Stepping back in time and into Burma

So, we’re in Burma – there’s no democracy here we all know that, but the

The golden mountian called Shwedagon Paya

The golden mountain called Shwedagon Paya

isolation from the international community is not without benefits. There are no starbucks, seven-elevens and McDonalds here. There are barely any jeans to be seen  – men and women still wear ankle or calf length longyi, women cover their head in church and people talk to eachother rather than on their cellphones. The imperial armies of comercialisim and materialism have been held at bay by the lack of  internet access or reliable power supply. Being here really is like stepping back in time, to a land most of the modern world has forgotten and (at least) partly for the best.

We’ve been in Burma/Myanmar for a week now and we’ve got 4 hours to kill before our bus takes us from Bagan to Mandalay. I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to upload this but I’ll write about our experiences so far: Yangon for 3 days meeting locals (friends of friends) and staring with wonder at the absolutely massive, and massively golden Shwedagon Paya (Pagoda). A freezing 12 hour overnight bus brought us to Mandalay. We explored Mandalay for just a day, watching the sun set behind the longest teak bridge in world before taking a 14 hour boat ride down the famous Irrawaddy river to Bagan. The last 3 days have been spent in Bagan trying to scratch the surface of what remains of 4000+ temples dating back to the 11th century. Read on for more details…

Yangon

Various Stupa surrounding Shwedagon Paya

Various Stupa surrounding Shwedagon Paya

Arriving in Yangon was like arriving in a small provincial New Zealand town. The airport was a sparkling new building, that was well kept and well serviced, but the whole place was tiny and had a lazy feel to it. To give you an idea, there are no more than 14 international flights a day in and out of Yangon. Now that is a ridiculously low number for the only international airport in a country with 47million people. Such is the extent of Burma’s isolation. There were only a few (very polite) touts and they were swiftly converted to actually interested people when I spoke a few sentences in Burmese.

Yangon itself is a stunted but not particularly sprawling city of 6 million people. Unlike many capital (actually former capital but that’s a long story) and largest cities, nothing moves particularly quickly unless it’s a local bus that’s hurtling down the bumpy roads trying to outrace it’s own invertible collapse. Most folks on the street were excited enough to meet us but were absolutely delighted that that we could speak a few sentences in Burmese and chat away for a few minutes. Wandering around the streets led to many such encounters including an invitation that roughly translates into “leave the wife at home and come join us for a drink tonight”. Having the chance to meet local people and check out some of their haunts was a unique opportunity – so we tried to make the most of meeting some sisters (catholic nuns), an NGO worker and an English teacher. All of these are friends of friends and we’ve been deliberately vague about their identities (seriously) for their own protection.

The one truly outstanding architectural/historical/religious site in Yangon is the Shwedagon Paya. The main structure (or stupa) is a 322ft golden mountain that is quite unlike anything I’ve ever encountered thus far. The size of the structure is dwarfed by the legend behind it. It was supposedly built to enshrine 8 hairs of the Buddha and consists of a solid gold stupa within a silver stupa, covered in tin, covered in copper, covered in lead, covered in marble and finally covered in brick. Now the brick is covered again in gold. Various facts and figures boggle the mind (more gold on the outside than the bank of England has inside; 5,483 diamonds including a 76 carat diamond on the top; 1,383 other precious stones) but the sight of it seems more impressive than all the figures. We spend the evening and sunset here as the various shades of gold morphed with the changing light. Heaps of photos here but they still don’t do it justice.

Mandalay

Once thawing out after our bone chilling 14 hour bus ride (complete with 3

Our 5am taxi in Mandalay with new friends

Our 5am taxi in Mandalay with new friends

meal stops, 3 toilet stops and 4 military checkpoints)  to Mandalay, we wandered the city streets for a few hours and watched the sun set behind the 200 year old, 1.3km long U Bein Bridge. While this was a stunningly peaceful view, it also gave us the chance to see what rush-hour commute was in this part of Myanmar.

Young monks on the U Bein bridge volunteer a pose

Young monks on the U Bein bridge volunteer a pose

Not so many hours after sunset we hopped aboard a boat to sail up the legendary Irrawaddy river to Bagan. We spent 13 hours sitting on the deck of a self proclaimed ‘slow boat’ sleeping, eating, watching the sun rise and then set again – this really was finally getting onto a Myanmar pace of life. Being trapped on this floating contraption for a whole day gave us the unique chance to see some amazing transformations of vendors to friends as we slowly got to know our fellow Burmese travelers. I was particularly pleased that I could convey to one lady the (very) general gist of the social injustice situation in Ranong in Burmese.

Along the banks of the Ayewaddy River
Along the banks of the Ayewaddy River

Bagan

Bagan is a wonder utterly magnificent sight and an equally well kept secret. The (often very intact) remains of over 4000 temples, pagodas and stupa built between the 11th and 13th century are scattered on this small piece of land within an elbow of the Irrawaddy river. I’d never heard of it before arriving in Ranong, but having spent a few days exploring by horse cart and then bicycle, I rate it on par with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat as an archeological and historical marvel. Unlike Angkor Wat however, there are so few tourists that often we’d have a whole temple to explore on our own which meant that the experience itself was far more charming that a visit to Angkor Wat or indeed any other site I’ve visited in South-East Asia.

Where to next…

We begin the second half of our Myanmar adventure now by retracing our steps back to Mandalay and then to Yangon before flying back to Bangkok.

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