First impressions of Burma/Myanmar are that it is a tad confused – not to mention confusing ! It has been controlled by a series of brutally corrupt military dictators for many decades. Finally they got democracy (and the ghastly Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor/think Prime Minister), whose father created the modern “democratic Myanmar and was promptly assassinated for his troubles !). She, for some obscure and misguided reason, won the Nobel Peace prize, before appealing to the Western world to impose sanctions against Myanmar and virtually ban (or certainly discourage) any form of Tourism. She is now better known for orchestrating and condoning the Genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in the north of this country.
While neighbouring Cambodia and Vietnam were deluged with foreign aid which enabled them to bounce back and “rebuild”, she persuaded the rest of the world to ignore, and impose sanctions against, Myanmar, in a vain attempt to put the military dictators “out of business”. It didn’t succeed and the entire country was crippled economically and will take many generations to recover. A saint? I think not !!!!
So the basic tourism infrastructure, not to mention work ethic, is virtually non-existent the main upside of which is that the country is not yet overrun by hoards of Chinese and other tourists and (my bete noir) their dreaded selfie sticks !!!.
Burma/Myanmar is Buddhism on Steroids and the main driving force of the huge majority of the population, who are neither corrupt nor brutal. Isolated Civil Wars continue to be fought between the numerous ethnic tribes, factions and the military government. Needless to say, tourists are kept well away from such areas! The vast proportion of the economy and population is dedicated to, and involved in, building and maintaining an extraordinary number of Buddhist Statues, Shrines, Stupas and Pagodas. Some of which are staggering, gold & bejewelled, both in size, scale and number. Much more of them later………………….. The people seem happy though as I guess that they have never known any different !!
Moulmein (aka Mawlamyine)
A day of HUGE Buddhas
First stop was a huge Sitting Buddha (claiming to be the largest in Myanmar though I suspect it has a few rivals. Still under construction which is why it looks as though it has a beard which is in fact scaffolding !
A parade of statues/monks heading along the side of the road and off into the mountains. Then onto the largest reclining Buddha in the world. MASSIVE – approx. 150 metres long and still under construction. And as if that wasn’t OTT enough they are building a duplicate right next door which still has a way to go !! Not sure why they need two , but as we proceed, you will rapidly see that there is no such thing as too many Buddhas !!!! Oh yes and a dead monk who raised the funds for it all.
Onto the infamous Death Railway and a rather sad museum and stretch of the original track with locomotive and “Disney” like simulation. Many thousand allied troops perished as the construction of the railway was brutally enforced. Mainly British and Australians fleeing north after the fall of Singapore etc. The infamous Bridge on the River Kwai was part of this undertaking just across the Thai Border. Needless to say not much remains as the Brits bombed and obliterated it as soon as it was finished as part of sending the Japs packing !!
Back into Moulmein for lunch and a tour of several rather sad “colonial” churches all in poor states of disrepair. Catholic, Anglican, Jesuit etc. All founded by European missionaries back in the “good old” colonial days of the 19th century when the Brits ruled the world – or at least thought that they did !!
A couple of monasteries and pagodas with “Stupas” everywhere, followed by an lengthy wait for a dramatic sunset that never really happened !
Before we leave Moulmein a couple of Shots taken waiting for the sunset. Health & Safety definitely not a concept here !! Oh and a few very young monks.
Then back to the hotel for power cuts (frequent here !) and loud music outside. Not helpful for a decent nights sleep and overcoming jet-lag but I soldiered on !!
Hpa-an – On the way and there
First stop a huge monastery; paid for and built by a wealthy self-made “tycoon” and much revered monk.
Another lengthy drive across the border into Kerem state and its rivers and massive limestone “outcrops”, each one, needless to say, capped with glittering stupas and monasteries and of course vast numbers of Buddha statues and images.
A couple of vast limestone caves with every inch covered in Buddha carvings, effigies and statues some dating way back to the 7th Century (whose 7th Century I am not sure !). And I mean covered !!! Each one of those “ripples” on the ceiling is an array of carved miniature Buddhas. Also one of many very large bees nests hanging from the roof of the cave…. A long stumble though the cave to an opening overlooking a beautiful small lake. However, the non-negotiable bare foot policy and scorching walkways rendered it quite painful and necessitated a quick hop back into the comparative cool of the cave. My guide (bless her and her asbestos feet) constantly trying to steer me away from damp patches on the floor when all I wanted to do was stand in the nearest puddle !! Another similar but much larger cave on the horizon for tomorrow so more sizzling feet I feel sure !!
Next a pagoda (and stupa) atop a limestone pinnacle in the middle of a small lake. Stunning, but how they built it is anyone’s guess !!
Then onto a park with over 1500 sizeable identical statues of Buddha in a park at the foot of the sacred mountain.
Next back into Hpa-An for a visit to the monasteries , pagodas and stupas to watch the sunset across the Thanlwin River. Tomorrow we get to view the sunset from a small boat on the river as literally millions of bats flock out of the cave for dinner of mosquitoes.
Finally had to resort to buying a Longyi (skirt) as visible knees and shorts are a strict no no and jeans way too hot !! So going native already…….
The park with the 1500 Buddhas share the same sacred mountain which my new (very nice bungalow style) hotel looks out onto, despite a few termites chomping their way through the woodwork). Oh yes and lousy service but as mentioned earlier they are very new to this tourism lark and whilst staff are plentiful they seem to think that service involves huddling together in the corner, chatting & giggling and ignoring any/all clients and customers.
Hpa-an Day 2
This morning started with a visit to the local market which is exactly what it was !!
Then onto Saddar Cave which is VAST and extremely impressive. Once again the interior of the main cave is crammed with Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes and the inevitable stupas !. A fifteen-minute walk through various chambers and walkways until you emerge on the far side of the mountain and a small but magical lake. A 20-minute paddle through the rice paddies in a teak and bamboo “canoe” takes you back underneath and around the mountain where our trusty driver awaits.
90 minutes later (we only had to go 5km !!) I realised that he was hopelessly lost and had to revert to MapsMe on my phone to navigate him back to the Main (and I use the term loosely) Road, rendering him so nervous that I could have walked faster than he drove. Patience prevailed and we eventually got back into town for quick lunch. 3 hours to kill before we go and meet the bats so will try to post this which will amazingly bring us up to date.
Just a rickety boat ride to see the bats to go today…………..If still visible after the sun goes down will include in the next post !
Tomorrow a 6hr drive back to Yangon for an overnight stay before embarking on the RV Kanee Pandaw (Only 14 cabins, home for the next two weeks) and meeting and getting to know my travelling companions as we cruise at a leisurely pace up the Irrawaddy (Ayerawaddy as its now known). Always a bit of a lottery but Pandaw customers are renowned for their sense of adventure (especially in Myanmar) so we shall see…………..