Looking over the river from our boat from Mandalay to Bagan, the soft breeze is suddenly interrupted by shouting. Local women are waist deep in the riverbank, carrying fruit and platters of fried snacks. They start throwing parcels of samosas and fried bananas at us through the ferry window. Here there is an honour system where you examine the food, negotiate a price, then throw scrunched Kyats (or the food) back out the window.
When snack vendors attack
This is a great example of life as a foreigner in Myanmar. A closed country so behind in development, Myanmar tourism is far from refined. Villagers just do what they can to eke out a living hawking produce, snacks and traditional wares – hoping to interest a tourist to part with some currency, or even trade with goods from the outside world.
Our 17-day visit was full of sunshine and peppered with blackouts. The land is rich and fertile, just about every village harvested a variety of crops and there seemed to be no shortage of food. Here in Myanmar, the horse and cart is still depended on for agriculture. Traditional dress and customs also hold strong, with most men in the longyi (sarong type garment) and women uniquely styling the sunscreen cosmetic tanakha on their faces.
In the cities, endless market stalls – selling produce and uninteresting Chinese manufactured bric-a-brac – line the main streets, existing somehow in harmony with the lawless motorbikes, bicycles, cars and pickups. Transportation is severely outdated; it seems no new cars have been imported in the past 20 years. Traffic moves slowly as cargo (mainly rice and vegetables) is overloaded into pick up trucks before dozens of passengers cling on to roofs and bars.
Run down Yangon, a bit too shabby to be chic
Buddhism is also acute, with a large population of monks. Thankfully much unorthodox behaviour reminds us of their humanity. Pagodas, stupas and temples quickly blur and become indistinguishable in the mind. In addition to religious monuments the restaurants, stores and hotels also tend to favour the name Shwe, meaning “Gold”. Sadly, the disproportionate number of decadent religious constructions – overflowing with superstitious donations for good karma – is a depressing contrast to the poor living conditions of the Burmese.
A young monk playing under the Mingun bell, the world's second largest
It's an illusion!
This monk was acting more like a monkey!
“Ladies are not allowed” at the Amarapura temple
Despite the general run down state of affairs, things seem to function here. We found transport reliable, accommodation comfortable and sightseeing diverse and all worthwhile. In our visit to Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Bagan and Chaung Tha we often ran into the same travellers again (especially Dejan and Tjasa!), forging a small community of foreigners by the time we left!
The Burmese are a delight to be around, they are courteous and honest people who are curious and keen to practice their English. Do not be surprised if the restaurant owner brings out his family photo albums or your hostel manager invites you to meet his baby grandson. A popular Burmese past time is singing, with romantic pop music videos captivating the locals in the eateries and on the long haul bus rides – on more than one occasion a battery powered television and speakers were wheeled on the street, followed by the locals’ emphatic Burmese renditions of Coldplay and Ronan Keating.
Whilst military presence is strongest felt at border checkpoints and in some areas of tourism, the order of the past 49 years faces quiet yet growing defiance by pro-democracy Burmese. Evidenced by the distribution of books, posters and art of Aung San Suu Kyi, some locals were happy to express their views and most welcome the imminent changes so desperately needed to reform the country.
Shwedagon Zedi Daw, Gold Dagon Pagoda. Eclipses all other monuments in the country with its size and majesty. We spent hours in the area as the pagodas transform with changes in lighting from afternoon to evening.
Sunset as lights showcase a glowing Shwe Dagon
Dwarfed by the main pagoda that also dominates the Yangon skyline
Candle lighting and prayers surround the base of the pagodas
Kayan Lahwi or Padaung tribe girls weaving traditional garments
The Paan or Kunya, a traditional snack made of stewed red “tea” leaves, areca nut shell and tobacco, wrapped in a betel leaf.
Yangon’s colourful plastic stalls with rusty bikes
Mingun Paya, the unfinished temple base of a megalomaniac
Each child has thanaka expressively painted on their faces!