Goal = 52 countries in 52 weeks.
Myanmar (or Burma as it was formerly known) had always intrigued us as a destination given it’s pretty low on the tourism scale and we didn’t know anyone who had ventured there previously. That being said, we were pretty excited to step into the unknown and have a taste of authentic Asia. It’s a pretty tricky place to get into though particularly via road so we hopped on an AirAsia flight from Bangkok direct to the city of Yangon.
Myanmar is possibly the most devoutly Buddhist nation on earth, evident by the dazzling array of golden pagodas and ancient temples scattered amongst the busy streets of Yangon. Whilst awe-inspiring to view in person, the city slums, run down houses and poverty were eye opening on a whole different level. We never felt unsafe wandering the streets of Yangon, but certainly felt a bit out of place and definitely out of our comfort zones for the first time.
There was plenty to do to keep busy though, and the first stop had to be the Shwedagon Pagoda, the infamous golden temple which stands almost 110m tall. One of Buddhism’s most sacred sites, this impressive temple is over 2500 years old and is covered with 27 metric tons of gold leaf along with thousands of diamonds and gems.
In other words, it is worth an absolute fortune and you can see what the majority of the city’s money is put towards! It was quite interesting to watch the locals traipse through the site to perform their daily prayers and witness the many monks meditating and worshipping.
Next stop was Kandawgyi Lake, also know as Royal Lake which is stunning at sunset when the shimmering Shwedagon Pagoda is reflected in the water. An old rickety boardwalk runs around the lake and makes for a nice afternoon stroll when the heat of the day has passed. The biggest attraction of this lake is no doubt the monstrous Karaweik Palace, a floating golden barge which doubles as a concert hall at night for a spectacular royal culture show.
Big, busy, noisy cities have never been a huge pull for Kim and I so we were again keen to search for a bit of peace and quiet on the outskirts of the city. We decided to jump on the old circular train for an up close and personal experience with the locals. This train completes it’s loop in around 3 hours and runs through many country neighbourhoods full of green grass and lush vegetation.
Super old fashioned, the rickety train click clacks through 50kms of bumpy track with nothing but open windows for aircon! The seats are hard (which you also need to share with a number of locals), the train moves at a snail’s pace and boy is it hot and sweaty! But it sure makes for some amazing photos and a great way to experience a touch of local life with the many vendors hopping on and off at each station selling anything from boiled peanuts to fresh fruit.
Getting around Myanmar is also a little tricky with only a limited number of methods. As internal flights were infrequent and expensive, we booked ourselves on a night bus to our next destination, Bagan. This was the first night bus of our travels and a whole world better than we expected! Reclining seats, blankets, pillows, water and snacks were all provided so although the road was pretty windy and bumpy we were as comfortable as we could be for the situation.
The only downside was arriving at 4am when it’s still dark and the hotels are deserted! Not being able to check in at that time, we decided to make the most of the hour and set off for the closest temple to watch the sunrise.
Bagan is an ancient city in the centre of Myanmar which hosts one of the richest archaeological sites in Asia. An astonishing 5000+ temples, stupas and pagodas are scattered across this vast and fascinating town, making it one of the essential places to explore in Myanmar.
As the temples are so spread out, a great way to see them all is by hiring an electric bike. Simple to use and easy on the wallet, we loved zipping around the town and stopping at any of the temples that caught our eye. From grand and monstrous to teeny tiny and crumbling, there were temples of every type and each one came with it’s own unique history.
The most spectacular time to see the temples is of course when the sun dramatically rises and falls over the plain at dawn or dusk. As we happened to be visiting Bagan over Valentine’s Day, we forked out the cash for a magnificent hot air balloon ride at sunrise. This unique experience was truly memorable, from the delightful coffee and cake at the fields while you watched the balloons being set up to the champagne and croissants at the end after your basket had landed.
Naturally, the main highlight was the absolutely incredible sights from our wicker basket, floating amongst the clouds. As our balloon soared higher and higher over the clear blue sky, we were treated with a panoramic view of the majestic pagodas and amazing landscape. Adding the presence of around 20 other balloons, gently bobbing up and down along the skyline, I have to say it was one of the most breathtaking moments of my life. The bird eye’s view was unforgettable and worth every dollar.
Coming down from the high of having our heads in the clouds, we had one more day to explore Bagan. Looking for something to do other than temple gazing, we joined a day tour to the nearby Mount Popa Monastery. Settled high on a hill and guarded by monkeys, this unique monastery is not easy to access. 777 steps await you at the bottom of the hill, and looking up it appears to be a castle sitting on top of a skyscraper.
The abundance of monkeys were only problematic if you had food on you, otherwise they were harmless enough (although quite scary looking!) Once at the top, we were greeted with a grand view of the surrounding village. A fun part of the day was taking part in a local beauty routine at the markets on the way to the monastery. Thanaka is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark and is used frequently by women and young children as a way to prevent sun damage amongst other benefits. I was happy to adorn golden leaves on my cheeks for the day and feel a little more like a local!
Our third and final stop in Myanmar was Inle Lake, a vast and serene 22km stretch of water accessed by the town of Nyaungshwe. This small town was a little derelict and unimpressive, but we still managed to find some great restaurants and many activities to fill our few days here. A boat ride along the lake was a must do, and what a tranquil little adventure it was.
The lake was walled by marshes, floating gardens, stilt houses and Buddhist temples but perhaps the most stunning sight was the fishing boats and the fisherman themselves. These fishermen employ an unusual technique for catching fish by using just one leg to balance on the front of the boat and guiding their cone like nets with the other leg. A pretty magical sight to witness amongst the still water and misty mountains!
As we learnt in Bagan, hiring a bike for a day is a great way to explore a town in Myanmar and Inle Lake was no exception. Nestled on a hill overlooking the lake, Red Mountain Estate is a leisurely bike ride away through farms and villages and a perfect spot to watch the sun go down. I never anticipated being able to visit a winery in Myanmar, so jumped at the chance for a little afternoon wine tasting. Whilst not the highest quality wine you get used to drinking in Australia, I was still pleasantly suprised and enjoyed our samples accompanied by what else but a delectable cheese platter.
Our final cycling adventure lead us out to the Khaung Daing hot springs, about an hour out of Nyaungshwe. It wasn’t the easiest of rides, with plenty of steep hills to keep us moving but a dip in the refreshing pools was a welcome treat after the hot ride in the sun. Natural hot mineral waters flow into the thermal pools and private baths providing a picturesque setting for an afternoon of R&R.
The pools are all varying temperatures and the small resort has plenty of sun chairs and a cute little bar for that perfect cocktail to complement your relaxation. This was a great way to end our time in Myanmar and prepare us for our last night bus back to Yangon and exit flight the following morning. Myanmar exceeded our expectations by far and we’ve definitely been spreading the word in the hope more of our friends can make it to this unique part of the world.