Day 1 – Hong Kong to Yangon, Myanmar
I left Hong Kong early in the morning, catching the A11 to the airport and waving goodbye to Rob out of the window. I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach again, like this trip was both a brilliant and terrible idea. Seven weeks in Southeast Asia alone, starting with 10 days in Myanmar? Was I insane?
Ideas of chickening out and jumping off the bus were tempting, but I managed to stay on until Terminal 2. I checked in, went through security and immigration, and messaged Rob and my family just before boarding.
On the shuttle to the plane I heard my name being called; it was a friend of a friend who happened to be on the same flight! Of course, the world is big but it is also small (and Hong Kong even smaller). I was thankful for a travel buddy for that first push over the edge. There was no turning back.
I arrived in Yangon around 1pm local time, finally in Myanmar on the first leg of my solo Southeast Asia trip. As I sat in the back of a taxi on the way to my first hostel, the aptly-named Traveller’s House, I peered out of the window at the dusty streets, the deep green jungle foliage, and the old forgotten colonial buildings that seemed to be engulfed by it.
I walked the grid-like roads, overwhelmed by the city. Yangon was not the sleepy Buddhist town I had pictured, but a gritty city full of noise, weaving traffic, crowds and strange smells wafting up from street food vendors. My first meal had to be at one of these stalls. I shrewdly picked the one with an English menu, though the translation made little difference:
‘Mee Sae Noodle Salad, please,’ I squeaked, still in my travel clothes and now sweating in the afternoon sun. The woman on my left spoke good English and helped me order, while the group of men on my right spoke no English but smiled and offered me some of their food to try with a wave of their hands.
The Mee Sae Noodle Salad was surprisingly good; thin noodles and chicken in a spicy peanut sauce, and a bargain at only 1,000 Burmese kyat (that’s less than US$1). This was when I first realised that I had vastly overestimated my budget for Burma.
My attention quickly turned to a green wind-up machine at the next stall over that produced sugar cane juice. I gestured to the vendor that I’d like to try one and he nodded, showing me a wedge of lime that I assumed could also be thrown into the mix. I nodded back. Why not? He cranked the machine into action and pushed the cane through several times, bending it over itself until enough liquid had been squeezed into the tin collector at the bottom.
He handed me the plastic glass and straw and I handed over a measly 500 kyat for the pleasure. I took my first sip and it was heaven.
Day 2 – Yangon and the Shwedagon Paya
I slept in and had a leisurely breakfast at my hostel, pondering what to door see first, only to discover that the power cut out around 11am. Maybe this was an intentional conservation of power or just a general annoyance that happens a lot. My guide book tells me both are common.
I headed out to the Shwedagon Paya, a monument I have been obsessively googling ever since Myanmar first came on my travel radar. As the taxi rounded the corner and the golden spire came into view, the driver placed his fingers together on the steering wheel and bowed his head. My breath was taken away as the tip of the stupa sparkled in the distance.
I hung around at the entrance, hoping to meet my accidental travel buddy (unware that there are four separate entrances). I took some photos and stared open-mouthed at the intricate designs of the colourful exterior. In doing so, I accidentally became a sideshow attraction for local temple-goers who wanted their pictures taken with me! I awkwardly consented to the first person who asked seeing as he was so polite about it, but somehow this turned into a queue of people who also wanted a photo too! I laughed when a confused baby was dumped in my lap, but drew the line at the two young boys with toy rifles.
Eventually I could withstand my newfound celebrity no longer and headed up the steps to the Paya. However, to add insult to injury after failing to meet with friends, I discovered I also couldn’t afford the entrance fee plus the purchase of a longyi (Burmese kilt, or skirt, worn by men and women) as I didn’t have enough cash on me. Instead, I wandered around the grounds and explored the surrounding temples, promising myself I’d be back.
Day 3 – Yangon and the Circle Train
On my second full day in Yangon, I decided to take the circle train; a looping route around the city which takes around three hours. It wasn’t the hop-on-hop-off tram experience I was used to in Hong Kong, but it made for good people watching and it was interesting to see how the locals lived.
As the train wound around the outskirts of Yangon, it became apparent why Myanmar is known to be one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, and also the world. We passed ramshackle huts made of scraps of metal and bits of wood. There were also pools of rice paddies and vegetable gardens with workers up to their knees in water tending the plants. It made me nervous to see so many children playing by the train tracks, but when the train chugged passed a group of boys playing football with makeshift goals and a basket for a ball, I thought how sweet it was that childhood is the same no matter where you are in the world.
What was even more memorable was the encounter I had with a local man on the way to the train station. Staring at my map and looking lost on the street, he approached me and asked if I needed help. Ever the paranoid solo female traveller, I initially refused, but he insisted on helping me find the train station entrance across a bridge. There were plenty of people around so I obliged.
He happily chatted to me along the way, keen to practice his English. Where did I come from? How long was I in Yangon for? Where was I going next? He told me his name, which was something I’m afraid I can’t pronounce let alone try to spell here, and I told him mine was Jane.
After some light conversation about my travels and how my next stop was Bagan, he commented quite out of place: ‘I like big boobs.’
Taken aback, and clutching my bag a little tighter to my side, I told him I didn’t understand, and looked nervously about.
‘I like big boobs!’ he repeated with gestures, making round shapes with his hands in front of his chest. ‘BOOBS! Beautiful!’
I felt my cheeks grow hot and I sternly told him I had no idea what he was talking about, and had a right mind to storm off when he added:
‘Oh, balloons!’ I realised, starting to laugh. He meant the hot air balloons that ascend in Bagan at sunset.
I felt like such an idiot, and so guilty for assuming this man’s intentions were bad and that he was being crude, when in fact he was just innocently chatting to me about hot air balloons! I loosened up after that and decided I can’t assume that every person I meet on my trip is going to try and attack me, even if I am being careful travelling by myself.
‘Hey, why don’t you wear a longyi?’ he asked me, pointing at my shorts. ‘It’s cooler.’
‘I don’t know, maybe I’ll try one,’ I smiled as we reached the station entrance and I said thank you for his help.
‘It’s good’ he said of his longyi, with a cheeky smile, ‘I don’t wear underwear!’
And with that he left me at the station entrance, bewildered and looking for the ticket booth.
Day 4 – The roads to Mandalay
I caught the overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay, expecting the worse, but the journey took only nine of the estimated twelve hours, plus a toothbrush, toothpaste, wet wipe, bottle of water and a blanket were given to me for the ride. The latter of which was very important because the powerful air-conditioning made for a chilly drive.
Once in Mandalay and settled at my Four Rivers B&B, I decided to explore the city by bike. I rented one from my hostel and set off down the main street. Of course, I hadn’t factored in rush hour, and had no idea what I had let myself in for with Burmese driving.
Mandalay, much like Yangon, is not the tranquil monastery city I envisaged, but an even grittier, dirtier and more hectic Burmese city. I was outnumbered by motorbikes and scooters that thought nothing of whizzing past me a hair’s distance away, and there were no such thing as pavements. I wobbled my way to the furthest side possible of the road (incidentally, they drive on the right) and squealed through gritted teeth as I turned left at traffic lights.
However, when the grounds of Mandalay Palace came into view, I was once again taken aback. Even though I knew from my guide book that most of the palace was a reconstruction and only a few segments of the original fortress walls remained, I was still staring, eyes wide, from my bicycle seat. The palace and its grounds take up a huge square in the centre of town, and cycling around it in the morning sun is something I’ll never forget.
After a few hours of biking and sightseeing, the midday sun was starting to hit me hard. I resolved to find somewhere for a light lunch, preferably with air-conditioning, but to no avail. This was to be the theme of my couple of days in Mandalay; discovering that nothing in my guide book or on my hostel’s detailed map existed, or was where it said it should be. Such is Southeast Asia.
Despite failing to find my first four preferences for lunch (and getting sweatier by the minute in the hottest part of the day), I finally found Nylon Ice-cream Bar, which was recommended for a cold snack. I ordered a lassi, something I was familiar with and I knew that yoghurt was good for keeping my digestive system in check while travelling Asia.
When it arrived, the lassi looked more like a glass of cottage cheese floating in dishwater. It came with a spoon instead of a straw. I thought if this didn’t give me diarrhea then nothing would. I hesitantly gave it a sniff, a quick whisk and watched it slide off the spoon in juicy, gloopy lumps. I decided to risk it.
I managed half of the glass, and the taste wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it grew on me. But that didn’t stop me worrying whether yoghurt was supposed to fizz when you put it into your mouth?
Day 5 – Mandalay’s Moustache Brothers
I couldn’t come to Mandalay and not see the Moustache Brothers. Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw achieved global fame after their comedy routines poking fun at the government got two of the brothers arrested and sentenced to six years hard labour. When they were finally released, the brothers continued to perform despite more arrests, but were told they could only do so if they did not perform in Burmese (much to the disdain of two of the brothers who did not speak English) and only did their show for tourists.
And so they threw jab after jab at Myanmar’s military regime at a nightly show in Mandalay, playing for tourists in the hope that their voices would be heard by the world.
‘Tourists are our Trojan horses,’ they said.
Government representatives would even attend the performances every now and again to check in on the dissidents, but the show continued as normal and the guards would even be pointed out to the audience!
‘Hey, look! The KGB are here! Guests of honour!’
My experience at the Moustache Brothers’ show was definitely mad. Sadly, Par Par Lay passed away a few years ago, allegedly due to health complications following his imprisonment. Chain-smoking Lu Maw was the star of the show, which included bits of stand-up routine, traditional Burmese dance demonstrated by his sequined wife and family, slap-stick comedy and a bit of background about the brothers’ story.
‘I had a toothache so I went to Bangkok to get it fixed. The guy asked me, “You’re from Myanmar, right? Don’t you have dentists there?” I told him, “Yes, but in Myanmar we cannot open our mouths!”’
Things are changing in Myanmar, and the country is making slow steps towards democracy. But it was still amazing to meet the brothers, listen to the jokes that made them both famous and infamous, to support their performance, and to shake their hands.
Days 6, 7 and 8 – The temples of Bagan
Tragedy struck on day six, as I woke with a sore throat, running nose and a pounding headache. Worse still I had a six hour bus from Mandalay to Bagan, which was as hot and uncomfortable as it sounds. I arrived in Bagan around lunchtime, but spent most of the rest of the day in bed at the Royal Bagan Hotel.
As Bagan’s temples are best viewed at dawn and dusk, I had bad luck with my germs and also the wet weather, which limited my sunset and sunrise viewing times to just one day out of two or three. Not to be deterred by a cold, I was determined to go out and see one of Myanmar’s most prized cultural heritage spots and finally headed out after nearly 24 hours in bed.
I rented an e-bike from my hotel, as the temples are too far apart to be explored by foot or on a regular bike. Though don’t worry, Mum, I drove as slow as possible (I was overtaken by cyclists on several occasions), and only fell off once (just a few bruises, and minor humiliation from locals who laughed at my driving skills)!
It was incredible driving down the main road, passing temple after temple, some in various states of ruin and others restored and in use. I stopped whenever a temple took my fancy, and explored barefoot around the grounds, racking up hundreds of photos on my phone to prove it. Everywhere was just so picturesque. I climbed the popular Shwesandaw Paya for sunset, though I had to battle with everyone else, their selfie sticks and their long camera lenses for a good view.
Watching the sun go down behind the Irrawaddy River was magical, but what was even more spectacular was turning around to watch the endless sea of temples behind me as their shadows got longer and longer in the sunset’s golden glow.
Day 9 – Back to Yangon
Having survived another overnight bus from Bagan to Yangon (barely), I arrived back in the city just before dawn, struggling to keep my eyes open as I checked into Backpacker B&B. Sapped of energy, I had a lazy day visiting Yangon’s teashops, grabbing postcards and fridge magnets, and sorting out my bag ready for my flights to Bangkok and onto Luang Prabang.
However, the highlight of my day really came at dinner time after catching yet another stunning sunset this time over the Yangon River as well as the Sule Paya (another golden stupa in Yangon, over 2,000 years old, which somehow wound up in the middle of the city’s busiest roundabout). My guidebook told me I could get a ‘life-changing’ biryani at Nilar’s Biryani & Cold Drink, a short walk from my hostel. So, being the Brummy curry connoisseur that I am, I decided to take up the challenge.
The restaurant looked more like a school dinner hall, but the smells were promising. I ordered a banana lassi and set dinner with dahl, rice and tandoori chicken masala, after being so far impressed with Burmese chicken (far surpassing the Hong Kong chicken that I can’t stomach or even bare to look at). What arrived didn’t look like much, as the pictures will attest to, but believe me when I say that this is the best curry I have ever eaten outside of Birmingham!
The plate was licked clean within minutes, the tandoori chicken was delicious, and I was both dismayed and relieved that I had only discovered this place on my last night in Burma. My waistline would thank me for it. I strolled back to my hostel for an early night, ready for my morning flight the next day.
Day 10 – 10 Days in Myanmar Come to a Close
When I discovered a cheeky bed bug nibbling at my arm in the middle of the night, I made sure to alert the receptionist the next morning. I was checking out so it didn’t make too much difference to me, and I also raised the issue that the bathroom door in my room was jammed and that I had someone else’s t-shirt in my laundry (and later discovered I was missing a pair of shorts too).
‘So?’ he shrugged smilingly, with that calm nonchalance that can only be found in Asia.
I laughed. That was when I knew I was ready to say goodbye to Myanmar and move on to the next country on my list, Laos.
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