I've always wanted to travel to Myanmar but felt uncomfortable visiting a country renowned for its cruel military dictatorship. However, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and several hundred political prisoners, coupled with the reforms introduced by the new government, I decided the time was right. My wife, who travelled to Myanmar previously in 1987, accompanied me on this Asian adventure, and we expected to see a country that had changed like the rest of south-east Asia. How wrong we were; it was like stepping back in time.
Travelling by road is pretty tough and our backpacking days are behind us, so we opted to fly between destinations. The itinerary included the capital Yangon, formerly called Rangoon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan.
Yangon is considered to be the safest capital in southeast Asia and, given that most of the population is Buddhist, we found this to be true. Mass tourism has yet to arrive in Myanmar (in fact there are not enough hotels to satisfy the demand), so the local people are happy to see tourists and, better still, very willing to have their photograph taken. This made a refreshing change. Yangon is home to the Shwedagon pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. At sunset the gold-plated Stupa shines out like a beacon and is surrounded by hundreds of smaller, highly decorated temples. Walking clockwise around the Stupa, people leave offerings at the many shrines. It is a colourful, utterly compelling sight with extraordinary images to be had in every direction.
On to Inle Lake, with its floating villages, leg-rowing fishermen and dazzling temples reflected in the calm water. Set at 900 metres, the quality of light is excellent. The fishermen make wonderful subjects as they maneuver their dugout canoes skilfully through the narrow waterways and fish using long, wicker fishing baskets. Our boat tour took us to forgotten temples, floating gardens, villages with stilt houses and a beautiful teak monastery, famous for its leaping cats; yes I did say leaping cats. Monks have trained cats to jump through hoops, which they do willingly for a snack. I guess monks must have ...