To save some money on my way to Myanmar, I decided to take a bus from Cambodia to Bangkok, and fly from there. So after a painstaking Cambodian border crossing, a cramped minibus ride, a night in Bangkok and a short flight, I had finally taken first steps in Myanmar. I flew into the city of Yangon, which was the old capital of Myanmar before the latest military leadership had created a completely new one. Immediately upon arrival, I felt like I was had been transported to an Indian city with a South East Asian topping. The streets brimmed with honking cars, and floods of people filled the pavements, strolling by the colourful market stalls and street food stands.
On the flight over, I had met a Dutch girl called Lidija, and a British guy called Peter, both of whom had booked the same hostel as I. After checking in, we decided it was time to wonder the city in search of a meal and some sights. By taking paths at random we found ourselves in jewellery markets, pristine parks and walking by ornate pagodas. Although street sellers were everywhere, small areas would always specialise in a specific product. If you needed power tool replacement parts, then 18th Street would be your destination. If you wanted fish, then 14th Street is the place to be. So through the shield of apparent chaos, it all somehow worked. In contrast to other areas of SE Asia, Myanmar was relatively new to the world of tourism, so you would rarely bump into other travellers and locals would almost always greet you in a friendly manner.
Finally, we stopped in the late afternoon to avoid a brief rain shower, and decided to wait for the sunset to see the city’s main attraction, the Shwedagon pagoda. The 105m gilted stupa sits in the middle of the city and is the central attraction of Yangon. The magnificent pagoda lit up against the dark sky behind. The outer layer is completely coated in gold, and the crown at the peak is encrusted with over 5000 diamonds and 2000 rubies. Surrounding the central pagoda were smaller monuments and temples, each of which were unique but all shared the common feature of gold. Although legend claims that the pagoda is 2600 years old, historians and archaeologists place its construction between 6th – 10th centuries CE. The crowd of visitors calmly walked around the pagoda, some finding areas for prayer or meditation. In the middle of a non-stop city, it was great to find a quiet area to stop for a couple of hours.
The following day we took the circle train around the city. In normal terms, this is simply a commuter train that Burmese use to move between the suburbs and city centre. It’s also the best way to see the different walks of life Yangon has to offer. The train trundled along at a slow pace, and in a similar style to Indian trains, you can hang yourself out the open doorway to admire the views around. The bustling city streets slowly evolve into smaller districts with submerged fields and floating crops, all locally cultivated by the nearest household. Stone houses become huts on wooden stilts, but the fast tempo of the city is maintained throughout. Poverty becomes more obvious the further you travel out of the city, but children still happily play football in dusty parks, and will always smile and wave as you pass by.
After a couple of days soaking up the mad city, we decided to head north. Whereas the south held claim to some of the most unspoilt stretches of coast in Asia, the rain had claimed the landscape for the coming months, making much of land impossible to reach. So instead, we would make our next stop the famously picturesque Old Bagan.
Bagan was the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom that would eventually unify all of the states of what we consider Myanmar. Until its collapse in 1287, the city prospered for four centuries, where 10,000 religious monuments (pagodas, monasteries etc) were built by the wealthy inhabitants. Today, over 2000 of these monuments still stand over a dusty spread of land with just a few small towns (including New Bagan) sitting on the perimeter.
Our night bus from Yangon arrived ahead of schedule at 4am. On most occasions this would be a considerable inconvenience, and much time would be spent sitting on a street bench and waiting for a nearby cafe to open. This time, however, would give us the opportunity to see the sunrise of Old Bagan before finding a guesthouse.
Our taxi drove us to the temple with the highest point, which we climbed in pitch black to wait for the Sun to arrive. At this time, a few temples were illuminated with lights, and were the only objects in sight. As the minutes ticked by, the sky lazily transformed from black to dark blue, to turquoise, and then yellow as the sunrise approached.
As the sky lit up, the landscape unfolded before our eyes. First, the large temples appeared, and then hundreds of small structures showed themselves, all buried in the surrounding forest. Each temple is unique, from the large to the small. Some are wrapped in gold, or given special colours. The majority, however, had been built with a red brick, immediately contrasting with the green background. Much of the land surrounding Bagan is completely flat all the way to the horizon, and only at a few points do mountains rise with their silhouettes punctuated against the sky.
The next day, I rented an electric bike (as tourists in Myanmar aren’t allowed to ride real motorbikes) to explore. As I had taken the morning off and was late to pick up a bike, I was handed the last of the bunch, a truly terrible bike. With no mirrors or horn, and barely any brakes, it looked like it had been through a lot. The indicator worked, but also made a loud beeping noise which only stopped if I turned the bike off. Oh well, at least it went forward, and that was the way I wanted to go.
In the light of day, even more can be seen. The temples continue as far as the eye can see. Orange pinnacles erect from a sea of green that stretches for miles in every direction. The general strategy of exploring Old Bagan would be to find a dirt track off the main road and see where it leads. Many of the temples would be unmanned, so you can rest and watch the clouds pass by. On another afternoon, I travelled with a group of Canadians to a nearby swimming pool, sat in the midst of Old Bagan. With gentle rain falling and a sprinkling of temples around, it was a great escape from the heat and humidity of the day.
There are two towns near to Old Bagan where you can stay. Considering the major attraction of Old Bagan is such close proximity, they are both surprisingly small, with only a scattering of restaurants and local shops throughout. The majority of shopping is done at the local markets, which sell fruit, crafts, fabrics and various oddities so you can get your complete fill. In the evening, all of Bagan becomes silent as at 10pm a government curfew comes into action.
I had heard of the very friendly nature of the Burmese people before I had arrived, but it becomes very apparent once you are there and in need. One of our e-bikes ran out of power when were a few kilometres from our hostel. Without hesitation, several locals came over to help and fix the bike for free. Like many of the smaller towns in Myanmar, Bagan feels like a large community, and even tourists can be part of it. Undoubtedly New Bagan will grow and become increasingly popular in the years to come as more tourists arrive, but hopefully its well mannered nature will not be disturbed. Similar to the city of Angkor in Cambodia, you could spend weeks exploring the area, discovering new temples and landscapes at every turn. When day starts to fade, you can soak up the tranquility and watch the sun fall over the horizon from your favourite spot. It’s not a bad life here.