Since I knew I couldn’t hope to master the Burmese alphabet, I created my own alphabet to illustrate the trip highlights:
A is for Aung San Suu Kyi. A fitting place to start my Burmese alphabet. We spotted posters and calendars featuring her scattered about Burma (some at NLD offices) and some brave souls sporting her portrait on their t-shirts.
B is for Balloons over Bagan. Floating over the weathered ancient red bricks of the Bagan stupas and seeing them catching the first rays of sunrise is a sight I’ll not forget. The pilot gave us stupendous views over the enormous complex as well as detail of individual temples as he varied the height of the balloon.
C is for Cruise. We lazed in the sunshine on bamboo loungers covered with garish rugs on our relaxing and restful boat trip up the Irrawaddy.
D is for Drinks. We refreshed ourselves with lassies and fresh fruit juices, sampled jasmine tea and the mahogany-coloured Burmese tea (very strong and sweet), the 3-in-1 coffee, milk and sugar mix (an acquired taste), and compared the various beers (Myanmar is the tastiest). The cheapskate alcoholics amongst us bought local whisky and indulged in ‘happy hours’ whenever our busy schedule permitted.
E is for Eighteen - the number making up our group. We formed an excellent, fun and supportive team, though we all said it ourselves. Matt our tour leader told us we had ‘good karma’.
F is for Feet. We spent a fair amount of time taking footwear off before climbing interminable flights of steps and visiting a mind-blowing number of temples. And we tried to remember not to point our feet at anyone.
G is for our Guides: Matt our tour leader and Gabriel our local guide. They had worked together on researching the trip with impeccable attention to detail and their close bond was a joy to watch. The arrangements were seamless, the variety of sights well-planned, their knowledge astounding, and their company warm.
H is for Hats. A rather personal note here – I just loved the range of headgear we encountered, ranging from ‘coolie’ hats, through sequinned tiaras, traditional multi-coloured pom-pommed Shan ‘berets’, traditional Burmese headbands with jaunty ‘ears’, to… the black ‘velvet’ trilby I bought for 1,500 kyat in a temple, complete with the words ‘Hip Hop’ picked out in gold and silver spangles. A great hit with the rest of the group, but less so with my sober husband back home.
I is for Inle Lake – a delight. Traditional, restful, scenic, photogenic. We captured the idiosyncratic leg-rowing fisherman and exotic Padaung ladies with brass neck-rings on camera, bought silk and silverware at small workshops, visited the stunning Shwe Inn Thein Paya complex with its ancient higgledy-piggledy stupas, and cycled 10km round the lake and back again, dropping in to see villages at work and at rest.
J is for Juice and Jaggery. I recommend the lime, ginger and honey juice... and you’ll be given complementary jaggery (hardened lumps of sugar palm sugar) after a meal.
K is for Kyat. This is the local (grubby note) currency, though US dollars are sometimes accepted as well. Everything is incredibly cheap. We each changed $300 at the start and all had money to spare, though prices are rising week by week. Delicious local food and irresistible souvenirs account for the expenditure.
L is for Lacquerware. The exuberantly moustachioed owner of the small workshop we visited explained how most ware has 12-20 layers of lacquer each side and is polished by contact with the hand or forearm until it squeaks. We were all familiar with the traditional red and black coloured designs, but most of us had not come across the stunning grass green and black lacquerware. We bought bowls and beakers.
M is for the Moustache Brothers. A semi slapstick, semi satirical show some of us saw in Mandalay. The Lonely Planet encapsulates it perfectly.
N is for the Nylon Ice Cream Parlour. I’m glad I tried the durian ice cream, but it smelt and tasted of a gas leak, so I’ll probably opt for vanilla in future!
O is for Optical Effects. Burmese temples are an awesome sight at any time, but they come into their own at dusk, when the fairy lights and other optical effects really kick in. We were all captivated by the flashing, multi-coloured lights that ‘revolve’ halo-like round the heads of the Buddhas, indicating their aura.
P is for Puppets. The lively puppet show we watched over dinner featured a variety of characters, including a Muffin the Mule lookalike. The puppeteers also showed themselves at the end of each scene.
Q is for Quiz. For some bizarre reason Matt decided we needed diversion and distraction on some of the road journeys so he set us a few taxing quiz questions. Honour was preserved and between us we did OK.
R is for the ‘Road to Mandalay’. Our small coach was heading down the road to Mandalay when our guide Gabriel read us Kipling’s poem. A magical and moving moment.
S is for Sunrises and Sunsets. I saw quite a few – from the balloon, from temples, from U Bein’s Bridge, from aircraft windows.
T is for Tamarind. I photographed the tree, sampled tamarind leaf curry, okra in tamarind sauce and tamarind frappé, and stashed away small packets of the deliciously tart tamarind flake pastilles as nibbles for later.
U is for Umbrellas. We visited several of small workshops and artisan outlets, including an umbrella making workshop. We were all mesmerised by the intricate work needed to fashion the handle’s catch. And we bought handmade paper, too, delicately decorated with bougainvillea petals and leaves.
V is for Variety. Exodus certainly packed it in. Different cities, different modes of transport, different food. We learned about the varied history of Burma/Myanmar, about the various tribes, and about the various artisan skills. Something for everyone.
W is for Wine Tasting. Yes – we all got a trifle tiddly at the Red Mountain Estate vineyard. It was prudent of Exodus to lay on a coach for the visit, rather than the bicycles we had expected.
X is for Xcellent. From the complex logistics to the seamless airport and hotel arrangements, from the introduction to the history and culture of the country to the fun we had with our guides, from the atmospheric local restaurants to the ‘entertainments’, from the photo opportunities to the delightful children we met, from the (not so tough) trek to the independent cycle rides, from the opportunity to be part of a congenial group to having some personal space, from bamboo to Buddhas, from markets to monks, from tea to teak … it was all excellent.
Y is for Yangon. It doesn’t seem to matter if you call it Yangon or Rangoon. The chief sight here is the Shwe Dagon Complex – a truly awe-inspiring sight, especially at dusk when the visitors thin out and the lights come on. A literal highlight. The variety of temples and stupas we saw on the trip was indeed ‘stupafying’!
Z is for Zzzzzzz. Enjoy every minute of your trip and if you don’t want to miss anything, don’t dare nod off until you get home.