And hop a new article… This time, written from France. As you already know, the pandemic took over the world and we couldn’t continue our journey. However, we still have a few adventures to tell you. This will be our penultimate article. Good reading!
Today we are going to tell you about Myanmar. One of our favorites from this adventure. Fairly unknown to the general public, better known in France under the name of Burma, it is sincerely worth a detour. Small digression on Myanmar and its history.
Myanmar has a population of 56 million people, made up of over 130 minorities in addition to the “ethnic Burmese”. The country has an area of over 675,000 km², making it the largest country in Southeast Asia. Or the equivalent of France and its overseas territories! It has borders with India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, and Laos. Its history begins with the occupation of the territory by two peoples:
Les Mons and Pyus. Two peaceful peoples with Buddhist attractions. In the 9th century, the Burmese people (Mongols originally from the East of the Himalayas) came to settle in the north of the country and founded the city of Pagan (today renamed Bagan).
They will unify the country in the 11th century. At the end of the 13th century, the kingdom of Pagan falls under the Mongol invasions and the country is divided into two other kingdoms: Ava and Hanthawaddy who will fight a war of almost 40 years before falling both into disuse.
Then two dynasties followed: The Toungous in the 15th century, who repeatedly pushed back the empire of Portugal.
This leads to the fall of the kingdom, due to expenses and sudden revolts. Then the Konbaung in the 18th century, a conquering dynasty, brought the power of Burma to its peak. Burma is faced with the interests of the British crown. War broke out in 1824, the Burmese lost part of their territory. Two wars followed, which ended with the total annexation of Burma in 1885.
The following year, Burma saw its territory attached to the Indian Empire. It was only reborn in 1937 when it regained its name and territory after several revolts and strikes. The Burmese see in the outbreak of the Second World War an opportunity to gain their independence.
With the help of Japan, they obtained their independence in 1943. Unfortunately, this is only illusory, the country is placed indirectly under the supervision of the Japanese. Refusing new enslavement, they side with the allies in 1945 and drive out the Japanese the same year.
Until 1962, a period of democracy and stability reigned over the country. General Ne Win takes power with a coup, it is the beginning of 50 years of dictatorship. In 1988, a demonstration against the regime turned into a bloodbath and thousands of people were arrested. Ne Win leaves power and will be replaced by General Than Shwe promising free elections.
The party of Aung San Suu Kyi (National League for Democracy) obtains 82% of the seats in the first legislative elections. The military junta refuses to transfer power and places Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for endangering state security until 2010. She will receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.
The abuses of the military junta continue, perpetuating the worst horrors: prostitution, genocide, lack of freedom of expression, massive displacement of the population for resource extraction, fraud, etc. In 2011, following several demonstrations and international pressure, the military junta was officially dissolved.
However, Thein Sein, former prime minister of the junta, is proclaimed president of a government composed mainly of former soldiers. In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party came to power.
However, this does not mean that there is freedom. Many scandals including that of the massacre of the Rohingya tarnish the image of Aung San Suu Kyi (Refuting international accusations and taking sides with the actions of his government). Freedom for Burma and its people is not yet for today.
Economically, Myanmar produces precious stones (90% of the world’s rubies come from here) in conditions of extractions close to slavery. It is also the second-largest exporter of poppy (opium → heroin) after Afghanistan. It also exports various resources but the country remains economically slow, largely due to pervasive corruption in government (Ranked 176 th out of 178 in the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2010).
Now that the introductions are done, let’s move on to our Myanmar adventure!
We landed at the end of the day in Mandalay after making a stopover in Bangkok. When we arrived, we were surprised how few tourists were in the airport. We do not immediately understand that mass tourism from China is absent: The Covid-19 has already taken place there. Jérôme is worried about the calm that reigns here.
On several occasions, he saw bright red spots on the ground and in the trash cans. As if a brawl had taken place a few minutes before our arrival. We will learn that it is chewing tobacco composed of areca nuts and spices spat out by many men in the country.
Unfortunate mania of the population which can shock because they do not spit only in the trash cans but everywhere on the ground. One of the consequences of this tobacco concerns the teeth of very many Burmese which are colored red … In addition to the unpleasant appearance, it is above all a health issue. However, the popularity of this chewing tobacco underpins a very difficult public health problem.
We take a “taxi” to reach the city center. It’s already nighttime. We are marked by the physical difference of the Burmese compared to the other countries visited in Asia. Their tanned complexion and the shape of their eyes are very different from what we have encountered so far.
A mix between India and Asia. We also notice a huge cultural difference: by custom, the Burmese cover their faces with thanaka. Men, women but also children mix the water with the bark of the tree which produces thanaka, and draw circles, lines, or sometimes patterns developed for aesthetics but also to protect against the sun.
Not to mention the traditional outfit was worn by more than 90% of the population: the Longyi. A kind of fabric tube worn in a different way if you are a woman or a man who does not always seem practical but who we imagine comfortable with the heat reigning in the country.
We rent a motorbike to visit Mandalay and its region. Pagodas are everywhere. We can see them for miles around. They are mostly gold in color and mark the landscape. We will visit many of them and never tire of these wonders. We also visit the U Bein bridge, an all-teak bridge located on Lake Taungthaman (Very polluted) and which crosses it on both sides (It is the longest teak bridge in the world: 1.2 km with 1060 pillars).
The crossing is superb as are the weather and the people we meet there. In the middle of the city is the royal palace. 4 km² of greenery and old imperial buildings surrounded by 8 meter high ramparts and moats. A pleasant visit that will make us smile in the presence of the soldiers rather sympathetic towards us.
Mandalay was our very first destination in Myanmar, this introduction to manners, traditions, and customs delighted us.
The food and the locals’ smile quickly became familiar with us, and we are very happy to continue the road towards Inle Lake.
We took an early morning bus out of our hotel. Our more than helpful hosts carry our heavy luggage and greet us very friendly throughout the stay. We have no idea, starting from Mandalay, that the road will be particularly winding and eventful.
The absence of an asphalt road, signage, and the presence of a constant dust nimbus got the better of our stomachs. However, the cattle on the roads, the mountainous landscapes, and the children’s smiles crossing our eyes make the journey magnificent. After a makeshift canteen in the middle of a tire retreading workshop and a few hours later, our guesthouse awaits us with a well-deserved tasty snack.
We take advantage of the region by bike on the first day to be freer and closer to the locals. Then “Piuls”, our young guide, takes care of making us discover the lake in its entirety. In the early morning, to discover the sunrise over this magical place, passing by the Burmese cigar factories, we will obviously end the day with a pagoda on the water and farewell with our dear “Piuls”.
After this wonderful discovery, we go to the heart of Burma. One of the reasons we chose this destination: Bagan! To reach Bagan, the road was just as terrible as to get to Inle Lake…. But in twice as long! The trip is worth the effort: We spend almost a week wandering, visiting, hunting, digging, searching… all the pagodas on the site.
Bagan is a small city made up of more than 2,000 temples spread over several tens of kilometers. It is impossible to visit them all in such a short time, but the discovery of each of them remains exceptional. We will count no less than sixty. I let you imagine the extent of the archaeological site of Bagan.
Our days are punctuated by sunrises over the temples accompanied by hot air balloons that caress the top of the highest temples. We take tours in the morning to observe the beauty of the pagodas adorned with golden Buddhas and richly detailed frescoes.
We have to rest in the afternoons because the thermometer is well above 35 ° C in the shade. Then to end our days, we resume the visits around 4 pm and have a few aperitifs while enjoying the sunset over the Irrawaddy and the temples.
We leave Bagan exhausted from our visits but full of joy at the idea of having visited this marvelous historical site. We take tours in the morning to observe the beauty of the pagodas adorned with golden Buddhas and richly detailed frescoes. We have to rest in the afternoons because the thermometer is well above 35 ° C in the shade.
Then to end our days, we resume the visits around 4 pm and have a few aperitifs while enjoying the sunset over the Irrawady and the temples. We leave Bagan exhausted from our visits but full of joy at the idea of having visited this marvelous historical site.
We take tours in the morning to observe the beauty of the pagodas adorned with golden Buddhas and richly detailed frescoes. We have to rest in the afternoons because the thermometer is well above 35 ° C in the shade. Then to end our days, we resume the visits around 4 pm and have a few aperitifs while enjoying the sunset over the Irrawady and the temples.
We leave Bagan exhausted from our visits but full of joy at the idea of having visited this marvelous historical site.
We take a night bus to reach Ngapali (it’s pronounced “Napali”, it’s easier to say eh!). We ramble on but once again the crossing is horrible. We do not close an eye of the night. Our driver thought he was a rally driver and decided to ride like a fangio through paths in the middle of the forest.
Fear in my stomach, the journey is endless. Once arrived, we make up for our night at our Guesthouse. We take advantage of the coconut palm beach at the end of the day. The pleasure was short for Cassandra who fell very ill as a result of food poisoning (avoid the cucumber salad on the goose-goose at the beach…).
Several days are necessary for his recovery, the visits are put aside for a future trip! Once Cassandra is back on her feet, we left for Yangon the capital. Our last destination is Myanmar.
After a bus trip (Well, we will not repeat the topo…) which will last nearly 11 hours, we arrive in Yangon (Formerly called Rangon during the English colonization). The city is quite disappointing compared to what we have discovered about the country.
We feel that there is more unhealthy tourism here. It is very hot, the air is difficult to breathe. We will spend a nice evening with a Dutch couple. We attend together with a performance of puppets (Specialty of Myanmar). The show is .. Interesting! The show lasts 40 minutes… Instead of 8 hours as tradition dictates !! Phew … After a few visits to pagodas including the famous Shwedagon we leave the country with a heavy heart:
On the one hand, because it was a real crush and on the other hand because we are leaving Asia for Oceania after 6 full months to cross it.
We leave in the early morning to reach the airport, meet in Christchurch in New Zealand! Finally… Arriving at the airport, in front of our boarding counter: “Canceled”. Our first flight to Ho Chi Minh was canceled without reason and warning (well, for economic reasons). We pass you the details and the emotional lift experienced that day.
We stayed one day longer to find a solution and left the next day for 26 hours of consecutive flights. Morally and physically exhausted from the situation we were experiencing, we are nevertheless very happy to experience a new road trip in New Zealand! But that, we will tell you for our last article.