Myanmar: faded difficulties and a flump of curiosity cured

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here, here, here and here for photos of there.
Myanmar, for me, has always been a shut-away land far, far away, a place of tigers and rhinos and political prisoners. It has been a land of other names, a kingdom dissolved in colonial power, and a hard-won independence smothered by a military junta. It has been a golden land in shadow, the subject of international sanctions and a muse for a cobwebbed Master’s dissertation. For months I had researched the legal and moral implications of those sanctions and though those crumbs of fact and opinion had long since drifted from my grasp, my curiosity for this forbidden place remained. Myanmar’s borders are now open to tourists, a door to a secret garden creaking open.


“I’m melting! Melting! Oh, what a world! What a world!”

Curiosity, however, has a weakness – well, at least in my case. Up until we arrived in Myanmar, I’d been kind of patting myself on the back. Yup, I thought I wasn’t doing so badly for a comfort-loving bookworm. Jungles, creatures, mountains, parasite-riddled dinners and even, to my absolute shock, the most foul of squat loos – not an issue! Then, there was Myanmar and the heat. Sorry, THE HEAT. Arriving in Mandalay took my breath away. It was a blistering 42°C at 10am. Numbers mean nothing really so I suppose I should describe it more in terms of … well, you know that dry, blistering heat that hits your face when you open the oven door? That’s the heat. Or imagine trying to walk along, while being curious, in a place where it feels like a giant hair dryer is blasting your whole body. Curiosity in a place where you can drink 3 litres of water in 3 hours and still not pee? Maybe my curiosity is a flacid, useless thing but as we schlumped through the streets of Mandalay, my mind was already trying to plot my escape!

When I was little, my mum used to sing me a song about an elephant running away from a circus.

“The head of the herd was calling from far far away

They met one night in the silver light

On the road to Mandalay”

All I could think was “Why, for the love of God, Nellie, would you run away to here?!” Ok, so I was off to a shakey start in Myanmar.

This little monk looked like he could use some rain too:


A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.” Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794)

As the sun set and the temperature dropped to a slightly more manageable 35°C (aaargh!), we sought out food. We’re pretty adventurous eaters and no matter where we’ve been so far, we’ve always been eager to eat where and what the locals eat. So, what to say about Myanmar food? Ehm. I think that when I say that the tasty highlight for the first week of our trip was some fried, spikey, giant grasshoppers in a temple, that should pretty much sum it up. Now, it could very well be that we were making the wrong choices but everything we had for that first week came with an inch-thick layer of oil (to keep the flies away apparently) that we had to fish through to pluck out whatever unfortunate thing lay beneath.  Though our choices changed over the next two weeks and we began every meal with a kind of desperate, hungry hope, I have to admit that I really did hate the food in Myanmar.



It’s all a question of timing …

So in the face of the heat and the unspeakably foul food, my curiosity looked like it was just going to shrivel up entirely while I waited for a respectable amount of time to pass before I hightailed it far far away. So we headed for the hills in search of cooler breezes and we found them in Kalaw. The food remained depressingly the same but the area was so green and we found a lovely little wooden cabin …. for Damien promptly to fall sick in. Malaria was questioned, worries were worried and a trip to the hospital was taken. On the Human Development Index, a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life for countries worldwide, Myanmar is ranked below the Republic of the Congo, Pakistan and Angola. Our visit to the hospital reflected just that. The more I looked around me, the colder my blood ran and the sooner I wanted to take Damien away. The very nice doctor on duty felt that Damien just had a stomach infection and, loading us up with veterinary-grade antibiotics, sent us on our way. As she didn’t have a word of English and we speak no Myanmar beyond hopeful hellos, we decided to run with her lack of conern and wait for another country to have some blood work done.

A flump of curiosity cured

So having said all of this, you would think that I just didn’t like Myanmar, right? Perhaps that would be true if that had been the sum total of our experience there but my tale so far completely disregards Myanmar’s greatest treasure: its people. The people of Myanmar are hands down the loveliest, more welcoming people we’ve ever met. There still isn’t a huge number of tourists making their way through the country so where my own curiosity had flagged abit, the Myanmar people’s was absolutely alive. In Mandalay, ladies laughed kindly seeing me slowly melt in the sunshine and came over to to chat in the universal language of fanning, flapping gestures. People grinned at us where-ever we went, monks and elderly teachers started benchside conversations to practice their English. While we visited temples, queues of ladies came up and avoiding eye-contact pinched my white skin while studiously pretending not to. Teenagers would stand beside us while their friends urged them to get closer for a sneaky photo and when we’d smile, they’d suddenly (completely undeterred by the melting) wrap their arms around us  or hold our hands and beam at the non-visible cameras.


From Kalaw we trekked for three days with a wonderful group of people through farmlands and villages to Inle Lake. From under the shade of their bright headscarves and conical hats, women waved at us as we passed through the fields they were planting, men grinned from behind their oxen and children laughed wildly as they ran beside us, offering high fives and blowing kisses. The whole experience was exceptional, the people incredible.











A dragonfly ball at Inle Lake

Arriving at Inle Lake was like peeping through time. Fishermen balanced confidently on one leg, the other they wrapped around a paddle, propelling their narrow crafts forward, all the while casting out silvery swathes of net. We crouched protected from the sun under our neat row of umbrellas, the sweet odour of illicit cheroots collecting protective frowns. Entire towns balanced on stilts and school buses became canoes. Gardens floated, tomatoes glowing ruby red in the dusk. A moment of emotional discomfort shared at a cynical display of old customs was overlapped by a cure of reassuring silliness, golden tanaka, lotus weaving and the mesmerising rhythm of hot iron hammering. Dragonflies danced over the marsh islands, highly anticipated post-trek showers were savoured and a Firefly pasta feast delighted  –  it was magical.














The 2,000 stupas of Bagan

Then, there was Bagan, an arid valley of two thousand ancient stupas explored on electric bikes. It was hot, otherworldly and wonderful.






And finally, there was Yangon and a temple of burnished gold.


So though at times travelling through the still relatively secret land of Myanmar was hard, the genuine warmth of its people made every little difficulty fade into insignificance.



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