Myanmar Travel Journal
Myanmar has been on our travel wish list for a long time but up until now it was quite difficult to go. Luckily things have changed in the last few years and now it's very easy to get an e-visa and there're direct flights from Hong Kong. There're quite a few places of interest but we decided to visit 3: Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay.
We kicked off our visit to the old capital of Myanmar (formerly know as Burma) with a multicultural walking tour led by a local guide. We visited various religious and colonial buildings and got to know a little bit about the history of the country. For me the highlights of the tour were walking around the market and trying street food - something that we wouldn't have done on our own-.
The next day we decided to visit the most famous attraction of the city which is the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is without a doubt one of the most impressive buildings I've ever seen; it was built between the 6th and 10th century A.D. and it's the most sacred buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. The complex is designed around a big bell-like pagoda painted in gold paint (or maybe real gold, I can't remember). The surrounding temples are beautifully decorated with intricate designs painted either in golden or green paint, the interiors are decorated with geometric designs with mirrors and most of the buddha statues have bright neon lights behind their heads. The combination of all those shiny decorations give the pagoda a dazzling and magical atmosphere.
Most people visit this pagoda before sunset so it gets very crowded; we arrived there at around 15:30 and it was quiet and enjoyble.
After a short flight from Yangon we arrived at the beautiful town of Bagan. I'd say that Bagan is the complete opposite of Yangon: Small, relaxed and easy to get around. There are hundreds of temples scattered around the countryside and they can be visited by taxi, bike or if you're feeling a little bit extravagant you can fly in a hot air balloon. We decided on the latter option and booked our places a month in advance! We got picked up from our hotel at 5:30 am (my worst nightmare!) and were driven on an old but charming bus to the flight camp. We had a safety talk and a small breakfast and off we went into the sky; the flight was very smooth and we got to see all the temples from afar (a few months ago the government prohibited the hot air balloon companies from flying too close to the temples; before that, the balloons were so close to the pagodas that you could almost touch them) as well as the beautiful colours of the sky at sunrise. By 10 am we were back at our hotel to enjoy the rest of the day.
We stayed in a small hotel in Nyaung-U only a few kilometers away from old Bagan. In the hotel there was a beautiful garden and a small swimming pool surrounded by lush plants and palm trees; when it was too hot to explore the town we stayed by the pool either reading or sketching with watercolours.
For the next 3 days we rented bikes (not e-bikes) and visited as many temples as we could each day. We took different routes away from the big roads and saw big and small temples that for the most part were in perfect condition. Of all the temples and pagodas we visited my favourite one was the Dhammayazaka Pagoda because it was surrounded by a beautiful garden with lots of bright bougainvilleas. There weren't many people around, so we were able to walk around the gardens taking in the beauty of the flowers and the architecture without being elbowed or stepped on.
After all the exercise cycling from pagoda to pagoda we ended up our excursions in old Bagan to have lunch. There're quite a few vegetarian restaurants in the area and I can recommend 2: Be kind to animals the moon and Khaing Shwe Wah, they both offer a mixture of local and asian food and have friendly staff (especially the second one).
Internal flights in Myanmar are very expensive so we decided to take the boat up the river to our final destination. It was an 8 hour journey starting at 4:30 am on a big boat. Upon arrival we discovered that Mandalay itself is not a very nice city; it's aggressive, dirty and it is impossible to walk around (even crossing the road is a dangerous affair). Instead we booked a private tour to visit the ancient cities in the outskirts of the urban area. First we visited the Hsinbyume Pagoda which is a white building inspired by a mythological buddhist mountain and built to honour someone's beloved wife. As with the pagoda in Yangon, the intricate details of the pagoda were breathtaking and both the exterior and the interior were bright and dazzling, especially under the scorching sun.
Next we visited Sagaing, Innwa and Amarapura. I loved seeing the temples in Sagaing because they were very colourful and shiny. Along the road we spotted lots of young monks and nuns queueing for food at small shops or walking around the temples; quite a charming view if you're not used to seeing them around.
Pyin Oo Lwin
This charming little town is a couple of hours away from Mandalay and offers a relaxing getaway from the pollution and noise of the big city. We decided to stay for one night in a small hotel in the countryside next to the botanical gardens. Our hotel and other houses along the way had a very distinctive British colonial style and there were horse carriages available for tours, so it was like being in England but with nice weather.
The botanical gardens are absolutely beautiful; the have planted a mixture of local and British flowers and trees and are very well looked after. There're quite a few things to see in the park but it's also nice to just sit and take all the beauty in. There's a chic restaurant in the gardens offering authentic Burmese food at affordable prices - I had coconut noodles with pea chips.
All in all, visiting Myanmar was an absolutely fabulous experience; it was quite different from the other places in Southeast Asia we've been and with fewer tourists. Of course there're still things that could be improved, like the traffic and pollution of the big cities but I think we as tourists can do our bit for the environment by saying no to plastic straws and bags and trying not to buy too many plastic bottles.
All images © Gina Maldonado