Last year, I was fortunate to visit one of the most underrated countries in South-East Asia: Myanmar.
I had imagined that my first trip to this Myanmar would be on the pretext of a Vipassana meditation course at one of the Buddhist centres, something that’s been on my wish-list for several years. While it wasn’t possible on this trip, I managed to cover the ‘Golden Kite of Burma’ trail and learn more about the Burmese way of life.
Myanmar’s rich history and traditions, deep-rooted spirituality, myriad tribes and cultures, delicious food, and breathtaking landscapes convinced me in no time that country was definitely going to be my favourite travel destination of the year!
My journey began in Yangon (earlier known as Rangoon), where I stayed at a lovely hostel run by local Burmese youth undergoing vocational training in hospitality.
I explored downtown on foot, walking past old colonial buildings interspersed with traditional architecture; narrow lanes cutting across wide modern roads. Street-side food stalls with plastic stools laid out on the pavements served freshly cooked food, while most main roads were lined with tiny stores selling electronics, books, groceries, mobile SIMs, and the like. In many ways, it felt like an interesting mix of familiar places in India and Thailand.
With a little over two days at hand in Yangon, I visited the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, the National Museum of Myanmar, Bogyoke Aung San Market, and the Secretariat. I also managed a ride on the Yangon Circular Train and gorged on yummy Shan food.
Glistering in gold under the morning sun, the Shwedagon Pagoda was stunning! Many countries have fancy Buddhist temples, but there was something different about Shwedagon Pagoda. It was grand, yet intimate.
I spent a few hours exploring the temple complex; there was plenty of room to find a corner to sit and observe people, or simply admire the beauty of the temple complex from different spots.
The visit to the National Museum was educational and provided an introduction to the history and cultural context of Myanmar, including a glimpse of various Burmese tribes (their dress and culture), traditional musical instruments, hand-made puppets and handicrafts, paintings depicting Burmese life, and facets of Myanmar’s political history.
The Bogyoke Aung San Market is a famous market complex in downtown selling everything under the sun: souvenirs, eatables, cheap clothes, toys, you name it. I didn’t have anything to buy, but I loved walking through the market, admiring the beautiful weaves on the longyis (traditional clothing worn around the waist; very similar to lungi or sarong but with a unique way of tying it) and chit-chatting with the shopkeepers.
A group of novice Buddhist monks would occasionally appear in groups, chanting prayers and requesting for alms from the shop-keepers and visitors.
I was aware of this ancient practice where monks-in-training renounce their wealth and rely entirely on donations to survive and further their spiritual quest to overcome suffering. This was the first time I saw the practice in person and outside the ambit of a monastery. It was also the first time I saw female monks in the public sphere, which was personally very interesting for me (being a rarity in India).
What I found heartening was that almost every shop-keeper donated either food or money to the monks (I later found out that this was a daily practice amongst the local people), who would later head back to the monastery and share their collections to prepare food for the day for everyone, before proceeding to their Buddhist classes, prayers, and other daily chores for the day.
A trip to Yangon is incomplete without a ride on the Yangon Circular Train. The train connects neighboring villages to the city center and is used daily by locals to get to work in the city. The 4-hour route is circular (hence the name) and starts and ends at Yangon Central railway station.
As a tourist, the ride was special because I got the opportunity to mingle with the locals and observe their daily life- uncurated. I sat by the window and watched people of all ages hop in and out at different stations. There were vendors (mostly women) carrying fruit baskets, knick knacks, and fresh farm produce, selling them to people on the train. Students preparing for exams. Men catching a nap. While the view outside was similar to the Indian countryside, I was particularly fascinated by the scenes inside.
The Secretariat, or Minister’s Building, is where General Aung San (known as the father of modern Myanmar) and six other cabinet members were assassinated. I couldn’t catch the hour-long guided tour (costs 15,000 kyats and typically in the evenings) I managed a quick stroll around the administrative complex.
If you know me, you’d know that my favourite activity while traveling is exploring local cuisines. Myanmar didn’t disappoint on this front!
My exposure to Burmese food was limited to Khao Suey until my trip to Myanmar. In Yangon, I got to eat traditional Shan food at Shan Yoe Yar restaurant and Shan noodles at 999 Shan Noodle Shop.
CULTURAL IMMERSION AT INLE
An overnight bus ride from Yangon brought me to Nyaung Shwe in the Shan State of Myanmar. After the hustle and bustle of the city, it felt great to be in the Burmese countryside. I had two full days at hand, so I decided to explore the countryside on the first day and floating villages on the second day.
I set off on a day hike with Barathie, my local guide. We walked through villages, cornfields, and tobacco farms, while she told me more about herself and the region. She was chatty and loved her paan, while I loved her company.
The highlight of the morning was stopping for a home-cooked meal at one of the villages. Our host was a former teacher at the village school. She whipped up the most delicious meal with instant noodles and fresh vegetables from her farm. It was like nothing I’ve had before, and it felt wonderful to sit in her kitchen and spend time with her.
I loosely knew what my itinerary would be like at Nyaung Shwe and Inle, but I never imagined stumbling upon a horse farm, a coffee bar, and a vineyard! All within walking distance from each other, with equally stunning views of the sunset.
On my second day, I explored Inle lake, a freshwater lake consisting of floating farms and settlements. We set off on a long-tail boat and whizzed past floating lotus and tomato farms and houses on stilts. Every now and then, we spotted birds, frogs, fishes, snails, and dragonflies. In the wee hours, we also crossed fisherman scouting for fish the traditional way – balancing on the edge of the boat on one foot, with a bamboo stick in one hand and a fishing basket in the other!
The floating villages have bamboo houses on stilts and each village practices a different handicraft – silk-weaving, lotus weaving, silver jewellery making, gold-plating, paper umbrellas, cheroot making, bamboo products, the list goes on. While some activities take place within people’s homes at smaller scale, others are at community handicraft centres where artists from different households gather. These centres are open to tourists and offer great insight into the method behind the craft.
I also got to visit a few villages on other sides of the lake, such as the Pa-oh village of Indein that has ancient pagodas dating back to the 14th century! Not to forget the best meal of my trip: stuffed fish, avocado-tomato salad, prawn crackers, and espresso.
TEMPLE HOPPING IN MANDALAY
The next stop was Mandalay, located on the east banks of the Irrawaddy River, and the second largest city in Myanmar.
Don’t ask me how I calculated the duration at each place (sigh!). My Myanmar trip materialised at the last minute, and I barely had any time or brain-space to plan it out coherently. Add to that an error in some of my bookings (NEVER make bookings past midnight!) and the sudden urge to include Inle in my itinerary (not part of the original plan). I ended up with three full days in Mandalay. I thought this may be too long, but to my surprise, I could’ve stayed another day or two and not run out of things to do.
I started my excursion with an early morning visit to Mahamuni Pagoda, where I witnessed monks performing an idol-washing ceremony that takes place every morning at 4.30 AM. Senior monks wash the 3.5 meter-high statue of the Buddha, lovingly cleaning the face with rose water and tanakha (a cosmetic paste made of ground bark- very popular in Myanmar). Few tourists know about this ritual and is mostly attended by locals.
Next up, my guide, Sai, took me to the Mahagandayon Monastery to witness the daily alms collection. Monks of all ages line up with the alms collected that morning (mostly donations of food, clothing, and money) to deposit with the monastery, before proceeding for breakfast. It’s interesting to witness and tourists line up hours before in anticipation.
We proceeded to explore the former capitals of Ava, Sagaing, and Amarapura. The journey included a commute by car, followed by a short ferry ride and a horse-carriage ride!
Looking at the day’s agenda (prepared by Sai), I thought I might feel temple-fatigue within a few hours, but each ancient temple in Mandalay caught me off guard with it’s unique design and vibe.
I explored the 200-year old U Bein bridge (the world’s longest teak bridge with 1086 pillars!), the intricately carved Bagaya monastery, remains of the Royal Palace, pagodas atop Sagaing Hill, and the local markets along the way.
MYSTICAL MORNINGS IN BAGAN
I’ll admit- I was most excited about the last leg of my trip. Bagan is perhaps the most popular tourist destination of Myanmar, and the picturesque temples, stunning sunsets and hot air balloons in the sky are a familiar visual on most postcards and travel photos from Myanmar. In addition to being a sucker for sunsets and sunrises, I had arranged to participate in a meditation session at a monastery in Bagan and I was eagerly looking forward to experiencing this.
My local guide here was Thandar, who greeted me with her bright smile and took me around the lesser-known parts of Bagan. We began the day with a visit to an ancient pagoda from where we could see the sun rise (without any tourists around). We then headed to a nearby village for an outdoor breakfast amidst fields, followed by the local market to pick up flowers for the monastery.
Our host monastery was a small one, with just a handful of senior monks residing there. I got to interact with them for a bit, after which we went into a meditation cave where we practiced breathing exercises. Having a keen interest in Buddhism, I was delighted to be able to have a candid chat with Thandar and learn more about Buddhist practice in Myanmar.
I learned from her that most families start their day with prayers and offerings at the nearest temple, and regularly donate a share of their earnings to monks. However, few people continue to practice Buddhist meditation techniques at home.
Also read: Rendezvous With a Burmese Monk in Thailand
After a scrumptious lunch at a local restaurant, we visited another market (primarily selling vegetables), and managed to partake in a novice monk ceremony at a nearby village. The ceremony is in the form of a procession from the village to the monastery where novice monks enrol for training. The children of the village dress up and ride on horses to commemorate the occasion, while the adults sing along and play instruments.
The most breathtaking experience in Bagan was witnessing the first sunrise of 2020. Little did I know what the year had in store, but at that moment, I was grateful to witness such mesmerising colours in the sky! No amount of photos can do justice to the real views, and never have I been happier to wake up at 5 AM to catch the sunrise from as many spots as possible on consecutive days.
Each temple in Bagan offers a unique perspective, and though I had four full days in Bagan, I barely covered twenty such spots. For context, Bagan has over 5,000 temples (many of them in ruins). I didn’t want to temple-hop for the sake of it, so I took it easy and explored a mix of popular and offbeat places during my brief stay.
Bagan also has a variety of delicacies on offer (being a tourist hub) and every meal was a delight. Mohinga, lunch platters, tea leaf salad… and each restaurant with its own variations!
The strong flavours reminded me of Naga food (fermented vegetables and beans, dried fish, and the like) – although my favourite dish was the simple tea leaf salad. I had never heard of this before; one bite and I was in love!
Myanmar has long been undermined as a travel destination in Southeast Asia, mostly because of the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. Tourism opened up as late as 2012, although it is fast picking up.
While the ‘Golden Kite of Burma’ trail is easy to embark on as a tourist, thanks to decent public transport, hotels and hostels for all budgets, numerous tour operators, and friendly locals, the other parts of Myanmar are more rustic.
Out of all the places I visited last year (which includes 5 countries and 9 states of India), Myanmar blew my mind for several reasons- but most importantly, for its understated charm and warmth. The simplicity of daily life, the authenticity of the people, deep-rooted culture and traditions, close-knit communities, underrated craftsmanship, and unique cuisine – all found their way into my heart, fulfilling most things we seek out of travel: escape, education, reflection, and connection.
Nout ma thway mae, Myanmar!
I did day tours with Beyond Boundaries Myanmar and Three Treasures Myanmar at Inle, Mandalay, and Bagan in order to make the most of the time I had and visit places that are only known to local people. I would recommend both these companies as they abide by responsible tourism practices and curated excellent offbeat experiences for me. I particularly enjoyed the companionship of the local guides (two of whom I’m still in touch with).
I made all bus bookings with JJ Express, a reliable bus operator for inter-city travel.
Yangon is quite walkable if you’re staying downtown and Grab taxis are easily available for places that are further off. The easiest mode of transport in Mandalay are auto-rickshaws or tuk-tuks, while in Bagan, e-bikes and tuk-tuks are easily available (though it’s best to rent these for the day).
My NiYo Global Card came in handy to withdraw local currency from ATMs (at a nominal charge). You can use my referral code to sign up: ILAR68N.
Have you been to Myanmar? What was your experience like?
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