Good Karma in Burma
In collaboration with Voyageurs du Monde
14 June 2017
Myanmar is definitely one of the most mysterious and spellbinding countries in South-East Asia, and is opening up more and more to foreign visitors. Away from any shadow of influence from the outside world, the nation is home to some treasures of inestimable value. From Pagan’s thousand-year-old pagodas at the Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo to beautiful Rangoon and a canoe trip on Lake Inle, this “jewel of Asia” will leave a sparkling impression on you.
It’s Rangoon’s magic moment. The final hours of the day have chased away the stiffing heat that ordinarily smothers Myanmar’s former capital. A soft ocher light bathes the dilapidated fronts of the British colonial buildings, and oods the city center’s busy streets. Beneath the dreaming trees,a crowd of men and women in longyi (the traditional Birman sarong) are taking tea at small pink or blue plastic tables.
A bell chime rings in the air: a sugar cane juice seller emerges into view at the corner of a street, followed by a horde of children. Not far away, a ring of teenagers are noisily playing a game of chinlon, an acrobatic game involving juggling a wicker ball. At nightfall, roaming street vendors lay out their goods on the pavements: chicken skewers, silver sh, stir-fried noodles and accompaniments such as spicy curries are illuminated by small light bulbs powered from portable generators. A long line of prettily lit stalls, like a ribbon of re along the road, stretches out of view into the distance.
Rangoon is home to an incredible mixture of ethnic groups and beliefs: Birmans, Kachins, Karens, Shans, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Animists live together in perfect harmony. Every district is like a world of its own. You need go no further than a street away to voyage from China to India, or from Bangladesh to Thailand. Rangoon is both disconcerting and captivating, and is a fabulous prelude to setting o on an exploration of Myanmar.
Pagan, the eternal
As the hot-air balloon rises into an inky-blue sky, the sun suddenly breaks on the horizon. Its orange disc gradually expands, revealing the valley wreathed in morning mist. Between the luxuriant tree tops, you can see hundreds of temples, like sacred islets penetrating through the surface of an expanse of vegetation. These jewels from the past rival each other in beauty: some are decorated with gold, while others are crowned with complex and inimitable sculptures. The temples are a repository for a history of the Burmese kings that has sometimes been cruel. One monarch tore out the eyes of his architect, to be sure that he would always have the most-beautiful temple in the world.
The ancient royal city of Pagan is an archeological treasure as old as the first rains on earth. There is no word that captures the magic in the air, nor any superlatives that describe what you feel during a bicycle trip or carriage ride around the two thousand temples in brick and stucco distributed across the vast plain. Pagan is a lucid dream that brings you a new sight at each hour of the day – a world of changing colors, an emotional shock and an unforgettable memory.
The penetrating sound of the foghorn makes itself heard: the boat is halting at its rst staging point. Near the bank, sellers are waiting for the travelers, in canoes weighed down with bunches of bananas, betel leaves and cases of whiskey. At the quayside, young dockers with bulging muscles load merchandise: sacks of rice, barrels of sugar and teak timber are stowed on the lower deck of an old ferry. Meanwhile, on the bridge, street vendors balancing large food-filled trays on their head move briskly among the passengers, purveying curries, fried fish, hard-boiled eggs and fruit juicy with exquisite nectar.
From Pagan, you can travel on to Mandalay by boat, going down the Irrawaddy. This majestic river winds its way across the whole of Myanmar, from the mountains in the extreme north to the warm waters of the Gulf of Bengal. It is at the heart of traditional Burmese life, and the nation’s life blood. To enjoy the journey over the rich green plains in the center of the country, just let yourself be carried along by the river’s slow and hypnotic current. The cruise is punctuated with picturesque and bustling stopovers that give you the opportunity to stroll around the streets, markets and temples, and observe local life from close up. It’s the perfect opportunity to approach closer to the soul of this mysterious country and taste its hidden secrets.
There is total silence–something so sought after, yet so rarely found. The numbing silence is hardly disturbed by the light footfall of the monks walking over the bridge at U Bein. Their shimmering outlines are drawn atop of a dreamlike landscape that awakens the senses. Every morning, at dawn, dozens of monks walk across this famous teak bridge measuring twelve hundred meters (the longest in the world), chanting mantras. This is a ritual that has never ceased since the dawn of history.
With one hundred and fty monasteries and seventy thousand monks, the “City of Gold” remains a symbolic citadel for the Buddhist faith. It is the religious capital of Myanmar, and the heart of its ancestral traditions. This is where pure Burmese is spoken, so it is said. Situated in the center of the country, Mandalay was the last royal capital. Built under the reign of Mindon (1852-1878), it pays tribute to the Buddha who wished to see a town constructed at the foot of the hill from which the city takes its name. Nestling in a vast curve in the Irrawaddy, the town has an undefinable charm–especially its outlying parts. Leaving behind the dusty, crowded city center bathed in dazzling sunshine, you very soon reach pure countryside where you can see sights from another era, charged with spirituality.
Standing on the stern of his canoe, the Intha sherman maneuvers his oar with an agile foot. Behind him, a purple mountain chain overlays the blue background of the sky. Even when standing, the sherman sees perfectly into the dark deeps of the lake, and keeps his hands free for shing: he throws a large conically shaped net into the water wherever he sees a catch. When the fish are caught, he skewers them with a trident. This upright posture is unique as a fishing technique worldwide, but lets him work in very narrow channels without disturbing the plants in the floating gardens.
Lake Inle lies at an altitude of nine hundred meters, and is an ideal point at which to complete your journey in Myanmar. After a trip full of memorable experiences, the mind enjoys a little relaxation in a pleasant climate. Canoe rides between the houses on stilts in the villages of the Intha (the “Children of the Lake”) are unforgettable moments. In October, during the Phaung-Daw U festival, the lake becomes the stage for a grand aquatic show: dozens of long canoes from all four corners of the lake form a long procession preceding the royal barge, and travel from village to village, from pagoda to pagoda, watched by enthralled crowds. The beauty and harmony of the festival have led to the event being considered one of the nest spectacles on the waters of South-East Asia.
But looking beyond its in nite marvels, the principal richness of Myanmar is its people. Through their kindness, gentleness and careful attention, the Burmese teach a precious lesson in humanity that will not fail to impress you.
While Myanmar is gradually opening its doors to the outside world and to tourism, the south of the country remains largely unexplored and has thus retained its authenticity. The Darwei Peninsula in particular, a rare pearl in the Andaman Sea, is now accessible to adventurers wishing to escape destinations that have become too touristy. Lush nature, authentic villages and a warm welcome from the inhabitants, who belong mainly to the Mon, Karen and Thai ethnic groups, are all reasons to explore the region. But it is in particular the splendid and almost deserted beaches of ne sand, like the one at Tizit (pictured here), that seduce visitors.
Puzzling San Maria
Recently connected by road with the rest of the country, the riverside city of Dawei is also linked by air to Yangon. The accommodation permitted to host foreigners, however, remains limited and is mainly located in Dawei and Maungmagan, ideal bases for exploring the San Maria Bay (illustrated here) and other magni cent beaches of the peninsula.