Asia, to me, doesn’t feel like a continent. It feels like a heartbeat whose reverberations change as you travel from country to country, city to city.
Gaudy hand painted signs, flashing neon temple spires, noisy street vendors, hooting motorists and the ever present policemen (or women) are a copy/paste from Bangkok to Mumbai and Coimbatore to Kuala Lumpur.
Everything is “same same, but different!”
Tucked away between India and China, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) had never been a major blip on my travel radar. With 2015 being a busy work year for both, my wife and I, a vacation was also not on the charts. December came abruptly and I closed for Christmas on the 12th, whereas the wife was still at work. Sitting at home alone with nothing to do, the wanderlust bit hard. Myanmar came to mind but we only had 10 days of travel.
I got in touch with a travel agent in Yangon shared by a friend and booked a typical tourist package. With a couple of tweaks to the itinerary, we set off on the 21st of December. These are some of the glimpses from our journey.
Saffron Sunrise. A balloon floating over the temples of Bagan in the morning
Born on Christmas day, I tend to get lucky with a celebration at most places I am at. My wife was such a gem that she managed to score a sunrise balloon ride over Bagan as a gift. Floating above the over 10,000 temples in Bagan in a noiseless balloon was a gift so surreal, that we just held on to each other and got lost in soaking in the sights, that we even forgot we had brought cameras with us. To top it off, we landed in a random farm out in the middle of nowhere and within 2 minutes a couple of things happened. A champagne breakfast was laid out for us; kids appeared from nowhere to sell touristy trinkets and souvenirs.
Bagan balloon ride
Bagan Temple Complex
The ancient kingdom of Bagan consists of over 10,000 temples of which over 2,000 are still standing. Spread through the jungles and along the river, one of the most practical ways to fathom the magnitude of their spread is by air. Tens of balloon companies offer aerial safaris in balloons pointing out some of the most popular temples and some of the more obscure ones.
Balloons over Bagan
Cheroots are inexpensive Burmese cigars smoked by men and women alike. These are hand made with plain or flavored tobacco.
Each evening, novice female monks perform a candle lighting ceremony at Shwedagon pagoda. Once done, they sit, pray and meditate a while before leaving.
She was busy spinning cotton wool by the window. I jumped up and got a series of shots. Most were candid ones but this was my favorite as she reacted to seeing me.
The Golden Island Cottages were our home at Lake Inle. Built onto the lake, this floating hotel was a combination of traditional charm, modern amenities and Burmese hospitality.
Golden Island Cottages
On the Bagan map were two temples a little off the path and slightly in the jungle. For some odd reason, I made it my life mission to get to them. We got on our bike at an obscene hour and the wind-chill did not help. After a number of falls from hitting hidden exposed roots in the dark jungle, nasty spills from the sandy jungle soil and a little chastising from the wife I gave up and we caught the sunrise from the first temple we came across.
Golden Sunrise over Bagan
At Lake Inle we saw the famous on legged Intha fishermen. Rowing with one foot, fishing with the other, this traditional craft is now mainly orchestrated for tourists. Now most Intha fishermen use fishing nets and modern equipment to fish in the shallow lake.
Initially, we had not slotted Mandalay in our plans of Myanmar. On a whim and some cooperation from the travel agent, we caught a last-minute flight to catch the sunrise on Ubein bridge. The solo monk was a huge contrast to the extremely busy bridge.
Monk crossing the U Bein bridge.
One more of the many touristy spots we went to was a “viewing point” on Mount Poppa from where you could see Taung Kalat. This is a monastery built atop a volcanic plug. The guide even pointed out that the overhanging leaves would add a key framing element. I obliged.
We even got our guide to come dressed in traditional P’au wear and got her to model for us around the Kakku pagodas. I must tell you, after our trip, she had the best Facebook profile pictures out of all the P’au guides in Shan state.
We had a boat unto ourselves that came were part of the joys that a last minute private tour brought. When we were not scaling temples at sunset, we floated up and down the Irrawaddy river. As the skies went from blue and grey to orange and pink a sense of calm and serenity came with it. We felt less touristy and more at home.
Sunset over the river
Since we were being touristy, we bought this cheap paper umbrella that turned out to be quite a hit as a sun shade and a prop.
We kept coming back to people watch here and the sunset was just about as stunning as the sunrise here.
Part of the tourist trail included visiting little shops and souvenir sellers. Watching a silversmith work was a little more exciting that the prospect of being sold hastily made overpriced trinkets.
Sunrise on Lake Inle. Our little cottage at sunrise.