Burmese “Cat” Diary
The Dubai Cat Sitting Company's General Manager, Linda Hume, travelled to Myanmar (Burma) with her husband Mike... to hang out with more cats... naturally.
What made you both decide to travel to Myanmar?
Mike: One of the joys of living in Dubai is the proximity of countries that would normally be too expensive or time consuming to visit. As teachers we get very specific holidays so a lot of thought goes in to where we visit. Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known, is a country that creates a certain image in my mind and because it was closed off to tourists for many years the opportunity to visit couldn’t be missed. We don’t really like beach holidays and prefer history and architecture with a little bit of adventure, so Burma seemed like a great fit.
What was your favourite thing about Myanmar?
Linda: I suppose we should say cats but that would be unfair. Definitely the people! They are without doubt the most friendly and welcoming people we have ever met. Kind, courteous and glad to see tourists; but the cats were awesome too!
Are there many cats in Myanmar? How are they treated?
L: There are not a huge number of cats in Burma – that might be because there are so many stray dogs!
M: Burma is still one of the poorest countries in the world so having a pet is a luxury that most people cannot afford. Many of the cats you do see are, unfortunately, are not well cared for – people have far more pressing matters to deal with rather than the welfare of an animal.
L: However, you find more stray cats in Italy or the UAE, and you do not see stray cats being mistreated or beaten. Many of the shop owners by the side of the road could be seen feeding the cats, and we did eat at one café called Paw Paw, named after the cat they had rescued. He made an appearance while we were having lunch, and you could tell he was well loved and fed. In fact, he was definitely in charge.
Can you describe the ‘Jumping Cat Pagoda’ or Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery. Where is it located? How did you get there? Do the cats really jump on command?
M: Being married to an insane cat lady I spend a lot of time making sure Linda doesn’t take every stray cat home with her!! I thought it would be safe to take her to Phe Kyaung monastery because I knew she couldn’t take these cats! Jumping cat monastery is a rather large monastery on Inle Lake in the East of the country. To get there you have to hire a boat either for the day or to go straight to the monastery. We hired a boat for the day as there is a lot to see on the lake.
The “Jumping Cat” moniker came about because the cats literally jumped though hoops on command of the monks – being cats the command was not always obeyed! When we visited the practice of making the cats do tricks had been abandoned.
L: However Mike did see a cat randomly jump in the air – it was either scared or had some latent memory of its tourist routine.
M: I think the point to remember is that it no longer happens, and I think that is for the best – it is still well worth a visit just to hang out with cats! They all seemed well cared for and very happy to meet and greet all the people who visit.
Burma is known to be where Burmese cats originated from and did you see any?
M: Sadly there are virtually no Burmese cats left in Burma. By the time the British left in the 1940’s the breed was almost extinct in Burma. As part of my holiday duties I was able to find a sanctuary that has begun a breeding programme for Burmese cats. Inle Heritage is a really great community project that trains young people to become chefs and work in the tourist business. None of the students have to pay and are taught to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of the Inle Region (a region where people still live on the lake in houses made of stilts and grow and harvest their food from the lake).
L: It is also reintroducing Burmese cats into the country!
Describe your experience at the Burmese Cat Sanctuary at Inle Lake. What is their mission? Where do all of the cats come from?
M: I spent my time there taking pictures of Linda with the cats, although we were given a great tour of the heritage centre by one of the locals, who walked us through the Burmese Cat Village and showed us all of the projects in which the centre is involved.
L: I was in heaven. Completely surrounded by cats. I did not even want to stop for lunch, which was made there from their own garden and locally sourced products. Their mission is to grow the Myanmar Burmese cat population. They started with three British bred and four Australian bred pedigree cats in 2008 and now have over 40 cats. The cats free to roam over the island on which the Inle Heritage stands, and the village itself is full of scratching posts, toys, and private cat huts where they can hide from prying eyes.
How can people support and aid this sanctuary?
M: You can visit Burma and Inle Heritage. There are cooking classes for tourists, a restaurant where you can eat, and a gift shop that sells hand-made goods crafted by local artisans.
L: The shop has many cat related items. We bought some very cute cat pillow covers and hand-carved cat figurines, but we could have brought a suitcase home full of beautiful feline handiwork. If you live in Burma, you can also adopt one of their Burmese cats, but you most go through a very thorough vetting process.
Would you recommend travelling to Burma for a holiday?
M: Burma is still a developing country and they desperately need tourists. If you want to lie on a beach all day then you can head south of the capital Yangon. We went north and managed to go ballooning over the temple complex in Bagan and took a slow boat up the Irrawaddy river to Mandalay.
There are hostels, bed and breakfasts and 5-star hotels to fit anyone’s budget, so you can do the classic budget traveller thing or hire a driver and guide while moving from one luxury hotel to another.
L: We definitely recommend Burma, and if you love cats, it’s an extra bonus!
Where To Stay
Bagan We stayed at The Tharabar Gate Hotel. A beautiful hotel set in lush gardens in the centre of Old Bagan. The Hotel has free bicycles and electric mopeds for hire. The Bagan temple complex covers hundreds of acres and contains over 2000 temples so you need to be adventurous. If the idea of cycling or riding a motorcycle scares you there a many local companies that can drive you around. Check with your hotel for their recommendations.
Inle Lake The town that services Inle Lake is called Nyuangshwe. We stayed at the The Inle Cottage Boutique Hotel, and we cannot recommend it highly enough. Owned and operated by an all female staff they couldn't do enough to help. Free bicycles for those who want to cycle around the lake and their tours of the lake were very reasonable (and saved you from haggling with the boat operators!)We would also recommend the Maison Birmane, in Nyuangshwe and if you want to stay on the lake itself The Sanctum Inle, at the luxury end of the scale.
Mandalay We only stayed in Mandalay for one night but loved the hotel, Bagan King. Rather innocuous from the outside but the interiors were amazing, and again the staff were outstanding. There is a free puppet show every evening in the bar on the roof.
Getting Around If you don't have a lot of time then the best way to travel is by internal flights. They are relatively inexpensive and the latest airline company, Mann Yadarnapon, has a new fleet of aircraft. With more time the best way to get around would be to hire a driver. Driving in Burma is a hazardous affair and if you are not Burmese you cannot rent a car at this time. We used Mr Kyaw Kyaw, to take us from Mandalay to Inle Lake. A great service that can be used for one off trips or for your whole trip.
For the more adventurous (i.e. more time!) there are day and night buses that traverse the country. We took a night bus from Yangon to Bagan and I have to stay it was not as unpleasant as I thought it was going to be. We went first class with Famous Traveller. The bus had reclining airline-style seats and by the time we got to Bagan we were rested enough to only need an hour's nap and we were out and about exploring. The bus saves you a wasted day of travelling and saves you a bit of money.
Trains in Burma are only for the brave and those who have lot of time!
For those who want to experience the classic "Road to Mandalay" there is a boat from Bagan to Mandalay. It leaves very early in the morning, takes 8 to 12 hours, involves nothing but watching life on the river and IT IS FABULOUS! Don't do this if you are impatient, don't like taking photos or don't have a good book to read but we found it to be one of the highlights of the trip.
Things to do Probably the greatest highlight for us was taking a hot air balloon over the temple complex at Bagan. Last year the government banned people from climbing the temples so the chance of seeing the sunrise over the temples has been made difficult. The only other way is take a balloon. We flew with Golden Eagle Balloons.
Shopping Burma is famous for three things - Jade, Lacquerware and puppets. JadeIt is estimated that Burma contains 70% of the world's Jade. This has been a curse and a benefit in equal measure. When buying Jade try and ensure it is from a non-government mine so as to benefit the local population as much as possible. We bought our Jade from a local couple in the Mingalar Market in Nyuangshwe.
Food Burmese food is a blend of Burmese, Chinese and Indian food. If you eat anything you must have Mohinga and Tea Leaf salad. Don't ask why just order it!
Political situation It is hard to talk about Burma and not mention the ethnic problems in the North of the country. These areas are out of bounds for tourists and visiting Burma can, for some, seem like a moral problem. The country desperately needs tourists and by visiting you are opening the country to the outside world and shining a light on the government and their actions.
Getting there Emirates Airlines from Dubai to Yangon. Prices start from AED2,000