They say that India is an assault on the senses and I'm glad to say that from this traveller's point of view Burma (or Myanmar), while not having the craziness of India, is not too far behind. I'm not entirely sure what to call this country but I read somewhere that the beautiful and courageous Aung San Suu Kyi still calls it Burma and so for the time being so shall I.
I arrived early on Wednesday morning and was through immigration, customs and baggage collect in less than 20 minutes and on my way in a taxi to Downtown Yangon. The first thing I noticed was they drive on the right yet nearly every car is right-hand drive - very strange. Like most major cities Yangon is choked with traffic, although all forms of two-wheeled transport, including bicycles are banned. The pavements and side streets in Downtown Yangon are packed with enterprises of every kind, from pavements food stalls to clothes vendors, from electric tools to vegetable sellers. If there is anything you need the chance are you will find it among the mass of humanity and material goods.
Young Buddhist nuns collecting alms in Yangon
On my first evening in Yangon I walked the 2 miles from my hotel to the Scwedagon Pagoda, the focal point of the city and one of the world's great religious sites. Foolishly I'd forgotten that these places have a dress code and I'd turned up in shorts. The gatekeepers, however, let me in but i had to pull my shorts down until they totally covered my knees. They were in danger of falling off altogether and I couldnt help wondering which the Buddha would find more offensive - my knees or my backside? The golden stupa at the centre of the site soars almost 100 metres into the sky and is surrounded by dozens of spires and temples containing hundred of images of the Buddha. At various points around the Stupa are stations dedicated to the days of the week where devotees pour water over a Buddha statue according to the day of their birth.
Washing the Buddha at the Friday corner
People wander around with their friends and family, sometimes stopping to kneel before a Buddha image, offer flowers or light candles and incense sticks. As the day draws to an end and the light fades the golden stupa and spires take on a deep glow which radiates into the night sky. Mercifully, the temperature begins to fall and the marble paving slabs become bearable to walk on.
One of Yangon's tourist attractions is a train which circles the city in three hours and ,says the Lonely Planet, gives the tourist a chance to get close to Burmese life. I decided to take the opportunity but there wasn't really a great deal to see from the train and not a great deal happened. Until, that is, we pulled into a small station that was next to a large market. There followed two minutes of frenetic activity as large sacks containing all kinds of vegetables and greenery came flying through the doors and windows where they were quickly shoved under seats and into every available space. It would seem that this was the weekly shopping trip for most of these women (only a few men were involved) and they had bought enough to keep their families going for a few days. At various stops along the route they were met by husbands or other family members and their sacks and bags were off-loaded. At one point a man climbed aboard carrying a large miror-fronted display cabinet which took up a large amount of floor space and inconvenienced those near him to a considerable extent. No-one complained, though, and he busied himself with a newspaper with not a care in the world.
The journey from Yangon to Pyay could certainly be a strong contender for the world's most uncomfortable train ride. The train left Yangon at 1 pm in hot and sticky conditions (100 F or more) and covered the 160 miles in eight and a half hours, therefore averaging less than 20 miles an hour. It actually arrived on time which was a huge blessing as the journey was agony. We clattered and clanked along but as soon as the train picked up any speed the carriage would sway violently from side to side and every few minutes would begin to bounce alarmingly to such an extent that I occasionally lost all contact with my seat, which being in upper class was upholstered and reclinable. Heaven only knows what it was like for those on the wooden bench seats in ordinary class. One of the few pleasure was watching my fellow passengers bouncing up and down as though on some kind of manic and out of control fairground ride. As the hours drifted by so did a monotonous landscape of mile after mile of dry, brown, dusty paddy fields punctuated now and then by small villages and the occasional bullock cart.
Much to my relief we eventually arrived in Pyay, Uncontrollably shaking I climbed onto the back of a motorbike for the mercifully short trip to my guest house. I hate riding pillion as I never have any faith in the driver and can't help imagining the worst, but these tremors were the result of having been bumped and jostled remorselessly for nearly nine hours.
Pyay itself didn't have great deal to offer other than the Pagoda, a similar but smaller version of the one in Yangon, but what made it memorable was the roosting of hundreds of mynah birds as the sun began to set. They flew in in pairs and small groups and perched on the stupa and the surrounding spires, squabbling and fighting for the best perches and making a fantastic noise with their excited and quarrellsome chattering. Gradually, as it grew darker the noise diminished to be replaced with the more muted chatter of human voices. An unexpected but wonderful experience.
For dinner that night I found a Burmese/Chinese restaurant that seemed well frequented by locals and saw that at the bottom of the menu was a dish called Crap Fish Curry. Whether this was a description of just the fish or the whole dish I wasn't sure, but I just had to find out. I don't know what kind if fish it was - possibly scallops - but it didn't deserve the insult and slipped down rather well with a bottle of Myanmar lager, the local brew.
The Journey to Bagan
I left Pyay at 4.30 pm by bus after another pillion ride to the bus station (I hate riding on the back of motorbikes!) but the bus hadn't gone more than 100 yards before we were involved in a minor accident as a car collided with the bus or vice versa (perhaps motor bikes aren't so bad). It was only a scrape but we spent the next three and a half hours sitting at the side of the road while a policeman took photos on his mobile phone while and not much else happened. Eventually we got under way and I managed to doze fitfully until I was awakened at four in the morning and told we had had arrived. However, I was still three or four miles from Nyaung U where the guesthouses were. Why they put bus stations on the outskirts of town I don't know, but I suspect it's so that taxi drivers can make a killing. In a half awake state I was surrounded by a group of them very politely outlining my options; either a regular taxi for 10,000 Kyat (£6, a price that is not far below what you'd pay in the UK for a similar distance, but I had no choice and the taxi drivers knew it) or a bicycle trishaw for 7,000 Kyat. I chose the latter and once my backpack had been tied in place I climbed into the little seat beside the rider and off we set into the night. The journey was almost surreal as he pedalled along dark, deserted roads passing the ghostly shapes of roadside trees before eventually finding a guesthouse where I tumbled gratefully onto the bed and slept under the waves of warm air being blown over me by a whirring fan. There is something about these journeys in a strange place in the middle of the night, something I have experienced on quite a few occasions, that is at once slightly frightening but also stimulating. You have no idea where you are or who you are with and to enter dark, deserted streets with a total stranger has an element of danger that gives a bit of a buzz.
A bicycle trishaw
Each day is becoming hotter, with the temperature climbing to 108 degrees according to a weather web site, and everyone is longing for the rains to arrive. Sometime in the next two weeks I am told. The Burmese people I have met so far are absolutely charming. They always have a ready smile and seem genuinely glad to meet and talk to foreigners. They often try to practise their English, which is sometimes limited but usually results in smiles and laughter. The women dress simply, but elegantly, in a blouse and sarong and are gorgeous. They seem to have a freedom and a confidence in themselves that is not often found in Asian societies. Perhaps this is due to having Aung San Suu Kyi as such a powerful role model.
Bagan is just extraordinary. From an arid and scrubby landscape hundreds of stupas, pagodas and temples point to the clear blue sky. Some still contain Buddha images and are still in use as places of worship though others are ruins that have been restored, some say with little regard for archaeological accuracy. Nevertheless, the site, which covers a few square miles and was built between the 11th and 13th centuries is extremely impressive. I explored it on an e-bike (rented for 5000 kyat) which served me well until late in the afternoon just as I had decided to turn for home, I picked up a puncture in the front wheel . A couple of locals tried to help out but were unable to get a reply from the phone number I had been given in case of emergency so there was nothing for it but to load the bike aboard a horse and trap and ignominiously return to base.
...and my rescuers
The following day, undaunted, I hired another e-bike and rode the few hundred yards to Weatherspoons, my favourite watering hole, for a breakfast of papaya salad, mango juice and strong black coffee. The guy who owns this outdoor restaurant is also a balloon pilot who, oddly enough, did much of his training in Bath and Bristol. It really is a small world! Having breakfasted I decided to set off and explore some more of the temples but try as I might I couldn't get the key to go into the ignition. I was on the point of giving up and phoning for help when an English guy who was watching this performance from his table a few feet away suggested I might be using the wrong key. Sure enough I had been trying to insert my hotel room key. I felt such a fool but can only blame the heat. It really is difficult to think straight in such extreme temperatures. It's been reaching 109 F during the afternoons and even the evenings give little respite as the temperature only falls to a minimum of 84 F. You would think that cruising along on a bike at up to 25mph would stir up a cooling breeze, but sadly this is not the case. The breeze is at best very warm and occasionally you hit a pocket of really hot air and feel that your skin is burning. Nevertheless, I have loved my few days in Bagan and it is with great sadness that tomorrow I must take my leave and head on to Mandalay.
The temples and Buddhas of Bagan