Hop-in-hop-out, Myanmar

“Asia, to me, doesn’t feel like a continent. It feels like a heartbeat whose reverberations change as you travel from country to country, city to city.”  was my opening line in a small piece I recently did for a travel website. Since it was about the same country I am writing this about, I thought it befitting to start with the same.

If you have travelled anywhere in Asia, you have been accosted by either gaudy hand painted signs, flashing neon temple spires, noisy street vendors, hooting motorists and the ever present policemen (or women) or shopkeeper who only wants you to come in for ‘just a look.’ Or all of them at once. The scenes are a copy/paste from Bangkok to Mumbai and Coimbatore to Kuala Lumpur; just like the saying goes, everything is “same same, but different!”

Tucked away between India and China, Myanmar had never been a major blip on my travel radar. 2015 was a busy work year for both my wife and I, and a vacation was not on the charts. December came abruptly and I closed for Christmas on the 12th, whereas my wife was still at work. Sitting at home alone with nothing to do, the wanderlust bit me hard. I had been discussing Myanmar with Harpreet (one of the most well travelled bloggers out of Kenya) earlier in the year, and it came back to mind – but I only had 10 days of travel.

I got in touch with the travel agent in Yangon she had shared and booked a straight off-the-shelf tourist package but with a couple of tweaks. We set off on the 21st of December with the hope of celebrating my birthday on Christmas day in Bagan. Here are some of the glimpses from our journey.

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Myanmar has a large number of pagodas and stupas, with the Shwedagon pagoda being one of the most sacred and most visited by pilgrims and tourists from them all. People watching here is like looking through a window into Burmese lives. The Shwedagon pagoda complex was a treat in the morning light and we had a field day with this touristy souvenir umbrella we purchased at a street side stall.

 

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Each evening, just after sunset, novice female monks come pay their respects at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Despite the throng of tourists and visitors, these child monks dressed in their saffron tunics melt away into tranquility within a matter of seconds. Someday I will achieve this kind of willpower.
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The Shwedagon pagoda complex is also the backdrop to wedding photoshoots. We came across this couple in traditional Burmese wedding attire having their pictures taken by a professional photographer. With their permission, I took a few as well of which this is my favourite.
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Standing at 99mtrs tall, the main gold coated stupa at Shwedagon not only towers over Yangon’s skyline but is considered to be one of the oldest in the world. Built on a hill also adds to its commanding stature and thespire at the top comprises of various rubies and diamonds, the largest being 76 carats. It is also believed to house religious relics such as strands of hair from the Buddha, making it one of the most important religious sites in Myanmar.
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The ancient city of Bagan has over 10,000 ancient temples of which over 2,000 are still standing. Of the over 2,000 still standing, a handful are still in use with people congregating for prayers and festivals. Some of the temples are as tiny as a 3 storey house and some are as grand as Thatbyinnyu which at 201ft is the tallest in Bagan.
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There are so many temples spread through the Burmese jungles and along the river Irrawady, that their spires could easily be mistaken for treetops. Exploring them is pretty easy on foot, by horse carriage or on a cheaply rented and widely available electric bike. One of our most rewarding finds was catching a saffron sunrise from the secluded Guni temple complex. As the sun come up behind the Arakan mountains and the hot air balloons took flight, I sat alone in silence trying to fathom how this had looked centuries ago.

 

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Some of the temples are a little difficult to access; not for lack of proper roads or signage but for being a little further in the jungle and thus obscured or feel a little daunting to look for at dusk or dawn. While it is a jungle, there are paths and the biggest fear is having your wheels stuck in soft loamy soil. We caught a number of spectacular sunrises and sunsets, some in absolute peace and some in the midst of thousands of tourists. The most memorable sunset was sitting till late at night a top a dilapidated temple whose name we never got, watching clouds chase each other as the sun hurried over the horizon. The only other people there was a group of tourists and their guide who left as soon as the sun set. As we were climbing down the temple, we saw flickering lights coming from within. On exploring, we were rewarded with a spectacular antechamber with candles lit around a huge statue of the Buddha. It turns out that many devotees have a favourite temple or a family temple that they visit, clean and light up regularly as their contribution or light penance. We ended up spending some more time sitting in the candle lit temple adding our prayers and wishes along with the millions who ha sat or stood here before us.
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With the sheer volume of temples in the Bagan valley (there’s about 55 visible in this image), one of the most practical ways to appreciate the magnitude of their spread is by air. Tens of balloon companies offer aerial safaris in, well, balloons pointing out some of the most popular temples and some of the more obscure ones as well. My wife gifted this to me for my birthday and we spent Christmas morning floating above centuries old temples and landed on a random farm where a champagne breakfast was laid out for us. Talk about being spoilt.
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At night, with clever lighting, some of the pagoda’s look like they are entirely made of gold.

 

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The people of Myanmar are absolutely warm and friendly, always keen to strike a conversation, language barrier and all, and most of all, always ready to have their photographs taken. People will pose for you with little or no persuasion.
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The Intha are a tribe residing along lake Inle famous for rowing canoes with one foot, keeping their hands free to use a conical net to catch fish.

In our ten day trip, we saw Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle. In the short time we spent exploring Myanmar, I can safely say I lost my heart on the noisy streets of Mandalay, but found my soul floating above the temples of Bagan.

Have you ever had a last-minute trip that turned out to be way more spectacular than you expected? Share your thoughts below.

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3 thoughts on “Hop-in-hop-out, Myanmar

  1. Your photos are incredible! When I went to Myanmar I didn’t know what to expect either, but like you it was beyond anything I’d imagined. Absolutely loved the experience

    Like

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