Honestly I never thought about visiting Myanmar (Burma) on my travels, however after speaking to people who had, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
While in Bali with my friend Rach, who had excitingly come out to visit me for a few weeks, I spontaneously booked a flight. I had two weeks to spare before volunteering in Cambodia, so why not explore Myanmar. (Just an FYI, I am going back to Bali in July, so will write up my adventures collectively).
Myanmar, previously known as Burma (and as such still referred to by some of the locals), only opened its doors to tourism in 2012, following nearly 50 years of oppressive military controllership. Although seeing an increase (and benefit) of tourism, Myanmar is still fairly untouched, especially in comparison to countries such as Thailand. It’s because of this, I was so eager to visit the country in it’s transitional state, before it is potentially overwhelmed with tourism, spoiling it’s simplistic beauty.
I left Bali on Thursday 25th May and made my way to the capital of Myanmar, Yangon. Aware there is still slight political unrest and ongoing civil wars across the country, for the first time I felt apprehensive. I just had to remind myself that this is all part of the adventure and the whole point is to sit outside my comfort zone.
Friday 26th May
When I arrived on the Thursday it was around 6ish, so tired from travelling, I sorted myself out and had an early night.
As per usual I woke up super early (5am), so decided to explore Botahtaung Pagoda before breakfast (at 7am). The 25 minute walk through the city, which was slowly opening it’s eyes, was remarkable in itself. There were people in traditional longyis (which I will explain in more detail in another post) going to work, setting up food stands and drinking coffee on stools in the street, all of which smiled and said hello. I had tried to learn a few words before arriving, so said hello (pronounced min-gu-baa) back, to which they giggled out of amusement and joy. I arrived at the Pagoda around 6.20am. Paying my entrance fee and taking off my shoes, I headed in to explore.
Within five minutes I bumped into a Monk, who originally asked for a donation. Being in a sacred building, I couldn’t say no so gave him some money. After that he decided to show me around, trying to explain through one or two English words, pointing and hand movements what everything was. He mainly shouted father, mother, brother and sister at the various statues. His favourite word however was ‘photo’, to which he was adamant I take as many as possible, with him in the majority of them. After showing me around the Pagoda, he took me into another building opposite before grabbing his stuff and walking down the road with me. At first, I thought he happened to be going the same way, but instead ushered me onto a bus. I wasn’t sure whether I should follow, but in a public place I thought why not go on an adventure.
Assuming the bus ride would only be 10 minutes or so, I started to get nervous when we were still on it 30 minutes later. Checking my offline map and trying to get the Monk and a local person to point where we were going both failed. However the Monk said we’d be there soon and within minutes we arrived at Kyaik Khauk Pagoda, which is in a town outside of Yangon called Thanlyin. The town was so different to the capital, rural in appearance with people carelessly and happily getting on with their simple everyday lives. The Pagoda itself was grand and we spent an hour or so exploring. We (tried) chatting to a variety of people the Monk knew within the Temple. Additionally people were coming up to him and bowing, to which I assumed he was blessing them back. One of my highlights was when he showed me a photo of the fat laughing Buddha and then wanted to reenact it. Although English was limited, I did however learn that the Monk used to be an officer in the military and had been shot twice, once in his leg and the other across his face. He also lightheartedly told me he had an old gun in his bag, which I thought strange for a Monk. But don’t worry he was real!
Conscious of the time, I tried explaining I needed to get back to Yangon. I lied that my friend was waiting for me at the hostel, just because it was easier than trying to explain I had to check out of my room at 12pm.
Before heading back we stopped for a drink of sugarcane juice at a local stand (which I had never tried before). The Monk was also adamant I meet his daughters and as their home was nearby he quickly took me there. An hour later, I finally arrived back in Yangon. Saying goodbye to the Monk, I headed back to the hostel. After grabbing lunch, I wanted to explore more of Yangon town.
Knowing I had a long bus journey ahead of me that evening, my first port of call was to get snacks (obviously). Walking through a food market in pursuit of fruit, I met a Burmese man, Kaykay Zaw, who taught English at a school nearby. Now his classes were finished for the day, Zaw invited me for a Burmese tea, to which I accepted.
After chatting for half an hour, learning more about the culture, the history and current political state (all of which was fasinating), Zaw was adamant on showing me around. The first of which was to a few English colonial buildings. For some context – Burma was ruled by the British from 1824 to 1948, so there are quite a few old English buildings throughout the country. We then walked to an art gallery, which showcased beautiful paintings from Burmese artists. After that we visited St Mary’s Cathedral, which had been built 150 years ago, as a place for Christens in Yangon (formally Rangoon). Explaining that Yangon Railway Station is the largest in Myanmar and has a rich history, being built by the British in 1877, destroyed by the retreating Bristish in 1943 and rebuilt in traditional Burmese style in 1954, Kaw then took me to see it. Afterwards we sat down at a food stand and ate a local dish of rice/fish and a fish soup. With time getting away with me, Kaw walked me back to my hostel, where he insisted on sorting a taxi for me to the bus station. The taxi ride was the icing on the cake to my day, as a young recently married couple drove myself (and a French girl I had met at the hostel) to the bus station. The hour journey consisted of teaching one another English/Burmese and winding the lady’s poor husband up. It was all very amusing.
So that was my first very memorable day in Myanmar. I’ve already been blown away by the kindness and beauty of this weirdly magical country. With a tight schedule to see as much possible, I’m excited for the new adventures this country has to offer.
Jessica Storm ✌️