Myanmar is a nation where old traditions endure and tourism is still in its infancy. It is a diverse and culturally rich country with over 100 different ethnic groups and shares borders with China, India, Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand. Its geography is varied with the eastern extremities of the Himalayan Mountains in the north of the country, dense jungles, mighty meandering rivers and a dry central plain where the magnificent temples of Bagan are located.
Our expedition started in the old capital, Yangon (Rangoon). On our first morning we visited the magnificent golden pyramid stupa; Shwedagon Paya – Yangon’s must-see sight and the most sacred Buddhist Pagoda in Myanmar. With our wonderful guide, Mr Myo Set, we learned about the history and national importance of the Pagoda and observed the many Burmese pilgrims going about their rituals.
The following morning, at sunrise we made our way to Yangon station to board the train to Mandalay- a journey of almost 400 miles northwards! This was our first chance to view rural life as we slowly (and bouncy at times!) passed by fields and small villages, where a regular sight was the flooded rice fields being ploughed by water buffalo, before arriving in the city of Mandalay, Myanmar’s cultural capital. Mandalay was built-up by the British in the 1870’s but just a few miles outside the city are the much older past capitals; the 14th century capital of Inwa was the seat of power for over 300 years. Our sightseeing in Mandalay included a visit to a small Buddhist Monastery to learn about the life of a monk and to observe the monks taking their communal late morning meal and a late afternoon walk along the atmospheric Amarapura bridge, a wonderful place to meet the friendly local people!
Our journey continued from Mandalay with a 9-hour boat cruise down the country’s largest river, the Ayeyarwady. Again, this was a wonderful way to see life on the river banks and a chance to relax before the mind-blowing destination of Bagan. We arrived into Bagan in the late afternoon and were greeted by hundreds of huge fruit bats who roost in the trees around the jetty.
Located in the dry central region, Bagan is a mesmerizing collection of 3000 plus Buddhist temples scattered across the plains. These temples were built up until 1287, and on our first morning in Bagan we made our way to one of the largest pagodas to get our first stunning views of the area.
Using Bagan as our base, we spent a day visiting the volcano of Mt Popa, which last erupted 250,000 years ago! As a result of the explosion, a huge mountain called Mt Kalat was formed near the base. This is a highly revered sight for the local people who believe that 37 spirits inhabit the mountain! We climbed the 777 steps to the top of Mt Kalat which was hot work but well worth the wonderful views. The mountain is also home to Macaque monkeys which were interesting to observe (from a distance!).
Leaving the hot central plains behind, we drove eastwards and up into the Shan hills. Our destination was Kalaw, a small town hill town situated at an elevation of 1300m and the starting point of our 3 day trek. Our trek took us through the rolling hills and small farming communities and finished at Inle Lake. It was a long and tough trek but the team up to the challenge, and the determination was commendable. We trekked through rain, sun and plenty of muddy trails, spending one night at a local homestay and another in an old traditional monastery. Fantastic trekking food was prepared for us and our local trekking guide Romi and his team looked after us exceptionally well.
Our next destination was Inle Lake and after a long final morning’s hike, we jumped into long-tailed motor boats and made the fun journey through the water channels and onto the main body of the lake and on to our hotel. Inle lake is wonderfully picturesque and home to incredibly skilled fishermen who balance on one leg whilst paddling with the other; this frees-up their hands to cast their cone shaped net into the shallow waters. This is the only place in the world where fishermen use this method!
With our time in Myanmar coming to an end, we still had our important community project to complete. Prior to the trip, we had made links with a Monastery school that provides free education, food and accommodation for underprivileged children from across Shan State. Our pupils generously raised money which will go towards the new school buildings. Some of the money was also used to by medical supplies and 150 ice-creams as lunch time treat! The team also donated clothing, toys and stationary. We spent the days playing games, teaching the children English and assisting with laying a cement floor on what will be a sports pitch for the children. This was a very humbling experience and I’m sure the children thoroughly enjoyed the fun and games and energy that the Bradford Grammar students provided.
We finished off our adventure by flying back to Yangon where we visited the big central market for some last minute souvenir shopping. Before our final evening dinner, we were treated to a specular sunset over the Shwedagon Pagoda.