Now where did I leave my shoes?
Mingalabar from Myanmar! Steel yourself as I regale you with a story about a country as old as time, yet relatively untouched by tourism. This is a land of smiling people, delicious noodles, jungle, hills, rivers, lakes, dirt, trash here and there, and oh so many pagodas. Okay, I’m not that exciting of a writer, but I do want to tell you some stuff. Interestingly enough, this is technically my second time here. Back in 2009, we crossed into Myanmar for the sole purpose of renewing our Thailand visas, as they were only good for some 15 days at a time. It required leaving Thailand and then coming back in, which could be done a number of times. Anyway, since we were in northwestern Thailand, the closest border was Myanmar. Things were quite a bit different back then. The borders were more or less closed, save for this very purpose. I spent a few hours browsing a small outdoor market on what turned out to vebe the hottest day of the year as I waited for passports to process. The market was a bit of a front, as few people were offered insights into the very strictly controlled country. Amazingly enough, just a year later the tourism ban was lifted, and the political climate of the country changed drastically. Since that time, Myanmar has slowly seen an influx of tourists, and now has hotels, restaurants, ATMs, western clothing and supplies, and everything else we tourists are spoiled with. What still excited me was that Myanmar still holds onto its traditional roots, and is not afraid to show them.
Most people still wear Myanmar traditional clothing, which consists of a colorful fitted top and a longyi, which I can best describe as a skirt, worn by men and women, but folded and tied differently. This one piece of fabric is worn over shorts to help keep bodies cool in hot months. Additional longyi can be used to cover the face or upper body in cold months, and can also be used to carry belongings like a purse or backpack. In all honesty, if I wouldn’t get so many looks for wearing one, I’d bring one back to the US. It really is a clever design.
Man wearing a longyi
Children, women, and occasionally men are often seen wearing thanakha, which is a paste made from grinding a local tree bark. Once ground, it has a color that resembles a lighter skin tone. It is placed on the face in a decorative fashion, but also serves as protection from the sun. From what I can gather, outside of formal events, no one is required to wear traditional dress, but most people seemed to wear them every day anyway. Although there were people in western shirts and a few with jeans, the local clothing looks way more comfortable!
Boy wearing thanakha, posing for some photos with Ethan
Speaking of people, it is amazing just how sincere and kind the people are…outside of touristy spots anyway. Most people you pass will smile and say mingalabar (hello). They are very polite and patient even when driving and it is nice not to have streets full of horns. Street vendors are not pushy. Some people are so taken back by westerners that they ask for a photo with you. Ethan has become a pretty major celebrity, as I gather young western children are a very rare treat. He loves the attention and has yet to turn down an offer for a photo… And he has certainly done a lot. His friendly demeanor has earned him all sorts of treats and candy literally everywhere we go.
This girl wanted a photo ringing the bell with Ethan
As I mentioned above, the only real bummer so far has been around the touristy stuff. People there seem to change when they smell the potential for money. The vendors in this area typically get in your face and demand outrageous prices. People try to charge you to watch your shoes or to take photos, but it’s all a ruse to get money. Toilets suddenly become costly to use and are still unkempt squatty potties with no toilet paper or soap. Taxi and tuk tuk drivers are obnoxious and try to overcharge. Our worst experience was on a horse and carriage ride through ancient Inwa city. Although we paid in full at the beginning of the journey (very atypical in Myanmar), at the end of the tour, the driver literally said “finished, pay 2000 kyats more”. After I said no, she simply got up and walked away, leaving us to get off the carriage and fend for ourselves. Very disappointing, but very much a rarity here. My hope is that this attitude stays a rarity as tourism continues to grow here. We entered Myanmar late in the evening through Mandalay airport, the biggest airport in the country and unsurprisingly located outside of Mandalay city, the second largest city in the country. With only taxis as an option to get to the city center, we started an hour long drive through what turned out to be very dusty, dimly lit (or not lit at all) streets. I immediately questioned our decision to come here, hoping our taxi driver in this strange clothing wouldn’t stop somewhere and attack us. My fears were unfounded as we rolled into Mandalay city and cruised to the seven story hotel sticking out of the downtown area that we would call home.
We only had two days in Mandalay, with one planned for the city proper and the other on a tour of all the surrounding ancient and historical sites. The city (and everywhere we’ve been, for that matter) is full of crumbling streets and dirt fills the air, kicked up by all the cars as they pass by. Trash is prevalent but seems somewhat isolated to specific areas, but it is still an eyesore. As we wandered toward Mandalay Palace and some nearby pagodas, it was the first time we were met with all the friendly greetings and smiles. We even had a few people chat with us with the decent amount of English they knew. It’s actually surprising how many people here speak English, I am not sure if it is from a recent effort to become more worldly or if it is some kind carryover from former British rule. In any case, it does selfishly make things quite a bit easier for us.
When we finally made it to the best pagodas, and I say this because there are SO MANY pagodas that you have to discover where the best ones are and visit only them or you will literally be looking at pagodas forever, I was blown away by how beautiful they are. It’s a shame that they don’t represent anything on a personal level to me, but they truly are incredible to see. Each one has a somewhat unique stupa design, a stupa being the tower part that sticks out toward the heavens located at the middle of the pagoda. Since they are pagodas, you know from my previous blog that they all serve to worship some form of Buddha in some way.
What a stupa
What kicks things up a notch here in Myanmar is that you have to take off your shoes before entering a pagoda complex. Since they are considered holy ground, all footwear and revealing clothing is strictly prohibited. This does not in any way mean the complexes are clean, and quite often we found it to be the opposite. It actually has me wondering if dirt and pigeons are considered holy in some way. In any case, it is a matter of grin and bear it as you walk around. Of course, leaving your shoes at an entrance means you have to find your way back to that specific entrance and find your shoes in a mess of others. Or, I suppose you could ways walk away with some new foot wear. No one seemed interested in my 3 year old stinky pair of tevas. There was even a time where we hiked up some 1500 steps to the top of Mandalay hill barefoot because of the pagodas littered around the side.
Look at all them shoes
Our second day went as prescribed; we hired a driver for the day to take us to four different areas around Mandalay. Once again pagodas were top sites, but each one is unique and different and didn’t make it feel like you are visiting the same thing over and over again. The city of Sagaing has a hill choc full of pagodas and it is breath-taking to see both up close and from a distance. We also got to see pagodas and the world’s largest working bell in Mingun, the remains of the ancient imperial city of Inwa, and the world’s largest teak wood bridge in Amarapura. As we waited for sunset at the bridge, we each had several high school age kids come up to us, wanting to practice their English. It made for a fun way to learn some of the things I’ve shared with you about Myanmar.
White pagoda at Mingun
Pagodas dotting the hillside
Sun setting on U Bein teak bridge
Early the next morning, we set out by boat on the Irrawaddy River on a day cruise down to the pagoda-studded area of Bagan. In the morning we were served a nice breakfast and stopped at a traditional village where they specialize in making straw hats and rice. For reasons so unknown to me, I was having stomach issues that day but it was nice to be able to relax on the boat. As it warmed up outside (weather usually starts in the 50s in the morning and warms to 90 by mid-day in the dry season), the sun deck made for a nice place to rest. Lunch was a traditional Myanmar curry, which I didn’t have but everyone else said was the best they’ve had. On a side note, although wifi and cheap mobile data are pretty new in Myanmar, there wasn’t place anywhere along this journey, even when there were no people or villages for miles, where I got anything lower than a 3G signal. I can’t even connect to the hotels wifi as I write this but I have a 4G LTE+ signal. Technology.
On the Irrawaddy
Making straw hats
The boat anchored in Bagan close to 6pm and we took a cab to our hotel. We needed to get a good night’s sleep, as tomorrow would start 3 days of pagoda hunting. Bagan truly is the city of pagodas, with over 1000 of them covering a small countryside. Almost all of them were built by kings during the time Bagan was the country’s seat of power about 1000 years ago. It’s still hard to have an appreciation for a pagoda when you know what it stands for but being here was nothing short of magical. After some research, we decided to rent an ebike to get around the roughly 100 square kilometers that house all the pagodas. An ebike is basically a battery powered scooter, with a handlebar you rotate to accelerate, handlebar brakes, a top speed of about 45 kph (the speed limit was 48 kph for some reason), and no pedaling required. It pretty easily sat the three of us and in no time we were cruising through the streets and dirt roads to find some pagodas. The adventure was on!
Don't we look awesome?
Like anywhere else in Myanmar, with over 1000 pagodas it is essential to pick out the top ones and visit them, allowing time to stop at cool looking ones along the way. We marked out about 20 we really wanted to see but it was most fun heading down dirt roads to pagodas that weren’t even on a map. There was never really anywhere that was overrun with tourists, and we had many sites all to ourselves. I wish pictures would do justice to just how incredible some of these sites were. Hopefully my pictures do some justice to the highlights.
Even though incredibly rare in the dry season, we woke up to some rain on day two. Finally coming to a halt around noon, we set out with vigor to make up for lost time. Heading further into uncharted (for us) dirt roads, we quickly discovered that a little bit of rain can turn a dirt road into massive amounts of difficult to drive through mud. I guess it made our pagoda discoveries that much more worth it as we slipped and slid all over the place.
A look from within
On day three the weather returned to being beautiful and sunny, and although a few roads held on to their residual mud we were free to explore to our hearts content. Each pagoda is square in shape and the larger ones hold a Buddha on each of the four sides. The Buddha on each side look different, surely symbolizing something different to pray to or pray for. The designs of the pagodas themselves are what really drew us in, as in some cases it seemed kings were trying to outdo former ones for the best looking pagodas.
So many amazing pagodas
Typical shrine along one side of the pagoda
Up until this point the weather hadn’t cooperated to allow us to see a sunset or sunrise, but we were finally able to see a sunset in day three. Although we had booked an overnight bus that we needed to be on, we zipped out to catch the colors change as the sun descended over the pagodas. It was well worth taking the time to do so! We raced back in time to jump on the bus to head to our next destination, Lake Inle. What’s there, you ask? How was the bus ride? Stay tuned to find out!
So many pagodas, so little time
Sunset over Bagan as the cows come in