Janice Gray spent time in Myanmar (Burma) during a Christmas vacation. She describes it as being one of her best trips—a fascinating place and a beautiful country. She kept a trip diary and excerpts are captured here.
By Janice Gray
Day 1: A guide from Columbus Travel met us at Yangon airport and after lunching at a restaurant built for expats and tourists we go to see Chaukhtatgyi, the 55 meter-long reclining Buddha. Yangon is charming with lovely old colonial buildings.
Dusk is a good time to visit the 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, sheathed in 11 tons of pure gold and 4,350 diamonds weighing 1800 carats. It is magnificent and the complex seems grander than the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Day 2: Today we are going to hike up to the Golden Rock. We go by car to Kin Pun Base Camp, a 5-hour trip, and then by truck to where we start the trek. The truck has 7 rows of planks in the back and each plank seats 4-6 people, mostly locals. The road up the mountain is steep with hairpin turns. The final trek to Kyaiktiyo takes about 45 minutes and a porter is available to carry our luggage in a basket on his back.
The Golden rock is a huge boulder completely covered by gold leaf and delicately balanced on the edge of a cliff. Legend has it that a hair of the Buddha keeps the rock from rolling down the mountainside. It is an important pilgrimage site that one must visit three times in a year to get a wish fulfilled. We stay the night at a small hotel but many pilgrims sleep on mats out in the cold.
Day 3: In the morning (Christmas morning actually), I hire a palanquin to carry me down the mountain to the truck. Imagine, if you will, a small, low wooden lawn chair with a canvas seat; the armrests are firmly tied to two large bamboo poles; the four men carrying the palanquin are so coordinated that even when one slips and falls to his knee it barely jars me. The view is wonderful.
The drive to Bago is slow and before going to the train station we stop for a look at the largest sleeping Buddha. The train station is culture shock. It is dark and crowded. People, along with their babies, are sleeping on mats. We are escorted to an area fenced in by benches. A military person with a gun sits by us and chats with our guide.
When the train arrives our bags are loaded through the windows. We are surprised that we are sharing the sleeper with two locals. It is a long, slow, bumpy ride to Mandalay. There are two official stops and you can flush in the station.
Day 4: Fourteen hours later we arrive in Mandalay and the guide that greets us keeps us from being swarmed by those wanting to carry our bags. We go see the famous Mahamuni Pagoda that over the years has increased in size because of many applications of gold leaf.
We proceed to Kuthodaw Pagoda, known as the World’s Biggest Book for its 7,000 stone slabs of Buddhist scriptures. Nearby is the Shwenandaw Monastery, noted for its exquisite wood carvings. It also is a visible reminder of the destruction caused here during World War II. We drive to the top of Mandalay Hill to watch the sun set; the Pagoda there is covered with sparkling glass.
Day 5: A houseboat is taking us up the river to Mingun. We walk a plank to get on with the owners of the boat holding up the handrail, which is a bamboo pole. It’s a boat for foreigners for there are life jackets. The 45-minute trip is lovely.
Mingun Pagoda is known as the biggest brick pile. If completed, it would be the size of the pyramid at Giza. There is a huge bell, said to be the biggest or second biggest in the world. There is also a market for tourists with many nice handmade articles to tempt one. I meet the first of many excellent painters whose work can be purchased for a pittance. On our return journey, people are walking along the river pulling small boats upstream as the current is too strong to paddle.
There are so many sites and sights. Almost no one wears western clothes but instead a longyi (sarong). Everywhere you see monks in saffron robes and nuns in pink ones. They beg for their food and people don’t seem to mind giving offerings to them for by doing so they earn merit for the next life. Visiting Myanmar is much like stepping back 75 years in history. Many places have no electricity and the river is still used for washing clothes. There are few cars.
I ask my guide about the government and he says the present government is good and that democracy will come slowly, slowly. He says they were like people who had their eyes shut for a very long time and should only open them a little each year.
Our hotel in Mandalay is very nice. There is a pool, good food and excellent service. If anything, we are over-served. We can’t open a door by ourselves or carry anything. Every time one of us leaves the room someone comes in to fix the bed and fold anything left on it.
Day 6: We rise early for a scenic cruise to Bagan. I expected lounge chairs on the top deck and instead there were plastic chairs that are for rent for $1 US. There is a foreigners-only woman’s bathroom—a low western toilet that is regularly hosed down. On leaving Mandalay our boat gets stuck on a sand bar for about two hours. It is foggy and we can vaguely see the shore. The ride to Bagan is long and by the time we get there our driver has passed out and has difficulty getting up—too much betel and other substances, methinks.
Our hotel is magnificent. Our room is large with a picture-window view of the beautiful Ayeyarwaddy River.
Day 7: The historic city of Bagan is difficult to describe with its landscape dotted with stupas, temples and pagodas. People are everywhere selling exquisite souvenirs. We take a two-hour drive to Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano generally known as the place legendary nats or spirit gods live. To reach the top we have to trek but it’s worth the effort for the views are great. We continue by car for a four-hour drive to Kalaw. Our guide says that so few foreigners go there that the locals will think we are from outer space. The road is challenging and the driver takes a break to chew betel, saying it will make him a better driver. Hmmm.
Day 8: This was an amazing day. I go with a local Karin guide to see a traditional Palaung Long House at the top of a mountain that takes a good hour to reach. Four families live there and they bring me oranges, a soybean snack and tea. Then they dress me like a traditional Palaung Lady—longyi, jacket, hat, and white waistband with flat bamboo insert. Of course, they then try to sell me clothes. I buy two men’s jackets that look good and fit me. Afterwards there is the long walk down.
Later in the day we depart for Inlay Lake—a drive that takes a long time for the car rarely goes faster than 20 mph. The hotel where we stay is amazing, our room is gorgeous and the scene from our deck is just too beautiful for words.
Day 9: We take a boat to Indein to see ancient pagodas, the hidden treasure of the Pao Tribes people. On our way back to the boat, I feel very sick. The guide gives me some traditional medicine, a powder to be taken with water. It doesn’t work. Suddenly, three local women appear. One rubs my back, another my stomach and the third my feet. It seems to help. I offer them money and they refuse. “Myanmar people,” my guide says, “have sympathy.”
We get on the boat and the journey continues.
Condensed and edited from trip notes.
Photo credits Janice Gray and istock
© Riding the buses 2012