MYANMAR

17. January - 5 February 2002

 

Here are a few pictures from Myanmar that, hopefully, give some impression of the beauty and serenity of this wonderful country and its graceful people. Yvonne's "E-postcard" written from Bangkok shortly after our return from Myanmar is attached at the end.

Shwedagon stupa and the surrounding complex is the main religious site in Yangon. The stupa itself, especially the top, contains an incredible amount of pure gold and precious stones. You see monks in their beautifully colored robes everywhere and the men in Myanmar wear almost exclusively longhis (skirts).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Golden Rock or Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar. It's a major pilgrimage destination and a wonderful place to see the local people (there were hardly any tourists). According to legend, a hair of Buddha is enshrined. The rock has a lumpy surface on the bottom where men attach 24kt gold leaf.

 

 

 Bagan is one of the most incredible places we have seen. There are some 2000 archeological sites. The valley is full of temples and pagodas, one more beautiful than the other.

 

 

One morning, we took a hot air balloon flight lasting 96 minutes and saw spectacular views from various altitudes. On the left, shortly before sunrise, ground fog still shrouds the monuments. Later, in the picture below left, the balloon pilot maneuvered the balloon's shadow directly onto a temple (Sulamani Pahto). l

 

 

On the road from Mandalay to Monywa, we drove by this dilapidated site of pagodas and temples (we think it's called Ponnyashin) that isn't in any of our guide books and visitors don't stop here. We did and took lots of pictures like this one with a typical Myanmar oxcart.

 

 

 

 

At Mingun we got this beautiful picture of a nun with a figure of the Settawya Pagoda in the background.

There is no way to capture the mood in the Pindaya Caves; one must experience the sight of some 8000 images inside a huge cave complex. A visit to the caves is one the most unusual and intensely spiritual experiences in all of Myanmar.

 

 

 

 

 

Inle Lake is famous for many things (among them the floating gardens) but most unusual is the "leg-rowing" technique used by the fishermen. Standing at the stern, they wrap one leg around the oar. This gives them a high vantage point and leaves both hands for other chores (like casting the net in the picture).

 

 

 

 One of the monasteries (nicknamed "Jumping cat monastery") at Inle Lake is known for its trained cats. The monks taught the cats to jump through hoops.

 

 

Finally, we went to a working elephant camp. Our guide was able to arrange this because he had twice taken a crew from the Bavarian Television that filmed a documentary about the life and the work of an Uzi (elephant handler). The owner of the camp and star of the movie went with us and is pictured below left. We obtained the movie from the Bavarian TV and it's very interesting.

This is not a tourist destination. Two little tents were pitched on the left platform that otherwise serves as a sleeping area for uzis.

 Our guide Shwe shares dinner with us in the main "house" of the camp seen on the right hand side of the picture above.

 

 

Getting around in the area isn't that easy. This was on the way to the teak logging area where the elephants worked.

 

 

 

 

 The uzis rigged up a cargo basket for taking us for a ride. Getting on and off the elephant wasn't without excitement since these elephants aren't used to carrying tourists. When this picture was taken, she also wanted to hose herself off and take a bath, but fortunately the uzis stopped her.

 

 

 

 The elephants are used for dragging the felled teak trees cut to approximately one ton sections to makeshift roads where the timber is loaded onto trucks.

 

 

 

 

E-mail sent from Bangkok immediately following our tour in Myanmar:

 

We were 20 days in Myanmar. We don't even know how to organize our thoughts in order to give a brief report. Several people asked why we were going there. We didn't have a real answer then. Now we do, and we couldn't leave there without setting up another 20-day tour for Jan 2003. Several Germans we met had been there five times, another couple four times. A Hong Kong ex-pat (born in Myanmar) we met on the plane coming back from Myanmar said he just had to go back 2-3 times a year. He laughed and said we "had caught the bug too". It's the combination of the pagodas, temples, landscape, people, animals, farmlands, food (Juergen got as many of the hottest chilis as he could eat at every meal). The temples have worshipping people, to be sure. But there are plenty of people sitting cross-legged in front of the Buddha images meditating. Meditation is widespread in the temples, and people seem to be oblivious to anything around them. The temples have clocks everywhere as evidence to the popularity of meditation (and the time was right!). This gives a serene mood not found in every religious building elsewhere. The people offer flowers and fruit, which also adds to the total effect.

Anyway, here are some experiences:

We spent much of the time barefoot. That's due to the fact that most sites for visiting are Buddhist sites. The people of Myanmar take their vacations by going to the most holy sites, so that's what there is to see. We had a bit of a time getting our feet tough, but now we're fine unless there's gravel...there's always someone sweeping the area in the Buddhist compounds.

We took a sunrise hot air balloon over Bagan's hundreds of pagodas and temples. What an experience, it is so beautiful. The thousands of old large Buddhas in the cave at Pindaya is one of the most spiritual sites we have ever seen. The Buddhas were so serene, looking down on us. It was like being children wandering in the maze of Buddha images with so many sight-lines at a time exposing yet more hundreds of Buddhas. We stayed in that cave for hours. Next time after next time we come to Myanmar we'll take the three-day trek here staying at monasteries on the way.

The driving is really something. When they got rid of the British they wanted to get rid of all things British. Not only the British names were changed back, but also driving on the left side of the road. That would have been ok, except for the reality that they get all their cars (second-hand ones, at that) from two countries: Japan and Thailand. Both those countries drive on the left. So all the cars are right-hand steering. That makes passing an experience and additional work for the guide who sits on the left side giving advice. It's quite a wonderful sight to see, at least every 15 minutes, an oxcart pulled by either white brahma-like oxen or by water buffalo. The people are unbelievably industrious and unlike in many poor countries, most families own a small farm where they plant 2-3 crops a year. They also have a vegetable garden, maybe a pig (and we visited cute piglets more than once), and lots of chickens. They have avocado, papaya, and many other kinds of trees in their yards too. There is enough food for everyone to eat and they export the surplus to China. Even the animals are well fed as the land is so fertile. The literacy rate is probably higher than in parts of the U.S.

The electricity problem is real. Most public businesses (e.g., restaurants) have big generators as the voltage often varies between 220v and 140v or disappears altogether. The other big problem is fuel. There aren't enough busses so pickup trucks have seats on both sides and people crowd in. Then there's a roof above that. On top are piles of supplies or bags of rice. On top of that more people. At the back and on the sides hang more people.


The end of our trip was supposed to be a couple of days at a beach. We whined and asked for anything else. Our guide came through for us big time! It took a week but he set us up for a 3-day stay in a working elephant camp in a teak/bamboo forest! The owner of the camp has "starred" in two Bavarian TV documentaries. One, in 1996, "Catching a Wild Elephant", and in 1999, "Life of an Uzi". (Uzi is the name for the Mahout, elephant-handlers, here). The Uzi are all from the Karen tribe, here as well as in Thailand and Nepal. There have been 8 groups (2-3 people at a time) in his camp in the last 4 years so we were more of an exotic beast to them than they to us. It was a life highlight! The elephants have Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday off, and we got there on Sunday so they weren't working. We went on a 5-mile walk, and about every 15 minutes we came across an elephant or two, either being ridden, or eating bamboo, or being bathed. The elephant camp owner went with us. We tried to take a photo of a big bull elephant that was in the stream some distance away. The elephant wasn't quite lined up for the photo so the uzi called to him (we assume to come). The elephant started in our direction. Then the uzi called to him again (he must have told the elephant to freeze). The elephant stopped and only moved its ears while we photographed him. All this was from some distance. This uzi (owner) was very gentle with his men and with us. As for quarters, they moved some of the uzi off a bamboo platform and set us up with tents there. When we got to ride the elephants we had to mount from the hut. The elephant didn't seem to have a command for coming "along side", so we had to climb on over the head, then shoulder, then into the basket. They had only a basket for supplies, not people, so we sat on 1" wide rods in the middle of the basket. It didn't matter. It was so much better than being in a tourist camp! To get there it took 11 hours. The last 1 1/2 hours were 4WD on a dirt logging road past unbelievably primitive logging trucks.

I betcha' few got this far. But this is only about 1% of our experience. And we're going back to do something even more far out.


On the road ...
Yvonne and Juergen