When on a long travel, there are always a few places for which you have perhaps unfairly high expectations. More than any other place on our post-Bhutan itinerary, Myanmar had been that place for us. When you have exceedingly high expectations, it is easy to be a bit disappointed, particularly when the image of what a country in your head is quite different from you actually experience in that place. It is rare for your expectations to be far wide of reality but to still be as impressed with a place as you could have ever expected to be, and that is what Myanmar has been for us.
From the point we walked out of the doors at Yangon International Airport, it was evident that Myanmar was a very different country from what we had expected. For one, this is a strikingly different place from anywhere else we’ve been in southeast asia and it was surprising to see that a country that has constantly battled with Thailand over land and borders throughout their histories could be so different from its rival – both in terms of what the infrastructure and way of life is and the heritage of its people. That Myanmar is distinctly more India or Nepal than it is Laos or Thailand was a bit surprising to us.
But we did immediately fall in love with this place. In terms of what it is culturally it is not at all what we expected, but what we found may have even exceeded our expectations.
We arrived in Yangon in the early morning via a flight from Bangkok. Clearing customs was a surprisingly easy process and now that banking in Myanmar has taken off, there were multiple ATMs in the baggage claim area – something that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. We booked a taxi at the desk for the standard 7,000 kyat price and, at our request were dropped off at the train station.
The ride in from the train station was a near perfect introduction to the odd contrast that is present day Myanmar, a strikingly strange juxtaposition of rundown aging blocks of flats and shops (much like in the above photo) with bright shiny new corporate headquarters of those global interests hoping to get their piece of Myanmar’s newly opened economy, complete with stylish wavy glass facades and stone entrance staircases that lead down to neglected betel nut red stained sidewalks with large gaping holes where concrete slab sewerage covers once sat. Its easy to imagine that those sitting the glass offices might try to ignore the chaos outside, its less obvious what the residents who walk past these new glass monsters might think of them.
Our initial plan was to take a train that day from Yangon, including a transfer at Thazi, landing us in Shwenyaung near Inle Lake – a ride we’d read was very scenic despite the somewhat violent sway of the very aged thin-gauge Myanmar railcars. A kind man approached and began assisting us with the train schedule, though he adamantly recommended that the bus would be quicker and more comforatble and could not understand why we’d want to take the train (which is also a bit more expensive than the bus). We were not so concerned with the relative discomfort and had heard that the train ride was very scenic. This man initially showed us to the nearby advance train ticket windows, but after he realized that we hoped to leave this afternoon, he informed us that the same day purchase windows were in the main railway station on the other side of the tracks. He kindly pointed us to a bridge and directed us which way to walk to get to the railway station.
While walking across the bridge toward the station, another kind man approached Josh and introduced himself as Muang Muang (hereon referred to as MM). MM’s was somewhat astonished when we announced we were planning to take the train and he also adamantly suggested that a bus was a better form of transport in the country and especially so to Shwenyaung as there was a new road. The three of us looked at eachother, each doubting our previous decision and also considering that it might be nice to arrive early tomorrow morning on the bus instead of late afternoon on the train, effectively having an extra day around Inle Lake. We eventually relented and MM pointed us towards the bus ticket office (across the street from the railway station) where we purchased tickets to Shwenyaung (15,000 kyat).
After booking our bus tickets to Shwenyaung, MM offered to show us around the city. We were a bit skeptical, but happy to oblige as we did not have our bearings and were not sure about the city. MM led us to the newly renamed Aung San Market, a large tourist market in the center of town, and proceeded to tell us about the arts and goods of Myanmar and explaining which part of the country specialised in each craft or style. He strongly encouraged us not to buy anything from the market, as it would be more expensive than anywhere else in the country especially since we would be visiting many of the areas to which the crafts were native.
MM was a gentle-looking older man with bottle cap-thick glasses and with skin chemically tanned from years of smoking. He walked with a slight hunch at all times, but the quickness of his feet and his chatter made it easy to overlook whatever agedness he wore. he was clearly a man who made a habit of approaching tourists – he showed us a book with comments about his kindness from other he had met, a not so uncommon method among amateur tour guides of dissuading apprehension among those he approaches – but despite the fact that he did eventually ask for money, his intentions did not seem so financially driven. Where most of these amateur tour guides will try to bombard you with information immediately in attempt to make you feel as if you owe them a payment for their services, MM was instead patient and kind. While we believe he did tell a personal story which was riddled with white lies and embellishments, its difficult to know sometimes if this is something he wants to present or if he has to because most tourists will not take him seriously if he says ‘I have no job’ instead of ‘I am the head teacher of a carving school which is on holidays at the moment’. Either way, it was clear he enjoyed the interaction with people, and while he was also after a bit of a payout, he did seem different than most.
MM continued to lead us around the city through India and Chinatown, two areas filled with gloriously busy and dirty markets and packed full of people, goods, and all modes of transportation. The street markets each contained many different items and foods, obviously geared towards either the Chinese or Indian residents. At one point we walked through a mechanics area where various parts of machinery were being reconstructed, cleaned, and prepared for resale.
We tried a few of the different food items being prepared – a Myanmar bread that had peanuts embedded in its sponge-like 1.5cm-thick patty, and the rice porridge pancakes (the small circles in the above photo) filled with a assorted beans and nuts.
As the afternoon came and we all started to feel the early 3am wakeup for our plane, the monsoon rains came and gave us a legit excuse to head back to the bus ticket office and wait for our truck to the bus station itself, some 45 minutes north of the city center. MM asked us for money so that he could buy himself something to eat, a bit disheartening considering we’d just offered to buy him lunch and he’d refused (though we do consider that he the money in his hands could probably cover more meals than we could make it cover as tourists). In the end, we had a fantastic tour around the city for a low cost, but its a shame such things can’t be done more up front.
The main tourist attraction of Yangon is the impressive golden Shwedagon Pagoda, a huge pagoda on top of a hill that is visible from many places around the city. When Barack Obama visited Myanmar, he had his photo in front of the Shwedagon.
We arrived late in the afternoon on an overcast day, and the sun unfortunately could not put its full strength on the golden pagoda. However, arriving at this time allowed us to see the area in the daylight and at night and the lit-up Pagoda at night – particularly at twilight- is a a really stunning sight.
Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda
Yangon’s most famous Reclining Buddha was a massive 65m long, actually larger than Wat Pho’s more famous one in Bangkok. Housed in a warehouse-like building with a metal roof, it felt a bit odd to walk into the unassuming building and find this very life-like Buddha covered in glass mosaic. This Buddha was one of the few we saw that was so life-like – most reclining Buddhas have flat, rigid looking feet, like the Bangkok Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, but this Buddha had a more realistic foot posture.
Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda
Over 14 meters high, the Sitting Buddha is a striking image not only because of its size, but also its armor-like costume and the detailed woodcarving in the background. This is not a very famous, even within Yangon, and we found this place without many other visitors (save the religious class going on in the area behind the Buddha). There were not many people here and we were able to sit in front of the Buddha admiring the carving.
Mandalay was a brief stop for us, our main purpose here was to meet up with Ali and transfer on to Bagan. We arrived early in Mandalay off an overnight bus, leaving us the entire day to explore the city. Unfortunately, besides the amazing market, the city of Mandalay had little to offer. That said, the market in full swing was one of the largest and most interesting we’ve visited.
The market in Mandalay was one of our favourite markets. It was busy, huge and you could imagine it sitting here much the same a few decades ago. It was a magnificent place set along the dirty city streets and golden temples. This is a market where they have not yet had the influx of tourism that many have and therefore its sole focus is to serve Mandalay – and judging by the incredible activity and huge crowds, it certainly does a good job of that.
The recent persecution of Muslims – especially the Rohingya – by Myanmar’s Buddhist population has been rather well documented in the world press over the last year or more, if not under-condemned by western leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi herself. In fact there were anti-Muslim riots at town near Mandalay in March of this year. Having some time on our hands, and having sung to Josh the praises of the central asian mosques and the way we had been welcomed, we set out in search of some mosques in Mandalay while we waited for Ali’s plane to arrive.
It was not easy to find a mosque here at first. Going off of the three year old map in Lonely Planet, we found nothing at all in a few places despite the dress of the people in the immediate area suggesting them to be Muslim. At one spot where there was supposed to be a mosque in the same confines as a Buddhist temple, we instead found what appeared to a Arabic-style Juma mosque (by its open, columned architecture) but it was instead being used as another smaller worship area for Buddhists. We did wonder if this had been converted in the recent year.
We eventually saw a crescent-topped minaret peaking out from behind some other buildings and followed it until we found a small alley-like path back to the center of a city block. In all the other countries we’ve visited, we have found ourselves welcomed into the mosques, and this was no different. However, when we visited the Joon Mosque in Mandalay, this was the first time we felt that the men worshiping were a bit cautious and apprehensive at our presence, even though we were greeted with smiles and welcomed. This being a Friday mosque, Angie was not allowed in the building itself (as she has not been allowed into altar areas in the Russian Orthodox churches or male-only worship areas in many Buddhist temples) but was allowed into the courtyard and up to open entrance doors of the mosque. Josh and Brett wandered into the mosque to observe.
On our way out a number of the Muslim men in the courtyard bowed and smiled at us. It appeared that our interest was appreciated, but we definitely did feel that this is a place that feels the need to be on alert at all times. I guess this is understandable in Myanmar right now.