When in Yangon….wear closed shoes, that’s almost all you should ever need to know. I have given next to no attention to reading pre-arrival information or learning anything about Myanmar and life therein, therefore I am not sure if guide books mention that closed footwear is a good idea when visiting the country. It was lucky that I didn’t care for my friends’ comments about rubber Crocs; they served me very well throughout the trip.
I initially almost abandoned the idea of going to Myanmar - through being busy and lazy to commit to something new. But soon enough my butt was kicked in the right direction as it needed to be and I was perspiring cold sweat awaiting the arrival of my Myanmar visa several hours before my flight was due to take off. Skin of teeth got a new meaning right there and then.
A joint venture of two Czechs in a country totally new to both of them - I was finally not a tour guide nor the knowledgeable one with (almost) all the answers like I was for Tomas in Cambodia. I was wide eyed and grinning from ear to ear with new sights, sounds, tastes and smells. A LOT of smells.
To answer the questions upon my return what Myanmar was like I came up with the following Annalogy: Myanmar is as if India and Thailand had a baby together and Nepal was watching the baby being made, Cambodia then later came to assist with the delivery. It’s a mixture of all that was somehow known to me but in different combinations and flavours. But maybe the most exciting thing was to finally explore somewhere new again and realise how much I missed travelling!
With just one week we had to decide on a skeleton itinerary and the rest was left to fate. Yangon, Inle Lake and Bagan - no prizes were won for inventing anything groundbreaking or new, nevertheless we managed to squeeze in the essentials and a little bit more.
Tomas shoots medium format black and white film on a vintage tank of a camera - Pentacon 6, very old school! I took with me my trusty Fuji X100T and my Olympus TG-4 in order to give my back a break from carrying heavy pro gear during the two weeks preceding this trip - did I say I was busy?! I can’t praise those two cameras enough - so light yet versatile and the results are pretty damn good, even if I say so myself. I have never been the “spray and pray” shooting kind but having Tomas with me made me think of taking photos differently. With just 12 shots per each roll of film he thinks carefully before he presses the shutter button, driven by a motto: "if it’s crap, don’t waste film on it" which is as straightforward as it gets. I remained somewhere in the middle - shooting overall “touristy" scenes with a little more thought and trying to move beyond the obvious and capture the spirit of each place on a different level.
Late evening Yangon welcomed us with polluted air full of burning plastic and car fumes and it was cold. Travelling at top speed in one of the rickety taxis with steering wheel on the wrong side (like most vehicles in Myanmar) was hair raising and construction trucks were overtaking us with speed previously unseen on Cambodian roads. White knuckled we arrived at our hotel and passed out, face buried in the map of Yangon planning the next day’s adventure.
I can easily call myself a seasoned traveller in Asia and not much will surprise me; Tomas - on the other hand - was a virgin in these lands so he endlessly amused me during the entire trip with his remarks and comments on the daily happenings around us. It was also nice to get back into the mother-tongue puns and jokes, a good training for my visit later this year.
Daunted by the thickening traffic we decided to start our first day by walking through the busy residential and shopping streets towards the train station and then the golden Schwedagon Pagoda. The combination of dodging red coloured betel nut spit “adorning” every square inch of walking space and visiting pagodas bare feet as custom dictates again puts emphasis on why my Crocs were the best footwear I could have chosen - no socks, easily slipped on and off and closed toes, perfect for all aspects of exploration in Yangon.
We zigzagged through the streets where million and one things were happening, always and at any given time. Spaces so crammed with goods for sale that IKEA could take lessons on storage, weird and wonderful stalls full of food items we shied away from knowing the delicate stomach of a freshly departed European would not have handled the feast; and honking horns of traffic drowning other noises and the hustle and bustle of the city. I had a blast with my camera taking in all the living urban decay and the colourful, varied faces of the locals filling the streets, giving red-toothed smiles and nods in our general direction.
Yangon initially filled me with a giddy spirit of being happy and exploring something new but two nights were about my limit and then it was time to move to Heho and from there to a sleepy town of Nyaung Shwe pretty much on the banks of Inle Lake.
To get to Inle Lake one must first survive either a long uncomfortable bus drive (which we declined at the mere thought of it) or the flight with regional airlines on board of one of the very ageing ATR72s. I am not a nervous flyer but having listened to Tom’s stories of his near death experience on one of those metal birds in Europe, I was weary. Apart from the slam landing it was a smooth flight though along with lovely smiling attendants and even a small snack served. An hour well spent showing us vast views of forested hills and not much at all in terms of human settlements. The first night we dined in a local establishment drinking copious amounts of Myanmar beer (which we deemed to be the best in Asia among locally produced beers as it had body, substance and volume) and wondered how far from sewerage should one be, according to EU laws, to be able to prepare and consume food. I think we would have failed miserably if we cared.
Our primary goal in Inle Lake was to see and photograph the legendary fishermen with their trademark baskets and skilled one leg paddling while balancing on the other. Did we succeed? I say mildly. We saw the fishermen but they were not in action. Their baskets were resting on the boat and they were paddling lazily but there was not much else happening. It could have been due to the season and lack of fish or us getting to the lake later in the day. I guess I will never know. Tom promised me, though, that he would find a boat somewhere in Czech, take it on a big lake, bring with him a laundry basket and couple of paddles and recreate the scene for me. If I ever see the result, you will be the first to know.
Inle Lake isn’t just those fishermen with laundry baskets, luckily, so we had a blast on rickety old bicycles circumnavigating half of the lake on quiet roads and being taken across it with our bikes loaded on one of the boats. We also managed to find some amazing pagodas with saffron clad monks, walk past over-head-towering sugar cane fields and forests with red-leafed trees and blue skies above. We then finished the day by sampling locally produced wine in a vineyard overlooking a stunning valley just as the sun was setting. While we didn’t reckon much to the wine apart from the Sauvignon Blanc out of the selection given to taste, we knew that cold Myanmar beer was waiting for us downtown and after all, somebody needed to support the local economy! We do take our beer duties seriously as Czech customs dictate.
Looking back, the highlight of our stay in Inle Lake has to be my travelling buddy suddenly abandoning his bicycle (and me!) and heading towards the edge of the lake and then disappearing into one of the wooden houses on stillts. He was lulled by drums and being a musician, he couldn’t resist exploring where the mystery sounds were coming from. When I didn’t see him return for a few minutes but the tempo of the previously painful drumming changed to something that actually had rhythm and juice, I decided to investigate. I found Tom sitting behind what appeared to be a brand new drum kit with some bits of protecting plastic still hanging off it, rocking a tune, his long haired head bobbing up and down. Then he was handed an untunable electric guitar.... Needless to say, he absolutely stole the thunder from the old fellow who was smashing the drums just minutes before - either inspiring him to become a real rock star or putting him off playing for life. I hope it was the former as Myanmar music really has some catching up to do. We then crossed our legs on the floor, accepted the strong tea which was offered and with no shared English or Burmese communication denominator we “chatted" about life and this and that before finally boarding our boat to cross the lake.
Then it was time to leave the freezing Inle Lake and head towards the cherry on the cake - Bagan. With the aim to see some of the countryside between the destinations we opted for a bus journey this time, in the daylight hours abandoning the thought of ever getting onto one of those plentiful night buses. Rightfully so. If I am going plunge into a ravine and die, which is likely on those hairpin bumpy mountain roads, then at least I want to see that ravine as I plunge into it head first. This luckily didn’t happen to us but we did see a bunch of villagers gathered on the edge of a cliff nervously looking over into the deep unknown. There were skid tracks leading into the hairpin bend but never coming out. I don’t want to know the fate of those in the unlucky vehicle. It was better not to look and I was constantly reminded of some of my high altitude Indian journeys through the dangerous Himalayan passes. Maybe the night bus would have actually been better, on valium. But then we wouldn’t have seen that it’s possible to be overtaken by an elephant - admittedly, the giant was strapped to a trailer towed by a vehicle but still, what a sight. Every night our intake of Myanmar beer was well deserved.
I loved Bagan immediately. One could say that I’ve been spoiled living on the doorstep of the largest religious monument ever built - Angkor Wat - but let’s face it, everything eventually gets old. Bagan breathed a gust of fresh air into my over-templed mind and temple-tired photographic eye. Well, actually, the air wasn’t very fresh, pollution from burning plastic is alive and well all over Myanmar and in combination with dry season’s tons of sand and dust it was a challenge to breathe freely sometimes. I am not complaining though, visually it was the best we could ask for. Riding our electric scooters through the temple park before the crack of dawn - freezing cold - with full moon to our left and sunrise waiting to spill over the sky, the morning “fog” added to the atmosphere of our shots from one of the well known vantage points. As everybody, we waited for the famous balloons of Bagan to take off and when they did, our mission was complete. Once this box was ticked we just cruised through the desert, visited many scattered temples and enjoyed the freedom of movement or getting stuck in the sand.
Like in any destination in Myanmar we visited, we found the food options to be a little on the limited and greasy side. New Bagan was no exception, so when we stumbled upon an Italian pizza place with a proper wood burner oven we were in heaven. I am not ashamed to say that we ate there three times in a row and yet again, supported the country’s economy by sampling Myanmar beer in copious quantities. Somebody’s gotta do it. Another establishment worth mentioning is the One Owl Grill in Nyuang Shwe which might as well be labelled the best on our trip. While rice and curries are fine, there comes a time when the body of any traveller starts to seek something more familiar and less made with rice. One Owl Grill was just that - middle east inspired tapas and wonderful close to home options, hence it was always bursting in seams.
All good things must come to an end, sadly. One week was hardly enough to get a teasing taste of this wonderful country which has so much more to offer. There is no doubt I will be back. Next time I will try to learn a little more than just a “hello” in the local lingo which might enhance my experience. It also showed me that my Khmer language skills, however poor and limited, are in fact plenty to have a small chit chat with the locals here in Cambodia and get the occasional nod of approval.
Oh, and you may wonder why I named this piece Monk’s Heels… Well. On our last day in Bagan we had lunch in a local restaurant. As an appetiser and mouth freshener we were served small flat circles of dried tamarind paste, delicious by the way. People like Tom have a lively imagination and our sweet treat was compared to the shavings on the heels of monks who walk barefoot on the ground stained by betel nut. Yes, I know. Bon appetite.
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.