Myanmar is a country full of stunning archaeological and architectural wonders and a landscape rich with natural and man-made beauty. Some 4,000 stupas pepper the face of Bagan and the mountainous surrounds of Inle Lake shelter some amazing scenery as well as more than 30 hill tribes. Recently some Ker & Downey clients returned from a trip to Myanmar and wrote about their journey for us. Written by Randolph Barba

Myanmar is the land of the golden stupas. When you hear about traveling to the country or you look at advertisements for its tourist sites, Buddhist iconography is always front and center. In fact, Buddhism is such an integral part of the culture that you rarely find yourself in places or with people not participating in the religion in some way. Myanmar has much to offer that goes beyond the traditional religious and historical sites most travelers encounter. In particular, the country is rich in ethnic minorities each offering unique behavioral customs and dress. Exploring these minorities is one of the high points of a trip off the beaten path.

traditional stilt house in a shan village near putao
My wife and I made an extended journey through Myanmar from the southern to the northern reaches of the country and just about every major area in-between in March 2014. We certainly hit most of the traditional sites including Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. However, we wanted to experience the “rest of the country.”We cruised the Myeik Archipelago in the south, explored the environs around Inle Lake in the hill country, hiked in the ethnic Christian minority villages around Putao in the north and stopped by the beach for a little R&R before we left the country. These experiences gave us a deep appreciation for the people and habitat that is Myanmar.

When you talk about the south in Myanmar, you have to include the huge island archipelago known as Myeik. This group of 800 islands stretches north along the coast from northern Thailand well into Myanmar and resides in the Andaman Sea. The islands were recently opened to tourism through the main access city of Kawthung. We sailed the islands in a northerly loop for six idyllic days on an 85-foot ketch named Meta IV, managed by Burma Boating. In light winds and calm seas with a wonderful crew including the captain, cook and guide, we sailed and motored around the islands swimming and visiting the local Moken ethnic minority and fishermen.

Cruising in these islands is magnificent as this may be one the last undiscovered cruising grounds in the world. We saw only two other charter boats and one small village. The real magic of these islands is the magnificent habitat, raw scenery and beautiful anchorages. We took short hikes, walked on beautiful beaches and went bird watching. There are selected areas to snorkel with excellent fish viewing although the diving opportunities tend to be in the south serviced out of Phuket in Thailand. It is one of those “get-away”places to enjoy nature and relax. Spectacular!

The Moken or “Sea Nomads”used to dominate the islands living on their boats. They lived off the sea and what they could find on the islands. Today, these people have moved to towns on land in the islands but still depend on the sea. Their numbers have dwindled to just 2000 or so. It is clear that they will ultimately be absorbed into the mainstream population in the near future, another example of the changing face of Myanmar. We were invited to have lunch as part of a dedication celebration of a new pagoda in the village we visited. The ladies were most hospitable in providing lunch and making sure we tried their local fish paste. Of course, Burma Boating went out of its way to wine and dine us on board including sampling the local fish. Our guide was particularly good at using beer to barter with the local fishermen we met underway.

We flew north and ultimately found our way to the environs of Inle Lake. We wanted to experience the central hill country and people before we did our traditional tour of the lake itself. So we headed to the town of Pindaya to visit the Pindaya cave. This large limestone cave is a renowned pilgrimage site containing 8000 Buddha images, each one placed in the cave by a family. After a short drive, we hiked up to the Buddhist monastery overlooking a valley for an overnight stay in the hill town of Kan Hla Gone. We slept on mats on the floor in the guest room opposite the head monk’s room, ate a terrific dinner prepared by our local guides and watched the large moon rise over the plains. Just before we went to bed, we were surprised by a commotion in the back yard when some villagers drove a tractor in to dump a load of construction sand in the blackness. Yet just being there with the head monk in the peace and quiet of the monastery was a special experience.

boy celebrating novitiation ceremony
On the way to Inle Lake from the monastery, we experienced our second invitation to a local ceremony and were invited to lunch. This was a Novitiation ceremony in which young children, male and female enter the Buddhist monastery to receive religious education. Their hair is shaved off and they are given the traditional Buddhist robes. This was a very festive party with lots of colorful dress and music. This kind of impromptu contact with the villagers for such a personal and important ceremony complemented by our full-time guide enriched our experience. We then drove to the town of Kelaw, which served as an important British hill station during the colonial period. The 1927 train station is still there along with some stately homes that look like they should be in the English countryside. Late in the day, we arrived at Inle Lake to be ferried out to our hotel.

Following a very busy visit to the Lake, we flew north to the small town of Putao on the northern boarder with India. This is the part of northern Myanmar that sits in the Kumon Mountain Range. To the north, the mountains reach almost 6000 meters. Putao itself is in a valley that includes the Malihka River which is one of the two sources of the Ayeyawady River. The area is home to a variety of minorities but is also the jumping off point if you want to trek Myanmar’s largest wildlife sanctuary, Khakaborazi National Park. This trek is not for lightweights as it takes four days just to reach the park. Putao has been periodically closed to tourists as it resides in Kachin State, which continues to be a politically sensitive region. Therefore, one has to be careful when planning a trip to this area.

hiking outside of putao
It turns out that many of the ethnic minorities in this region are Christian due to the Church of Christ missionary Peter Moss who came to live here in the 1950’s. Our first excursion was to boat the Malihka River in a traditional long tail boat. The Malihka is a pristine, free stone river flowing out of the mountains with beautiful granitic formations and rapids. We hiked through a variety of minority villages including Shan, Lisu and Rawan. In one of these, Namkhan Village, we were invited to visit with the bride and groom in the middle of their wedding celebration. We arrived just as they were about to roast the pig. It turns out that all the bride’s relatives are fed beef while the groom’s relatives eat pork. The parents and relatives loved taking pictures with the wedding couple and us. Apparently it’s good karma to have strangers show up at these ceremonies as it suggests a past life connection come full circle.

On our hike the next day, our guide introduced us to an elderly gentleman in a Lisu and Shan village where we had an opportunity to discuss retirement in Myanmar and life in general. We were admiring the garden in front of a house when the couple invited us in for grapefruit and tea. Once again, we were reminded of how friendly and welcoming people are in Myanmar. It is always the custom to spontaneously invite you to whatever personal celebration is happening or just to chat. We were continually impressed to see how people live in simple stilt houses, on limited power and growing their own food. While there are certainly differences among the minorities, these people are industrious and self-sufficient. Likewise, it is refreshing to see how minorities live close to one another in the same or adjacent villages with no apparent friction between them.

Following our sojourn in the north, we flew to Ngapali Beach southwest of Yangon for some relaxation. This area is on the Bay of Bengal and is a pristine beach, perfect for lazing about, swimming and otherwise relaxing. Our beach bungalow sat right at the edge of the beach where we watched the sun set over the Bay of Bengal every night. I will say that Ngapali has a “Western feel”as it is comprised of self-contained resorts in the truest sense of the word. Food at our resort was traditional international cuisine. Ngapali is just completing a brand new airport with a very international flare. Having said that, you are never very far from real Myanmar. Our resort bordered on a traditional fishing village and the road from the airport passed through areas of very smelly fish drying in the sun. It was wonderful to spend several days there at the end of a long trip to the far reaches of Myanmar before you climb on a plane to make the long trip back home.

nagapali beach on adaman sea
Traveling in Myanmar to areas other than the traditional tourist cities and sites can present some challenges. The Myanmar Government is confronting (or not) a variety of cultural and environmental issues. For example, people in the Kachin State are very upset with the Chinese mining interests and a new dam under construction that will benefit China, not Myanmar. People are outraged over the systematic clear cutting of teak trees by Thai companies. Sometimes the traveler has to flexibly navigate around barriers that arise. We were grateful for our in-country travel company when they rerouted us to Ngapali. We were supposed to go to Sittwe and Maruk U but had to divert south to Ngapali because of unrest related to the Rohingya minority in the politically sensitive Rakhine State.

From our perspective, these occasional travel challenges were well worth the rich experiences we had while traveling in the “hinterlands.”Our travel companies took some risks with our itinerary in Myanmar and had to make some changes on the fly. However, our interactions with the minorities and interesting habitats outside the traditional tourist sites were over the top. Myanmar is changing at an ever-increasing pace. For travelers, getting beyond the stupas by reaching out to the ethnic minorities and undeveloped habitats is paramount.

sandoway resort at ngapali beach
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