“What’s in Myanmar?” is the first thing most people would ask when I said that is where I will be spending 3 weeks in December. This was usually followed by “Is it safe?” or “Isn’t it all jungle?”. To be honest, I didn’t know the answers to most of these. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for 3 weeks in Myanmar although there turned out to be a lot to do. I didn’t know how safe it was (It was very safe for a tourist). And I didn’t know if it would be all jungle (It was way more than that). So if I didn’t know much at all, why would I spend most of my limited vacation in this country, you would ask.
I’ve always heard about Myanmar (or Burma) growing up. My grandfather served in the army in Myanmar, post World War II and would always tell us kids stories about it. All these stories, peppered with exotic sounding names like Rangoon, Mandalay, Bagan, Irrawady, Lashio along with old, wrinkled pictures of old towns and fields full of pagodas had me hooked to this mysterious place. Through the years, I would meet grizzled travelers, in Thailand or Indonesia, who had managed to sneak into Myanmar. They would speak of how quaint and non-touristy it was. About large golden temples that sparkled in the sun, the friendly locals and old colonial architecture that still resonated of the British Raj.
Planning trip to Myanmar
Unfortunately, getting into Myanmar was not very easy or cheap and my travel dreams were shelved for a while. It wasn’t until the late-2000s that Myanmar started relaxing restrictions on foreign travelers. They also started opening up to foreign investments and a large amount of tourists and international interests started pouring in. I wanted to visit Myanmar before it became too commercial, like other South-east Asian destinations, so I could get even a sliver of experiences that my grandfather or those grizzled tourists had.
I hadn’t completely planned the itinerary for my trip but my idea was to hit most of the well-visited places in the country in 2 weeks and leave a week to visit places I would hear about from other tourists or locals (through the years, I’ve learned to keep this buffer and not have a complete guide-book itinerary). The plan was that I would start in Yangon (previously Rangoon), go to a couple of hill-stations in the south, then head to Bagan, the temple city, and then Mandalay, capital of the north. Then head to the famous (but touristy) hills in the east, through to the famous Inle Lake and end in the quiet beach town of Ngapali. Like many good adventures, this didn’t go completely according to plan and a lot of the itinerary changed over the course of my travels. What will follow are my journal entries from different times in my journey. This won’t be a “went there-did that” kind of a travelogue but more of my musings as I traveled through this amazing country.
Myanmar Musings #1:
Now that Myanmar has completely opened it’s gates to the outside world, it is an interesting study of a country being flooded by foreign attention. Nowhere is it more evident than the former capital, Yangon, a city bursting at it’s seams, trying to keep up with all the foreign interest.
Lonely Planet clutching tourists try to navigate through traffic, alongside maroon-robed monks and longyi wearing businessmen. New but characterless buildings tower over crumbling colonial structures and golden-domed pagodas, while porsches and tuk-tuks jostle for space on the congested roads.
Luckily, there’s always a few oasis of calm where you can leave the buzz of the traffic and get in a zen state of mind, all while marveling at the magnificent temples. The Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the largest temples in the city and you can spend a long time in the temple complex, walking around and people watching. Another advantage of being in a melting pot of cultures is the amazing food. Most local places are like a buffet, you can go in, point at what you want to eat and you get it at your table along with 4-5 sides and appetizers.
As fascinating as the city is, it is also exhausting. I now head out of the city and head south into the countryside.