A country where they drive on the right with right hand drive cars, there are certainly odd idiosyncrasies to be experienced. This trip takes in Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake in short five days and ends with a short two and half hours flight which took off at 1am in Yangon and landed in Hong Kong at 6am. To say it is tourist unfriendly is probably an understatement but the only alternative through Bangkok was cancelled due to the latest protest, it is a matter of necessity.
Yangon is sprawling with long waits at traffic light and comes with a bustling city centre full of faded colonial. The smell and noise is distinctly south east Asian. A short morning of sightseeing is finished off with a great local meal where you choose your main course and ten other courses, soup and rice appears automatically. It is an impressive combination of salad, vegetable, meat and beans with varying textures and flavours. The food is generally salty and not overly spicy. The use of crunchy salad, fried soft greens and warm curry, along with some sour and crisp condiments are eaten with rice and the soup is there to wash it all down. The curry is generally made from a base of garlic, onion, cumin, coriander and turmeric, a sort of more restraint Indian version. It’s a a festival of texture and flavour that works well together.
A short hour flight to Bagan which is in a dry and dusty plain by a river and a small matter of three thousand odd temples littered around in various states of disrepair. The irony is that inevitably, the more crumbly ones tend to be more interesting but in fact some of the shiniest and well kept temples are the oldest since they have been in constant use as a place of worship. Two nights at the luxurious Aureum Palace Bagan and with it two beautiful pools, one of which I had all to myself basking in the dry heat of the afternoon when it was too hot for sightseeing. Either way, after seeing five temples in two hours, they all began to merge into one so best to take advantage of the facilities. The monstrously hideous viewing tower next to the hotel does give great view of the surrounding area but the emptiness of the building itself is quite eerie. And a point to note here is the use of chickpea flour in street foods, mixed into the rice noodle salads and noodle soup to give it a thick, comfortingly grainy texture.
A large part of local life throughout the country is spent in tea houses. People gather to discuss business and watch TV. The obligatory strong tea is served with a varying level of sweetness provided by the condemned milk and ordering the perfect tea is an art in itself. The accompanying array of snacks is worth the excess caffeine and sugar intake as it ranges from Chinese steam buns and pork dumplings, spring rolls with a herby filling, to light and savoury samosas packed with potatoes or vegetables and falafels with a twist of spring onions. Tea houses are a delight and a mecca for snacks without the hassle of walking around markets hunting for them. While the local markets provide their own serving of deep fried shrimp and spring onion fritters, doughnuts and barbecue heads and various other parts of the chicken anatomy. So there is something to accommodate most tastes.
Another short 45 minutes flight to Heho in the upland of the Shan state is the gateway to Inle Lake. The lake is a reasonable size with a maximum depth of four meters. This means it is as flat the mirror and beautifully idyllic. Zooming across it on powerfully motored long boats is a pleasure with near perfect temperature under the sun and a hypnotic diesel engine chugging in the background. The sights are mostly local craft shops of black smith, silver smith, lotus fibre clothing and cigarettes. But the floating villages are beautifully constructed and a great opportunity for budding photographers.
On the shore of the lake is another Aureum Palace with a great views of the lake and sunset. It has the biggest standard room I have come across and a large patio on the water. Though beware of heading out around dusk as the swarm of mosquito are at best extremely annoying. A late morning massage at the spa in luxurious tents that are airy and bright. The massage is accompanied by the sound of five species of birds and a squirrel chatting on top of the tent. Maybe they are the representative of different species holding a conference, debating issues such as overfishing in the lake and the environmental damages of the tourism has brought. It is in that sense quite a unique spa treatment conversation.
This is the land of endless pagoda and fantastic food; locals are friendly and the country has yet to be swamped with overly established tourist infrastructure. There is still some semblance of normal local life even at the most popular of tourist spots and perhaps the best time to go before it becomes another Thailand or Vietnam.