Myanmar is pretty new to tourism. They just opened their borders to outsiders recently and there aren’t nearly enough hotel rooms for all of the tourists that want to come. Luckily we weren’t coming during the high season so there were plenty of rooms available, but the prices were still double what we’d found anywhere else in Asia. Our hotel was brand spanking new, just completed in January, and had the most amazing service we’d had on our trip. They ran out to our taxi to meet us and grabbed our bags from the trunk to carry them up to our room, turned on all our outlets and quickly turned to leave without even requesting a tip.
Our first morning, we we got up early, loaded our water guns and started walking. Along the street there was a local market with an assortment of animal parts, random veggies and the occasional pile of fried food. We generally tried to avoid food that had been just sitting out for unknown amounts of time, but it was early in the day and we were feeling brave. We were just walking up to buy some deep fried mystery on a stick when a pigeon swooped in and landed right on top of the pile of food! The stall owner hardly looked up and made no attempt to shoo the bird until he noticed the expressions on our faces. Then he sort of half-heartedly swung his hand toward the bird from his seat about 3 feet away. The pigeon took no notice of him and continued to hang out on the food pile. We weren’t really that hungry anyway.
We soon passed our first water station of the day. The water stations are temporary structures for the water festival set up all around the city with dozens of hoses hooked up to a constant water supply throughout the festival. Colin ran up to one of the locals and asked if he could man one of the hoses for a bit. Just like in Chiang Mai, pickup trucks, filled mostly with young locals, would spend the day driving from station to station getting hosed down at each one. The trucks also had the big 55 gallon barrels in the back for the passengers to toss water at pedestrians along the way.
We made our way through the city, taking a brief break from the chaos by getting up onto a pedestrian bridge above the streets. From there we could still pump our super soakers onto the cheering locals passing by below without them pelting us back. Their reactions seemed to say that no one had really thought of doing this before, but later we had folks throwing water onto us out of second and third story windows, so the idea wasn’t entirely novel. Our squirt guns were pretty unique here though. While they were everywhere in Chiang Mai, we didn’t see a single other squirt gun here. On the last day of the festival, we gave both of ours away, so the country now has at least two! 🙂 After a nice respite in Sula Pagoda, we braved the streets again for a concert under farm-style sprinklers. We listened to a few songs before reaching our limit on crowds and on being drenched. We decided to get out of the main downtown area and head north to see some of the sites.
Unfortunately, getting out of downtown, did not mean escaping the water festival. While waiting for our delayed train (which ended up being an hour and a half wait), local children seemed to be able to sense the moment our clothes started to dry and would come by with large water bottles of ice cold water to dump on us. Once we finally got on the train, we sighed with relief only to find that people would be standing along the route and tossing water in through the windows as we passed by. Off the train, most cab drivers didn’t want to pick us up since we were wet, but eventually someone took pity on us. We hopped in along with 2 other travelers who had their full packs on and were trying to get to the airport somewhat dry. We rode the last bit of the way to the town’s huge reclining Buddha statue. Luckily, there is no water thrown inside the temples, so after wringing our clothes out, we went in and wandered around for quite a while. We had a great chat with a local man about the state of the country. He recommended a couple of books on Myanmar, but said we’d have to get them elsewhere since they were banned inside the country.
From the reclining Buddha we decided to walk to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, apparently the holiest Buddhist site in Myanmar. The giant pagoda itself was quite impressive but some of the other items on the grounds were a bit odd. From the shrine containing replica’s of the Buddha’s teeth to the multitude of what we came to refer to as “Vegas Buddha’s” with flashing neon halos, it had the feel of a strange mix between a sacred sanctuary and a Buddhist theme park. We stayed through sunset before making our way back home.
At this point, we were running on nothing but the fried egg and toast from breakfast and a bag of chips we picked up after passing on the pigeon’s food. Unfortunately, no restaurants or even grocery stores were open. The whole city (and maybe the whole country) shuts down for the new year. Finally at 9:30pm, we were able to find one place in town serving food, but knowing we had several more days of the festival, we were starting to take stock of the snacks Rachel had brought along.
The next morning we had to catch a taxi to the airport around 4AM and despite it being 3 hours before breakfast officially started, the hotel staff still got up to make us a hot meal. We flew to the northern city of Mandalay on Golden Myanmar Airlines, one of the few airlines operating in the country that isn’t run by the government. In addition to being half the price of the government run airlines, they also provided a shuttle bus to drive passengers the 45 minutes from the airport to downtown Mandalay. The shuttle dropped us off just a couple blocks from our hotel, but we couldn’t even make it those last 2 blocks without someone spraying us with a hose and wishing us a happy new year.
We quickly learned that even more of Mandalay was shut down for the water festival than Yangon. We couldn’t find a taxi, a restaurant or even a grocery store. We hate to admit it, but most of our daytime hours in Mandalay were spent in our hotel room hiding from the festival that was quickly getting old. (Or maybe it’s just us that are getting old!) We had heard that after 6:30PM there was a reprieve from the water, so we got a recommendation on a restaurant that opened late and walked over. It turns out that not all the locals had heard about the party ending at 6:30, and we still got pretty wet on our way over but the food was great, the array of complementary side dishes were continuously refilled, and every table came with a tub of caramel flavored antacids to help you through the rest of your evening.
After dinner we tried to keep to the side streets where we’d be able to go a little farther between soakings and got to see the moon rise over the palace moat. We then went out to see “The Mustache Brothers,” a show known for decades for its cutting edge, anti-government humor, which is a rare find in one of the world’s most insular dictatorships. It seems only one of the brothers are left since one died from lead poisoning after years in a work camp. Apparently, this is not an uncommon way to die there. He was jailed for years after a joke about the government that would barely raise eyebrows in the US. The remaining brother has been allowed to continue doing his show as long as it is only performed for tourists. The show is a mix of traditional dance and song and really weak anti-government jokes. After the show, at around 10:30PM we found a few more people who missed the memo about when the water festival ended for the day before heading home to bed.
Our next stop was Nyaungshwe a small town just north of Inle Lake. Inle is a beautiful shallow lake with mountains rising up on each side. The local fishermen have a unique style of paddling. While standing on one foot on the bow of the boat, they paddle with the other foot, leaving their hands free for their equally unique style of fishing. They lower a large conical basket to the bottom of the lake then poke the ground with a spear to scare the fish into the side of the basket where they then loosen a net for the fish to get tangled in. Other fishermen set up net “walls” then smack their paddles into the water to scare the fish into the nets.
We took a boat tour around the lake and saw locals making cheroots, a local type of cigar. They roll a tight tube of corn husk and newspaper and use that as a form to roll the cheroot wrapper. Then they stuff it with a mix of tobacco, fruit, spices and other flavorings. They fold over one end and cut off the other leaving a plug of newspaper and husk to act as a filter. We also saw blacksmiths hammering out sturdy looking knives, machetes and other tools. There were a couple temples on the lake, a market, a pottery shop, etc.
At this point we we’re pretty much done wandering around pagodas; they all started to blend together in our minds. However, Indein Village definitely stood out. It held a complex of countless pagodas that were reminiscent of Angkor Wat in their various states of dilapidation. Unlike Angkor Wat, this place was not at all overrun with tourists. Even the other boat tours didn’t seem to be coming this way. Even though we paid extra to go this far off the main section of the lake, our guide tried several times to talk us out of going, but we were glad that we’d remained firm on wanting to check it out.
We had considered asking our tour guide to skip the lotus weaving workshop since we’d seen weaving just about everywhere we’d, been but we’re glad we didn’t. What we thought would be the same old weaving we’d seen throughout Asia (it’s all amazing, but you can only see it so many times), turned out to be something much more unique! First, they take the stem of a lotus flower, break it and pull it apart. As they pull, there are minuscule strands of stem that are then laid out on a rock, twisted together and fed through a spinning wheel to make a very fine thread. This is then woven into a rough fabric that sells for 7 times the price of silk due to the labor intensity.
After 5 days of water festival we were just commenting to each other about how nice it was to be dry for one whole day when we heard the thunder in the distance. Shortly after we were getting dumped on so we pulled aside for lunch. We wrapped up the boat tour and headed back to town. After a great Indian dinner with a local musician as our host serenading us into the night, we requested $6/hour in-room massages back at the hotel. We were taken off-guard when there came a knock on the door from 2 teenage boys barely over 5 feet tall in leather motorcycle jackets and mohawks who greeted us with, “Massage?” Uh….yes?? The massage itself was unimpressive, but the image of a 100 pound kid breaking a sweat trying to lift Colin’s tree trunk legs up over his head for a stretch has given us far more than $6 worth of laughs.
Before leaving Myanmar, we returned for one more day back in Yangon. With the water festival finally behind us, we were able to see what it’s like the other 360 days of the year and were glad to have a more balanced view of the place.
Myanmar is still under military rule. There are supposedly elections coming up in 2015, but most locals seemed skeptical that the military would allow substantial change. Tourists can still only visit a fraction of the country. Much of the rest is experiencing various forms of unrest. Many locals are still wary of speaking openly, even to tourists, but most do seem to think their country is finally heading in the right direction. We hope they’re right.