Rock My Boat



Random Myanmar Observations

People in Myanmar all love the United States. Everyone asked where I was from and 90% of the time when I said USA they said “Obama!” They proudly told me that he had visited twice, once just at the end of last year. I even saw someone wearing a t-shirt with Obama’s picture on it and the date of his visit. So many people said they want to go to the US first – if they get to travel anywhere that’s where they want to go. USA is the best, they said.

The best food in Myanmar wasn’t where I expected it to be. I’d heard about street food in Yangon and Mandalay, that it was amazing, even though people kept getting sick from it. I ate the street food and ended up being fine, but that was all just okay to me. I found the best food in Myanmar in the small towns: I could eat the tomato salad in Bagan every day, or the tea leaf salad in Bagan and Inle Lake, and I’ll never forget the Nepalese restaurant in Kalaw.

The interactions I had with people who are from Myanmar are beyond any other country I’ve been to. I’ve raved about the people in Colombia for months, but even there doesn’t equal the spirit I witnessed in Myanmar. I don’t know how many times I can say how friendly they were, helpful beyond any expectation, and genuinely kind-hearted. I’ve felt a lot on this trip that I haven’t met many locals, that most of my interactions are with other travelers – it’s easier to meet them since we’re all in hostels together or on the same buses – but that wasn’t the case in Myanmar. For the first time I felt like I really got a sense of the people who live there, and it was great.

Last Stop in Myanmar: Yangon

Yangon is a big city. Bottom line. At first the former capital felt like it could be anywhere, but I soon noticed its distinct Myanmarness: the produce on the street clearly grown in the surrounding farmland, the food stalls with the water (or is it oil?) bubbling in the center to cook the skewers that surround it, or the ones with a dozen different dishes to accompany rice, the telltale red stains on the streets, the gleam of a gold pagoda rising up from behind the walls of traffic, and, specific to Yangon, the lack of motorbikes. They have been banned in Yangon and I didn’t realize until I got there how strange it is to me now to just have cars fill a street. I haven’t seen a city without motorbikes in so long.

I was initially worried that two days in Yangon wouldn’t be enough, but it turned out to be plenty. I had arrived on a night bus, reaching my hotel by 6:30 am, and after waiting in the lobby for three hours and being told my bed wouldn’t be ready till after noon I had to get out and explore. I did a self-guided walking town of Central Yangon, starting by weaving through the crowded sidewalks of Chinatown overrun with produce stands on my way to Sule Pagoda.

This pagoda is in the center of traffic and surrounded by dingy little shops. I didn’t bother paying to go in, I just wanted to see it from the outside. It reminded me of Patuaxi in Vientiane but much grander. It’s a shame the base is all covered in storefronts.

I took a short break in a patch of shade in the park, with a view of the Independence Monument and City Hall, before continuing my walk up a main avenue to the Bogyoke Aung San Market. This complex has the typical tourist market things like bags, jewelry, and lacquerware boxes, but it also has sections for fabric, wood carvings, and antiques. Antiques are a big concern in Myanmar; there are warnings everywhere about not being able to bring antiques out of the country. I didn’t get anything, just wandered, killing time until I could get into my room. On my way back I stopped for some street noodles and a spring roll – a steal at 800 kyat.

After finally checking in I waited till late afternoon to go see the biggest attraction in Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda. I’d heard that if I do one thing in Yangon, this should be it, and I see why. The pagoda is not simply one structure but a whole complex of them, all ornately designed and shimmering with decoration. Unfortunately half of Shwedagon is under cover as it’s being worked on, but the top is still impressive, and even just wandering around could take hours depending on your pace. I spent three hours there, taking my time to soak in the architecture and waiting for sunset, when the lights turned on and lit up the spires against the darkening sky. As this happened the pagoda became a hive of activity: monks lit candles, people poured holy water on different statues, volunteers in an orderly line swept the ground, and all around people prayed.

While I was happy to wander alone, I had two conversations at Shwedagon that were the final note in the symphony of kind, friendly, talkative people of Myanmar. First was a girl just two years older than me. She asked to take a picture with me, then sat down next to me and we talked for a while. Beyond simply where I’m from and “only one?” (the Myanmar way of asking if I’m there alone) she asked what I thought was important for our lives. A deep question for a new acquaintance. She absorbed my response and said “thank you for your answer.” She was humbled when I told her my positive opinion of the people in her country and told me if I needed anything at all she wanted to help me. I said I was perfectly content, but thank you.

Second was a monk who, in his 70’s, is studying to become a teacher of Buddhism. After working 14 years in banking he left his profession to live the simpler life of a monk. We talked about mindfulness and how the base reaction to all things around us is like and dislike. Through betelnut-damaged teeth he explained to me the meaning of the days of the week in the Myanmar zodiac, and what the phases of my life would entail based on the day I was born. I just finished a good phase and am in a worried one until 35. Then I can marry and live in very good for 19 years. In my 50’s though I’ll have to move around a bit as a slightly bad patch comes back, but just 12 years later that’ll be over and I’m golden till the end. I was enthralled by his explanation, and he wrote it in my book so I could always have it and explain it to others. On a page now dotted with red spray.

Having done all the most popular attractions I wanted to in Yangon on the first day, my second day was relaxed. I had one task for the day: go to the National Museum. Just like mountains make me happy, when I’m a little overwhelmed in a city I’ve found that taking some time in a museum calms me. I remembered Phnom Penh and how at home I felt in the museum there; the same with Brisbane, Buenos Aires, and Rio. It’d been a while since I had been in a museum so it felt like the right thing to do.

I walked into the first gallery and was shocked at myself as I slowly observed the paintings and wood sculptures. I was emotional, overcome with happiness at where I was at that moment. I wonder if traveling has made me start to let down some of that emotional barrier I’ve always had up and actually acknowledge moments like this. Food for personal thought. Anyway, the museum started out great but as I moved up the floors it became less a museum and more an anthropological study. It didn’t help that the painting galleries were closed, but as I wandered through musical instruments, fossils, and mannequins wearing traditional tribal clothes I started to lose the initial joy I’d felt upon entering. It took just an hour and a half to make my way through all 4 open floors but for me personally, I don’t think I could have picked a better activity for my day.

On my way back I stopped for lunch at a street stall near the museum that no tourist must ever have stopped at. I walked up to the woman behind the curry stand and she looked at me with a terrified expression. She signaled for the only person who spoke English to deal with me. Through a few words I ordered chicken curry with rice and some side dishes – “all of the vegetables” – which I ate at a plastic table and chairs fit for a five-year-old. I swear I felt their sighs of relief hit my back as I left, but maybe they at least found some entertainment in my strange presence. From my side, this last chicken curry was by far the best I had in Myanmar, in the most random of places.

I treated myself to an iced coffee on the walk home and took an evening to relax. This was my final night in Myanmar; the next morning I would board a flight to Bangkok, spend another night in the BKK airport, then go to India. It may not sound like I did much in Yangon and maybe I didn’t do it all, but even just walking around was an activity there. I think I got a good feel for the city.

Yangon also confirmed something that I had a suspicion of before I even got there: cities in Southeast Asia just aren’t for me. With the exception of Chiang Mai, I can’t point to a city in the past three months that I really felt comfortable in. To me the best parts of Southeast Asia are the rural parts, the small villages, the places where the pace of life is slower and the scenery is the draw.

Kalaw, the Mountain Village that Stole my Heart

I’ll go right ahead and say it: I adored Kalaw. This little mountain town may have a steady influx of tourists since it’s the launching point for treks to Inle Lake, but in the quiet moments it’s still a calm village full of friendly Myanmar people and surrounded by the kind of hills you can’t help but want to explore. At this point it should be no surprise that I instantly felt comfortable in this place, having fully accepted that small mountain towns make me happy, so it didn’t take long to extend my stay an extra day.

When I arrived I had planned to do a day trek the next day and possibly leave on the night bus that night for Yangon. I found a guesthouse, Golden Lily, with a reasonably priced $7/night room and a nice two-level deck. I looked around me and already started to doubt my next-day departure. It was pretty here, peaceful, and so much cheaper than Yangon would be. I decided to think about it over food, so I ventured into town and had one of the best meals of my trip at Everest Nepali Food Centre. I have to go to Nepal if just for the food. Spectacular.

Now I was even more convinced to stay another night, but first I needed to figure out my trekking options. As luck would have it, another solo girl was doing the same thing at the same time, and she knew somewhere that already had another solo girl interested (more people means a cheaper price), and they wanted to do the route I wanted to do, so we signed up together for the next day. Almost convinced.

I went back to the guest house. Then I wrote this:
“I’m sitting upstairs on the deck writing, looking out over the town and hills around it. Downstairs someone has started playing acoustic guitar and singing. “Calling, yes I am calling, you through the night.” I made the final decision then and there to stay another day here after trekking. I will never waver on the fact that the mountains make me happy, and this little jam session, after writing about the amazing time I had in Shambhala, was all I could have ever asked for as the sun begins to set. This is great.”

The following day I swung by the Five Days Market – a market that rotates through towns, where all the surrounding villages come with their produce and things to sell, so it’s huge – on my way to meet up with my trekking group. The three of us and our guide, a 19-year-old girl from Kalaw, spent the next 6 hours trekking up and around the hills surrounding Kalaw. Our guide started out quiet, but when she discovered that she and I had the same pace a ways ahead of the other two she meekly turned to me: “Can I ask you questions?” “Yes, of course!” And that broke the ice. We talked about family, travel, food, and where we both came from. At first she was embarrassed by her English but I told her it was great. It was nice to break through the guide/tourist barrier and get to know this girl. She was so sweet.

First we hiked up into the mountains, passing tea plantations, orange fields, a variety of trees growing things like figs and papaya, and stopping for green tea at one of the local villages (population 150). It was a nice hike to me but apparently nothing compared to how it looks in the rainy season, which is also when most of the harvesting is done; I’ll just have to come back for that. We stopped for lunch on the top of the hill at our guide’s parents’ restaurant for delicious Indian-Myanmar food, including her wonderful avocado salad that we had talked about on the walk, with a fantastic view that went on for miles.

After lunch it was all downhill, first through a forest – my favorite part – then past a reservoir that is the source of Kalaw’s drinking water, and eventually through farmland. We actually walked through the crops – strawberries, mustard, garlic, celery, lettuce, kale, and more I can’t remember – which was a beautiful and pretty cool way to end the trek; much better than seeing them from afar.

We got back to town tired but pleased with the day. I made plans to meet up with Beth for a drink at what I’d heard was the best bar in town (of the two bars I saw), Hi Snack & Drink. This is now one of my favorite bars I’ve been to on this trip. It’s a tiny place with a U-shaped bar that seats no more than 15 people and a jovial owner. When we first got there it was all locals enjoying the house specialty – rum sour – and singing along to Myanmar songs being played on an acoustic guitar. We left for dinner and returned to find the U-bar packed with Westerners, but there were still locals in the corner playing and singing, everyone happily coexisting with their rum sours.

I stayed there longer than planned with a couple Brits, Germans and one more American. It was a fun night of conversation – look for mentions of the Buddha rave cave in the upcoming book “Ben the German” – and camaraderie, the kind you find when everyone is simply happy to be in such a low-key, welcoming little place. The owner told us a story: Christmas 2008 an Irishman grabbed an empty Chivas Regal box and put money in it to be donated to the local hospital. The owner kept it up, in his name, and personally hands over all money that is donated in the box directly to the hospital. We were all touched, and instantly contributed. I loved this place. Soon the night came to end, and even though nothing particularly exciting happened, it will always be a fond memory for me.

The next day was the extra one I’d added, with the purpose of having a relaxing “weekend” day as I called it (it was Tuesday, but when you’re traveling any day can be Saturday). I wrote this:
“Golden Lily emptied out as soon as the treks started. I had the place to myself. I danced along to music as I typed up some blog posts on the wonderful country of Myanmar. This was definitely the right decision, the downtime I needed before my final big Southeast Asian city and the craziness I was anticipating India would be.”

Reading, writing, meditating, a final meal at the Nepalese restaurant, and some good old fashioned downtime. It was just what I needed. I left that night on a night bus to Yangon – I had chosen the cheapest bus, which was a 2-by-2 VIP bus, but somehow ended up on a 1-by-2 sleeper bus that handed out snacks, blankets, and neck pillows, score! – and once I arrived I was relieved I had spent my spare day in Kalaw instead of that hectic big city.

Kalaw was my biggest surprise of Myanmar. I knew I’d be blown away by Bagan and enjoy some time on the water in Inle, but I never expected that I would be happiest in the small pass-through town of Kalaw. Life is full of surprises, and I’ll take a happy one like this any day.

The Train Journey from Inle Lake to Kalaw

There’s something romantic about train travel, something old-fashioned, that evokes the movies back when they were called “the pictures” – the tooting of the horn signaling it’s time to go, the slow churn of the wheels starting, and the landscape passing by the windows like frames on film.

As soon as I read that it was possible to take a scenic train from Inle Lake to Kalaw I was sold. I had to do this. Forget the popular trek, I was captivated by the idea of seeing the countryside of Myanmar from a rickety train cabin.

So that’s exactly what I did.

The train only leaves in the morning, 8:30 and 9:00 am I was told, so I left my hotel at 7:30 am for a piercing cold 30-minute tuktuk ride from Nyaungshwe to the Shewnyaung train station. I didn’t mind the cold though; I looked out at the passing land blanketed in mist and reflected on where I was, how far I’d come in the past eight months, and how I felt about my trip. Overall, fantastic, but those thoughts are for a different post. I got my ticket when I arrived at the station for the whopping price of 1150 kyats (about US$1.50) and was rushed out to the platform – the train was leaving at 8:00 am. In a country where buses are perennially late, the train left earlier than expected. Good thing we’d left a little early.

I quickly found my seat and not a minute later I heard the horn prompting our departure from the station. My car was nowhere near full and all the windows were open, so I settled down in my jacket, hat and gloves, ready to watch the world pass by.

The train is scenic in a uniquely “Myanmar in the dry season” way. We rumbled slowly first past green farmland, then through a forest, engulfed by tall trees on either side with a misty background obscuring any distant view. We popped out of a narrow mountain passage and the scenery changed entirely: rolling hills were covered in trees and home to an occasional small wooden cabin. I wonder what this looks like in the rainy season when everything is saturated and green.

Just as quickly as this landscape appeared it disappeared and we were in a town with small single-room houses and people on the streets. I could see people going about their lives from my window, something I wasn’t privy to in the hotels and restaurants of the tourist hubs I’d been staying in.

The next scene was dry farmland, tan and brittle, with a backdrop of rolling hills covered in a patchwork of browns, reds, and golds. Sometimes there were people working in the fields, sometimes cows grazing. We passed another small village. People of all ages came to the tracks to watch the train pass by and wave. I waved back. I watched a kid racing to try to catch up to us; I hoped he would make it but he disappeared behind a bush and I didn’t see him again.

The train moved slowly and jumpily, the car behind us visibly shaking back and forth. At one point I was worried we would actually tip off the tracks but it held on. We stopped only twice along the way, and each time women approached the train with all manner of snacks perched on their heads in case someone in the windows was hungry.

It took 3.5 hours to get to Kalaw but I could’ve stared out the window for even longer. This was my activity for the day. I’ve taken many night buses, prioritizing activities at the next destination over the route to get there, but once in a while I love making the journey the priority. The whole ride I watched the world go by, the world of rural Myanmar, not tourist Myanmar, and by the time I got to Kalaw I felt like I’d already had a full day.


Life and Tourists on Inle Lake

I went straight from Bagan to Inle Lake. I considered doing the two-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, like most people do, but in the end decided to just take the bus straight there. Two reasons: 1) I am a little tired of jumping around and kind of just wanted to get there; 2) I am a lot tired of the Banana Pancake Trail and didn’t feel like being in another organized group of Westerners escorted through a prescribed tourist-friendly route.

There’s one problem with going straight to Inle: I arrived at 3 am. Why they run night buses here from 7 pm to 3 or 4 am I’ll never understand. Just leave at 10 and save everyone the hassle of waking up in the middle of the night. This is the case with all night buses to and from Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Kalaw, and Inle.

The early arrival meant that I had to book accommodation in advance. All the hotels are used to people showing up at that hour, but they also ask if you have a reservation. I heard from a few girls who tried to get a bed on the fly that our guest house in Bagan had said it was full when there were three open beds in the dorm; they blamed it on the receptionist just wanting to go back to sleep. So I booked on Agoda and suffered the pain of a jacked-up price and a booking fee. My advice to you would be if you chose to book ahead, call the place instead of booking online, then you should get the right rate.

After a nap in reception I was led to my room around 8:30 am, immediately showered, and treated myself to a latte and chocolate croissant lunch at a wifi-strong french cafe in town. I caught up on the news. It was a lovely leisurely morning. Then it was time to explore.

I rented a bike for the day at Lonely Planet-recommended Thu Thu (where I also took my laundry, so much cheaper than the hotel) and followed the road northwest around the top of the lake. Another day on another bike; cycling seemed to be the theme of Myanmar, but with such pretty scenery it makes sense.

And then the universe did its thing where it was like “no worries I got your back” and I made friends. I stopped to take a picture on a bridge, where someone else had also stopped, and we started talking. Another American! We cycled and chatted, and I learned that Riki was traveling with his wife Julie and a Swiss girl they’d just met Katarina. Soon after I met them as well and boom, just like that I had friends not only to bike around with for the day, but to drink wine with and get a boat with. Talk about right place right time. You win universe, you always do.

We biked down the one main road, eventually making it to a pagoda with a view of the lake. Finally, there it was. The town everyone stays in, Nyaungshwe, is not actually on the lake but a river that leads to it, so to see the lake you have to either bike an hour or take a boat. The ride home we suffered two flat tire casualties – Julie had to hitchhike home on a dump-truck and Katarina had to stop a few times to get enough air in her tires to make it back – so when we finally reached their hotel we made the executive decision to take a tuktuk to the winery. Nothing could hold us back from the wine.

The view from the winery was beautiful, but the wine itself was not. We each had our own tasting of four wines and no one liked the last three, but we decided the Sauvignon Blanc was good enough to split a bottle as we watched the sun go down. Conversation with new friends, wine, and a sunset, what more could you ask for?

The next morning was an early one; we left at 7 am for our boat tour around Inle Lake, the main attraction. The way the boats work is you book a boat for the day for a set price – 15,000 or 18,000 kyat for more stops (the one we chose) – whether you’re alone or have people to split it with. This is another reason it was so fortunate to meet three new friends; most boats take 4 people so I filled their last spot, and I didn’t have to pay for a boat all by myself, which also would have been pretty boring.

I have mixed feelings on the boat trip. I’ll start with the negative. Many of the stops felt like a tourist shopping trip. All of the local crafts – silversmith, lotus and silk weaving, cigar rolling – had shops attached, and one stop – the floating market, which isn’t even floating right now since it’s dry season – was purely shopping stalls selling all the same paraphernalia. Boats full of tourists disembarked and swarmed. Luckily we had left a little earlier than most so at each location we docked while it was still quiet and left when the masses arrived. The only saving grace was that seeing people make everything was actually interesting. They can roll a cigar in 20 seconds! I was impressed.

The positive part of the boat trip was the boat part. We rode past and through fascinating scenes, from the morning fisherman to entire towns built on stilts. I didn’t realize just how expansive these towns would be. We stopped at a monastery on stilts, and the restaurant we had lunch at slightly swayed with the movement of the water. There’s even the floating gardens, where crops grow in the water and people tend them from boats. It was incredible to see life lived on water in this way.

The strangest part had to be the Burmese cat village. Inthar Heritage House on Inle Lake has taken it upon themselves to make sure this breed of cat doesn’t go extinct; they have 35 cats right now, and those cats live both in part of the house and on their very own island with little cat-sized bungalows. Seriously. It was different, to say the least.

At the end of the day the boat ride was worth it. I’ve always enjoyed any day spent on a boat, where motors replace horns and canals are highways. But one question is still bugging me: in a country where cars drive on the right side of the road, why do boats drive on the left? Anyone know?

That night I had a final tea leaf salad dinner, which turned out to be my last tea leaf salad in Myanmar (so sad), and said bye to my new friends, as I’ve had to do so many times in the past 8 months. Such is the travel life. The next day I departed for Kalaw, happy to have seen Inle but ready to move on.

Mr. Steven’s Boat Trip on the Ayeyarwaddy River

My guest house had signs advertising a Sunset Boat Cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River. I’d heard some positive things about it and was curious to see a little more of the area, as well as break up some of the temple time, so I signed up to go my second afternoon in Bagan. Great decision.

Steven, a resident of Sausalito, CA for most of the year, started the Renegade River Adventures as a way for visitors to see a different part of Bagan, and in the end help it improve. We were led down to the boat by an adorable kid from Myanmar who was Steven’s right hand man; three more Bagan teenagers rounded out the crew. The trip had four stops: the first and second were alright, but it was the third stop that left a lasting impression, and the fourth was just a pleasant way to end a great afternoon.

The first stop was at a temple and cave, where the most notable thing was not the place itself but the response Steven’s visits have gotten. This place used to be littered with trash, like a lot of Myanmar unfortunately is, but since he started bringing his boat trip here (the first to do so) people have taken on the task of keeping the land clean. Now they’ve built a road to access the cave – this is when I heard Steven refer to the new tourists arriving in buses as “air-conditioned tourists,” a term I thought was quite fitting – and a few people have popped up to sell trinkets. The second stop was at a beach for swimming. They set up chairs on the sand and we chatted with beer (sold on the boat by the boys).

The third stop was at a village. Steven’s trip is the only one that visits this particular village, and he is friends with all its residents. As we approached he cut the motor and told us a little about what was about to happen: we each received a lunch box full of oranges and a laminated picture. This village only eats what it grows, and it doesn’t grow any citrus, so there is a hole in the people’s diets. Kids love the oranges and now know that we will be bringing them; we were allowed to hand them out as we saw fit but had to come back to the boat sans oranges.

The picture was a person in the village we had to find. The people who live there have no pictures, of themselves or their families, so Steven collects the pictures that tourists take, prints them out, and then asks the next visitors to bring them to the person so they have a picture of themselves, and in order for the cycle to continue we had to take pictures of people while we were there.

I was unsure what to think of this when I was handed my picture, but as soon as I got off the boat and was surrounded by kids who wanted to show me the way to my guy I was wholly on board. I had three little escorts to find Uzo, in exchange for oranges of course, and once I reached his house I realized he was ready for me. He ushered me in to sit down and promptly placed steaming hot corn on the cob in front of me. He motioned to eat. He grabbed another tourist off the street to join us – Filip- and motioned for him to eat too. He also gave us peanuts with tea leaves and poured us hot tea. We used hand signals and a few words to communicate. He showed me his old Burmese currency and I gave him a US one dollar bill, which he tucked into his shirt pocket. He gave me a Burmese cigar. He showed us through pantomime that his wife was out harvesting peanuts like the ones we were eating. His son joined us, 7 years old, in school, and asked if I would like thanakha – a paste made from tree bark that is worn all over Myanmar for healthy skin and sun protection. He took me upstairs to apply some, and they showed us their altar to Buddha. I took pictures of them together, and they asked for a picture of me with the boy. I have never had an interaction with a local family like this. I was touched.

Filip needed to find his guy so we said goodbyes and thank you’s all around. I hope whoever gets Uzo’s picture that I took has as positive an experience as I did with him. More people helped us find Phillip’s person, and after an exchange of photos we had to head back to the boat, but not before we were stopped by another man who ushered us into his home to meet his family and have more corn and peanuts and tea leaves. They already had another pair of tourists there too. A teenage girl pointed to the ring on my finger, one of the two I got at the St. Kilda market in Melbourne, so I put it on her finger. She put hers on mine, and that’s how we left it. Every time I look at my left hand I am reminded of the kind spirit of the people in this village. It was an incredible experience that I was sad to leave, but the time had come to get back on the boat. Sunset was almost here.

We ended our day on a little sand island watching the sun sink into the river, Filip and I puffing on our gifted Burmese cigars. It was beautiful (even more than over the temples) and a perfect end to the day.

The next day I stopped by the local photo shop, Linn, and copied the pictures I had taken into the folder “Steven.” I hope they bring some joy to the people I met like they brought joy to me.

Thoughts from Bagan

February 17, 2015. Sunset at Pyathada Pagoda, Bagan, Myanmar.

“Again, thousands of miles across the globe, I find myself waiting for the sun to set. Sipping a Sprite this time though, not beer. Why did I stop drinking Sprite? So refreshing.

As I was biking to my final destination temple where I knew I would spend the last moments of daylight I thought back to how many times in the past almost 8 months I have sought out a place to watch the ball of fire drop below the horizon. I remembered sitting on the wall overlooking the Caribbean in Cartagena, way back in August. I remembered hiking to the top of the hill in Copacabana to watch it set below Lake Titicaca. The time our sandboarding group had pisco sours at Lion King Rock, overlooking the otherworldly Atacama desert. There was the dock in Colonia del Sacramento, with the boats in the harbor. The time Habibi sent the sun down with a standing ovation in the Whitsundays. I watched it with the penguins at the St. Kilda Pier in Melbourne. Then from an infinity pool in Vinh Hy Bay. And with hundreds of bats in Battambang. Pascal and I raced to catch it in Khao Lak, but barely missed it and had to settle for just-after-sunset light over the Andaman Sea. My sister and I made it with happy hour drinks in Ao Nang and again in Gili Air. Utopia was the perfect setting with Simo in Luang Prabang, and Huay Tung Tao Lake outside Chiang Mai with my border crossing friends. And now here in Bagan I’m sitting on top of Pyathada Pagoda watching it set over a landscape dotted with temples, the Mekong and a mountain range serving as a backdrop.

How many times in how many places I’ve watched this natural phenomenon. The base idea may be the same, but the changing setting makes it look new every time.

I’m sure I’ll have the same experience with sunrise tomorrow – remembering Kaikoura, flying into Sydney, Lan Ha Bay, Angkor Wat, and Gili Air – even though there have been fewer sunrises than sunsets in my travels. Still, that doesn’t lessen their beauty. In fact, I tend to prefer the peacefulness of sunrises to the crowds of sunsets.

I find myself wondering if I’ll keep up this habit of watching daylight begin and end once I’m back in a daily routine. Maybe it’s better if I don’t. This is not something that should be routine. It never has been in all these places because the setting was never the same. So maybe it’s a ritual I’ll reserve for new places or certain ones that deserve it. Only time will tell. The great thing about sunrises and sunsets is that they’re not going anywhere. Wherever I end up, the sun must go down, and it must come up again. There’s something wonderfully comforting about that.”

The Temples of Bagan

The array of buildings in Bagan is impressive, there’s no denying that. Looking out over the landscape dotted with thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas takes your breath away. To me, this is the best part of Bagan, seeing it from an elevated viewpoint. When it’s dawn and hot air balloons are floating quietly past it’s even better.

Let me rewind. I had three days in Bagan and think that was the perfect amount of time: Day 1 for biking around the Old Bagan area and all the most popular temples, Day 2 for sunrise and an afternoon boat trip on the Ayeyarwaddy River (which will have its own post), Day 3 for the southern circuit of temples and New Bagan. It’s impossible to recount every single temple I saw, so instead I’m going to try to describe the overall experience of exploring Bagan and let the pictures speak for the specifics.

I set out on my 1,000 kyat/day bike with a strong feeling of anticipation. This was one of the most important sites in Myanmar and one of the reasons I wanted to come here. As I cycled past the first brick buildings I became giddy; my day was dedicated to riding a bike around in summer weather through an Archaeological Zone surrounded by temples. This was a great way to spend a day.

I was also happy to be alone; if somewhere looked interesting I went there, or if a tour bus full of camera-wielding octogenarians pulled up I could get out as fast as my legs would pedal. That was the best part about exploring on a bicycle: I had the freedom to stop anywhere I wanted to and as much (or as little) as I wanted to.

The first building that caught my attention enough to pull over – Htilominlo Temple – was huge and intricately carved. It was a good example of how elaborate the buildings Bagan could be. I did a slow circle around the temple, soaking in the beauty of what I was standing in front of and the fact that I had made it there. A kind woman showed me the way to a neighboring ruin that I could climb for a view of the area, which was good for orienting myself, before she led me to her shop and tried to sell me things. This was my introduction to the other side of Bagan: peddlers. People are set up at every major temple asking if you want to buy their clothing, paintings, postcards, books, or jewelry. I heard this is a recent addition since tourism has grown and wonder what it would have been like to visit before, when your approach to the temple was quiet instead of “please just looking.” (This is an interesting approach that’s used in Myanmar – instead of “would you like to look at my stuff” they say “please just looking yes?” which is true but you can’t say that or they try to sell you more.)

I continued on, making my way down the main road to Old Bagan and pulling over to explore a number of temples, from small ones I didn’t know the names of to big ones highlighted in my guidebook. The big ones certainly were big – I could see them from across the land so approaching them was almost daunting – and some were white, which was a nice contrast to the rest of the mostly brick structures. Old Bagan was much smaller than I anticipated. I biked from end to end with a stop to look at the river in probably an hour, which was good because I needed lunch. I tried another round of chicken curry and decided that it’s just not my meal. But for 1,000 kyat I wasn’t complaining. And I do still enjoy the colorful variety of little side dishes it comes with.

The afternoon was more of the same, checking off the main attraction temples on my way down to the one I would watch sunset from. I avoided the most popular sunset temple – Shwesandaw Pagoda – so I didn’t have to fight hundreds of tourists for a view. I did stop there though to see what all the fuss was about and have to admit that the view is fantastic. The one I chose instead – Pyathada Pagoda – was probably second most popular, but thanks to a huge rectangular platform there was enough room for all of us. Sunset honestly was a bit disappointing; it was great to see the expanse temples, as always, but the sun did the same performance as in Mandalay, disappearing behind hazy cloud cover that denied us a colorful sky.

Dawn was not disappointing though, quite the opposite. I got up at 5 am and so did my dormmate, so we decided to take on the task of finding the recommended stupa for dawn – Buledi – in the dark together. We biked through the barely-lit streets wearing our headlamps. At one point we heard a strange loud sound and then saw fire shoot up into the sky; it was where the hot air balloons launched from, but with just the noise and fire in the dark morning it was kind of spooky. Once we found the stupa (the little lights of other people’s flashlights on top helped us out) we climbed to the top in the light of our lamps, claimed an east-facing spot, and waited.

I love how the sky slowly starts to light up for sunrise. It’s a hopeful time of day, filled with anticipation as the rising sun approaches and breaks through the horizon line. A misty layer made the tops of the temples appear like they were floating as the sky went from black to blue. Shortly after the sun was up, it was the hot air balloons’ turn. They added a magical element to the scene. Watching these orbs float by, some close enough to our stupa that we could wave to the passengers, with the temples as their backdrop was the highlight of my visit to Bagan. It was gorgeous.

My last day was focused on the less popular temples further south. From the beginning I could feel that I was less enthusiastic than I had been on my first biking day but told myself that would change once I got out there. My first temple was a quiet one; no one there but me and the nice man who, on his day off from the Archaeological Museum, gave little tours and sold his paintings. He was delightful, telling me about the design and history of the temple, clarifying what made it a temple (temples you can climb up and go in, pagodas you just go in, stupas you just go up), and answering any other questions I had, like the different positions of Buddha. I gave in and bought my first real souvenir from him: one of his paintings of the Mynamar zodiac, with months and days of the week. There’s something fascinating to me about this importance on the day of the week you were born, something that I learned more about Yangon that made me even happier to have this souvenir. More on that later.

I cycled on happy with how the day had started but quickly started to lose steam. The next temples were in Myinkaba Village, which made them feel a little congested, and on the road to New Bagan. I still explored but with a little less energy, eventually stopping for a mediocre tourist lunch in New Bagan. I pushed through the heat and the dust to make it to my final stops, listening to my iPod as I cycled around to help make the ride a bit more enjoyable. What saved this day was that most of the temples I was seeing were known for their murals instead of their size. It was a good change from just walking up, down and around ruins. These had preserved images inside, and they weren’t just a few scattered paintings but whole walls covered with intricate art.

By the time I made it back to Nyaung-U I was exhausted and all templed-out. I didn’t mind that my 6 pm bus to Inle Lake caused me to miss my final sunset. Even with a strong interest in architectural history, I don’t think I could have visited any more temples. At some point they all start to blend together. At one point I overheard a foreigner who, when being convinced to walk into another pagoda, sarcastically summed up how I felt by the end of the day: “Let me guess, there’s four sides, and each side has another Buddha.”

Even so, Bagan is spectacular. It entirely deserves the praise it gets and is a must-see for anyone going to Myanmar, even if you just make it for a day – as long as that day includes sunrise.

This is Myanmar: Mandalay

I arrived in Mandalay airport and was immediately approached by taxi drivers offering their fares to get into the city through mouths full of apparently decaying red-stained teeth. I could barely focus on what they were saying, all I could think was, “What the hell is up with their teeth?!” This was my less than great first impression of Myanmar. (I would later find out that this is betelnut and most everyone chews it here, causing lots of red mouths and red spit left on streets. It’s probably my least favorite trend in this country.)

Leaving behind that welcome, I made it into the city to my extremely budget hotel at US$19 a night and immediately set out to try to see as much as possible; I would be leaving on the noon bus for Bagan the next day. On my way to find a local bus to the somewhat faraway temple I wanted to see, I made it just to the end of the street before I got sidetracked by a different temple, which ended up being a precursor for the rest of the day: large, ornate, shiny, and gold. Myanmar temples are built to impress, in scale and decoration.

I kept going and quickly learned that Mandalay is not a city meant for walking around. I guess it could be if you don’t mind walking on the street with all the bikes and cars. It’s hectic, and the main street to get to the buses is one of the busiest. I dodged people and vehicles and finally made it to the right turn only to find the other busiest street in town and no easy way to figure out what pick-up truck (aka local bus) would take me where I needed to go. So when a mototaxi dropped his price down to 1,000 kyat each way (US$1) I said screw it, why not. He ended up driving me around all afternoon to every sight I wanted to see in Mandalay for 5,000 kyat.

Just like Battambang with Sokoma, Moo ended up being more of a guide than I expected he would be. He also loved the US: “USA number 1!” He showed me pictures of his family, taught me a few words in Myanmar, and helped clear up some confusion: “This is Myanmar. I am Myanmar person. I speak Myanmar language.” Burma means nothing to Moo.

When we got to the Mahamuni Paya, Moo played tour guide as he took me through the temple and told me some of its history. Since it was a Sunday it was packed with locals praying to the giant Buddha, who was being given new gold leaf by the men (women are not allowed in the sanctuary). Weekends have become my favorite way to see places of worship; they’re being used like they’re meant to be. The complex was impressive but I preferred the next stop.

Shwe In Bin Kyaung is a quiet monastery constructed in teak wood, with beautiful carvings inside and architectural details outside. I was greeted by two friendly monks who told me a little bit about the monastery as we walked around. We drove past Mandalay Palace and its giant moat/wall fortification on our way to Kuthodaw Paya and Sandamuni Paya, an impressive array of carved marble slabs telling the Tripitaka canon in what is called the “world’s biggest book.” Each slab is housed in its own white mini-paya, which are arranged in rows around a large gold stupa, creating a stunning landscape of pointed white peaks.

The tour ended at Mandalay Hill for sunset. The barefoot 760-foot climb to the top took me past pagodas and shops. No shoes or socks are allowed on pagodas; you can imagine what my feet looked like by the time I reached the top. I joined dozens of people waiting for the supposedly beautiful view over the sprawling city. I could barely make out the buildings below underneath the haze. The sun turned into an orange ball of fire and then disappeared beneath cloud coverage, never to reappear. So much for that sunset. The way back down I chatted the entire time with a few friendly novice monks who were on the hill purely to work on their English. They were excited to meet an American – they understand our accent more easily since they hear it so frequently in movies – and we talked about their studies, literature, traveling, Myanmar.

Moo dropped me off at my hotel and I thanked him for a great day. I wandered to the night market, typically a reliable place for cheap food stalls, to discover that in Mandalay night market means some ill-lit tables of books and clothes set up alongside and in the middle of the street, with lanes for the traffic to keep driving through. I found a stall though that some locals seemed to be enjoying and had my first multi-dish Myanmar curry meal. Sadly the chicken curry was the most disappointing part – a questionable drumstick – but when combined on the rice with all the sides it was pretty tasty. There’s some weird flavor though that I am not a fan of; I have yet to figure out what vegetable it is but it turned my face into something unpleasant.

That night I reflected on my introduction to Myanmar. Mandalay is a tough city – busy, dirty, and clear poverty scattered throughout – but I was happy to have stopped there. As I rode around on the motorbike I realized that this is what people had meant when they said it was Southeast Asia before development really happened. I felt like I’d gone back in time a bit, and really crossed over into a world so unlike my own. There was something sadly fascinating about it.

This first city also showed me something that would soon be solidified in my impression of Myanmar: the people are some of the kindest, friendliest, most helpful, and genuinely wonderful people I’ve met. I’ve never had such great interaction with locals as I have in this country, and that alone makes it worth visiting.