At Insider Journeys we recommenced our Small Group Journeys in Burma October 2011
We have been awestruck by the feedback from even our most well-travelled clients and colleagues. In this series of short stories we have brought together travel journalists and bloggers to share their experiences of this incredible and enduringly complex country.
The tourism embargo which persuaded so many adventurers from exploring Burma for so many years has gone. While the serious traveller will recognise the realities of a troubled land, the open-minded will ultimately find their journey fulfilling. Below, Jackie Firmstone updates us on Burma’s path to opening her door to visitors interested in her mythical landscapes, ancient treasures and enduringly charming people.
1948 to 2010
1948 saw the end of British-colonial rule, independence and Burmese nationhood. However after a violent coup d’état in 1962 led by General Ne Win, Burma fell into the hands of an unforgiving military junta. Long considered a pariah state, from 1990 Burma was the subject of sweeping international sanctions and isolation which included a boycott by most international tour operators, including Insider Journeys.
2010 and a change for good
Since the release of the National League for Democracy’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2010, Burma has enjoyed a thawing of relations with the West and increasingly progressive policies from the nominally civilian government led by President Thien Sein.
Notable advances include more tolerance to press freedom, inward investment, a cautious welcome to responsible tourism and better relations with the international community, exemplified by Barack Obama’s 2012 visit to Yangon.
Many hurdles remain
Along with North Korea, Burma was one of the world’s most isolated nations. Now, rapid economic development brings both opportunity and challenges. As a nation created by departing British bureaucrats, Burma is now South East Asia’s most ethnically diverse state, with eight distinct minorities, many of Muslim, Buddhist and Christian faith. It is this diversity which captivates so many travellers, but as the ongoing troubles in Rakhine province show, this is also Burma’s greatest challenge for the future.
Insider Journeys’s approach in Burma
Our approach to travel in Burma is to support and promote sustainability in all forms, including the preservation of cultural heritage, particularly during the current period of rapid development. Operating at a grass-roots level, we work directly with private local businesses wherever possible. Our journeys go beyond sightseeing, seeking to give travellers an insight into the many aspects of life in Burma and to provide opportunities for interaction with the local people they meet along the way. It is these personal interactions which our travellers find most enlightening and rewarding.
Freelance journalist Jessica Muddit explores the vibrant and colourful markets of Taunggyi. Among the exotic smells and flavours, Jessica’s guide tells an ancient story that reveals as many questions as it answers.
A morning spent wandering through the bustling markets of Taunggyi, the capital of Myanmar’s mountainous Shan State, is a delight for any photographer, as the produce and people are colourful, exotic and – in the latter’s case – overwhelming friendly. In the Old Market, vendors wearing eye-catching tribal costumes fanned themselves under the sun in front of huge stacks of dried fish of assorted shapes and sizes (and smells), as well as an astonishing range of eggplants, spinach, blood red tomatoes and of course, Shan State’s famous tea leaves. There was also a vast array of electronics on display in the New Market, as Taungyyi lies close to the border with Thailand, making it a hotbed of trade – not all of which is legal.
After building up a hunger so powerful it could no longer be ignored, my husband and I returned to our driver outside Golden Island Cottages, where we were scheduled to meet our Pa-O guide, who would accompany us to the legendary Buddhist site of Kakku. Kakku is considered the most breathtaking site in all of Shan State and it’s the heart of Buddhist worship for the Pa-O tribe, whose population in Shan State is estimated to be around a million, although very little scholarship about them exists.
Anthropologists believe the Pa-O are originally from Tibet, and migrated to Myanmar more than 2,000 years ago. As a Burmese journalist wrote in a 2004 article called, The Pa-O – The Forgotten People, “The traditions and customs of the Pa-O are little known and gradually disappearing.”
Nowadays the Pa-O are chiefly known for the bright turbans worn by female members of the tribe – the turbans have a chequered pattern, with the base colour usually orange, though the brightest of pinks are also commonly worn.
Despite the fact that our guide was of course wearing one of these eye-catching, loosely coiled orange turbans, along with a navy blue blouse, long skirt and jacket, it was her inquiring eyes, framed beneath a pair of thickly rimmed spectacles, which first grabbed my attention. Smiling widely, she shook our hands and asked where we were from – and without further delay we began the 45 kilometre journey to our destination.
Suu (who shares part of her name with Aung San Suu Kyi) chatted away happily with our driver, who I guessed was also in his early twenties. Although Myanmar people are among the world’s friendliest, many international visitors are struck by a general shyness among men and women alike.
Whether it’s because Myanmar was a closed country for so many decades or simply a cultural norm, there’s a certain quiet gracefulness about Burmese people that I’ve not encountered elsewhere. Even in Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon, it’s extremely rare to hear someone shout in public. The honking of horns is a new phenomenon, brought about by a flood of imported cars on the roads. For a people so softly spoken, Suu’s extroverted nature intrigued me.
We stopped after about 20 minutes at a quiet village and devoured bowls of Shan noodles, which is a simple but delicious traditional dish comprising flat, wide noodles, chicken broth, tomatoes, chilli and peanuts.
“Let’s order some green tea,” she said, before settling into the story.
“A long, long time ago there was a female dragon who lived alone in a lake. One day the dragon saw a hermit man drinking from the lake, and he was so handsome that she immediately fell in love with him. So as the hermit wandered off into the forest, the dragon transformed herself into a beautiful woman and followed him to his small hut. The two fell in love and began living together, but the hermit was often away on long pilgrimages. The woman sometimes reverted back to being a dragon in his absence, because it was, after all, her natural form.
One day, unaware that the hermit was about to return home, he discovered her sleeping on a mat in the hut and was horrified by her appearance. He also felt deceived, so he left her, never to return. By that time, however, she was already pregnant. Distraught and alone, the dragon-woman laid three eggs, before returning to the lake. The Pa-O are descended from one of those eggs, which is why we wear a turban – it resembles the head of a dragon. And Pa-O men dress like the hermit father, wearing brown robes and a turban which is draped to one side, just as a hermit might wear his hat,” she said.
Having already discovered that Suu has a degree in economics and was a huge fan of Korean movies and Facebook, I was curious to know whether she considered the story real or mystical.
She paused for a few moments before saying, “I’m not sure if I believe it anymore – of course I used to when I was young. But my grandmother and mother would be angry if I told them I had my doubts,” she said with a shrug.
Suu then confided that she only wears the turban when she’s working with tourists or attending a Pa-O wedding, because her hobby is tailoring with a passion for Western designs. Nonetheless, Suu said that she observes many of her grandmother’s superstitions at home, though I sensed this was more about keeping the peace than anything else. When intergenerational change happens so rapidly – which nowadays is common in Myanmar – rifts can often lead to serious conflict, as many of my Burmese friends have told me. Her grandmother cannot speak Burmese, only the Pa-O language, and she is also illiterate and dogmatic about tribal customs. Naturally therefore, she disapproves of Suu not wearing traditional dress, but a compromise has been established within the family.
I asked Suu whether it’s possible for a Pa-O to marry someone who doesn’t belong to their tribe, such as the majority Shan tribe.
“Sure – now it would be possible for me to marry a Shan man if I wanted to. But we are not allowed to remarry after divorce. Only if we’re widowed, like my mother,” she explained.
Suu’s father died when she was 10. He belonged to the Intha tribe, who are also predominantly Buddhist and reside in the tourist hot spot of Inle Lake, which is 25 kilometres away from Taungyyi. The marriage was opposed by her father’s relatives, and Suu said her mother has forbidden her to visit Inle Lake.
“I wish I could see it – it looks so beautiful in pictures. But my mother and grandmother don’t want me to see my father’s relatives and I don’t want to upset them,” she said wistfully.
We continued on to Kakku, passing colourful fields of onion, potatoes, mustard, cabbage, tobacco and sesame, but the crop that dominated all others was garlic – a staple in Pa-O cuisine and a major source of local livelihoods.
“A Ukrainian tourist once told me that garlic is used to ward off vampires in his country,” she said.
“But Pa-O people love garlic – we even do rain dances to ensure our crops are successful,” she added.
I tried to explain that the tourist had been pulling her leg, but she looked at me doubtfully so I didn’t press the matter.
We arrived at Kakku as the afternoon sun was beginning to lose some of its heat. The astonishing site is thought to have been founded way back in the 3rd century BC, by the Indian emperor Ashoka. Over time, the 2,478 stupas were built in various colours and designs by different rulers, and some of the stupas have carvings of humans, animals and mythical creatures, while others are quite plain. Although restoration has been carried out quite extensively, my favourites were those that had been left to crumble gently over time and were overgrown with trees and vines.
At one point, when Suu was a few paces ahead of me, I called out her name so as to take a photo of her walking through the maze of stupas. She spun around with a grin, made the “Victory” sign with one hand – and stuck out her tongue.
Bemused, I said to Suu, “You look like Miley Cyrus when you do that.” “I love Miley Cyrus! Well, only when she was on Hannah Montana. Now she’s weird,” Suu replied with a giggle.
An Alternative Side of Myanmar's Inle Lake
Words & Title image by Erin McNeaney
Travel blogger Erin Mcneaney uses the great egalitarian vehicle - the bicycle - to explore the less travelled paths of Myanamar’s great lake. She finds that the wheels of curiosity flow both ways.
Inle Lake is one of Myanmar's most popular destinations. The 22km long lake surrounded by mountains in Shan State is usually visited by wooden long tail boat and the chance to see how life is lived on the water shouldn't be missed. It's worth spending more time in this fascinating area. We hired bikes to explore an alternative side to the lake.
We set off early on a dusty dirt track out of the main town of Nyaungshwe, passing small villages of stilted bamboo huts, vibrant green rice paddy fields, and locals on their way to work. A young boy sang as he rode his buffalo to the fields, leading four more behind him; teenage girls wearing straw hats and colourful textile shoulder bags swung their lunch pails; and a pickup truck passed full of workers excitedly pointing and waving at us.
Our first stop was the hot springs at the Intha village of Kaung Daing. After the bumpy ride we were relieved to ease ourselves into the hot water and enjoy the views of the fields and mountains. As we left, we met a truck full of locals who came over to us smiling and laughing and, as often happened in Myanmar, wanted me to take their photo. They posed with serious expressions; the women's cheeks smeared with the yellow Burmese makeup thanaka, the men wearing sarong-like garments called longyi. They were just as curious about us as we were about them and they all wanted to pose for photos with us—we must have taken a dozen with each member of the group.
With cheerful waves and big smiles on our faces we set off again to the village's market - one of the five rotating markets that are attended by the area's hill tribes. It's a vibrant, bustling place with women sitting on the floor, their produce in piles around them - onions, lentils, dried chillies, dried fish, stacks of Shan poppadoms, household goods, cheroots (Burmese cigars), and much that we couldn’t identify.
We wanted to do a loop back to Nyaungshwe, so headed down to the jetty by the market to hire a long tail boat to take us and our bikes across the lake to Mine Thauk. We set off through narrow reed-filled channels before emerging onto the huge expanse of Inle Lake with its impressive one-legged fishermen at work, balancing on one leg on the end of their canoes and using the other leg to paddle the boat, leaving their hands free to cast their nets. Along the way our guide, a young student earning some extra cash, quizzed us about why we didn't have children - in Myanmar, at 30 years old, we should have had five!
The people of Myanmar are the true beauty of the country
Words & intro photo by Michael Turtle
For so many years, Myanmar was cut off from the rest of the world. We knew it existed but never thought we could visit. For those who lived in the isolationist country, they judged how the world viewed them through the prism of international sanctions.
Now the gates have opened and the locals in Myanmar are embracing the tourists who are taking the opportunity to see one of the most beautiful countries in the world. There are the huge golden pagodas in the cities, the ancient temples on dusty plains, but the true beauty is in the people of Myanmar.
At a small restaurant in Mandalay, not far from the Royal Palace, I stop for lunch. This is clearly not somewhere that foreigners would normally stop and the eyes of the owner light up with excitement when I walk in. She calls out to her friends from a nearby shop and they come over as well to join me.
None of them can speak English and there is no menu, but the women have a solution. They bring over a collection of small dishes from the buffet and lay them all out in front of me. It’s more than I could ever eat but it’s delicious and they all sit around and watch me with smiles as I try each bit of food.
It reminded me of another experience just a few days earlier in a small city called Pyay. A local man on a motorbike stopped and introduced himself as Scott. He could see I was a tourist (and there aren’t many of them in Pyay). So he offered to take me on a tour of the city for the afternoon. He didn’t want any money – in return he just asked if I could come to the local school and speak English with the students for a while.
In many countries in this region, this would set off alarm bells and the natural inclination would be to assume it is a scam. Not in Myanmar. As promised, Scott spent several hours showing me around the city and the old temples nearby. At the end, I went with him to the school and happily chatted with the students.
It doesn’t matter if you find yourself in the big cities like Yangon, the tourist areas of Bagan or trekking through remote wilderness in Shan State, there will always be local people who will want to interact with you. They may offer to paint your face with the traditional ‘thanaka’ make up, dress you in a ‘longyi’ or feed you some homemade snacks.
This is what happens when a country is cut off for so long. The people of Myanmar don’t always realise what a stunning country they have and don’t understand why foreigners want to visit it. They are grateful for the tourism. In reality, we should be grateful for their generosity and warmness. It’s one of the reasons Myanmar is one of the best places you will ever visit.
04 Unforgettable Fulfilment
How to Give and Get The Most From Burma
Words by Dustin Main
Nine-time visitor Dustin Main explains why now is the perfect time to take the plunge and visit Burma. With his modest language skills, he reveals the few words you need to make a local beam from ear to ear.
Chances are, Burma (Myanmar) has popped up on your radar in the past couple of years. You might be a traveller who has visited other countries in the region, and have been waiting for the right time to add Burma. Maybe you've become intrigued after hearing that the country has been opening its doors to the world again after years of being cut off from the rest of the world.
Or maybe you saw a picture of an unbelievable Bagan sunrise and you knew that this was something that you needed to see with your own eyes.
The Little Things
The fisherman of Inle Lake. The temples of Bagan. The majesty of Shwedagon Pagoda. When checking any to-do list for a trip in Burma, you're going to find these gems... and for good reason. They're spectacular.
But something else will inevitably take over the stories that you bring back to your friends and family. Like the time you stumbled upon the novice monk ceremony as it passed through town on horseback and ox-cart. The entire town was dressed in their best to watch from the side of the road, or walk alongside. You followed the procession to the monastery to hear the 12-piece band bark out their tunes to celebrate the occasion.
Maybe it was the busy local teashop that serves you your first laphet-yeh, a popular tea shop staple made of Myanmar tea and a dolop of condensed milk. Whether you choose to mix it all up before drinking, or you scoop out the condensed milk at the end for a sweet kick is up to you. But you needed to order a couple to know which way best suits your style, and really, who could blame you?
Or maybe it was that evening you were quietly walking around soaking up the glow of the candle-lit pagoda during the monthly full moon celebration. Then you looked up and saw the stars filling the skies. The thought came to your mind, "Can this be real?" It's the little things that will inevitably define your experience in Burma. Those magical things that just happen here, if you let them. Be all in.
Don't Just Visit Like an Outsider, Interact and Live As
Burma is the perfect place to break down barriers. It's so easy, you'd wonder why everyone isn't doing it. Since it's still fresh to tourism, the people are wonderful, genuine, and inclusive. On your first visit to the market, pick out a lovely longyi, or for the men, a pa-soe. This circular piece of fabric is woven right into the culture here. Not only does it keep you cooler and more comfortable in the daytime, you'll immediately stand out from the crowd. It's a wonderful way to have a conversation started with you, and a wonderful keepsake.
Skip the western breakfast for a taste of the local cuisine. Along with toast or eggs, you're just as likely to find mohinga. It's as close to a national dish as you can get in Burma, and this rice noodle and fish soup pays in delicious dividends. Like a lot of dishes in the country, the chillies and lime come on the side, so you can spice it to your own tastebuds.
When you head to the hills of Shan State in and around Inle Lake, give Shan noodles a try before you start your day. More specific for the region, take advantage of this tasty dish when you can. I recommend the variation made with a "broth" of tofu made of split peas.
Finally, learn a few words. Most travellers to the country will learn the greeting "min-gala-ba" and thank you "che-zu tin-bah-deh." Add just a couple more, and so many doors and opportunities will open for you.
Instead of "min-gala-ba" (which is only used by tourists), surprise your new friends with "ne-kaun-yeh-la" which is the greeting the Burmese actually use. It means "are you well?" Answer back with "ne-kaun-ba-deh" (I am well) when they ask you back, and you'll be rewarded with smiles and a warm fuzzy feeling that money can never buy and cameras can never capture.
And after that delicious meal, tell the proprietor "sa-lo koun-deh" which means "the food was good!" What a great thing to leave behind.
As with any new language, you'll probably stumble and fall many times as you attempt to use these few words. But don't fret. After being completely taken aback by the fact that you're trying to speak their language, you'll probably attract a small crowd to come and help you out. Don't be afraid.
The Time is Now
You have the opportunity to see something special in Burma right now. The last few years have brought about change and optimism at an unprecedented rate. It's an exciting time to say the least.
Through my nine trips to the country since 2011, I've been fortunate to witness this place evolve in front of my eyes. Every time it's just a little different. People ask me daily about when the best time to visit Burma is. The answer is simple. Now. If not now, as soon as you can. So go, and bring back a story you'll never forget.