From Vietnam with love: it's all about people - Dal Vietnam con amore:la gente soprattutto

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Bagan and Inle Lake

[part 2 of 2 - Blog by Tamara, pictures by Marco]

Bagan is a fascinating place full of Buddhist temples and stupas dating back to the 1000s. There are over a thousand scattered throughout a lovely, wild plain. Some are decorated with interesting wall paintings (like one of the Portuguese traders who are depicted as twice the size of the Burmese, with beards and giant long noses) and ornate sculptural flourishes, and some have gold stupas on top, but most are in an attractively semi-ruined state. You can climb to the top of some of them and get a wonderful view of temples as far as the eye can see. Since they’re spread out over a large swathe of land, the best way to get around to see them is by horse and cart. I guess you could also rent a taxi but that’s less fun. The carts are actually quite comfortably cushioned and oddly the horses don’t really smell bad. The first day we tried to see as much as we could since we weren’t sure if we’d be able to change our flight to have an extra day. None of us (except for Super Maia) were feeling that hot, Marco and I since we were up all night with sick Francesco (Burma Belly or Airport Water), who was conked out in the back of the cart for most of the day.

We managed to change our flight in the end and took it easier the next day, spending the morning at the hotel pool (although the water was too cold to go in) and then visitng some out-of-the-way, less famous temples in the afternoon. That was my favorite part, because the temples we saw were very beautiful, but there were no hordes of souvenir hawkers out front – just the temple caretaker tending his goats. (Some very cute high-jumping baby goats too). It was nice to wander around inside the ancient temple and really get a feel for how it must have been in the past.

Our last stop was Inle Lake. I liked it so much there that I was sorry I thought it necessary to add a day to Bagan and take one away from the lake. It’s not that easy to reach – we flew early in the morning to a town an hour away from the lake, and then it was another 45 minutes by boat to reach our hotel, which was on stilts in the middle of the lake.

(Actually in terms of getting around we took a lot of flights because getting to each of these places would have required a 10 or 12 hour car ride on scary roads. Not that the idea of internal flights in such a messed-up country is not scary).

We had lunch in the main town on the lake and went to the pharmacy for some parasite medicine for Francesco before heading toward our hotel. We found a restaurant that had amazingly authentic Italian food (gnocchi with butter and sage, fresh tagliatelle with ragu) which was a comfort after the greasy curries. It turns out that a woman visiting from Bologna taught them how to cook Italian food and sent them seeds to grow basil and oregano.

So after a satisfying lunch, we went by motorboat across the lake to our hotel. The lake is really lovely, peaceful and serene. The local fishermen have a way of steering their boats with one leg while standing up. It sounds weird but looks very graceful. Before arriving at the hotel we stopped at a pagoda where the monks, in their free time, have taught cats to jump through hoops. That was a big hit for the kids!

We passed through some villages on stilts on the way to the hotel. Even though the people who live there are clearly quite poor, those villages are so beautiful. I think it had to do with the time of day – late afternoon – but somehow the reflection of the warm light on the water and houses, the fresh breeze and the peacefulness of village life gives it all a magical quality. The houses are all made of wood, kind of rickety and crooked but sometimes decorated with flowers and painted shutters. Everybody knows how to row a boat, even small children, who row themselves home from school.

We spent the next day going around visiting the lake villages, stopping at pagodas and workshops where people were making cloth from silk, cotton and lotus fibers and another where young ladies were making cheroots – little cigars seasoned with tamarind, clove, brown sugar and anise. They reminded me of the cigarette girls in Carmen, especially when our boat driver was flirting with the prettiest girl.

We had to leave our beautiful hotel (our bungalow had the best view of the lake) at dawn to get to the airport in time. It was incredibly cold in the boat on the way back – I had on a t-shirt, long underwear shirt, sweater, jeans, wool hat and a blanket wrapped around me but I was STILL cold. However, it was very beautiful –foggy and very quiet, with fishermen peacefully fishing on the lake as the sun rose.

We spent one last night in Yangon at a formerly grand old hotel that was well past its prime but therefore full of character and came back fairly exhausted from so many early morning flights, rushing from one place to another and parasites. Next time I’d go without small children and with more time to really explore, but in the end it was well worth it.

Burma (aka Myanmar) - the Cities

[part 1 of 2 - Blog by Tamara, pictures by Marco]
We arrived in Yangon, which used to be the capital until the evil and paranoid government built an opulent brand new capital in the middle of the jungle. I liked Yangon although for some unexplicable reason it’s less recommended for a visit than Mandalay. The streets are wide and there are some interesting crumbling old colonial buildings and bustling markets in the Indian and Chinese quarters, people drinking tea on the streets, bookstores selling old English-language textbooks…

Although there are a lot of cars (mostly falling apart, circa 1970s or 1980s) and it’s the richest city (except for that capital which tourists aren’t allowed to visit) it’s obvious at once how poor the country is. Everything is shoddy and in a state of disrepair. Except the temples, that is: the main sight, and pride of the country, is a pagoda with an enormous golden stupa. When I say golden, I mean made of gold, with a decorative little umbrella on top dripping with thousands of diamonds and rubies and topped with a 72-carat diamond that glints in the sunset.

In fact, throughout the country there is a stark contrast between the pervasive poverty and the opulence of countless golden, bejewelled temples. It was even more evident in Mandalay. The name Mandalay sounds orientally exotic but the city is something of a let-down. It’s modern, unattractive, noisy and dusty, with less to show off than Yangon. There’s the large complex in the middle that shelters the ancient palace, which offers a peaceful respite and a fun area for the kids to run around. The wooden palace buildings look almost Japanese in the style of their roofs. Marco missed that outing because he was sick with what may have been Burma Belly (as the old British colonists used to call it) or the water that we all foolishly drank from the “water fountain” in the airport in HCM City. Speaking of Burma Belly, the local cuisine is fairly gross: very oily, fatty and not-so-flavorful curries with strange condiments that include salty little fish. But fortunately there is also the cuisine from the Shan state near Thailand that features spicy salads with lime and cilantro. We ate at a Shan restaurant one night and met a table full of Indian businessmen who work in the ruby industry based in the mining areas where tourists are not allowed. (I wonder if it has to do with the working conditions for the miners or just the usual government paranoia). We were stuck in that restaurant for a while because we couldn’t find a ride back to the hotel, so in the meantime Maia helped the kitchen workers shell little quail eggs and the waiters played with Francesco.

More interesting than Mandalay itself are the areas surrounding it. We hired a very kind and knowledgable guide who took us by car (which is much preferable to the open-air little trucks that they use as taxis, which are not that safe and leave you exposed to the terrible black exhaust) on a day-long excursion. We visited the area where people carve Buddha statues out of marble for all of the regional Buddhist countries, visited a workshop where they pounded gold leaf and then went on to a sacred area where Buddha passed through. I think he was supposed to have raised chickens there. In any case, there are low hills on the riverside FULL of golden stupas an
d temples – very beautiful.

A highlight of our stay in Mandalay was going to see the Moustache Brothers’ show. They are three guys who put on a kind of vaudeville/cabaret in the living room of their humble home for an small audience of about 8 people. They used to perform for a Burmese audience but now they do a show in English for the tourists, probably because it’s safer for them. They are famous for bravely making fun of the government. One of them has been in and out of jail three times and is probably only alive because famous international people, including American actors, took up his cause. Besides the daring jokes about the government, the Brother who speaks English told silly jokes about his wife, who is a traditional dancer She came out and did some dances along with other members of the troupe. It wasn’t spectacular, but the intimacy of the setting and the bravery and commitment of the actors made it really special.