Now that I think about it, we did do more than our average amount of tourist activities in Burma. We didn’t really just hang out anywhere and soak up the atmosphere, like we tend to do in other places. Maybe because we were on a bit of a schedule, which isn’t normally the case, or possibly because Burma is not a particularly budget-friendly place to hang out in. As a result, we did power around the established Yangon – Inle – Mandalay – Bagan – Yangon circuit in pretty short order, and ticked off a lot of other ‘sights’ on the way.
The following compendium of things that we did includes activities that are so popular the internet is awash with guides and information. However, what the internet doesn’t already have, is me sitting in judgement and giving you my own (slightly cynical) view of whether or not I think these places are worth a visit. In our house we score things in how many potatoes out of ten they would get (eg, we watched the film Roman J Israel last night and it only got 5 potatoes out of 10, all of which were for Colin Farrell’s lovely, slick hair). So, using our tried and tested potato-meter scoring metric, here is a review of all the miscellaneous other things that we did while in Burma.
Inle Lake tour
It appears that no superlative is too much for those writing about Inle Lake in the travel guides, ‘utterly captivating’, ‘enchanting’ , ‘the hype is justified’. We weren’t so convinced. Nyaungshwe, the town where you go to access the lake, has a dusty charm about it but the lake itself has long been overwhelmed by the huge numbers of tourists visiting. You can barter with a boatman or a tour company to take you out on a range of tours around the lake, differing in length and detail, but expect the following –
- You will have to pay fee of $10 USD each just to access the area of Inle Lake. The authorities are pretty good at collecting this as you arrive and kids have to pay as well.
- There will be approximately one million other noisy narrow boats howling their way around the lake at the same time as you. Do not expect a peaceful cruise.
- Any ‘fisherman’ that appears close enough that you can take a pretty photo of him doing the one-leg rowing thing is not really a fisherman and will expect to be paid for his impressive balancing/boat ballet skills.
- Any ‘traditional craft’ places that you visit will start with an interesting demonstration but inevitably end with an awkward sales pitch for overpriced items. The guilt of not buying things I didn’t want anyway ruined any pleasure I got from learning about the crafts. Other, thicker-skinned tourists may not have any issues with this.
- Your driver may take you through local villages on stilts. If this happens, imagine your street at home, except with the addition of hundreds of Burmese people slowly driving up and down all day pointing and looking through your windows while taking pictures of you and your children without asking. Are you enjoying yourself now?
Conclusion – Inle is undoubtedly a pretty lake, but the world is full of less busy, even prettier lakes. Boat tours are good value, but its seems like authenticity has largely now made way for the tourist circus. I can’t really find much to recommend it.
Potato-meter – 5 potatoes out of 10 (mostly for the surreal experience of jumping and down on the floating vegetable gardens)
Red Mountain Estate Winery
When in Burma are you tired of drinking endless glasses of Myanmar Lager? Would you kill for a glass of quality Pinot Noir but think you are too far from the plains of Central Otago? Do not fear, for one of Burma’s only two wineries is to be found within cycling distance of Nyaungshwe. We went here because we love wine and were curious. Here is the lowdown –
- Unless you are very fit, don’t cycle. It’s pretty steep and no one we went past in our taxi looked like they were having fun.
- I would have loved a fly swat. So. Many. Flies.
- Enjoy the view, ’cause you probably aren’t going to enjoy the wine that much.
Conclusion – Worth a visit for the lovely views. Staff members are very sweet and helpful.
Potato-meter – 5 potatoes out of 10 (because even drinking poor wine is better than drinking no wine)
Aung Puppet Show – Nyaungshwe
The guy producing this show has been doing it for years. It’s only a short presentation of about 30 mins but it was perfect for our kids. We all loved it and the puppeteer put so much effort into his craft that he was absolutely pouring with sweat when it was over. It’s also worth remembering that one of the positive things that we can do as tourists is to support traditional arts, and Burmese puppetry is undergoing a revival thanks, in part, to tourism.
Conclusion – This was definitely worth the 5000 kyat entrance fee. Even though it was short, it was enchanting. The puppets are beautifully handmade and it was a total novelty for the children. Also, I may have been a little unduly influenced by the free sweets that were given out.
Potato-meter – 8 potatoes out of 10
Bagan is top of the list on most people’s itinerary for Burma. It seems that the majority of people like to go up in a hot air balloon and take an aerial look at the temples dotted around the landscape. I didn’t have a high enough regard for the health and safety standards in Burma to do that, but we did have a little jaunt around the site on a horse and cart which was fun. The temples are undoubtedly impressive, but for me the whole experience was spoiled by the general lack of care for the sites and the dubious ‘restoration’ work that is still going on. Bagan is still struggling to get on the UNESCO world heritage list, most likely for these types of issues. It’s very hard not to compare Bagan to Angkor, considering their similarities and proximity, and I am afraid that, for me at least, Angkor wins hands down on pretty much every measure.
Conclusion – Pretty cool, but nowhere near as cool its neighbour Angkor.
Potato-meter – 6.5 potatoes out of 10
U Bein Bridge
Apparently, most people visit the U Bein Bridge in the early morning or evening when it is cooler and you have a better chance of taking a lovely atmospheric picture in the diminished light. We visited right bang in the middle of the day when the sun was right above us, doing its best to cremate the tops of our heads. It was roasting. Nonetheless we did enjoy sweating along the 1.2km length, and again, we experienced a little bit of that teak wood magic. There were only a few people on the bridge and most of them were locals using it to cross the lake. We broke our journey under the welcome shade provided by the little pavilions spaced out along the way. We also bought some fruit from the women who congregate there with all sorts of (mostly fish-based) snacks to keep you going. It’s a long, old bridge made of wood, not exactly a pedigree to set many hearts on fire, but it gets the people across the lake and got me out of Mandalay for a bit, so that is enough to sneak it onto the positive side of the potato-meter.
Conclusion – A pleasant, if not life-changing day trip from Mandalay.
Potato-meter – 6 potatoes out of 10.
Yangon Circle Train
Obviously the Yangon circle train had a distinct advantage before we even experienced it, because me + trains = love. This train journey was distinctly memorable for one particular reason. It was, without a doubt, the shakiest, wobbliest, most rickety train I have ever been on. I am not saying that this is actually a bad thing. The constant jerking and swaying actually adds a little to your journey, as everyone without a seat bravely attempts to stay off their neighbour’s lap, or shares a shy giggle with the rest of the carriage as they are almost thrown out of the doors on a corner. Adversity, in this case in the face of uncontrollable and unpredictable lurching, always brings people together.
I am not sure how long we spent on the train but we went from Central Station right around the whole loop, probably about two hours or so. The train was empty when we got on, but as we left the city it soon became packed with people clambering on with sacks and baskets of vegetables. The scenes outside the window shifted from city, to slum to countryside and back again. Towards the end all of the swaying and lurching amazingly sent Buzz to sleep on my knee, an unexpected bonus.
Conclusion – Definitely one for the people watchers. This was a great way to just sit back and check out normal Burmese people going about their daily business, well worth the paltry sum you pay and the crazy scrummage at Central Station.
Potato-meter – 7 potatoes out of 10
Taukkyan War Cemetery
Whenever we are in near to a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, we always make it a point to put in the effort to go and visit. These cemeteries are always immaculately maintained and are excellent places to not only reflect on the past but also to introduce young children to the reach and scale of the World Wars. It seems that Tuakkyan War Cemetery is regarded as a park by the local Burmese, which lightens the mood somewhat. There are young couples strolling amongst the grave markers and families picnicking in the shade of the towering Rangoon Memorial that records the names of 27,000 men who died during campaigns in Burma and who have no known grave. A local bus will take about an hour to take you here from the centre of Yangon. We got our guest house to write out the name in Burmese and then showed it to a lot of people until we found a bus which then dropped us right outside.
Conclusion – Incredibly peaceful and profoundly moving. We spent a long time here walking among the graves and talking with the kids about what it all meant. You will be glad you made the effort if you visit.
Potato-meter – I am not shallow enough to give such a place a potato score. However, if I was that superficial, it would be a pretty high one.