“The Golden Country” as Marco Polo named it is full of Buddhist temples and smiling people. It’s like the time has stopped – electricity is available only during certain hours of the day, there’s no mobile network, no ATMs and only a handful of people speak English. To quote the Nobel winner for literature Rudyard Kipling : »It is quite unlike any place you know about.«
Planning a trip to Myanmar, this huge country wedged between India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, has to start at home. You can only enter by plane if you already have a permit. Since they have no embassy in Slovenia, you can get it either in Berlin or Belgrade. When all the formalities are done a trip to the past can begin.
The modern and unofficial capital of Yangon
Most travellers first arrive to Yangon, the biggest city in the country, although the capital still lies in Najpjidav. It’s surprising to see neat streets with city lights, tended parks and modern buildings. But more surprising, there’s something missing, that is found anywhere in Asia – there are no motorbikes anywhere. Can it be? Yes, they are prohibited in Yangon! The second thing that surprised me is that they drive in a lane on the same side that their car has the steering wheel: so they drive like us – on the right side of the road; but have the steering wheel like the Brits – also on the right side of the car. The city is known as the economic heart of the country and as the home of the most famous religious monument in the country, the Shwedagon pagoda. It’s a golden pagoda 99 metres tall, standing proud on a platform of marble, showing off shiny diamonds and rubies that are part of the umbrella on the top. As the locals do, so did I, walk around the pagoda in a clockwise direction.
In Yangon there is also the colonial quarter, for the country was run by the British for a long time. That’s why most cars have the steering wheel on the right, but after they’ve left, people started driving on the right lane of the road – without changing the cars. During colonial time they also built the Scott market, a very popular place for foreign and domestic tourists, also known as Bogyoke Aung San Market. It’s a huge covered complex with stands that offer almost anything: from local delicacies to clothes, souvenirs, jewellery, pictures, furniture… and you need to haggle for everything, of course. With some good will and stamina you can get a fair price quite easily.
Yangon is encircled by the railroad, for which the train needs some 3 hours to circle and the fare is 1$. When I entered the train, I saw what I’ve expected from this land – old wooden benches, no glass on the windows, smiling people with lots of things they brought from the countryside to trade, vegetables, chicken, babies with no diappers and lots of bikes. No one mind the photo, and their smiles even got brighter. Looking through the window I saw the green landscape with many rice fields speed by.
A few years ago they’ve built the new highway between Yangon and Mandalay, which was the next positive surprise. I feared the long drives with bad busses, but instead I arrived there quickly and comfortably on a night trip – unlike any bus after this one. The weather convinced us to rent bikes and explore the town. We saw many different pagodas, I only avoided the palace of Mandalay, because the entrance fee is really high. I deliberately avoided all services that filled the governmental budget – these are governmental entrance tickets, certain hotels, trains and so on. Why? Old Burma suffered under the military cue for a long time, with high taxes and violation of human rights, curfew and doing so the people were brought to their knees. I could´t support that.
At the entrance of some cities they have control points where each foreigner must pay a “pass” to get into the city (that’s the case with Mandalay, Bagan, Bago and Lake Inle). I’ve managed to enter Mandalay and Bago without paying – probably because I’ve arrived so early, the control point wasn’t opened yet. During the sightseeing officials can check this pass, so you always have to have it with you; and some sights are only accessible with it. So I stayed clear of pagodas and stupas in Mandalay and went up the »Mandalay Hill« in the evening to enjoy the sunset and went for a chat with the monks.
The people here have always changed their capitals. So I took a taxi to visit the capitals of the past, the cities of Nwa,
Saigang and Amarapura, where I walked the longest teakwood bridge in the world – U Bein. I’ve stopped at the nearby temple, where they have three pythons today and a former python is supposed to reincarnate into two girls. Every day you can watch the ritual bathing at 11am or have a photo with a python.
If there was a place that really bedazzled me during my stay it was Bagan. A huge area with one thousand and one (well 2200 actually, but in the past there were over 10.000) stupas and pagodas and it’s the Buddhist equivalent of a Disneyland for grownups. Foreigners cannot rent motorbikes here, so again I cycled, but it wasn’t such a cool idea, because temperatures raised over 40 centigrade and the distances were not really short. Still I saw the tallest (61m tall) the oldest (from the 9th century), the largest, the most attractive, and many other temples.
In the evening: mission sunset
After a difficult day I climbed the steep stairs to the upper level of the popular Shwesandaw temple and deliberately looked
only the stairs under my feet. I wanted to see the landscape only from the highest point, so when I came to the top – all tired and out of breath – I was stunned with fascination. I’ve never seen anything like this. Wherever I’ve looked, I recognised a pagoda – a brown, brick, white or covered with leaves… and while the sun was setting and shining upon the land with a gentle orange all the pagodas and temples started glowing with a special aura. The sky changed various beautiful colours and the silence was spoiled only by numerous cameras clicking the photos away.
The black lake
Lake Inle is a huge lake in the east of the country, where they produce most tomatoes in the floating gardens. People live in houses on water and their fishermen are known for the unique technique of paddling – with one leg. They have their arms free to use fishing nets! With a hired boat we explored the hidden corners of the lake, saw the show with cats at the temple; visited the craft shops where they produced umbrellas, cigars and silverware. They even have hot water springs. And they are really hot! I couldn’t get in the water deeper than to my knees. In the middle of the lake I asked our captain if I can take a swim – he said: sure! I took off my clothes and jumped in, but after a few strokes returned to the boat. The water is so dark, it’s like swimming in ink. It was very unpleasant to watch the dark depths. The next day I went to the nearby hills and local villages with my guide. The path went through thick dark woods, rice fields and green gardens. I spent the night at the Buddhist monastery, where I was visited by a rat during the night, which nibbled through my toilet bag and nearly got to the top of my head. The candle was long gone and there
was no electricity and my flashlight spotted the rat behind the beam next to my makeshift bed. I grabbed all my things in the middle of the night and joined my guide in the next building. We all had a laugh about it the next morning. On the way back we visited some villages, schools and vineyards. Yes, that’s right – vineyards. The climate here is just right, so a German decided to raise a vineyard here to produce grapes for vine. A quick sampling costs $2, but it’s worth it, especially the late vintage.
»You’ve gave two families two days of food with this.«
Since I’m a real fan of Buddhist architecture I couldn’t pass by the opportunity to visit one of the most important monuments of Myanmar. So I continued to Bago, on the way to Kinpun, from where you can easily reach the pagoda Kyaiktiyo (the Golden Rock). In Bago I again hired a motorist, who took me from temple to temple. He knew all the side entrances, so I didn’t have to pay the tickets or the general Bago pass. I asked him
to take me to a school, because I was really curious to see what the classes were like. Being a retired teacher, this was no problem for him. We entered the schoolyard and were really surprised. It was full of people and music. We had the luck to be present when the new monks – it was a monk school – gave the pledge. They treated me as a celebrity: I got food and drink right away and could sit in the main hall, where even the parents didn’t have access too. I didn’t understand the pledges or prayers, but I felt their energy that filled the room. It was a one in a life time experience. Later I asked my guide about the life standard and he said that as a teacher he earned 85.000 kjat (about 85€), but now in retirement he only gets 9.500 kjat (so 9,50€). When I gave him the arranged 10.000 kjat for a day’s guidance he told me – you’ve fed two families for two days with this. With a handshake and a smile we took our farewells and I was off to find the internet. In a country that doesn’t even have electricity the whole day and the mobile network is only starting to get operational and no foreign SIM card works it’s a really hard thing to do. But
we found an internet café in Bago, so I could write home. While doing this somebody came up to me and patted me on the back – it was my guide. He remembered I asked him about their old currency that lost all value after inflation so he promised he’d show it to me. He took three notes from his pockets and two coins and gave them to me – as a momentum. I was so surprised and touched I kept thanking him and asked, what to give him in return. He didn’t want anything. Happy he said goodbye and left. I felt his warm handshake for a long time and his friendliness and warmth will stay with me forever.
The journey to mount Kyaiktyo
I arrived to Kinpun early in the morning in a heavy rainstorm. The settlement has only one street that ends in the forest where the muddy water flows down the road and makes the steps heavy. I thought I found “the end of the world.” To the
mountain from the pagoda I had to go by truck. They put us on a trailer and the driver was driving uphill like crazy through many slippery curves. We stopped at the plateau and all of us, white folks, were told to get off the truck. No one spoke English, so we never found out why. They just showed us the way where to go. We went further uphill for about an hour in strong rain and came to the office, where they sell tickets ($6). They explained we had to leave the truck because the road was too dangerous for tourist. No matter, our transport never had a roof anyway, so no matter what, we were wet. Again I walked barefoot on marble, only this time it was wet. And if at the beginning of the trip I saw the Shwedagon pagoda immediately, I had to search for this one – it was surrounded by mystical fog. It’s a rock that stands on the edge of the cave against the laws of physics and on it is a small pagoda. The legend says that Buddha’s single hair holds its balance, keeping it from rolling off. A view of this miracle should be enough to make you believe and crave Buddhism. Did I? Maybe. And a desire remained to visit this country again, one way or the other. It’s a country that welcomes you warmly and rewards each effort you put into discovering it.