NB: I use the term 'Myanmarese' in this post to refer to any person from Myanmar. This term is not an officially recognised one but it is used more and more commonly in texts relating to the country. I was reluctant to use 'Burmese' as there are over 100 native communities in Myanmar and although 'Burmese' make up the majority, I don't believe it's right to exclude all of the others. My use of Myanmarese does not reflect any political or ethical beliefs of mine.
When we started thinking about our trip and where we wanted to go, Myanmar was at the top of my list. The majority of people I've spoken to that have travelled around Asia have recommended it as a place not yet tainted by tourism. As a result I had high hopes for the country that up until 1989 was called Burma.
We flew to Myanmar from Bangkok and after an easy and short flight we stepped off in Yangon (aka Rangoon), the largest city in Myanmar (but not the capital).
We'd already booked a cab so we got to enjoy the flashy feeling of someone holding up a sign with your name on it.
The first thing we noticed was that our taxi driver; a young, handsome chap was wearing a long wrap-skirt. A maxi-skirt if you will. Assuming that this guy's a bit of a progressive fashionista we jump in the cab and take in our environment.
Another observation we made is that the cars are all right-hand-drive, but strangely, they also drive on the right. This means when they're turning left there's one hell of a massive blind spot. Weirdly enough though, buses and vans have left-hand-drive! We've never come across this driving system before and it perplexed my English brain. But I'm sure it exists elsewhere (please let me know).
After a few minutes our driver put on some long polka-dot sleeve/glove things. Again we weren't sure why, but took a guess that it was some sort of sun/heat protector.
During the drive it quickly became apparent that A LOT of Myanmar's men wear 'skirts'. We found out that the garment is called a longyi and it's essentially a large, rectangular piece of material that you wrap around your waists/hips and fold under to secure - much like you would with a towel. I can't imagine they're very comfortable as in my experience, unless you've got some seriously skinny thighs you're gonna chafe somewhere along the line. But perhaps they wear trunks underneath. Then again, the air circulation may actually be a good thing. The skinny jeans that all of us Brits wear just aren't good for your crotch-health. You're basically asking for scrot-rot.
We were immediately struck by the sincere and warm smiles that appeared on every single person's face we clocked eyes with. When I was taking photographs out of the taxi of market traders, beggars, children; if any of them saw me, they flashed a huge smile and waved or posed accordingly for the photo.
Some of said smiles were noticeable for their bright red-stain. We later found out that it's fairly common for people in Myanmar (usually men and usually people in lower socio-economic groups) to chew on betel nuts; a leaf containing a number of ingredients including betel nuts (which are red) and two types of tobacco; dried and alcohol-soaked. You will often see taxi drivers in traffic opening their car door to spit out the blood-like residue onto the road.
A lot of Myanmarese also wear thanaka on their faces; a yellowy paste made from ground up tree bark. It's typically applied to the cheeks and nose (of mainly women and children) and supposedly protects the skin fro the sun, while also acting as an anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory. Soon enough we were converts and would try and find a lady to put it on us whenever we could.
Anyway; we arrived at our hostel eventually (we learned pretty quickly that Yangon traffic is horrendous which led us to walking the rest of the time). The hostel (Agga Youth Hotel it calls itself), was pretty basic but did the job for 2 nights. The shower was cold and the staff were pretty noisy but we managed to sleep and wash away some of our skin diseases so no complaining here.
After a quick freshen up we got straight back in a taxi to head to the train station. We were desperate to get the sleeper-train from Yangon to Bagan in 2 days and we knew that the advance booking ticket office (as it's so called) was only open until 3pm. We had checked and knew that the train station was only 3 miles away so presumed we're be there in 10 minutes max. At this point we didn't anticipate being in standstill traffic for 20 minutes. We arrived at the station at 14:50 and scrambled around asking people where the advance office was. The man at the ticket booth pointed that the office was around the corner but that it was now closed and we needed to come back tomorrow.
Not fully disheartened we took a trip to Bogyoke Aung San Market (aka Scott's market); a large, old bazaar leftover from colonial times and famed for its selection of Myanmarese arts and crafts, antiques, jewellery and lacquer-wear. We had a look around but shopping isn't one of our fancies, food is. It turns out that said massive market doesn't house food establishments. We found the nearest restaurant we could (that we think might have been Chinese) and pointed at a few semi-palatable dishes from the picture-menu.
Most of what we got was ok, but my chicken fried rice definitely contained chicken bits I'm not all together used to. As Lauren would say; earholes, bumholes and eyeholes - and probably some feet thrown in for good measure too.
Lauren got by on some vegetable tempura and a noodle soup that appeared to be sans animal carcass.
Wanting to avoid the traffic, we walked back the half an hour to our hostel (now much lighter without our bags) and chilled out with a tall-neck Myanmar beer.
At 8am the next morning, armed with our Google Map navigation, we walked to the advance booking ticket office which, incidentally, isn't anywhere near the main train station. Feeling accomplished for finding this vaguely signposted, cattle-pen-like place we confidently approached the ticket booth and asked for sleeper-train, upper class tickets from Yangon to Bagan for the following day. Without even a suspenseful pause, the man said 'sold out' and offered us the standard class which is wooden seats for 13 hours on a very bumpy train. We declined and accepted that we'd have to get a bus instead.
We were pretty pissed off as we'd read that quite often tourist agencies buy up all of the tickets and sell them on for a premium. We thought we were being really organised going the day before (the tickets are only released 3 days before travel) but clearly not.
A Travel Agent was hanging around (waiting for us to receive our bad news no doubt) and we ended up buying some 'VIP' bus tickets from him for only a pound or two more than the train. Weirdly, the bus is actually 5 hours quicker than the train and apparently a lot more comfortable. I just wanted to experience the notorious Myanmar railway; built by Japanese POWs. Oh well, at least we were sorted for our onward journey,
The next day we completed the Yangon rite of passage; Shwedagon Pagoda. We enlisted a very smiley, giggly tour-guide called Win who gave us all the facts and anecdotes we needed. I even got my very own longyi on the way in (I'd failed to cover my knees - pfft). We were astounded by the ancient stupa (supposedly the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world) and then dumbfounded by the heat - even though Win told us it's 'cold season' in Myanmar.
For lunch we stopped at a little unassuming Myanmarese vegetarian restaurant. The menu was a bible of every artificial meat imaginable; pig's hearts, eels, chicken feet, you name it. Their slogan was 'be kind to animals by not eating them', which seemed reasonable. The food was really good and we were certainly grateful for not having to worry about mystery meat.
Later that evening we treated ourselves to a Myanmarese massage for which our hostel had a discount voucher. We were seen by two young and friendly girls called Bunny and Yiyi and I will simply recycle my Facebook status describing the experience here;
"Just had a traditional Myanmarese full-body massage by a cute young woman called Bunny who had a haircut just like John Lennon circa 1960. It was amazing but at one point when she was working on my face, I was pretty convinced she'd fractured my skull. Not willing to show weakness when she asked if I was in pain, I politely shook my head trying not to make it obvious that I had lost vision in both eyes. For a minute there I thought that was it, but now I feel bloody wonderful. Thanks Bunny - and good luck in the next Myanmar's Strongest Woman competition."
While navigating the bustling and lively streets of Yangon at night, we indulged in a strawberry jam milkshake (amazing) and found our way 'home'. Bunny and Yiyi obviously worked out a lot of stress as that night we slept like babies on our 2cm thick prison mattress.
On our last day in Yangon before heading to Bagan that evening, we decided on visiting a traditional tea room and another temple. Yangon is very well laid out in terms of roads and streets. Much like Bangkok, everything is in 'blocks' and the major streets are numbered. This was incredibly helpful for us getting around and saved us a lot of inevitable navigation arguments.
The tea room was called Lucky 7 and there Lauren finally sampled a 'Burmese salad' - sliced samosa on a salad with a lentil gravy. The tea consisted of evaporated milk and a lot of sugar. Much like masala chai in India it's served in a tiny cup and is very sweet. Unfortunately, it just didn't match up to our beloved chai - a bit too sickly for us.
On to the Botataung Pagoda; another ancient and holy site which apparently houses a single strand of Buddha's hair. Ahem. Not much to report with this place; again lots of impressive gold structures and sculptures, all dedicated to that one fella from Nepal. One thing that continually perplexes me is the contradiction in Buddha's teachings vs. what we've seen and read about. These grandiose gold and gem-stoned temples and stupas that we've been visiting seem to essentially be large-scale offerings to Buddha (who, as you may already know, was/is not a god but an earth-dwelling human-being like the rest of us). Big, fancy tickets to a nice life, good karma and a positive reincarnation - built by very powerful and wealthy (and normally royal) men throughout history. Obviously this is completely at odds with Buddha's assertion that material things have no meaning and that we can't take them with us when we die. Within the Botataung Pagoda we saw the glass 'case' that was supposed to house Buddha's hair (even though the pagoda was entirely destroyed in WW2) and there were literally millions of kyat that had been thrown in. Religion always confuses me.
Within the Pagoda walls was also a lake where a whole bunch of terrapins were sunbathing and chilling out. Clearly this amused us greatly and we happily watched while giving them names and voices, laughing when they struggled to climb onto the wooden float.
On our walk back we took a detour to an old rickety pier at Yangon river, and then Baha Mandoola Garden park where we sat and bemoaned the the litres of sweat saturating each square centimetre of our bodies.
Arriving back at the hostel, semi sun-stroked and not particularly looking forward to our sleeper-bus, we met a bubbly Filipino girl called Juna (sp) who shared a taxi with us to the bus station. The bus station could be more accurately described as a bus-town; a large area with it's own streets and roads filled with restaurants, shops and many many light and heavy vehicles. We had some time to grab some food (which was cheap and gorgeous) from one of the greasy spoons and we were on our way.
The bus was better than we anticipated; it came with blankets, neck pillows, seats that reclined to 120° and a free can of Coke with a sweet bean cake. Luckily it was pitch black by the time we set off so although we could feel the maniacal driving, we couldn't actually see it. In the end though said driving got us there an hour earlier than expected at around 5:30am (yawn) where we crawled to a taxi, stopped briefly at the tourist office where each visitor of Bagan must pay an 'entry' fee of $25 and made it to our hostel.
The hostel had a good vibe; chilled but sociable with plenty of freebies on offer including books, tour information, tea and coffee, water and the all important WiFi. We quickly learned that a sunrise trip to the ancient Bagan temple site was leaving in half an hour so, too early to check-in, we hired ourselves a scooter (something I never thought I'd do) and scooted 5km down the road... in the friggin' dark! That's the last time I ever call myself a boring big girls blouse!
The sunrise was pretty spectacular, reds and oranges gradually washing over the thousands of temples enveloping Bagan's desert-like landscape. In the distance we saw 20-odd hot air balloons rising out of nothingness and eventually floating above the temple's points.
We rode back to our hostel and we were edging back into our familiar exhaustion-induced delusion when a nice member of staff from Carlisle offered us a shower in a room that had just been vacated. Needless to say the powerful, clean and HOT shower almost brought us enlightenment.
Later, after some umming and ahhing and discussions with other travellers, we decided against getting the sleeper-train back to Yangon and booked another bus instead. The train takes 16 hours and because of the violence of the journey you're pretty much guaranteed to not sleep a wink. As much as I'd wanted to experience it I realised that at this point, rest and time was more important to me that ticking a train ride off my list.
The scooter gave us a lot of freedom (who knew!?) and for the remainder of the day we zoomed around, eating at a wonderful little vegetarian restaurants for lunch and dinner (the tomato and peanut curry we had rendered us speechless) and driving past lots of old-looking brick things.
We booked on a bicycle tour (Grasshopper Adventures - highly recommended) the following day and rode 20km through all three regions of Bagan; Old, New and Nuyaung U. Our Myanmarese guide was called Akka (sp?) and he kept us interested and entertained throughout the 5 hour tour. We saw a morning market, villages, bamboo preparation, plenty of pagodas, a bean factory and tea shop. And the best part, we got snacks and lunch throughout! We were with two American women and a Swiss woman. Two American men appeared for the last half an hour (pretty pointless to me) after moaning about the quality of the original bikes. They were a bit superior but when the left us 5 girls enjoyed speculating about their situation; we reckon they were secret gay lovers holidaying together while masquerading as bike enthusiasts.
Our evening meal was at Seven Sisters restaurant; a place owned and run by seven sisters from the community that had only been open for a year. Once again, delightful food (either we've been really lucky or we're just really fucking easy to please)! Before bed we wandered to a little street shop and bought some typical backpacker stretchy, floaty light trousers with elephant and peacock prints. We had to succumb to looking like twats at some point.
On our last 'day' we decided to do nothing except veg out on the hostel's amazing roof top; complete with hammocks, a 'napping zone', a bamboo hut and sunbeds. Those hours were well-spent leading up to our sleeper-bus that evening.
This time round we'd picked the slightly cheaper bus called Elite and, expecting a shit pile we were amazed to find it was even better than our previous, more expensive 'VIP' bus. Better reclining angles, better AC, a heart-shaped cake AND TVs in the seats. For a while we entertained ourselves by watching hilarious K-Pop music videos followed by 12 Years a Slave but then, having both developed awful travel-nausea we gave up and slept.
At around midnight we stopped at a big service station where I bought some bean-filled moon cakes hoping they would satisfy my sweet tooth (chocolate bars aren't really a thing in Myanmar). Alas after one bite I realised I must have bought some sort of punishment confectionery; all I could taste was slightly sour beany cement. Serves me right for wanting a midnight snack.
Again we arrived at our hostel (Pickled Tea hostel) pre-sunrise and, again too tired to do much, sat around on the WiFi for a while. The lovely hostel manager saw me falling asleep on the bench and rushed his cleaners to clean the dorm for us to rest. We really can legitimately say that the people of Myanmar have been the most lovely of all so far.
After a much needed nap we traipsed through the local market, eyeing up the various fresh animal parts on display. We stopped for lunch at a trendy little joint called Sharky's where we had a pizza and burgers (please don't judge us) which were nice but incredibly overpriced. Clearly our minds weren't all there because we then got pudding too.
Fed up of pagodas we went downtown to the cinema to see the Revenant. Expecting it to be a rip-off we were over-the-moon with the £1 tickets and equally cheap popcorn. The film was brilliant and the theatre a massive relief from the soaring temperatures outside. At the start of the film an animated Myanmar flag appeared, blowing perfectly the wind. Suddenly, everyone in the cinema stood up and stared solemnly at the screen. We followed suit, trying our best not to giggle during the 2 minute ovation. I looked around afterwards and saw some smirks on some faces. At least we provided some laughs with our insolence.
And that was it for Myanmar. We flew back the following morning, sad to say goodbye and wishing we'd have stayed just a little longer. But no worries, I'm pretty sure we'll come back.