Saturday, 21 February 2015

Myanmar: fishermen at sunset, balloons over Bagan

Vendors wearing traditional longyis at a weekend market in Yangon
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
In the two years since I first visited Burma, now increasingly called Myanmar, much has changed but much remains the same. Construction of the new Myanmar is proceeding apace in Yangon. Cranes and half-built skyscrapers litter the skyline, coffee shops are popping up along busy main roads, and young people are beginning to adopt western fashion.

But outside the capital, life goes on much as it has for the past several centuries. Here, roads deteriorate to earth tracks, towns and villages are largely blacked out after dark, monks collect alms in copper bowls at first light, both men and women wear traditional ‘longyi’ skirts, and the bicycle remains a common form of transport.

I noticed the changes as soon as we arrived. For the first time, I could book domestic flights online, instead of turning up at a run-down office in Yangon with a bag full of cash. We were able to change money at banks for sensible rates, rather than seeking out black market dealers in hotels and markets. And I bought a pay-as-you go mobile SIM card at the airport for $5, instead of paying $25 USD for a card that expired in a few weeks.

However, this last improvement was not quite as advertised, as it later transpired that the card only worked in Yangon – outside the capital it was completely useless.

Lake town
People returning from market, and reflected houses on Inle Lake
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
Our first stop after Yangon was Inle Lake, a vast inland body of water, bordered on both sides by a ridge of mountains. As we came in to land, I could see a patchwork of fields in red, yellow and green. It was harvest season and workers were in the fields, cutting the corn by hand and revealing the earth below. From the air, they looked like ants eating into the edges of leaves.

We were staying in Nyuangshwe, a town on the north shore. From here, you can either cycle along the edge of the lake or get a boat across it. Unlike the big lakes in Europe, Inle is very much a working lake. Every day fisherman row out on wooden boats with baskets and nets. There is a market which rotates around five lakeside villages. Some of these have become a bit touristy, but others retain their original function of trade between lakeside communities and hill tribes who come down from the mountains.

The highlight of any visit to Inle is the boat trip across the lake, but we quickly realised that we would have to do this on our own terms. Every day at 8:30, a small fleet of tourist boats leaves Nyuangshwe and follows the same circuit around the lake, visiting tourist markets, restaurants and ‘craft workshops’ which are little more than glorified shops. Instead, we booked our own boat with a driver, Mr So, and planned the route ourselves, starting at 6:30 am and with “no shopping” (we had to be firm on this last point).

Birds and fishermen on Inle Lake in the early morning
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
It was surprisingly cold when we left in the morning. The river was covered in a thick white mist, from which birds, wooden boats and riverside temples would drift in and out of view. A few fishing boats had already gathered at the mouth of the river. In Inle, fishermen have invented a unique style of fishing. They stand at one end of their flat wooden boats, with one foot on the boat and the other leg wrapped around an oar in the water. This leaves both hands free for working the nets, while simultaneously allowing them to move the boat.

However, the fishermen at the edge of the lake were clearly there just for show. They wore traditional costumes and conical hats, and would pose for photos with conical wooden traps. I was slightly disappointed to recognise these fake fishermen from the cover of Lonely Planet. Further out, however, we found the real thing. Here, people were less immaculately dressed but doing actual fishing. We stopped by a group of these fishermen, and our driver chatted with one while he fished and I took photos. “These are the real fisherman,” Mr So observed. “The others are for tourists.”

Fishermen on Inle Lake in the mid-afternoon
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014

The next day, we did the same thing but at sunset. I noticed another traditional practice, where two fishermen would lift their oars and beat the surface of the water in unison to startle the fish into their nets. It was a magical experience floating silently on the perfectly still lake at sunset, while the fishermen worked their trade.

Afterwards, one of the fishermen showed us his day’s catch, stashed under the boards in the bottom of his boat. “I catch around 10kg of fish each day,” he told us via Mr So. “I sell them in the market for 1000 kyat ($1 USD) per kilo.”

Fishermen beat the water and cast nets at sunset
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
Master of puppets

There were other things to do in town, including a traditional puppet show, performed every evening by Aung, a middle-aged Burmese man, in a tiny makeshift theatre at the front of his house. It sat around 20 people and on the night we went was a full house. Tickets were a very reasonable 3,000 kyats.

It was a charming performance, if unintentionally funny at times. The show was a series of short single-puppet dances, introduced by an old crackly tape recording of a British woman with an impeccable upper-class 1940s accent, presumably recorded during the last days of the British Empire. “We will now watch a most entertaining dance,” she announced.

If you ignored the faded backgrounds and wobbly stage, watching the puppet show was fascinating. There was clearly a lot of skill in working the puppets, with complex string movements, and some of them were quite clever and humanlike. A youth doing kick ups with a football – a game that has been around much longer than I realised – was immediately recognisable.

A character from Aung's puppet show
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
Afterwards we chatted to Aung about the show. “It’s hard work,” he told us. “The puppets dance but I dance too. It’s hot behind the stage and I can’t use a fan because it moves the strings. I’m the fourth generation of my family to be a puppet master. I started learning when I was eight years old.”

Aung’s family was from Bagan and his parents and uncle still perform in hotels there. He was clearly nostalgic for the old days. “We used to do entire plays with many characters, including the King and Prime Minister,” he recalled. “But for that you need up to ten puppeteers. On my own I can only do the individual dances. We used to perform at Buddhist festivals, but local people are not interested anymore, so now it’s mostly for tourists.”

Despite this, Aung told us that he still hopes to continue the tradition. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and now I’m teaching my son,” he said. “I hope that Burmese people will become interested in puppet shows again.”

Afterwards, Joyce and I discussed the show over a dinner of Shan noodles. I asked her what she thought of Aung. “He was very adorable,” she replied. “There was a bit of sadness about him, but you could see that he was happy showing his puppets to foreigners.”

Stone temple pilots

A herd of goats pass in front of a Bagan temple as a farmer unloads hay
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
Our next stop was Bagan, where thousands of ancient temples lie scattered across a flat plain beside the Irrawaddy River. In some ways, Bagan is similar to Angkor in Cambodia, but while most of the temples are noticeably less grand (they are often made from brick and concrete instead of stone), what they lack in grandeur they make up for in sheer numbers. There are over 4,000 temples here, constructed between the 11th and 13th Centuries AD.

Another difference with Angkor is that Bagan, like Inle, remains a predominantly rural area. Most of the temples sit among fields of crops, between sandy tracks and wooden huts. We saw farmers herding goats and cattle amongst the crumbling ruins, or unloading bales of hay from ox-drawn carts.

This was my second visit to Bagan, and there had been several changes in the intervening two years. There were noticeably more tourists this time round, including a number of tour groups, although most visitors were still independent travellers.

Obviously, we had no desire to join a bus tour. Our preferred way of getting around was by bike and here there had been some welcome developments. Two years ago, you could only get old rickety, bone-shaker bicycles, which would inevitably break down or get stuck in the sandy tracks. Now, many places were renting electric bikes, which were like small, battery-powered motorbikes. I tried one of these but missed the power and speed of my Honda.

Easily the best option was a pair of brand-new, high-end mountain bikes from China. These cost twice as much to hire as the electric bikes but were a joy to ride, with lightweight frames, wide tyres and a good range of gears. The only problem was the brakes, which were ultra-sensitive to the lightest touch. I’m used to jamming on poor quality brakes to make them work, but this would stop the bike as if it had hit a brick wall. It could even send you over the handlebars, as happened once to Joyce.

Monks and sunset at Pyathada Paya temple
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
The best time of day for temple viewing in Bagan is either sunrise or sunset, and we had several days to scout out the best location. Shwesandaw Pagoda is where all the foreign bus tours go and is best avoided after 5pm. A better option was Buledi, which is the preferred destination for backpackers. There were less people here but the temple was much smaller and still crowded. There was something of a party atmosphere when we went, with a dreadlocked hippy distributing free fruit. “Have some watermelon man,” he said.

For us, however, the clear winner was Pyathada Paya. It was the furthest out and required an hour-long cycle ride through small villages and down wide sandy paths. Stopping to let a goatherd past with his flock, I felt like I had wandered onto the set of a Biblical epic.

The temple itself had a broad, flat terrace which you could walk around for a 360-degree view of the temple plain. There were a couple of tour groups here, but they were entirely Burmese. Groups of monks and young women in colourful longyis sat on the edge of the terrace, happily posing for photos in the late afternoon light, and adding immeasurably to the atmosphere of the place.

Up in the air
Firing up the balloons, and take off
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
However, we saved the best activity for last – a sunrise balloon ride over the temple plain. This was not cheap ($320 per person in advance or $250 on the spot) but it was an unforgettable experience. We did it on my birthday morning, which almost justified the price.

We got up in the dark and at 5:30am boarded an antique bus, which took us to the north-eastern edge of the temple plain. Here we waited for the balloons to inflate as the sky lightened. Our pilot, Milton, gave us a safety drill and demonstrated the landing position. We’d previously done a much cheaper balloon ride in Laos, run by a Chinese company, but safety clearly hadn’t been such a concern and all this information was new to us.

Once our balloon was fully inflated, we took off and the ground dropped rapidly away. The sun had just emerged above the horizon behind us, lighting up the temples with a golden glow and casting long shadows in front of them.

We began by going up high, revealing a vast panorama of the temple plain, Irrawaddy river and mountain range. Other balloons made red, yellow and green dots of differing size below us. It was the kind of view you get from an aeroplane, but instead of peering through a cloudy porthole, we were in the open air with a wide angle view and plenty of time to appreciate it.

Getting high at sunrise, by balloon
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
Next, we went low, skimming over the top of temples and villages, which gave me the chance to try some ‘Earth from the Air’ photos, in the style of Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Milton pointed out a small brick-making village, where mud bricks (also known as adobe) were being fired in a kiln, sending a column of smoke into the sky. Women looked up from their work mixing mud, water and straw to make more bricks. Children waved at us as we passed overhead and ran after us.

Eventually, we came in to land on the south-western side of the temple plain, just past Dhammayazika Paya. We adopted the landing position as the ground crew caught and tethered our balloon, shouting excitedly in Burmese. Afterwards, we had a champagne breakfast and chatted with the pilot and other passengers while the balloons were deflated.

Earth from the air - over villages and temples
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014
I asked Milton about his ballooning experience. “I trained for two years in Australia,” he said. “Then my wife and I worked in Kenya doing safari balloon rides, but we decided to leave because of Ebola. We arrived in Bagan three weeks ago. When I’m in Australia, I see all these aviation pilots in Alice Springs waiting for a commission. I tell them ‘get your commercial balloon license and go see the world’.”

It turned out that another passenger in our balloon was also celebrating her birthday. At 86, Ellen from Belgium was more than twice my age. Her daughter was afraid of heights but Ellen had really wanted to do a balloon ride and persuaded her. “It’s my first ever balloon ride,” she told me happily. “Next year I want to go on safari to Namibia.”

The balloon ride was an amazing experience and the literal high point of our holiday. I hope that, like Ellen, I’ll still be seeking out adventures and new experiences when I’m in my eighties.

Joyce and me, far right, as seen from the balloon's selfie stick
© Andy Brown/Myanmar 2014


  1. Hi Andy,
    What is the name of the ballooning company please?

    1. Hi Ashleigh, it's Balloons Over Bagan -