Backpacking in Myanmar: Definitely not for the faint of heart

It’s true when they say that Myanmar is quite different from other countries in Southeast Asia.

For one, being in the golden country feels like stepping a few decades back in time, when cassette tapes were all the rage (their taxis still use ’em, in fact) and censorship was still in the PG-13 territory—at least as far as entertainment options in cross-country bus rides are concerned.

A stroll along downtown Yangon, with its endless stretch of British colonial era buildings in various states of disintegration, will make you feel as if you were suddenly trapped in an architectural time capsule or a World War Z movie. The streets are lined with scores of stately Victorian, Art Deco and neoclassical buildings that are now mildewed and crumbling and covered with dust, and these once-grand structures are now being used as government offices or have been converted into crowded apartments that offer a glimpse into the residents’ closets as they string their laundry across balconies and staircases. It paints a sadly romantic picture.

Myanmar: Yangon Day One

Myanmar: Yangon Day One

Myanmar: Yangon Day One

Myanmar: Last day in Yangon

Truth be told, I’ve a lot of mixed feelings about Myanmar.

No bones about it: this was the most uncomfortable I’ve been in my travels. The five days we were there, my sister and I were always in transit—rickety old buses, crazy truck rides, and unmetered taxis—and we encountered a few characters who make Dick Dastardly seem a non-villain: a young man, clearly a heavy user of betel quid as his teeth were stained a reddish-black from chewing areca nuts and tobacco, who attracted quite the jeering crowd when he talked quite loudly into our faces after he misheard that we were paying him a few thousands short of his asking price for a water-colour painting he was selling; and the worst taxi driver who took us to the airport and made it a point to show off his over-speeding skills the moment there was enough road for him to suddenly hit 120kph—he nearly got us into an accident when he almost hit another car and only missed it by a good two inches. As this was our last experience of Myanmar before leaving for Singapore, needless to say, we left the country feeling a bit on edge.

Luckily, we also left Myanmar with a suitcase full of good memories that outweigh all our unfortunate encounters combined. Off the top of my head:

1. Being on the receiving end of a stranger’s kindness. While walking along the pitch-dark highway of the Kyaiktiyo township, we ran into one of our hotel’s staff, a young Burmese girl who greeted us with a warm smile upon arriving earlier that day. She seemed to be on her way to town, opposite our direction, when she suddenly turned and offered us a ride on her motorcycle. We realized, when we finally arrived at our quaint mountain resort, that she actually came to look for us as she made no move to leave after bringing us home. After the crazy-wild unforgettable truck ride we had experienced to and from Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock Pagoda that afternoon, which pretty much left M and I feeling like tossed salad, that unexpected gesture of kindness from a stranger soothed our weary spirits.

2. Experiencing that little pocket of peace while waiting for dusk to settle at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Except for the monks chanting their late afternoon prayer, Yangon’s most famous pagoda was oddly silent despite the place’s being swarmed with both religious pilgrims and travelers alike. People were either quiet or talking in hushed tones, sitting on the floor of the main court or by the entrance steps of the many prayer halls and pavilions, looking up at the main stupa where a number of monks were walking peacefully by. It was definitely one of those moments you want to bottle and open up again in the future when in need of an inspiration fix. :)

Myanmar by Mina: Shwedagon Pagoda

3. Meeting Mr. Boni. A 60-something Burmese tour guide inside the Shwedagon Pagoda, the multi-lingual Mr. Boni not only regaled us with stories of the Pagoda’s colorful history, he also showed us all the “secret spots” from which to view the large 72-carat diamond crowning the tip of the Shwedagon’s main stupa (“You will see it reflect red, blue, white, pink and yellow lights from certain areas of the compound,” he informed). He also knew all the best places to take photos of me and M, and even designated himself our personal paparazzi—he definitely gave us a lot of options for our Facebook cover photos. Haha.

4. Being offered token jade pendants by a jeweller in Bogyoke Market. Much to our amusement, these two things happen a lot: my sister and I being mistaken for Thais, or strangers thinking we were twins. This time, it was a case of both—and we made such a big show of denying we were even related that the jade seller found us quite funny. Because a friend had asked us to buy her a couple of jade bracelets, the lady gave us really good deals and we ended up buying a few pendants for ourselves. Before we left her store, she gave each of us a free pendant, which spells good luck—so hurrah for the Thai wondertwins. LOL

5. Our encounters with the monks. I don’t know what it is about them, but every time I see a group of monks nearby, especially in the middle of the chaotic city, I suddenly feel enveloped by this sense of peace and calm. They have this quietly dignified and happy aura about them that draws you in.

Myanmar: Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda

After my sister and I had our fill of taking photos of Shwedagon’s colorful shrines, pavilions, Buddha statues and smaller stupas, we decided to stay put in the main courtyard to catch the sunset. We were struck silent by the sight that greeted us as we approached the main stupa—a number of monks were walking along Shwedagon Pagoda’s terraces and stopping on certain points to offer prayers.

Myanmar by Mina: Shwedagon Pagoda

That, and the lighting of the pagoda later in the evening, made for a truly magical last night in Yangon.

Myanmar: Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda

Our trip to Myanmar, while quite short, was really packed. We didn’t even get to go to Bagan (*sigh*), Inle Lake and Mandalay because our tight schedule wouldn’t permit it—common practice is to take it all in at a lazier pace, for a span of two weeks. While we do want to come back and visit the places we missed next time, it’s looking like that won’t be happening soon—Myanmar once this year is enough. We are still recovering from our sensory overload. Haha.

Without doubt, every moment spent in that place was quite unlike any other travel experience I’ve had so far. It was a perspective-broadening trip that tested and stretched my limits—one that entailed living in my discomfort zone EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

Definitely different, definitely not for the faint of heart, and definitely never—NEVER—a dull moment.

Photos are both by me and le sister. Check out her blog, which I am shamelessly promoting without her consent, here. :P

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