Temples, pagodas and stupas...


urmese vocabulary: 6 words    Tummy bugs: 1      Fevers: 3     Power cuts: 4     Personal items misplaced: 5     Favourite Burmese dishes: fried watercress & eggplant curry     Treats: Dermalogica facial & Burmese reflexology (so painful)      Thing I am most missing: my pillow


POST 5: 10th October 2016, Lake Inle, Myanmar. 

Temples, pagodas and stupas - do you know the difference? I didn't, but I sure do now! Because this is what Myanamar does. On a GRAND scale. So if you are being diligent little tourists (as we have been) it is quite easy to get temple fatigue. Almost everywhere you look there is one of them: either golden, stone or made of bricks, adorned or plain, small or immense, shiny and pristine or slowly being reclaimed by vegetation.

This is is because religion is a part of life in Burma and every boy spends at least one month as a novice in a monastery and most spend up to a year there. These provide children with an education, and also allow the religious leaders to keep an eye out for the next (fifth) incarnation of Buddha, who is expected soon. Moreover, monasteries provide the country with a degree of political stability because there are too many of them for the government to ignore. In return, the Burmese donate from between 10 to 30% of their annual income to the monks and nuns, who rely entirely upon this.


As well as being the second most philanthropic race in the world, the Burmese have to be my all-time favourite SE Asian people. They are so smiley, warm, honest and kind. They made our arrival at our homestay in Yangon a highlight because to say that they like children would be a major understatement. They virtually abducted ours every time we got home from sight-seeing!

We saw the same display of affection from the gorgeous orphans we visited in Bago. A total of 36 live at Grace Home for the Needy, many as a result of the cyclone that devastated much of the southern part of the country in 1996. Others are here because the region they were born in is too remote to offer any form of education to its population, and some were ‘rescued’ from rubbish dumps or left parent-less through abandonment, childbirth or social circumstances. Despite these tragic starts in life, they all seemed remarkably self-assured and happy: they played together as a family would - the elder members keeping a watchful eye on the youngest and there was lots of teasing and laughing.


Photo caption: Bago snake temple (top left) with its 6 metre, 128 year old python which is said to be the reincarnation of a famous monk (top right); one can receive family blessings of health and abundance by donating money to the snake keeper who says a prayer based on the day of the week you were born (the Burmese follow this special astrology very carefully). Xanthe summed it up nicely by saying "so you give the snake money and he gives you money back?" Yes. Exactly. Hopefully more than you gave him! Busy water thoroughfares coming in from Lake Inle to its surrounding villages (bottom)

What was really impressive was the responsibility with which each child undertook their specific duties. These were age-dependent and ranged from twice-daily sweeping of the entire compound, wiping clean the dining room tables, washing up the dishes, hand-washing of all the laundry and cooking the mountains of rice they get through each day. Shaving each other’s hair with a razor blade was a task reserved for the older children, and whilst not something any child relished, it was compulsory for all to keep lice at bay (until the age of 13 when they are considered old enough to look after themselves).


Photo caption: the orphans sitting down to sing their prayers before supper (top left); cooking rice over an open fire (top right); play time (bottom left); hair shave time for 7 year old Jennie (bottom right)

We are now in Inle Lake, a 20km-long but only 5m deep expanse of water surrounded by distant, forest-covered mountains. At 900 metres above sea level, it is Myanmar's first UNESCO biosphere reserve and is home to the Intha tribe. (The government recognise 135 distinct groups in total, which are placed under eight categories of 'major national ethnic races'. There are still ethnic tensions in this country and constant skirmishes along the border with Thailand mean that this area, along with other 'sensitive' hot spots are not open to tourists).

The Intha fishing folk are renowned for the way in which they row using just one foot, the other used to balance on their long punt-like boats, whilst using their two free hands to manoeuvre their fishing line or net. Luckily our visit coincided with the Phaung-Daw U festivities, during which 5 golden Buddhas are transported from one lakeside village to another. This seems to have attracted a larger cross-section of ethnic groups than we have seen before, which are recognisable, amongst other things by the different ways in which they wear and tie their head scarves.


Photo caption: different ethnic head-dress styles, for example: tied at the front with two triangular ‘ears’ on each side; tied at the front with the flaps resting on the head or tied at the back.

In some, the Buddhas reside overnight, in others, less than a day. In Nyaungshwe, where we are staying, the symbolic golden stones remained for a total of three nights. They arrived on a float which was slowly hauled past us by hundreds of locals jostling to hold the rope, whilst spectators lined the streets laden with offerings such as sweets, fruits and drinks. Behind the float snaked an endless procession of aubergine-clad monks followed by hoards of schoolchildren chanting and praying.


Photo caption: jostling to touch the rope (top left); monks following on behind (top right); the majestic, golden barge (bottom left); young men rowing with their feet (bottom right)

Their exit by water was even more impressive as the huge, golden barge taking the form of the Karaweik (the mythological Burmese bird with its large beak and carved feathers) was dragged along by the foot-power of thousands of young men. Each used one foot to row to the steady rhythm of cymbals and drums and one to steady themselves on their long, dug-out canoes. With 80 or so men on each side of every boat and hundreds of these joined together by a thick rope, it was a very impressive site as they glided by, majestically bound for their new temporary home.

Lake Inle is famed for its natural beauty, agreeable climate (its cooler, less humid days were a hit with the colonial British) and for the bamboo-plaited houses that perch on stilts around its periphery. Many of its villages specialise in particular skills: cigar-rolling, silk and lotus root-weaving, paper umbrella-making or silver work, and we visited these in a traditional, dug-out canoe. Despite feeling a little forced into buying something afterwards, I am very chuffed with my Inthe-style, woven scarf which, as any self-respecting fashionista will already know, featured heavily in one of Isabel Marant’s latest collections (you heard it here first).


Photo caption: the laborious process of extracting the lotus thread from the plant - see the lotus plant, the thread above and a piece of woven material above that (top left); a floating garden with its shed (top right); an elaborately-carved lake house on stilts (bottom left); cruising up the backwaters (bottom right) 

Another draw to Inle, is its aquatic allotments. These seem to sprout directly out of the water but are actually rooted in a thick mat of grasses, reeds and algae which occur naturally in the many small rivers which lead onto the lake. Farmers cut and drag them into it, adding soil to create a floating garden.

Whilst it has been nice to spend some time on the water as opposed to just gazing at it (one of the attractions of Yangon is its many lakes), there is still something I don’t like about this area. Perhaps it is because it feels so much like a tourist hot-spot with its massages, milkshakes, wine, pancakes and pizzas. On the upside, this has meant that the kids have been able to eat more than just rice, eggs, chips, fruit juice and bananas, but on the downside, there is something very inauthentic about the feel of the place.


Photo caption: insects are on the large side here (top left); the kids with their lotus flower garlands after the Lake Inle procession (top right); alfresco breakfast (bottom left); causing a stir (bottom right)

Perhaps we are just missing our former super-star status. Because in Yangon and Bago, we were very much in the minority and the kids in particular were constantly having their heads patted, chins stroked, cheeks squeezed or arms pulled by the locals, as though touching them would bring good luck. A photo with one or both of them was a particular draw and they even stopped monks in their tracks. This seems ironic given that the guidebook says that both touching someone’s head as well as taking photos without permission is considered rude. Obviously not when it is the locals doing it!

 To see where we are on a map, click here!

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Magnificent Myanmar

Bagan (13).JPG

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD POST 5: 7th October 2016, Bago, Myanmar.  

We are now six weeks into our travel adventure. So what have been our greatest challenges so far? Firstly, trying to avoid losing any more stuff. Our latest loss was our guidebook which was not ideal given there is barely enough internet to find anything online but luckily we got hold of Le Routard instead. Whilst it’s a bit of a pain being the only who can translate it, the French are arguably the superior nation in terms of pickiness over cuisine, so it has been a nice change to frequent restaurants recommended by them and not to be surrounded by the usual Lonely-Planet crew.


Photo caption: sitting Buddha (top left); one of the large temple compounds (top right); an Indian Jones-style complex (bottom left); reclining Buddha (bottom right)

Secondly, I've been desperately trying to instill a sense of hygiene (or rather a fear of lack of hygiene) into the children which is an issue when most restaurants don't offer anywhere to wash your hands, let alone soap. I therefore carry around with me at all times a portable mini pharmacy, oodles of sanitising gel, a soap and antiseptic wipes. Despite my remonstrations, they still love to put their hands in their mouth at any occasion and I have caught them rubbing their mouths and even licking surfaces that are at the right height. Another stumbling block has been the hole-in-the-ground loos. These have taken the kids a while to get used to as they are often very slippy (which means keeping your balance is even harder) and 'flushing' them by hand with a one-handled bucket is an art. Thankfully, they are actually less of a potential germ trap than ‘foreigner loos’ because the kids are less likely to touch things during their visit.

This is all outweighed by the pleasure of being back in South-East Asia: the noises (scooters with up to 6 people riding on one tiny seat, cackling diesel tractor engines tacked onto tuk tuks belching out black fumes); the unusual spice combinations; Asian vegetables; the constant heat; the rainbow-coloured tropical fruits; the elegant traditional costume; the east-meets-west housing;  the lush vegetation; the street markets; the ubiquitous stray and domestic animals (pigs, horses, goats, cows, hens and cats) living cheek by jowl with their human neighbours; the crazy traffic; the bustling markets selling everything from ironmongery to clothes, to dried and (still live) fish to jewellery (the smell of a market is quite something) and the tiny shops found every 5 metres selling strings of individual sachets of creams and shampoos, one plaster and one battery – just enough to supply a micro economy.


Photo caption: street food and street markets

The only thing that bothers me is the apparent lack of respect for the environment. If it seemed bad on Ikaria, here it is colossal. Not one second is wasted on pondering what to do with an empty bottle of water, it is merely thrown out of a window into the roadside vegetation or dropped onto the pavement; villagers think nothing of living right by (and sometimes literally on top of) pools or mounds of rotting debris dotted with hungry pigs and dogs; there are heaps of non-biodegradable plastics clogging up streams, and even markets selling fresh meat, fruit and fish are located right next door to these putrid piles of waste (indeed it is probably created by its stall-keepers). Sadly, I’m not sure it will ever change – there are too many other bigger issues to tackle first (poverty, the rich/poor divide, opium production – Myanmar is the second highest global producer – and lack of family planning, to name but a few) so you just have to accept it as part of life and make sure you at least do your bit.


Photo caption: rotting waste (top left); tuk tuk (top right); wearing the ubiquitous, unisex, Burmese sunscreen which is also make-up (bottom left); a Burmese feast (bottom right)

Despite this, what has struck me the most since arriving is not how different we are, but how similar. The kids here all love eating sweets, playing tag and watching TV, the men talk about football and the women sit and gossip together and all are exasperated after having had their kids forced on them for the school holidays. Which makes me so pleased we didn’t pre-arrange our visit with a tour company out of a fear of the unknown because travelling couldn't have been easier! We have been going where we fancy when we fancy and relying on the expertise of our hotel reception to book transport to our next destination. Taxis or motorbike-powered tuktuks are used to visit local sights and we are doing without guides (and more recently guidebooks), preferring instead to drink in the energy and feel of a place rather than take loads of facts on board during the visit only for them to evaporate a couple of hours later. Apparently it's also the correct thing to do, as it means our relative wealth is distributed more evenly on the ground rather funnelled into just a handful of (mainly western) companies.


Photo caption: a street carnival (top left); street scene with temples and monks (top right); novice monks posing for a photo (bottom left); domestic animals wandering the streets for food (bottom right)

Budget-wise, we are on track so far which is a bonus given how relatively expensive Myanmar is. Hotel rooms are around 40US$ each, which is much more than you would pay in a neighbouring country for the same quality, and there are entrance fees for tourists to all the major religious sites. Food however is very good-value (our average spend for one meal is about £7) and it really is delicious! That said, it has been hard to find outlets that serve proper Burmese fare as opposed to Chinese dishes. This is apparently because the former requires the use of a lot of different spices and takes a long time to prepare.

As a result, we have only eaten truly authentically twice – once in a restaurant picked by our driver in Yangon for the day, and once in the home of the founder of the orphanage we visited in Bago. Highlights are: a fermented bean, pomelo, fish sauce, peanut and chilli pickle; another pickle of sour, fermented green tea leaves; smashed butter beans topped with crispy fried onion; sweetcorn puree; a delicate herb soup which is taken alongside a meal; a caramel-flavoured fudge made from the sap of a palm tree and eggplant curry (made with tomato, garlic, ginger and marsala). What is unusual for Asia, is that there is no soy sauce. Instead you get fish sauce with raw garlic and hot green chilli marinating in it. There is also only a sparse use of coconut milk here. This is reserved for the dried-fish-based curry only, which is their national breakfast dish. Despite my love of Asia, I have not yet felt local enough to try first thing in the morning.


Photo caption: playing with the locals in the park (top left); our home from home in Yangon (top right); street scenes in the capital (bottom)

Are we missing home at all after six weeks on the road? Yes, a little. I miss quiet, undisturbed time to myself; not living out of a backpack; eating the food I really want to eat when I fancy it; immersing myself in nature and my yoga practise. I’ve even thought wistfully about wearing skinny jeans and boots...

Hopefully we will get some more ‘me-time’ and the children will enjoy more of a regular structure to their days when we are able to enroll them in school. Because it feels like we all need a bit of a break. Staying three nights somewhere and packing each of the days in between with sightseeing feels too fast. Five nights is more manageable. But travelling for a year means that our accommodation is in the budget category and this makes chilling out so much harder with no private outdoor space available or pool. So our next destination needs to be a beach one. It's time for some rest and recuperation (and a bit of homeschooling of course)...


Photo caption: another street, another golden temple (top left); sarong stall (top right); praying with the locals in the most auspicious spot of the temple (bottom left); what is left of a colonial past (bottom right)

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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