Undiscovered Myanmar (Burma)
Asia 50 years ago
Officially Myanmar is called Burma since 1989, but because the military dictatorship was not recognized by many countries, the old name "Burma" is still often used. After the release of the famous freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi and the fall of the dictatorship in 2011(!) the democracy slowly started. At the same time the borders for tourists went a little bit open and we were able to explore Myanmar as one of the first motorbike riders.
For renting a motorcycle in this "new" country we have to search a long time, but finally we found someone in Mandalay who can arrange everything. He has perfect Honda XR dirt bikes, can arrange a national motorcycle-licence and does all the paperwork for the necessary permits. Those permits (access-tickets) are necessary because there are 14 different regions, all separated with road barriers. However in practice we did not really need the permits, because most off the time you can simply bypass the barriers.
Our journey begins in Mandalay with a visit to the largest book in the world. Not just any book, but a book with an area of 1195 m2! 730 buildings standing around a large golden pagoda and in each building there are two large pages marble which are engraved with gold. The lyrics are unreadable for us but the text is from the Buddhist scriptures (Tripitaka) of 500 BC. Because the texts has been taken from the original manuscripts with all tiny details, the book is a pilgrimage for many Buddhists. Another pilgrimage is the city Bagan, 200 km to the west, so the engines can be started.
Outside the big city we notice there is almost no traffic on the road. There are more horses and carriages then cars. Allmost all cars are also driving carefully, a big difference with many other Asian countries where you have to fight for a place on the road. There is still more then enough excitement on the road, sinceall cars do have the steering wheel on the wrong side! This is because the cars are imported from Japan, where cars drive on the left side, while in Myanmar since 1970 all traffic is driving on the right side of the road.
Centuries ago Myanmar also started the import of the Betelnut, a chewing tobacco from Malaysia. The Betelnut suppressed every appetite and gives extra energy. Unfortunately, it also destroys your teeth and every 5 minutes a big red spit phlegm is thrown on the street. Some curbs are as red as the floor of a slaughterhouse.
At a lunch stop we visit a freshmarket and see a butcher stall colored completly red. Not by the Betelnut, but by the half cow that was just deliverd with a scooter. In the stall the cow is fillet and all organs are removed while dogs are waiting for the leftovers. Meanwhile, the stall is full of women who have seen the scooter and are waiting to get some fresh meat in a banana leaf to take home.
End of the day we reach the UNESCO World Heritage Bagan. With more than 2200 temples and stupas, the largest collection of Buddhist buildings in the world. The area is 104 km2 and we literally slalom between the beautifully decorated buildings and the countless beautiful Buddha images. End of the day we climb a stupa and enjoy with the smell of incense from a beautiful sunset. Life is Beautiful! A local monk is teaching that Buddhism is not a religion but a way of life. By doing morally good to all people and doing daily self-reflection, you become a better person and life more pleasant. Everything you do in your life (right or wrong) will return as Karma automatically back to you.
After Bagan we drive true the foothills of the Himalayas -the Shan Hills-, heading to the to Inle Lake. On this lake more then 70,000 people live in stilt-houses and are specialised in making floating land on water. Using wetland plants and dirth, they build entire floating orchards and acker fields on the water. A piece of water management where even the Dutch people can still learn. Fishing on the Inle Lake is done also in a unique way. Just like the gondoliers in Venice the fisherman is standing on his boat, but instead of pushing the boat he moves an oar with his legs. Once he sees a good fish spot he is catching the fish with a basket and spear. Beautiful craft work!
Already after one day on the lake we miss our motorbikes, so next day we are back on the road, driving deeper into the Shan Hills. This area is clearly not as accessible as western Myanmar, but the numerous roadworks will change this quickly. Our dirt bikes are made for those roads and every diversion is a nice new challenge. A little bit further north, most roads are already finished and we enjoy over 200 km mountain roads through the woods. Paradise!
Higherup in the Shan Hills, we arrive at the Pindaya Caves. In one of the caves, more than 8,000 Buddha images have been collected. The oldest images date back from 1750 and many images are made of stone, gold or expensive gemstones like emerald. Even now people come from around the world placing daily new images, as a sacrifice or to commemorate a relative. We take an alternative option, buying gold leafs and stick it on a large Buddha statue at the entrance. A bit like burning a candle in the Catholic Church.
On our way back to Mandalay we drive accidentally on the Expressway One, where only cars and buses are allowed to drive. The road is completely deserted, but already after 20 km we have to stop for the police. However, when they see that we are tourists, we get a big smile and we can continu directly. This smile and the related hospitality are everywhere in Myanmar. You can see and taste just everywhere that people are happy that the dictatorship is over and that the first tourists are visiting their country. If you still want to go back in time and want to see the undiscovered Myanmar do not wait too long.
Highlights during this trip:
- One of the first motor tourists in Myanmar.
- The largest book of the world.
- UNESCO World Heritage Bagan.
- 2200 temples and stupas at 104 km2.
- Foothills Himalayas: Shan Hills.
- Inle Lake 70,000 people in stilt houses.
- Creating floating land on water.
- Famous leg / spear fishermen.
- Pindaya Caves, 8000 Buddha statues.
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