Where do you begin with a trip like this? What reason could anyone possibly have to travel to a place where those in power are responsible for such terrible atrocities? For us, the motivation is fairly simple; to visit a friend. The logic, however, is probably slightly more opaque. Simply ignoring a country and expecting all our information to be fed through the TV can’t really get us very close to the truth. Not that I’m saying for a second we’ll have even the tiniest of inkling of what’s going on in a country so diverse as Myanmar but, even to get geographically closer to the reality will hopefully provide a different outlook to that which we see in the news every day. Not everyone in a country could ever be responsible for the actions of those who claim power.
All the research I can muster has led to the overwhelming takeaway from the preparation for Burma; that we could not hope to be fully prepared for Burma. Anyone who knows me will understand that scares me. I’m not even quite sure now if I should refer to the country as Burma or Myanmar, knowing I will possibly cause offence no matter what way I go. From the outside, it is hard to find information which, at the very least, avoids straddling the negative. There is always a sting in every tale. Over the next two and a bit weeks, we’ll come to realise that even the Lonely Planet guide we managed to skim through before going was off the mark on many points and just plain inaccurate on others. A wonderful start so.
Day 1: to Yangon
It’s an early start to the morning in Dubai. The airport is crazy busy for a pre-sunrise hour. So many people up and shopping at 5am. We touch down in Yangon in the late afternoon. The sun sets pretty quickly here. The place is slightly chaotic, with people dashing between the cars which are sort of forging their own lanes as they go. Buses stop in the middle of three lane roads to collect passengers who dash between the cars to hop on.
Shortly after arriving at the very trendy G Hotel, we change some euro into kyat. Rather, 890,000 kyat to be exact. We walk away from the money changer with an actual stack of bills. Feeling like (close to) millionaires and with literally nowhere to put so much cash we are forced to drop the majority of it back to the hotel before going back out for a quick bite to eat and a Myanmar Lager. Be sure to bring close to perfect bank notes, euro or dollar, to Myanmar. They either won’t take anything less than immaculate or will adjust the rate accordingly.
We catch sight of the Sule Pagoda from a pedestrian bridge as we stroll around. Not that you could miss it. A giant Stupa adorned with gold and lit by the moon, and plenty of other lights. It’s quite stunning in the dark. Children beg on the steps to the bridge and pretend to be asleep beside plastic tubs. Raising their head to glance at you before quickly dropping them back into imitated sleep mode when you look their way. At 10pm, it’s a fairly depressing place for a child to be, physically and otherwise.
Day 2: to Mandalay
We’ve been doing a lot of travelling in the first few days of our trip. Back up this morning and heading back to the airport to, hopefully, take an Air KBZ flight to Mandalay where we’re heading to meet up with Eamon. A good friend who has been very patient with me and all my questions about how this country works, financially and with respect to travel and whatever else in between. Very differently to what I am used to and what I might expect is generally the answer.
You realise fairly quickly that the driver of your taxi is sitting on the right hand side of the car. He is also driving on the right hand side of the road. A curiosity that arose as a result of a dream, apparently. Some of the newer cars appear to have left hand drive, which presumably is a result of people taking bloody safety into account.
To get to Mandalay we’re travelling in a propeller plane, relatively low over the jungles and rivers snaking their way through the dense green below, to somewhere close to the centre of the country. You get a fairly clear picture of what’s beneath, only obscured by the odd, small cloud slowly drifting past. Air KBZ is a little like going back in time to the way air travel once was. Not necessarily better in every respect, but a slightly more magical outlook on flying. As I stare out the window, it does occur to me that all of the place names, organisations involved and the fact that we’re foreign travellers does start to seem vaguely and terrifyingly familiar to those stories you tend to read about exotic locations and not so safety conscious private companies. ‘Flying Beyond Expectations’ is written on the back of the chair in front of me; the company slogan. That expectation presumably being to get there without dying. Beyond that…….
We get a taxi from the airport, driver on the right, leaning over to the left to see past cars and trucks to overtake. We sit clutching our seat belts, wishing he wouldn’t. We pass a family of five on one motorbike. The youngest girl at the front, holding onto the handlebars standing on her father’s lap. Mother at the back, presumably to catch any falling children. Absolutely no helmets to be seen. Our taxi driver constantly beeping the horn at everyone on the road as vehicles flash past in all directions. He’s obviously on a tight time frame too as he tests the structural integrity of the car and suspension to the boundary of their capabilities.
We meet up with Eamon, or rather he comes to our hotel and we meet him in the lobby where he gives us thoughtful gifts of a traditional Kachin shawl and man bag. We brought him socks and biscuits, or, traditional Irish things. We head out to Shan Noodle for some Shan Noodles, obviously. I make a mess. Predictably so. The staff are incredibly attentive in all the establishments. They couldn’t be more so. Almost apologetic at the language barrier, when it is us who should be apologetic at our ignorance. We’re struggling with ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. Eamon tells us about his work at a rehab centre. How dealing with addiction is becoming far too common in Myanmar. About the remorse or lack thereof.
We stop at ‘Beer Station’ for some Black Shield Stout on our way home. It’s actually not bad at all. Arsenal is on the tele playing Bournemouth. Soccer is huge everywhere. Sometimes I wonder why, and then other times I know. We finish the night with a crazy expensive drink in the rooftop bar at our hotel, two drinks costing more than our dinner yesterday at about €4.50. Looking out over the infinity pool at Mandalay and contemplating life. Basic stuff, nothing major.
Day 3: Mandalay
Unfortunately our room was situated in what must be the noisiest corner of any hotel on the planet. Actually, it wasn’t even the volume of noise but just the sheer variety of different noises, relentlessly following and in competition with one and other. Absolutely impossible to drift off. Endless streams of motorcycles, dogs barking, people having normal level conversations outside but as if they were in the room. Sweeping! Honestly, hearing someone sweep from five stories above them is mind blowing. We eventually have to get moved to another room at 1am. In fairness to the guy on the desk at the Hotel Yadanarbon, he could not have been nicer, more apologetic nor more helpful about the whole thing. The room we are moved to is comparative bliss.
Eamon meets us again at our hotel, having been up since 5am and having half the day done we join him for a beautiful walk, along the moat of the ancient Royal Palace. When we get to the entrance we’re forced to pay ‘Tea money’ to the army officer at the entrance due to the fact we have forgotten our passports, which are required apparently. Tea money is a bribe essentially. Against the law these days but still common practice. The officer says it’s a ‘deposit’. For what I have no idea, but as we leave Eamon stands stoic until the guy gives him back the ‘deposit’. Hilarious.
The Royal Palace is a quiet, peaceful place made up of multiple wooden buildings with ornately carved façades and, at some point in history, adorned with gold leaf. We can assume the very good reason why the place isn’t in gold leaf anymore, but instead painted a fairly convincing gold colour. We walk up the steps of the old Watch Tower and get decent views of the whole Palace as well as the surrounding parts of Mandalay. The temperature is on the rise and we’re feeling it in the legs as we march back down the steps.
We keep asking where to go for coffee and everyone tells us the same; Nova Coffee. Eamon points out that it must be the most expensive coffee place if all the locals think we should go there. We eventually get a more Myanmar recommendation and just as we arrive Eamon says ‘looks like a bit of a shit hole’. You can’t win. It ends up being really good. We get crispy pancakes with dahl and Orla wins lunch with some delicious banana pancakes. The coffee is terrible, we’re fairly certain they’re using condensed milk which makes it ridiculously sweet, but other than the thing we actual came for, it was great.
The temperature is pushing over 30 degrees this afternoon so the only thing for it is to head back for a swim in the hotel, on the roof of course. The bar is pumping elevator music versions of the classics. ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ to which I find it impossible to listen to without hearing my dad singing. Absolutely gas. Quite relaxing though. Predictably the water is freezing, relatively speaking. There are lads doing construction work across the way, in some serious heat. Not sure Safe Pass is a thing here either. It’s all about context really.
Orla and I get a nice view of sunset on the roof. It seems to takes ages to go down the last bit and Orla gets a little impatient and the view is slightly marred by the partially completed building in our way. First world problems I suppose. After we meet Eamon and stroll around the Chinese Street Food & Night Market we come to realise it’s more of a night market and not so much street food so we cut our losses and head into Pizza House for some not so authentic Burmese food. Indulging Eamon and the fact that he doesn’t get to eat much western food these day.
Eamon tells us about Kachin state, where he lives and works. How he loves the people there and how they’ve made him literally and figuratively part of their families and community. How it is completely different again from Myanmar in general. We feel pretty bad that we couldn’t make it to Myitkyina, and can only hope it happens someday soon.
We run out of money trying to buy beer on the way home. Coming in about 2,000 kyat short. Slightly embarrassed we have to hand some back. Most of our cash is back at the hotel, due to the fact that my wallet is designed for the euro currency and not great for carrying a hundred notes at a time.
Day 4: Mandalay
There are so many stories of wrongdoings here, whether it’s the Burmese Military forcing people from their land in Kachin state and selling it to the Chinese for banana plantations which destroy the quality of the soil, or driving the ethnic minority of Rohingya from the country, violence and divisiveness is everywhere here. But there seems to be only one common element and that is the Burmese Military. Even Aung San Suu Kyi is powerless against them, whether she wants to stop them or not. When you see slogans that call to ‘crush’ those against the union or for ‘one Myanmar’ it becomes clear what that one Myanmar is. A Myanmar which does not include the diverse groups who make up the minorities of this South East Asian stretch of land.
Anyway, back to the tourism bit; today we’re going to be brought around to the various sights by a taxi driver we met yesterday. First up is the gold pounders shop. Young lads beating the crap out of small pieces of gold placed between two sheets of bamboo paper until they get a thin leaf. We’re pretty sure they’re only hammering the gold when we’re looking. There’s a distinct lack of noise when we’re turned the other way. We can’t blame them in this heat.
After that, we’re brought to a wood carving shop. We’re starting to realise our taxi driver gets commission for the tourists he brings to these places. The wood carvings are really impressive though. Worth a look, but absolutely no chance we would buy anything, even if we could get it home. Not far from that is, what I can only describe as a stone carving district. Streets of shops with guys outside grinding stone into Buddha statues for the monks. Huge numbers of them. Not a mask in sight. Our driver comments that these workers have significant health problems due to all the dust from the stone. They walk around the streets like ghosts, caked in white powder cast off by the Buddha.
Our kind driver offers to bring us to a jade market and we decline until we pass by and the place is swarming with people. We have to get out and have a wander through. We pay the usual ‘Foreigners’ entrance fee. The place is chaotic. There are more motorcycles outside than I’ve ever seen in my life, parked in rows and bunches of thousands as well as tearing up and down the street next to the river. Inside, people are coming up to us and just saying hello. Some appear to be taking photos of us. Our pale skin either amusing or amazing them. It’s hard to tell.
After the chaos of the jade market, we stroll through the emptiness of Shweinbin Monastery; an ornate, carved wooden building in need of some major repairs and they know it, with a solitary donations box greeting visitors as they enter the main room where only a single, sleeping monk seems to occupy the place as far as we can tell. Hiding from the near midday sun and clearly shirking his sweeping duties.
We barely make it into Mahamuni Buddha Temple where worshippers make gold leaf offerings to the Buddha by sticking them onto the statue which has grown in size over the years as people add more and more gold leaf. I’m asked to wear a longyi (traditional Burmese skirt type cloth) as my shorts are ‘too short’. We also have to pay a ‘foreigners tax’ to take photos. I’m not mad to take photos here, but the money is probably useful to the temple and they don’t ask for much.
After a few hours rest, due to us being very efficient tourists, we head back out for the afternoon with our guide. He is incredibly nice, very helpful, respectful and doesn’t drone on at all. He takes us to the Shwe In Bin Kyaung teak Monastery, which is definitely one of the biggest draws for tourists with beautifully carved decorative everything. Eamon gets kicked out for carrying his sandals in the temple, so we head to the biggest book in the world. I know what you’re thinking; we thought it would be a giant book too. But, no, it’s actually all the pages of the teachings of Buddha carved in big (I’ve seen bigger) stone tablets and placed individually in white, tomb like stupas, spread over an impressively large area.
You can see Mandalay Hill from all around the city and surrounds. Not that it’s particularly high, but it stands out with the Sutaungpyei Pagoda glistening on top. During WWII a group of Columbans were placed in internment there by the Japanese. Getting word that the Indian 19th Infantry Division was en route by way of biscuits and chocolate smuggled in. So very Irish. We catch most of the sunset but being the terrible tourists we are, don’t quite make it to full sun down. Instead heading back down to beat the crowd. We get strangely lucky and catch the perfect end to the day as the sun sits just dipped behind the mountains in the distance.
Day 5: to Bagan
Poverty is not necessarily having nothing, it’s having no choice. You can choose enough food, to educate yourself or your children or seek medical treatment when you need it. But not all of those things. It seems dying can be a reality of trying to feed yourself. It doesn’t help that foreign or domestic threats seem to be omnipresent here. The average person cannot escape the whims of lunatics and monsters. It’s pretty much ‘Heart of Darkness’. I mean, I’m in Asia and not Africa, but all the remnants of Imperialism are brutally obvious along the banks of the Ayeyarwady. The hangover of colonial rule hasn’t even kicked in really. Burma is still drunk and disorderly from the night before. The worst part is; this isn’t even self-inflicted.
We’re on a boat to Bagan from Mandalay this morning. Along the Ayeyarwady children run to the shore to wave as we pass by. Shacks overshadowed by gold topped stupas, small fishing boats and ladies washing clothes in the river appear at intervals. It’s a stark contrast between the extravagantly decorated temples and the rotting wooden dwellings. There’s money here, it’s just not in the hands of any of those who need it.
In Bagan, the jetty provides a plank of wood to traverse from boat to shore. There are not too many enthusiastic travellers aboard and a bottle neck is quick to develop. The locals prove it will do the job by literally jumping across it. Safe so. Not so safe is our taxi driver who is clearly having domestic troubles and spends the entire journey shouting down his phone and dangerously overtaking cyclists and buses. Thankfully we make it to our hotel which has two ruined Pagodas on the grounds. Beautiful ancient temples that are gently lit at night. We mill into the tamarind flakes at the front desk as soon as we arrive. A local Bagan treat. We don’t venture too far this evening instead deciding to have a relaxing dinner and listen to the crickets chirp throughout the garden which overlooks the now quiet river. Not a bad setting at all.
Day 6: Bagan
Forget a lie in here. Everyone is up early and going about their day. Boats chug by not far from our window sounding more like helicopters than river boats. Every staff member in our hotel is outside our door sweeping, or so it sounds, the birds are in full swing and in the distance, some puppies, who live at the entrance to the Bagan Hotel River View, make themselves heard as if to avoid being forgotten. There is certainly plenty of life here in the early hours of the day.
Today we’re hiring bikes and taking our chances among the some 2,200 odd temples that occupy the Bagan Valley. Immediately we are shouted at by a guy on a motorbike for being on the wrong side of the road. We were confused again by the right hand drive-ness of the cars, but whatever. Our bikes are old and rickety, the dirt tracks don’t offer a lot of comfort but we’re making slow progress and cover about six kilometres and a completely unknown number of beautiful, old pagodas and temples. Some crumbling, some masterfully restored and others pieced together like Frankenstein from random materials cast off from other projects. The Valley is otherworldly. In every direction stupas break the canopy of the trees, dotting the landscape all around. It’s a wonderful experience but for the odd local trying to get us to climb crumbling temples which are hundreds of years old. The last thing they need is us, or any tourist, scrambling over the weakened stones. We spend a couple of hours just riding around, exploring the old ruins. The place is, for the most part, deserted. It’s like we’ve stumbled onto the abandoned set of Indian Jones. A truly remarkable place. You have to sort of try to remind yourself you’re travelling through Burma every now and then. Before it passes you by. We’ve only seen a tiny portion of what is a stunning country, full of the friendliest of people. They’re almost pre-emptively helpful.
Day 7: back to Mandalay
We’re up fairly early again this morning so we go exploring some more temples. The temperature is perfect in the mornings, for us it gets a little too hot for a few hours in the afternoon and then cools down to a pleasant range again in the evenings. There is a distinct lack of foreigners here. You see a few, but the level of tourism has plummeted, apparently, having reached a peak just after the country opened up and voted in the first democratic government. The reports of murder, rape and the displacement of the Rohingya discouraging tourists from travelling here. Rakhine is not the only region where the Burmese Military are carrying out these horrible crimes though, Kachin state and Shan state are home to many ethnic minorities who are equally persecuted by the Burmese Military. Avoiding the country as a tourist is understandable from a safety point of view. From a moral stand point, it hurts the wrong people. You are not having even the slightest effect on the military. Only the taxi drivers, restaurant owners, hotel staff and shops are suffering with no tourist dollars flowing. Those people can’t turn to the Chinese to plug any financial gaps by selling off land belonging to someone else.
Getting transported to the bus from our hotel is an experience. We’re in what is effectively a cage, open at the rear, on the back of a truck desperately trying to make the main coach on time. We don’t; we’re about half an hour late, but it waits for us as most of the passengers are in our cage, all rattled by the bumpy, dusty roads. A slightly less relaxing experience to that of the boat. The upside is a four hour journey instead of a ten hour one.
The bus from Bagan to Mandalay would really test your endurance. The vehicle bounces up the road, running repairs being made as we tear down the rough road. The bus swings as we narrowly avoid other buses and trucks, very nearly toppling into the trees at the side. Eamon does some research and tells us it is not a recommended form of transport, as the buses are notoriously dangerous. Timely information, half way through our terrifying journey. The bus is packed with people. Some of whom are sitting on tiny plastic stools in the aisles. At one point, in need of some change for a passenger, the conductor phones someone in a town ahead of us and as we drive, without slowing down, through the town he swings out an open window and grabs the cash from his friends out swung hand. Having finalised the transaction, he is then called upon by the driver to fix the clutch. Obviously not something you’d need to stop the moving vehicle to do, so he just opens up a hatch in the floor of the bus and jabs a wrench in before confirming that it will do until we really do need to stop. We make it to the bus terminal; different people from what we were before, only for our taxi to continuously break down en route back to the hotel.
Day 8: back to Yangon
Olra and I join Eamon and Finbar for coffee. Finbar is a class mate of Eamon who has just flown in from Manilla. We part ways after with the lingering regret of not having made it to Myitkyina. We can only hope it happens in the near future.
We take a quick swim in the rooftop pool of Hotel Yadanarbon, for one last, almost perfectly unobstructed, view of Mandalay Hill and the mountains in the distance. The streets below are busy; pigeons wait impatiently on the telephone wires for the street food vendors to throw away some scraps when the all pounce in a frantic flurry to get there before the dogs, who are relatively slow to move in the heat. It’s a partly ordered chaos.
Mandalay International Airport is the quietest airport we’ve ever been in. So much so that the staff in the cafés, shops and behind the stalls call to you as you walk past in a desperate hope to entice you in. I really hope they’re not on commission. It’s a short flight back to Yangon, in less than the allocated hour and twenty minutes we touch down.
Yesterday we were walking around the homeless living in and around the train station of Mandalay. High fiving happy kids living on the streets, who would come running up to us to say hi, just because we are so very white. Now we’re being collected by a Bentley Flying Spur from the airport in Yangon, and it is a little embarrassing. There is a guilt in something so opulent. It is part of the problem, no matter how we try to spin it or tell ourselves it’s a nice treat. It’s not like everything is even remotely fine here. The money spent on the Lotte Hotel seems like it could have been put to better use. The only upside here is the number of staff, at least there is some employment in it with maybe seven people involved in our collection and check-in. The hotel obviously fearing leaving the Bentley alone outside the airport and feel it necessary to leave the driver with the car while a concierge runs in for us.
Day 9: Yangon
We have to battle the Yangon traffic to get to Shwedagon Pagoda where we pay the foreigners entrance fee. More accurately, it’s a non-Asian person entrance fee. There are plenty of Asian foreign nationals strolling in without being stopped. Even the sign at the ticket booth lists French, German and English as examples of foreigners, but they don’t check identification. Unfortunately the main pagoda is covered in bamboo. Lucky we had seen it previously, uncovered. No reduction in the entrance fee either. The place is absolutely packed, we assume there is some sort of festival on as thousands of people wander around and pray. Kindly, a lady at some sort of booth offers to mind our shoes while we walk around as you can’t carry them with you in your hand unless they’re in a bag. Very thoughtful. The midmorning sun is working the temperature to a ‘real feel’ of 35° Celsius and walking around the People’s Park takes every bit of energy.
Bizarrely, given the number in other parts of Myanmar, there are no motorbikes in Yangon. A relative of a General being killed by a motorbike being reason enough to ban them entirely from the city. We spot maybe one or two and put it down to a couple of rebels taking on the system. That or they’re simply just loosening their grip.
We’ve walked around a lot in Mandalay and Bagan, especially considering the heat. Probably down some streets most wouldn’t go. Some locals are amazed to see us. We’re not quite sure why, but they stare at the pasty white Irish folk wandering around in the sun. Mad dogs and all that. We’ve been photographed, randomly, by passers-by and people go out of their way to say hello. Crossing the street to ask us how we are. Practicing their English I suppose. It’s really wonderful to have some of the local kids run up to us to say hi and high five us, with big smiles on their faces. A grown man ran from a shop in Mandalay with a very young baby to say hello and wave his child’s hand at us.
Then there is Yangon; a massive, sprawling city. The traffic is chaotic at best. No tuk tuks and no motorbikes seems to push everyone into their cars all at the same time. It takes far longer to get anywhere than it probably should and the ability to walk is diminished by the dodgy paths, lack of paths, dangerous crossings, and heat. It seems to be far more capable of the tired old scams and try-ons of so many other countries than we have experienced in Mandalay or Bagan, where the people could not have been nicer.
Day 10: Yangon
We’re going to try to seek out the calmer side of Yangon today. We know we’ll have to battle a half hour drive in a hot car to get to Kandawgi Park, but once we get there and after we get over the multitude of drivers doing their best to knock down pedestrians, it offers some beautiful scenery and the fairly spectacular Karaweik Palace, which looks like a ship gently crashed on the shore at the edge of the lake. Unfortunately, much of the boardwalk around is impassable due to the wood being rotten. The birds seem to be making a statement too, as if in an attempt to deter the crowds from being here. So; to avoid an Alfred Hitchcock ‘Birds’ type scenario (which is definitely brewing) we make our escape.
Next up is the quiet and beautiful Inya Lake Park. Probably not the wisest move being out for a walk on the banks of the lake at midday and at 37°. It’s a very different pace to yesterday, sitting in the shade watching some puppies explore the park. The breeze is wonderful, as we rest on a couple of tree stumps. There are a few park rules, as depicted on the information signs, ‘no sex’ is one of six, important enough and broken commonly enough to be signposted, rules.
We attempted to get to Burbrit yesterday and gave up, being unable to find a taxi driver who knew where, or what, it was. Determined to get there, we have our hotel arrange a taxi in the hopes that anything that may be lost in translation, won’t be. When the guy slows down outside the G Hotel (which we stayed in on our first night here) and says, ‘here we are’ we know something is wrong. After consultation with several other taxi drivers on the side of the road, as well as looking for extended periods at my offline maps, it becomes increasingly less likely we’ll get there. But, sure enough, twenty minutes later we arrive at the first, best, and only craft brewery in Myanmar. Maybe it was the ordeal to get there, but we were a little disappointed. The beer is certainly good, at least relatively speaking, but it does not have much to contend with in Myanmar Lager or the other faux-Myanma beers from some of the global giants pretending to be local. Having sampled ten (tasters) of the beers we begin our long journey back through Yangon to bed.
Day 11: to Ngwe Saung
To get to Ngwe Saung, we’ll have a five and a half hour, cross country drive through the Ayeyarwady Region. Outside of whatever Yangon is, it’s mostly an agricultural looking lifestyle. Green countryside, intersected by many rivers and streams with rice paddy fields everywhere. Water buffalo lumbering about, or working hard. Stilted houses, and the odd colonial style building sticking out behind the wooden dwellings on the river’s edge. Oh, and gold pagodas appearing between the trees now and then, obviously.
Our driver, Zay Thu Aung, recommends we try halwa in Pathein. It’s made and served only here. We’re presented with something that looks awful. Truly awful. Orla’s face when they plonk down the plate of brown, sticky jelly is priceless. The halwa is served with a fork and scissors for cutting up and eating. Interesting. It actually tastes really good though!
Just over five hours later we arrive at Ngwe Saung and the Eskala Hotel. A beautiful stretch of beach, with palm trees waving just beyond our balcony. Quite the picturesque view. Already we’re infinitely more relaxed than we were in Yangon. How could you not be; swimming in the Bay of Bengal. The water is as warm as I’ve ever felt in the sea, like being in a nice bath. It feels like we have the hotel to ourselves as well. Which is nice on the face of it but you have to wonder; if tourists don’t come here how will these places survive and, more importantly, what will the population do for work. Myanmar is incredibly poor, generally speaking, and tourism seems to be the best bet for their economy. From what we’ve seen, and we’re now in peak season here remember, people are not travelling to Myanmar in the types of numbers necessary to sustain what they seem to have budgeted for. Not by a long way. We all know why, but the protest is definitely hurting the wrong people.
Day 12: Ngwe Saung
We’ve been repeatedly told that Ngapali Beach is the place to go in Myanmar. Much better, nicer and all that, than Ngwe Saung. Our driver to Ngwe Saung told us as much on our way here. Frankly, I’m not sure what they’re game is. Ngwe Saung is a stunning place. A beautiful beach, clear waters and fringed by an impeccable palm tree forest. It’s quiet too. We’re being left alone, for the most part, with no major activity from hawkers. The odd motorbike whizzing past, carrying coconuts up and down the beach is surprisingly relaxing too. Orla can read, and I can run around chasing hermit crabs. I’m a simple man.
The staff at the hotel and most of the places in town are young. We’ve noticed large numbers of kids in Myanmar don’t appear to go to school. That decision to educate yourself or feed yourself has obviously swung in the latter direction. They work as hawkers, in restaurants, shops and in hotels. Young kids, selling water or flowers at traffic lights. Opportunity isn’t even a remote possibility for a lot of them.
In stark contrast; before dinner, we take a sunset dip in the Bay of Bengal and grab a beer on the beach as the day comes to an end. We attempted to walk to South Island (now called Lovers Island, for the benefit of tourists) but it seemed to just keep getting further away so we gave up and came back. Sitting in our beanbag chairs, with the strand pretty much to ourselves bar some Chinese tourists taking photos of themselves posing in front of the amazing colours on the horizon, basically ruining what could have been a good sunset picture for themselves.
Day 13: Ngwe Saung
Another day of cycling in the heat. We must be mad. The breeze is nice and cooling while you’re cycling but when I stop I just start pumping sweat. We make it all the way to the end of the beach, where we take a dip in the sea to cool off. As we cycle back, we pass a dead, flattened snake and it becomes harder to pretend to Orla that there are no snakes in Burma. As motorbikes whizz past, with entire families on them, we’re given a warm ‘min-ga-la-ba’ and a wave. We’re getting an unbelievable welcome here. Ngwe Saung is a small village and news travels fast apparently. Waiters in the restaurants in the village know where we’re staying before we tell them and they ask us how we are finding Myanmar. They seem genuinely concerned that we enjoy our time here. It’s been the same wherever we’ve been really.
We make a lucky escape pulling out of an entrance on our bikes. Making the rookie mistake of looking only one way and nearly getting smashed by a bus. No really sure how it didn’t hit us, he was going so fast. We manage to crash stop into a curb to survive by a slim margin. Just one more near death experience on our travels.
Day 14: Ngwe Saung
Today we’re kayaking in the mangroves off Miss Island, visiting fishing villages where they lay out the sprat to dry so they can feed it to the chickens. A potent smell. Probably the three hours of paddling wasn’t the greatest idea when I get back with blisters on my thumbs. In hindsight, I can see why Orla wanted the two person kayak. Let’s just say the burden wasn’t spread fifty-fifty. A quick stop at Snake Island, where we see some poisonous striped sea snakes. We’re fairly certain locals bring the snakes there and abandon them as our guide tells us the snakes go there and ‘don’t want to leave’ but the place does not look like snake paradise.
On the way back we encounter some jumping fish. Leaping out of the water just in front of our kayaks, to the surprise of even our two guides, who gasp as if they’ve never seen this before. To put that in context though, neither of them wore life vests, they both smoked profusely and then advised us to follow them to avoid a current where we both became stuck on a sandbar. So, didn’t really come across as the kayaking types. The first hour and a bit of kayaking was magnificent. In retrospect; less is more.
On our, now daily, sunset swim in the Bay of Bengal we get a nibble from what looked like a dogfish. First Orla, then as I scoff in disbelief, he takes a nip at me. We get out just in time, to watch it swim off. After another near death experience, to stabilise ourselves once more, we head back to Garden Breeze restaurant for the second night in a row. The food is great and the staff are very friendly. Amazing value too, for food picked fresh from the garden outside (including chicken, lobster and crab).
Day 15: Ngwe Saung and the long road home
Our last day in Myanmar and the Ooredoo Telecommunications Company are in the hotel on their ‘Team Building 2018’ trip. Maybe a tad late to be building your team for 2018 in December 2018. It’s like they’re on a school trip. Acting like bold twelve year olds who’ve only been let out for the first time. Eskala claims to be a luxury hotel, and until yesterday, I’d have agreed with this estimation. But the Ooredoo team have reduced the luxury to that of a budget Premier Inn during the perfect storm of stags and hens. Unfortunate really. The staff certainly don’t deserve to be treated this way. They have been nothing but the perfect hosts to us. Attentive, friendly and kind. The spoiled brat mentality of the Ooredoo employees and their arrogance is a side of Myanmar we had not seen until now. It exists everywhere I suppose, to some degree or another. Thankfully, they are whisked away to some event outside the hotel and we get some of the afternoon back.
We get the first rain we’ve seen in over two weeks as we drive back to Yangon. It’s a bit surreal. All ten minutes of it. The roads are terrible even without being wet. Driving is like an extreme sport at the best of times in Myanmar, so with greasy roads we buckle up and cross our fingers as we tear toward the colonial capital. We will never forget our experience on the roads of this beautiful country. So many moments seemed like our last.
Despite the fact that we’ve now spent longer than Kipling did in Burma and with superficial similarities aside he was probably right when he said; ‘this is Burma, and it is quite unlike any land you know about’ but I’d imagine the Burma he saw for those three days in the late nineteenth century was vastly different to the Myanmar we have seen. We want to go back, so that’s something. For now though, after 27 hours and several forms of transportation we finally make it home.