The Unusual Kingdom: Mingalaba Burma (Myanmar)

Bangkok, connecting flights and long hours spent waiting slumped on airport seats. Before our hypnotized eyes, a constant flow of Chinese tourists. An insanely priced snack and off we are again for an hour-long flight. Even though we left Riem Reap (Cambodia) around 8:30am, our flying machine only landed on Yangon airport’s burning tarmac at 4pm. We change the time on our watches.

The heat is nearly as stifling here as in Angkor. But have we well and truly arrived in Burma? The neighbourhood in which we are staying feels a lot like New Delhi… The streets are tiny and there are Indians everywhere, tricycles from another era, colourful albeit slightly faded colonial buildings, street tailors, shoes shiners…

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The call for prayer emanating from the mosques, each one more radiant than the other, gives rhythm to our steps. And then, bit by bit, people’s faces diversify… The features, the colours, the expressions, the origins are all different… It’s hard to precisely determine the Burmese typology in this town… Probably a mix of all these people, as they all have something that links them together.

They nearly all wear a loincloth, the women have Thanakha on their cheeks, the men’s lips are reddened by Betel and their bodies feature strange protection tattoos… Everything is so new to us.

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We relax in a park, and burn our feet at the Shwedagon Pagoda, considered the biggest and most beautiful pagoda in the world! A truly mind-blowing sight. The place is huge and we begin to feel the immense spirituality that pervades this country.

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It’s the water festival. There’s a friendly atmosphere. There are water cannons spraying the crowd, swimming pools, concerts… People are having fun, having a pic-nic, eating quail eggs and grasshoppers.

We decide to head to Mandalay, where apparently the festival is even more impressive! In the local mini bus taking us to our night bus, the inebriated driver dangerously accelerates without looking where he’s going. We shout “Ahhhhh” and see our life flash before our eyes at every turn… Later on in the brand new bus, a hostess serves us food and drinks! Just like on a plane. It’s funny. We arrive at our destination, a bus station that looks like it’s been taken straight out of Africa; gas cans decided to spill all over our bags during the trip. In the streets, we see never-ending lines of young monks doing their morning collection, left hand drive cars and right hand drive ones.

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Let the festivities continue! Speakers are blasting out music. Youngsters go by on trucks, sometimes tied to the hood! Everyone is gradually getting more and more drunk and taking more and more drugs…Teenagers with dyed blond hair, nail varnish and torn jeans shout, do wheelies on their motorbikes… For two days, cycling on our bikes, we receive an inconceivable amount of water buckets, some lukewarm, some icy… All in a noisy and aggressive atmosphere. We are no longer amused and feel on edge.

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In Bagan, a woman takes a scorpion out of her house. We rent a small electric bike and head out for a couple of days on sandy roads. The setting is worthy of a fairy-tale and can hardly be described with words. Thousands of temples from another era, of all shapes and sizes, laid down here as if by magic in this deserted place… And in the middle of what should be classed as a wonder of the world, villages, bamboo houses, youngsters playing football, families doing lacquer work.

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A few memorable sunsets later, and we’re in a jam-packed bus again. An interminable journey in sweltering heat, driving down twisting roads, and we arrive in Kalaw.

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The weather is quite chilly; it feels weird. With Renaud, a Frenchman from Clermont, Seba and Angel, two Chilean brothers and sisters, and Yorg, an atypical German, we decide to go on a three-day trek. Early in the morning, before we hit the road, we roam around the market. There are minorities everywhere, it’s so crazy being here and seeing this still today… Those surreal headdresses, those colours.

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We embark on our 40-mile walk through pine forests, onion, cabbage and ginger fields, enormous cacti, terraced rice fields, mountain paths… One night in a village, Seba takes out his small guitar in front of dozens of amazed monks… We walk by all the houses. The women sitting out on their doorsteps have stars in their eyes, older ones are clapping their hands and laughing, children dance like crazy and try their hand at playing guitar, the men’s smiles brimming with kindness… That night, we sleep on the ground in one of the family’s living room; we wash in a bucket and stare out at the stars…

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And finally, the enormous Inle Lake, our final stop… There’s a magical feeling floating through the air. Villages on stilts, fishermen with the grace of dancers, absolute calm… Time to say goodbye; we leave our four new friends with tears in our eyes.

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We spend our last days pedalling on our bicycles around the surrounding area in order to gift a few more souvenirs to our already humbled eyes. Women are washing in the river, children are bathing with the buffalo, using their backs as diving boards, dozens of dogs are sleeping next to each other, two free horses are kicking up the dust in the streets, hundreds of women are praying in the monastery in front of our place, offerings for the spirits are placed here and there…

And still those unconcealed smiles, those happy “hellos”, “where are you from?”, “where do you go?”.

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Three weeks later, and another chapter closes, marking the beginning of a new, imminent, one in Indonesia. Our experience that started out so badly eventually turned out to be incredibly calm, fascinating and out of this world. We leave with a lingering hunger for more. There are still so many more sights to discover in this country so full of mystery, where the locals are so welcoming. We promise ourselves we’ll be back, quickly. To go into harder to reach regions (due to ethnic conflicts, but also opium and gemstone trafficking…) North and East of the country, go out and meet the Karen people in the south or those women with their entire faces tattooed with cobwebs, and of course, come back to spend one more night dining at that little table at Unique restaurant to enjoy those delicious little dishes…

Valentin Porcher and Cécile Chétif

 


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