Mingalaba (hello in Burmese) lovely readers! Has anyone been to Burma yet? Also known as Myanmar, this country squeezed between China, India, Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand is truly magical. The best time to visit Burma is between November and February, when it stops raining and when the temperature are still bearable. As for me, I went there during the last two weeks of October and experienced a few rain showers. I remember this bike tour across the temples and pagodas in Bagan when I got caught in a monsoon rain storm. The next thing I know, I was pedaling in 50 cm of water. An unexpected and free aqua biking session I would say!
Burma is a long way home so unless you can spend a month there, I really recommend focusing on the places I’ve listed below. And if you can skip the capital city of Rangoon (also known as Yangon), don’t hesitate. There are other more beautiful spots you want to spend your time at. Before we take off (I’m virtually taking you on this trip), it seems appropriate to give a few insights on how I packed for this trip as the dress code when visiting the temples is quite strict: no “spaghetti blouse”! Basically, you can’t show your shoulders or too much leg. I opted for flowy floral pants and t-shirts with sleeves. It turned out to be very handy for the biking trip, believe me! As for the must-haves, I recommend packing sunglasses, sun cream and wet wipes to wash your feet after visiting the temples as you will be bare foot most of the time. This is compulsory as you should never be “higher” than the Buddha statues. But this is a really small sacrifice for all the beauty you will see. I’m always amazed at the foreign customs and clearly, you need to know them before you arrive. Some of them are so far-fetched that you’ll put your foot in it, guaranteed! For example in Burma, one should never touch a monk, or even worse, his or her head (yes, men and women are monks for at least a short period of time in their lives). Also one should never show the sole of the foot or point at something with one’s feet. Ok, you’ve been briefed. C’est parti!
Mandalay: Welcome to the religious and cultural capital of Burma. Still getting over jetlag, our guide (I travel with my dear other half. His name is François and he also happens to be my personal photographer. Shh! He doesn’t know yet!) takes us for a ride through the city and shows us the craft workshops that are all directly or indirectly associated with religious worship. The sculptors shape the marble stone Buddha statues, the gold beaters prepare the gold leaves to decorate the statues and the puppeteers amaze us with their dexterity and entertain the crowd of the faithful. After visiting the Mahamuni Buddha Temple and then the Shwenandaw Monastery entirely constructed and sculpted in teak wood, we head for Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset over Irrawaddy River. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Ava & Mingun: the ground is so soggy that it is from the back of a cart that we discover the ancient royal capital of Ava. Words cannot describe the majesty of the buildings. It’s hard to believe that people actually lived here. I feel like I am on another planet….but not for long as our expedition continues….on a boat this time. After a short cruise on the Irrawaddy River we arrive in Mingun. The Mingun temple is a gigantic uncompleted stupa began by King Bodawpaya in 1790. It would have been the largest stupa in the world. On the front wall, you can see the huge cracks caused by an earthquake in 1839. I feel as small as an ant, especially under the 90 tons Mingun bell. Please don’t fall!
U-bein bridge in Amarapura: with 1.2km, this is the longest and oldest teak wood bridge in the world. As we cross it, we notice the women fishing peacefully for their lunch.
Bagan: the most incredible place I have ever visited. The archaeological site is 50 square kilometers big and counts the remains of over 2’200 temples and pagodas. Originally, there were over 10’000 of them. You can’t possibly visit all of them but it is really nice to rent bikes and to navigate around them. If you like one, just step out of the bike, take off your shoes and have a look inside. Some of the pagodas have beautiful mural paintings illustrating the life of Buddha. If you’re lucky with the weather, you should definitely book a ride in a hot-air balloon. I am so sad we didn’t get to do that. So if you do, please send me your pictures. Speaking of photos: you’ll get the best shots at sunset, so pick a tall pagoda and climb on it before it gets dark and hold your breath. You’re about to experience an unforgettable moment.
I’ll make only one restaurant recommendation here because I discovered the cutest little vegan restaurant in Bagan called “The moon – Be kind to animals”. Vegan or not, you’re going to love this spot as much as the warm welcome of the owner. Try the Guacamole with Pappadons or the Pumpkin Curry with Ginger. The dragon fruit juice is also a good choice to cool down after your bicycle tour.
Pindaya: I thought I’d seen a lot of Buddha statues before arriving at the Pindaya caves but clearly, I had no idea what was coming. I’m bombarding you with figures, it’s because I still can’t get over it. The cave contains thousands of Buddha statues and images up to the ceiling. It is one the most important pilgrimage site of the country. After this unusual visit, we get back to our hotel to enjoy a relaxing massage.
We’ve been transported in a taxi and in a cart everywhere so far and we really need to stretch our legs a little. We start our 3-day hike across the Burmese countryside from Pindaya. No five star hotel awaits us, not even running water. If this isn’t roughing it, what is? We will be sleeping in the temples on a mattress that has had its days and be waken up by the rooster and the prayers at 4:00am. What is real luxury during those 3 days are the amazing 3 courses dinner that our 2 guides cook for us. They even brought candles with them. As a “I weigh everything that goes into my backpack” person, I’m speechless.
As we continue our trekking through the remote villages, I cannot help but notice that we’re seen as very exotic. 2 lost Europeens visiting the Burmese countryside, it just doesn’t make any sense for the people. But for us, it really does. We are all alone with Mother Nature and with those beautiful oxen carrying cauliflowers.
Lake Inle: nestled in the mountains, the lake is the home of numerous traditional wooden houses on stilt. Like in Venice, the only option for transportation is a boat! Local fisherman have a unique way to catch the fish by standing on one leg and paddling with the other one wrapped around the oar. I’m thinking this could become my new yoga posture.
I’m not aware of any car pulling system in Burma and Uber doesn’t exists in this country to my knowledge. However at Lake Inle, the inhabitants share the boats but as you can see everybody has to pull their weight!
Ngapali: holidays wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the beach. But not any beach, I’m talking about Ngapali. Before booking our trip, we were hesitating a lot with finishing our trip in Thailand for beach time. A lot of guide books say that the beaches in Burma are not so special. I mean really? Don’t bother yourself with extra costs and travel time. Just stay here. Go for a scuba diving tour on a private boat, get a coconut body scrub and forget everything.
If you can’t get enough massages, hop over to the beach and book a $5 massage under a palm tree with ocean view. It might not be given by a professional but from my European point of view, the Burmese seem to be very good with their hands. Sigh of satisfaction.