A JOURNEY INTO MYANMAR

by SilkStar Holidays

Shwedagon Pagoda - Yangon, Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon, Myanmar

Upon returning home from a recent inspection trip through Myanmar, some friends would express to me that they had never heard of the country. Others would remark on Facebook, during my posted arrivals and departures through Yangon, they had never heard of the city. Due to changing world and political events, one can refer to the country of Myanmar as Burma, and the city of Yangon as Rangoon, which may be more recognizable from history to Westerners. However, for purposes and ease of this travel report, I will refer to the country by its formal name of Myanmar, as it is so recognized by the United Nations.

Going to visit Myanmar, especially now, offers a unique opportunity for a traveler to not only experience another culture, beautiful outdoor scenery, unique cuisine and thousands of temples and pagodas which are centuries old, but it is an opportunity to visit an emerging tourist destination in its untouched and somewhat pristine condition, before it may become a more commercialized country.

When you arrive in Yangon, you feel like you are stepping back in time, possibly as many as forty years. The vehicles and buses of the city are old model vehicles, traffic congestion is so intense and unregulated that many tourists leave their taxi or driver to walk the steamy and congested streets to their destination, rather than be tied up in traffic that doesn’t seem to move at all. There are no commercial chains of restaurants or fast food establishments such as the standard KFC’s, Burger King and McDonald chains which are becoming more prevalent in Southeast Asia. (However, there was talk of a Starbucks in the future). I may be painting a bleak picture of this once glamorous colonial city of Yangon (known under British rule as Rangoon), but it is an interesting city, maybe better considered as your gateway into an incredible country of beautiful people who have struggled toward a better life for many years.

Myanmar was a British colony prior to the start of World War II. Strangely, for a former British colony, vehicles in Myanmar drive on the right side of the road (which differs from the United Kingdom) and distance is measured in miles and not kilometers. The British colonization ended during World War II as a result of Japanese occupation of the country during three ruthless years of rule. Following the end of the war, the British did not return and the country was governed by changing forms of government. In 1962, a military regime took strong control of the country and the people of Burma (as it was then known), became greatly oppressed. It is just in very recent years that government controls have begun to relax and people have more freedom to live their lives peacefully and with greater hopes for their future. This is the Myanmar of today.

Bagan, Myanmar

Bagan, Myanmar

On our second day in Myanmar had us travel by a twin engine plane carrying about 50 passengers to the city of Bagan. From the air and on approach to the local airport, it seemed that there were as many small temples spotted throughout the countryside as you would find houses in the suburbs of most Western cities. You will visit the many temples, pagodas and monasteries which have been standing for centuries. As these sites are highly observed religious sites, in order to enter the pagoda you will be required to first remove any of your footwear. On a hot sunny afternoon when the heat index is over 115 degrees Fahrenheit, you will test your skills as a former short distance runner and track star before your feet become well done while running barefoot to the entrances of these religious shrines. It is recommended that you wear sandals or flip-flops for ease of entry to these numerous religious locations. Some of the pagodas also do not allow women to closely approach the Buddha under religious teachings and edicts. These customs must be observed and are strictly enforced.

Lodging facilities in Myanmar are slowly improving, but many appear to be decades old in style and appearance. As more tourism comes to Myanmar, these tourist facilities will vastly improve.

The dining cuisine of Myanmar tends to be somewhat oily in preparation and the use of curry in entrees is prevalent. We found ourselves dining on other Asian cuisine as it was more recognizable to our taste buds and friendlier to our digestive tract. One word of caution, as is the norm in many developing nations, is to avoid drinking tap water for the obvious reasons. In fact, you should avoid any drinks which contain ice cubes as you will not know whether they were produced with tap water or bottled mineral water.

Irrawaddy River in Bagan

Irrawaddy River in Bagan

A beautiful and refreshing side trip on the second day in Bagan found us cruising along the Irrawaddy River, the largest river in Myanmar. The scenery was so picturesque while we cruised along the river, ate some chips, drank bottled water and took countless pictures of the river and shoreline, the villages, and the advancing sunset. Upon returning to our point of departure, we were greeted by the local young children who had first seen us off while attempting to create friendships and sell local ware. My business partner and colleague Hang decided that it would be more appreciated by the children if we in fact purchased some items for them at the local store located on the river bank. Their eyes lit up when being presented with pens and candies. These children were so beautiful and very innocent looking. They went by the names of Le Le, Jar Jar, Yom Yom, Thu Thu, Ei Ei and Su Su. When asked our names, we jokingly referred to ourselves as Hang Hang and Glenn Glenn! When we finally said goodbye to our new young friends, we realized how much our lives were richer by having met each other.

Hang with village children

Hang with village children

Our inspection trip continued the next day as we flew on to Mandalay. During our visit, we explored gold leaf factories, pagodas and monasteries, and also took in a day trip which included lunch served at picnic tables by the riverside and a journey across the rural area on a horse drawn cart. We visited with the local people in their small villages and watched and sampled delicious rice cakes that were being prepared by a young village woman over a wood fired cooking surface. Other food items we saw along the way were fried crickets being sold by a local street vendor. I am not a personal fan of eating insects, but that is from an American cultural viewpoint. I was told, however, that if you wish to sample crickets on your visit to Myanmar, it is best to eat them when they are fully cooked, and you should to first remove their wings before chasing them down with beer. I will certainly remember this for my next trip to Myanmar.

Fried crickets

Fried crickets

The sights and sounds of Myanmar are incredible to receive. One of the highlights of your trip to Myanmar will be getting to meet and know some of the wonderful local people who have lived their lives to the fullest while growing up under oppressed conditions of the former military regime.

In Mandalay

In Mandalay

In Bagan, we noticed a festival being held and attended by over 200 people. We were told it was an annual event which takes place in Bagan for three days each year, and which provides food and family entertainment for those who are economically challenged in the community. The event provides food, music and entertainment to many who arrived in numbers on flatbed trucks. Everyone seemed so pleased and thankful to be able to receive such a special gift while in need.

What was the most remarkable realization for us what that this annual festival is not a commercial event or one provided by the government. This wonderful young couple who have been very successful in their business and investment lives provide for and make this festival available to all in need or who wish to attend, as their personal contribution to their community and their fellow countrymen. This was something wonderful to witness and to realize that there are generous and giving people throughout the world, regardless of culture, border crossings and different forms of government. We are all people of the same planet.

Local people in Bagan come for annual offer food

Local people in Bagan come for annual food offering

All our guides in Myanmar and other countries we provide travel service to are very informative and most helpful to our clients. We were met in Mandalay by our wonderful guide, Thanda. She is our close friend and is an honorary sister to Hang. Thanda is an incredible guide who made our trip so memorable. We always receive the most complementary feedback and comments about Thanda from our previous visitors who have traveled to Myanmar.

The last full stop of our Journey Into Myanmar brought us to Inle Lake, which is located in eastern Myanmar in Shan State. Boarding our twin engine prop plane in Mandalay, we traveled for about 90 minutes by air to the Heho Airstrip. Heho is located about thirty minutes by car from our destination of Inle Lake. Upon arrival in the village town of Nyaungshwe, we checked into our hotel and prepared for our two day inspection trip of Inle Lake. We walked with our guide down the village streets maybe only two blocks, before we reached the riverbank and our departure point by boat.

Our vessel was a long elongated boat which seated three people, one in front of the other. A boat operator stood in the rear of the boat and controlled a high powered propeller engine. The shaft of the engine ran parallel to the surface of the water with the propeller was positioned just deep enough under the surface of the water to propel us across the lake at a high rate of speed. Since the lake is only six to nine feet deep in most places, this is the most efficient type of watercraft to use for transportation in and around Inle Lake. The boat operator provides you with a bottle of water, life vest, poncho for rainstorms and most importantly, a personal umbrella to shield you from the often intense afternoon sun.

We had so many interesting experiences on our journey along Inle Lake. We visited weaving factories, cigar manufacturing shops, silver jewelry design and creations, and floating tomato gardens created near the lake shore utilizing frameworks made of bamboo. We watched children swimming and playing games in the adjoining river with their friends. We even watched a car being washed by its owner. While car washing may not seem very significant, it is unique when the car is driven into the water up to its bottom door frame and you witness the owner washing his car in the river.

Journey along Inle Lake

Journey along Inle Lake

Journey along Inle Lake

Journey along Inle Lake

There were floating restaurants to visit and taste local fare like eating mushroom pizza and potato gnocci at an Italian restaurant in the middle of Myanmar. We also ventured off for dinner to a small local place in the village next door to our hotel where we sampled skewered grilled chicken, beef, vegetables and the most delicious potato soup.

Local Food - Mushroom pizza and potato gnocci

Local Food – Mushroom pizza and potato gnocci

At Inle Lake, we found the locals to be very friendly as they are elsewhere in Myanmar. However, we also found the mosquitos to be quite friendly along the riverfront. You should come prepared with mosquito repellent. There is even a mobile application we used on our phone called Anti-Mosquito Sonic Repellant. It works by emitting sonic vibrations of a very high pitch, which is supposed to repel mosquitoes coming within range of your own arms and legs. For 99 cents USD, it may be worthwhile to try and see if it also works for you.

On another evening in Nyaungshwe, we met two young women who work for UNESCO. This is the world agency strives to build networks among nations with the underlying belief and goal of establishing peace in the world on the basis of the moral and intellectual solidarity of humanity.

UNESCO mobilizes for better education, builds intercultural understandings by protecting heritage and promoting cultural diversity, pursues scientific cooperation, and seeks to protect freedom of expression worldwide. We invited our new UNESCO friends, one who was from the United States and the other from the United Kingdom, to join us for dinner. We learned much about their personal efforts on behalf of UNESCO and as a result, we became better educated on the path and goals of this very important world organization.

It was finally time to return to Yangon before our journey back to Hanoi. Following a short flight from Heho to Yangon, we are met by our local guide, enjoyed lunch together with business colleagues, and briefly toured Yangon. We briefly sought out and located the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue which had been established in the old Rangoon in 1895. Although there are very few Jewish congregants remaining in Myanmar since the Japanese occupation of the 1940’s and the period of strict military rule beginning in the early 1960’s, this beautiful Synagogue continues to be maintained and well preserved.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue - Yangon, Myanmar

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue – Yangon, Myanmar

We then met our car and driver after walking the hot, steamy and congested streets of Yangon and finally began our journey home.

Hang and Glenn in Myanmar

SilkStar Holidays Team:

Ms. Hang Nguyen – Managing Director
Mr. Glenn Wichinsky – Marketing Director

www.silkstarholidays.com

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(+84) 916557298

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