Author: Guido Helbling, Avosound – Last updated November 09, 2017
In March 2016 we spent four weeks traveling through Myanmar, encountering exciting locations and fascinating people.
I am a field recordist by trade, which is why you will find the odd sound recording embedded in this article. But apart from lugging around recording gear on top of all the other baggage, I am just like any ‘normal’ [ insert your own term for anyone not into sound recording ] traveler — except I would probably get bored if I didn’t have to chase after interesting sounds on holiday!
Myanmar – The travel route
The rough idea was to travel by train from Yangon via Mandalay (and over the Goteik viaduct) to the Shan state and, possibly, to trek into the Hsipaw jungle. The Inle lake is also a must-see when traveling through Myanmar.
Then we were undecided whether to travel north or west. Visiting Bagan is a must, as it’s one of the most important historical sites in Asia (apart from Angkor Wat), so we decided to go there and do a little detour to Mrauk-U as well.
Myanmar – An overview of the travel route
Yangon – 3 days
Traveling to Mandalay by bus (1 day)
Mandalay – 3 days
Pyin U Lwin – 1 day – Shared taxi from Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin
Hsipaw – 5 days, of which 2 days trekking in the jungle
Inle Lake – 2 days – night bus
Mandalay – 1 day – airplane
Mandalay – Bagan: taking the ferry to Bagan – 1 travel day
Bagan – 2 days
An odyssey to Mrauk U via Mount Popa, tea house and a journey through no man’s land – bus ride total 3 days
Mrauk U – Sittwe, by ferry
Sittwe – 1 overnight stay
Ngapali Beaches – 3 days, local flight
Yangon – local flight from Ngapali Beaches to Yangon
A note about our trip to Mrauk U
Picture: the impressive temples of the old king’s city Mrauk U look very different than other temples in Burma.
If you want to visit Mrauk U [ pronounced ‘meouw-u’, like the cat noise ] you will have to prepare yourself for a long bus ride. Our trip in a wood-cladded vehicle took almost 20 hours (despite the fact that our driver went nonstop, pedal to the metal). And this doesn’t even include the six hours we spent waiting for the bus in a tea house in the middle of nowhere. While this is the sort of trip that would make an adventurers heart beat faster, it is not the ideal way of traveling for people who don’t enjoy crossing mountain passes in a rusty old vehicle, stuck between suitcases, vegetables, kids and Burmese locals. There are more comfortable ways to travel from Sittwe to Mrauk U, namely by plane to Sittwe and then take the ferry to Mrauk U.
But let’s start at the beginning…
Let’s go to Yangon!
Yangon is where our travels through Burma begin and end.
We spend the first three days in Yangon to acclimatise. A good idea as it turns out, because the city is burning in 37-degree heat (and that’s merely in the shade).
Like two ghosts we steal through the shady parts of the streets in order to escape the boiling temperatures. We restrict our sightseeing in the city to locations that are not too hot, e.g. the lying buddha. I manage to make a few good recordings before we move on to cool down in an air-conditioned café.
Picture: Cooling down at the feet of the lying buddha in Yangon – He carries the universe on his soles.
We are, however, a bit surprised to see that Yangon is not your typical Asian city with lots of mopeds, bicycles and carriages creating chaos in the streets. The traffic — mainly cars — is actually quite organised.
Picture: Bus with announcer – public transport in Yangon
Taking a bus ride is a bit of an adventure. These rolling scrapheaps make a helluva noise as they rumble through Yangon. There’s no way you can hop on unless you try to understand what the Burmese announcers are actually saying (or shouting). Alternatively, you can try to decipher the Burmese writing, which is equally cryptic. We did not feel confident enough to attempt either, so we travelled on foot or by cab.
Yangon – Ravens and gold
We were equally astounded by the thousands of ravens that caw from the trees. They are as much part of the city’s soundscape as the noisy buses.
Today we are on our way to the famous Shwedagon pagoda. The cab driver made us slightly uneasy by proclaiming — at 9am — that ‘it is hot today’. How much hotter can it possibly get, we ask ourselves?
Although we planned on exploring the Shwedagon pagoda by ourselves, we end up with a guide after all. He shows us the entire complex and explains everything in dizzying detail. We learn that ringing the bells around the temple with the provided sticks will result in good luck (you have to to it three times, though). I would have loved to record those sounds, but there were just too many people there.
At least I know now that you can safely ring those bells without having to go to prison…or hell (depending on the country). As a sound recordist it is important to know and respect boundaries when in a public space — which is why I was grateful for our guide’s help.
Picture: Weekday Well in the Shwedagon Pagoda — the Sunday well is mine, which one is yours?
The guide also explained to us that there is a well for every person in the complex, depending on the weekday they were born.
As I was born on a Sunday, the guide led us to the Sunday well where I was instructed to pour water over the buddha statue — three times. Then he asked buddha for my good fortune and good karma. Touched by this gesture, we repeated the procedure at the Thursday well.
Shwedagon at night
When in Yangon, you will want to visit one of the most famous and important pagodas in Asia. Shwedagon is not just a pagoda — it is one of the most impressive temples in Asia, sporting a 90-meter high golden stupa. It was erected in the spot where the last tiger was sighted (back in 1910) and made out of tons of gold and countless gemstones (the latter surround the tip of the structure). The main Shwedagon pagoda is surrounded by dozens of temples, side temples and other pagodas (both big and small), all of them equipped with the typically frilly umbrellas at the top and adorned with hundreds of little bells that chime in the wind.
If you visit Shwedagon by night, you will be impressed by the atmosphere and the pleasant temperatures. You will also encounter many Burmese people celebrating with their families, visiting their saints and revelling in the peaceful and jolly air that surrounds this special place.
Evening Atmosphere at the Shwedagon Pagoda
Hint: the ticket is valid all day, so you can enjoy the great atmosphere in the evening as well.
Myanmar Travel Log Part 2 – On the bus to Mandalay
We decided to tackle the journey to Mandalay by bus. For no apparent reason, this particular stretch of road sports a whopping four lanes; as a result, our trip on the air-conditioned bus took only a single day. This four-lane highway through the countryside is unique in Myanmar.Decent roads are not a given in this country; some of them are so primitive they shouldn’t even qualify for the term.
Mandalay – Visiting the king’s old city
Picture: the city wall with moat and the former king’s palace
At the heart of Burma lies Mandalay, a city formerly ruled by a king. It is located near the Irrawaddy river and the Old Burma Road. The city’s history is steeped in the blood and intrigue of the people that ruled over the centuries. Countless temples, ruins and palaces bear witness to the toil and the turmoil that shaped Mandalay’s past: the blood, sweat and tears of slaves and forced labourers.
Myanmar Travel Log – A Visit to the King in Mandalay | Avosound
The king’s palace itself is located in the centre of the city, surrounded by a massive moat and a high wall. Sadly, the palace (which was made out of wood and covered entirely in leaf gold) burned down during the Second World War. Only a single temple survived — and for no apparent reason it was re-located outside the palace walls.
Rather controversially, the reconstruction of the palace (as well as some of Mandalay’s temples) was achieved with forced labour — just like in the days of the bloodthirsty rulers.
On the road in Mandalay – Some tips
Mandalay is the cultural centre of the country, which means that there is lots to see in and around the city. Apart from the reconstruction of the king’s palace, there are also lots of temples and other complexes that are worth visiting (even if you’re just going there to cool off).Equally impressive is the world’s biggest book that is exhibited in one of the temples; it features buddha’s teachings on countless stone tablets.
It’s best to book a tour with a guide — either in the car (which is boring) or on a moped (much more fun). We decided to take the latter option after consulting with a group of tourists we met at a leaf gold forge.
Our guide, Myint Shin (aka Mr. Take it easy) shows us around town on his scooter (which is also a nice way to cool off).
Myint shows us many things, among them the stone masons who carve buddha statues from marble; the foundry that casts buddhas in metal; as well as many other destinations around town, including temples, monks and a flower market.
I also made some recordings outside the city. It’s hard to record anything in the famous temples, as they are constantly crowded with noisy visitors.
Leaf Gold in Mandalay
Burma has a lot of gold resources, so it is no surprise that many things are plated or coated in gold. The king’s palace, the temples, the buddha statues and even the famous U Bein bridge are all covered in leaf gold.
Leaf gold has been manufactured in Mandalay’s leaf gold forges for centuries. The techniques and technologies did not change much over time — the manufacture of it is still a drudgery. Manual labour is used to make the leaf gold wafer-thin so that it can be applied to surfaces; this process takes many hours and countless individual production steps.
The smiths stand in a row and pound the gold into shape in a steady rhythm.
The U Bein Bridge – once completely covered in gold
Picture: Once the sun sets, the crowd arrives — we were part of it too
I managed to make a better recording at the famous U Bein bridge, the world’s longest wooden bridge, once covered entirely with leaf gold.
The U Bein bridge is one of the most often photographed locations in Burma. Hordes of tourists gather every evening to capture a magical picture of the bridge — preferably without tourists in it.
Sound recording: Burmese village atmosphere near the U Bein bridge.
There’s lots to see in Mandalay
Although there is lots to see in Mandalay, we decide to travel into the mountains after two days — the heat was just too much in the city. We do, however, intend to return to Mandalay. But I would like to record some singing monks, so I ask Myint. He says he’ll look into it and will get back to me.
Traveling on the Old Burma Road
After a pedal-to-the-metal ride down the Old Burma Road in shared taxi, we reach Pyin U Lwin late in the evening. In the dark of the night, we zoom past countless trucks that are climbing up the mountain pass with great effort — or idling by the roadside, waiting to be repaired between breakdowns.
Myanmar Travel Log – A Visit to the King in Mandalay | Avosound
A rocky train ride from Pyin U Lwin to the Goteik viaduct
As we were waiting at the train station in Pyin U Lwin, we witnessed a complicated but fascinating shunting manoeuvre involving a few extra carriages. Although fascinating end enjoyable to watch (despite the delay), we are still glad when the manoeuvre is finally over and we get to sit down in our reserved (coach) seats. It’s a slow, rocky ride along the winding tracks to Hsipaw and across the famous Goteik viaduct.
Sponsors wanted: the impressive 100-year-old Goteik viaduct is due for a renovation
The best deal in town
Traveling by train through Burma is by far the least expensive mode of transport. You can’t beat $1.50 per person for coach (business class was unfortunately not available)
Hsipaw – Rum Sour, Mrs Popcorn, Mrs Lily, Little Bagan
We finally arrive in Hsipaw in the evening — with a few hours delay — and spend the night at Hotel Lily’s (<<–TIP!!). Lily’s is by far the most beautiful hotel we stay at on our Burma trip: competent and courteous staff, nice rooms and great pancakes for breakfast.Like many other travellers we are quite taken by Hsipaw and decide to stay longer than planned.
Hsipaw is indeed a very inviting place. During the day you can rent bicycles to explore the city. There’s a small field with a number of overgrown pagodas as well as a monastery. If you’re tired of visiting pagodas, you can stroll around the field (called Little Bagan) and spend some time in Mrs Popcorn’s beautiful garden (see below for more info).
In the evening you can ride your bicycle along the Old Burma Road to Sunset Point and look at, well, the sunset. Or, alternatively, you can go down to the river and drink a Myanmar beer or rum sour in one of the restaurants.
The Candle Light Market in Hsipaw is also worth a visit. It’s also nice to cool off for a change. It’s so cool, in fact, that at 4am (when the Candle Light Market begins) the Burmese locals run around in hats and scarfs! It’s hard to believe but true.
Unwinding in Mrs. Popcorn’s garden
If you’ve had enough of pagodas and hectic travel arrangements, you can grab one of the comfy lounge chairs in Mrs Popcorn’s cosy garden and relax with some homemade ice tea (served with clean, store-bought ice, as we’ve been assured) and/or pet one of the many cats that roam the area.
If you want to buy fresh food from the market, you need to get up early (at least that’s what we’ve learnt). The Candle Light Market (which starts at 4am in total darkness) is well worth a visit. It’s pleasantly cool at this time of day — so cool, in fact, that I had to wear a light jacket, believe it or not. We spent the morning tasting various delicious cakes and making some sound recordings of the busy Burmese market.
Myanmar Travel Log Part 4 – Jungle Trekking in Hsipaw
I wanted to make some sound recordings of the jungle, so I grabbed my guide Sebastian and off we went. As I did not want my recordings ruined by chattering tourists, I booked a private tour with the guide. It only cost $10 more (booked through Lily’s) and came with the guarantee that we would not encounter any other tourists on our tour. Well, we’ll see…
We spend the first half of the journey in a tuk tuk (auto rickshaw), before we hike across the endless wasteland. Sebastian informs me that only a few years ago this whole area had been overgrown with trees. As we stumble across dusty stretches of sunburnt wasteland, I realise just how big a problem deforestation is in Burma. The jungle canopy occasionally provides some shelter from the scorching heat, but the many steep bits we have to climb are only slightly less exhausting.
As we decide to take a break, Sebastian wants to show us a snake that escaped into the bushes seconds before we almost stepped on it. We refuse his offer, having no intention of chasing the sneaky reptile through the jungle. Burma sports a fascinating wildlife and impressive fauna. But I wonder if the Burmese appreciate all the poisonous snakes that share their habitat?
Jungle trekking is a great experience and an excellent alternative to travelling on muggy busses. A hike through the jungle has a refreshing effect on body and soul — and even if it might seem a bit arduous in the moment, you will have plenty of stories to tell later on.
If you are afraid of poisonous snakes and assorted creepy-crawlies, you should not let your fear deter you from exploring the jungle. We can assure you that we are afraid of those things as well (and they do actually exist out there), but we rarely caught sight of them. Also, no one is asking you to stick your hand into a hole in the ground…
In case you do see a creepy-crawly [ post a picture of you and the lil’ critter here ] enjoy the moment and scream your lungs out!
Sound recording: Burmese jungle atmosphere with a loud bird called the Asian koel. Despite the bird’s impressive size (up to 50cm in length), you will rarely see an actual koel in the wild.
Jungle Trekking – Equipment Tips
The jungle trails are at times quite steep or even precipitous, and sometimes they will lead straight up a slope. Flip-flops are definitely not the right footwear for this environment! A good pair of sneakers is recommended.
Despite the heat, the guides recommend that you wear normal trousers. These will protect you against thorny bushes and snakes. During the dry season, you won’t need rain gear at all as it never rains. And during the rainy season you don’t really want to trek through the jungle anyway.
In general, we recommend that you pack light and bring enough water.
Sweating and recording in the jungle
We keep walking through the jungle, up and down, through the heat. I manage to make a few great sound recordings far away from civilization noise. It’s exciting to record noisy Burmese jungle crickets without any interference.We finally reach our village in the afternoon and join Sebastian for an excursion of the place. I also manage to make a few more recordings of the jungle and the village.
Sound recording: the sound of the crickets emphasizes the unbearably hot atmosphere in the jungle of Myanmar.
They might be hillbillies but they weren’t born yesterday
Back in the village we freshened up and made our beds in the village shop, where we spent the night. Our guide Sebastian told us a story of two clients who refused to wash off the dirt and dust after a scorchingly hot day in the jungle. Apparently, this story made the rounds in the village, becoming some sort of running gag among the villagers whenever strangers would arrive.
Remember: even in the middle of nowhere news travel fast!
In Hsipaw you can book jungle treks at the Mr Charles and Lily’s hotels. You have a choice of day trips or 2- and 3-day tours. The tours are for groups only. If you would rather follow the road less traveled, you can ask for alternative tours at Lily’s.
And if you don’t want tourists chatting all over your sound recordings, you can book an individual tour (and you won’t feel embarrassed amongst the villagers if some members of your group don’t want to wash — see above).