February 5, 2014
“Mingalaba!” was the first word I heard each morning as I strolled onto the powdery sand of the Bay of Bengal for my swim in the turquoise-blue and dead-calm waters.
This “auspicious greeting” from the security guard is something you will never forget after spending a couple of weeks with the remarkably welcoming Burmese people. I was often reminded here that a smile costs nothing but gives much.
Climbing up my first temple in Bagan was a defining moment on my journey: the vibrant green landscape is dotted on all sides with more than three thousand temples, the survivors of an estimated eleven thousand which in the 11-13th centuries adorned a thriving city of a million people.
The sheer scale of it all is even more evident from a hot air balloon. The sense of calm as you drift over all these small and large monuments to Buddha is breath taking and leaves you in no doubt that Buddhism is at the heart of Burmese life. The pilot’s skill, as we skimmed the tops of trees and tips of pagodas, was impressive; he even managed to land at a designated spot where the crew awaited with refreshments. But for the fact that a general built a road through the temple area to his riverside residence, this could well have been a Unesco designated site by now.
There is no doubt that better governance is coming to Myanmar, and tourism of course brings huge benefits to local people. But it is likely that the main sites are going to become more mass-market destinations before long. The beautiful Inle Lake, which is populated by villagers who live in houses on stilts and sustained by floating gardens, has recently had some six hundred acres of its shores designated for new hotels despite its being a sensitive environmental area, and even more areas will soon be opened up for tourism.
After we had cruised on a very comfortable boat up the legendary Irrawaddy River to Mandalay we moved much further east to Pyin Oo Lwin which is situated in Shan state. Under British rule this was the summer capital, and its expansive botanical gardens were designed by Lady Cuffe.
Of much more interest is Hsipaw which can be found a few hours farther into the hills at the end of a sometimes hair-raising road where there were only two smallish hotels suitable for tourists. It was very cold here in the mornings, and we wore our warmest clothing as our narrow boat headed up the Dokhtawady River. We disembarked to go walking in some totally unspoilt countryside where we came across a very old lady who had been given a small house as she had no relations. In return she looked after the local farmer’s fields. I sat briefly in the $3 bamboo chair she had recently been given.
Farther on we came to Son Lon -‘big garden’ – village, and the railway-station mistress offered us tea. She proudly showed us a picture of her son at his initiation as a novice in the nearby monastery. There are no roads here and just two trains a day. Wooden houses perched on stilts are decorated with attractive bamboo latticework and each overlooks an ordered, productive garden. Everything has its place, and the neat rows of vegetables with crotons, aucuba, lantana and mimosa serving as ornamental delineating borders, give one a sense of contained order.
There are mangoes, jack fruit, wood apples, oranges and damsons. Underneath a large lychee tree our guide, known as Mr Bike, told us that ants like making nests in these trees and that their eggs are used to flavour rice. Fish caught from the river are also put in the trees, and ants crawling over the fish urinate on them, giving a pungent, vinegary flavour to the fish once cooked. The planting had both the precision of an English market garden and the yester-year romance of the sub-tropical setting.
Later we stopped at what I suppose could be called a little restaurant which is used by the locals. I showed some interest in what looked like broccoli sprouting in the proprietor’s garden. Some of the plant’s leaves were immediately plucked and put into our Shan noodle dish. Lunch cost about £1 per head. There is a tangible sense of contentment in this rural way of life which seems to be untouched by aspirational striving. This was not, unlike some of the main sites such as Yangon, Bagan, Inle and Mandalay, a wow destination, but a deviation off the well-trodden path is nearly always worthwhile.
The seventy-odd seater ATR planes that connect the main destinations worked well in a slightly chaotic way and check-in seems a lot faster without a computer. You are even given a coloured sticker so the airline staff knows which plane to shepherd you onto. There is a very strong demand for the better hotels, so early booking is needed at peak times.
The main season is from October to March, and I should be delighted to arrange a holiday in Burma for you should you be interested.
Please call for further details. 020 7723 5858.
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