In September this year, I spent a few days hopping from Yangon to Bagan to Inle and back to Yangon, with the bulk of time and activities spent in Bagan and Inle. Knowing that I’m a city girl through and through, my friend back home asked me, “Why Myanmar?” I said, “Why not?”
Well, actually, I was there to visit my Burmese friend, and I knew I wanted to conquer these places, so we all went on a whirlwind trip, spending 3 nights on overnight buses and only 2 nights at hotels. Crazy I know, when you’re past a certain age and sleeping on comfortable beds is very important to you for the safety of your companions. It was fun despite being a lil tiring, but worth it! The trip to Myanmar opened up my eyes and mind a little bit more, the way Travel does to you. If Myanmar as a thought comes across as a challenge to you, this post I’d written earlier on what you should know before visiting Myanmar, might help to address some of your concerns.
Before going, inside my head, I had a few prejudiced impressions of Myanma. They were proven baseless. Myanmar turned out to be beautiful and exotic.
By the way, I just wanna mention that Yangon is not the capital.
Fact check: Yangon is actually NOT the capital of Myanmar, though it was formally, until the government moved the capital to Naypyidaw in 2005. However, Yangon is a developed city with more than 5 million people (source). Its most impressive structure has got to be the dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda, a shimmering structure plated in gold with its upper dome adorned with more than 5,000 diamonds and precious gems.
Here are 15 ways that Myanmar surprised me!
1. Burmese food is very tasty!
(I also didn’t get tummy issues from the food!)
My Burmese friend had worried our tummies might not go too well with Burmese food, and had prepared charcoal pills for us. I also brought pochai pills – a Traditional Chinese medication of little pills for upset stomachs.
In all six days of being in Myanmar, my very-clean Singaporean stomach did not get any diarrhoea. On day 4, I needed to go to the toilet, but we were at a remote district (Taunggyi) far away from Inle Lake, with no access to toilets that are decent enough for my standards, so I popped a little bottle of pochai pills and the sensation to clear bowels went away for the next 2 days lolll #TMI.
On the last day, just before we flew off from Yangon, my Singaporean friend had diarrhoea after our lunch at an international restaurant, though the rest of us were fine. After I returned to Singapore, my appetite didn’t resume for a week for some reason.
On food in Myanmar:
I’m a skeptical and picky eater – I judge food by how they look, which means I don’t eat stuff like broccoli, eggplant and lady’s fingers even though they’re nutritious. In case I couldn’t get used to Myanmar’s food, I had brought chocolates and cup noodles. The Burmese food I’d tried in Singapore restaurants had not been to my liking.
My cup noodles remained unopened.
Burmese food is really assorted due to different ethnic groups across the country hence cooking styles, but surprisingly, most of the food we ate were tasty! We ate at places where the locals dine, even teabreak snacks at a makeshift tent in the middle of nowhere in Bagan.
Travel tips: Bring charcoal pills or pochai pills as a precaution. Don’t drink tap nor iced drinks, only bottled water or with straws from chilled cans. Clean utensils with tissue paper before using – even locals do this.
2. Myanmar’s nights are darker than yours…
Light is never sufficient in this country.
Having spent a good portion of my time in living in the extremely developed Singapore, as well as visited enough cities in Europe and Asia, I have to say, Myanmar feels really dark at night. In cities, we always have light. I had no idea how I’m so used to this till I visited Myanmar.
In Yangon, I looked out of the car and was amazed that people were sitting outdoors with lamps so dim I’m not sure if they’re actually of any use. In Bagan, after dinner, we walked along a main road back to the hotel, my torchlight shining the ground, or else I would have tripped. I turned back to see the unlit stretch of road in total darkness. This is the same for overnight coaches going between states – the only light comes from the vehicles
3. Blackouts are frequent – even if you’re in the toilet.
Even though I’d read about blackouts in Myanmar, I was pretty optimistic it won’t happen to us. Nonetheless, I still packed a torchlight into my bag in case I needed to navigate dim interiors of Bagan’s pagodas.
We experienced blackouts 3 times in Myanmar: once during a stopover for our overnight coach ride from Yangon to Bagan; once at Bagan’s bus terminal; once in the morning at my friend’s house in Yangon. During the first blackout, we had stepped out of the toilet mere minutes before. I can’t imagine being inside the toilet when the lights went out! We did hear shrieks though, oops.
What you can do: Always have your handphone with you for light (just make sure you won’t drop it if you’re using it in the toilet), or have a little torchlight with you.
4. Public transportation is rather questionable…
In Bagan as pictured, people sit inside trucks AND above the trucks. In Yangon, I’ve seen non-air-conditioned buses with doors falling apart. I’ve seen people squeezed in public lorries, some hanging onto dear life, the ladies obviously uncomfortable.
Motorbikes are banned in Yangon so you won’t see them there, which also means frequent traffic jams. Electric bikes however, are a popular way to get around in Bagan.
5. Women are impressive at balancing things on top of their head!
Trays or baskets – nothing’s too difficult. And they walk like nothing’s too different. At Inle Lake, I’d also seen a lady balancing a tray of chicken wings on top of her head, walking, squatting to rest and talk to her friend, all with that tray perfectly intact. Very outstanding!
6. Myanmar is very rich in scenery and culture.
Prior to visiting Myanmar, my impression of Yangon was it’s a developing city. My impression of Bagan was it has many ochre-colored pagodas and greeneries. My impression of Inle was the lake and its iconic fishermen that balance on one leg each while the other rows with an oar.
What I did not expect were magnificent views of mountains, fields, and rolling hills. What I did not expect was the sheer amount of land this country occupies, and the amazing structures the people has built, from the super huge Shwedagon temple in Yangon, to the thousands of pagodas in Bagan, to the thousands of stupas at Kakku Pagodas, to the thousands of Buddha statues housed inside an ancient cave at Pindaya. It was amazing and eye-opening.
Artists and craftsmen are aplenty in Myanmar. There are artists that do graphic sand-paintings in Bagan, or replicate onto canvas the murals that had once filled the pagodas’ interior walls, or use antique, wooden inventions to weave shawls or tie strings of patterns, or carve intricate styles to laquerware that was produced so tediously.
The people live such different lifestyles from what we’re familiar with. They’re warm to visitors, hospitable to their guests, and curious about these tourists that have chosen to visit their country.
Myanmar is so rich in scenery and cultures and I’m sure we had only seen a small portion of it.
7. People are pleasant, despite their hardships in life.
We didn’t encounter any rude, grouchy, angsty, or stressed-out person in Myanmar. Save for some enthusiastic vendors at a market in Bagan, most of the other Burmese I saw had manners. Sometimes we couldn’t find our way and my Burmese friend will randomly approach Burmese strangers, and they will always guide without showing any sign of impatience that we’re so used to in Singapore, haha. Proper directional signs are inadequate therefore the Burmese help one another out.
My Burmese friend’s family and relatives were so hospitable to us despite the fact that we couldn’t communicate in a common language. We were always well-fed at their houses or restaurants!
It was through visiting the rural parts of Myanmar that I discovered, not everyone wants to leave their hometown in life to go live in the city.
8. I stepped on more bird-shit than ever seen before in my life.
Rain or shine, indoors or outdoors, shoes and socks are not allowed within temple grounds, so everyone walks barefooted when they’re at the pagodas. In Bagan, when you’re walking on the brick grounds, you can see white patches of dried bird-poo thanks to plenty of pigeons. It was unfortunate that I also stepped on wet bird-poo at a pagoda in Bagan too, argh!
Travel tip: Have wet wipes with you to wipe your feet after you’re done with visiting pagodas and temples for the day, or just simply wash them.
9. Everyone uses a smartphone!
When you see everyone of all ages dressed in traditional costumes, it’s easy to assume they will NOT be that tech-savvy, right? Wrong.
Everyone I saw in Myanmar used a smartphone, right down to the attendant manning the ancient(?) toilet at Kakku Pagodas (three hours’ drive away from Inle Lake, some of which stupas might even date back to 2,000 years old (source)), or villagers visiting Pindaya Caves at Shan State.
I also noticed flatscreen TVs at the most unexpected places — Pindaya Caves, or someone’s house/shop which is obviously more than a few decades old. Technology is definitely a part of the Burmese’s lives.
10. Men adjust their longyis dangerously in public view.
A longyi is the traditional bottom that Burmese wear. For men, it’s like a cylindrical loop and wrapped around the waist and tied with a knot in the front, at the middle. For ladies, it’s a rectangular piece of cloth held together by strings at the waistline. In Singapore, we refer to these clothing as a sarong.
Men are often opening up their longyi, holding it hovering dangerously at the waistline, before wrapping it tighter again. No, they’re not trying to creep you out — the longyi will get loose with movement so it has to be adjusted. I get a little paranoid and will instinctively want to turn away when I happen to catch sight of men about to do this, but thankfully, you won’t see what you’re not supposed to see!
11. Bagan is very stunning, but we can’t climb the pagodas anymore.
Bagan is very charming with its shades of ochre and green, it’s the kind of place that grows on you the longer you’re there. And when you see the landscape from an elevated perspective, it totally takes your breath away. But you can’t climb the pagodas anymore.
I had been really looking forward to climbing pagodas in Bagan and catch amazing sunrises and sunsets. Before leaving, I had read of reports that said tourists have been banned from climbing up pagodas. This, unfortunately, is true. The recent earthquake had also damaged many of the monuments in Bagan, some pagodas being rendered dangerous.
A few large pagodas remained opened for going up, such as the popular Shwesandaw Pagoda, a white pagoda with steps leading up to the top for a 360-degree view. The steps are very steep, I have to warn you.
Tip: Alternatively, you can pay a few USD$ to enter Bagan Viewing Tower (Nann Myint Tower). There’s an indoor restaurant upstairs where you can see good views, or climb up a narrow winding staircase to reach its top level for fantastic views in all directions.
12. Chinese are more rare a sight here than Caucasians.
My girlfriend and I didn’t bother not appearing as tourists because we easily stood out like sore thumbs among the locals, due to our fair skin. Locals kept asking my Burmese friend if we’re Thai or Japanese. At an ancient cave, some locals who were visiting wanted to take a photo OF US (not with us), lol.
13. Some monks and nuns collect money.
Well, I’m not sure if they’re real monks, as I’m aware that Buddhist monks collect alms in the form of food offerings at early mornings. At Inle Lake, before the sun was even up, I noticed Buddhist monks walking alone on unlit roads. I guessed they were going to villages to collect food, which is perfectly fine.
Along roads somewhere between Inle Lake and Pindaya, there were random monks at the roadside shaking their metallic alm bowls (with what sounded like coins inside) as cars drove by. I’ve seen a monk sat cross-legged at a pagoda in Bagan meditating, with the front part of his robe laid out in front of him, money notes on top. It was very random and odd.
The morning we reached Yangon bus terminal, two young monks walked right up to me and my girlfriend, with their alm bowls. If they were expecting food, I would only have Kinder Bueno chocolate bars to donate!
14. Telenor’s 3G is excellent!
We used Telenor prepaid simcards and didn’t have much problems with data reception most of the time, even on overnight buses in the middle of nowhere. I could post to Instagram and update IG Stories easily. I could do Facebook Live videos while the boat was going down Inle Lake!
Reception goes away only occasionally when we take breaks at open-air coffee-shops, or perhaps inside a random pagoda in Bagan.
15. Overnight coach buses are very comfortable (& very cold)!
I’d read about overnight buses being freezing cold (it’s true) and some drivers play loud music the whole journey. Thankfully, my Burmese friend took care of these by choosing the right bus companies for us. We didn’t have to endure loud music or any music for the rides. Bus seats (reclinable) come with blankets, bottled water, snacks and sometimes neck pillows, personal TV screens, headphones and pre-packed toothbrush & toothpaste. It was awesome. Do note however, that roads in Myanmar can be quite bumpy.
We took Elite Express from Yangon to Bagan, Bagan Prince from Bagan to Inle, Mandalar Min from Inle to Yangon. Among the 3, Mandalar Min was my favorite. The seats were more spacious compared to the rest, the coach was quiet and comfortable, I managed to sleep most of the trip. You can view more details about the coach comparisons over at this blogpost –> What to Know Before You Visit Myanmar.
So there you have it, surprising parts of Myanmar that I discovered! Are you thinking of visiting it soon, before tourism overtakes it?
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Visited: Sep 2016
Image credits: Photo of ladies doing lacquerware art, cotton-weaving, and the view at Bagan View Tower were photographed by my friend, Sui Min. All other photos were taken by me.
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