MyanMars

Sunrise in Bagan

Sunrise in Bagan

Let's start where it all Bagan.

Hehehe with a pun, of course. It's taken me quite a while to write about Myanmar, but there is simply so much to say. If you were to stop reading right here, here is the moral of my story- go to Myanmar, and go now. Before it's too late.

While we didn't actually begin in Bagan, it was by far the highlight of the trip. 

We first arrived in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, by flying from Thailand to Yangon. You cannot enter the country through land borders, you have to fly in (luckily, we figured this into our itinerary early on in the planning process). Yangon was a bit more timid a city than I imagined it would be. By that, I mean it felt empty, especially when compared to the manic bustle that is all of Thailand. 

Immediately upon arrival, there was an eery calm in the air. Everything was already four notches down on the volume scale. There wasn't a commotion to get a TUKTUK TUKTUK as soon as you stepped foot onto the tarmac of the airport. We negotiated (heavily) with a nice looking woman who had some sort of white paint on her face. We found out later that many Burmese women and children do this as a form of sunscreen. Taylor, Liz and I made friends with another traveler and we four hustled into the van that would take us into downtown Yangon. We were staying at a hostel known as Four Rivers. It was practically brand new, as most hostels in Myanmar are because of their borders opening recently, and the sudden influx of backpackers aka ballin-on-a-budget tourists.

The first amusing aspect to the city was how amusing we seemed to be to everyone else. If the Thai were perplexed by our white skin and Liz's long legs, then the Burmese we're in utter shock. Their eyes followed our every move- some giggled and others smiled timidly. Or just followed us (but I think that only happened once. Or twice. And only to Long Leg Liz). 

In Yangon, we didn't plan much of an itinerary- we just wanted to see what the largest city in the country was like. After talking to one our hostel-mates, a scraggly Aussie photographer,  we found out we needed to go to the Shwedagon Paya, and we also needed to have the sushi nearby. We hadn't had sushi the entire three months (#firstworldproblems), and as soon as he mentioned it, we couldn't get it off our minds. Sushi for dinner, in Myanmar. But first, temple exploration. 

Shwedagon Paya, the Golden Pagoda, is considered the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. While it seemed half of it was under construction, it was still an impressive site to see. We thought we'd seen all the temples we could see while in Thailand, but the best part of this one was the people. From the pink layered monks to the umbrella-adorned women, I felt like I was on the set of a Bollywood-meets-Southeast-Asia movie. 

The heat was so strong midday that we needed to take a break, and sat down on some steps in the shade. Suddenly, we were witnessing the cutest group of kids ever. I felt super creepy because I simply could not stop taking pictures of them. Taylor gave them some stickers from her journal and within seconds we were surrounded by a clan of adorable giggle monsters. 

CAN YOU HANDLE THE CUTE?

CAN YOU HANDLE THE CUTE?

Because my memories of Myanmar are at times quite literally indescribable, I feel it's best to just lay out what I wrote in my travel journal during the trip.

February 24, 2015

Sitting in the sweltering hot humidity, even in a bungalow in the shade of a park, drinking homemade lime soda at a place called “Off the Beaten Track Café”, we’ve made it to our sixth country: Myanmar.

The Burmese are friendly, and much less apt to hassle us to come into their shops like in Vietnam. The owner of this café, Lin, just approached us, offering travel advice in a completely helpful, nonchalant way. It’s sad to realize but, jaded by the people constantly taking advantage of us this trip, I was skeptical of his motives at first. I can’t help but think everyone is constantly out to profit themselves, squeezing the (few) bills out of me at every opportunity. But he was different, offering accommodation suggestions for Bagan and telling us about his café’s menu. I’m keen to order a “Myanmar Limonade”, a pint of their draft beer mixed with Sprite. In this heat, walking on the desert path of pavement, Sprite is the only thirst quencher on my mind.

We arrived in Bagan after an overnight bus - a separate, miserable story in itself. To summarize, it was at least 90 degrees of stifling heat, and the bus had no air conditioning. On top of that, the bus was packed so full, the driver somehow started pulling seats out of nowhere in the middle aisle. Every aisle seat quickly became a middle seat like on a plane, except now without any form of movement allowed. I sometimes exaggerate with first world problems, but this entire situation was really pushing it. The monks in front of us smelled like our garbage can did in college after a weekend of parties with jungle juice, old beer, and rotting pizza, that then sat in the sun for 3 months. What's worse, in order to get any form of circulation into the bus, we had to open the windows- but seeing as it's Southeast Asia and speed limits are non-existant, we were CRUISING. Meaning the wind was knocking back this garbage-infultrated-monk smell right into our face. Then the girl next to me spewed. Not kidding. It's 3AM somewhere in Burma, it's gone from scorchingly hot to absolutely freezing (I don't know why- were we going North?), the monks still don't have any deodorant, and the girl in the seat over has vomited on herself. Have I ever mentioned how poorly I do when hearing/smelling/being in any proximity to retching? I do REALLY poorly- meaning most times I puke almost immediately after smelling it. So now my face is buried in Taylor's shoulder for the next NINE hours.  If I slept at all, it was for brief stints as a result of the multiple Dramamine I was popping like candy. Those babies became my crack- I took them almost every bus ride (out of pure necessity- all of the roads seemed to be made as if an infant was handed crayons and excitedly drew out every map). 

February 25, 2015
Sitting on ancient bricks, piled high to assemble a Buddhist pagoda centuries ago, Myanmar seems like a distant reverie. As the sun sets over this hazy valley, it feels more mesmerizing than real- a time traveling mystery unifying us in the present with the ancient kinds of the past.
It’s one of those moments that are too difficult to transform into words, into a language so definitive. It is awe-inspiring, humbling, wondrous, still, effortlessly calming. There is a layer of tranquility phyllo-ed between the pink and orange haze of the sky. The only sounds are the chatter of birds, the clippity-clop of horses and their carriages, the distant vibrations of bus motors far way. As Tay says, there’s a sense of magic here but it will be lost soon with the waves of sightseers, and the consequential chaos they (we) bring.

Burma is an extraordinary place, like entering a time machine. However, this makes for an epic tourist destination. Basically, if you want to see it in it's actual, pristine (but pristine meaning untouched by tourists) state, you need to go now, before tourist exploitation gets the best of it. 

Speaking of tourism and how ironically I am telling you tourists will ruin the magical element of this country, and yet at the same time encouraging you to go, another pointer is to buy a guidebook. We relied almost religiously on our Lonely Planet guidebook. I'm not one to be too touristy but in a place like this, where we literally knew nothing about what to do and see and eat (except Tea Leaf salad from my brief experience at Burma Superstar in San Fran). It was extra helpful to flip to a page, and find out you should 100% definitely book hostels/hotel rooms in advance because the likelihood of just arriving somewhere and there being room available was slim to none.

For example, when we were climbing back down from climbing atop hundred year old pagodas, we had to avoid the children sent to retrieve our money in exchange for postcards, poorly drawn paintings or just their presence. It was sad to see such a beautiful place already being corrupted by the heightened sense of money making. 

Long Leg got so sick of all the pestering that she flung a child away! Just kidding- no Burmese children were injured for this photo.

Long Leg got so sick of all the pestering that she flung a child away! Just kidding- no Burmese children were injured for this photo.

I guarantee in just a few years' time, you will no longer be able to climb atop these pagodas at your free will, but instead you'll have to pay an entry fee. Instead of renting a bike for $1 a day, you'll have to pay $20, or rather, you'll be forced into tourist vans that will drive you around specifically chosen pagodas. Instead of one or two Burmese children begging for money, there will be groups of them. And what's worse, they'll no longer look as cute because you'll be too busy clutching your purse fighting through the crowds in desperation. It's a sad point to make, but I say it honestly. There were times on this entire trip through Southeast Asia where I witnessed kids acting angelic and cute one second, slyly slipping their fingers into a bag the next. I digress.

February 26, 2015
Today was by far the absolute best day of this trip so far.

We woke up before the sun, grabbing our electric bikes and heading to a pagoda to climb and watch the sun rise over the valley of shrines. Not surprisingly, a few other tourists had the same idea. Luckily, we wedged ourselves atop a corner wall of the pagoda and began the suspenseful wait- using every bit of patience we could muster before even having our first cups of coffee (meaning we were all feeling a bit cranky).
Of course, suffering through the caffeine withdrawal ended up completely worthwhile. Not only was the actual sunrise gorgeous, but soon after hot air balloons began to rise in the distance. While their immense size alone is normally breathtaking, the silhouette they made while floating in front of the sun, hovering above hundreds of ancient pagodas mind you, was even more impressive. None of the words I want to use to describe the sight we witnessed come close to accurately portraying it’s significance- stunning, remarkable, absolutely extraordinary.

Myanmar has a calming effect that I’ve begun to truly appreciate. Bagan specifically has a spiritual vibe to it, and after so many chaotic cities filled with traffic, it is a wonderful relief to be somewhere so quiet and tranquil. There are hardly any motorbikes and those that are on the road are electric (and just like my little Prius, they are almost completely silent).

After the sunrise, we grabbed breakfast across the street (half of which went to our new little friend, Eggy- the cutest little mut puppy I ever did see. And in Asia, I saw my fair share). Then it was back to bed, because early bird gets the worm and then passes out if she plans to do more activities in the day. Around noon we headed back into the world, riding off to find some lunch. I ended up with avocado and tomato salad served with homemade rolls and mint lemonade. It was nothing short of divine, and every bite rejuvenating.

Then it was time to wander. We grabbed some ice cream- coconut and taro for me, avocado for the gals. Not interested in being smothered by cameras and annoying tourist groups again, we decided to be a part of the sun set, instead of just watching it stagnantly. We drove off, quite literally, into the sun.

We cruised off the main road, quoting Henry David Thoreau at every nerdy opportunity – “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”.

And we did just that- getting lost at some points, falling off bikes into pricker bushes at other, even running into female farmers and their ox (Oxes? Oxen? Ox).

It was remarkable and something I will never forget.
I felt wild and free, not bound by the marks of other roamers or even by the lines of the paved road. This is what traveling is all about. And now to quote Tay, “We’re not here to do what others have done. We’re here to figure it all out and see for ourselves- and we three are certainly not the norm to begin with”. She’s right up there with Thoreau these days.

Who knew we could have the time of our lives by simply riding electric bikes around hundred year old pagodas in Myanmar? Wind in our hair, sand on our feet, smiles from the locals and a new sense of life.
Do not leave child unattended with electric bike.

Do not leave child unattended with electric bike.

To Be Continued...