Since the start of our trip, I’ve looked forward to visiting Myanmar. Everyone who already had visited, kept telling me how lovely it was, and that I should go see it, NOW. As the borders have only been open to tourism for a couple years, Myanmar is still very authentic and integral. Two words, that no longer apply to most countries in Southeast Asia. Moreover, all the travel websites fuelled my enthusiasm, but to finish it of, there was Google and it’s images. For real, just google Myanmar for a minute or two, and you’ll want to put it on top of your “to travel” list.
Heading for a country with high expectations is probably the worst thing one can do, as it sets you up for disappointment. Not with Myanmar. It met all of my expectations and exceeded them.
We fly to Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar, and practically the capital, but not officially. Here you can also find the largest Pagoda of the country: the Schwedagon Pagoda. A beautiful golden pagoda, that shines brightly thanks to the rain that just came down on it. Different from all other touristic temples is that out here, we aren’t flooded with local tourists trying to take a picture with us. Instead, they shyly stare at us from a distance, until we notice them after which they look away. However, after one brave girl dared to ask us for one, all of them followed. Meaning, we paused our trip for 15 minutes to provide all of pagoda visitors with a selfie.
The inhabitants of the Zoological Garden in Yangon don’t hesitate about getting close right from the start. We can get so close we could brush the hippo’s teeth, high-five the tigers, and treat the elephants on some peanuts. It’s probably not the safest Zoo in the world, two rusty locks are no match for a white tiger, but we make it out alive and well, so it mostly just very interesting to see them so up close.
The days following we visit the Sule Pagoda, walk past the Maha Bandula Park and the city hall, and shop for a bit at Bogyoke Aung San Market.
Our next destination is Inle Lake, which is well known for it’s villages on poles above the lake. Since we’re here for one full day only, we decide to take an organised boat tour to see as much as we can. The sun is out, the water is nice and cool, and in a long thin boat we have the best view over the lake. We stop at several shops in Nyung Shwe Township to learn about traditional crafts and to experience Myanmarese traditions. Even though the tour is relatively touristic, we have the feeling we do get to see some of the locals true daily lives.
We travel on to Bagan, the city you’ll mainly come across on google images when searching Myanmar. I absolutely love Bagan, and will be happy to go back sometime in the future. Bagan is quite stretched, and the temples and pagodas are spread throughout the city; however there are so many of them that you can find them anywhere and everywhere. We decide to hire scooters and drive them to the larger temples. Renting them was a great decision because it was crazy hot, and having the wind through our hair was a nice cooling down. No, of course we didn’t wear helmets; I mean we were only driving 45km/h on average… The Shwezigon temple and Ananda temple, two of the best known ones, were beautiful and well maintained. Which isn’t that easy around here, since the yearly earthquakes around September take their toll. However, my favourite temples weren’t necessarily those, but the ones we saw on our way. Everywhere I’d look I’d discover more temples and stoepa, all whilst enjoying a cool breeze. We take an off road route back to our hostel, and as we do so, we run into another left stoepa which we climb up, having the best view over some of the temples in Bagan. While I sit and enjoy the view I suddenly remember our plan for tomorrow.
A red Balloons over Bagan bus picks us up at 4 AM. I try to imagine what it will be like; flying in a hot air balloon over Bagan, the city of uncountable temples and pagodas. I am not even nervous, but crazy enthusiastic. My fellow passengers are excited as well, and one tells us that she’s really nervous because the flights of the last two days were cancelled. WHAT? You mean to say that they can still cancel our flight??? Alright, I really didn’t consider that after finally finding a spot on a balloon, they could still cancel it. I thought, that after paying for our tickets, the flight was official… We drive to a dark field in the middle of nowhere. As the sun cuts around the corner, four giant balloons, laying in the grass, appear. After a short explanation they show us the place where to wait while they fill the balloons with air. Alright, they fill the balloons with air, the firespit burner thingie is installed, the basket is standing up straight, and from all sides the crew yells “Oké”. But even after the balloon has been filled and all of us are in the basket, the flight is still not official. Our pilot Gavin explains us that right now, we’re in the red zone, and before we are able to fly, the wind needs to change slightly and get us in the yellow zone… And thus we wait for the last “OK” from the airport.
We get the “OK”, and before we know we’re rising above the ground. Nobody truly knows how lucky we are until Gavin tells us that this is only the second flight of the season, and only the first one that actually flies over the temples. The FIRST real flight! It’s indescribably beautiful. I think I spend the first 10 minutes staring my eyes out, with my wide mouth open. Bagan is even bigger than I thought it was, and has even more temples than I could’ve imagined. Gavin does everything in his power to keep us flying for as long as possible. Even when all other balloons have landed, he manages to push ours slightly further.
The flight was amazing, worth every cent. A big thank you to Balloons over Bagan, their crew, and our amazing pilot with the best sense of humour.
In the late afternoon we head to the Shwesandaw Pagoda for sunset over the city. As we’re standing on top of the Pagoda, we try spotting the areas we’ve flown over in the morning.
Our last destination in Myanmar was Mandalay, which in it’s own way, was very impressive as well. Our first morning here, I opened up the curtains, ready to great the day. It had been raining heavily all night long, and the street turned out to be no longer a street, but a swimming pool instead. Nevertheless, people try their scooters in the knee-level water. We decide to wait it out, hoping the water level will drop during the day, and go for a Spa in the building next to our hostel instead. After we’ve enjoyed out traditional massages, we learn the water has gone and the street has become an actual street again. We grab a taxi to the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda, on top of Mandalay Hill. Our new friend Kozew, who works at the hostel, joins us. As former Monk, he teaches us all about Buddhism. Even though I thought I had read a lot about this beautiful religion, it turned out I knew next to nothing about the customs and the symbols. I realise my lack of knowledge again on the day after, when we visit the Mahar Gandar Yone Monastry to watch 1250 monks and novices collect their only meal for the day. This meal consists only of donations, given and prepared by the people of Mandalay. Still overwhelmed by what we just saw, we walk to the largest teek wood bridge in the world; U Bein Bridge. We decide to follow it up with visiting worlds largest book after, at the Kuthodaw Pagoda. Last but not least, we once again visit the pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill, this time for sunset.
And just like that, our adventures in Myanmar came to an end. A country with uncountable temples, and with incredibly polite and loving people. A country that has a fresh views on tourism, and is grateful for the economical advantages it brings, but which owes it’s charm to all the authentic and untouched.
You’ve stolen my heart, and I don’t want it back. Share it with all the beautiful people whom I call locals, or gift it to stunning temples which look out over your land. I’m sorry to leave you so quickly after we met. I’ll be back for you. Stay as you are. You are loved.