Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


Lake country

In a country so blessed with tourism jewels – including real gems – it’s hard to pick the one for the crown. But if pressed I would nominate Inle Lake as a real sparkler, although one in danger of being loved to death despite its status as a wildlife conservancy area.

Nestled in the hills of Shan state, this 116sq km body of water – Myanmar’s second largest freshwater lake – is best described as a Burmese Venice, a true floating city. Life is lived IN the lake – homes, “roads”, hotels, gardens, shops, businesses all perch above the water. The lake itself is a super highway criss-crossed from dawn to dusk with longboats propelled by powerful outboards carrying all daily necessities and tradable goods. Longboats are moored outside houses just like cars. Even a trip to the corner store or post office means hopping aboard.


The Inle Palace Resort where guests can drift off the sleep to the sound of lapping water.


A misty and smoky morning looking across Inle Lake.


A longboat loaded with bags of rice off to market.


Another load of tourist head down the main “street”.

The lake is an abundant source of food: a species of carp is a local staple and vegetables, particularly tomatoes, grow in clever floating gardens made from grasses dredged from the lake bottom and anchored by bamboo poles. The original hydroponic gardens? The diligent fishermen propel their craft with a unique leg-rowing technique and entrap their prey in cone-shaped bamboo devices – a popular tourist publication image. Small craft industries abound including silk making from lotus roots, cheroot manufacture, gold and silver-smithing and tool making.


Floating gardens and fishermen’s huts.


The family “garage”.


Floating gardens.


Need to post a letter?


Fishing Lake Inle style.

All this activity, and the tens of thousands of tourists it attracts, is stressing the fragile ecosystem. Longboat noise and diesel fumes are disturbing the peace and polluting the air; sewerage and other waste from hotels and villages are affecting water quality; logging and agricultural practices are creating a build-up of silt and nutrients. Sounds a bit like what’s happening to the Great Barrier Reef.



Rollin’ on the river

The road to Mandalay carries the heavy weight of romantic expectation but in reality you wouldn’t want to travel too far on it. So it’s serendipitous that Mandalay sits on the mighty Irrawaddy – or Ayeyarwady – River, a waterway which is so much more than just a fast-moving body of water. Daily, the Irrawaddy is jam-packed with an array of vessels carrying just about anything you’d find heading down a super highway in a bus, car or semi-trailer. Livestock, timber, machinery, workers, tourists – there are boats to transport them all.


Our trusty vessel, Malikha 6.


Mandalay Harbour


Novice Buddhist nuns on their early morning rounds seeking alms, Mandalay Harbour.


We pass the important religious and monastic Sagaing division which boasts 600 nunneries and monasteries and 6000 monks and nuns.


Like other great Southeast Asian rivers such as the Mekong, the Irrawaddy is truly a lifeblood channel. Apart from a transport route, albeit dependant on fluctuating water levels, the river is a source of fish, provides water for drinking and bathing while the banks and sandbanks transform to lush garden beds for a multiplicity of crops after yearly monsoon floods. It’s also a great spot to pan for alluvial gold.

ImageTimber awaits its river journey.


Inwa Bridge.


Fellow travelers.


Our captain.

So what better way to get from Mandalay to the archaeological wonder of Bagan than by a leisurely day on the river in a passenger ferry watching the daily life of Burma pass by? Setting out from Mandalay harbour in the early-morning mist – and the ever-present smoke from unregulated incineration – we selected our armchairs on the deck and settled back to enjoy the 10-hour cruise. Much more romantic than yet another air flight!


Traveling companions settle back and enjoy a leisurely day on the river.


Timber takes the river route.




More than skin deep

One of first things you notice in Myanmar – after all the gold – is the women’s faces. Yes, they’re beautiful, but also covered in a creamy, pancake-like paste. The unique maquillage is an emollient called thanaka, an all-in-one sun block, make-up, skin conditioner and acne cure.


Thanaka, the beauty secret of young Burmese women…


…and the more mature.

Thanaka is made from the murea exotica tree of central Myanmar which, we were told, is a local sandalwood. Thanaka has been the beauty secret of Burmese women’s since the earliest times because of its capacity to cools skins, tighten pores and control oiliness. According to an old Asian proverb Burmese women have the most beautiful skin in the world, no doubt because of this magic salve. Mothers also use it to protect tender children’s skins.


..and for tender young skins too.


One of thanaka’s most valued properties is as a protection against Burma’s harsh tropical sun for the many who work outdoors for long periods, especially in rural areas. It’s not uncommon to see women working on road gangs and in rice paddies so the cosmetic assistance of this peculiarly Burmese sun block would be greatly appreciated.


Time to get out the thanaka.

Thanaka is not just for casual slathering. It offers artistic opportunities for the adventurous with many women – especially the young – etching intricate designs into the cosmetic covering, not unlike the creamy artistry achieved by some our more talented baristas.

Another reason for us Western women to envy our Burmese sisters’ cosmetic secret is that it’s organic. No nasty chemicals or preservatives.

If only I had known about thanaka when I was a sun-loving, oily-skinned, pimply teenager!


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All that glitters IS gold

The streets of Myanmar may not be paved with gold, but their shrines and temples are another matter altogether. It’s hard to imagine a more encrusted realm. No wonder it’s called the golden land.

Applying gold leaf to objects of religious significance is a common and ancient ritual in Myanmar because gilding a Buddha image or stupa bestows great credit on the gilder. Not surprisingly, creating gold leaf is a significant cottage industry and dates back to the time of the early monarchs. Mandalay is the heart of the industry.

IMG_3946The Golden Rock – Kyaiktiyo – attracts its fare share of gold leaf as one of the Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist sites. It’s said that the rock is held in place by a strand of the Buddha’s hair.

ImageThe Buddha image at the Mahamuni Pagoda near Mandalay – a major pilgrimage site – is absolutely bulbous with accumulated gold leaf diligently applied by male worshipers. Female worshipers must stay behind a designated point.

Making gold leaf is a painstakingly process. A team of (very fit) young men repeatedly and rhythmically pound wafers of gold trapped between sheets of parchment with wooden mallets, a process that takes many hours. At a given call the pounders change the rhythm, perhaps to break the monotony of the task. The heat generated by the relentless striking steadily thins the wafers. Luckily gold is highly malleable.


What a way to keep fit!

Once this exacting procedure has rendered the gold foil to its desired thickness – or thinness – the sheets are transferred for cutting and sorting and packaging by a team of women. The typical gold-leaf square measures just 0.000127cm, said to be thinner than ink on the printed page.

Gold leaf not only adorns temples and shrines. It adds lustre to already exquisite laquerware – boxes, trays, bracelets and numerous other items – especially to shiny black pieces. It’s also used for traditional medicines and in make-up to add sparkle to the a woman’s skin. A golden glow indeed!

gold leafGolden glow! 2014-03-09 10.24.23 HDR Gold leaf adds dazzle to a good luck tortoise.


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Faded glory – saving Myanmar’s colonial heritage

There’s always a tension between “progress” and the past and Yangon is caught right in the middle of that argument. After decades of being virtually closed to the outside world there’s a pressing demand to address the dilapidated state of the built environment. But what should the priorities be in a country with so many urgent needs for its people?

IMG_4082Increasingly the world’s media outlets have been focusing attention on the dire condition of the architecture that gave colonial-era Rangoon such a reputation for tropical Asian charm. Those to have covered the story in recent times include the New York Times,  Britain’s Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald, CNN,  the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, SBS and the Australian Financial Review,  to name a few. What has added pressure to demands for action is the exodus since 2005 of government officials from Rangoon to the new capital Naypyidaw. This has left many of the buildings abandoned to squatters and decay, with family washing flapping in the wind from graceful old windows, marbled floors and columns covered in grime and richly tessellated floors chipped and neglected.

IMG_3297The High Court Building and, below, the elegant former British Tax Office for Burma.

IMG_4086IMG_4077IMG_4089IMG_4088IMG_4091IMG_4094IMG_4111Pictures above – the grand Myanmar Port Authority building is one of the lucky ones to be getting a makeover.

IMG_4115Under wraps…another edifice gets a facelift.

Structure is developing in the rescue campaign. In 2012 the Yangon Heritage Trust was set up under the direction of historian and author Thant Myint-U, grandson of former United Nations secretary-general U Thant. International experts in restoration, including some from Australia, are helping in the salvage operation.  Another possible saviour could be UNESCO World Heritage listing. To date Myanmar has no listed sites – thanks more to its generals’ testy past relationships than lack of suitable candidates – but Rangoon’s old colonial buildings have been suggested as potential contenders. There’s also a strong push by the local people to ensure developers don’t throw the baby out with a bathwater in the gentrification process. We were told that in the case of the old Railway Building restoration project into a luxury hotel that strong local protests were voiced when it appeared the international developers were overstepping the mark. Happily we saw a number of buildings wearing scaffolding and other accoutrements of restoration.

IMG_4049The Yangon Railway Building conservation project…local residents are keeping a watchful eye on developers.

IMG_4079Tesselated tiles inside an old colonial building now used as a clothes and homewares market.

IMG_4152-002Notice the cabling coming from the roof of the Telegraph Office…no wonder I was having trouble getting online!

IMG_4135A common sight in Yangon – street telephone booths. With mobiles and landlines a luxury these booths help keep people in touch.

I first became aware of the plight of Rangoon’s colonial heritage last year at a photographic exhibition at the Brisbane Powerhouse – Yangon a City to Rescue, by Moroccan-born Jaques Maundy, who lives on the Sunshine Coast, and Italian Jimi Casaccia. If only there had been such an international spotlight on Brisbane in the ’70s when so many of our colonial heritage treasures disappeared in the middle of the night. If that had been the case we may still have the grand old Bellevue Hotel as part of a charming Parliamentary House precinct at the Botanic Gardens end of George Street.

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Shwedagon – more than your average golden pagoda

Buddhism is at the beating heart of Burma and the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is its epicentre. It was here in around 600 BC that strands of hair, given by the Buddha to two traveling merchants in thanks for alms, were said to have been enshrined on their return to the land of the Mon king, Okkalapa. Relics from three other Buddhas who had gained enlightenment were also enshrined there making Shwedagon – from shwe meaning gold and dagon, the old name for Yangon, meaning three hills – the only temple in the world to hold four such high-value Buddhist relics.


Apart from the stupa’s stunning dazzle value, with the rising, setting and midday sun’s rays reflecting changing golden auras, the 100-metre spire is thick with the precious stones of a nation which is one of the world’s most important gem producers. The umbrella near the spire’s top is encrusted with 500 kg of gold, over 83,000 gems and more than 4000 golden bells. The diamond orb at the peak sparkles with more than 4000 stones, a total of 1800 carats, with a 76 carat whopper at the apex. I wonder if that lot’s insured?

Shwedagon is as much a family-day-out destination as a place of religious contemplation. It’s of theme park size, sitting on over six hectares. The local people stroll at leisure enjoying the tranquillity, or they may take their lunch and find a comfy spot on one of the terraces for a picnic, or enjoy a convivial family day out dressed in their best longyis and colourfully coordinated blouses and shirts. Recently it’s become a great spot to check the internet and send emails as one of the few wifi hotspots in Yangon. And we found it one of the best locations in Yangon to find scarce ATMs.


ImageChecking the email.

IMG_3277-002Run out of kyat?

Those who visit have a wealth of Buddhist images and historical artifacts to contemplate, including the serene Chan-Thar-Gyi image. There is also the 23-ton King Singu’s Bell, commissioned in 1778 in a five-metal alloy of gold, silver, copper, iron and lead, and one of the largest working bells in the world. Such is the allure of the metal that during the first Anglo-British war in the 19th century British forces tried unsuccessfully to steal the bell. Shwedagon and its treasures have endured many other ravages over the centuries including earthquakes, invasions, pillaging and fire.


The serene Chan-Thar-Gyi image.


The 23-ton King Singu’s Bell.

As with all temples in Burma Shwedagon has a “shoes off” policy, an aspect of Myanmar that I came to embrace.  There’s something liberating about removing one’s shoes and feeling the cooling smoothness of marble and stone underfoot. Surprising under such a hot sun.




Saffron-robed Sri Lankan monks doing the tourist thing.


This way.


Golden opportunity

Myanmar – the Golden Land – has been on my must-visit list since the ‘70s when friends posted to the then Burma returned with rapturous reports of delightful people and a rich, captivating culture. The loosening in recent years of the generals’ political grip, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and my new-found freedom from the shackles of work combined to create opportunity and impetus to tour this past month.

IMG_3267The Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline.

IMG_3291The Karaweik, concrete replica of a Burmese royal barge which sits on Yangon’s Kandawgyi Lake.

It’s fascinating to witness the early stages of a country, locked away for so many decades, emerging blinking into the 21st century. A bit like watching the protagonist Daniel Holden in the current SBS series Rectify reacquaint himself with the modern world after almost 20 years in prison.  You get the picture before even arriving at Yangon’s Mingladon Airport. Descending over the dark countryside you’re aware of the paucity of development, especially after the incandescent high-rise intensity of Singapore.

But there’s a genuine charm in experiencing a pre-high-rise city. For the new arrival Yangon’s darkened, low-rise cityscape affords the perfect view of the glittering, illuminated golden spire of the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda which dominates the horizon. Obviously the city’s citizens, to whom the pagoda is precious, appreciate its uninterrupted dominance because when developers wanted to build a high-rise nearby there was a great outcry and the project was abandoned.

The so-far undeveloped charm of Yangon allows the city to have a lush, green air with an abundance of trees, parks and water. Markets laden with fresh fruit and vegetables, and an profusion of locally made produce and merchandise, still abound. So much more interesting than supermarkets and department stores. But city blocks are being razed and it’s obvious the developers are moving in.

IMG_3251No shortage of fresh fruit and veges…mandarins, avocados, mangosteens, limes, cucumbers, tomatoes…and more.

IMG_3252 IMG_3255 IMG_3256Development will obviously bring advantages such as a 21st century internet, and telephone and banking systems. Before visiting we were advised that ATMs did not exist. Yet already that advice is becoming out of date as machines pop up around the country, particularly in tourist hot spots. Credit card use is also virtually impossible but once the internet improves that should be rectified. Then the Burmese will be able to enjoy trying to keep the credit card debt in check just like the rest of us!

IMG_3257IMG_3239Locked away for decades the streets of Yangon prepare for a make-over as developers move in.

IMG_3238Out with the old…

IMG_3259A hard day’s sightseeing demands a reward.