Myanmar Part I: Yangon to Bagan
It’s been over a month since we left Burma. The memories of it settle in my mind in a similar way to my memories of traveling in Cuba. Like with Cuba, Burma was filled with those pure, lost in time feelings. Like Havana, wandering through the streets of Yangon or Mandalay feels like drifting through a living museum; an endless maze of fascinations and crumbling buildings, hinting at a era of lost colonialism. Head to countryside and you head a few extra centuries further back in time, before electricity, to a time when people lived in tiny thatched huts and worked on wooden boats. Like with Cuba there the kind of joys and frustrations that come with traveling not only in a developing country but in a country that has a much less developed or experienced tourism infrastructure.
Only since the 90s has Burma’s government encouraged tourism. And only since 2012, has the industry actually started to take off. Because of this, much of the country still feels very untouched–with parts of it, due to civil war and government restrictions, actually staying untouched.
Though not impossible, I found it a bit difficult researching and planning this trip. With the exception of a handful of blogs, there’s not a ton of accurate or up to date information about travel in Myanmar available. Even the latest Lonely Planet felt obsolete. And so I depended greatly on the advice of friends. Having only two weeks to explore, we ended up sticking fairly closely to a standard tourist route–Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay; with side trips out of each.
One of the easiest ways to obtain a Myanmar visa is to fly into Bangkok and apply at the Myanmar Embassy. Though this is by no means a pleasant experience, it’s fairly painless. However, what we learned while waiting in line was that the government is currently testing a visa on arrival. In other words, very likely, had we known, we could have skipped Bangkok, along with a full day of waiting in lines, and flew straight from Ho Chi Minh to Yangon to get our visa on arrival. Sadly, we were too late for this option. We opted for the 1-day visa, for about $30, and were able to pick it up the next day after applying for it, with the added bonus of enjoying a few days exploring Bangkok.
We arrived in Yangon after 9pm and checked into the surprisingly excellent Pickled Tea Hostel. Every source will tell you that the accommodations in Myanmar are overpriced and of a lower standard than other places in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand. While this was often our experience, it was not the case with our first hostel, which would end up being probably our best of the trip. This place was brand new, gorgeous and expertly designed. Plus it was located in a bustling neighborhood and market area near plentiful cheap street food and tea shops.
The main focus of our time in Yangon was to see the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. The Shwedagon Pagoda is a huge Buddhist complex perched on a small hill above Yangon. As the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, this place is huge, and well worth several hours of wandering. The entire complex is made up of numerous stunningly ornate pagodas, acting as a sort of ornamental wall around the main attraction–a large golden stupa, which serves as a a distinct and shining beacon for the city’s skyline. The crown of the stupa is said to be encrusted with over 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 rubies.
Appropriate temple attire is necessary in order to enter the complex–however like most places in Myanmar, longyis, or skirt-like sarongs, are provided for any tourist bearing their legs.
Our second morning was spent wandering, and our afternoon riding the circular railway. The circular railway, made famous mostly through Lonely-Planet-toting-indie-traveler-bloggers, is a local commuter train whose route draws a circle around greater Yangon. Eager to “see the real Yangon,” we bought tickets for a whopping $1, and took the casual 3-hour sightseeing trip. From our plastic seats, we could stick our heads out of the windows, enjoy the warm breeze and take in the charming sights. Too tired or lazy to actually get up and get off at the stops–we watched as bustling markets, teak shacks, rice paddies, busy train stations and lots of good people watching slowly passed us by.
We had intentions of taking the notoriously bad train from Yangon to Bagan. Jim had his heart set on reliving the Burma episode of Part’s Unknown. However, sadly, after a few failed attempts at the train station, this was something we were unable to figure out or work into our schedule. Neither of us were thrilled about the prospects of a night bus. Jim, being well over 6 foot tall, and I having had one too many unpleasant night-bus experiences under my belt. However, I was thrilled to see our $14 bus, with reclining chairs & footrests, pillows, blankets, and personal TVs, was easily the nicest night bus I’ve ever been on (and I’ve been on MANY). We both managed to sleep about as well as possible on a bus, even failing to get out at many of the frequent bathroom stops during our 9 hour journey.
Like a scene straight out of my Latin American travel experience, we were up for the standard disorientated rude awakening so common with night buses. Arriving just before dawn, we were greeted by overly eager taxi drivers as we groggily collected our baggage from the under carriage. After a long cab ride from Nyaung U to New Bagan, we arrived at our hotel to find out that we still had another 6 hours before check in. And so we decided to set off with hopes of finding a scenic spot for sunrise and maybe grabbing a bite to eat.
Jim, giddy and high on excitement, and me grumpy and tired, wander towards the Ayarwaddy River. As the sun rises we start noticing temples dotting the horizon of every direction we look. And finally, in the direction of Old Bagan, we catch a distant glimpse of one of Bagan’s largest temples, and nearby flocks of hot air balloons hovering peacefully in the painted sky. This sight is enough for me to replace my “night-bus-gross” feelings with excitement and awe. We continue and wander among the few residential dwellings left in this area. When we reach the banks of the Ayarwaddy, we are presented with a very undeveloped shoreline and more gorgeous views.
On that first day, still a bit tired from our early morning, we struggle around loose-dirt roads on crappy bicycles rented from our hotel. We stop periodically to check out the many temples along the way. In the evening, we make the rather questionable decision to catch the sunset at one of the most popular temples in Old Bagan, and share the view with hundreds of tourists. Though it’s lovely, we have difficulty finding a view that isn’t obstructed by people. As it was Valentine’s Day, we finish off the evening with a lovely little dinner, before passing out early.
On day two, I talk Jim into renting an electric bike. Though he’s more set on finding a decent mountain bike than a dorky e-bike, he begrudgingly agrees. We spend all day hitting the less visited temples, stopping to cool off with a coconut or to seek refuge from the heat in the shady pagodas. When we hit Old Bagan, we find a scenic spot for a cold beer and nibble on the infamous Burmese snack of pickled tea leaf salad–a greasy mixture of pickled tea leaves, beans and nuts.
Afterwards, we take our trusty e-bikes and set off to find a place read about in the Lonely Planet, which promises to have excellent cocktails and even better sunset views. After a few wrong turns, we arrive at the place, which appears to be long abandoned. However, we find that unlike our sunset spot the night prior, we’ve found a totally unobstructed, and very private place to watch the sky change colors. Afterwards, we give into our Western hungers, and head to a Tripadvisor favorite for a feast of burgers and cocktails.
Now this is a perfect day.
For our final full day, we decide to take a day trip to the nearby Mt Popa. We book a tour through our hotel and are picked up in the morning by a small shuttle bus. On our way, we make a few random stops including to what is essentially a moonshine distillery. These stops seem more inconvenient and unwelcome for me than interesting, as I try to sneak in a nap on the bumpy ride.
After over an hour on the road, we arrive. Despite the name of our tour, Mt Popa isn’t actually the name of our destination; but rather, a volcanic plug near Mt Popa, called Taung Kalat, which serves as the pedestal for which a lovely little monastery sits. This is apparently the holy hotspot for worshippers of the Nat religion. We climb an immense stairway built into the side of the plug. Along the way, we pass vicious monkeys seeking scraps or handouts and beggars scrubbing the tile stairs, seeking a small donation for their gracious hard work.
At the top we are rewarded with a hazy view of the nearby countryside. On the way down, Jim nearly gets attacked by one of the many evil monkeys living in the monastery. One of the drink venders leaps to his rescue, sling shot in hand.
We grab lunch at a food stall before making the drive back to Bagan, and end our day at a scenic restaurant by the river. Watching yet another peaceful sunset.
Rather than getting on another bus, we decide to take the long way to Mandalay and book a one-day cruise up the Ayarwaddy River. This turns out to be a great decision. Our next 12 hours are made up of reading, napping, and chilling, all while taking in the peaceful sights along the river banks. Excluding the fact that we were very underfed (only 2 small meals served and almost no snacks available for sale), this was a supremely relaxing experience. We approach Mandalay in the early evening, our long journey rewarded with yet another lovely sunset. We arrive shortly after, starving though very happy.
Myanmar Part II: Around Mandalay