Deciding to come to Myanmar was easy. I didn’t know a lot about the country before I landed but every person that I had spoken to said that it was their favourite place in South east asia. To me, that is a true recommendation.
But I don’t like going places where I don’t know a lot about their history, so I studied up. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is no little country. It’s population consisting of 55 million people is unique due to its location between India, Bangladesh, Laos, China, and Thailand. Due to its unique location, this captivating country is home to various ethnicities, religions, and languages. This factor has been both an enriching element of Myanmar and a key challenge surrounding their ongoing civil issues. Myanmar’s military forcefully took control of the country shortly after the end of the British rule in1962, and remained in power until 2011. For decades, the military’s brutal regime was known for arresting and murdering protesters, and taking part in an institutionalized oppression against ethnic minorities, in particular the Rohingya people. The latter still occurs today since the country is still, at least partially, controlled by the military. Given the long standing civil conflict that had been going on, I was expecting to land in a hot bed of military presence, propaganda for freedom fighters and frequent reports of civil riots. Instead, Yangon was none of this. Yes it was a hot bed, but of bustling markets, new cosmopolitan bars and restaurants. The concrete jungle broken only by the shinning golden pogodas that are dotted throughout the skyline. The juxtaposition of modern influence and traditional customs evident in the people themselves. While the shops display the latest European fashion trends, the people still wear the Myanmar Longhi, a kind of wrap around skirt, and Thanaka face paint. Monks, frequently seen in the streets, in their red robes carrying mobile phones and taking selfies. An unusual mix. Car’s driving and sitting on the right hand side. This is a good example of where Myanmar is at...stuck between the past and the present, the new and the old. Like a teenager, on a journey of self discovery in the world at large. But in amongst all of this is the inherent and unwavering Buddhist spirituality. This is no more evident than at Shwedagon Pogoda.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. According to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. It’s importance to the people of Myanmar is because it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa. Aside from these details, the Shwedagon Pagoda is an architectural wonder. The gold seen on the stupa, that is visible from anywhere in the city, is made by handcrafted gold plates. But the most impressive detail is that the crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. The very top is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond. Watching the sunset here brings into light a serenity to the progressive and fast morphing city outside. Like an oasis to reinvigorate the spirits of the people. Because it is the people of Myanmar that are the true soul of this country.
To witness the diversity and harmony of the people in action we decided to go for a ride on the Circle Line. A local train line that looped the northern parts of Yangon, this front seat to local life comes with a 20c pricetag. Yes..i know what you are thinking..but this train provided an amazing array of entertainment. The train itself is a retired Japanese metro train, that despite now calling Myanmar home, has not even been retrofitted with Burmese signs. The Japanese emergency signs and carriage behaviour posters still in their original place. Boarding the train was fairly easy. Depending on what time you want to leave the route the train takes changes slightly but it still leaves from the same platform. Unlike some of the You Tube videos of India and Japan, in Myanmar, boarding a train is fairly civilised. People who have heavy loads to carry on are assisted by passers by, and lost looking tourists are smiled at and encouraged to sit on the left side of the train ‘out of the sun’. That is one thing about travelling to a country where tourism in new...you are as much of an attraction as the country itself. In this camera phone era, people will stop and ask for a photo with the ‘tall blonde tourist’. If they can’t speak any English, they may just smile, kind of whimper and look at you like a sad puppy until you realise they want a photo, or they may try and fail at being super stealth and sneak a selfie from afar. Either way, if you agree to a photo, expect that one photo to turn into a 15 min photo shoot with the whole village. The rickety train rumbled along and people from all warps of life looked surprised to see us on the train. School children looked eagerly out the window at the changing scenery, local ladies took of their shoes and crosslegged on the seat caught up on the latest gossip, snack vendors walked up and down the carriages toting their wares and giving their most eloquent sales pitch while quietly seated by the open carriage door a monk sits in slumber. It was an interesting journey, despite not really going anywhere. Yangon was a pleasant surprise, and a great launching point to commence our Myanmar adventure.
Leaving that night we took the overnight train to Mandalay. Riding the overnight train was an adventure in itself but arriving in Mandalay we were introduced to what felt like an entirely different Myanmar. This rustic, and somewhat antiquated city was once the capital of Myanmar and the home of the Last Royal family of the Kingdom of Burma. Nowdays it feels more like a stopping point for prettier places, but it does have some interesting little pockets.
Nestled away in back streets is Mahagandayon Monestary, a home to some 1500+ monks in training. Visiting this place gave a glimpse into this other worldly life that is so prevalent in Myanmar. We were lucky enough to be guided around by one of the resident teachers who was keen to practice his conversational English. He explained the difference between the different pillars of Buddhism. How the robes indicate the level of training the Monk has received and which order he comes from. He also explained that quite gruelling schedule of education that a monk undertakes which includes, but is not limited to, rising at 5am to commence donation collections before breakfast. This alone I think would kill me! However, they volunteer for this life. But not without gaining permission from their parents if they are an only child, or from their wives and husband if they are married. While we were there the monks assembled for the procession of breakfast. All of the monks line up in rows of three with their donation plate and cloth in hand and march in to the dining hall, presenting their collection on the way. It is quite a spectacle, but to be honest it felt incredible intrusive.
From their is was only a short journey to U-Bien bridge, and the former capital of Burma, Amarapura. The ageing bridge stretches 1.2 kilometres, making it the longest teak bridge in the world. The creation of the bridge, in the 1850s, was successfully done by using scavenged teak pilings from the discarded palace of Amarapura. These days it is a little past being called rustic, swaying gently with the passing foot traffic, but it is still pleasant to walk, giving you an eagle eye view to the fisherman’s life below. Word to the wise....don’t forget to take an umbrella to protect you from the hot sun. North of Mandalay is a small fishing village called Mingun. To get their we took a local ferry boat. Arriving at the ‘dock’ in Mingun, you could see the tuk tuk drivers all lined up, ready to pounce on the sea weary tourist...but there was one that stood out to me. Parked right at the front was an elderly gentleman wearing a wicker hat, standing proudly with his ‘cow taxi’. When he approached me, to ask if I would hire his services, there was no question in my mind.
We agreed on a price and jumped in the back of the wagon. It was bumpy. It was slow. And there was no air conditioning. But you know what....I’d do it all again because it was so much fun. We rocked and bounced and giggled to our hearts content on the 10min trip through the village and our good spirits were rubbing off on our driver. His trademark toothless grin imprinted on my brain. Aside from the ‘cow taxi’, Mingun is a beautiful village and home to two iconic buildings.
Firstly, Hsinbyume Pogoda, also known as the White Pogodas. Modeled on the physical description of the mythological mountain, Mount Meru, this multi tiered pogodas, while being small has a lot of interesting details in its design. Frequented by tourists because of its unique appearance, I pranced around with my recently acquired red parasol. Extremely attractive to the eye, the seven intricately layered levels are meant to represent the mountain ranges leading up to Mount Meru.
Contrast this with the Mingun Pahtodawgyi. An incomplete stupa only a short distance away. This enormous structure contains a four level foundation that was meant to shoulder an even bigger dome that could be seen from the Royal Palace in Mandalay. However construction frequently saw delays. Some believe it was because of a prophecy that stated “that the king would die once the project was completed”. Interestingly, when the King died, the project was abandoned. In more recent times, the stupa has endured severe damage following very strong earthquakes in 2016. Riding the ferry back to Mandalay on our last evening in the former royal capital, the sun set over the city and the familiar sound of the Pogoda bell rang out. It was a fast paced journey so far, and a good look at two very different cities of Myanmar. I’m looking forward to our next stop...Bagan.