As a country overall, there’s no better way to describe Myanmar other than being Southeast Asia’s best kept secret. There’s good reason why Myanmar has been getting a lot of attention recently. A visit to this diverse country will yield amazement due to some of the friendliest and warmest people anywhere, a culture deeply rooted in Buddhism that has been minimally diluted by the wonders of westernization, and numerous historical sites that can stand face to face with other more well-known landmarks around the world.
Yangon is a big sprawling city lined with seemingly derelict buildings that are still inhabited by many of the populace. Yangon’s prized possession is the Shwedagon Pagoda, which according to some reports is the oldest historical pagoda in the world. Sitting atop Singuttara Hill, anticipation slowly builds as I and four other traveling companions walked up one of the main stairways towards the pagoda. I was soon rewarded with a glimpse of glimmering gold set against the backdrop of the grey Yangon sky; a sight of serenity and grandeur if there ever was one. Yangon was a lot more bustling than I expected to be; that is until night falls when the very dimly lit streets eerily play host to silhouettes of aforementioned buildings. Under the guise of darkness, we munched on local delicacies like a horde of Vikings and enjoyed some ridiculously cheap drinks (think IDR 8000 for a gin and tonic).
Set amidst an arid expanse of land on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, Bagan was once the capital of the first Burmese kingdom which during its height in the 11th and 13th century was thought to have built over 10.000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries. A fact I knew too well that helped propel Myanmar up my top 3 destinations to visit.
A 10 hour overnight bus ride later from Yangon, we were in Nyaung-U, the biggest modern city near Old Bagan at four in the morning. Immediately after a short drive away to a famous sunrise spot in Bagan, I would witness the shiver-inducing beauty of this land of a thousand temples. As far as the eye can see, from the northeast towards the mountains down to the southwest by the mystical Ayeyarwady, temples and pagodas are scattered in an uncertain pattern, inviting those who gaze upon them to pause and just enjoy that one unrepeatable moment of laying eyes on Bagan the very first time.
After a few hours’ rest, we headed out under the baking midday sun on bicycles, the best way to explore Bagan. It’s as if I was in an archaeological theme park trying to find my way to its Space Mountain equivalent while stopping and appreciating all the little nooks and crannies along the way. Considering it was low season, there were hardly any other tourists during our exploration save Bagan’s three most visited temples: the Dhamma-yan-gyi Temple – the largest, Ananda Temple – with four giant Buddha statues, and the That-byin-nyu Temple – the tallest.
Other than temple combing, Bagan also served as an ideal base to take a day trip to Mt. Popa and its famed Taungkalat monastery. Rising up from the ground like an island without water, the monastery can be reached by climbing 700-something stairs, navigating the winding ascent through shop stalls for pilgrims, dividing pathways, and a whole bunch of monkeys that seriously need chill pills. The reward once at the top is a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding area.
With a heavy heart we embarked for Nyaung Shwe by a 12 hour bus ride through the mountains to the southeast of Bagan. A sleepy little town, Nyaung Shwe is the main gateway city to Inle Lake where long canoe-like boats line the canals eagerly waiting for customers to take out to the lake.
Early the next morning we set out for the lake right before the sun made its appearance behind the mountains that encapsulate Inle Lake. Making our way to Shwe Inn Tain Pagoda, we crossed a good portion of the lake passing through locals carrying on with their daily lives of fishing or transporting goods and small villages throughout the shores of the lake similar to water villages found in other Southeast Asian countries.
Aside from the magnificent views of the rolling lush mountains that surround the lake, I considered Shwe Inn Tain Pagoda to be the highlight of the Inle portion of our journey. Nestled amidst thick forests by the side of an inland river, the main pagoda can be reached by a long covered hallway that ascends a hill until the sight of numerous golden stupas signifies you’ve arrived at the top. Along the way up, a few very old-looking mini pagoda complexes that’s reminiscent of parts of Angkor can be seen, sans the hordes of tourists. Speaking of which, we were the only tourists in this relatively large landmark at eight in the morning. At that hour, the pagoda didn’t feel like a tourist destination, it felt as if I accidentally stumbled upon this vestige of a bygone era in the middle of the jungle. It was unquestionably refreshing.
Myanmar itself was ultimately refreshing. Here we have a large country in one of the most diverse regions in the world, but so far it has managed to steer clear of the relative culture watering down that has rampantly spread over much of the tourist hotspots in Southeast Asia. Myanmar as it stands, still feels authentic. Though there were instances that raised red flags, it remains to be seen with further modernization, whether this country will continue to be a source of inspiration or serve as another cautionary tale on the hazards of mass tourism. A selfish part of me wishes that the former would always be true, but on the other hand I do feel everybody should see Myanmar before time runs out.
Words and Photos by Hario Priambodho