After a few nights of farewell parties in Taiwan, me and Lya set out on Sunday to the Taoyuan airport to catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia where we arranged our visa to Burma, officially called Myanmar. We had heard some rumors, later proven to be true, that visas can be arranged on arrival but we didn’t want to take the risk. The visa section of the Myanmar embassy looks like a hot-dog stand but it all works and three days later we had our visa in our passports without any problems.
After spending one night at the Bangkok airport where we had to transfer flights, we finally found ourselves in Yangon (Rangoon). This was the beginning of our adventure and fulfillment of a long- standing desire of mine to visit this country. Travelling there feels like a journey to the last century. It is not rare to see horse carts in the streets, experience power cuts several times a day, and see mothers with babies sleeping in the streets.
I was told a joke by a Burmese person: The devil announces a lottery game in hell and that the winner would be able to leave hell and go back to earth on one condition: He has to sleep on an iron bed with electric shocks every night for the rest of his life. The devil gives one bonus to the winner: he can choose the country he wants to go to. And the winner shouts: Burma, I want to go to Burma!
People in Burma are among the poorest in the world but despite this they are one of the friendliest people I have ever met! Every time they see a foreigner they smile as if they had met an old friend they hadn’t seen for a long time. I discovered the power of smiles which gives you the right energy for exploring this country and its wonderful Buddhist heritage. The most famous pagoda, Shwedagon Paya, is the symbol of Yangon and is truly beautiful with its biggest golden stupa glittering in the sun. And that is exactly the place where our curiosity led us first.
Soon we decided to travel further into the middle of the country and underwent a terrible 12-hour bus journey to Mandalay. Luckily the bus had air conditioning, we got a bottle of water and a wet towel each, but the seats were old, uncomfortable, and with strange strings pushing against our backs. This was the best type of bus we saw during our whole stay in Myanmar and later would have given God-knows-what for taking this long-distance over night bus instead of the day time mini-bus with tiny seats full of people, rice, and vegetables.
Mandalay, the former capital of the Burmese empire, turned out to be the highlight of our trip. The first evening on the way back from the Mandalay palace (which we didn’t see from the inside because we were too stingy to pay 10 USD) we were wandering around the numbered streets of the city. The streets were dark and so we used the indicator light of our flash light so no cars would run us over – this must have been very confusing for the locals because every now and then someone stopped us and wanted to help us find the way to our hotel – but we were not lost! That is almost impossible given the very convenient system of numbering the streets.
And how lively these streets were: Kids playing outside, men watching football in tea shops. What caught our attention was a boy playing guitar. As we approached him he stopped playing because he was too shy. A bunch of kids and teenagers surrounded us smiling and wanting to talk to us – unfortunately we didn’t understand them so we tried the sign language, finding out it doesn’t work we sang a Slovak song to them hoping they would also sing something to us. This was only one of many charming encounters with the locals.
The next morning we met, to our big surprise, three more Slovaks – in the same city, same hotel somewhere in the middle of Burma – and joined them for a one-day trip to the three ancient cities around Mandalay: Sagaing, Ava, and Amarapura.
The weather was really hot and the locals must have thought ‘what a mad foreigner sitting outside in this strong sun.’ Asians, in general, try to protect themselves from the sun as much as possible. But I enjoyed those few moments alone watching the scenery around me from above. For me, this was the highlight of the day.
If you ask me, I didn’t like the trip, or let’s say the way it was organized. In every place we had only a limited amount of time and the driver took us to a restaurant full of little necklace-sellers trying to get some money out of our wallets: “Hello. Where do you come from? What is your name? My name is XY. Now we are friends. You have to buy something from your new friend …”
That day we finally tried the thanaka, a local make-up and sun protection made of ground bark. Seeing foreigners walk around with painted faces raised a lot of laughter. We didn’t mind and laughed with them enjoying the sunset at the peak bridge in Amarapura, occasionally posed for a picture for someone passing by and chatted with the many monks passing by.
Many of them were acting pretty weird – and then it struck us – betel nuts! The young monks were chewing betel nuts (a mild psychoactive drug), a green nut wrapped in a leaf that transforms one’s saliva into a gross red squash – and so many Western tourists in Asia think people are spitting blood. Amarapura was also the place we were confronted with child labor for the first time – for a Westerner this is more than shocking.
We were very lucky to meet T. through a website and he became our dear friend. He is a tour guide and a trishaw driver during the low-season. What an astonishment I caused when I – tall and white with red hair – drove him around for a change!
After a lazy day at the city’s swimming pool, where we were the only girls, we visited Sagaing with him once again, one of the above-mentioned three ancient cities and the current spiritual Buddhist center of the country. This time we saw it from a completely different perspective. We travelled on the roof of a pick-up. How amazing! I wish we had such a means of transport back at home too! We later found out that women are not supposed to travel on the roof as this means a lack of respect towards men.
We visited one Buddhist monastery school for orphans and gave an English lesson as well as small donations. Teaching there was a very strong experience. The children were attentive, cooperative, and well behaved – I was amazed. And this was the moment our idea to come back for volunteering was born. And the possible reward? Happy smiles of children.
After we “recharged our batteries” we had this great idea to go to the new capital, Naypyidaw but according to the Lonely Planet: “Foreigners are not officially allowed (and embassies are staying put in Yangon).” Well, forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest.
From our hiking guide we knew we could actually go there but we had to behave and keep a low profile. We were a big attraction to the people there, it really seems that not a lot of Westerners go there. On the way there we passed a few checkpoints and soldiers blew their whistles as soon as they saw my white face behind one of the windows of our mini-bus, and I and my friend Lya and one Russian girl who was with us had to get off and show them our passports. Of course, this scared the hell out of us and we were afraid we would get onto the black list of foreigners and wouldn’t get a visa the next time, but then our Russian friend assured us it was normal and that she had experienced such check-points in the north-west of the country and it was just standard procedure.
And what a city this was! Not really a city yet, but the architects certainly knew what they were doing. The best way to describe it would be: a huge area with new buildings, houses, entertainment places, golf clubs, etc. We haven’t seen any city center as there might not be such a thing yet or the driver was too afraid to take three white girls to there. Anyways, we saw a huge pagoda (it seemed even higher than Shwedagon, very beautiful and completely new), a small shopping mall where you could buy really everything (all imported) for extremely low prices. People were well dressed and you could see a huge difference between the rest of the country and this new built city. It just shows the government’s delusions of grandeur – I shall not say more about the political situation and my own personal view, because this article is not about politics but about the beauty of these people and travelling in their country.
(Written in 2010; shortened for this website)