Friendly thanaka covered faces, countless shining gold pagodas, the red paan spit stains on every pavement, mouth-watering salads, the lingering smell of cheroots … these heartwarming impressions will always evoke the unforgettable memories of Myanmar (or Burma, if you prefer) in my mind. As I sit on a rooftop in a completely different world of Kuala Lumpur, I can’t help but feel sentimental writing this. Because despite its torrid history and my consequential mixed feelings about this country of two names, its people, culture, cities, and nature have left me struggling to leave. And thankfully, we won’t be away too long, but more on that some other time (I have to keep you on your toes, you know).
Thinking about it now, it was love at first sight. Our temporarily (and very happily) enlarged company of four was immediately enchanted by the warn out colonial charm of Yangon, which was our first two-day stop. Its buildings and mouldy facades are filled with history and character that amaze you on every corner, its streets are refreshingly motorcycle and crowd-frezny free, and its residents are unbelievably friendly. Sure, as a tourist you are inevitably the centre of attention pretty much everywhere you go, but it’s surprisingly easy to get used to it. How can it not, when for instance you board a circle train around the city and in a matter of minutes everybody starts scrunching together to offer you a seat and later gift you with delicious steamed corn that the vendors sell while strolling through the packed coaches. Or when you walk down one of the lively main streets in the evening and a couple of kids grab your arm, pull you on the side, push a racket in your hand and get you to hyperventilate while playing an immensely fun game of badminton with them among the parked cars by the busy road. As I said, falling in love was inevitable.
But no matter how happy we would be to stay in the former capital for another x number of days, we had to board the 7-hour long morning bus to merely 160 km distant town of Hpa an (yes, the roads of Myanmar are hardly a thing to fall in love with). The first impression of the capital of Kayin state was definitely marked with a more touristy vibe, which luckily it quickly makes up for with amazing karst scenery and some impressive exploring opportunities. This relaxing combination, however, makes one prone to easily forget this eastern town isn’t entirely without adversities, since in its immediate proximity there are many restricted areas where stirring conflicts are still arising every day. Learning this, I couldn’t help but feel brutally confronted with the troubled and sad reality this beautiful country is still fighting to resolve and hopefully eventually will with less devastating consequences than its history provides.
With all our mixed emotions and gear packed, we spent our first day there sweating and huffing and puffing up more than 2,500 steps on the way to the top of magnificent Mt. Zwegabin, where breathtaking views, a beautiful buddhist monastery, and alarmingly gutsy pack of monkeys await the persistent hiker. Our original plan was to reward ourselves with a relaxing day on the mountain and spend the night in the monastery to awake to the supposedly amazing sunrise, but an unfortunate tragedy involving a tourist from a couple of days before forced the monks to abandon their accommodation services to outsiders for the time being. Hardly discouraged, we happily took on the downhill challenge of those never-ending steps and treated ourselves with a proper Myanmar-style dinner. But afterwards, our plans changed again! The tasty dinner was not such a treat after all, at least for the three of us that spend the next day lying on the rooftop terrace of our hostel after suffering through some very unpleasant symptoms of food poisoning. But even this unfortunate turn of events didn’t really kill our joy and by the evening we were on our way towards the postcard town of a million pagodas (actually, it’s a bit over 2,200, but it seems like a million!).
Bagan is something out of this world. An archeological area of 13 x 8 km is densely filled with ancient temples, pagodas, and stupas, the impressive remains of its former kingdom glory, when the site was made up of more than 10,000 glorious constructions. Sitting on top of of one of them at sunset or sunrise is bound to bring a smile and a look of awe to your face, even when surrounded with a big flock of equally amazed tourists. A no less inspiring experience is exploring this amazing area during the day, while feeling like a wannabe Indiana Jones on an e-motorbike, zooming through a labyrinth of dusty dirt roads and continuously discovering more and more magnificent buddhist structures from another time. With an area so big, it’s easy to escape the crowds and find new treasures on every corner, which makes this place well deserving of the title of Myanmar’s main tourist attraction.
In contrast with the popularity of Bagan, our trip from there to the city of Mandalay was bizarrely secluded. We decided to take a day-long boat ride on the Iravadi river to take us there and we were pleasantly surprised to find only six other passengers on board. Needless to say it was a very enjoyable day spent on the slow moving water, the whole time stretched on an abundance of deckchairs and watching the calming motion of the passing by countryside. Well, at least it was for three quarters of our group, while the previously lucky member got faced with the same, delayed version of funky food related condition. Our afternoon and evening in northern Myanmar’s biggest city was therefore mainly spent in a hotel, discussing our most sensible next step (where the planned 2-day trekking was obviously quickly omitted).
And so, the next day and another 8-hour drive later, we arrived at a small, lively town of Nyaung Shwe on the northern edge of Inle lake. This great big pool of water is famous for its leg-peddaling fishermen, floating gardens, and picturesque villages on stilts, which make it another of Myanmar’s many gems. We spent our days there cycling around the lake, soaking in the amazing views from the traditional longboat, learning about various local crafts, and exploring the vibrant local market before stuffing ourselves full with delicious food at a cooking class . For me, those days were pure perfection and I could sail through the unique villages and water canals on that little boat and observing the completely different water life of its inhabitants till forever. I might even say it was my favourite place in Myanmar and I just can’t wait to visit it again.
Like all good things, our Burmese adventure had to end eventually and we sure did it in style. That was pretty easy to do in a place like Ngwe Saung, a seaside village with the most amazing and enormous sandy beach, where it’s not at all uncommon to find yourself strolling through the golden sand completely alone. Due to its secluded location and outdated transportation connections, the tourist bang hasn’t quite reached this little paradise and the place is consequently a funny mix of bizarre contradictions. The main road is a hub of construction sites and the coastline is packed with luxurious resorts, but they are all empty and appearing as in constant anticipation of convoys of tour buses to be rolling in any minute. The small village itself hasn’t got its own power supply, but that hasn’t stopped it from equipping itself with various restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and tour operators, while lacking the key ingredient of a decent number of their actual consumers. But that was everything and even more that we had hoped for. Needles to say, we happily took advantage of the offerings and indulged ourselves with amazing seafood, strong cocktails, empty deckchairs, and of course the refreshing, beautiful sea. And all that made it even harder for us to leave.