We spent 3 weeks in Myanmar, taking 10+ hour bus rides from destination to destination, beginning and ending in Yangon. This was our last new country before making the journey home and we had no idea what to expect. The country just opened up its borders to tourism in 2012 and it has since quadrupled. I was eager to cross Myanmar off my bucket list, seeing the country in (what I hoped would be) its true form before tourism and westernization take over and I am beyond thrilled that I made it.
Yangon was a busy city with constant traffic and people galore, as its Myanmar's largest and most modern city. One favorite of mine were the street markets. The streets were bursting with vibrant color and people of all ages, filling the narrow streets one after another. Vendors were set up wherever space was available, whether that be a stand on the curb or right down the center. They were selling any food you would need for the day: fresh poultry, an abundance of live seafood, ground spices, and more. Vegetables sat atop tarps, fish were being cut on banana leaves while crouched down with their cleavers and chopping blocks. The scent in the already-smoggy air shifted as I passed each stall, from fresh basil and garlic to flowers and raw meat. Markets such as this could be found all across Myanmar, more often than not being dirtier than the previous. Hygiene is not a common practice, so one must choose wisely. Nonetheless, the Yangon markets were an unforgettable cultural experience.
Bagan, which is basically an overgrown village, was once home to over 10,000 stupas and temples scattered throughout the 42-square kilometer plain. It is the worlds largest and densest concentration of Buddhist structures dating as far back as the 11th and 12th centuries. The shapes and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism and takes on a spiritual meaning. After years of weathering and earthquakes roughly 2,200 still stand. An earthquake in August 2016 damaged several temples which they are currently repairing.
When we were visiting temple ruins in Thailand, I'd dream of what they looked like in their prime and now I know. Bagan's temples are impressively preserved giving one an accurate representation of what they once were. We arrived on the outskirts of Bagan and transferred to the back of a pick-up truck taxi. As we rolled down the dusty road I was in complete awe. Brick structures in pristine condition appeared one after another and it continued like that until we entered New Bagan (where we'd be staying). I was anxious to get out and explore the area, but it would have to wait until the next day.
The following morning we woke at 5:00 am, hopped on our scooters, and hit the road in search for the perfect stupa to watch the sunrise. It was the coldest we had experienced in Southeast Asia (somewhere between 60-65), chilling us to the bone. Needless to say we did not have the appropriate attire. I shivered uncontrollably on the way, wanting nothing more than crawling back into a warm bed. If I turned back I'd never forgive myself. Luckily, a local had stoked a fire next to our chosen viewpoint. Once thawed, I claimed my seat on the stupa. As the sun broke the horizon, hot air balloons began their ascent across an orange sky over hundreds of ancient temples. I can't imagine a sunrise getting much better than that. Like Andrew said, "Good things can happen when you make up early."
We spent a total of five days in Bagan, which still didn't seem like enough time. Our days consisted of exploring ruin after ruin. We took our ebikes down moondust, gravel trails never knowing what we would discover. The narrow paths branched off weaving across the plain. Once off the two main tar roads the less likely we were to encounter many tourists, creating an incredible experience of adventure and discovery. No two temples, pagodas, and stupas appeared the same and each temple housed a unique Buddha. Many of the temples still had remnants of the original paintings along the walls and ceilings. The further inland one got, the better preserved many of the temples were since few people ventured off the main road. More often then not they offered the best views of the land, too. Standing at the top of a stupa alone, seeing thousands of temples scattered over a vast area offered a whole new experience. It all felt so surreal, to be standing looking down on what man had made so long ago. It is almost impossible to put this place into words.
Not only did we see one of the greatest sunrises, we also witnessed the most stunning sunset in the same day. Moondust had been kicked up all day long from tourist travel and herded cattle creating layers upon layers of temple peaks and stupas. Although the temple where we sat was overcrowded, I loved being able to share this moment with locals, fellow travelers and artists.
Although Myanmar was the poorest country I've visited, the kindness of the locals was overwhelming. We roamed the side streets of Mandalay and Taunggyi, at times being stopped by locals asking if we were lost, always eager to hear what we were doing. Getting off the beaten path is my favorite part of travel, seeing what life is like away from the tourist industry allows for a genuine experience. The work ethic and sheer strength of the Burmese (especially the women) was encouraging and really put into perspective what hard labor is. Sadly, hard work doesn't necessarily get one out of poverty. Garbage covered the streets and dried up river beds. It was in rivers, waterfalls, and drainage systems, alongside their bamboo hut homes and temples. It broke my heart to see people in such unhealthy living conditions, especially throughout the entire country. But it was also refreshing to witness such happiness and kindness from the poorest of people. Myanmar was unlike anything I'd experiences thus far. Traveling around Myanmar was an enormous amount of work but I am so thankful for the experience I had and the kindness I received from the Burmese people.