By Milda Urban, Summersalt Yoga founder
“You should bring Croatian tourists to Myanmar and to Bagan”, says the guy next to us, on top of a hundred years old temple at around 5 AM after he finds out that we run a travel agency back home. We met him on our way to watch the sunrise, speeding off the dusty “roads” in Bagan, still dark, quite chilly, anticipation high, and eyes full of sand.
The young man saw our uncertain looks pointed at Google maps a few minutes ago when we were trying to find the Shwesandaw pagoda. He stopped his motor to ask what we’re looking for. Shwesandaw, we say. “Follow me, I know a better place, no people” he signals to us. Umm, okay, I guess. Following a stranger in the dark with no other soul in sight is not what my mamma taught me, but fine.
We arrive at a small pagoda, which, according to our new friend, is a much better spot to watch the sunrise and there are no crowds. As proof, he even shows us some photos on his phone. We stop and he then waves us to remove our shoes and follow through a stab-in-the-eye dark passage to climb up. I am still hesitant and I’m sure my face shows it because the guy says “don’t be afraid, madam”. I finally let go of my suspiciousness and we go up. I obviously bump my head, because these passages are not meant for 5’10 madams. I hesitate for a moment – we’re stomping this ancient pagoda to catch the sun – is this okay? But hey, I guess some monks back in the day did the same, we’re here already, and when in Bagan…
We reach the top, sit down and our new friend sits with us. We’re staring at the vast space, the mushroom-like pagodas, and are waiting for the sun. I’m shivering a little because the temperature differences between the night and day are huge here. Our friend asks us a few questions and we ask him a few too. He says he’s an artist, but still a student. We say we love Myanmar and travel. The light starts coming up and so do the air-balloons where the fancier tourists sip champagne and watch this world-miracle from birds’ eyes.
It’s stunning. Only a couple more people find our pagoda, so we’re not bothered by the usual commotion or anything like it. I still can’t believe that this place is real. We’re silent and take only a few photos. After some time, we step down, take a few more photos and pose with our friend. He then asks us to follow him and shows some paintings of his. They feature, well, pagodas, Buddhist monks, and Bagan landscapes. After more than 10 minutes of clumsy bargaining, we end up buying one.
You might say that that’s why he caught us and showed this place. I get it. It’s how our Western mind works. No lunch is free, right? Well, not in Myanmar. We’ve offered our friend some tip money for his services as a guide, but he refused, saying he doesn’t take “lucky money” because it’s not in Buddhist faith. He says he sells paintings to support his family, but “because we’re friends now”, he understands if we don’t buy anything.
I believe him. He didn’t have to show us this place. Carefully guide us up top. Chit-chat with us. He could have stood at the bottom of one of the thousands of pagodas and sell his works there as many others do. He didn’t. He saw two clueless tourists and he wanted to help. We were warned and that’s what Myanmar is to me. Kindness.
A friendly spirit
We flew into Bagan from Yangon (Myanmar’s biggest city, previously named Rangoon) the day before and the landing was charged with gasping disbelief – watching all these magnificent pagodas felt like landing on Mars almost – that’s how surreal it is.
The movie-like feel continued. An old rusty and raggedy bus came to take us from the plane to the terminal, which took all of about 73 seconds. The very-helpful airport staff was swift with the luggage and we got ours in no time. Just like at the beginning of an Indiana Jones adventure.
We come to Nyaung-U around 8 AM and just in front of our stay witness baby-monks (ok, maybe they were 7-8 years old) collecting their rice donations. It’s a little cheesy, but the sight is so innocent and cute that we can’t recover for the rest of the day.
In the afternoon we make a mistake. We decide we don’t need the electric bikes (the main mean of tourist transportation there) straight away. We instead grab a cab from Nyaung-U to the Old Bagan (about 5 km away), walk a little and think of grabbing another taxi back home. Bad idea.
We can’t find a cab for a while and are laughed at by the horse-carriage drivers (another mean of transport in Bagan) for the price we offered. At one point we walk down to the main road with hopes to find a ride there.
Standing in the sun something curious happens. To this day I am not sure whether it was a hallucination, reality or an appearance of a kind spirit (not Casper). A boy, about 13 years old, emerges from what seems like thin air. He has the biggest smile I have ever seen. He asks us “where you go?”. We clumsily tell the name of our village. With the same smile he tells us “Car!” and starts hitchhiking on our behalf. He’s all dusty, except the two rows of pearly white teeth.
The passers-by seem to know the boy, but nobody stops. He’s not bothered and stands there beamingly. We try to strike up a conversation, but not very successfully.
Finally, he gets a motor to pull over, exchanges something in Burmese and signs us to hop on. Unfortunately, I am a wuss and refuse (politely!) to sit on the devil’s horse.
After this, we decided we needed to go back to the “town center” where we had a bigger chance of catching a taxi. The boy (or the kind spirit) nods and takes off – just like earlier – to nowhere.
Movie set adventure
Bagan is 12 centuries old with 2200 pagodas remaining from the original 10 000. More than 400 earthquakes hit Myanmar through the 20th century and to this day, the last major one damaged 33 temples in August 2016. The site seems like a perfect UNESCO heritage candidate to many (and equal to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat), however, it was not granted a status because of what many believe the many restorations happening at all times.
It is a fascinating place, to say the least, and speeding (well, speeding for my standards) on your electric bike gives this feeling as if you’re on some kind of safari. Only you’re not watching animals, but the ancient pagodas, which appear out of every “corner”.
Sure, there are a few busier spots (and you must see them!) where we have to endure a little bit of “very cheap, I give you discount” kind of tourism, but that’s nothing compared to other places in the region.
We buy a postcard for 10 Croatian kunas (about 1,5 EUR) because the boy selling them collects foreign currency. His friend tries to jump on the bandwagon, but we don’t have anything else to which we’re told: “no money, no honey”. Fair enough. Fair enough.
Besides these few stops, the majority of the pagodas are mostly empty and at best you’re offered a cold coconut, a Coke, and George Orwell’s book “Burmese Days”.
The size of the area, the details of the pagodas, the exotic landscape, and being stuck in the sand sometimes (not all the “roads” are very well suited to drive on) makes me feel like I’m in some kind of “Diamond of the Nile” spin-off and that Michael Douglas will come out running at any moment.
At one point a heard of giant buffaloes blocks our way and the locals take their time to pass by. Time is something they’ve got in abundance here.
We decide to go and watch the sunset because that’s what you do and we choose the Bulethi pagoda.
We’ve climbed this one during the day already and I’ve experienced a mini panic attack of falling down, because, well, that’s highly likely while getting up the steep and not very comfortable stairs made of fired bricks.
The pagoda is crowded now. I think all of the tourists in Bagan are here. This is not a lot, but even this bunch feels a little too much and I spend most of the time complaining how nobody watches the actual sunset and instead tries to take as many photos as possible. Snobbish? Yes. True? Yes.
Chew, spit, repeat
In order to save a buck, we decide to take a bus back to Yangon. It’s a long 10-hour drive and we’re the only non-Burmese passengers on the bus, which brings curious smiles our way and even curiouser close-shot looks at the rest stops.
Burmese people are like children in this aspect – they are so intrigued by a foreigner they will literally stand 2 meters away and smile (or laugh) at the way you mix your coffee (I don’t know why) or point and giggle when your tying on the longyi and doesn’t work very well (true story).
Speaking of traditions. During your first days in Myanmar we notice a strange custom. We don’t connect the dots between red-vampire smiles, “blood” stains on the pavement, and more-than-usually beloved spitting at first, but once we do, we’re in weird awe of it.
Burmese LOVE chewing betel (a mild natural stimulant) and spitting it out afterward. Stalls and stalls selling it wrapped with various spices in Yangon are booming and everybody carries it with them everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE. They even give out plastic bags on the bus for spitting. The guys next to us went to town with this lovely habit. After 8 hours of witnessing the chew-and-spit process, I felt like I could skip dinner that evening.
Driving through Yangon feels like a James Bond movie. Again. The ex-capital exudes energy and the sense of something you’ve never seen or felt before, even if you’ve traveled through other Southeast Asian countries. A feeling of being on an old-school adventure. Again.
Strolling through the streets of Yangon grow that feeling stronger – it’s one of those places where the current western culture hasn’t penetrated much, so everything you see is authentic and unique.
From the food you smell on the streets, the number one male fashion item – longyi, the special make-up Thanaka, made of ground bark, that women and kids wear to the betel vampire smiles and the eclectic mix of colorful colonial architecture. I still can’t decide whether the city would look better if the colors were renewed or not. There something to the scruffy faded tones that add charm and emotion.
Except for a few larger shops (which don’t take credit cards by the way) you won’t find familiar brands of foods. You don’t need them, trust me.
The flavors and aromas are a unique blend of Indian, Chinese, and Burmese cultures and make our heads spin. The green markets during the day, the different street food corners and side-streets at night – it’s all a feast for all senses.
Try the breakfast favorite mohinga – a bowl of rice noodles with fish soup, sprinkled with deep-fried fritters, Burmese bryiani, various local curries, green tea salad, many Indian influenced dishes (naan, dosas, etc.), pork skewers, Burmese style Falooda.
The best way to experience the chaotic yet somehow natural flow of life in Yangon is to sit in a street café and observe passers-by. Don’t worry if the places seem taken – they’ll make one for you by taking a couple of plastic chairs and placing them in an empty spot. Myanmar is a poor country (it is ranked 150 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index), but many locals in the city fully enjoy the street “restaurants” and socializing over a cup of coffee or other drink on a daily basis.
The attention we receive while roaming these streets gets a little overwhelming at first and we handle it the best way we know – with smiles. We get the same treatment back.
Yangon is big, so don’t get stuck in the city center though. Grab a cab – it is the easiest way to get around, it looks like every other car is a taxi – they will bring you wherever you want, just negotiate the price first!
One of the must-see spots – The Shwedagon pagoda is huge (99 meters tall) and impressive (it’s not gold plated and diamond-studded for nothing). It’s mesmerizing to disappear among the golden pylons, incense, and mumbled prayer.
If you feel like it – visit the National Museum of Myanmar to learn about the country’s complicated history from Mongol conquerors, British rule, Japanese occupation to socials days, and life today. The locals are immensely proud of all of it just as they’re proud of their entire country. “I have been to Bagan once”, – says the bell boy shyly (and giggly) at our hotel. English is not commonly spoken outside the tourism service, but not one time it has gotten in our way because the universal sign and smile language never fails.
One other place to go is the Gem Museum – Myanmar is world-famous for its precious gemstones, in particular rubies (90% of the world’s rubies come from Myanmar!), sapphires, pearls, jade. You can both look at and purchase the stones and jewelry here or go for a cheaper option to city’s markets where a jade bracelet goes for as low as 1 euro (don’t ask me about the quality though!).
See you again, Myanmar
I am sitting at the airport and eating my “blueberry” croissant. My next destination is Vietnam, so the usual sadness and confusion of leaving a place are a little muffled by the joy of a new adventure. I’m going through the photos and videos I took on my phone and still can’t believe these places exist and that I actually saw them. I ask the waiter at the café to exchange my remaining kyat notes to have a wider selection for souvenirs. While I pack them up safely I think I should definitely keep some just for myself. Why? Because I’ve got a feeling I will be needing them soon again. I promise, Myanmar.
This article has appeared in the newspaper “Verslo Zinios” first (in Lithuanian language)