Slowly emerging from 50 years of oppressive rule under the military junta, Myanmar is the new traveller realm with the country only officially open to tourist visitors since 2013.
The capital city was like being in the 1950's - no Western clothes, no ATMs, no cellphones, few TVs, and mostly bicycles and old cars on the roads. Men were wearing skirt-like "longyi" and had black/red stained teeth from continually chewing betel & tobacco over the years, and women had "thanaka" on their faces, a natural yellow-ish sunblock made from a tree. The main attraction is the Schwedagon Pagoda, one of the biggest and oldest Buddhist religious sites in the world. It was overloaded with gold and diamonds. At one point I walked past a European woman talking to two monks, I overheard one of the monks ask if she has facebook, his eyes brighter than the pagoda.
I went for lunch in a local restaurant where they had delicacies such as "like a virgin soup". Halfway through, a brazen lady walks over to my table and hands me a note. She admittedly confessed to being married yet it was no obstacle to her disclosing her phone number, hotel, room number - and age:
Then some guy befriended me and invited me to a fashion show later in the evening. When I showed the address he gave me to a taxi driver, the driver asked if I was sure I wanted to go there, which I should've taken as a sign. It was somewhere in the suburbs. The place was full of Chinese businessmen. The fashion show started, with all kinds of colourful outfits (and bikinis) on show. Then I was told if I liked any of the girls, I could buy her "a flower" for 10,000 kyat and she would come join me at the table. Then it hit me what kind of place it was. I headed for the exit, and went to check out a nightclub next door.
The nightclub was pretty cool, I was the only foreigner there, whenever Burmese music was played, every reveller did their own moves, but when western music was played, everyone would look at me and try to copy my dance moves. I pulled my ear just for fun during a Michael Jackson song, everyone started pulling their ears.
I strolled back to the hotel around 1AM to find it locked with chains, apparently there was a night curfew. I was trying to find ways to climb inside, when a Korean guy who also got caught unaware appeared. We were making noise to try wake up the hotel staff but our commotion drew two suspicious policemen. They didn't speak English, so the Korean guy started talking to them. A few minutes of conversation then the Korean started running away and shouted for me to do the same. My brain instantly went out of the window like cutlery on a rocky boat, so I fled too. About 10 minutes of cat and mouse ensued until they lost track of us. The Korean told me afterwards that the policemen thought we were foreign journalists trying to snoop on government affairs, and they were going to take us to the station but he fled because he didn't trust them.
Wandering the streets at night, I ended up befriending a drunk local guy, he took me to some "cafe" that was just basically chairs and a TV on the street. Afterwards we slept on some benches inside a parked tuk-tuk, where I was devoured by mosquitoes. In the morning, the hotel owner was extremely angry, he said we created "big problems" for him, told me to pack my bags and leave pronto. I decided to catch a bus to Bagan. Finding the bus was a nightmare but made it just in the nick of time.
Bagan is a charming little town but the main feature are the thousands of stupas poking across the plains, like a "spiritual version of New-York skyscrapers". Ironically, the vast money and effort poured into their construction weakened the kingdom at the time, when the Mongol hordes invaded they easily swept through.
In Bagan, I bumped into a Burmese guy who was on my bus, the next day he took me to Mount Popa, which is a monastery on top of an extinct volcano. As if the long set of stairs to the top weren't enough, we got ambushed by hordes of marauding monkeys along the way lured by anything shiny. There was also an outdoor concert nearby, providing a dose of lilting Burmese music.
On the bus from Bagan to Kalaw, I met a Burmese girl studying English to become a tour guide. She invited me to her relatives village where they let me stay for a little while in their bamboo houses. We trekked through the misty mountains to get there. Her relatives were very nice, we couldn't understand each other but we somehow got along. They kept asking me why my feet are so white.
They had no running water nor electricity and they made me sleep in the room just above the water buffalos, which made for some interesting sounds at night.
We trekked from the village to the Inle lake. We had eaten a fish curry the night before, I was actually glad we were walking through the countryside as I spent several occasions regretting that curry.
The Inle lake is a shallow lake about 20km long with many houses and farms built on it. There, I got to meet the Karen women also known as "giraffe women" or "the long necks". Their ancient custom of fitting young girls with brass neck rings was originally intended to make women less attractive to men from neighbouring tribes, but the neck rings cause deformations of the collar bone and pushes the shoulders away from the head. The women reach a stage where they are unable to carry the weight of their own heads without the rings as additional support so can't ever take them off.