up alongside the jetty suggests it’s going to be a busy day.
Hundreds of traders have set out their stalls along the lakeshore and are hollering for business, shouting to be heard over the bray of livestock and the market hubbub. In one corner, a blacksmith is hammering chisels and machetes over a blazing coal fire. In another, greengrocers unload baskets of chillies, peanuts and beans, while others weigh out dried fish on iron scales. Shoppers munch on sesame bread and paratha waffles, browsing stalls piled with firewood, blankets, clothes, trinkets and fake antiques. Everything here seems to be for sale, and there’s no shortage of punters ready to part with their cash.
The five-day market is an essential part of life for the small villages that ring the shoreline of Inle Lake, Burma’s second-largest freshwater lake. Around 70,000 people call the lake home, predominantly from the local Intha tribe, as well as other ethnic groups such as the Palaung, who farm tea, tobacco and fruit in the nearby hills, and the Pa-O, recognisable by their crimson turbans and flowing black robes.
Most people live a subsistence lifestyle that’s barely changed in a century. Fishing and farming are the main industries, and the majority of people live in longhouses made of wood and thatch, raised on bamboo stilts – an ingenious design feature that prevents flooding when the lake swells during heavy rain.
U Aung Gyi is a fisherman from the village of Khung Daing, just as his father and grandfather were before him. He’s been fishing since he was fifteen, using the traditional technique of leg-rowing to steer his boat – a skill peculiar to the Intha people, which enables them to paddle while keeping both hands free to fish.
“It takes a long time to learn,” he says, dropping his conical net into the water. “But I’ve had twenty years of practise, so I’m good at it now!” Using a harpoon, he spears fish trapped inside the net, and has soon caught enough to fill the bottom of his canoe.
Satisfied with his catch, he steers towards the shore, guiding his boat down a narrow canal lined by floating farms. Built on beds of water hyacinth, and anchored in position by bamboo poles, these floating gardens rise and fall with the water-level, making them flood-resistant. Every house has its own patch, where locals grow their own vegetable supply, selling any excess at the five-day market.
As U Aung Gyi rows past, gaggles of children wave from the banks, and a farmer raises his hand in greeting, waist-deep in water as he tends his crops of tomatoes, peas, squash and bitter gourd. Nearby, a group of women plant rice-shoots in the paddies, their heads sheltered from the sun by broad-brimmed bamboo hats, and a water buffalo munches its way through the reeds.
Across the lake at Thaung Tho, the market is winding up. Most of the stalls now stand empty. Lines of ox-carts are trundling away along the rutted lanes, laden with food and firewood. A couple of stallholders have hung around by the jetty, puffing on hand-rolled cheroots and sipping mugs of sweet, milky coffee. Then, business done, they exchange a handshake and clamber into their canoes, firing up the diesel engines before skimming away in a plume of spray.
After all, today’s market may be over, but tomorrow’s is only a day away.
On the dunes of Ngwe Saung, a group of fishermen are sorting through the catch. It’s been a good night on the water; the nets have gathered a bumper haul, and the men’s crates are brimming with lobsters, king mackerel and tiger prawns, soon to be packed in ice and shipped off to city markets. Smiling, they share around a bottle of cold Myanmar beer, and relax with a game of chen lone – the Burmese version of keepie-up, played with a lightweight wicker ball. As they play, wind stirs through a backdrop of palms, and an empty white beach stretches north and south as far as the eye can see.
Skirting Burma’s southwestern coastline on the edge of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, Ngwe Saung is the nearest thing Burma has to a secret beach. Unlike Burma’s other main seaside resort at Ngapali, it’s a long way to the nearest big city and airport: Yangon lies two hundred miles to the east, a 5-hour drive away along rough, pot-holed roads. Few tourists make the journey, and even fewer venture far from the resorts clustered around the beach’s northern end, leaving most of Ngwe Saung gloriously deserted.
From the main village, the sands run for more than 10 miles, a white curve backed by palm forest, plantations and isolated villages, many of which can only be reached by moped or boat. Offshore, small islands stud the horizon, fringed by dazzlingly blue water perfect for skin-diving and snorkelling. Towards the southern end, the beach becomes even wilder and emptier, visited only by fleets of fishing boats and farmers tending their vegetable fields.
Myo Ko lives in Sinma, the northernmost of the Ngwe Saung villages. Lean and wiry, with a mop of unruly black hair, he’s still in his teens, but already has a man’s muscles.
“We all grow up on the sea here,” he says, as he gathers up bundles of driftwood deposited on the dunes. “We learn to fish and swim when we are still very small, so for us it feels like a natural place to be. When I am older, I hope to own my own boat so I can support my family, but for now, I still have a lot to learn.”
Hoisting the wood across his shoulders, he heads back towards the village. Along the banks of the estuary, lines of boats are tilted sidewards on the sand, beached by the receding tide, their keels blistered and bleached by countless days at sea. In the strand-line, clusters of wading birds dip for clams and mussels, and a fishermen quietly patches his nets in the warm morning sun.