Stories

 

Myanmar


From the 7th of March to the 7th of April, 2015

My trip in Myanmar already started in Bangkok for the visa process. Closed on weekends, I went to the embassy on Monday at 9 am. Due to some national holidays it was closed and had to came back the following morning. At 6:50 am, I was number 10 in the queue forming in the street. When the doors opened at 9am, a line of more than a hundred people had built up behind me. At 9:45, my documents were in their possession and could finally leave. Two days later, I went there again at 1:50pm, the doors opened at 3:30pm, but I had to wait until 5:15 for the counter to open. With my visa in hand, my huge backpack, I jumped on a moto-taxi to the bus station and caught a night bus to Ranong, the starting point of my live-a-board diving cruise.

On board the "Sea World", we crossed the Kra Buri River marking the border between Thailand and Myanmar. After a short break in Kawthoung for immigration formalities, our Mergui Archipelago underwater exploration could finally start. Located near the Similan Islands in Thailand, the biodiversity of this region is relatively similar, however it has the advantage of not being as popular. During six days, we admired all kinds of shrimp, crabs, nudibranches, lobsters, moray eels, ghost-pipe fish, frog fish, cuttlefish, anemones, coral, sea fans and the clouds of glass fish. The geology of some sites created beautiful arches, including Western Rockies with his tunnel crossing the island from one end to the other at a depth of 20 meters. I could have spent the entire dive in that black hole looking at dozens of lobsters and other crustaceans hiding in the dark.

    

But the main attraction of the archipelago is the remote location of Black Rock, attracting big fish such as huge barracudas, tones, batfish benches, but especially whale sharks and manta rays. Although the site is rich in smaller fauna, it is difficult to focus on small stuff living in the wall knowing what could pass by in the blue. Over the few dives we did on this site, we had the chance to see a whale shark followed by a manta ray looping around the island. It only took them 10 minutes to get around and meet again. The dream ... Throughout this cruise, we saw some white tip sharks and nurse sharks, but their population is largely in decline, like that of big fish. Unfortunately dynamite fishing still practiced in the region is devastating. By the way, where goes the $130 we paid for the national park fee ? Apparently not for the protection of this precious en delicate ecosystem. Click here to have a look at the video of this amazing week diving the Mergui Archipelago.

    

It is at the airport in Yangon that I met my mother who joined me for a month of travel in the country.

In the city center, the significant Indian population which immigrated during the British colonization and the spicy smell of the Betel nut confection stall gave me a feeling of India. Betel nuts? This is probably one of the first thing which catches your eyes as you set foot in the country. Beautiful red smiles ... The leaves are brushed with a channeler for releasing the stimulant from the leaves. Then, fermented tobacco is added, as well as, cardamom, clove, dried coconut slide, coconut milk, lemon and honey. The whole forms a small package that is placed between the cheek and the gum to be chewed for hours. The other thing which you notice are the faces (mainly women and children) covered with Tanaka, a paste made from the local tree which provides a refreshing sensation, sun protection, helps fight against acne and makes the skin soft.

    

We discovered the city, its colonial houses, markets, huge sitting or lying Buddhas and pagodas, including the famous Shwedagon pagoda beautifully lit at dusk. The ferry crossing the Rangoon River offers a change of scenery. During the 15 minutes crossing, merchants were selling all kinds of fruits and sweets which they carried with agility on the head. On the other side of the river, we discovered a rural area with fishermen's huts.

We caught our first night bus to Bagan and arrived at destination at 4am. Just in time to find a hotel, get rid of our bags and jump on a bicycle to the archaeological area. From the top of the Shwesandaw pagoda, we admired the sunrise over the plain of a thousand temples decorated with a dozen of hot air balloons. It was beautiful ! The majority of visitors were Buddhist pilgrims traveling by pick-up and visiting the main pagodas. Despite the fact that Bagan is one of the main highlight of the country, it's extend is so big that it is easy to avoid the crowd and find yourself surrounded by temple with the sweet feeling of having the side just for you.

    

The most important Buddhist archaeological site of Myanmar and the largest in Asia has as many temples gathered on a small plain (67 km2), than Europe has of medieval cathedrals. The rise of Bagan coincides with the change from Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism which remained since the main religion of the country. The main actor of this conversion was a monk who had come to preach to the Bamar Anaurahta King. The kings of Bagan, were anxious to give substance to their faith. In just 230 years, before the Mongols invaded the plain in 1287, they erected more than 4400 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monuments.

After two days, we left Bagan by boat to reach Mandalay. The 14 hours journey navigating the Irrawaddy River was a beautiful way to discover local agriculture, gypsy fishermen huts settled on the shore, or barges towing and carrying all sorts of things including whole floating villages structures. During this dry season the water level was very low and some stretches required an amazing teamwork. Two people were measuring the depth of the river with a long bamboo stick and guiding the captain. He sometimes had to force his way with engine speed while the hull glided on the nest of the river. The beaches had often given way to sand cliffs of several meters. With the approach of Mandalay, the hills decorated pagodas were illuminated by the orange light of sunset.

    

As we reached Mandalay, posters announced the visit of Solar Impulse, the first solar aircraft to circumnavigate the world (12 steps) without fuel or polluting emissions during the flight. The initiator and pilot of this project is our compatriot Bertrand Picard, the pilot of the first non-stop round the world hot air balloon expedition in 1999. I took immediate contact with the Swiss Embassy, which invited us to the event. On the tarmac, we discovered the huge white tent protecting this technological jewel. This revolutionary monospace made of carbon fiber has a higher wingspan than a Boeing 747-800 (72 m) for the weight of a car (2,300 kg). The 17,000 solar cells integrated into the wings supply renewable energy to four electric motors (each with a power of 17.5 HP). During the day the solar cells recharge the lithium batteries of 633 kg allowing the airplane to fly at night and thus have virtually unfettered autonomy. Solar Impulse was not built to carry passengers, but to convey a message. Today it is possible to reduce dependency of our society on fossil fuels with clean technologies. "What we can successful achieve in the air, everyone can do it on land, in his everyday life. The world needs to use new ways to improve human life quality. Clean technologies and renewable forms of energy are part of the solution as it can protect the environment, create jobs and generate profits for business." Visit www.solarimpulse.com to follow the progress of this world tour which will end in 2016.

      

Despite a temperature of over 40 degrees, we found the strength to visit the city and its surroundings. By bicycle, we went from one pagoda to another to discover each of their point of interest, including the magnificent teak sculptured Shwe Nan Daw monastery who miraculously escaped the British bombardment in 1945, thanks to its move outside the Forbidden City in 1878. Barefoot, we climbed the 1729 steps to Mandalay Hill to enjoy the view and the sunset from the top.

With a rented motorcycle, we reached Sagain and its perched pagodas and the Inwa village which gave me some cold sweats while embarking and disembarkation the bike from a wooden tiny boat. Shortcut or not, I didn't dare to come back the same way on the way back... In this isolated village where people moved mainly with horse cart, we could still see the young monks studying in the Babaya Kyaung teak monastery dating from 1834. In Amarapura, U Bein bridge crossing Lake Taung Tha Man is the longest teak bridge in the world. After that, we definitely deserved a lazy day enjoying the swimming pool of the Mandalay Hill Resort. Despite their beauty, we saw way too many pagodas and buddhas to give them the attention they deserved.

      

I left my mother in Mandalay and reached Hsipaw for a two-days hike to discover ethnic villages. We crossed Chan villages and vegetable plantations. Gradually, as we gained some height, I was sad to discover bare hills where trees were cut down and burned. The forests disappeared to make way to soy plantations in order to meet the Chinese demand. After 6 hours walk under the sun, we reached a Palaw village, surrounded by tea plantations. Some women still wore their traditional costume. From the youngest to the oldest, everyone walked to the village well to fetch water. Our host family cooked by far the tastiest food I had in the country. In the village, children were happy to interact with us. The way they scrolled the pictures on the camera screens tells the number of visitors passing through the town...

        

After joining my mother in Hsipaw again, we caught the train to Pyin Oo Lwin, a colonial city where the climate is cooler. During this 7 hours journey, we were shaked in all directions and had the feeling the train was going to derail at every curve. Luckily, he passed the Gokteik viaduct at walking speed ! In Pyin Oo Lwin, the horse carts are in harmony with the colonial houses. We rented a motorbike to visit the area and went to the Anisacan waterfall. From the parking lot, it took another 45 minutes downhill to admire the beautiful fall. Down there local people equipped with hamocks attached to a long bamboo stock awaited tired walkers which couldn't find the strenght to hike back up the steep hill in this sunny crazy hot day. The ascent was challenging, but my mother resisted to the shame of being hung up like a pig up the hill... We ended the day with a stroll through the beautiful Maymio botanical garden, a remnant of the colonial era.

    

We caught another night bus to Nyangshwe, near Inle Lake. While bicycling to a thermal bath, we rode along rice fields where farmers were working hard to have the fields ready for the rainy season. Harvesting, cutting, planting, cleaning, plowing and pumping the water from the canals to flood the fields.

We spent the following day on a boat discovering the fishermen lives, stilt villages, floating fields, markets and going up some "rapids" in the channel in order to reach the Inn Thein Monastery with its hundreds of stupas. If the various workshops we visited were kind of made for tourists, they allowed us to learn weaving technique and how to make cigars or silver jewelry without feeling the pressure to actually buy anything.

    

We briefly met Charlotte, Lucien and Raphael with whom we criss-crossed several times since we arrived in the country. After a few days in this area, we caught a flight to the sea in order to recharge our batteries for the rest of the trip. End of March is the end of the dry season and the hottest period of the year before the start of the rainy season. Although the most popular beach in the country, we were almost alone on this white sand beach, swimming in warm and turquoise water.

  

We continued our journey with more night buses. Fifteen hours to Yangoon and another six hours to the Golden Rock, at the eastern end of the country. In the village of Kyaikto, we were loaded into trucks sitting pretty much on top of each other on benches. The curves and hill climb really felt like being on a roller coaster ! The Golden Rock is a major worshipping place in the country were hundreds of pilgrims spend the night on the floor of this sacred site. Although beautiful, the business around it and the crowd breaks the authenticity of this place.

      

A few more hours away bus, Hpa An gave a much more peaceful feeling. The flatland gave place to some limestone mountains which look like they don't belong to the place. Steep mountains ending in flat fields. People are living a simple life, either in a 4 wall house or in a hut with walls made of big tree lives stitched on to the other. The Shwe Yin Myaw Thanlwin pagoda overlooking the river was a place of serenity at sunset. Locals came to make offerings and admire the sunset.

We rented a motorbike (one more...) to explore the surrounding rural area and many caves where more... Buddha are hiding. Sagan cave was particularly mystic. After a fifteen minute walk through the bowels of the rock decorated with Buddhas and stupas, we walked out the other side. From there, we embarked a wooden boat which was really a carved trunk and made our way back skirting the mountain on a tiny canal cutting through the fields. As the final of a firework, we end this trip in Myanmar with the Lumpani gardens, a sanctuary of 1,000 buddhas ...

    

After another long bus ride we ended our night on the deserted airport benches in Yangoun. 30 days in Myanmar is too short. In order not to lose a day for each trip, we had to travel at night in uncomfortable bus, shaken by execrable roads, endure karaoke, reach destination in the middle of the night and be full power to start the day... a rather sporty trip which my mother managed remarkably well ! That's the difference between traveling and being on holidays...

I accompanied my mother to Bangkok where she took off for Europe. On my side, I had a week to get my visa for the Philippines. But it was without counting on the national holidays for the Sankran festival (Buddhist New Year). Feeling of déjà vu ? Well, this time it was too short to get my 3 month visa and had to fall back on 30 day option arrival and a possible extension later on. At this time of year, Bangkok turned into a giant water fight. Water gun, swimsuit, goggles, waterproof bag and the fight could start ! Click here to see the video :-)

Sorry, I'm a bit behind writing about my trip in the Philippines, but you can read about my following journey in Iran.

See the album "Myanmar - March 2015"