November 2009: After years spent trying to organize a trip into the Hukawng Valley, the world’s largest tiger reserve, a remote region in northern Myanmar of vast forests and indigenous tribes, I finally was given the green light from a local fixer who received word from the Myanmar military government that I would be issued a permit to visit the region. The Hukawng Valley to me was a holy grail of travel. It promised to be a wild west frontier like land. It was famous for intense jungle fighting in World War II between British and Japanese forces, where tigers so common would be one of the biggest dangers to soldiers.  The area was protected on paper, but the reality was gold was being mined and forests removed and replaced with plantations by the Myanmar military government. But the area is large and because it has been so isolated most of it remained undeveloped. I was a week for going when I received work from my fixer that the Myanmar government, which doesn’t have the best relationship with the USA govt, had revoked my permit and that I would not be able to go. I was disappointed I wouldn’t be going to the Hukawng valley, but I still decided to make the best of my Myanmar trip. Instead of two weeks in Myanmar, I did decide to only 5 days and split my initial 2 weeks between tracking tigers in Nepal’s Chitwan national park and visiting Yangon and the ancient Buddhist temple ruins of Bagan in southern, Myanmar. This is the story of my 2nd trip to Myanmar after my first visit to the Mergui Island archipelago in the south.



About Myanmar

Myanmar had suffered decades of repressive military rule, widespread poverty, and civil war with ethnic minority groups. The military government has stripped the country of democracy and denied its citizens basic human rights. Anyone at any time can be detained and disappear for any reason and there is no recourse. The government is just simply bad, and the irony is that the Burmese people are one of the kindest and nicest in the world. I love Myanmar and it is one of my top 10 countries I have visited. The Burmese people have such a gentle and kind nature rooted in the Buddhist traditions yes, the country and its history are marred by a tyrannical government.  The military government is essentially a kleptocracy that harvests the natural resources of the country for its own benefit or for the private benefit of a few generals at the top who have become very rich in the process. Indigenous tribes and dissidents who have been named the enemy of the government are enslaved and forced to work in mines and logging camps, sometimes to the death. Needless to say, Myanmar has found itself politically isolated from the rest of the world and most countries have very minimal relations with it with the exception of the usual bad actors. The political isolation has left Myanmar feeling like a time warp since little foreign business investment or influence is also present. The reptation of the government scares mass tourism away and even when I was in began, the main tourist attraction of the country I saw very few other foreigners. The newspapers were state run and content was heavily censored and propagandized by the government, the drivers or guides I had throughout the trip always looked over their shoulders when speaking about the government and made sure to only do so when no one was around. On one occasion a guide in Bagan who was telling me a story of how a family member was removed in the middle of the night and beaten by the government stopped and reacted very paranoid like to a man standing outside 50′ away from us who he claimed was an undercover government agent who was assigned to ease drop on tourists and locals at Bagan and report any conspiratorial activities. I felt sorry for the people of Myanmar, but I didn’t want to punish them by not visiting the country and I tried to keep my money out of the hands of the government as much as I possibly could.



My route of travel


Despite the tension between the USA government and Myanmar, the visa was easy to obtain on arrival. This is likely because the government is desperate to obtain any hard foreign currency especially US dollar that it can get. I flew into Yangon from Bangkok after spending my usual one night in Bangkok in transit. Once in Yangon I stayed in a hotel in the historical center recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. Since I had already submitted a despot for the Hukawng Valley to a local fixer, and it was non-refundable, the only option I had was to try and salvage some of it by booking a vehicle and driver through the fixer for Yangon and Bagan. My driver took me around Yangon and to the Irrawaddy River to see some temples and visit remote villages and meet Burmese people in their villages.



Shwedagon Pagoda that is thousands of years old and believed to be built before Buddha was alive

Shwedagon Pagoda

While exploring villages on foot, I heard school children laughing and something I love to do is visit a classroom and ask the teacher if I can teach a short lesson about my hometown and country to the kids. The teacher was thrilled and so were the kids. Together we ended up having a lot of fun together as I drew chalkboard pictures of my hometown. 



My visit to a Burmese classroom

My visit to a Burmese classroom


After a few days in Yangon, I flew via Myanmar Airlines to Bagan, one of the main tourist attractions in Myanmar. The 1000-year-old Bagan Kingdom with thousands of Buddhist temples was initially razed by the Mongols and what remained of the city and its temples was decimated by various earthquakes. Today 3000 temples still stand in various states of restoration or ruin and are overgrown by the jungle giving the area a wild Indiana Jones like character.

I stayed at a hotel within walking distance to the Irrawaddy River and some amazing restaurants serving authentic Burmese food, which I loved. I didn’t see any endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, but restaurant staff did admit that they are seen occasionally.

I also visited Mount Popa a dormant volcano with a Buddhist temple on top that is lined with the idols of nats-spiritual embodiments of Burmese ancestors (e.g., kings, wise teachers, etc.) that are believed to look after and protect those are bring them offerings.  Mount Popa is believed to have the most powerful nats. The path to the top of the volcano was lined with mischievous resus macaque monkeys who have lost their fear of humans a long time ago and it is common to find monkeys seated next to humans and terrorizing humans and stealing their food.



Nats-ancestoral idols worhsipped by Burmese people

Burmese girl with bark extract used by Burmese women for sun protection and as a sign of beauty 

Mount Popa Monkeys

Mount Popa Monkeys

Woman seated obliviously next to a wild monkey. 

I loved the temples of Bagan and climbing in the abandoned unrestored ones. From the top of one of the tallest temples a vista of the entire horizon dotted with hundreds of temples can be seen and it is incredible. Many temples were overgrown with jungle brush, and I knew this made the temples an ideal snake habitat and a place to find wild cobras. Needless to say, my guide was pretty worried about my activity. It didn’t take long for me to flush out a black cobra from a bush with a stick, but it disappeared into a rock before I could get a photo of it.



Bagan Temples

Bagan Temples

Buddhist murals inside a Bagan temple

Bagan Temples

Bagan Temples

Visiting the Snake Charmer

My quest for finding snakes didn’t just end with searching the brush around Bagan. i decided to ask some of the local villages if I could meet the village snake charmer, who I figured would take me to places where wild snaked could be readily found. My Burmese friends gave me a village location where I could find one. The village like most Burmese village was very traditional and rural. As soon as I entered a large gathering of children and adults surrounded me in curiosity. When I asked for the snake charmer this received some giggles but a village elder brought me to a thatched house where he stated the snake charmer, or a kind of magic man lived. The man sadly wasn’t home, and I asked if he kept any snakes in his house. To my surprise the village elder went into his house looking for snakes and then went to a group of bamboo baskets on the outside of house and started to tip them over to see if any snakes were inside and they were all empty. The village elder asked my driver if I was a snake charmer because anyone who looks for snakes must have special protections from the snakes and a kind of ability to talk to them. I smiled and agreed that I could talk to them, and we left the village without locating a snake or the charmer but at least we had an interesting cultural experience.



Village of the snake charmer

Friendly young cow in village of snake charmer

Village of snake charmer

From Bagan I flew back to Yangon and onwards to Bangkok before continuing on to Nepal.


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