Travelblog#10: Mount Popa & Monywa – Burma

9th-11th September, 2014

For our last day in the Bagan area we went out on a trip to Mount Popa; a sight famous in Burma for being a centre for nat worship.

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The nats (literal translation; “spirits”) originate from spiritual traditions which existed in Burma before the rise of Buddhism, and it was an area that I wanted to explore as I have always been very drawn towards animist traditions.

To get there we were crammed into a very crowded pickup and the journey took over three hours. When we reached Popa we discovered that the streets were very busy, which surprised us, as we had heard that Mount Popa was a fairly low-key attraction that only received a steady trickle of visitors.

A little confused, we began making our way towards the base of the mountain by foot. Dozens and dozens of buses and motorbikes, crammed with people, drove past us. We tried to ask some of the locals why there so many of them, but none of them knew enough English to be able to explain.

Eventually we saw a group of other western tourists, but they were walking in the opposite direction.

“What’s going on?” we asked.

“It’s crazy up there,” one of them said, shaking his head. “We tried to go up… but it’s too crowded!”

“It’s like India back there,” a girl added, thumbing behind her shoulder.

“We’re leaving,” the guy then said, just before they walked away. “Good luck!”

We were a little bit disheartened, but we carried on walking. We passed a few more backpackers along the way who had also given up.

We saw why when we reached this scene:

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But we decided that as had already made it this far we might as try, and so, we began negotiating our way through chaos. We passed a small temple along the way where some kind of weird party was going on.

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“They were right, you know. This is very much like being in India,” Roy said. “It’s noisy, there’s too many people, and, most of all, I don’t have a fucking clue what’s going on.”

We eventually reached the bottom of the steps leading up to the monastery, but the ordeal was far from over. We still had to squeeze our way through this crowd:

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It did take us a while, but we managed it. When we reached the top there were some pleasant views of the surrounding area and, most importantly, some very interesting nat shrines.

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In the centre platform devotees were placing offerings of bananas and coconuts: the spiritual essence of the fruits were being bequeathed to the nats.

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But, clearly, their physical representations were destined to be consumed by a resident gang of macaques.

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There was one shrine in particular which seemed to be a special focus of attention. People were crowding around it and they were taking it in turns to walk up to a golden statue of a man, so they could place an offering of money into his hat or collar. They would then pray, and some would even tenderly press their forehead or hands upon him.

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After watching this for a while we eventually met a someone who spoke a little English. He explained to us that the statue was “Boe Min Khaung”, and the reason everyone was here that day was because it was his sixty-second anniversary. Anniversary of what, we couldn’t quite get out of him. We did get him to write the name down, though, in the hope it would help us shed light upon it later.

So – who was Boe Min Khaung?

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I am not completely sure, to be honest. I searched online and only found one short reference, where he is described as; “the one famous of having magical power”. If you look closely at the photo above, though, you’ll see that next to the statue there is a picture of a man who bears a resemblance to him so, I am going to hazard a guess, and say that he was once a living person who somehow rose to the status of a demi-god sometime before or after his death. That would probably explain it being his “anniversary”, as well.

We went to visit more nat shrines on our way back down: it was less crowded by then so it was much easier.

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In some ways it was annoying that we happened to come to Mount Popa when it was crammed with so many people, because it meant that we were unable to find ourselves an English speaking guide to teach us some of the folklore surrounding the nats, but, in another sense it was a blessing, because it was an interesting event to observe. There were definitely some peculiar energies on the mountain that day.

The following morning we moved on and ventured north, to Monywa; a town three hours away. We arrived at around lunchtime, which gave us just enough time to go out on a sightseeing tour in afternoon. We began by visiting Thanboddhay Pagoda, which was one of the most impressive modern temples I have seen in Burma so far.

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The interior was like a maze, with gold and black Buddha statues stationed in almost every corner. There were also thousands of mini  effigies of Buddha perched upon the upper shelves.

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It is estimated that there are over five thousand Buddha’s in that temple, in all, but I don’t think they have ever managed to find out a definite number.

And, if that isn’t enough Buddha for you, then check this out:

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Bodhi Tataung – which we visited just before dusk. The Buddha at the front is 95 meters long, while the one at the back is 129 meters high – making it the second tallest statue in the world.

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While we were in Monywa I did not see any other white people, so it seems that not many foreigners make the detour – which is surprising, as it is not very far away from Mandalay and it has some pretty decent attractions. I am guessing the lack of visitors probably has something to do with the fact that Monywa has very poor options when it comes to accommodation. We were forced to cough up $18 a night for a depressing, dingy room with red stains on the walls where past guests had been spitting out betel nut – and it felt a bit like we were being robbed.

Being the cheapest guest house in a town which lacks competition comes with a special kind of privilege, and the owners of Shwe Taung Taun Hotel have turned stretching the limits of that privilege into something an art form: they simply just do not care. They know people will stay with them anyway because they have no other choice.

Maybe one day someone in Monywa will learn that guests might stay in town for more than just one night if you make things pleasant for them and don’t rip them off, because the town itself is quite pleasant.

The following morning we left, hopping upon a saunabus which was heading east.

There are lots of photos of both Mount Popa and Monywa available on my Flickr account.

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Travelblog#9: Bagan, Ancient City of Temples – Burma

7th-8th September, 2014

One of the things that I have enjoyed most about Burma is how “fresh” it feels compared to the rest of Asia. Most of the natives here are yet to be disheartened by busloads of tourists swarming into their country and acting like they are royalty, and thus, they have not reached a place yet where (for many of them) the only interaction they desire to have with foreigners is extract as much money out of them as possible before they leave. Burmese people, in general, are still excited to see travellers and are eager to converse with them, because foreigners bring with them something that the Burmese have very much lacked over the last few decades; a connection with the outside world.

While travelling around the south we were approached by people often, but not because they were trying to cajole us. It was usually simply because they wanted to practice their English, find out what is going on in the outside world, or have their photo taken with us so they could show it to their friends. The constant photos (although charming) could get a little annoying sometimes, but it was nice to not be treated like a walking wallet for once. We rarely needed to haggle over things to avoid being overcharged in the south because the people there were so honest.

Bagan though, is very much on the map. Not many people come to Burma, but the majority of the ones who do take a two week holiday and whisk their way through “the triangle”: Inle Lake, Mandalay, and Bagan.

Thus; tour buses are already a bit of a thing in this region, and the locals are a little more jaded. “Artists” sit outside almost every temple, selling their “authentic” paintings which all somehow look the same. The paler your skin tone, the more you get hassled.

 

“Hi. Where are you from?”

“England.”

“Nice country. Where are you going?”

“Ananda Paya.”

“You need taxi! I take you there! Two thousand kyat.”

“It’s like fifty meters away. I’m sure I’ll make it.”

 

“Hi. Where are you from?”

“England.”

“Nice country. Do you want a cold drink?”

“No thanks.”

 

“Hi. Where are you from?”

“England.”

“Nice country. Come look at my stall, I have lots of nice things.”

“I can look, but I won’t buy anything…”

 

You soon become a little bit bored by it all and feel the need to mix it up a bit.

 

“Hi. Where are you from?”

“North Korea.”

“Nice country. I collect different kinds of money. Do you have any of your currency with you?”

“No. We only trade in raisins.”

 

It is a shame when places reach this stage because it makes you more jaded, as well as them. Some of the people approaching you may just be innocently trying to spark a conversation but you won’t get very far that day if you spend time trying to filter them out, so you end up having to be quite dismissive and blunt.

During the first few hours Roy and I spent wandering around the ancient temples of Bagan, we were a little bit underwhelmed. They were nice temples, but Asia has lots of nice temples. “Bagan” was a word we had heard uttered with an almost mythical air, by many, and I had even heard it being described as a rival to the Angkor complex in Cambodia, which is a very ambitious claim to make.

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And, as impressive as sights like this are, they are not Angkor.

In the early afternoon we reached Shwesandaw, one of the few temples which you are permitted to climb. Once we reached the top we then saw views all around us which looked like this:

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It was then that we started to “get” Bagan. We finally understood that Bagan is not about the individual temples themselves – which are often a little bit repetitive and samey – it was about the region as a whole. The sheer quantity of temples was impressive, and the way that they are scattered across this flat, dusty plane which is covered in green foliage, makes for a glorious sight when you get to view it from a height.

After sitting there for a while, simply enjoying the view, we got back onto our bikes and carried on exploring, feeling newly inspired. Another thing I realised later is that Bagan probably hasn’t aged quite as well as Angkor because the inner walls were mostly filled with murals rather than carvings, and they have all now either faded away or been stolen. Some of the temples still have faint remnants which can give one a vague idea of what they may have once looked like.

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Sunset at Pyathada Paya was a particularly spectacular event.

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We were also lucky enough to have an almost full moon emerge a couple of hours before dusk, which made for a great background for some photos.

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By the end of our second day there, Bagan had grown on me in a big way. It definitely has something and if you’re visiting Burma you should see it. Even if it means entering a tourist trap for a few days.

Lots of photos available here.

Travelblog#8: Inle Lake – Burma

4th-6th September, 2014

Our introductory boat ride to Inle Lake was somewhat marred by monsoon weather. We took shelter beneath our anoraks and clutched our bags to our chests as we crossed the lake. It was too foggy to see much.

The rain cleared by the time we reached Nyaung Shwe; the main outpost for foreign visitors. As a place in itself, it was pretty characterless. Tourist towns can often be tacky places, but there is usually at least at least some nice scenery for the balconies to face towards. Nyaung Shwe is a little bit away from the actual lake though, so the best you can get there is a view of the murky canal which is cluttered with boats and houses.

It seems that there are no reasonably priced digs close to the actual lake, which is strange as most of the natives live in beautiful water villages perched upon stilts over the water. There are a few swanky resorts in the middle of the lake but they are costly, fenced up, and only for the rich (I also suspect they are government owned). In Burma, hotels need to get a special licence to accept foreign guests, so I am guessing the price has been set quite high for the Inle Lake area.

So, it didn’t have a good view, but we did find a room. Roy and I had just come from a three day trek across the Shan Plateau and I was recovering from a cold, so we decided we would take it easy our first day there. By “take it easy”, what I mean was we had a relaxing morning and then hopped onto bicycles and spent the afternoon cycling around the lake. That is how Roy and I take it easy these days.

We visited Maing Thauk, a very picturesque village.

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And just before sunset we went to the Red Mountain Vineyard for some wine tasting – which was a great way to finish off the day. I was so impressed with the wine that I even treated myself to a bottle of their 2010 batch called Late Harvest.

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The next day we did a boat tour around the lake and we were joined by two Japanese girls we met along the way, Emiko and Mami.

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This time it wasn’t raining. We were taken to lots of places around the lake. A local market, the floating gardens, a few temples, and many, many water villages. We were also taken to a cigar-making factory, a goldsmiths, a pottery village, and a textile workshop where they specialised in producing clothing make from lotus fibre.

Most interestingly, we got to see some of the fishermen at work, many of which were manoeuvring their boats across the waters in the traditional Intha style, which is unique to this area.

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The reason they use their leg is apparently so that they can have both hands free to cast their nets. I also think (and I am just guessing here so don’t take my word on it) that being able to row while standing gives them better views of their surroundings, as Inle Lake is very reedy.

In the evening we had a quick beer in a rooftop bar, got something to eat, and then jumped on the night bus. The accommodation at Naung Shwe is so hideously overpriced that it is actually almost cheaper to catch an air-con sleeper out of there than stay in a dingy room with just a fan to keep the heat at bay.

Inle Lake is a very picturesque and beautiful place, so make sure to check out my photos, here.

The next stop Roy and I will be making is at ancient temples of Bagan!