Of Thanaka tricks and pagoda picknicks: Getting off the Disney trail in Myanmar
Myanmar. The crown jewel of the adventurous South East Asian backpacker. A hard-to-reach country, long shut off to independent travel and still a little too expensive for bottom line shoestring backpackers. Of the thousands of hip young gap-yahs we have met on route over the last few years, only a choice few had stepped across the border from the default destination Thailand to mystery-shrouded Myanmar. It’s an understatement to say we were excited about shooting Stray’s first ever trip, so as our plane headed west from Bangkok on a hazy March morning, we eagerly anticipated the treasures that lay ahead.
The start of our trip was relatively straightforward. Touching down in Mandalay, we had a chance to meander around the city’s busy streets, stumble across tasty, cheep Indian food and shoot a spectacular blood-red sunset over the Irrawaddy River and U Bein teak bridge, while locals, tourists and monks strolled across enjoying Burmese dance music blaring out from a restaurant at the near end of the bridge, who’s owner was hell bent on letting everyone know where they can get a beer. Early the next morning we set off to through Mandalay’s hilly backdrop to former British station Pyin Oo Lwin, featuring it’s own governor’s house reconstruction, Kew-style botanical gardens, horse cart tours and goat-antilope hybrid. We had sweet & sour chicken lunch in a quaint Swiss-style restaurant and our bus came with a handy conductor who opened the door and guided us onto the road with help of a little wooden step. But hang on. Take a step back for a second, dear reader. You’re scratching your head in disbelief, we can see you. Is this an episode of antiques road show? Surely, cause this doesn’t sound like the Rat & Dragon blog.
And here lies our problem. Myanmar may sound super-exotic. Only real off the beaten track (OTBT) travelers ever even get close to a destination like this. Whilst we haven’t been to Iran, Turkmenistan and North Korea we know they enjoy a similar kind of promise for ‘read adventure’(by the way, we’d LOVE to go, so hit us up!). But in a country dominated by its government, tourism is often heavily regulated, which in Myanmar’s case meant we found ourselves slap bang in the middle of the Disney trail tourists are herded around. Experiencing a country in a ‘package deal format’ keeps everything well organized, accountable and ‘safe’, but just like Cuba’s many insular US-targeting beach resorts, it keeps the status quo strong and locals and tourists well apart.
Whilst travelling through Indonesia to Dili via public transport, we were confronted many times with the concept and reality of OTBT travel. It’s practically fashionable to go more OTBT than the person you’re talking to, but when faced with the reality of not having any accessible toilet, soft drink stand or road to get where you want to go, 80% of people we met discovered they do need certain basic things to have an enjoyable holiday. You want to go where no one else does? Well, there’s a reason no one else goes, and it’s cause it’s uncomfortable, risky and hard work.
Our first small taste of OTBT was just outside the comfortable circuit of Pyin Oo Lwin, as we headed down a wide but steep dirt track with no shops or toilet anywhere to be seen, with only the promise of a waterfall at the bottom. For 40 minutes we walked through the mid-day heat, knowing that with every step we plodded down we were going to have to walk back up again. A monk passes us on the back of a rickety scooter, the bruising bumps in the track making it hardly worth the lift. But when we got to the bottom, we were standing in front of Dattawgyaik, one of the most spectacular waterfalls we had ever seen. Eager for a cool off we jumped right in, but had to keep our t-shirts and sarongs on to cover up for the nearby temple. Some people may find this frustrating, but wasn’t this what we signed up for? Getting to a place away from western influence? Well guess what, they have their own rules and you can’t just impose your ideas of body modesty on them.
The walk up was seriously hard, but once the cable car is installed the place will be teaming with people. We counted ourselves lucky. Back in Mandalay we soaked up some history by visiting the Royal Palace, the ‘big book’ at Kuthodaw Pagoda, sunset on Mandalay Hill and the Shewnandaw Kyuang teak monestary, which despite being firmly ON the beaten track and full of a massive Russian tour group was stunningly beautiful. Do check it out, if you’re lucky the Russian tour group may still be there taking photos of each other.
After our wonderful slowboat ride down the Mekong in Northern Laos, we were looking forward to our journey town the Irrawaddy to Bagan, but the Disney trail caught up with us as the chosen mode of transport wasn’t some romantic fishing boat but a big, metal riverbus full of middle aged Europeans and a school class of selfie-obsessed Danes. It did give us a chance to catch up on work as the scenery didn’t change much and our group just chilled all day with cold Myanmars. Bagan had some more obligatory sites in store, including a visit to Ananda temple and a puppet show, but these brief activities highlighted the indescribable value of our guide Somboun, who’s care free curiosity and willingness to get a bit lost really shone through. On our free afternoon a small part of our group set off and did exactly what it said on Boon’s t-shirt. We strayed.
In quest of the actual local market we plunged into the maze of dusty village streets, dodged feral pigs, played hide & seek with giggling local kids in smaller pagodas and met our fair share of dead ends on our little hired electric bikes. Sunset at Shwesandaw pagoda was full of people but beautiful, just like the sunrise we’d seen earlier that morning, whilst two of our group had splashed out on a hot air balloon ride at dawn. Climbing Taung Kalat near Mount Popa the next day is also one of our favorite memories, as we shared our experience on equal level with the groups of local tourists who had come to do exactly what we were doing, and delighted in taking photos with us (not of us, and us not of them). Our long drive to Kalaw was interrupted by a spontaneous stop to see a village novice ceremony procession and later when our bus broke down. We bunkered down in the nearest bar, which happened to be a wood shack, complete with loo with a view across the hills, filled with a bunch of raucous village locals. Finally we got our ‘authentic’ drinking experience.
Our commitment to OTBT was tested again the next day as what was supposed to be a 4 hour hike to a village turned out to be an 8 hour trek to a monastery, on the top of a hill with the best phone reception in Myanmar but another 1 ½ hours from the nearest village and shop. The trek was hard in parts, but also picturesque. There was little interaction with locals, because none had been arranged and people were busy getting on with stuff. The place we had lunch happened to be a bit empty at the time, and once we got to the monastery where we were going to stay, there were only ourselves, a couple of monks and a cat to talk to. Meeting people in a crowded restaurant where you’re sharing tables is pretty normal, but someone walking into your garden, playing with your kids and laughing and chatting to you in a language you don’t know whilst you’re trying to fix your computer is a bit strange. We really started to appreciate the effort our guides put into building up mutually beneficial relationships with homestays and villages throughout their South East Asian network, which allowed foreigners to visit and hang out with locals. Sometimes a lot of work goes into your ‘natural, authentic’ local experience, if it’s provided to 20 people, consistently, twice a week.
How much fun our stay in the monastery was going to be was up to us. With nothing to do, we had to create our own entertainment, which is how we discovered the 3 wall shower, the milky way and silhouettes of monks walking through the flames in pitch darkness whilst they meticulously burned off the undergrowth to created fertile soil for next year’s plants. Our monk-prepared flaming banana desert earlier in the evening had been a little indication of this spectacular sight, and we set off smelling of smoke through the sunrise haze the next day on the long and beautiful trek back to Kalaw. We had really achieved something in those last two days, so the definite tourist conveyor belt of Inle Lake didn’t phase us as much as it would have. Shipped around a set route via numerous passive workshops, past fishermen posing for coins and farmers tired of having cameras shoved in their faces, our trekking experience still held its ‘personal victory’ magic so we sat back and enjoyed the stunning countryside, paying little attention to exiting via the gift shop. After hanging out at a local winery, our group was determined to have a last local eating experience, which ended up with a lot of beer and a long drive back to Mandalay the following day.
We left our group to continue on to Yangon, on recommendation of the Stray team, and boy were we happy we’d taken it. An overnight bus ride put us in the heart of a bustling city full of the chaos, ruggedness and air of slightly dodgy adventure we love about South East Asian cities. Life changing events seem just around the corner as you could easily get tangled up with a quest to find a hidden temple in Mongolia, breaking into a warehouse for an illegal rave or joining the mafia. Whilst Yangon isn’t hard to get to, the vibe on 19th street had an air of exactly what OTBT enthusiasts crave: backpacker community large enough to feel like you’re in the right place and there are ways to get around other than expensive hitchhiking, but still hard enough to get to which means people are still interested in others and willing to create their own adventure. Our guide for the day, Kay, reflected this vibe, was genuinely passionate about her culture and proud to share her personal favorite places, restaurants and hideouts. We checked out the fascinating Drug Elimination Museum before spontaneous lunch at her favorite soup kitchen and a trip to an aquarium shop to see fish with Kanji painted on them. The atmosphere at gold plated Shwedagon pagoda at dusk was magical, with visitors and families using the space not just as a place to pray and pay respects, but to hang out together laughing and chatting.
Street food dinner on 19th street reminded us of Shantaram’s Mumbai, with stalls all along the streets selling the same stuff to tourists and locals, beggars singing hauntingly beautiful chants for coins and genuinely interesting snippets of conversation from every angle. Whilst Myanmar’s Disney trail is well established, logistics are growing up around it and glimpses of interactive travelling are shining through everywhere. It’s a magical place, and now we’ve had a taste of its adventurous glory we simply can’t wait to go back.