Sunday, October 30, 2016

Myanmar, or Should I Say Burma?

Myanmar is a country most people don't know unless you refer to it by its previous name of Burma. This has to be one of the most incredible countries I've ever been to. I hate how so many people have such negative feelings about places they don't know anything about. When I told people where I was going I often got quite dramatic responses. Just like you can't judge a book by its cover, you can't judge a country by its name or its history.

Aung San Suu Kyi's Childhood Home

Myanmar has a turbulent history with 50 years of military rule, but that doesn't in any way make it unsafe to travel to. In fact, I found Myanmar to be one of the safest, friendliest places I've ever been. The people were so accommodating and helpful.

Shwedagon Pagoda Lit Up At Night (as seen from my hotel window)
I started my trip in Rangoon (aka Yangon). This city is not the capital, but it is the largest city and it used to be the capital. Coming from India, I found it quite incredible for several reasons. First of all, you could actually walk places because there were sidewalks and traffic lights. There also wasn't nearly as much honking of car horns as in India. The city almost seemed calm and quiet to me. In the first two days I was in Myanmar, I explored Rangoon. I felt like the tour I gave myself was surrounded around Aung San Suu Kyi and her life. I started off at the house she was born in which was a tribute to her father, General Aung San, Myanmar's national hero. Then I made my way to the Shwedagon Pagoda where I wondered how one would make a speech to a large crowd from the top as Aung San Suu Kyi did in 1988. The second day I was there, I started by walking from my hotel to Inya Lake where Aung San Suu Kyi's house is. This is the house she spent the better part of 15 years in prison in. I knew it wasn't open to the public, but unfortunately you couldn't even see the house itself. I only knew I was there because of the NLD signs and flags outside the compound, but I couldn't see much more than the walls. I also made my way to the Aung San Market where you can buy all kinds of souvenirs. This is where I realized that they really don't refer to her by name very much. They call her "the lady". People also found it comical when I would call her Daw Suu. I don't think most foreigners know enough about Suu Kyi and Myanmar in general to know that terminology that is often used by locals.

Sunset Over the World's Longest Teak Wood Bridge
After Rangoon, I left on the train to Mandalay. I was told that these trains can be incredibly delayed and very bumpy. Luckily for me, only half of that was accurate for my train. We were right on time, but the trip was so bumpy that I could still feel myself swaying even hours after I got off the train. I met a British girl on the train and we toured around Mandalay together. We saw everything. We started by going to the Royal Palace, which on the way I realized was just a replica of the original. Then we had lunch at a road side stand and went in search of the world's largest book. I eventually realized that this wasn't a book in the traditional sense and we had already seen it. We didn't even know it. Then we traveled to the top of Mandalay hill for some spectacular views before making our way to the world's longest teak wood bridge to watch the sunset. This day was so busy, but I'm so glad we saw everything that we did.

The View From My Balcony
My next and final stop was Bagan. I was told that you can't go to Myanmar and not visit Bagan. To get there I took an eight hour boat ride down the Irrawaddy (or as the locals call it the Ayeyarwaddy). This ride was really calm and relaxing. It totally beat taking the bus or train, which probably both would've taken just as long. Once I got there I enjoyed the sunset from my private balcony on the river and made a plan for the next day.

I had heard that the best way to get around Bagan was on bicycle, but after getting there I realized they also had e-bikes, which were basically electric scooters. Riding these on the roads might have seemed dangerous, but considering almost no local people live in the town, there is very little traffic. I really enjoyed this option. Plus it was so hot even though I wasn't biking or walking that it was totally worth any risk.

My Viewing Spot For Sunset
I started off my day by trying to see the sunrise at one the "best" temples for seeing the sunrise. This seemed like a good idea, but there were so.many.tourists. There was even one that had a drone. It was like trying to watch the sunrise with a helicopter flying overhead. Even so, it was a little bit too cloudy for a good sunrise. So after going back and having breakfast at my hotel I set out again. I feel like I saw so many temples that day and only in a matter of about 4 hours.  Despite the recent earthquake most of the temples were still accessible. Considering all I did and how early I had gotten up, I went back to my hotel to relax by the pool and take a nap before setting out to see the sunset. This time I wanted to find a more unique spot. I started by going to this bigger temple not too far from my hotel where I came across this young girl who insisted that I see the smaller temple next door. She showed me the secret staircase to get to the first terrace. Then she helped me physically climb to the next level and climb some more stairs to the top level. From there you could see all the big temples in Bagan as well as the sunset over the river. We must have sat up there for 30 minutes until after the sun went down. This was just another example of the overly helpful people of Myanmar. Turns out that this girl was selling post cards but she wasn't pushy about it at all. In the end, I bought a set of postcards from her to pay her back for helping me find the most amazing sunset spot I could've imagined. She was much appreciative as she was trying to make enough money for her schooling. On my last day, I spent most of the day laying by the pool, relaxing, and packing up. I tried to find a local monastery to see the monks receive alms, but I couldn't find it. I also went to the local archaeological museum where they have a lot of relics from the temples. There were so many Buddhas. Bagan really was the highlight of my trip.

All in all, Myanmar was amazing! It was a shame I only had one week there. I could've easily spent 3 weeks exploring the country. I definitely see myself going back there at some point as it not only fascinates me, but it is such a welcoming place. I can't wait until that day comes!

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