23.10.2012 - 12.11.2012 38 °C
Ahhh, I couldn't resist the Orwellian title, it was running through my head the whole time we were there.
We spent three hot and humid weeks in Burma and it wasn't really how I expected it would be. I thought travelling there would be an adventure. The country has been pretty closed to the world for decades, few travellers have been making it there, I thought we would have been chartering new ground. But since the military has been allowing some political freedoms the tourists have been flooding in. In the 6 months prior to our arrival there had been a 30% increase in tourist numbers. Add to this that huge swathes of the country are still off-limits to foreigners because of ongoing civil wars, you end up with a very defined, restricted and well populated tourist trail. Yet, the numbers are still small and everywhere we went I wanted to stay another day.
The people are exotic. They dress in a traditional fashion. Both men and women, with very rare exceptions, all wear longhis, ankle length sarongs tied at the waist. The men all seem to have the same jandals with a felt like material strapping the foot in. And the spread of the toes are those of people who have never been trapped inside modern shoes. Women paint their faces, and sometimes their arms and chests, with a sandalwood paste that looks like a dry, light brown face mask. In the name of sun protection or make-up, depending on who you ask. Many chew betel nut, leaving their teeth weathered away to little sticks and their mouth permanently stained red. Because betel nut is chewed and than spat out in streams of long red spittle (done ever so proficiently by an expert), the streets look as if they are stained with blood.
Probably because of its colonial past there is a reasonable amount of infrastructure throughout the country, but years of neglect have left most of this in a humble state. We took a train ride that rocked so much on its old wheels I wouldn't have been surprised if we had come right off the tracks. We saw men standing on their ploughs being pulled through the rice paddy by their buffaloes and many a cart with wooden wheels. Cars have flooded into the country in the last year or so, but still a very common mode of transport within a town is the old fashioned bicycle rickshaw. But contrast all of this with the 8 lane highway running from Yangon to Mandalay, which when we were travelled on it was almost empty. This is a military show piece, a complete excess that takes the military from Yangon to their newly constructed capital, Naypyidaw, just south of Mandalay. This was just one of many examples that showed how development in Burma was a matter of the haves (the military) and the have nots (everyone else).
Yangon aka Rangoon was our introduction to the country. It was crowded, hot and full of smells. There is a large Indian population in the city (another colonial hangover) and they spiced up the scene with their tall, gangly dark skinned appearance and insanely cheap and tasty food (bottomless curry for 50p/$NZ1!) The Burmese are reputedly big readers and we found many makeshift book stores set up on the street. Browsing these was interesting, everything was old or photocopied, as the import of books is another restriction the people of Burma have to deal with. Street food was prolific, varied and tasty. Tea houses are where it's at, people flood them day and night for milky flavourless tea and a huge array of tasty morsels, sweet and savoury. Comically all the outside seating, which there is much of because of the heat, is on child size plastic tables and chairs. It was a sensory overload that was fun and exciting, but you definitely needed the peace and AC of your hotel room by the end of the day.
We roamed by foot and bike around rice paddies, rural villages with sleepy water buffaloes and bamboo houses and, old colonial towns, all the time meeting friendly locals. We found a natural infinity pool at the bottom of a tranquil slow paced waterfall and spent hours wallowing like a water buffalo enjoying the bucolic views. We spent hours watching spectacular sunsets. After 7 months of travelling overland across an enormous land mass we finally hit the sea! The Andaman Sea. It really felt like an achievement and it was excellent to celebrate with a sunset swim.
Buddhism is the national religion in Burma and they are an incredibly religious lot. We timed it nicely to catch a couple of religious festivals as it was the full moon at the end of Buddhist lent. On an overnight in a hill village while trekking we happened across their local celebration, which consisted of costumes, skits and dancing, as well as a late night slow motion conga line. The more impressive festival however was on water, on Inlay lake. The lake has many villages built on stilts on and around it. A few Buddha statues from the region's holiest temple go on an 18 day tour around these villages once a year, culminating with an early morning extravaganza where boat loads of locals and tourists come to the floating village where the holiest temple is. Decorated boats paraded through town with music and dancers. There was a rowing race in the unusual tradition where the rowers have the oars looped around their legs to paddle - standing up. The climax was the return of the Buddha statues in a large ornate boat made to appear like a mythical swan creature in gold.
It was a visual feast. I think photos for Burma could be the best way to describe it, so I have put some other photos up in the album that aren't in this blog if you wanna check it out.