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Ballooning season now underway in Myanmar

It’s not just ballooning in Bagan that will take your breath away. We can also provide a bird’s eye view of Inle Lake, Pindaya and the latest region to take a flight from – Ngapali Beach.

The ballooning season runs from October through to March, with no better way to enjoy and connect with the incredible landscapes of the Golden Land. It simply isn’t possible to appreciate the thousands of stupas and temples in Bagan from ground level. Rise above them to appreciate the 3000 architectural remnants at sunrise. Soar over Inle Lake and the Shan Hills to see floating villages and fisherman before landing to enjoy a private Champagne breakfast.

Take off from next to the famous Shwe Oo Min Cave in Pindaya to appreciate the region’s true colors. Float across picturesque lakes lined with gigantic banyan trees and twinkling golden pagodas. Now experience Ngapali from a new perspective. Gaze in disbelief at the beauty of the Bay of Bengal. Enjoy this new perspective of ancient colonial towns as they merge into pristine jungle and unspoiled coastline.

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A day in Maung Shwe Lay – Myanmar

The beach was a perfect crescent of white sand backed with swaying palm trees and fronted by a handful of fishing boats tethered in the shallows. Two young children shrieked as they zig-zagged along the sand on adult-sized bicycles. Elsewhere the beach was empty. Deserted.

I searched through a stack of photograph albums in my mind trying to land on a more picturesque beach and couldn’t. Devoid of hotel development and sun loungers Maung Shwe Lay, a small fishing community of 2,500 people in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, is just stunning.

After jumping out of the boat (Maung Shwe Lay is an hour’s gentle putter from Ngapali Beach – Myanmar’s premier beach destination and itself wonderful) I stood in the warm and gentle sea and let a huge grin crack across my face. Moments later an ox-cart appeared at the top of the beach and my guide and I clambered aboard. With hardly any cars in the village the ox-cart is the vehicle of choice and its gentle undulations as we toured the village were very fitting.

I first visited a local school that we support. Despite it being a Sunday afternoon I was greeted at the school by the delightful head-teacher and forty of his pupils. They were adorable. Immaculately turned out, polite, eager, and brimming with enthusiasm. I fielded some questions about where I was from; what vegetables grew in my country, what animals we had, did it snow, and then asked some in turn. The most popular football team in that corner of Myanmar, my questioning uncovered, is Chelsea.

After visiting the school I went to the nearby library, a simple one room structure made of corrugated iron, where the proud librarians showed me around and I vowed to donate some books on my return to the UK.

Having savoured a mouth-watering seafood lunch it was time to go snorkelling. We dropped anchor and I jumped in. Floating above colourful coral and fishes with no other tourists in sight was the perfect way to end the day.

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People of Myanmar

Myanmar is blessed with some amazing sights, not least Inle Lake and Bagan. But it is its people that leaves the most lasting impression.

 

Bagan is the result of two and half centuries of frenzied religious building resulting in its apogee at the end of the thirteenth century in over 4,400 temples. Today there remain a multitude of temples and pagodas, still thousands by some accounts, some in ruins but many in good repair, stretched over miles of sandy windswept plain.

Individually the temples are interesting – especially those whose attraction lies within in the form of delightful frescoes – but none have the grandeur, scale or size of the Angkor temples to make them impressive. Moreover I found it difficult – my imagination has always been wanting at such archaeological sites – to really imagine what Pagan was like at its height as only the religious structures remain, the rest ravaged by looters, time and earthquakes.

Only at the end of the day, with the vantage of height was it possible for the first time to appreciate the scale of Bagan and to conjure up images of an ancient city. The sum of all the parts became clear as an extraordinary whole.

It is this whole that brings a few thousand tourists a year to Bagan and with them an entrepreneurial local following selling postcards, lacquerware and poorly printed copies of Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’. Life is little changed from Orwell’s time and the countryside looks like the set of Rip van Winkle, as though it has been asleep for years. Wandering through hamlets – invariably followed by giggling children – I discover that in the absence of a common language the surest way to trigger Burmese hospitality was to smile. One youngster, bolder than the rest, held my hand. Courage spread and soon we were a gaggle holding hands although the youngest would glance up seeking reassurance from the elder children.

If Bagan was the historical heart of Myanmar then Inle Lake is its current heart, well at the very least it won my heart. I was immediately cheered by the relaxed and agreeable atmosphere as I wondered around the market of Nyuangshwe. Friendly banter and laughter was the exchange of the day. Everyone appeared to be free of envy and greed, seemed to be at peace with themselves, remaining cheerful and modest. Head gear was de rigueur, whether the towelling of the Intha, the more intricate headdresses of the Akha or World War II style German helmets worn by men on motorbikes who would venture into the market for a couple of items and to do battle and barter with the playful retorts of the women.

I am aware of the dangers of seeing the everyday life of these peoples through rose-tinted spectacles and that all may not be as it seems. However coming from a far-off country where boorish behaviour and an obsession with material goods are the norm, this is a world where smiles, greetings and camaraderie are the order of the day. They have something that we have lost – community and harmony.

Although with the shrinking of the lake due to erosion and irrigation projects, how long such harmony remains is a matter of some debate. However, the placid surface of the lake is untroubled by such concerns. The lake somehow dissolves everything into a timeless haze. The feeling of peace is overwhelming. Not even the slap and splash of the fishermen frightening fish into their nets can detract from such calm and tranquility.

Unsurprisingly boats are the main mode of transport; for the lucky few motorised long-boats that skitter about the lake like dragon fly but for most their mode of transport is a flat bottom skiff propelled by a single wooden paddle. Unique is ubiquitous in the vernacular of brochures and thus a word to treat with trepidation in the world of travel. Yet in describing Inle it is apt, indeed there is no other way, not least for the technique of leg rowing. The fisherman balances one-legged on the prow of his boat, while curling the other leg around his oar. Photogenic, skillful and beautiful it has become emblematic of Inle.

The lake is a silvery sheen of shallow water lying in a ring of serrated mountains. Due to the lake’s size and the spread of villages, we did not bump into tourists as on the circuit of Bagan (this makes it sound as if Myanmar is overrun with tourists yet the opposite is the case). Yes there were other tourists but such is the charm and magic of the place that it felt as though I discovering the lake for myself, that it was revealing its innermost secrets to me alone.

On paper Inle Lake is some thirteen miles by seven but once on the water it is hard to distinguish the lake shore such is the industry of the people and their drifting mats of sedge. The lake people stitch them together into floating gardens where they grow vegetables and flowers. But the gardens are liable to drift apart, so they must be tethered to the bottom of the lake with long bamboo staves, driven deep into the mud – a metaphor for stake that the regime has driven through the heart of this land of fragile beauty.

Because the bottom of the lake is full of weed, the fisherman must hunt the catfish by its bubbles. He lifts his conical net, like an inverted shuttlecock, and drops it into the water. Then with a long trident he begins stabbing the mossy carpet to flush out the fish. Often he catches nothing but catfish bubbles.

It is a way of life that has remained unchanged for centuries. A way of life that it is a highlight of my travels around the world and a real privilege to witness.

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Bathing elephants in Burma

A last minute addition to my trip to Burma, the Green Hill Elephant conservation camp sits firmly on the top of my highlight list.

It’s hard not to fall in love with everything this place encompasses! Greeted by the warm smile of the manager Puri, a local Kalaw man, he filled me in on the history. From the homing of their seven Asian elephants, the camps strong green credentials and the community focus of the project, I was enthralled to learn more.

The location of the camp is truly beautiful, overlooking the mountains with clouds settling on their peaks. They have also made it their business to not use any chemicals in treating the surrounding vegetation to encourage their ever increasing population of butterflies that flutter around the camp.

After being handed a rather ill-fitting pair of wellies, we were off to see the elephants! There had been a few stormy days leading up to my visit and the nice trickling river that you cross to reach the camp was gushing and had turned into a bit of a torrent. Having somehow successfully negotiated the river, I ceremoniously tipped the watery contents of my wellies onto the bank; all part of the fun!

Getting the opportunity to feed the magnificent elephants, weighing in at over 2 tonnes, and learning more about them from their in-house vet was a delight in itself. However, riding bare back on the elephants along the bank was by far my favourite part of the day here. Bathing them in the river and scrubbing behind a gigantic 67 year old Asian elephant’s ear whilst it flapped furiously with enjoyment was like nothing else I have experienced; beautiful, exhilarating, and hopefully not a one off!

If you are planning a holiday to Burma a trip to the Green Hill Elephant Conservation camp should certainly be included. Offering an intimate learning experience with such a stunning endangered species certainly made my journey to Myanmar beyond the ordinary!

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Fastest one-legged rowers on the planet!

Fastest one-legged rowers on the planet!

If you’re planning a holiday to Burma this year, then one of the best times to go is October, combining good weather and the chance to experience the annual Buddhist Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival on Inle Lake, one of the biggest festivals in the Shan State region.

Phaung Daw Oo is the main pagoda of the beautiful Inle lake and plays host to five small gold Buddha images, four of which are displayed during the festival on the royal barge and taken on a celebratory voyage around 14 of the lake’s villages. Towed by the boats of the incredible leg-rowers, the procession really is an extraordinary sight to behold as hundreds of boats follow behind.

Along with funfairs and dance shows, arguably the most exciting and much anticipated part of the festival are the leg-rowers boat races. For those in the dark, leg-rowers are an absolute must see at Inle Lake. With incredible agility and skill they wrap one leg around an oar whilst balancing on the other one, and propel their small wooden boats along. The “Intha”, people of the lake, have lived and worked on Inle Lake for many generations and have travelled in this unique way for just as long.

This year’s Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival will begin on 16th October and end on 2nd November, with the annual leg-rowers boat races taking place on the 22nd October and 2nd November. This charming festival is the perfect way to feel involved and experience the spirit of Burma, as crowds of celebrating people gather along the banks of the lake.

The festival can easily be incorporated into a longer itinerary, including a 3 to 7 night Irrawaddy River cruise from Mandalay to Bagan with time on the beach at the end for some R&R after all of the festivities!

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Burma’s Back!

Burma’s back!

At long last Burma’s time seems to have come, confirmed officially by William Hague’s visit, the first British Foreign Minister on Burmese soil for over half a century, and soon to be heralded by the pundits with the forthcoming film ‘The Lady’ featuring the extraordinary life of Burma’s great heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi. BBC journalists are even being allowed back into the country. And not before time.

For those of us who have visited this beautiful, friendly, welcoming, tragic country, Burma’s pariah status for so long has been a crying shame. The Lady’s blessing for travellers to now visit Burma combined with the junta’s cautious reforms are very much welcome. Let us hope that this is the true beginning of a new chapter in Burma’s esteemed history, rather than a false dawn.

Burma is one of the most magical countries I’ve ever been to, but the real stars are the people themselves. Go now before the crowds!

For more information about a holiday to Burma, or to talk through all that Burma has to offer with one of our Burma specialists, please contact us on 01285 880 980. We offer both tailormade holidays to Burma, which can include a cruise along the Irrawaddy River.

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Family holiday to Myanmar

I travelled in June to Myanmar with my wife and two children, 7 & 14 years of age. This was my 3rd visit and a non-work trip. I was careful to plan the itinerary so we did not overdo any one aspect of Myanmar’s rich cultural variances.

We covered the highlights, Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. We saw temples and visitied monasteries, travelled by horse and cart in Bagan and by stage coach in Maymyo (Pyin U Lwin). We glided across the water of Inle Lake in a long-tail boat watching the fishermen and the “leg” rowers and I trekked from its shores to see the amazing pagodas at Kakku which number nearly 2,500.

The children loved it and took everything in their stride. They were adaptable and engaged with the local school children and market traders. A pool was a godsend as weather in June touched 35’C.

Myanmar is a land of multi-ethnicity largely untouched for decades. It waits those willing to cross the political divide. You will be rewarded by friendly people, UNESCO world heritage sites, varied scenic panoramas ranging from the never ending Irrawaddy river sands to the magnificent mountains in the north and a good level of accommodation built to reflects its own cultural identity and its British colonial past.