In 2012 the Burmese government held it’s first free party elections since independence from the British in late 1940s. And with this came open doors for western tourists and all those who has been curious could finally embark on their journey into Myanmar freely to explore it’s unspoilt treasures. I had been waiting to go since 2012… but could never find a suitable travelling companion. In addition, the fear of going to a country that had not been well travelled by anyone I knew held me back. It wasn’t until a friend at work said to me bluntly one day “I’m going to Myanmar” that it hit me, what was I waiting for? So inspired by this, I booked my tickets, did some brief research and set off to finally see this land that I had only visited in my dreams.
This trip felt like my first true solo trip to a developing country, and in essence it was, I was excited! I no longer wanted the fear of being by myself to overcome the desire to see, taste and experience adventure, and this was the beginning to prove that to myself.
I landed in Yangon – the old capital city. Actually it wasn’t even the original old capital city. Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar lay claim to that. But Yangon is the heart of business in Myanmar, a pseudo capital and where I was to start having travelled via Singapore from Brisbane to see this exotic land.
Yangon, smelt like Thailand (think coconut rice!) but felt in part like the dirty streets of Cairo so it immediately felt familiar and comfortable, as if this was somewhere I had already been before. Everyone was friendly, seemingly trustworthy and curious… in the most harmless manner. I decided to trust my internet research and let my guard down to what was described as one of the friendliest people in the world.
My first visit was the the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred of all sites for the Burmese. Myanmar is a country where over 90% of the population are practicing Buddhists. Legend has it that that this pagoda is over 2,600 years old and contains the relics the last four Buddha’s to have walked the earth.
The most famous of these is the story of the 8 strands of hair from Lord Guatama Buddha. Obtained by two monks who were returning to Burma after listening to the great teacher in India, these monks had sacrificed some of these strands to kings they had met along the way, but when the finally arrived at the final resting spot for Gautama’s sacred hairs they found their box full again with of all of the 8 original hairs.
The main pagoda still holds these hairs, one of the most famous relics in Buddhism, however as it buried under thousands of tonnes of solid gold, it may never be verified in the modern age.
In the sweltering heat, one had to stick to the laid out green pathways to avoid getting their bare feet burnt on the tiles. The complex was full of the faithful, praying and offering gold sheets, incense, flowers or food and water to their beloved buddhas. As I walked around the complex I stopped to talk to a monk. I was surprised when he spoke to me in fluent english. He told me this was because he was educated under the British rule, and felt disappointed in the recession his country has been in over the last few decades from the junta / government. He also thought that as younger generations were not being educated in english this would hindered the economic growth of the country. During my trip, I often found it easier to talk to elder Burmese as their english was must more fluent than the youth.
My next stop was to pick up a train ticket as I had planned to catch the over night sleeper to Inle Lake. I hopped in a taxi and was dropped off in the darkest alley… I initially thought I was in the middle of some slums leading to assult-ville. To my relief, it was just a dank ticket station… where I anxiously handed over my passport. All went well and I was given a hand written ticket for the next part of my adventure. Then it was time to treat myself to some traditional burmese food.
My final stop for the day was the Scotts Market where I got my on traditional Burmese Longyi skirt (custom made on the spot! I got to pick the print and “cut”), and had a spot of tea at the centre of the gem market, where rubies, diamonds and other gems were being haggled right in front of me. The locals made me feel welcomed, and were curious about where I was from. In exchange they happily told me what the hell was going on around me, as I was quite ignorant of where I had just plopped myself…
After a long day first day of walking, exploring and pondering… I returned to my hostel to brush up on my Burmese history with a good book and some left over delicious burmese food. I had already concluded by that first day that my favourite dish was the tea-leaf salad… I’m drooling just thinking back about it now.