Myanmar, Wonderful Myanmar
My dad loves to point something out about Myanmar. “ ‘Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.’ You know, they never say that about anywhere else. You never hear ‘Thailand, the country formerly known as Siam’” and he isn’t wrong. For this reason, I held back that I was going to Myanmar for half a year from my dad, just so I didn’t have to hear that beautiful dad joke he loved to repeat.
We had never actually planned on going to Myanmar, it is one of those countries that I knew was there, and I even knew a few people who had been. However, we never put it as a destination, I have no idea why. I should add here Myanmar is currently undergoing genocide, the Rohingya, their Muslim population that entered the country after colonialism, are being eradicated, forced into Bangladesh. They were, apparently, also stripped of their statehood (because they are considered 'illegitimate citizens.' This is not something that we were aware of when we purchased the tickets, and when we found out, it did not sit well with us. A friend who works in Southeast Asia said that it is better that the international community goes, and keeps its eyes on what is going on. We decided to go ahead with our trip.
We flew Qatar Airways, through Doha, into Yangon, their capital. We arrived early in the morning, around 5:00 am, picked a taxi and got to our hotel. We booked for two nights, the night/morning we arrived, and the following day. We spent the following day visiting Schwedegon Pagoda and walking the streets of Yangon. Similar to other cities in the area, there is trash everywhere, food carts on every corner, sandals on every foot, street dogs eating scraps, horns, tuk-tuks everywhere, and smells, lots of smells.
The one thing that I noticed above all others while visiting Myanmar was the people; the joyous, smiling, friendly people. From a straight face to the biggest red-toothed smile at the utterance of “ming-laba” which is how you say “hello”. No matter where we were, who we encountered, saying hello and waving at someone induced a grin and wave, and both were oozing with excitement. I’ve often said the people of Egypt or Cambodia were the most friendly people I have encountered, now I have to say that Myanmaren are holding that spot.
Our second day we had plans to take the train from Yangon to Bagan, a city roughly 300 miles to the north, and home to, seemingly, every single temple on earth. We checked out of our hotel around 11:00 and headed to the train station to kill time. There is a train that circumvents the city: The Circle Line Train. This 26-mile loop takes three hours, crawls along, has no doors or windows, just stairs in the doorway and openings where the windows should be. The slow train was exciting, passing through markets and slums, more developed areas and fields. The people here were hocking their wares, transporting what looked like entire crop yields. Even school children were taking the train home; a lot of people were sleeping on the train, too. I'll write an entire post about this train, I think.
We disembarked at the station where we got on, it is a circle after all, and headed to the market to get food for our 14-hour journey to Bagan, and then back to the train station. We were about two hours early but had nothing else to do and our train was here, so we boarded. A kid kept trying to sell us water and wouldn’t leave us alone, but he was nice and that was not really an issue. Another woman, upon seeing Carmen give this kid an apple, rushed over, hand extended for her apple, too; she did not receive an apple.
Our tickets were for first class, which just meant we had padded seats. Again, our train had no windows, and the toilet was a squat toilet; none of the doors closed properly, either. We departed exactly on time; I believe this was the only time for the rest of our ride that the train was on time. The journey was pleasant, skating along the landscape, or through I should say. At one point, I was draining tuna out of the window and I was hit by a tree, as nothing is kept trimmed and the train just rumbles through. After a long, long night on the train with intermittent sleep, we arrived in Bagan six hours after our scheduled arrival time, picked up a cab and headed to our hotel.
Bagan, as I’ve said, seems to be home to every Buddhist temple on earth, with something in the neighborhood of over 2000 temples. We planned on seeing a few the day after we arrived, then heading back to Yangon by bus the following day. Our first day in Bagan was just us walking around and finding someplace to eat and some others to shoot photos. We succeeded in this endeavor, eating some delicious vegetarian food and walking all the way to some temples for sunset photos.
The following day, we rented an electric scooter. If I were to call this official I would be overselling what happened. Walking down the street, a guy said “scooter?” to us, we walked off the sidewalk, gave him 7000 kyats (about $5.21), he gave us the scooter and we scooted away. This was, to put it mildly, one of my favorite days I have ever had traveling. We went to the water to see boats headed to Mandalay, we scooted to temple after temple, and I beeped at everything that deserved a good beeping. At one point, we took the scooter off-road, to a less visited temple, just so that I could type here that we did it. Much vegetation found its way into the crevices of our electric steed.
One of the temples that we visited, also off the beaten path, had the nicest person living right next door to the temple. He had the keys and let us in, told us all about the place (I’ve completely forgotten what he told us) and even sold us a nice sand painting he did, it now hangs in our stairwell at home. Oh, I played with his puppies.
We decided we were templed-out, so we headed back towards our scooter guy (if you visit Bagan, you need a scooter guy), our decision wasn’t a moment too soon, as I had to coax the scooter up some hills and stay our course through traffic just so we would make it back; we did, by the way.
Back to Yangon
We spent that night at our hotel, and wandered about a little bit the next day before departing back to Yangon. This time, though, we opted to take a bus. We picked up a cab, at least I think it was a cab, either way we made it to the bus station. Our bus was mostly white travelers of various origins, telling each other all their stories of their months-long time in Asia. We, however, got on the bus and promptly went to sleep. We woke up about 10 minutes out of town, on the side of the road for some inexplicable reason. We spent two hours here, apparently waiting for someone who missed the bus. When they showed up, we were on our way! Well, we were sort of on our way. While everyone slept, I noticed we kept stopping, our driver and his helper would walk to the back of the bus with a hammer and screwdriver, smash and bang some stuff, then we’d start again. We also had a rest stop in the middle of nowhere that had food, bathrooms, and of course the hammer and screwdriver made appearances. We did, luckily, finally make it back to Yangon.
Our bus arrived at some bus station, which a taxi flitted us away from and to our hotel, close to the airport this time. We walked the area, there were some markets and one of the slummiest areas I’ve ever been. Even in this slum, with people living in houses in the mud, trash and excrement everywhere, a simple “ming-laba” would bring about that Myanmar smile I was so accustomed to at this point. These people are truly amazing.
We retired to our hotel, not before I got a haircut at a local stall, somewhere in the area of $1.00 with a healthy $.50 tip because I liked it. We headed to the airport the next morning, back onto the plane and headed home. We did have an eighteen-hour layover in Doha, which was uneventful but a nice stopover. Our time in Myanmar was short, probably too short, but it left an impression on me. I would suggest you visit, just make sure you know how to say hello and you’re prepared for smiles.