For those of you who love the Asian culture, but are after something different, Myanmar (or Burma) is the place for you. Being cut off from the world for decades has left this country largely untouched compared to all its neighbours.
Whilst South East Asia would have some of the most welcoming personalities on this planet, Myanmar is simply a cut above them all. The kind hearted faces, smiles, gestures and pure joy of being able to interact with a foreigner is encountered at every corner. Kids running out of their houses, energetically waving and bursting to say hello. Locals of all age and descriptions forever greeting you with the biggest of smiles, always jumping at the chance to help. You couldn’t leave the country without falling in love with these people. If there’s one reason to go to Myanmar, its surely to experience this friendly and unique bunch.
Arriving in Yangon, Myanmar’s crazed cultured and bustling city, it took me by surprise. Markedly different from those other south east Asian cities, with its cramped population, unwalkable footpaths (though this particular trait also can apply to quite a few other Asian countries), ultra cluttered streets, decayed architecture, pollution, and the excess of ‘beetle juice’ the locals chew and spit left right and centre, left me a little weary. Though, me never being a fan of larger cities, I knew this wasn’t the Myanmar I was after. So after spending a couple of days seeing the ‘must-sees’, including that dazzling Shweadagon Paya that’s made up of dozens upon dozens of golden temples that surround a central gigantic 50m high temple that shines over the city and capable of making everyones jaw drop, we took off north along Myanmar’s premium only highway that runs in between Yangon and Mandalay.
Though neither of us were to interested in seeing much of Mandalay itself (being another city), the countryside here is surrounded with unique and bazar treasures that’s a real treat to see. Running the gauntlet of their psychotic traffic through the streets, we hired a scooter and got ourselves out amongst it all. Heading south, we first arrived at the famous U Bein Bridge (Teak Bridge), which is 1.2 km’s long, and the longest foot bridge in the world. With its thin wooden planks floating upon hundreds of vertical wooden logs, tens of metres high, extending for hundreds of metres across the Taung Thanan Lake. Sunrise here see’s hundreds of Buddhas making their journey across the planks, on their way to and from sacred temples on the island in the middle.
After the heat of the midst of the day was behind us, and with our bellies full, we headed further south to see Saging Hill. This place is dotted with dozens of rolling hills, boasting hundreds upon hundreds of shining golden stupas. Crossing the Ayeyarwady river, the view was spectacular. You could see so many of these temples, glistening a deep golden colour in the warm afternoon sun light. We weaved our way throughout the small bills and valleys, passing thousands of monks (both men and women). This area is very much used as as a common pilgrimage site by monks all over the country. Winding the roads up to some of the the hill topped stupas, we were greater with several nice views, especially for sunset for which we stayed. Braving the chaotic traffic once more, we scooted our way back to Mandalay.
Leaving Mandalay behind made us smile, as it was time for some of Myanmar’s more ‘countryside’ locations, which we’d been very much yearning for. An all day rickety bus ride landed us late night at Hsipaw. But walking the small number of streets, we didn’t take long to find one of Myanmar’s extremely overpriced budget accommodation (accommodation is very much an issue in Myanmar at the moment).
Hsipaw, very much a country town, had a few interesting things to see on the outskirts. Perfect for hopping on another scooter and getting out there. Little Bagan was the most interesting. Though it was very nice, it doesn’t ‘quite’ living up to its name (as I would later find out), it was not too far out of town. Braving the countries famous scorching temperatures we walked inbetween dozens of red and sandy coloured stupas, mystically covered by overgrown green vines. We had these all to ourselves to investigate – something which very rare on this planet. But after a day or two here, we had felt we’d seen all that’s needed to see here, as our primary journey to this town was to use it as a gateway to Myanmar’s north-east Shan state.
An early morning rise had us jump in the back of a small over-crowded open air truck with no suspension, and skinny wooden slats for seats that crammed about 17 of us in. Don’t ask me how! Chugging its way out of town straight into the mountains, we bounced and shook like crazy on hand made roads further into the mountainous Shan state. Arriving at Arum, a little town perched upon a mountain top, we checked in to the only guesthouse there was. We then walked the beautiful and unique streets, which made us feel like we were back in the 17th century. It was very quaint.
Arum was our base for exploring the surrounding areas, even though technically you’re not allowed to, as the government have marked these areas as ‘off limits’ and the military definitely make sure of this. But through a bit of perseverance and being a bit sneaky, we trekked off and headed to the surrounding communities situated on several of the adjacent mountain tops. Meeting these local villagers we were to have one of the most memorable experiences of Myanmar. Word got out of our arrival in one of these villages, and the entire place came to a stand still while everyone flocked to the main street to greet us. We even stared in a photograph for the opening of a democratic building. A short while later, we met ‘Grandma’. An elderly hunched over woman in her 80’s, which is still fit as a fiddle and runs around the village every day. Her granddaughter (which we met first) introduced us to this wonderful woman, and before we knew it we were back in Grandmas house having a local feast in the middle of her hut with the whole family. Prepared especially and just for us! We spent the night here in the dimly lit room by a corner fire that kept us warm, chatting and sharing stories through the granddaughter (the village’s only english speaker). Quite a moving experience.
After such a surreal and unique cultural experience, and a sad farewell to our amazing hosts, we made our way back to Hsipaw to continue our way around Myanmar. Next up, Bagan!