…and she’s back! Now, to finish up on our month in Myanmar.
Myanmar has four major tourist destinations as of right now: Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. Since we only had 26 days in the country, we limited our stay to those four places so we could get a better feel. Traveling three days here, three days there, doesn’t give you a deeper sense of how a place really is – even though you can see much more that way.
After our time in Yangon, we took a hellish 12 hour night bus to Bagan. We arrived at 4 am to crazy horsecart drivers bombarding us with questions and prices for a ride. Upon getting dropped off at our hotel by the local lunatic, we slept on a mattress in the reception area with the hotel staff. It took us a full day to recover from the icy cold, sleepless bus ride! We knew it was well worth it when we rode our bikes through the quiet, tree-lined roads dotted with temples. Bagan is an amazing site to see. It’s incredible being able to pick any temple and go explore the ancient hallways. Jesse and I participated in the tourist-saturated sunset at Shwesandaw Paya, but regardless of all of the people, it was a beautiful way to end the long, hot day.
From Bagan, we took a much more appealing day bus to Mandalay. Mandalay is a bustling city with an impressive amount of motorbikes buzzing through the streets. Jesse and I felt brave enough to rent two rickety old bicycles and pedal our way through the grid. We toured a goldpounder’s workshop, where they literally pound pieces of gold until they are only fractions of a centimeter thick. The pieces of gold are used to glue onto statues of Buddha for good luck (honestly, what isn’t for good luck in Asian countries?). We continued to explore Mahamuni Paya, which houses a huge gold Buddha that has in fact turned into a big lump from all the gold pieces applied to it – quite impressive! On our travels we were fortunate enough to meet up with another couple, Angela and Dominik – she being from the US and he being from Germany. We all got along so well that we traveled together throughout Mandalay, and met up again in Inle Lake and again in Yangon.
I should mention that not many tourists go to Myanmar. Travelers have many mixed ideas about Myanmar, and while there is definitely oppression by the government, the country is slowly taking steps toward a more democratic leadership. That being said, there is much corruption, and it is best as a traveler to spread your money around to different businesses. That is the main reason that Jesse and I took buses everywhere; private bus companies do have to pay the government, but considerably less than if you flew everywhere or took a train. We were very uncertain of what the country would be like, but it turned out to be one of my favorite places we’ve been to. It’s hard to explain how kind and genuine the Burmese people are. They are shy, friendly and truly interested in you; so quick to share a smile or laugh at your pronunciation of ‘mingalaba,’ the Burmese are an absolute pleasure to be around!
Our last day in Mandalay Jesse and I wandered the streets to find Shwe In Bein Pagoda, an old teak monastery. We were joined by a young monk who took us to where all of the local monks stay. There were thousands of monks living and studying in Mandalay, and this seemed to be where most of them stayed. So many monks were eager to talk to us and practice their English. It was a great time learning about how they spend their days and joking with them. They were so kind they ended up buying us some delicious milk tea!
Another freezing night bus brought us to Nyaungshwe, Myanmar! Surprisingly, we managed to get a bit of sleep before arriving at yes, 2 am. As soon as we stepped off the bus we knew it was different from any place we’ve been so far – it was freezing! By ‘freezing,’ of course I mean it was in the low 60s. I can’t tell you how refreshing it felt after traveling in hot weather for so long. Anywho, Nyaungshwe is a little town with close access to Inle Lake. We took the token boat ride around the lake, going to different handicraft shops, floating villages, floating gardens and a few pagodas. One of my favorite moments, probably on this trip, was when the boat dropped us off at a produce/craft market early in the morning. Jesse and I walked through small pathways of fruit and grains. It was still chilly out, but the sun was bright and shining through spaces in the colorful tarps overhead. We found a little tea shop to grab some milk tea, and we just sat there, soaking in the smells, hearing the sounds and watching the smoke from the food stall next door waft through the sunshine. It’s definitely the small things in life that make it worthwhile.
The rest of Inle Lake was filled with avocado milkshakes, delicious tomato/onion/egg crepes, lots and lots of milk tea, pagodas, and long meals with Angela and Dominik. One of our last days we all signed up for a trek through the hills to the east of Inle Lake. Our almost 10-mile hike took us through sunflower patches, cheroot fields (they use the cheroot leaf to roll the Burmese cigars), corn fields and many local villages. On the way we ran into women carrying baskets of cheroot leaves, men with their oxen, a man carrying a honeycomb larger than his son (he let us try some honey – yum!) and many little kids playing near their thatched bamboo houses. Our guide Toeaung and his ‘cousin-brother’ (who, after a bit of confusion, we found out was just his cousin) were awesome company, telling us all about their day-to-day lives and even mentioning that just a mere two months before they found a huge boa constrictor on the hike! To end our long day’s journey, we conveniently ended up at Red Mountain Estate Winery. Jesse and I had never been to a winery before, and wouldn’t you know our first would be in Myanmar? We wined and dined while desperately looking like we needed showers, and enjoyed a buzzed walk home through the streets of Nyaungshwe!
If you have any desire to go to Myanmar, go soon. Before the tourist industry explodes. The number of people visiting each year is growing exponentially, and it may inevitably become like its neighboring Thailand. It’s an incredibly beautiful country with people who will brighten your soul.