After two layovers (the later one being a mad dash to refuel on Singaporean food) and what seemed like a never ending 30 hour flight, we finally arrived in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. As Myanmar opened its doors to the rest of the world in the more recent years, there are both advantages and disadvantages to visiting. One of the best things was the smaller number of tourists – you practically had most places to yourself allowing you to take in the culture. On the downside, most of the cities are not that developed yet where some areas only started getting electricity just two years ago.
My friend had arranged a private tour through Santa Maria and it was honestly god send. They were very professional with their services and had arranged all our internal flights, transportation and guides for us. I am going to admit that the both of us can be princesses and by no means did we really “rough it” but being on the tour made everything a lot more bearable. I had even grimaced at the complementary (think fashion victim) touristy canvas bag plastered with the words “Myanmar” and other cities across it which later unexpectedly became very useful.
There is not a whole lot to do in Yangon but due to the infrequent flight times, you are often forced to stay in Yangon for a day. A popular tourist attraction is the visit the massive Shwedagon Pagoda. We decided to go closer to sunset for the oil lighting ceremony. Being a Buddhist temple, you are not allowed to wear shoes or socks on the premises. Due to its large scale, there are a number of visitors and they provide numbered baskets to temporarily house your shoes in. I had read about this ahead of time so to avoid misplacing/losing/getting my shoes stolen, this is where our Santa Maria bag came in handy – we used it to carry our shoes while we walked around. What I did not anticipate was how dirty your feet get from walking around so make sure to carry around wet wipes. Do your best to remember which entrance you entered from because there are multiple entries and all the exits look the same after a while. Also, make sure you’re truly outside of the temple because you’re not allowed to wear shoes even on the paths surrounding it. I thought I found a short cut and made the mistake of taking the wrong exit – cut to a scene of my best friend and I trying to balance on one foot to clean our feet with wet wipes before putting our shoes back on, only to be told that we had to remove our shoes. Let’s just say that the path ahead was very rocky…
Now if you are hoping to scratch an itch for shopping, most tourists will find themselves maneuvering through the labyrinth that is the Scott Market in search of the best gifts and souvenirs. You will find an abundance of lacquerware, fabric/textiles, jewelry, and teak wooden crafts so be ready to shop around for the best prices and be prepared to haggle! I think one of the biggest things I didn’t plan for was the amount of shopping I would do. If I had one quote from this trip, it would be “no more shopping” where every time I announced that (nonsense), I will, without a fail, succumb to more shopping. Whatever, vacation dollars don’t count… right?
As Myanmar is still developing, almost every transaction will be in cash. Be forewarned that they are very strict when it comes to exchanging money and will only accept pristine, unfolded bills – I got dinged by a teller who practically rejected all of my USD due to (what I would describe as) “minor defects”. I had read about this beforehand but I thought the bills I had were in a good condition so my recommendation is to request new bills from your bank before departing. It was the beginning of our trip so you could already imagine how anxious I was about how I would manage my remaining days. I did notice that this was more strictly enforced in Yangon and but was much more relaxed in Bagan and Inle Lake (with some vendors preferring USD rather than the local currency).
The next day we flew to Bagan, home to over 2000 pagodas. Our guide had brought us to the Shwezigon Pagoda which sparked an obsession on distinguishing between a Hindu vs. Burmese influenced Buddha statue. As we visited more temples throughout the day, I took my time to observe the locals pay their respects. I recently read a short essay titled “Buddha Boy” by George Saunders – the main intent behind this was that my coworker wanted to invoke some tears in me but instead it made me reflect back to these moments. I am always amazed by how strong one’s devotion towards faith can be and often govern their way of life even though it is very well the norm in these parts of the world. It’s either that or I’m heartless. Who am I kidding, it’s probably both.
I did notice a number of e-bikes or scooters parked in front of most pagodas as it is a popular option to get around Bagan. The idea of renting one did seem enticing at first. I would like to think I have a pretty good sense of direction but due to how remote our resort was combined the lack of streets signs, even I could foresee getting lost or shouting something along the lines of “you said that three lefts ago!” But if you are of the more laid back, leisure spirit, this is a nice and economical mode of transportation.
Our trusty guide brought us to the Mahazehdi Pagoda known for its nice lookout points. This was the most anticipated part of my trip because almost all pictures that I have seen of Myanmar were synonymous with Bagan, usually of vast landscapes with an exuberant number of pagodas on the horizon. It’s crazy how different a place is in real life because I spend a lot of time researching, thinking that I know exactly what to expect, when in reality, you have to go and experience things for yourself in order to truly understand it.
It’s important to be respectful and remove all footwear (this includes socks too) while in places of worship. Once again, our Santa Maria Bag came in handy allowing us to carry our shoes with us while we freely roamed around the temple grounds. I can seem like a paranoid person which is very much apparent in the quieter temples but in the ones with higher traffic, it’s very well warranted. Even our guide had his flip-flops taken by accident, but this mishap didn’t seem to bother him as he casually slipped into a stranger’s pair. Sounds like a vicious cycle to me.
Next, we took a brief walk around the Mani Sithu Market in Nyuang U that housed a colourful assortment of vendors. However, there is no electricity so I found it a bit stuffy in the parts with higher traffic. My best friend and I had this game of going on a “mission” once we set our sights on an item to purchase. At this particular moment, we were on the prowl for burmese embroidered tapestry. Anyone who knows me will both laugh at me yet not be surprised that I would find such a thing to buy – unfortunately our quest was unsuccessful. I casually mentioned this to our guide and they went out of their way to bring us to all the shops they knew of that might carry this which was more than what I could have asked for.
If you have a more generous pocket, there is the experience of catching the sunrise over Bagan on a hot air balloon ride. I had previously been on a hot air balloon when I traveled to Cappadocia, so instead, we opted to spectate. Our guide had spoken with some workers at the hot air balloon company and got them to divulge where they would be launching that morning. I personally find the part where the balloons are about to take off the most exhilarating. There’s just so much anticipation that builds up to this moment. In a blink of an eye, the entire scenery changes as the hot balloons take flight.
We quickly got into our car and immediately started traveling in the direction of the balloons. I imagined that this was how Jackie Chan felt in Around the World in 80 Days. Our guide knew of the perfect spot to catch the balloons hovering above the pagodas and he was right. After the initial adrenaline rush to capture the perfect picture, I had given up at some point as the position of the sun was not in my favour. Sometimes you need to remember to take in the beauty that this world has to offer, rather than looking at it through a lens.
Another popular activity is to catch the sunrise over the pagodas in Bagan. Thankfully our flight to Inle Lake was later in the day so we were able to squeeze this in the morning of. It was not the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen but what made it perfect was the timely murmurs of monks chanting nearby.
I will admit that Inle Lake surprisingly had a lot to offer. Initially I was a bit dismayed by looming storm coming in from Sri Lanka, thinking that all our luck with the weather had come to an abrupt end. This is when I was reminded that it is important to be prepared and pack for all possible elements – something like a light water resistant windbreaker would be your best friend. Because you have to travel by motorboat to reach the villages throughout the lake, the journey can get a bit windy and chilly – I relied on my initial euphoria of being on a boat to stay warm. As we made our way across the lake, we caught our first glimpse of the fishermen. Iconic for their technique of balancing on one leg while the other wrapped around a paddle to navigate their boat, this leaves their hands free to cast fishing nets.
Our first stop was Indein Village where we came across this magnificent bamboo forest on our way to the temple. I never got a chance to visit the Arashiysma bamboo forest while I was in Japan so I jumped at the opportunity. Ten minutes later, we quickly wrapped up our mini photo session and were back on track. I think one of the most important things about traveling is taking it at your own pace. Again and again I came to see the increasing value of our private tour. We never felt rushed nor guilty that we were holding up anyone if we were in a group.
We finally arrived at the Shwe Inn Thein pagoda. There must have been over a thousand stupas but all it takes is one glance for the scenery to take your breath away. One of my favourite moments from this trip was when a soft breeze danced around the chimes dangling from the tops of the stupas, creating a very serene mood.
I had a running joke with my friend that I did not think that my level of tolerance with dirtiness would get any higher but I was very wrong. We went to visit the 5 day market where local tribes set up a market in a different village each day. It had rained overnight in the particular village set for that day, making the conditions very muddy. Luckily I had gotten a mosquito bite on my foot earlier resorting me to wear flip flops. If anyone has ever walked on mud before, it’s very sticky and cakes on additional mud with every step, making it increasingly heavier and difficult to walk. You can already imagine my demise when I noticed a number of fallen flip flops on the path to the market. Nothing like a little motivation right? I was even more determined not to lose my flip flops because I suspected that it was more than mud that we were walking on. Never have I ever in my life did I wish for my EVA Birkenstocks for more than anything. Every time I travel, I try and test several different items and slowly build my capsule packing list. For those of you who are still interested, I eventually made it back to our boat with my flip flops intact. I ended up adding another lovely experience of washing my muddy feet in the river, borrowing a brush handed to me from a fellow tourist, thus adding another notch to my belt of tolerance.
Overall, Myanmar has a lot to offer but also has a long way to go before it catches up to the luxuries offered by its neighbouring countries. We, by no means, “roughed it” on this trip but it certainly felt rough at times. It’s definitely not for everyone but I would still recommend seeing it for yourself. I think the scenery alone made up for everything because honestly, I don’t think there is anywhere else in Asia that is this untouched.