I hadn’t Googled too many places before we came here. There was that small matter of the wedding bubble, true, but I was also unsure if the main tourist hotspots would be my cup of lapaieh. Mandalay and Yangon (bar the NLD rally where we saw Aung San Suu Kyi) were a bit of a non-event for me. But we had heard Bagan was a place for photos, and therefore, a place for Nick.
Perhaps if we hadn’t refused to read the guide books, the entrance fee to the city wouldn’t have been such a shock to us. We might have even been a bit more graceful about it as we were called over to pay our 40$ only minutes after disembarking the slow boat. On the other hand, we might just have decided to skip the place entirely, and that, as we discovered later, would have been a crying shame.
If you’ve never heard of Bagan, never seen pictures on the internet or on the TV, I’ll forewarn you that I’m probably not going to be able to do it justice. Nick’s pictures, on the other hand, might.
Bagan is an ancient place, literally FULL of temples and pagodas. You might remember me saying that I’m indifferent about these things. Bagan is different. Over 10,000 temples and pagodas were built here between the 11th and the 13th century, of which over 2,000 still remain. What used to be the heart of a thriving empire is now vast dusty countryside filled with all of that history.
The popular thing to do is to rent an electric bike and ride to where all the temples are. Set off either side of a main road, the sandy paths wind and turn, leading you into a maze dotted with brick coloured treasures at every turn. Once you’re in, follow the smaller paths and it’s really easy to feel like you are all alone on the set on an Indiana Jones film.
Our first day we got up and rented a bike at 5am. Armed with Google maps and GPS, we headed out to a site a blogger had recommended for sunrise – a smallish temple. Not one that would be on the mainstream tourist radar we hoped. We parked up and peered inside. Dark, dusty and deserted, we cautiously stepped inside.
Bats. We promptly ran out. Something about being there alone in the dark robbed us of all our conviction. Not quite the intrepid adventurers after all.
We found another temple nearby and located the tiny and steep staircase that wound up to the roof. Nick could barely cram his giant frame within the stairwell, but head-torches attached, we excitedly made our way up to the top. The sunrise itself wasn’t amazing, but being just the two of us up there, looking out over this incredible place, was magical. I wondered what a different experience it would have been surrounded by happy-snapping tourists.
The next day, Nick decided he would be one of *those* tourists. He got up for sunrise again, and headed out to one of the famous temples where the buildings line up for a great shot. Afterall, a person is meant to suffer for their art, right? Joined by over a hundred others, it wasn’t the peaceful and stilling sunrise that we had had the previous day. He did, none-the-less, get some incredible pictures.
We spent two days exploring the maze of temples, searching for great sunset spots down
obscure paths that seemed to have been ignored, and therefore provided some guarantee of solitude. We discovered some real treasures, and exploring temples we knew had not been so frequently visited added an element of adventure. We climbed walls where there were no staircases; we shimmied along ledges to get the best view; Nick wasn’t even fazed by a bat flying at his head as we squeezed down one staircase at dusk. Ok, he might have been a bit fazed…
On our third day, our bus didn’t leave until the evening, and having explored a good number of temples and experienced 2 sunrises and 2 sunsets, we did what every crazy adventurer does – we spent the day at the swimming pool of a luxury resort sipping on cocktails. It was certainly an indulgent finish to an epic three days.
The slow boat left Mandalay at 4am, and figuring that this would be the way to be with the real people of Myanmar, we opted for this in place of the cleaner, shinier, and more expensive speedboats on offer. And we were sort of right. The local people did travel on the boat, but they were all gathered at one end, the other lined with plastic chairs and reserved for tourists. It wasn’t the integration we had planned, but it was still the middle of the night by our standards, and we were hankering after a bit more sleep in any case. We found ourselves a nice corner and laid down our tent ground sheet – it was about time we used the blasted thing anyway.
A couple of hours later, we left our ground sheet to head for the boat cafe on the locals’ side. This consisted of a plank of wood to sit on and water pumped up from the river to be used for cooking. We didn’t mind a bit…although we quietly hoped that different water was being used to make our hot drinks – we had seen the state of that river up close. Rubbish disposable was not a big thing here.
“Lap-ai-eh,” I attempted.
“Lap-ai-EEEH,” the woman repeated back to me, chuckling to herself, perhaps at the fact that I knew the word, perhaps at my terrible pronunciation of it. We had met a French girl at the monastery in Hpa-an and she had taught us some useful phrases. “Tea” was the first word I had learnt, after “hello” and “thank you,” and I rated this as being of high importance. But now I was to crack out the sentence that was guaranteed to win friends…if I could get it right…
“Myanmar nangago cheeteh.”
She paused for a second before shreiking and clapping her hands together.
She repeated the phrase to her family, waving her hand wildly in my direction and bursting into cackles of laughter. It was obviously close enough, and telling them I loved their country seemed to do the trick.
We were having so much fun with them, that even when the boat made another stop, we didn’t go back to make sure our spot was secure. I mean, our stuff was laid out on the groundsheet. Plus, there was oodles of room on the boat…
What we hadn’t bargained for were Italians. Big organised tour groups of Italians. They made themselves noticed immediately, cameras unabashedly shoved in faces of the locals for minutes at a time. It was so grotesque it actually caused Nick to keep his camera tucked away, not wanting to add to the obvious discomfort of the subjects.
We returned to our spot to find a human assault course of different Italians blocking the entire width of the boat. Not only do they not like queues, apparently they don’t go for rows either. Forced to clamber over them (moving their chairs slightly to make a path through seemed an alien concept to them) we made it back to what had been a nice, quiet comfortable corner, and what was now a caged-in racket. As individuals, I am fond of a number of Italians, but put ’em together and what have you got? Not bippedy boppedy boo, that’s for sure.
After an hour or two of climbing back and forth, they must’ve cottoned on to the fact that I was none too impressed by their lack of courtesey, and they actually started slightly moving the chair as I tried to get past, no doubt fearing I might just trample on them if not. However, two of them seemed unable to conduct a conversation at what a normal person might consider to be a reasonable decibel level, each doing their very best to be the funniest and most dramatic and gesticulate with the most fervour. These were Italian personalities that I recognised from my past, where I was happy for them to remain. After having a very nice conversation with one of the Italian girls there, obviously slightly embarrassed by her tour group company, I ran out of reasons to stick it out in the corner. Remembering that I had seen a Burmese lady giving massages earlier in the journey, I went to find a bit of restbite.
Well, it wasn’t as cheap as the Thai massage I had had in Bangkok, but it was certainly charming. I’ve no doubt in my mind that this lady didn’t have a single clue how to give massages, and I began to think maybe I should have just roped Nick in as I usually do. I’d trained the boy up pretty well, and he was quite accomplished in massaging my back now. Then I remembered the Italians. Oh yes, this was about a bit of escape.
So, there I sat, enjoying the peace as she silently squeezed my arms, wistfully staring into the distance. But at some point she clocked the NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party) stickers on my T-shirt. As was the reaction of many people we had met in Yangon, Hpa-an, and to a lesser extent, Hsipaw, she smiled widely at the recognition that we shared something in common, eyes full of surprise. Ok, so it was pretty superficial on my part. I only knew the basics about Aung San Suu Kyi, but I knew her party stood for democracy and I knew that she had spent a many great years of her life under house arrest, because she refused to give in to the people that wanted otherwise. For me, wearing the NLD merchandise was a small show of solidarity with the people here, so long oppressed. And they were so appreciative of this – to know that people outside their country actually cared about their future. My sweet masseuse came to life at this point, further animated by the other few Burmese words we had learnt that now came into play.
“Jai de Aung San Suu Kyi. Cowmareh.”
(I like Aung San Suu Kyi. Good.)
Linquistic flair eluded me, but a little went a long way, and she was soon telling me about her life, travelling back and forward on the slow boat and living in two places. Communicated with a mixture of Burmese, broken English and nodding, most of it was lost in translation, but it was still nice to connect in some small way.
As port by port new people, and often huge bundles of goods, came on and off the boat, we managed to relocate to a quiet spot on the Burmese locals’ side. I was drifting in and out of sleep, enjoying the activities going on around me – a mother from the café rocking her baby in a makeshift cot hung from the ceiling, another group of girls enjoying the photos of the foreigner sat with them – when a woman approached me. She was selling rugs. I politely explained I had nowhere to put a rug and that I was travelling for a long time.
I assumed that she had more wares somewhere on her.
“No, thank you, ” I repeated.
A short time later, as we were approaching the port of Bagan, another woman came up to me saying the same thing. As it turned out, she wanted to know if I had any perfume or lipstick for her, not vice versa. She wanted to do a swap with her handiwork. Aha! A German couple we had met previously had encountered the same thing the first time they had visited Myanmar, almost 30 years ago – many locals wanting, not money for their goods, but foreign items. Unfortunately, this local was out of luck. Perfume and lipstick were not on my list of backpacking essentials. However, when she mentioned T-shirt, I was happy to be able to oblige. Although this was an item she could get in Myanmar, she said it was expensive where she lived. I’ve no idea if that were true or not, but I had one too many T-shirts anyway, so we were both happy. I took my chance that we were near enough port that I wouldn’t suddenly be surrounded by loads of other locals, all wanting something from me, and handed her the Beatles T-shirt. By the look on her face, she obviously wasn’t a fan. We also weren’t quite near enough port. Shit. As another woman came in my direction, expectantly, I thrust my last 2 sets of books, pencil cases and stationary into her arms and made a run for it to the exit of the boat. We had arrived in Bagan. Phew!
If Thailand can call itself the land of smiles (which, after 3 weeks there, I found to be an innaccurate marketing campaign) then Myanmar can certainly be referred to as the land of pagodas. Ok, and this time definitely the land of smiles, too.
Gazing out of the train window as we pull away from Mawlamyine station, the colonian British capital of Burma, I count 5 mosques. I soon lose count of the number of pagodas, though. The city is behind us now, and as we trundle through miles of rice paddies, the hills to the east glisten with gold, each one adorned with its own pointy pagoda. I notice a similarity with the Tibetan prayer flags strategically placed on peaks and passes in the Himalayas. And the cairns of Scotland – simple rock piles added to by successive travellers.
So these gold, bell-shaped monuments may be particular to Burmese culture, but there seems to be a greater inherent human desire to mark these points of natural significance. In Britain I would consider it a physical representation of the original graffiti cliché, “I was ‘ere”. I suppose others are not as flippant as me.
They’re not just in the hills, though. Like children’s glitter, these things seem to get everywhere. And when one is not enough, another is made alongside it. And then a few more. And then perhaps a larger one. The conditions here are just right to allow them to breed.
On our arrival at the airport in Thailand we were greeted with an angry sign placed at each immigration desk declaring that all imagery of Buddha’s head was disrespectful and encouraging visitors not to support those who depicted it. Whoever placed these signs should definitely not visit their neighbouring Buddhist country; they will surely have a rage-induced fit.
One statue of Buddha is never enough here. Like the pagodas, they too multiply, culminating in the “field of a thousand Buddhas” we happened to pass the other day. So whenever you see photos of Myanmar and you wonder if all tourists do is visit pagodas, the answer might be that they didn’t even realise the pagoda was there. These things are the original photo bombs.
Top tip for tourists:
Do not plan any trips to pagodas, temples or monasteries. They are the top attractions in this country, so my advice may seem extreme, but I promise I’m not being negative. Even if you love them as much as most tourists appear to, I would still purposefully avoid adding them to your itinerary. You will see more than enough of them without trying. Think of other things you want to see and do and they will provide a picturesque backdrop. That is their true magical power.
“What do you mean you didn’t go to the Shwedagon pagoda?!?”
(Written by Steph)
A city was never going to be our favourite thing. We arrived in Yangon on the train from Mawlaminye, another pretty thankless destination, to stoney faces and zero personality. It’s not to say people here weren’t friendly exactly, but cities have a habit of doing that to people. After the illuminated faces of Hpa-an, “come-down” was the phrase.
Yangon used to be the capital. Ask people if it still is, and you get mixed answers. Generally the consensus is that, no, it is not, but the new capital, Naypyitaw, is as unlike a capital as you’ve seen. It’s new and shiny, sure, but hardly anyone lives there. No, Yangon definitely had the feel of a capital.
“What did you do in Yangon?” We had asked many a traveller in Myanmar. The answer always had one common factor – The Shwedagon Pagoda. I’m sure it’s impressive, I’m sure it’s beautiful, historical things happened there, but I wanted to see history in the people – not in the buildings. I was lucky in my partnership with Nick that we were on the same page. We love to experience the nature in different places, including that of the people. Monuments, temples, pagodas…? Meh.
We skipped the site-seeing on the Saturday, but it wasn’t time for us to move on just yet. Nick, savvy googler that he is, had discovered that there was to be a rally held by the National League for Democracy (NLD) here in Yangon. I didn’t know anything about the NLD, but I knew that their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was a democratic hero to this country. With an election approaching, arguably the most important Myanmar election to date, here was an opportunity to experience history in the making rather than centuries later.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the military:
Myanmar, formerly named Burma under the British rule, has a complicated and tumultuous history, and not one that I can pretend to comprehend. My, perhaps crude, synopsis is that, after gaining independence from the British in 1948, the country struggled to find its feet amidst clashes of power, ethnic groups and ideologies.The first years of independence were marked by successive insurgencies. In 1962, dictator U Ne Win staged a military Coup and took over the country.
U Ne Win, having decided that he would abolish all currency notes not divisable by 9, which was his lucky number, proved himself to be a superstitious idiot as well as a tyrant. The people of Myanmar, subsequently bankrupt, were disillusioned and yearned for change. This led to one of the most memorable days in Myanmar’s history – “The 8888 Uprising”. On 8th August, 1988, thousands of people took to the streets in peaceful protests. They were met with open gunfire, which culminated in the loss of over 3000 lives. U Ne Win outwardly turned the country over to the rule of the military, while in reality he merely stayed in the shadows, their relentless puppeteer of torture and illegal arrest.
This same year Aung San Suu Kyi, having studied in Oxford and lived abroad for years, returned to Myanmar. She was to become a voice of hope for the people, denouncing the junta and standing up for human rights. It was to earn her the right to 15 years, on and off, of being placed under house arrest, cut off from the eager ears of the people. Giving up the chance of going free, based on the condition that she left the country, she sent a strong message to both those in power and to the people – she would not rest until democracy reigned, even if it meant sacrificing her own freedom.
In 2013 Aung San Suu Kyi, now released from house arrest, registered to run as a political candidate for the NLD. They had won an election in 1990, with a landslide 80% of the votes, but the military junta only ignored the results. The election that was to take place on 8th November, 2015, a week after this rally, was meant to be different. This time the people had Aung San Suu Kyi…and they were not taking no for an answer.
The NLD Rally, 2015:
I was slightly nervous about this rally. The history of their relationship with the governing military didn’t fill me with confidence. Finding it would be the next issue. It was due to take place in a huge park in the centre, but this proposed venue had been downsized just a few days before the event. We can only assume this was designed to discourage too many people from going. Well that didn’t work…
It took a while to find someone that knew what was going on. Everyone knew about Aung San Suu Kyi, but not about the rally. When we said her name, our taxi driver wanted to take us to the house where she had spent all those years under house arrest, also in Yangon. That might have been interesting to some, but we wanted to see Aung San Suu Kyi, not her empty house.
We arrived to streets full of red – the colour of the NLD. The Traffic was heavy crossing the bridge to where we needed to go, and our taxi driver, tutting and sighing (obviously not an NLD supporter) dropped us off way before the destination. We had only been walking two minutes when a guy noticed us. Fair to say we stuck out a bit. For a start, Nick was several heads taller than the tallest Burmese man. He was so happy that someone outside his country had come to show support for them. Immediately he took us under his wing and insisted on buying us a drink. We joined with the crowds moving forwards like a carnival procession. All around us, decorated floats with huge speakers and groups singing. On the ground, children doing choreographed dances and singing songs with such steely passion, I thought they must be about freedom. Further on and another group of older men dancing around joyously and with total abandon. It was a week away from the election, and yet, not hope, but celebration, was in the air. The people were not going to entertain another outcome.
Our (my) primary concern had been that the rally might attract fierce vigilance from the military, and our support might not go down too well. We needn’t have worried – we saw a total of one policeman the whole day! Not what you would expect, especially given the history of the military here. The other thing was that we knew that Suu Kyi was coming to do a talk. In Burmese. Our four new sentences were not going to go very far. Little did we know that the run up would be so electric. Having kitted ourselves out in NLD headbands, and stuck stickers to every inch of free skin, we almost looked the part, although considerably less cool than the others.
“These guys know that Aung San Suu Kyi is the famous one, right? ”
We were part way down the long road that led to the rally, but we were stuck. Not in mud, not in traffic, but in photos. Our photo session with the monks in the bat cave in Hpa-An was evidently just a taster of what awaited us here. Crowds gathered to take photos of us with their friends, then with them, then with their mum, and their uncle, and their second cousin three times removed. By which time 10 other phones were pointed at us and we had to do the same thing again. It was fun, and not wanting to be rude, we obliged, but it was pretty surreal to be the ones being photographed. It wasn’t until we got home and looked at our photos that we realised we didn’t actually have that many. How was that possible? we thought. We must have been there for 30 minutes having photos taken…but all on other people’s phones. The tables had turned – now we knew what it felt like to be a tourist attraction!
“May Suu! May Suu! May Suu!”
Huge lines of linked arms lined the road, 3 deep and holding tightly. It reminded me of a pop concert or something, and as Suu Kyi’s car approached, I half expected the screaming fans to surge forward and ask for an autograph. That didn’t happen, but she was a hero, for sure. The chants, meaning “Mother Suu!” said it all.
The NLD won the election on the 8th November 2015, but the military still retain 25% of the seats. Legally, Aung San Suu Kyi is not allowed to be president, owing to the fact that she married a non Burmese national. This is written into the constitution and would take a military constituent to change. Suu Kyi, however, has since given many interviews in which she makes it very clear that she intends to rule. She is fearless in the face of the oppostion, and steadfast in her goal for democracy.