Two weeks in Myanmar (Burma) Part 1: Yangon to Bagan

In the most part untouched and undeveloped Burma has an authenticity unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Few visitors, few Western influences, very “real”. Our faces turned heads (nothing to do with my good looks, not lost, rather never had) nearly everywhere we went. Only welcoming tourism recently, it is still a novelty for residents of this most insular land. Things are changing, though – Burma will quickly catch its South East Asian neighbours up and now is the time to go, before the inevitable creep of modernity, development, homogenisation and everything else that comes with a tourism boom.

I’ve written a lengthy intro to the country here – now I’ll focus on what we actually did. It’s going to turn into a bit of an itinerary/diary for which I apologise. But as I’m basically the only person reading, it will be fit for purpose.

As nearly everyone does, it being the only international airport (of note), we began in the old capital of Yangon, or Rangoon as it was known in colonial times. And as nearly everyone doesn’t, we didn’t stay long. Imagine Bangkok 50 years ago and you’re pretty close to the mark. We did pop into Shwedagon, a temple/pagoda (the distinction still isn’t clear to me) which acts as the focal point for the city’s worshippers, a social setting as much as a religious one. It was the first of approximately 8 million temples we saw.

From Yangon we went to Golden Rock, a mythical Buddhist monument teetering precariously on the summit of Mt. Kyaiktiyo. According to Buddhist myth the rock maintains its position (even in the face of major earthquakes) because it is held by some of Buddha’s hair.

This was the first but by no means the last piece of religious mumbo-jumbo we heard, but it’s no worse than feeding the 5000, more believable than coming back from the dead, and certainly more comprehensible than jihad.

Pasting a gold leaf onto the rock is a Buddhist rite of passage but sadly misgovernance has allowed the surrounds to slip into a sorry state of slipshod building and general disrepair, no-one taking responsibility for the overall upkeep or quality standard.

As you can see above, stormy skies obscured our views from the top, the surrounding landscape hidden by apocalyptic rain. But the ascent and descent, packed into a rickety open-top truck, gave us a thorough understanding of the vertiginous remoteness of the site. The vehicle careered round rain-sodden bends, brakes screeching, sheer drops centimetres away, terrified rain-soaked passengers thrown into the side-rails (and each other) at every turn. The bruises have just about subsided.

Next stop Mandalay, further north. We didn’t take the road, but a rather more modern approach – a short internal flight which was pleasingly and surprisingly efficient, and went without a hitch.

On our journey in we stopped at one of the many monasteries surrounding the city and saw the monks taking alms, an impressive and humbling spectacle, sadly ruined by what tourists there were poking their cameras into the monks’ faces. Not all Chinese are terrible tourists, but the most terrible tourists were all Chinese. But if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. n.b. I used a zoom here.

Mandalay was essentially a million temples, although refreshingly different ones – old decaying wooden temples, gaudy golden temples, stone temples, small temples, big temples, cave temples, hilltop temples, temples temples temples temples temples. It was about here I had enough of temples. Here’s a couple of the “best” temples, depending on your taste in temples. I like old temples. But enough about temples already.

We also took a boat cruise (to a temple, obviously) on an old colonial style riverboat, disembarking to find the local fair in town, which turned out to be one of the best experiences of the whole trip. There wasn’t a single other foreigner there and it was a crazy, chaotic carnival of worship, dancing, singing, food, music, games and general cavorting, no-one paid us the slightest bit of attention, and momentarily we hit tourist zenith – a real, unique, exciting experience, entirely natural and untainted. You really had to be there…

After two nights in Mandalay, with temple overload so thoroughly and comprehensively achieved, it was with some trepidation I realised the next stop was Bagan, famous for its ancient… temples. This should be OK though, I thought – the wondrous panoramas of balloons floating over temple dotted landscapes were one of the key drivers to visit Burma in the first place.

Tune in to part two to see if I actually became a temple.

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