Myanmar had always been on our list of countries to visit for various reasons. Naomi’s Grandad was born here, and family and friends who had made the trip over had only high praise for Asia’s up and coming tourist hot spot. It was also a destination where Lawrence’s university friends and old flat mates, Ben and Eden, were planning on travelling to in January. We decided to meet in Myanmar together and travel around the country as a group of four over a two-week period.
Myanmar has a very complex history so we felt a little background knowledge was necessary before visiting in order to understand the significance of the sights. We began the journey arriving in Yangon, formally known as Rangoon. In the 80s, the military government officially changed many of the names dating back to the colonial period, including that of the country itself; Burma became Myanmar. Although Yangon is no longer the capital, it still remains the largest and most commercially significant city. A gradual process of liberalisation has been underway since 2010, allowing tourists to visit the country more easily since they dropped the boycott on tourism. Visitors have been welcomed since then but the government appears to recognise the perils of mass tourism. 2016 marked the first democratically elected government after decades of military rule, although the military still retains considerable power within the government.
We arrived in Yangon at 1am to our hostel, sleeping in rooms that appeared to be inspired by prison cells. We were fortunate enough to have a window! After over 4 months without seeing a familiar face from home, meeting Ben and Eden was a long overdue and welcomed reunion. We were meeting them at the beginning of their 3-month adventure travelling around South East Asia, so we think (and hope) they were also grateful to have some company to set the trip off on a positive footing.
The country is yet to be completely overwhelmed by western culture, which was another big appeal of visiting. Although much has developed over the past few years, the pace of change isn’t too overwhelming. There is a noticeable lack of tourists in Myanmar, which was refreshing. We tended to see the same handful of tourists within our two days in Yangon visiting the same sights as us. But even though there are fewer tourists, we got less gawps and were rarely hassled by the locals or ripped off when it came to street vendors selling their goods. The pace of life in Myanmar felt leisurely and everyone we met was eager to help and very friendly. June to October is the wet season and flooding is common, making travel unbearable, so we’d chosen to come during peak season when the days are hot (30+ degrees) with the evenings pleasantly cool.
The evocative colonial architecture was one of the main attractions in Yangon, and of particular interest for Naomi. Her Grandad was born in the city and baptized at St Mary’s Cathedral, so this was one of the stops on our colonial walking tour on our first full day.
We wandered through the vibrant streets, lined with colourful open-air markets and traffic jams (although mopeds and motorbikes have been banned, which was a nice change from Vietnam). There are lots of noteworthy colonial buildings still intact from Myanmar’s period of British rule from 1824-1948. We wandered through the streets spotting the British architecture amidst Burmese culture, including the Minister’s Office, City Hall, High Court, banks, and the Customs House. Fortunately for us, Ben and Eden had arrived the day before us, so already had their bearings and were able to take the lead and be our tour guides.
We also visited Sule Paya, a 2000-year-old temple in the heart of downtown Yangon, situated in middle of swarming roundabout.
We wandered to the People’s Park for the afternoon, a well-kept garden that had recently been renovated. It was immaculately pruned and watered with ponds, fountains and treetop bridges. The park also boasts views of Shewedegdon Paya, which was our last stop of the day, just in time for sunset.
The Shwedegon Pagoda, also known as the ‘winking wonder’, dominates the downtown skyline. This gilded stupa stands 99 meters tall and is considered the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. Upon arrival we stumbled across a freelance tour guide (and ex-monk of 25 years), one of many hoping to improve their English and show foreigners around for a small fee. We were glad we took up the offer, as the significance of the pagoda would have been lost on us otherwise. Our guide stayed with us for 1 and a half hours, until the sun went down. We could see why it was one of the most popular times of day to visit, as the fading sunlight made the golden pagoda glow and twinkle in all its majestic beauty.
Our guide explained that it is important for Burmese Buddhists to know which day of the week they were born as it determines their ‘planetary post’. He took us to our own weekday corners so we could take part in the ritual of pouring water over the image of the animal that represents our birth day of the week. Naomi was an organised Tiger (born on a Monday), and Lawrence a stubborn Lion (born on a Tuesday).
Myanmar is much more conservative than most other Asian countries we’ve experienced and shoes, shorts and strappy tops are strictly prohibited within pagodas. Men in Myanmar most commonly wear a Longyi, an ankle length ‘skirt’ or sarong (as modeled by Ben in the first picture).
Our group of four met Naomi’s university friend, Tabea, for dinner on our first evening. Tabea is living and working in Myanmar so she took us to a delicious Thai/Burmese fusion restaurant and rooftop drinks with a view of Shwedegon. Meeting Tabea gave us the opportunity to ask lots of questions about Myanmar, and provided us with an insight into some of Yangon’s sub-cultures that we would never have experienced otherwise.
The following day we took the circle train through the countryside surrounding Yangon. This route spans nearly 32 miles and took a total of three hours to complete the loop. It was a great way to see off the beaten track areas on the outskirts of Yangon. We saw lots of passengers travelling with bags of produce, vegetables and selling various snacks balanced precariously on the top of their heads.
We ended the day in Bogyoke Aung San Market where they sell everything from fruit juices to ruby rings. We had a late lunch here before departing to the bus station. From here, we took a ‘VIP’ overnight bus to Bagan. It was a pretty comfortable ride considering the length of the journey. We were given blankets, free drinks, snacks and a headrest. We got a decent night’s sleep over the 10-hour drive and arrived in Bagan at 5am.