Elephants, pagodas and more in Laos and Myanmar
“Elephants and Pagodas: Exploring Southeast Asia: Laos and Myanmar” with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, Ithaca Journal, Elmira Star-Gazette and Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, March 7, 2014, 1D-2D.
All photos by Marcia Jacobson
Take a journey to Southeast Asia
Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, sunrise
Combining our interests in Asian culture, history, international affairs, and travel, Laos and Myanmar, two countries still opening up for significant tourism, were our choice for an 18-day trip from Dec 18, 2014 to Jan. 4, 2015. We had visited Viet Nam and Cambodia as well as most of the major Asia countries excluding Pakistan, Afghanistan and The Philippines, but until recently Myanmar and Laos were not easy countries to visit. Even now, they take some serious planning.
Myanmar has been under a right-wing dictatorship, and while the generals have taken off their military uniforms and wear business suits, they still keep a tight hold on democratic tendencies. Laos is ruled by a communist dictatorship that suppresses dissent.
Travel to Southeast Asia requires patience in two respects: enduring long flights and trying to understand odd locutions of English from guides and hotel employees. Our travels began with a 15-1/2 hour flight on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong from JFK and then a second three-hour flight to o Yangon (formerly Rangooon). On the outward and return flights to JFK 18 days later, Cathay Pacific — no longer the premium airline I remember — provided good professional service with a much-reduced crew of flight attendants, typically poor airline meals and tight seating.
Our trip was organized by Eric Kong of Indochina Odyssey Tours (www.indochinaodysseytours.com, located in China), but I did much of the preliminary planning by reading about the countries and discussing with Eric what we wanted to do. On balance he and his company did well, although they did not always provide us with the most experienced guides and most of them had limited English. Odyssey Tours, as is customary for many companies, outsources to local companies but stipulates costs; within the budget the choice of guides falls to the local companies and we learned that some companies set aside more for guides than Odyssey.
Myanmar introduces travelers to a far different world from what most of us know. The village people live in circumstances not so different in some ways from how they lived a thousand years ago. Buddhist pagodas, temples, and stupas (sacred monuments containing relics) — some dating back many hundreds of years — dominate the landscape.
The people we met are very gentle people emerging from a difficult political past that has continued since Myanmar (formerly Burma) received independence in 1948. The country is still recovering from rule by military junta, the purpose of which was to end sectarian infighting. Even now there is still military opposition, especially in the Kachin state. The Kachin rebellion, with thousands of deaths, is very much in the news as I write and has been going on since 2011.
Since 2010, Myanmar has been moving to greater democracy, led to an extent by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi who enjoys massive support from the people who are quite outspoken in their enthusiasm for her. Her boldness has been constrained by fear of another military coup and perhaps by having spent 15 years under house arrest, the most recent detention ending in 2015.
While the government has become much more welcoming to foreign businesses and tourists, it has yet to allow a free election in which the revered Aung San Suu Kyi could run for president. She is banned by the constitution from running because she was married to a now deceased Englishman, but of course the constitution could be amended. While growing exponentially, Myanmar's tourism has only scratched the surface of its potential. Were the Myanmar government to allow a free election and Aung San Suu Ki to become the leader of a democratic government, Myanmar would become a major tourist destination.
Myanmar has been spending a great deal of its resources on pagodas (consisting of stupas and their surrounding enclosures) and temples (places for meditation called Ku's) as well as on the new capitol and the military. But it is not spending enough on education. Many school-age children work full time, and while it is difficult to get accurate statistics, probably 30 percent don't go to school, while others do so minimally.
Notwithstanding the plethora of pagodas and temples, some more elegant than others, there is no one site on the order of Petra or the temples at Angkor. Nevertheless, the entire experience offered splendid surprises every day.
With its splendid natural and historic sites, Myanmar is a wonderful place to visit, even it is not yet a venue for inexperienced travelers unless as part of an organized tour, and not so many tours go there. Even though Burma was a British colony, guides don't speak English very well because until 2010 the country was a closed society with few visitors; the guides learned English from people who were not taught English by English speakers. Indeed, some guides and hotel people joke that that they speak Myanglish. We did run into one 12-year-old who spoke recognizable English because, she said, her family — probably economically comfortable — was sending her to a school sponsored by the British Embassy in Yangon.
Perhaps because of stringent military rule for decades, guides and hotel personnel are slow to take initiative or to deviate from the planned itinerary or routine. It takes a while sometimes to make your expectations and needs understood.
In Myanmar, we made five two-night stops because we do no like to move more frequently; we prefer to settle in and enjoy our hotels. Except for a two-day cruise from Bagan to Mandalay, we flew from place to place throughout, and counting outbound and inbound flights to and from JFK, we flew 11 flights in 18 days.
Yangon: Reclining Buddha with symbolic patterns on feet
Our first stop was Yangon, the former capital and largest city. (The current capital is a new planned city called Napyrdaw that is rarely visited by tourists because the city, dating from 2005-6, has little history.) Shwedagon Pagoda and its Great Stupa — probably dating to the 4th to the 9th century Mon era — that together constitute Myanmar's most sacred Buddhist site. Shwedagon is exceptionally beautiful as the sun begins to set and is reflected off the gold-covered buildings.
Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset
One should not miss the Sule Pagoda — a focal point for downtown political demonstrations — and the colonial downtown, site of buildings dating from the British colonial rule. Particularly notable in that area is the Strand Hotel, which looks back to the great hotels of the past and was beautifully restored in the 1990s. We also visited a local art gallery and another gallery at the Strand hotel.
Because Central Yangon is a huge traffic jam even on a Saturday, we did not get to every site on our plan, but we did visit the Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, which houses a huge reclining Buddha, We did see a fair number of beggars, including the kind of terribly physically impaired people whom one sees in India.
near Bagan: woman at market
Our next stop was Bagan, the capital of a medieval kingdom and an archeological wonder; it contains countless beautiful pagodas built from the 10th to the 14th century. Thus the Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments should be a focal point of a visit to Myanmar.
We visited the Ananda Temple, dating from 1105, with its Buddhas, guardian figures, and stone lions before climbing Shwesandaw Pagoda for a spectacular sunset. On the next day, after visiting Mount Popa, an extinct volcano, we saw the beautiful Htilominio Temple, dating from the early 13th century. The drive to Mount Popa enabled us to explore the countryside with scenic views, to visit small towns with markets, and to see how people lived. We stopped to see how farmers used oxen to grind peanut oil in the way that they probably did 1,000 years ago.
near Bagan: farmer with ox grinding peanuts for oil
One night, we went to a somewhat overpriced sound and light show with some dancing called "Dandance" which introduced us to Myanmar culture. The inedible buffet after the show should be missed, but the show was fun. Began also offers balloon rides that enable you to see the landscape from above and are becoming more a staple of travel. These jaunts can be expensive but are memorable.
At Bagan, we boarded the RV Paukan 2007 for a leisurely two-night short cruise. Memorable were sunsets and sunrises on the water. The boat has 26 cabins, but the boat was less than full and we had 34 travellers our trip. We had a nice room with a king-size bed and splendid views of river from our three full glass windows. The food on the boat was quite good, and the "Asian soup," close to a Vietnamese pho, was excellent. After dinner one night, we saw a traditional Myanmar puppet show and the second night a film entitled "The Lady" about Aung San Suu Kyi, the aforementioned leader of Myramar's democracy movement.
The only negative of the cruise was that there is not much place for physical exercise on the small boat, although I did find a walking path.
potter in Yandabo village on the Irrawaddy River
Unforgettable was a visit to Yandaboo village where we saw the art of ancient pottery practiced at it might have been 1,000 years ago with foot- and hand-driven wheels and a huge fire pit covered with ashes that serves as a kiln. Although in the village we saw a few solar panels and a satellite dish, this was one of many occasions when we took a step back in time. The children looked healthy, but we wondered how much schooling children from such villages receive and what their chances for participating in the larger world were. I am wary sometimes of "native villages," but Yandaboo was an authentic village — rather than a tourist site or a disguised shopping trip — that gave us some insight to how rural people in Myanmar are living.
We also stopped at another village called Shwe Pui along the way where people lived as they might have hundreds of year ago, taking water from the river or from wells, and farming simply, perhaps with a pig and a few chickens.
In return for their hospitality, the boat company has built schools in each of these two villages and a clinic in Yandaboo, but the clinic has yet to open due to government regulations, and we could not verify either how many students attended the school or the quality of the staff.
Our cruise ship took us to Mandalay where we spent two nights. Mandalay offers many great sights, but it is a dusty, semi-developed city. The highlight was the Mahamuni Pagoda, containing Mandalay's most venerated image of Buddha, and we saw a splendid sunset from that pagoda. We also visited two pagodas in Sagging, an adjoining city, including the one known as the Thirty Cave Pagoda (U min Thone Ze Pagoda).
approach to Mandalay from the Irrawaddy River
We took a boat ride across the Irrawaddy River to Mingum to see the unfinished stupa wrecked by 1838 earthquake, and now the world's second largest ringing bell, Mingum Belli. Other important sites in Mandalay include the Kuthodaw pagoda with 729 miniature pavilions, each pavilion housing a slab of marble with Buddhist teachings, and sometimes called the world's largest book; Kyauktawgyi Pagoda with its large marble Buddha; and Shwenandaw Kyaung, an inactive pagoda, with its elegant golden teak and wonderful carvings; and finally the Zegyo local market.
After arriving by air in Heho and visiting a local market with exotic produce as well as a cattle market where only males are welcome as participants, a private boat became our major source of transportation. We explored by boat floating islands and small villages built on stilts. We saw fisherman fishing with nets, saving both hands for fishing while using one foot to row in a way that they had for centuries if not longer.
With little modern plumbing and outhouses over the lake, the lake is polluted. Villagers bottle water that is piped into the area by the government and carry it to their homes by boat. One of our best memories: While in our lake motorboat, we were spontaneously invited by one of the village families to visit a simple home; we had tea with them.
The next day, we boated on the lake to the village of a group called Indeins (yes, the spelling is correct), and then on to the Pagoda Forest, part of the Shwe Interim stupa complex, where many of the 18th century pagodas are in disrepair.
This was a relaxing part of the trip, and I wished we had stayed a third night. We enjoyed some birding, but we didn't have time to take full advantage of the birding opportunities
Because there is no direct flight from Myanmar to Laos — although the countries share a border — we spent a night in Bangkok before proceeding to Luang Prabang. With its circus-like atmosphere on the river, bustling Bangkok strikingly contrasts to the quiet of Inle Lake.
Khouang Si Waterfall near Luang Prabang
With its historic pagodas and beautiful scenery, Luang Prabang, is the most popular tourist destination in Laos, although Laos is certainly not on the map of most American tourists. We spent almost three days there before proceeding on the third evening to the capital, Vientiane.
After visiting three of the most important Buddhist sites — Wat Visoun, Wat Aham and Wat Xieng Thong — and walked up the 328 steps to Phousi Hill for wonderful view and sunset overlooking Luang Prabang, and stopped at the night market on the way home.
Monks collecting offerings, early morning, Luang Prabang
We awoke early the next morning to see the Buddhist monks daily alms-collecting procession at dawn followed by a trip to the morning market. After that we went to an elephant camp, where we rode an elephant for more than an hour, then fed the elephant bananas and other plants. This was great fun, and I sat for most of the ride on the elephant's neck. After this highlight came another: The three-tiered Kuang Si is one of the most beautiful water falls I have ever seen; while not as massive, these falls are comparable in elegance to Iguassu, Victoria Falls, and Niagara Falls. On our third day we took a boat ride on the Mekong to see the Pak Ou caves containing an abundance of ancient statues of Buddha.
Although not on our original Odyssey tours itinerary, our visit to the Laos National Museum is an essential stop. The Museum gives the Pathat Lao version of history and celebrates — with considerable nationalist and Marxist propaganda — the 1975 triumph of Communism over the royal forces of the King. Few of the small number of tourists visit this museum and we had it virtually to ourselves. The museum also presents the history of Laos through the centuries.
A visit to Vientiane should include Wat Prakeo, a museum containing many beautiful Buddhas dating back to the 14th century, and the Luang Stupu, a gold-covered Buddhist monument that also has national significance. We also visited Buddha Park, a collection of Buddhist images, and we visited a village of the Hmong people, who fought with the U.S. in the mountains. Much of the work in this poor village is done by women — something we saw among tribal cultures in both countries — and some of the men are opium addicts.
An enjoyable visit
These are the early days of Myanmar tourism and when more of the major hotel chains arrive — and the government is beginning to welcome them — the quality of service throughout the country will gradually improve. But the problems we encountered are small compared to the pleasures that await visitors.
Laos was fun to visit but probably has less potential as a major tourist destiny than Myanmar — although it has some following among cyclists and backpackers — but its people are friendly. The political restrictions on its citizens do not extend to visitors and, within reason; you can do and say as you please.
Author of numerous travel articles and the 2012 book "Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times" (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press, released in 2014 in a new paperback edition), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/danRSchwarz andhttps://www.facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes.
If You Go
In Myanmar and Laos, your guides may not speak comprehensible English, and the hotel staff are even less likely to. You need not exchange more than a few dollars because most merchants even on the streets prefer dollars. Even in stores, there are no fixed prices, so be prepare to bargain and realize that because there are a limited numbers of tourists and these are poor people you have leverage. But don't squeeze too hard to save a dollar or so.
On our Odyssey private tour, lunch was included in both Myanmar and Laos and that at times meant a large, nondescript meal at a restaurant catering to the relatively small number of Western tourists, many of whom were French and German. I asked guides on occasion to take us to local restaurants, and they were better; an alternative is to order a la carte at the tourist restaurants, but even then the meals were ordinary in many cases.
A well-located hotel — and probably the most polished one at which we stayed on our travels in Myanmar and Laos — with more than 400 rooms, the Sule Shangra-La is part of an upscale Asian chain. It has a fine international breakfast, with selections from Burma, India, China, and Japan plus surprisingly good Western items. We had an excellent dinner featuring Peking duck and a selection of dumplings at the hotel's Summer Palace restaurant. Our room was nice but not exceptional by the standards of an international five star hotel.
In Began, we stayed at the Aureum Palace Resort, which has stunningly beautiful grounds and pagodas in view, but by international standards is more a three and a half star than the five star resort it claims to be. In a country where corruption is rampant, one need be wary of hotel ratings, and this applies to Laos, too.
One strong point of the Aureum is its tower from which we had great views and a fine sunset. Breakfast, while not exceptional, was better than dinner, but we often had shoddy service from an untrained staff. The general manager is trying to manage a second hotel; when he is not on the premises, no one in charge. There was not enough light in the room in our villa for reading; the villa needed some refurbishing; and the health club was in disrepair and virtually unusable.
In Mandalay, we stayed at the Mandalay Hill Resort, a nicely run property. We had a nice outdoor buffet dinner with puppets and a dance show; the latter gave us a sense of traditional Myanmar culture. At the Inle Princess Resort, we loved out little villa overlooking the lake and had a chance to see great sunsets and lake birds. Breakfasts were better than dinners, but the meals we had there were all respectable, given the isolation, and the resort had its own vegetable garden.
Luaang Prabang with Mekong River, from Phousi Hill
In Luang Prabang, we stayed at the 24-room Kiridira hotel, which while hardly elegant, had a manager and staff wanting to please. By international standards I would give it 3 ½ stars. One night there we had a fine Laotian meal, my very first of that cuisine, and we celebrated New Year's with a decent buffet there, but one hardly worth $75 U.S. per person, given the Laotian standard of living.
In Vientiane, we stayed at the Green Park Hotel, a very nice boutique property that is a little out of town. We had a lovely room but service could be better, especially at breakfast. With an absent manager, no one was in charge. This was a nicer hotel than the Kiridara, but it was trying to run itself and that doesn't work because there seemed no chain of command. By international standards, four stars.
We stayed two nights in the bustling 726-room Royal Orchard Sheraton Hotel and Towers overlooking the Chao Phraya River. The breakfasts and dinner buffets were quite impressive, and the facilities and service are excellent, but the hotel is a tad impersonal.