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Burma, now known as Myanmar, is a fascinating country, lodged geographically between Thailand, China and India and the unique blending of cultures and history as the gateway to true Asia on the old silk route, provides countless historical sites and tales.
The capital Yangon, is a major dump. Destroyed and neglected by the military regime of the last 50 years, the only reason to stay there is to connect to the magical desinations of Inle Lake, Ngapali Beach and the wonderful ancient capital of Bagan.
Myanmar is still under some lesser version of military rule so as a tourist you can only go to certain areas and a guide is advisable. It is a low cost holiday except for the fact that now its open to the west, hotels are in short supply and prices can be very high.
The food is diverse as its neighbors and utilizes a vast variety of delicious fresh produce. You have to try the mouthstaining Betel leaf that the locals chew as a drug. The tourist (no tobacco) version wont intoxicate you.
YANGON: The Capital.
If you need to stay the night the Governors Residence is an oasis in the disaster that is Yangon. This old teak hotel is charming, elegant and colonial with superb service and 2 great restaurants serving fine cuisine and a curry buffet that is wonderful.
One of the saddest things about the trip to Burma is you will feel how deprived and poor the people of Myanmar are and how corrupt the regime has been and cruel to its citizens.
Staying at hotels that are not run by the government is recommended to bring money to the people who need it.
I have traveled in many asian countries and it is always very sad when small children beg or sell postcards. Hopefully with Burma’s doors opening to the West, some money will come to its people, but sadly, like Thailand not at the cost of its cultural integrity.
A bumpy 5 hour drive north of Yangon is Golden Rock where you leave your car behind and take a truck up the mountain, then continue to walk another 40 minutes up a hill. We went over Christmas time which was also a big Buddhist holiday and there was possibly 10,000 people camping on the mountain in what was spiritual mayhem.
The golden rock lodged at the top of the mountain is much larger than you would imagine and with the smell of incense and sound of thousands praying , walking barefoot over the temples grounds it is a sensory overload. Locals also love taking pictures with “moviestars” (foreigners) so be prepared.
The hotels up there are very modest however overlook the misty blue mountains.
During the walk up you will see all of humanity, from fresh fruits and vegetables to little children playing, to decapitated goats head and preserved snakes for potions.
INLE LAKE :
One of the most magical places I have been in my life would be Inle Lake.
Flying into Heho and a 45 minute drive to Inle Lake you pass the village of Nyaung Shwe, Burma with a great local market and a monastery stuck in time.
The morning rides on the longtail boats to explore the river are so memorable. It is very cold and misty at night and early morning and burns off during the day.
The fishermen use a talented technique of rowing with their leg around the paddle which is stunning.
The lake and river are used in every capacity by the locals including growing farms on top of floating water hyacinth which acts as a bed to put soil on.
The local cuisine is fresh and has interesting ingredients such as gourds and white fungus. The cooking at even the most simple places is exquisite.
Inle lake is famous for silk weaving which is so meticulous and fine, it is unbelievable the patience which goes into a silk scarf. They also combine silk with lotus fibre for a hardier weave.
To end the vacation with a little beach time, Burma’s most famous beach is Ngapali beach which has nice hotels, in a somewhat undeveloped area of beach with huge palm trees, a fishing village nearby, and lots of drink specials and the dozen family run beach bars on the sand.
See my next post about the ancient capital of Bagan- so beautiful it deserves its own post!