“Are you traveling alone?” the young girl sitting next to me on the plane asked as we landed in Yangon last December. I had noticed her earlier; I found it odd but charming when she stuck her fingers in her ears when the plane took off. We chatted a little. She wanted to know if I was on a tour. (We weren’t, except for bookings which we did through Intrepid Travel the Hubby and I mapped out the trip itinerary ourselves.)
Myanmar seemed to be popular with the solo backpacker/hostel crowd. I recall when we were on a covered flatbed van on our way back to the bus terminal in Bagan (the van looked like a Philippine jeepney except it was crammed with Caucasians — and us), a German student was telling her seatmate about how she just told her cabbie to “take her to the cheapest hotel in Bagan.” “I ended up paying only US$7/night,” she said proudly.
Myanmar feels frontier, but I think it’s on its way to attracting its fair share of tourists. There were plenty of abandoned buildings that looked like they were worth preserving — courthouses, customs houses with red brick. All were shuttered and boarded up.
I think visiting a country for the first time feels a bit like plunging into a pool — there’s a mild feeling of disorientation initially, but you slowly adjust. Then you start to see the similarities. Yangon looked like Quiapo, and its old creaky buses looked like those Love Buses popular in Manila during the ’80s (of which I caught rare glimpses of back when I was a kid).
The Burmese looked just like us. The Hubby gets mistaken for a local at least twice. Women and men both used thanaka, a white pasty cream spread on their cheeks and forehead (in some cases, all over their face), and our cab driver says it’s a traditional cream made from tree bark which acts as a coolant/sunscreen. The Burmese can also give Filipinos a serious run for our money in the friendly/hospitable department. I felt — at least for now — that they even had a slight advantage in that they seemed genuinely nice.
What do I mean? Kids at the temples were happy to have their photos taken with permission (and were honestly delighted to see their photos), they didn’t ask for anything afterwards; vendors at the larger temples would actually listen and stop pestering you immediately when told “No, thank you.” Small things like that. To be more precise, the vendors stop selling and start asking you about you (questions like “Where are you from?”) and start small talk (commenting that we looked local, etc).
We visited the Sule Pagoda and the much larger Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the latter was crowded with tourists and locals alike. We took off our shoes and the feeling of cold marble under our bare feet was nice since it was so hot that afternoon. Around the pagoda were labels with the days of the week. This in turn corresponded to certain planetary saints and birthdays. We also saw the locals conduct a coordinated sweep of the marble floor with long brooms — a long line of women with thanaka-covered faces.
We took a cab to the bus terminal for JJ Express. They run an overnight bus that would take us from Yangon to Bagan in the Mandalay region, where the ancient pagodas were. There were several stops along the way. We had a late dinner at Feel Myanmar Express, a local fast food. I recall we had fried eggs, fried rice, and something that looked (and tasted) like beef tapa.
We arrived in Bagan around 6AM and made our way to the Aye Yar River View Resort in Old Bagan. The Hubby started to sing “We’ve only just BA-GAAAN…” (to the tune of The Carpenters’ ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’) and it cracked me up.
It took us two days to tour the temples in Bagan. We hired a car from our hotel the first day, and took our time visiting each one, marking it off the map as we went. The heat was amazing — but our hired car came with cool towels scented with lemongrass (the driver seemed to top this up mysteriously every few temples or so) and cold bottles of water. We made good progress, and the pagodas were more interesting to explore than the newer ones in Yangon.
Some of the temples were perfect for sunrise/sunset viewings (Pya-tha-da Pagoda had a platform with a stunning view of the landscape), some had Buddha statues of note (Ahanda Pagoda had four large ones), some were different (instead of the usual red brick, Gawdawpalin Temple and Thatbinnyu Temple were white).
We watched the sunset from the Shwesandaw Pagoda, but the crowds, the jostling, and the nonstop camera clicking dampened the mood somewhat for me.
I liked the Shwe Leik Too pagoda and considered it a find. We found it on our second day in Bagan, the day we took on the small temples we hadn’t been to. Instead of our comfy car we decided to take a horse cart for 16,000 kyat (US$16).
Shwe Leik Too was a bit out of the way, but lovely. We had to climb a narrow, uneven brick staircase to the top. The pagoda is mid-sized and not too tall, plus there was a decent view as a reward. Best of all, there was nobody there.
That’s the thing about Bagan, with around 3,000 temples scattered throughout why limit yourself to the big, popular ones? Take your pick! Sadly though, I read that several of the stupas, monuments and old Buddha statues were restored a little too hastily by the military regime, and some academics viewed this as having damaged the integrity of the old architecture. This has impeded Bagan’s nomination as a UNESCO heritage site.
But it hasn’t stopped tourists like us from coming.
The second day we had a buffet lunch at Golden Myanmar. It was a wide array of food, albeit at a carinderia-style establishment. Cheap at 4,000 kyat (US$3) per person, with dishes that looked and tasted like Filipino dishes: binagoongang baboy (pork in shrimp paste), adobo (but an oilier version), pinatisan (meat in fish sauce). Familiar yet unfamiliar.
We decided to skip the pagoda sunsets the second day and watched it set behind the Ayeyarwaddy River instead, a few steps away from our room.
The third day was especially exciting, as we had booked a ballooning trip with Oriental Ballooning (they use green balloons). Oriental Ballooning is a newer outfit vs the more established Balloons Over Bagan (which uses red balloons) — but as we later saw for ourselves BoB left the ballooning grounds later than we did and landed earlier than we did. I also noticed BoB had bigger baskets that held more people, which (to my non-ballooning expert mind) probably meant heavier balloons and lower flying altitude. Heh.
We woke up 5AM and were fetched from the hotel. The deflated balloons lay spread on an empty field of dusty red clay. Oriental Ballooning served a light breakfast of unlimited coffee/tea, croissants and small banana muffins. It was a chilly morning. We were given a safety briefing then they started pumping the balloons with air.
Our balloonist-in-charge, Mike, hailed from the UK and had only been in Bagan for three weeks. He had been been flying balloons since 1982 as a hobby. He told us most of the balloonists only stayed 2-4 months, some for half a year, then went back home. He was still getting to know Bagan’s temples himself.
Ours was the first balloon to go up. We also went the highest. We watched the sun rise higher over the landscape and color all the temples in soft red, then orange hues. There was a light mist and in the early morning light, the view seemed surreal. We waved to people down below, and they waved back. One kid actually hurried out to greet us — she was so excited she hadn’t tied her wraparound skirt up properly and almost tripped.
We had champagne and papaya slices afterwards.
A beautiful start in beautiful Bagan, and hardly past nine in the morning.