Tag Archives: Myanmar


“Next year, Madonna is getting a haircut.”

We were bumping along the dusty streets of Bagan, and our horsecart driver was talking about one of his two horses (named Madonna and Rambo) who was pulling us around.  He had just finished explaining how horsehair is used to make lacquer at the nicer workshops, and thus Madonna would be going in for haircut soon to make some extra money on the side.  When we had reserved our hotel for Bagan while back in Yangon, we had checked “yes” for “airport transport.”  Little did we know that the taxis waiting for us outside the airport would be…horsecarts.

We were lucky that our horsecart driver turned out to be phenomenal, doubling as a tour guide who gave us background information about the town, its temples, and Myanmar in general.  He had learned English well just by practicing with his customers over his past 20 years on the job.  Bagan is one of the main places to visit for tourists to Myanmar, despite still being just a small city compared to others in the country.  It consists of New Bagan, where guesthouses, houses and restaurants are, and Old Bagan, a plain dotted with literally thousands of ancient temples that has once been a thriving city over a thousand years ago.

After dropping off our bags and bracing ourselves for the brutal dry heat, we hopped back in the horsecarts for a full-day tour of the ancient city.  Madonna and Rambo led us on dirt paths to the most interesting temples (of the over 2000 to choose from) according to our driver.  Despite the fact that Bagan is so popular with tourists, we barely saw any others all day.  Some of the time we felt like tomb raiders, being handed flashlights outside a dark, cavernous pagoda and told to explore.  In others, we encountered friendly young novice monks who shyly offered grins for our cameras.  Some had ancient crumbling frescoes, others had imposing Buddhas, several stories high, looking down at worshipers with enigmatic smiles.  We saw Buddhas of every size, shape and color, mysterious sunlit passages, and perilous stairs that led up to overlooks above the plain that we would never have been allowed to climb in the West, thanks to rules and liability.

Our temple stops were also filled with delightful encounters with locals, many of whom set up shop outside the more interesting temples in hopes of getting a little money from the few tourists passing through.  One pair of children pestered us about buying postcards from them that no one really wanted.  When one of my friends finally caved, they were happy and walked off smiling and singing “Waka Waka,” by Shakira.  When we recognized the song, we started singing it back to them, and the scene turned into a mini-song and dance session outside the temple.  The other ubiquitous item for sale was sandpaintings, made with sand from the nearby Irrawaddy River, and sand artists were set up seemingly outside even the most obscure of temples, hopefully waiting that some tourist would buy their work (as a group, we managed to leave with an astounding number of sand paintings).  At another temple, some women selling skirts painted our faces with the traditional Burmese makeup that almost all women and children in the country wear during the day, thanaka, a watery paste made of tree bark that cools the skin and dries tan.  Our driver also stopped at the oldest family-run lacquer workshop in the area, where we got to see all fourteen time-consuming steps of high-quality lacquermaking.  The final stop of the day was the top of one of the higher temples (where we finally saw a mass of other tourists), where we watched the sunset over the plain of temples.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Perhaps what was so enchanting about Bagan was not just giant Buddhas, but the fact that unlike other archaeological wonders that I’ve visited, these seem to still be alive.  Instead of being protected in museums, governed by fenced-off pathways that show you the right place to walk, while guards make sure you don’t touch anything, in Bagan you can wander literally anywhere your legs, or horsecart, or bicycle, will take you.  You can touch the frescoes if you want to, you can pay a local to give you some information they’ve memorized in English about a temple, you can see worshipers, or signs of them, by way of flowers or offerings in even the most obscure-seeming of temples.  Unlike the Roman Forum, or the Coliseum, or countless other ancient Western sights, Bagan doesn’t feel like a museum.  We had to take your shoes off at the entrance of every temple (as you do all across Asia), out of custom and respect, so at the end of the day our legs were covered with 900 year old dust.

The next day, we woke early for our driver to take us to a different temple overlook, where we watched the sun materialize out of the haze, casting a morning glow on all of the temple spires.  Soon after, I had to leave, to get back to Yangon in order to catch my flight to return to Laos for Pi Mai (the subject of a later post).  I said goodbye to the other girls, and got back in the horsecart one last time to ride to the airport.  On the way, the driver pulled over to say hi to a friend.  A monk walking on the side of the road saw me, pulled out a digital camera from his robes, and took a photo of me, in a hilarious reversal of things.

1 Comment

Filed under Bagan, Myanmar

Return to Yangon and the Shwedagon Paya

I returned to Yangon from Inle Lake to meet Nanny, Eliza, Alex, and Maggie, some of the other Lao PiA-ers who had just arrived, and who I’d be traveling with for the rest of the week.  We had a full day in Yangon before moving on to our next destination, and most of the day was spent on a wild hunt for airline tickets at travel agencies around town.  With the New Year Festival approaching, remaining seats were few, and of course nothing was as simple as it seemed like it should be.  Luckily, the discomfort of fitting five of us into an old taxi cab with no air conditioning in the 90+ degree Yangon heat was relieved by the hilarious and entertaining exchanges with our cab drivers.  In keeping with the extreme friendliness of almost everyone we met in the country, all of our drivers were excited to speak English with five American girls and to attempt to teach us some Burmese as well.  Somehow we found ourselves singing along in a cab to “Smack That,” by Akon with a driver who shared stories about his other job as a singer and his love for American rap, especially Akon and T.I.  American pop culture just seems to seep to all corners of the world, in sometimes the most random ways (another example from Burma being the dubbed versions of “Baby” by Justin Bieber and “Waka Waka” by Shakira playing at the market).

After finally getting our travel plans settled, we stopped by the central market to peruse and agonize over art purchases for a bit.  This is one of the few places in the country where people were a bit more aggressive about trying to beg or sell things to tourists, but in general, even here, people were very polite.  Food of all kinds–from vegetables to skinned pig faces to  samosas–spilled out onto the streets, and art, jewelry and textile shops lined the interior of the buzzing marketplace.

Just as dusk began to set in, we headed for the Shwedagon Pagoda, at the top of Yangon’s must-see list, and Burma’s most famous symbol.  The gold-plated stupa is an important Buddhist site in the country (a country in which there are half a million monks, which is one for every ten people) and a landmark of its capital city.

We enlisted the services of Win, who turned out to be an incredible tour guide, and spent hours patiently leading us around the base of the stupa.  The pagoda is not just a stand-alone temple, but a whole complex of shrines, and smaller temples, all with different significance and purpose, surrounding the main stupa.  Entrance is free for locals, and so it doesn’t feel like a huge tourist attraction.  There were many tourists, but they were far outnumbered by locals–monks, families, Burmese visitors from other parts of the country–praying, walking, and enjoying the splendor of the pagoda at nightfall.  As the sun set, the base of the pagoda felt like one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever visited, with the stupa’s golden glow, and the calm and peaceful buzz of so many people with their families, barefoot, going about their rituals in such a beautiful place.  All men are supposed to be monks at least twice in their life–usually once when they’re younger as a “novice” and once as an adult–so many monks, and even some pink-robed nuns, were in the evening temple crowd.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Around the stupa were many sub-temples and points of interest, all with specific rituals attached, from giant bells to ring to pulleys that would power fans to fan a massive Buddha image.  In one place a large star on the floor is a special place to stop and pray for wishes that you have.   Around the circular base are shrines for each day of the week (knowing the day of the week you were born on is essential in Myanmar), which are also associated with animals, and many people come on their day each week to pour water on the statues.  This can be done on any day for luck and prosperity, so Win taught us the proper techniques, and we each visited our day’s shrine as we circled the base.

At the top of the Paya, almost too small to be seen by the naked eye (but visible through provided binoculars) is a diamond, encrusted with other precious stones.  When the sun is at the perfect height as it goes down, you walk in a line in one part of the base and see a perfect spectrum changing before your eyes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Myanmar, Yangon

Inle Lake

The long drive from the Heho airport to Nyaung Shwe was a very different experience from driving through Yangon.  My taxi passed by overlooks over forested valleys, people herding livestock, small villages, people bathing (still wearing their longyis, of course) on the side of the road, the most overloaded trucks I’ve ever seen, with people and belongings practically bursting from the seams.  The road was often paved only enough for one vehicle to drive on it, so we constantly had to pull off the side of the road to let a horse-cart, motorbike loaded with building supplies, or truck to pass by.

After a six hour delay at the airport, I didn’t arrive to the town of Nyaung Shwe until dusk.  At this time, the small town seemed alive with people.  With very few cars, bikes and motorbikes drove slowly down the streets, where people stopped to greet neighbors out grilling meat, trimming hedges, or playing chinlone, a popular Burmese game that seems a lot like hackysack.  My hotel here was again a highlight, as I was able to relax and watch the night set in over complimentary tea and fruit in the garden of the Aquarius Inn.

The real attraction of Nyaung Shwe is its proximity to Inle Lake, which is best experienced on a day-long boat ride–the lake is almost 45 square miles, and home to over 70,000 people, so it’s almost like visiting another city.  My boat driver met me outside the Inn at 7:30, and soon we were off on his motorized wooden long boat.  As we emerged from the canals into the lake itself, the horizon of water seemed to expand endlessly, with only faint mountains to be seen that served as a backdrop for the silhouettes of morning fishermen.  The lake is famous for the “leg-rowing” Intha people who live and work here.  Their traditional means of fishing involves using one leg to row the boat, giving their arms a rest and allowing a better vantage point to spot fish below.  At around 8am, the lake was dotted with many of their slow moving boats.  Our first stop was to a rotating market, which changes location everyday, where I got out and perused the handicraft and souvenir stalls, followed constantly by calls of “Sister, sister, just looking” and “lucky money, lucky money.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There are numerous separate communities on the lake, grouped in various “floating villages,” that consist of houses, shops, and temples, either on small islands within the lake or on stilts, forming watery highways and alleys that can only be navigated by boats.  Over the next 8 hours, my boat plied the throughways of these watery towns, stopping at various workshops for me to watch artisans at work (and if they were lucky to purchase something).  I stopped at a silversmith, a blacksmith, a homemade paper umbrella shop, a weaving workshop, and cheroot shop (traditional Burmese cigars).  In between the shopping, I visited several temples, including the “jumping cat” monastery, where monks have famously trained the resident cats to do tricks, but whose performers were napping amidst the Buddhas when I came.  Amongst all the demonstrations of paper-making, cigarette-rolling, and so on, the most fascinating part was just riding in the boat through the villages and marveling at the stilted wooden houses where the stairs let straight into the water, and waving at the children playing or hanging laundry on the porches.  In a few of the villages, extensive tomato gardens are set up on trellises put into the masses of floating mangroves, and farmers row between the rows of crops to harvest.

The next day, with a few sunburnt hours left in Inle before flying back to Yangon, I decided to take a short self-guided hike outside the town that was recommended by the women at the Inn.  The roads grew dusty as I walked out of Nyaung Shwe, and some small mountains came into sight.  Children waved curiously from villages, and chickens and cows meandered on the side of the road.  Partway along the route “cave temple” was marked on the map.  Just as I was trying to interpret the handpainted sign in front of me, a thin, wrinkled monk, who looked almost ageless beckoned with a flashlight.  He led me down the stairs to the cool cave, handed me to flashlight and pointed for me to wander off on my own to see the small paths and crevices painted with Buddha images.  After I emerged from the cave, he motioned for me to sit on the porch outside his shack, while he served me tea (out of a container that read “Eagle Lacquer Thinner,” and I hoped and assumed has been washed many times), crackers, and pan sugar candies.  He sat and smoked a cigarette, I nibbled crackers and prepared myself for the 90 degree descent back to Nyaung Shwe.  With hardly any common language between us, there was not much to say except chei-zube, Thank you, as I waved and turned back down.

1 Comment

Filed under Inle Lake, Myanmar, Nyaung Shwe

Arrival in Yangon

Yangon felt a bit overwhelming upon arrival, but as I spent a bit more time getting to know the city (three separate visits during my trip because of my flight schedule) the chaos appeared more and more friendly.  Walking around the city has a much different feel than walking around the Lao capital.  For one, there are many, many more people.  The population of the city is nearly comparable to the whole country of Laos!  (Yangon has over 4 million people and all of Laos has just over six).  Because of this, it feels much more urban, but in a more gritty, unkempt way.  There are abandoned-looking buildings, barbed wire, and atrocious sidewalks that are a real hazard to walk on, with massive potholes, or open sewers.  Some parts of downtown reminded me of India—some of the smells of street food and curries, the red betel nut juice that stains the streets and men’s teeth, and the traditional longyi skirt that most men and women wear.  Some of the streets are hardly navigable because of all of the food stalls, vegetable vendors, plastic stools, and random stands selling a little bit of everything—tools, used books, sunglasses, Justin Bieber CDs dubbed in Burmese, you name it.  When I first arrived, I spent most of my time planning the days ahead (I had to buy domestic airline tickets when I arrived because there is no online payment), walking around the downtown area, and hanging out at the guesthouse, which was an integral hub to my days in Yangon.  I don’t often name-drop in my posts, but The Motherland Inn 2 made my visits to Yangon so convenient and pleasant that it would be wrong not to mention it.  It’s one of the main backpacker stops because it’s a Lonely Planet pick, but, unlike a lot of other LP-recommended places, has managed not to lose the personal touches that got it into the book in the first place.  The young Burmese staff all live in the guesthouse and are so friendly and eager to practice their English that I had numerous conversations with them.  The guesthouse serves as an all-purpose travel agency as well, and 24 hours after arriving with no concrete plans, I was headed out to Yangon on my own to visit Inle Lake.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a comment

Filed under Myanmar, Yangon

Burma: An Introduction

In the West, the first thing that “Burma” generally brings to mind these days is a notoriously oppressed place.  For that reason, most people likely imagine it as an unstable place to visit, when in fact the parts of the country where visitors are allowed are no more unsafe than anywhere else in Asia.  Despite the infamous government, daily life goes on for the residents, who seemed largely excited to see foreign faces, and the government is happy to accept dollars from foreigners as long as they aren’t leading protests.

That said, the government can be a bit of a deterrent from visiting.  They’ve been in power since the 60’s and despite the fact that there were elections last fall, everything is “still same same,” as one person in the country described it.  He added that “90% of Myanmar people don’t like government, want ‘the lady’ to be president,” but seemed unhopeful that this would ever be a reality (“the lady” being Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who won the elections in 1988, but was put under house arrest).  It’s impossible to visit without some money going to the government, between visas, exit fees, and entry fees to tourist zones.  However, with a rise in tourism has come a rise in privately-owned guesthouses, so with responsible planning, you can maximize the amount of money going to local business owners.  This was what I decided to do.

Theravada Buddhism is the major religion in Myanmar.

Another debate surrounding the place is the name.  Myanmar or Burma?  In my research, it appears the jury is still out.  The new official name is Myanmar–some stick with Burma, and some say that Burma is an old colonial name that represents a minority of the population.  The locals that I met only called it Myanmar, which they also used as an adjective (“Myanmar food,” “Myanmar language,” “Myanmar people”), so that’s what I’ve begun to use most of the time.

Both men and women wear traditional longyi skirts.

The Myanmar people were by far the most memorable part of my trip.  I met so many friendly people, who were so full of smiles that it seemed incongruent with my previous image of the country.  Not to say that everyone is happy with their lives, but they seem to be good-natured despite the lack of freedoms.  So many people on the streets, especially the women and children, just waved and grinned when I walked by, or wanted to say a little something in English, not to ask for anything, but just to say hi.

Burmese is a fascinating-looking language.

One peculiarity about travel in Burma is that there are no ATMs in the country, and no credit card machines (supposedly all the foreign banks pulled out in the 1990s), so you have to bring in however much cash as you think you’ll need in perfectly crisp, unmarked, US dollars–anything less than perfect will be rejected.

A 200-kyat note, worse for wear.

In exchange for your pristine dollars you sometimes get tattered, taped-together, often-smelly kyat which look like they’ve been in circulation for decades.  Sometimes the small denominations are stapled together to make them easier to count.

The way to get to Burma is through Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital city, located near the south of the country.  I flew in from Bangkok, and less than two minutes after exiting the airport I stepped into one of Yangon’s many atrocious sidewalk potholes.  Welcome to Yangon.

Watch your step!

1 Comment

Filed under Myanmar