During your Asian History lessons, you probably remember learning about Myanmar that was then called Burma. This name change happened just 28 years ago, in 1989, when the military junta decided to rename it and its former capital Rangoon (now Yangon). Several demonstrations that lasted for days followed this decision, but the name stuck since then. Besides this upheaval, the British Empire in the mid-19th century and the Japanese throughout WWII colonized them before gaining their independence in 1948. Despite its history, I didn’t notice any British or Japanese imprint in the country.
Out of all the Asian countries I’ve visited, Myanmar has to be the most mesmerizing and surprising among them. This is primarily because most Asian countries had a touch of technological and Western influence, while Myanmar managed to maintain its local culture. While I was on the plane on my way to Yangon, I was expecting a disorganized system knowing that it is also a third world country like my own. To my surprise, the people there were cultured and their system was standardized. Upon exiting the airport, you can choose to ride your own cab or a group taxi that was much cheaper.
This Myanmar trip was not really planned because I never prepared any itinerary aside from booking the hotel and ticket. I was booked at Shangri-La hotel and it was 45 minutes away from the main airport. Fortunately, the Sule Pagoda, Maha Bandula Park and street food market were only a nine-minute walk away. Yangon had the perfect blend of developed and undeveloped sights throughout the city. The streets and highways seemed pretty safe and some say that it is one of the safest Asian countries to visit. Although, I did get a lot of curious looks from local people around even though I am Asian myself. They were probably trying to distinguish where I am from or are just admiring the lost look on my face.
It was in Yangon when I first encountered those yellow powder drawings on their faces and I was in complete awe. A little bit of research revealed that they use this paste from the Thanakha tree bark as a cosmetic, same as when we use pressed powder on our faces. Unlike in my country, even men use this powder there and they apply these onto their neck, nose and cheeks. Some even draw different shapes on their faces believing that it protects their skin from sun damage, cools it down and clears up acne. They even use Thanakha to treat headaches and fevers by ingesting it.
After a few days of getting to know Yangon, I flew to Mandalay, another former capital of Myanmar. Same as the other city, the main airport was almost an hour away from Hotel 82 where I stayed for a few days. The city was the complete opposite of Yangon for they did not have a clear means of public transportation. You either have to ask the hotel to hire a cab for you, walk down the street and wait for a random local to give you a ride, or just rent a motorcycle for a day. Throughout my stay here, I had to walk blocks just to get from one restaurant to another because it can be quite difficult to flag down a cab. The streets were dirtier and the drivers drove recklessly. I even saw a lady sitting side saddle on a motorcycle, while holding a baby!
Nevertheless, the lookout at the Su Taung Pyi Pagoda in Mandalay Hill was spectacular. This landmark summit is 230 meters above its neighboring plain where you can get a picturesque view of the entire city. While atop, I still got weird looks from locals even though I was dressed more decently here. Probably because the Burmese people, both men and women, still wore a wraparound skirt known as longyi. These skirts may look the same to the foreign eye, but there are distinct differences between the patterns for each gender. Other than that, men tie it differently than women.
ပုဂံ Old Bagan
As you can guess, Old Bagan, another former capital back in the 9th to 13th century, was the highlight of this trip. You might recognize this place for several famous photos capturing hot air balloons over the old temples. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch that particular view as they were only available during sunrise and I was there when the sun set. The trip was still worth it, nonetheless. Of course, Old Bagan was the most primitive among the other cities I visited and it had the most tourists, too. The village itself was quaint, with tons of restaurants obviously built for tourists.
To get to the renowned temples, you would have to hop on a bike and drive through dirt roads. This ancient city might be famous for its Instagram-worthy shots, yet you probably did not know that it is home to the densest and biggest cluster of Buddist ruins, stupas, pagodas and temples in the globe. Most of these structures date back to around the 11th to 12th century. Back then, there were over 10,000 Buddist monasteries, temples and pagodas, but there are only 2,200 pagodas and temples still standing today.
Out of the thousands of structures to choose from, I decided to do a bit of research and found out that the Shwesandaw Pagoda offered a magnificent view of the sunset. As I arrived there, I wasn’t the only one who did some digging because there were a lot of tourists. I had to buy elephant pants to go up since I was wearing shorts and I had to take off my shoes to climb up the dusty old pagoda. It was a bit of a drag, though I have to admit it was worth it. I wanted a different perspective of Old Bagan with less tourists, so I went to Law Ka Ou Shaung Pagoda where I managed to take more shots of the landscape. The view was moving and no words can ever truly capture the beauty of the ancient ruins.
Suffice to say, Myanmar altogether was mesmerizing and it took my breath away. Care to come away with me, next time? 😉 ff