Myanmar is a country scattered with extravagant gold drenched pagodas. Sprawling rice paddies and towering mountains: where old Asia and the modern world have collided head on, at speed, without braking. But what hits you the most is the kindness of its people. There is a peaceful jolliness that resonates from its often very poor populace. They will often meet you with beaming smiles as you look on and cheerful singing when you are not.
My friend Julie and I spent our first couple of days in Yangon; A bustling city, streets dotted with old colonial buildings. Juxtaposed to the many much older golden monuments that filled the cityscape. Like most of Asia, the streets are lined with vendors selling everything from street food, clothes, to the latest smart phones. However unlike most other Asian cities, Yangon is devoid of motorbikes and mopeds. Somehow this did not make crossing the road any easier. Road rules are lax at best. It is a thriving eco system of its own. It is however a great case in favor of anarchy.
Our next stop was Mandalay - A vast city with an almost village like feel. Dirt roads, mismatched buildings - old and new, without uniform, side by side. A particular highlight was a chance encounter with a group of young monks. They provided us with a guided tour of some of Mandalay’s more famous pagodas. We shared an afternoon full of conversation with our newfound friends. We sat at the top of Mandalay hill and discussed our careers, our home countries, and our philosophies. After sunset they invited us back to their University where we saw their dorm rooms, their daily regime, and their love for pop music. They bought us cake and fetched us water while we answered many questions about our culture and asked more about theirs. ‘How do you feel?’ A question they asked on many occasions throughout the day. A question I feel, all too often overlooked in the west.
We left for Bagan, an area with more than 3000 temples and a distinct touristy feel. However this is far outweighed by its awe-inspiring views and intricate temples. Many hidden passages are to be found, if only you have the will and the flashlight to venture into the unknown.
Fashion in Myanmar is certainly worth a mention. Nearly all adults maintain a traditional dress. For the men this usually consists of a smart shirt with a skirt called a longyi The women either wear a similar skirt (folded once across the body.) or a dress. Some of the younger generation choose a much more western style with a Japanese influence. Jeans and Tshirts for the boys. Skirts and tops for the girls.
Eating in Myanmar is cheap and easy. Simple dishes are served with boiled rice encircled with small dishes of curry, sauces, and salads. All for less than $3. Vegetarians out there will need to consider and question a little more carefully. This is because often food comes with meat by default or is cooked with meat stock. Just ask, they are very accommodating and often have veggie options.
Transport is cheap. Prices for Taxis should be agreed ahead of time. I found that after some brief haggling fares settled about a third off of the original quote. Check with fellow travellers and your hostel before you venture off to your next stop. Buses are the long distance choice for most. Prices are currently around the $20 mark between Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan. An alternative is to take the train. Mixed reviews weighed my decision towards the bus service. This isn’t to say that this isn’t a preference for some backpackers.
Myanmar is a place of staggering beauty. As yet un-spoilt by the tourism machine that now plagues it’s easterly neighbour Thailand. You won’t come back to Myanmar for its dazzling Pagodas or its bustling night markets. No, you will come back to once again experience its cheerful, peaceful, and playful locals. I think Rudyard Kipling was quite right when he said ‘It is quite unlike any place you know about.’