In 2013, life in Myanmar was very different from today. There was hope for the population, because after years of oppression and a strict autonomous and military regime, the borders were open. Politician Aung San Suu Kyi was also winning with her democratic party. She has since been impeached and convicted of corruption. The ethnic violence against the Rohungya population and a military coup in 2020 changed everything. Myanmar is again cut off from the outside world and the population has lost its voice. Yet we should not forget Myanmar. We therefore like to honor the people and their culture that felt like a warm blanket at the time. That is why we look back in this Flashback with our report.
Text: Angelique van Os | Photography: Henk Bothof
The sun is low on the horizon in Myanmar, as the last remnants of mist evaporate above the water. The first Intha fishermen can be found on Inle Lake early in the morning and show their now famous paddling technique. This area is located in eastern Myanmar. Gracefully, like a ballerina, they balance on one leg in the bow of the boat, while they row around a paddle with the other leg, which makes the boat move. A man-sized cone-shaped bamboo trap forms their fishing net. When something moves in the clear water, the trap lowers and the fish is caught.
Houses on stilts
Inle Lake is known as one of the most authentic lakes in Asia. This is partly due to the houses on stilts. We see dozens of small, large, simple or richly decorated wooden and bamboo houses on stilts passing by from our motorboat. Many have attractive balconies overlooking floating gardens and the surrounding mountain scenery of Shan State. The lake is 900 meters above sea level and with its 158 km2 is large enough to receive the rapidly increasing flow of tourists traveling to Myanmar. The tourists mainly come to the floating market of Ywama. Here merchants trade their wares by boat. The enormous interest is not surprising. After all, traveling to Myanmar, formerly Burma, has been difficult for years and the authenticity and folk traditions are much more intact than in neighboring Thailand.
The former English colony was completely isolated from the outside world between 1962 and 1988. This made traveling to and in Myanmar almost impossible. This was due to the dictatorship of General Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council. His totalitarian system and army of spies kept a close eye on the populace and anyone who got in his way was silenced. Burma fell into economic decline. From 1974 to 1981, many strikes and (student) uprisings broke out, resulting in hundreds of deaths in 1988.
A coup, free elections, corruption and the struggle for independence gripped the country for years. And the infamous 15-year house arrest of politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi provoked international revulsion. Since her release in 2010 and her opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), winning the elections in 2015, the tide seems to be turning. With Suu Kyi as foreign minister and her confidant Htin Kyaw as president, a tentative step towards democracy has been taken.
A Pa-O woman ->
THE CURRENT MYANMAR
This article was written before touching on the sensitive political issue against the Rohingya. This escalated in 2017. The Rohungya are a Muslim minority targeted by communal violence in Myanmar. Journalists and people critical of the current regime are also imprisoned or even killed. The government of Aung San Suu Kyi has also been overthrown and the politician has been charged. She is sentenced to five years in prison. In 2020, a coup was committed by the military regime that spoke of electoral fraud. People were arrested en masse, convicted and some even murdered. The regime is still in power and oppresses anyone who revolts.
The peaceful Myanmar we saw seems to be a thing of the past again. Due to the political situation, it is unsafe to travel to Myanmar. However, we would like to share our journey, because it is a beautiful country with a friendly population and we should not forget that. | For more information look here .
Sacred structures Myanmar
The love for Aung San Suu Kyi is visible all over Myanmar. on posters, on flags and depicted in kitschy souvenirs. She seems to be adored. However, we descend further from civilization, to the south. Golden pagodas with their stupas (a religious complex with round towers) show off on the outskirts of villages. No other Asian country has as many sacred buildings as Myanmar. Buddhism constitutes the most important and tangible philosophy of life in everyday society.
We are on our way to Loikaw, a lesser known city in eastern Myanmar. For this we have to cross the entire lake. The lake narrows, twists like a snake and suddenly turns into a jungle of water hyacinths. Suddenly it gets busy. Several sloops in front of us are stuck with their screws in the plants. The boat wobbles as a paddler balances in front of the point and tries to make his way through the water jungle with a paddle. Gradually it succeeds and the way is clear. Passing water taxis packed with locals look surprised and curious as they see us float by; they hardly encounter tourists here. A big smile appears on eye contact and a simple greeting ‘mingalaba’ (hello).
The long journey of five hours is not boring for a moment. There is always something to see. Cows roam on the banks. Farmers work on the land and children wave enthusiastically from the quay. The water landscape is constantly changing: full crops make way for the wide and barren second lake, Samkar. Diamonds sparkle on the water in the bright sunlight, followed by a blanket of low grass. It is an endless spectacle, in which the constant hum of the engine and the silence of the surroundings have a soothing effect. Meditative almost. Travel here requires permission from the Pa-O, one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic peoples. These friendly people speak their own language and the women are recognizable by their black clothing with colored edges and bright orange headscarves.
On to Loikaw
After the third smaller lake, Hpekhon, the tour continues by van. We drive across bumpy roads past many villages. The Shan area merges into the Kayah state. Since 2005 it is possible to travel here, albeit with an approved permit. Along the way, rice and wheat fields alternate, followed by hilly red clay plains. After passing through a strict checkpoint, the capital Loikaw looms in the distance.
In Loikaw it is very busy. The streets are black with scooters and mopeds because of the annual celebration of the Kayah state. This will take place in early January. It is a big happening for the locals. The festival consists of an imposing carnival-like market full of dirt-cheap items from China. The dozens of stands form a colorful palette. Shoes, clothing, traditional longies (fold-over skirts for both men and women), toys, bags, accessories, fruits and snacks; there is everything to find. People negotiate, young people happily wander around drunk and tough men get tattooed on the spot.
Giraffe women of Myanmar
In the evening there are various traditional dance performances by ethnic tribes from all over the country on a large stage. From large dingy boxes, oriental sounds reverberate over the imposing lawn, which is filled with a silently watching audience. By Western standards, the dances are not fascinating, in contrast to the endearing warmth that people show each other. When the gentle Padaung women see us, they wave enthusiastically. We visited them in the afternoon in the village of Sunboon, where only ten traditional longnecks or giraffe women live.
Heavy neck rings
The ‘giraffec women’ are actually called Padaung women are known for their long heavy neck rings, which they also wear on both legs below the knee. The area around Loikaw is their original habitat, and not the north of Thailand as is often thought. Many women have fled to the neighboring country during political unrest and poverty in the area. There they mainly wear traditional jewelry to earn money by posing for tourists.
Traditional way of life Padaung women
In this region, the last Paudaung women still live an authentic, traditional way of life. You really need to look for them or have a good guide like us. One by one they arrived, with their brightly colored hairdresses and baskets full of hand-woven scarves on their backs. They were just getting ready for the festival. There are only about twenty traditional Padaung women left in this area. Ten of them live in the village of Sunboon and are between 44 and 60 years old.
What do the Padaung think about the fact that their customs are gradually disappearing? “Very sorry. It is our culture, our heritage. Still, I understand, because it’s quite heavy. Some women find it difficult to move or have difficulty swallowing”, our guide interprets. “I got my first ring when I was five years old. I am now sixty and have never taken off the rings in all these years. This belongs to me”, says the oldest woman lovingly. The rings can weigh up to five kilograms. They do not stretch the neck – as is often thought – but push the shoulders down. It’s an optical illusion. A ring is added every year, up to a maximum of 20 to 25 rings. The lower ones are wider and connect to the collarbone.
Rings symbolize identity and beauty
Why women wear the rings is somewhat unclear. A common historical explanation is protection against tiger bites. The women themselves indicate that the rings symbolize their identity and beauty. A lady wears particularly detailed earrings. “They belonged to my great-grandmother. It is my most precious possession,” she says with a big smile.
Increase in Myanmar tourism
The Padaung are not the only minority groups that are disappearing more and more, that also applies to the Kayah. They only wear traditional clothing during special ceremonies or parties. Times change; absorbing Western cultures and striving for economic progress could mean the end of ancient peoples and their cultures.
The rapid increase in tourism is a huge change for the country. According to our four local guides, there has been a 50 percent increase in travel to Myanmar since 2011! These experts agree that tourism is very good for the economy, because it creates more employment. But the infrastructure is barely able to keep up with the demand. In addition, they certainly do not hope for a second Thailand, where the culture is increasingly losing its authenticity due to mass tourism.
Puppet Theater Monastery Mahagandayon
In a suburb of Mandalay, Amarapura, we see the puppet theater around the large monastery of Mahagandayon, where hardly any tourists came ten years ago. Now there are almost more visitors than monks. Tourists encroach on believers waiting in line for their food and sometimes act disrespectfully as paparazzi. What do the monks think of this? “We are open to visitors; are curious about their backgrounds and like to show how we live here. Only we are not waiting for mass tourism here, and you can see that here now,” says Ashim Kelasa, meditative mentor of the monastery.
Ashim says that there is little privacy and tranquility. Visitors sometimes show too little respect and are too present during prayers or dinner. It is highly desirable that this changes in the future. Spreading or limiting the admission of visitors is an appropriate solution.”
Sad circus Amarapura
The circus of Amarapura is sad and not an isolated one. The Leaping Cat Monastery at Inle Lake has also turned into a tourist attraction. Here cats jumped through hoops, but the influx has made the animals too tired. One of the guides says that the monks resist, but some tour operators have dual interests and put pressure on them.
The description in the previous paragraphs about the increase in tourism no longer applies in present-day Myanmar. It is possibly one of the few positive developments of recent years that the short-lived mass tourism that started quickly has been completely stagnated by political developments.
We exchange the still undiscovered Loikaw for the popular destination Bagan, city of temples, pagodas and stupas. Because this area is as large as the province of Utrecht, the crowds can easily be avoided with the right timing. Guide Ko Naing Lin therefore knows exactly where to start.
Around a quarter past eight in the morning there is noone to be seen at the Shwesandaw pagoda. “At sunset this place is filled with people traveling through Myanmar,” Lin shouts as we sweat to get to the top. The large uneven steps demand all concentration. The pagoda is one of 2200 still intact structures and dates from 1057, the heyday of King Anawratha. Shwesandaw is one of the few monuments that can still be climbed. Most of the structures are in too bad a condition or are protected. The view from the top square terrace is truly breathtaking. As far as the eye can see there are only pagodas and temples in the sky. They form a mystical still life that awakens under a blanket of mist.
Golden bricks and white stupa dots show off the sky wherever you look. One is sober and poorly renovated, the other is beautifully intact and beautifully decorated. The latter applies, for example, to the Gubyaukgyi Temple (in Wetkyi). In the temple you will find Buddha frescoes from the 13th century.
Bagan comprises a total of about 4400 shrines, most of which are located in ancient Bagan. During the Burmese ‘Golden Age’, from 1100 to 1300, Bagan was the capital of the first Burmese Kingdom. As a result, the structures shot up like mushrooms. “This is due to the conversion of Theravada Buddhism by King Anawrahta (1044-1077).” Tells guide Lin. “The monk Shin Arahan convinced the monarch that he would never become a good Buddhist if he did not have the Tripitaka, the Holy Scriptures. King Manuha of the western kingdom of Thaton had it in his possession and did not want to give it up. The result: a battle that Anawrahta won, in which he enslaved the inhabitants – including the royal family – of Thaton for the construction of a legion of shrines. This tribute to Buddha was maintained by his successors for two centuries.”
Cycling through Bagan
Unfortunately we can only stay in Bagan for one day and need some exercise. We rent a bicycle, which should be a piece of cake, because all roads are flat. Lin raises his eyebrow and has a chuckle. After ten minutes we understand his reaction: it is disappointing, because the simple city bikes can hardly handle the loose sand. Traveling through Myanmar by bike is not easy! Soon the sweat is on the forehead. Enviously we look at relaxed-looking couples passing by with horse and carriage, but this is of course much more sporty. Don’t whine, kick on!
Ananda temple complex
We are completely absorbed in the sparsely populated surrealistic landscape, because one temple is even more intriguing than the other up close. The highlight is the famous white square Ananda temple complex from the early period (1091). Once again we have the place to ourselves. At the end of the afternoon it is almost desolately quiet. This is not just any temple, because the walls are more than ten meters high. And at four niches are equally large meters high golden Buddhas. “This is the original Buddha, from the 11th century. The other three were replaced later,” guide Lin whispers as if revealing a big secret. Then he says, “Look at the face and now walk back a few steps. What do you notice?” Walking backwards, we suddenly see a big smile appear on the face. Special and a clever architectural joke.
Even now that feeling is what prevails, everywhere those sincere smiles and twinkling eyes. Special, a nation that has endured so much suffering and yet has remained so warm and magical. You can only cherish and embrace that cordiality wherever you are in Myanmar, with a thousand arms.
How to get there
Special travel & Asia specialist Dim Sum is one of the many providers of Myanmar travel. This organization has been active in the country for years and works exclusively with experienced local guides from partner Interconnection Travels. Everything is well organized. In addition to individual and group travel, Dim Sum also provides tailor-made services and book safe domestic flights. In addition to highlights, Dim Sum also focuses on off-road visits to hill tribes, lesser-known cities and nature reserves, as described in the story. www.dim-sum.nl | 030 23 00 847
Transport & money
Travelling directly to Myanmar by plane can be done via Brussels, but is pricey. Several airlines make a stopover in Singapore or Bangkok.| Travel time: 13 to 15 hours| Cost of ticket: €900 to €1200.| Local travel by public transport is cheap, but time consuming and uncomfortable.| At airports or in large cities, dollars (new banknotes) and increasingly euros can be exchanged for the local kyat.| Best travel time: Dec-March.
Our favorite hotels from Dim Sum’s selection: the Bagan Princess Hotel has tasteful spacious rooms in colonial style, with swimming pool and jacuzzi. The Inle Resort is a large-scale luxury residence with colonial villas on Inle Lake. Extra: various spa treatments; minus: the massive and expensive restaurant. Breakfast is top notch. Hotel Queen Mandalay offers spacious neat rooms in the heart of the city.
Canal Mandalay Restaurant Beautiful garden and amazing traditional good food.| 22nd Road, Btn 63th-64th Str., Mandalay
Aye-Myit- Tar Here you can taste the Myanmar cuisine like at home.|81st, Btn 29th-30th str. No. 371, Mandalay
Phore Kawr Kay Restaurant, Loikaw Delicious noodles, soups and vegetables for next to nothing.
Feel Myanmar Food No. 124 Pyihtaungsu Avenue Str, Dagon, Yangon | feelrestaurant.com . A popular restaurant among guides because of the diversity and the entertaining hectic in the kitchen.
Intar Heritage House
The colonial hotel and (lunch) restaurant Inthar Heritage House is not only a wonderful stay, it is also a shelter for dozens of Burmese cats. The graceful breed was nearly extinct, but has been revived by the China Exploration & Research Society. The animals here have their own playroom, bedroom and playground. The hotel is surrounded by beautiful plants and flowers, and there is a lovely shop selling local gifts and art. Inthar also supports various educational projects. Definitely a must for cat lovers! |Inpawkhon Village, Inle Lake.