Oh where to start with Myanmar, it’s my favourite country in Asia so far. And for so many different reasons. The people are the friendliest folk. The landscape is beautiful. The temples are exquisite. The food is delicious. And the people are lovely. Oh wait, I’ve already said that but it’s true.
We started our journey in Yangon (previously known as Rangoon as the capital) in the south. The first night Jodi was ill so I went exploring by myself, I went to the local park and got chatting to a couple of locals. When it started to rain they invited me to get a drink with them in a café. I accepted and enjoyed spending time with them learning about the country from their point of view. They were eager to practice their English and discuss the upcoming elections, something that wouldn’t be imaginable just a few years back. They gave me their phone number so we could arrange to meet the following day and they show us around the city a bit more.
The next day we visited the impressive Shwedaggon pagoda and spent the morning admiring the intricate details of the temples. Sometimes we felt we were the tourist attraction though as lots of people always asked to take photos with us. We should start charging.
In the afternoon we met up with the friends from the day before. We took a local bus to a local lake and had lunch in a local restaurant. I was the entertainment for the meal as apparently I can’t use chopsticks. We spent the afternoon playing rock, paper, scissors with a twist. If you lost the winner got to draw on your face with red lipstick. Cue hours of hilarious fun.
However, we felt a little scammed by the guy as we paid for his bus ticket and lunch without him directly asking. He was living in a monastery and volunteering in exchange for food and accommodation so if he had explained that he didn’t have much money we would of been happy to pay. In the end though we felt a bit cheated especially as he was trying to encourage us to come to see the monastery and donate more money. It was a good experience though and the girls were lovely.
That evening we unexpectedly bumped into a friend from Bangkok and ended going for tea with him and two burmese friends of his. It was an entertaining evening sharing stories including Richard trying to explain opera to the two burmese guys (which was his career in a past life).
Next we headed north to Mandalay, they have recently completed a highway between the two largest cities so the journey was pleasant. Arriving in the evening at the bus station we got a taxi to the hotel by a young man called Jojo. He also offers tours of the area and as we only had one day in Mandalay we thought we’d get the most out of it if we did it.
He picked us up early the next day and set off for the first stop which was a temple famous for putting gold leaves on the Buddha statue. But only men could do this. We tried to ask Jojo why but all we got out of him was “It’s traditionally, you understand?”.
Next was a monastery where men go to train in Buddhism for a year twice in their life, once when they’re about 10 and once about 20. It was a really strange experience, bordering on a human zoo we thought. You arrive and wait to see the monks lining up to receive their rice for lunch. Apparently the monks don’t mind it as it brings in tourists, money and publicity but we still weren’t convinced they liked the tourists shoving their cameras in their faces. We were also the youngest people there by 20 years so it is very much a place you go on a tour. We left with very mixed feelings.
Next was Mandalay hill which gives good views of the surrounding area and more temples. After an average lunch, we got a boat across to the old city of Innwa where it is traditional to get a horse and cart around to visit the old temples and monasteries. It took me a while to decide as I wanted to make sure the horses were looked after properly, didn’t have sores, weren’t lame and you couldn’t see their ribs. It was sad to see some horses didn’t live up to this standard.
The scenery here was beautiful with locals working in the fields, cows grazing at the sides of the road and houses made out of bamboo. At the main temple we refused to pay the entrance fee so went exploring instead which was more worthwhile discovering overgrown old temples and seeing locals fishing for crabs.
The last stop of the day was at the longest teak bridge where we watched the sunset. We bumped into a monk who recognised us from the monastery earlier, he was eager to practice his English and wanted to talk about his favourite subject, Football. On the way back to town we had a compulsory stop at a silk warehouse and shop where we did the obligatory oohing and aahing and escaping before we got harassed into buying something.
We got a night bus to Bagan that evening which was supposed to arrive at 5 am but got their at 1 am. After some hassle we eventually got into our hostel and got a better sleep than we were expecting. The next day we hired electric bikes after a delicious meal. Bagan is famous for all the hundreds of pagodas dotted around the area, with Chinese, Burmese and Indian influences. We spent the afternoon driving around the main big temples before selecting one to see the sun set at. As you can imagine it was pretty special. The drive home in the dark though was an adventure.
The next day we got up at 4.30 am to go and watch the sunrise. It was worth the early start believe me. It was so picturesque. We spent the rest of the day driving around aimlessly not using maps just discovering what was out there. We stumbled across local villages, hidden pagodas and dead ends. It was so easy to get around and explore Bagan without a tour.
After another night bus we ended up in Nyaungshwe, a village on the edge of Inle Lake. We hired a boat and driver to take us around the lake stopping at the sights including a market, a temple and the floating village. At the entrance to the lake there were traditional fishermen showing off the skills of using one foot to paddle with whilst they use the net. But that’s all it was, a show for tourists. Which was sad that they pretend to fish that way all day.
The lake is huge and it’s hard to tell where it finishes as the edges are filled with vegetation and marshes. On the way to the market down a side river we stopped at a silver workshop that we didn’t request to see. We explained we had no money and would not buy anything, our driver was put out that we didn’t want to stop at any shops (obviously losing commission) but we held our ground.
The market was interesting as it wasn’t just filled with tourist tat. We also witnessed our first dog fight. It was brutal. A pack of 12 dogs ambushed these other two dogs and were wrestling them to the ground violently. The locals didn’t seem bothered and just swatted at them with a plastic chair to get them away!
Next was the temple which was pretty average compared to the Shwedaggon and Bagan. However, our guide insisted we go “slowly slowly” so we stopped at a local restaurant for a snack and some Chinese tea. We stopped at a cigarette workshop, a boat workshop and a silk worksop. The silk workshop was actually really interesting as they spun scarves from thread made from the stalk of the lotus plant. It was fascinating to watch how they extracted the fibres and worked them into a useable material. We went to see the floating village and gardens next which was my favourite part. It was incredible families living in houses built on stilts where the only way to travel is by boat. There was even a school.
On the way back we could see parts of the jungle had been deforested and exposed barren soil was left behind. Illegal logging is prevalent in some parts of Myanmar and it made me wonder where the wood is sourced that is used to make the wooden (teak) tourist trinkets.
One night bus later and we were back in Yangon ready for our flight home the following day. It was a 9 day whirlwind tour of an amazing country with a turbulent history. I definitely would love to go back for a longer period and explore off the beaten track. I would advise anyone visiting to take longer to do it.
After the day of the elections locals would excitedly show you their little finger as when they vote it is dipped in ink. It was great to see the openess and eagerness of the locals to chat about the elections and the future of the country. They had so many hopes about the potential changes that the elections could bring.