The idea of travelling to some places can pose a dilemma, and before deciding to visit Myanmar, Giles and I had to think about whether it was right to go here given recent events. But the actions of a government can’t be viewed as the ills of an entire population, and so long as you are making informed decisions on where to spend time and money, it really is a personal choice. That is my own opinion and I’m sure many, many people will disagree.
We decided to start our visit in Yangon and work our way up to the famous landscape of Bagan and onwards to the city of Mandalay.
As our first introduction to Myanmar, Yangon hits you in the face as very different to other major South East Asian cities. Crowded roads laced around giant, ornate Buddhist stupas and tranquil green parks, with colonial buildings and temples that seemed familiar of India, but everywhere the distinctly Burmese sights of men in smart longyi and young faces covered in thanaka paste. Lots of smiles, and virtually none of the tourist touting and hawking we had become so used to in Asia.
Visible across the city, lying at the heart of Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Allegedly more than a millennia old, it is a huge golden structure where thousands of Myanmar Buddhists visit every day to provide offerings and prayers. It was remarkable how peaceful it was as the sounds of the wind chimes and the chanting ring around the complex. On the day we visited, the reflection of the sun was so bright against the golden stupa, it was difficult to get a decent picture in most of the corners.
Whilst Myanmar isn’t exactly famous for its cuisine, street side BBQ stalls are everywhere in Yangon. Simply grab a basket, choose whatever skewered meat or vegetables take your fancy from the massive selection and wait for your basket of charred goodness to arrive whilst you sip away at the jug of tea that is placed on every table. Ordering a Burmese curry is also an experience as your order of a single curry unexpectedly comes with dish upon dish of various vegetable side dishes, which are generously topped up every time you take a couple of mouthfuls.
We have said it about a few places, but we really did love Yangon. It was just as manic as many of the other major Asian cities we have visited (two hours for a 10km taxi ride…), but the amount of chilled, green spaces, the genuine unassuming friendliness of the people gave it a really good feeling.
After an overnight bus journey from Yangon, we arrived amongst the famous temples of Bagan in Central Myanmar. Given the size of the area the temples and ruins are spread over, Giles decided that we should hire e-bikes. These can be accurately described as a cross between a motorcycle and a mobility scooter, but even with this limited speed, I didn’t possess any confidence that I wouldn’t crash. So I had great fun riding on the back of Giles’ e-bike operating as a backseat driver, dictating directions and making sure he kept at a safe speed. Whilst Giles wasn’t too impressed with my role, and at a couple of points threatened to leave me with the stray dogs at some of the more remote temples, these were a fantastic way of getting around.
The bucket list activity in Bagan is to watch the sun rise over the temples and watch the hot air balloons glide above. To do this, we eagerly woke up at 4.00am, drove the e-bike through the pitch darkness to find one of the few mounds the authorities have built since climbing the temples was rightly banned following damage caused by some tourists. Unfortunately, climbing up the first mound we found we would be sharing this experience with a seemingly drugged up group enjoying hardcore trance music on loudspeakers. As happy as we were for them to enjoy their experience this wasn’t the ambience we wanted so in Harley Davidson style but at Shopmobility scooter speed, we rode our way to the next mound. In fairness, this was the best decision as the setting was simply stunning.
The great thing about the number of temples around Bagan is that you will just stumble across an amazing temple or ruin but with literally no one around. Whilst this is the most visited place in Myanmar, it doesn’t have the crowds of Angkor Wat. On the other hand, the authorities seem set on expanding the number of tourists significantly with military figures opening up several high end hotels around the Bagan area.
A short flight from Bagan took us to Mandalay, the second largest city of Myanmar. To quote Lonely Planet, this city wont win any beauty contests, and nor would our Barbara Cartland style pink hotel room have, but the contrast between the places we had the opportunity to visit in Myanmar means we would love to explore this country more deeply in a hopefully more peaceful future.