The eyes are upon me. Everyone is watching. As I walk down the street, people turn with varied inquisitiveness. Some throw subtle glances; others prefer the long-stare. Some smile, some giggle, but everyone looks without fail.
I feel celebrity-like, more-so than I ever have done in my short life. It should feel weird, odd or hit a nerve, but instead it’s welcoming. I’m a pilgrim in a country still opening up to tourism. It feels like travel should. Neighbouring Thailand is indifferent to me, almost angry at my western ways. Myanmar instead opens its arms in a giant embrace.
The best kind of smile is real. Not the tip-laced service grin, nor the faux mock, but a loving open one only found in a place where consumerism hasn’t penetrated with its cold hands.
Call Me Myanmar
Five days isn’t enough to experience the wonders of Burma (or as it likes to be called now, The Royal Kingdom of Myanmar). You can do what I did – Mandalay to Bagan and back to Mandalay – but you’ll feel upset on departure. Myanmar is still a country of shocking poverty while reeling from sudden open borders and a fading oppressive government.
It is a land of beauty, welcoming people, incredible sights and west-adverse tradition. Local attire is still worn, horses draw carts and everyone seems to know everyone, even in the large city of Mandalay. Dusty trials are only just being overcome by modern roads. Wild dogs roam the streets. It is dirty.
However, all this chaos combines in a whirlwind of incredible smells, sights and taste. At first you don’t know how to cope, but soon you relish the random power cuts, the incessant beeping of mopeds and the bartering for goods.
It Began with Bagan
“Clip clop,” goes the rhythmic song of the horse. The ground is arid, the horizon littered with stupas of all sizes. The hot sun beams down, intermingling with the kicked up dust to create a hazy, Indiana Jones style scene.
“This is far from the hippie north of Thailand,” I think to myself. It is the first time I realise what Myanmar is about. Free from the dark shackles of anti-malaria medicine, I take in everything.
A country both reluctant to change and eager to modernise – there is a push-and-pull feeling almost materialising in the air. The guide is old-school, but he chatters on his phone on his break.
The Ancient City of Bagan is a must-see; one of the true wonders of the region. Flat plains give way to pyramids, temples and forts. It is a shadow of its former self, but what a shadow it is. The holy repetition stretches as far as the eye can see; sunset being the best time to take in the view.
Children hide behind their parents’ legs, peeking out to say some token words of English. Most wave from afar, some have cottoned on to what tourism means for them; money. They might sell postcards and tell you some history for a tip, but it’s done in a way that’s polite, hospitable and without any hint of a scam.
They’re just doing what the Burmese people know best to do – putting a smile on your face.
Long Bridges & Long Boats
45 minutes up, 45 minutes down goes the Mandalay Hill mantra as the steps continue upwards. I trudge through mini bazaars, past beverage sellers, around miniature Buddhas and eventually, to the top of the scenic point.
Steps, steps and more steps – that’s the rule of climbing the famous hill.
A camera fee of 500 Kyat greets my pilgrimage and I sneakily ignore it with my iPhone. Mandalay stretches far into the distance; its Palace ring road carves a perfect square out of the city.
The largest city in the north couldn’t be any further from the historical flatness of Bagan. Mandalay has sadly already begun its sprint into the modern era. Banks are beginning to allow foreign ATM cards, Internet is offered in upmarket hotels and restaurants, and the youth of the city are wearing trousers. Still, it feels completely different to the rest of the world.
- Take the boat from Mandalay to Bagan – it captures the slowness of Burmese life
- Book in advance if you can otherwise you might be stuck with expensive hotel rooms
- Hostels don’t really exist in the country; neither does internet booking
- Bring dollars, crisp / no tears / folds to change to Kyat
- Talk to everyone you meet – they want to learn about the world
- Expect gifts from street sellers, locals and children
The scooters beep continuously, there are no street lights at night and aside from the main Palace road, the majority of roads are unkempt and wild. Aged men sit on corners chewing a tobacco substance which stains the road and their teeth red every time they spit.
Why do they do it? No-one knows. Everyone who’s asked says it’s a bad idea, yet still offers a token try. This is Burma, or Myanmar. It is a country of two halves. Even the world doesn’t know what it should be called. There are always two sides to a story and Myanmar has many faces.
The only consistent thing is that it’s wearing a smile.
I travelled to Myanmar for five days in February 2013.