I remember the first time I saw a picture of Bagan—a misty green landscape, dotted with pagodas and temples, as far as the eye could see. Hot air balloons floated in the distance, among the mountains. It was a place that looked as if it was conceived by someone’s imagination—as if it came from a beautiful dream. I had to go there.
Every year in China, the Mid-Autumn Festival allows me a week off of work at the beginning of October. It’s not much, but with flights connecting in Kunming, a trip to Myanmar is doable. You just have to plan.
First Stop: Yangon
I had made friends with the woman next to me on the plane, and she offered to share her driver into the city. She had actually grown up in Yangon (Rangoon at the time), and was anxious to see how the city had changed. With our faces pressed to the windows, we drove past dirty, garbage-laden alleyways, littered with crumbling apartment buildings. Matted nests of electricity wires decorated the streets. Women wearing colorful cotton skirts set up street stalls for later that night.
The car came to a stop, and I got out my camera. “Please don’t take photos here,” the driver said to me. Puzzled, I asked if it was against the law. He replied that he just didn’t want the world to see “this side of Myanmar.”
As we sat in traffic for the next 30 minutes, the driver told us about his country’s past, his feelings toward the government, and how ashamed he was for the appearance of his home town. He had spent the last few years in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and learned English by working as a bus boy at an Irish pub.
While telling his story, I noticed that he sat on the right side of the car, and drove on the right side of the road. “The government bought old Japanese cars, very cheap,” he said. “All the steering wheels are on the right, like in England, but one day the law changed and we had to drive on the other side of the road.”
The first of many insights into the problems the country is still facing, after more than 60 years of brutal government brutality and a long period of British colonial ruling.
The driver had returned to Yangon with different eyes and a very different perspective. But as an outsider, I had a much different outlook. And behind the lens of my camera, the “side of Myanmar” he desperately didn’t want me to see, looked beautiful. Buddhist monks dressed in crimson robes walked barefoot down streets, collecting food from generous neighbors. Girls carrying flowers and umbrellas seemed to glide toward the golden pagodas, that shined like beacons around the city. Men fed pigeons on the stoops of buildings—and when they flew past the pastel-colored balconies, the sky got a little brighter.
At sunset, I headed to Shwedagon Pagoda—TripAdvisor’s #1 thing to do in Yangon. As someone who has traveled a lot around Southeast Asia, I wasn’t sure I’d be as impressed as the site’s reviewers. But I was wrong.
It’s not just a pagoda, but an entire complex of temples and religious relics, where devotees kneel to Buddha figures, monks light candles, and children pour water over the heads of statues for good fortune. I tucked myself into a corner and watched the full moon rise over the glowing 326-foot-tall pagoda.
For me, it was an eye-opening day and a half. And while I enjoyed myself, many tourists I met along the way did not. In fact, I met up with an old colleague, who took a job at an international school in the city earlier this year. And sweating, over condensed milk-sweetened tea and snacks, she told me how hard it’s been. She told me about the mold growing in her apartment and the constant struggles with transportation. About the necessary visa runs. About the possibility of having to vacate the country after the upcoming election.
The truth is, this is a developing country, and they have a long way to go. I’m just thankful they’ve finally opened their doors and allowed me to explore this fascinating city.
Where I stayed: Lotus Bed & Breakfast (downtown)
Where I ate: Lucky 7 (traditional tea house, for breakfast or early lunch), 999 Shan Noodle House (Good noodles, but a bit too touristy, in my opinion) and some really, really good spicy peanut noodles at a street stall across from Shwedagon Pagoda.
What I did: Shwedagon Pagoda (If you do one thing in Yangon, this is it. I recommend going right before sunset.), Sule Pagoda (Not too impressive after seeing Shwedagon, but the surrounding area was cool.), Bogyoke Aung San Market (Full of vendors selling gems, traditional clothing, and local food. Make sure to barter!). My favorite thing I did, however, does not include a link–just walking around, exploring the little alleyways and taking in the local sights and sounds of the neighborhoods is a day well spent.