Myanmar isn’t easy to get to. Although it’s right next to Thailand and the border isn’t far from the always-popular Chiang Mai, entering the country is difficult. There is a massive war, more aptly described as ethnic cleansing, going on in the country, so crossing overland is not possible nor safe.
I deliberated long and hard about going to Myanmar. It had been on my “top 3” list for as long as I can remember, but I struggled with whether or not I should support a government committing such atrocities. Does tourism actually support the government? Or does it actually help local people when you visit their restaurants and shops? Is it OK to condemn an entire country on the basis of their leader? Should we avoid places where these things occur? Or does avoiding them make matters worse?
While I can’t say I know the answer to these questions, they did give me pause. I was further disheartened by other backpackers who had been to Myanmar, many of whom didn’t even know what was going on. In the end I decided to go, and whether or not this was the right decision it was one I did not regret. Myanmar was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been — which at this point is a pretty bold statement. The people were absolutely incredible. The scenery was breathtaking. And the lower rate of tourism (Bagan notwithstanding) made for a very authentic experience.
A Golden Rock On The Edge of a Mountain
Precariously perched over the end of a cliff, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a sacred and highly-visited Buddhist religious site. It’s extremely difficult to get to – I spent about 13 hours round trip on transit (from taxi to the bus station, to local bus, to a rugged jeep up the mountain, to a steep climb). And I only spent about 15 minutes at the top as it began to downpour 3 minutes after I arrived. There were a few other tourists (zero Westerners, though), but most visitors were there to worship. There are some strict rules about where women can and cannot go, and some stray dogs milling about, so be sure to be respectful (and wary of rabies). It’s a highly-unique and beautiful temple unlike any other I’ve seen. The rock is over 25 high, 50 feet around and covered in gold leaf (that’s a lot of gold leaf).
Massive Wet Market On Active Railroad Tracks
The Da Nyin Gone Railway Station Market is, literally, the most interesting thing I have seen to-date. I’d not yet been on an old train at this point (I understand they have similar ones in India and Bangladesh), so the journey itself was also amazing. The ancient metal train without windows took a long time in the station, and was bustling full of life onboard with people sitting on floors, hauling huge sacks of goods, and selling myriad foods. It became increasingly crowded as we drove, and rain flew in through the aforementioned open windows. A few mile trip took nearly 2 hours. Upon arrival, the train stops on top of the market which is actively located on the tracks. Let me restate. There is a market with fruits and vegetables for sale within the railroad tracks that an old train then drives over.
It was busy and muddy and filthy and full of life all at once. There are literally no words to describe it, so you can view these photos I climbed on a structurally-unsound dilapidated train bridge to take. If this isn’t enough, there is a massive, open air warehouses across the way with the largest pile of fruits I have ever seen. Photography is strictly prohibited – and I was alerted to “be careful” by a policeman – but everyone was nice and I was able to successfully buy some mangoes and dragon fruits for pennies.
Yangon: A Wildly Authentic City
If you like cities, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) is a gem. Most people are in and out in a day, and some other travelers described it to me as “dirty” or “bleh,” but I found it enthralling and worthy of more time. The city is bustling and a bit on the grungy side in areas, the streets lined with dense markets full of colorful foods and flowers and people. Pigeons line the trees in the early morning rain, fluorescent lights sputter on around 5am, and some alleyways look like a scene out of a very old movie. There was even a lively nighttime market scene with bugs and fruits and lights. There are also big, golden pagodas to enjoy and some appealing parks.
People Cutting, Shaping, Buying, Selling & Doing Other Things With Jade
Mandalay’s Jade Market market blew my mind. Much more authentic than the tourist-focused Gold Leaf Workshop (which was still pretty cool; they hammer gold into wafer-thin “leafs” for 6+ hours a day), the jade market is a real-life market where many, many men sell and buy and maybe trade jade in a bustling atmosphere. There is a metal gate around the entire thing, which you must pass through to enter. Foreigners pay a nominal fee as we clearly aren’t patrons but onlookers, and once inside some parts are pretty intense. People are grinding down jade, their fingers scarily close to the whirling blades. People with scopes are examining jade for I assume clarity/quality/other jade-expert things. There are tons of transactions, for pieces, hunks and rounded stones, all wrapped up for the buyer in a paper sleeve. I have absolutely no idea how any of this works, but the market was massive and extremely interesting. Outside the market is…more market, with some more jade pieces of various sizes, shades and clarities for purchase, as well as a few jade items for sale. For market lovers, it’s a must.
Bagan: As Good As The Photos (Maybe Better)
There are many, many tourist sights that do not look like the photos. Or, some that do but are simply overrun with people who have ruined a previously beautiful spot. Bagan, to my great relief, did not disappoint. The fields of temples ARE in fact as incredible as they appear in the photos — even without the pricey balloon ride (not in budget, nor season, when I went). There is so much to explore, hundreds upon hundreds, and can rent your own scooter and do so at your own pace. The sun rises and sets behind the temples are pretty freaking cool, too. The online photos actually don’t even do it justice.
The “World’s Largest Book”
I am probably (definitely) a bit biased here as I have a slight obsession with oddities and the “world’s largest” anything, but oddity-obsessed or not this is quite a sight. The world’s largest book is actually a series of stone tablets (730 to be exact), bright white, over 5 feet tall and 5 inches thick. These “pages” contain Theravāda Buddhism’s religious canon, and are contained inside a massive complex along with the Kuthodaw Pagoda. These books used to be written in gold ink, but after the invasion the gold was stripped and now they’ve been repainted in black.
A Deserted, 20-Lane Highway – Where You Can’t Take Photos
The capital of Naypyitaw was built as a planned city. But it didn’t work out as…planned. There are some massive, modern structures in the hugely spaced-out and weirdly empty place. But the most interesting of all is the 20-lane highway on which no cars drive. I asked my cab driver to take me on the way to the airport. This apparently was not a weird request; it’s a thing. We were stopped by a police officer who said I could not take photos from the side of the road, but could from within the car window. At least I think this is what he said; I actually have no idea as no one spoke English and the hand movements were unclear.
The people in Myanmar are incredible. I’ve met a lot of very nice people around the world and am often surprised by their kindness, and Myanmar was definitely up there. On my way straight down a mountain in the pouring rain in a rugged jeep I met a young girl who excitedly began speaking to me in English. We exchanged stories, and by the time we made it down she’d invited me to ride back to the city with her family. While wandering through a governmental district alone (by mistake), a man who worked for an embassy approached me and offered to walk me to my destination so I didn’t get lost. At the train station, a young boy whom spoke quite good English approached me and offered to help me organize my ticket then showed me where to sit and wait for no reason except to be nice; he asked for nothing of me.
I only wish I had more time to spend in Myanmar, as I would have loved to visit Inle Lake and spent more time in Yangon.