In my last travel blog update, I talked about some of my overall impressions of this recently opened country. This week I talk about the places I went and things I saw and did.
I was lucky enough to meet Jay on the plane flying into Myanmar. This was great because it meant I had someone to split the cost of a cab with from the airport to the city center. Neither of us had made a reservation for that night, but we did meet some girls from Norway on our flight and shared a cab with them to the hotel they were staying at. Jay and I were able to get rooms there as well: expensive rooms, but rooms nonetheless. The cost of hotels in Myanmar is much higher than the rest of SE Asia. While there are still a few deals to be found in the country, a person can expect to regularly pay between 15-25 dollars a night for a room of their own in a guest house. (Hostels still aren’t very common.) Obviously, traveling with someone you can share a room with is a quick way to bring down these costs.
With that in mind and after one night of walking around and getting very lost in the quite city center, Jay and I decided to travel together. For me this meant nixing my plan of spending a couple of days in Yangon to accommodate the shorter amount of time he had in the country. This was a no brainer for me. I had met someone who’s company I enjoyed, and I could always spend more time in Yangon at the end of my trip since I was flying out of there. Besides, we still had the whole next day to see stuff since our bus to Bagan didn’t leave until 8 at night (this would be first of many inconveniently timed overnight buses for me in Myanmar).
During that one day in Yangon, we were able to see a lot. We visited one temple near our hotel that was having a ‘Coke day.’ I’m not sure what the exact details of the arrangement were, but the end result was that Coke set up a tent inside the temple complex and was giving out free cans of soda to all the visitors and monks. Ignoring how strange I found it that there would be a product promotion going on inside of a religious site, the plan was brilliant since anyone taking pictures at that temple that day would end up with a picture with the Coke logo in it. I was later told that Myanmar’s isolation from the world over the last few decades was so complete that Coke – the most universal product in the world – is actually new there.
After a few hours walking around the city, we retreated back to the hotel to wait out the heat. This would become a regular pattern for much of my trip. After it had cooled down a bit, we headed to the largest pagoda in Myanmar, the Shewdagon Paya. It is arguably the most impressive site in all the Buddhist world. The night before when our cab drove by it on our way from the airport, we all fell silent at the sight the thirteen-story golden cone in the distance all lit up. And as if the site wasn’t impressive enough, Jay and I were lucky enough to be there for a once a year festival. The pagoda was busy when we arrived and just kept getting busier as the sun set and the full moon rose. People were performing religious rituals of all kinds everywhere. Monks and nuns (female monks) of all ages were everywhere. It was amazing to see and hard to pull myself away from, but we had to leave to get our bus to Bagan.
Bagan 3/15-3/17 (Round 1)
Our bus arrived in Bagan at 4 am. Jay and I hoped into one of the many horse carriages waiting to take people from the bus stop and rode around looking for a place to stay. By time we got all that sorted, it was time to see the temples at sunrise. If you haven’t heard of Bagan, I imagine that will change in the coming years. Bagan sits on a large plain and is home to more than 4,000 Buddhist temples that are between 800-1,000 years old. Everywhere you go in the town there are temples of varying levels of impressiveness, but even the more austere temples help to create the environment and add to the awe-inspiringness of it all. The Great Wall of China, Angkor Watt and the Mayan pyramids in Mexico are the only things I’ve personally seen that are more impressive. While I think the three are much more remarkable in terms of the engineering involved with building them (Bagan was apparently just a 230 year “temple building frenzy”), all four left me asking “What the hell were they thinking?” Apparently, this is my highest praise for man-made objects.
Sunrise and Sunset are prime time in Bagan. This is when everyone races out on bikes, buses and on foot to find a temple, climb it and take in the view. As there was absolutely no night life in Myanmar at all, going to bed early to get up before sunrise was actually pretty easy to do. Sunrise also gives you the added value of getting to watch hot air balloons taking off. While they were too expensive for me, something like 260 dollars for an hour, they were nice to see and hear above the temples.
Inle Lake 3/18-3/21
From Bagan, Jay and I headed down to Inle Lake. The lake is famous for it’s natural beauty, hiking, fishermen and fish dishes, and the many minority tribes that live in the area. The town was small, but cute and clearly growing fast. I was told by one man in the hotel business that there were currently 45 hotels in Inle with ten more under construction. Almost all of those ten are much bigger than anything currently there. While clearly growth like this can be good for a local economy, it can also destroy the local culture, damage the environment and decimate the laid-back atmosphere that makes some places worth visiting. This is the paradox of traveling: It sometimes causes you to contribute to the destruction of something/someplace you love. The irony of me feeling this way and writing a travel blog is not lost on me (more on that at a later time).
All this said, I enjoyed Inle Lake a lot. Jay and I did a one-day trekking trip in the hills during which we smoked cigars with a very cool and tech savvy monk. We took a boat trip all around the lake and visited a lot of markets and shops where tourist souvenirs where being made and sold. It’s funny because normally when a tour includes these kinds of stops, I get pissed. I’m paying to see sights not have things sold to me. However, in Inle I loved it. I got to see a lot of things I’d never seen before, and I also got to see some of the minority tribes from the area including the tribe that is famous for elongating their necks using coil-like necklaces. They were weaving scarfs in a small store and were very much on display as if it were a “human zoo.” I intially debated with myself about whether or not to take pictures. In the end I did. I couldn’t help but to be fascinated by them. There necks are impressively (read horribly unnaturally) long and there are only a few thousand people left on Earth who still do this. For me, it’s as close as I imagine I’ll come to understanding what someone feels like when they see someone of another race for the first time.
Mandalay 3/22-3/23 (Round 1)
In Inle, Jay and I parted ways. His time in Myanmar was up. I, on the other hand, went to Mandalay.
While this wasn’t my initial plan, I was lucky enough to find out that the Ayeyarwady River, which comes down from the northern most part of the country tourists are allowed to go to, was closed to foreigners. This was likely due to fighting that is still going between the government and rebel groups in the country. I was disappointed to cut that part of my trip out, but I was very grateful that I didn’t spend two days on the move just to end up not getting to ride a slow boat. Instead I went to Myanmar’s second largest city and one time capital, Mandalay. The city was hot, busy and loud, at least by day. The city is built around a very large palace fortress that makes China’s Forbidden City look like the Forbidden Town in terms of the amount of space it takes up and is for sure worth a visit. Mandalay is also home to the a 1.2 km teak wood bridge. (the longest of it’s kind in the world).
While I get very lost riding my bike out to see this bridge, the end result was well worth it. Not only did I find a ton of cool things like a Buddha statue making factory and a nearby town that lined it’s river banks with temples (I was very lost), the bridge itself was spectacular. There was a sea of humanity there on the bridge. There were tourists from all over the world as well monks and Myanmar people in traditional clothes. They were all walking shoulder to shoulder back and forth on the bridge. That along with the setting sun made for some excellent picture taking.
However, I, like most people, didn’t stay in Mandalay long. While there are several day trips worth taking to nearby towns, the sights in Mandalay itself can easily be taken in in a day. So after just one day there, I had my alarm set for 3:30 am to catch a train to my next stop.
Hsipaw (See-po) 3/23-3/27
The trains in Myanmar are legendary for how old and barely functional they are. While the bus is often times much quicker, riding a train in Myanmar is a very worthwhile experience. They rock, sway and bounce almost nonstop and leave you constantly wondering if it’s about to come off the rails. You have to tie your bags down and hold on to your drinks at all times. Something else with my train that I hadn’t heard about before was that tree branches kept coming in through the open windows and leaving behind leaves, small branches and bark before they quickly exited. I used the train’s many stops during the 15 hour ride to stand up and brush the debris off. There were also a few times when the brush next to the tracks were being burned. The heat, smell and smoke would fill the cabin and it would get hard to breath until fresh air was able to work its way back in. However, the ride was great, and I got to see a lot of beautiful country side, travel over a large mountain range and ride over a very tall bridge.
I was taking the train to get to Hispaw. It’s a small town on a river that is surrounded by mountains. Pretty much the only thing to do in this town is go hiking. People use the town as a base camp to go out on any number of multi-day hikes. On my second day there, I headed out for a long hike to go see a waterfall that was dry because it wasn’t raining season. It was a great hike and when I returned to the the guest house I was staying at, I left my shoes outside like they asked. When I came back out 4 hours later they were gone. So here I was, in a place where the only thing to do is hike and all I had to wear was a pair of uncomfortable loafers, and given my large shoe size, buying a new pair wasn’t an option. Lucky for me, the guest house very social, and I was able to spent the next few days talking with people, relaxing, reading and writing as I waited around in the hopes my shoes would reappear.
Mandalay 3/28-3/29 (Round 2)
Coming back from Hsipaw pretty much required me to go back to Mandalay. This turned out to be fortuitous since a closer examination of my travel book showed that I had missed one of the most interesting sights in the country. It was a quick boat trip up the river in the town of Mingun where there was the ruins of a massive stupa base that had been destroyed by an earthquake before it could be complete. While it’s basically just a gigantic pile of bricks now, it’s still amazing to see. I could only imagine what it would have looked like if they had actually completed it.
Later that evening and before my next night bus, I had to choose between going to see the fortress place in Mandalay or hiking up Mandalay hill to see the sunset over the city. I chose wrong. I went to the palace just as the sun was setting, but it was already closed. The worst part was that to get to palace, I had to ride by the hill. From the looks of it, it would have been a nice walk to the top and a great view of the sunset. That this was indeed a sight worth seeing was confirmed to me later by several other travelers.
Bagan 3/29-3/30 (round 2)
Similar to my return to Mandalay, I went back to Bagan to take in a sight I had missed the first time when Jay needed to rush to leave. I went back to see Mt. Popa, and Im so glad I did. Mt. Popa is a large cylinder-shaped rock column that rises high above the land around it. On top of this already impressive geological formation someone had the bright idea of building a temple. From far away this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Sadly, once you hike barefoot up the 777 stairs to the top, you’ll likely feel a bit let down as the temple isn’t that impressive. It seems poorly constructed and maintained relative to countless other temples in the country, and it has a bit of a tourist-trap feel: a trap set for religious Buddhists who flock there and donate tons of money. It’s also overrun with monkeys and there are red stains on the ground from people spitting beetle nut juice (something equivalent to chewing tobacco that can ruin your teeth and requires all chewers to frequently spit out red grossness). However, the view is great from the top, assuming the weather cooperates and it’s not too hazy and it’s easy to appreciate the effort that went into the construction of the place given its location.
With that, my all-too-brief time in Myanmar came to an end. I took one last overnight bus back to Yangon and went straight from the bus station to the airport to catch my early morning flight back to Bangkok and spent one night there before flying on to Hanoi, Vietnam.