Stepping my way past smiling custom officials I was somewhat apprehensive as what to expect from Myanmar. I hadn’t read much about Myanmar, but from what I’d seen posted on the internet over the past few years I was, well, a little timid. Yet, as the airport doors slid open, I was welcomed by a familiar face — Lionel Messi. Brightly illuminated, the giant billboard was one of many surprising western influences welcoming me to Myanmar.
Driving to our hotel I was surprised at the complete saturation of western advertising and the adherence to traffic laws. Having lived in Cambodia for the past two years, the Yangon evening air seemed fresh. As I commented on this and lowered my window ever so slightly, a travelling companion direct from Australia recoiled at the pollutants in the air.
As morning broke, we clambered downstairs from our windowless hotel room, spilling onto uneven footpaths stained with betel nut. Following a Lonely Planet walking tour we fought blistering heat through markets, tea houses, China & India quarters, pagodas and faces decorated with Thanakha. The lack of motos and English architecture did its best to fool me into thinking I had indeed left Asia.
With the sun descending, the appeal of a far less taxing method of transport led us on a three hour train journey around the outskirts of Yangon. Quickly hurried towards the last train of the day, we were ushered into a mobile oven with fifteen smiling locals. With a sudden jolt the industrial beast sprang to life, nudging forward into the surrounds beyond. The driver, delirious with heat, sought not to stop at each station, merely slowing enough for locals to leap on and off with their wares, children, or live stock. It was all very orderly and polite. We rose for the elderly, they rose for mothers with children, who in turn rose for us.
The next day our prop plane coughed and spluttered as it launched us northwards to Inle Lakon, a short journey over a lush green landscape before landing safely in driving rain amongst mountainous scenery. Arriving at our guesthouse the owner excitedly explained we had arrived during the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, declaring it the best time to see the lake’s decorated royal barges.
Tearing a map from the wall he described several other locations on the lake we’d stop at during the day when I couldn’t help but interrupt him at the phrase “Jumping Cat Monastery”
“Jumping Cats?” I repeated.
“Yes sir, jumping cats,” he replied, pointing to a faded photograph on the wall of a cat leaping through a plastic ring held several feet from the ground by a jolly looking monk.
At 5.30am the next morning, silhouettes of fishermen dotted the lake as our boat putted towards the procession of Inle leg rowers. The rowers ceremoniously tugged four holy Buddha images clockwise around the lake in full pageantry, stopping at each village allowing people to pay homage. Young men danced and sang atop the barges as rows of stringy, weathered looking men impressively manoeuvred the lengthy vessels with their oars and legs.
After stopping at several bustling markets, sleepy stalls and pagodas we finally arrived at the Jumping Cat Monastery. Purring with excitement, I leapt from the boat towards the monastery doors. To my utter disappointment there were no jumping cats. While we were certainly not lied to about the amount of cats, we were horrifically deceived as to the lack of their activity. Everywhere I turned there were cats sprawled in the sun performing nothing particularly gravity defying. Frantically searching for a monk I asked if the cats were indeed jumping. “No, no cats not jump today.”
Fortunately, once on dry land, I was able to drown my sorrows in street stall chapattis filled with lentil dahl coupled with Myanmar beers.
Sometime during the next morning (or afternoon) feeling slightly (incredibly) hung over, we said goodbye to our gracious guest house owner and headed towards the airport to board another prop plane as a magnificent thunderstorm hung in the cool mountain air.
Cycling through Bagan reminded me very much of a bad relationship speckled with great sex. The bikes weren’t quite built for westerners and the temperature didn’t exactly lend itself to physical activity but the incredible peacefulness and beauty of the ride made the unpleasantness worthwhile. The vastness of the temple complex isn’t easy to come to grips with until you work your way atop one the 4000-plus temples. The beautiful Ayeyarwady River bounds the northern and western border, while the plain itself is littered with pagoda stupas, temples, ordination halls and monasteries.
While on the bicycles I instantly fell into holiday mode, enjoying the spectacular scenery at a snail’s pace. And just when I thought I couldn’t feel any more at peace, we were treated to the most amazing sunset atop the Shwesandaw Paya. Although one of the most famous pagodas to watch the sunset, it was not overrun with camera touting tourists. In fact, after some initial snaps, many tourists were drawn to sit and watch the sun set over the infinite plain. A light haze hung in the air, flocks of birds swarmed over the horizon as the pagodas slowly changed colour in the setting sun.