- Along with the United States, Myanmar is one of three countries in the world that has not adopted the metric system.
- Fishermen fish in the water standing on one leg.
- Touching someone’s head is a major insult.
The Myanmar port was very different from any I have been to thus far. The city center in Yangon was a two-hour shuttle ride away, so my first view of the country was of flat, sandy land covered in grey, bristly bushes and small palm trees. It immediately reminded me of Rocky Point, Mexico.
The ride to the city was a learning experience in itself. As we rumbled along heavily torn-up roadways, I watched the Burmese world go by. I saw masses of stilted huts with palm-frond woven walls and rickety floors built just above a thick layer of garbage covering the ground. The sides of the streets looked like landfills. Herds of cattle grazed on trash instead of grass, and the ditches by the roadside were overflowing with murky water.
Contrasting these drab scenes were magnificent, golden pagodas that glistened from miles away in the sunlight. These were surrounded by long rows of singed apartment buildings that looked like they’d just survived a bombing. There were massive, barbed-wired walls enclosing nothing more than gardens, rebar and broken tiles in every direction, and then a ten-story hotel with beautiful architecture and fresh paint would appear. It was all so different, yet all in the same place. My brain struggled to make sense of the lack of unanimity.
I arrived in Yangon with my friends, Tori and Camila, hit the ATM, then began my adventure. In need of a game plan, we stopped at the Babett, the first hotel we found across from the shuttle station. This place looked like it belonged on the California coast, especially next to the battered stores surrounding it, so we were eager to sit down and relax for a bit in the air-conditioned bar (it was 96 degrees in Yangon and humid as hell).
We all ordered drinks to start, and this is where I discovered Myanmar Beer. This beer is incredible. I’ve considered myself a beer person since my trip to Germany three years ago, but I have not found one I was this crazy about until tasting MB. It was like Heineken’s far more attractive, smooth-talking cousin.
Soon enough I had ordered three, so to balance out my tipsiness, I ordered a pesto prosciutto cheeseburger. There’s nothing like a traditional Burmese meal! It ended up being one of the best burgers I have ever eaten, so I was happy as I could be. What started out as a planning stop turned into a three-hour long siesta for my friends and me, but we finally brought ourselves to rise from our little paradise and get a move on into the city.
The market we found was a huge indoor area filled with hundreds of separate stalls, all selling eclectic items from elephant pants to hand-crafted jade jewelry. We spent the better part of two hours buying things we didn’t need but couldn’t pass up because the prices were so cheap. Shopping bags in hand and vendors trailing after us, we left the market and headed for the giant golden pagoda in the city center.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most stunning site in Yangon and the most sacred pagoda in all of Myanmar. In a country containing over 2,000 pagodas, that’s saying something. We didn’t even need to use our navigation apps to find it because we could see the nearly 100-meter-tall structure from two miles away. At the foot of the pagoda, we removed our shoes and made the trek up long rows of stairs to the main edifice.
The pagoda was covered in bamboo scaffolding because we happened to visit during the one in four years when the place gets renovated, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Swarms of locals and tourists placed burning incense around the various buddha statues that encircled the gilded stupa. As darkness fell, the gorgeous shrines remained lit up by the light of these flames, and I listened in fascination to the small groups of people praying aloud around them.
As I took it all in, an old man approached me and asked about who I was, where I was from, and what I was doing there, the usual from curious locals. I learned his name was Richard and that he had been an English and mathematics professor at Yangon University, one of the most renowned universities in Southeast Asia. He talked to my friends and me for half an hour about his life, clearly thrilled to have a conversation in English. He told us that he went to the Shwedagon Pagoda every day for sunset to worship, and that if we ever returned someday, we would find him there again. I was so happy to interact organically with a local without the help of a tour guide and felt incredibly grateful for Richard and his willingness to share his time with us.
We parted ways with our new friend and left the pagoda to find dinner before catching the night shuttle back to the ship. At a street shop a few blocks away, we enjoyed some of the most delicious noodle dishes I have ever tasted, filled with grilled vegetables and rich broth. We posed individually with our ecstatic servers who stood about an inch from our table the whole time we ate. And of course, we threw back a couple more Myanmar beers before heading home. It was a satisfying day.
The next day, I spent a good amount of time on the ship trying to catch up on sleep as I was not feeling my best that morning. After a couple naps, a massive lunch, and one more nap, I shuttled to Yangon to meet my friend, Shanaea, for happy hour before catching a night bus to Bagan.
During the 20-minute walk from the shuttle station to Shanaea, an Indian man with a lazy eye followed me for a bit, repeatedly asking if I was Russian. When I told him that I was in fact not Russian, he shouted to his brother about how fascinated he was by this fact. His brother, who materialized from thin air on my other side, also had a lazy eye, and looked like he didn’t give a damn about my heritage. They were probably harmless, but I didn’t want to find out either way. I crossed six lanes of oncoming traffic just to get away from them and continued on alone to the bar.
At the bar, I bought a beer and mojito thinking that that was all I needed to get me in a good mood for the approaching nine-hour bus ride. I was unaware that these were part of a two-for-one deal, so I ended up with four drinks I didn’t need and a very small window of time before taxiing to the bus station. I didn’t want to be rude to the waiters (who were all watching with radiant smiles as the two of us ate and drank), so I threw the drinks back, paid the bill, then called a cab.
When I first sat down in the cab, which is similar to an Uber since you call it through an app on your phone, the time for my journey from the restaurant to the station read 45 minutes. However, as soon as we started driving, the time went up to an hour and five minutes. I looked at the dashboard clock. 6:58. My bus was leaving at 8 o’clock. Summoning the positive energy of the universe, I told myself that no matter what happened, I was going to make it.
My driver putted along the highway in heavy traffic for the better part of a half hour. My friends were already waiting for me on the bus, and they told me that the driver would only wait five extra minutes for me. After stopping at multiple red lights in a row, I informed my driver of the time crunch with somewhat slurred speech.
“8?! As in tonight?” he said. Why the hell he would think I might leave thirteen hours early I don’t know, but I confirmed the time, and suddenly I felt like I was in a rocket ship. This man started veering into any empty space he could find; bike lanes, sidewalks, dirt patches, you name it. He held down his horn for five minutes straight, blasting past the other vehicles that barely flinched in his wake.
I sat plastered to my seat like I was on a Starship carnival ride as my chauffeur maneuvered the streets like a maniac. I cheered for him, encouraged his lunacy, pumped my fists as the speedometer crept forward. How we didn’t plow into multiple cars and motor bikes is a mystery and a miracle to me, and I have never felt so close to dying in my life. Thank goodness I had had four drinks before going through this.
We pulled up to the JJ bus station at 8:04 p.m., and I whooped with joy at the sight of my horribly stressed friends Sophia, Tori, and Erika in front of the bus. Throwing bills at him and patting his shoulders, I profusely thanked my crazy driver for his fierce determination to get me there on time. My friends dragged me inside as soon as I was back on solid ground, and the bus rolled away from the station the second the doors closed behind me. The power of the universe, man.
The night bus to Bagan was brutal, but not unbearable. I slept in 30-minute intervals as we rumbled down horribly potholed roads for most of the time, shifting each time one of my body parts fell asleep.
The four of us arrived just before 6 a.m., feeling exhausted but excited for the new city. We bargained with a crowd of taxi drivers and managed to get a decent deal on a ride to catch the sunrise by the ancient pagodas before heading for our hotel.
Navigating twisted dirt roads, our driver took us past incredibly old pagodas, faded and weathered from age but still in-tact and magnificent. We arrived at a crowded viewpoint just as the red sun overtook the horizon and two dozen hot air balloons rose over the ancient city.
Ballooning is the main attraction in Bagan. You know the hot air balloon festival that happens once a year in New Mexico? That happens every day in Bagan. Each sunrise and sunset, dozens of balloons carry 10-20 tourists each above thousands of pagodas, a sight I wish I could have witnessed myself. I passed on the opportunity because I didn’t want to pay $350 for a 45 minute experience, but if I ever return to Myanmar, I’ll be sure to buy my ticket for the sky ride.
After the glorious sunrise, we continued in our taxi to the hotel to meet our friend, Kacie. When we arrived, we were thrilled to find that our humble home for the night had a rooftop hang-out and a killer view of a cluster of pagodas. What a wonderful morning.
After a quick and delicious breakfast at a hotel across the street from ours, we decided to rent a tuk-tuk – basically a rickshaw – because we had no idea where to begin with the thousands of pagodas on our own. With three of us and a tour guide in the tuk-tuk and two trailing on motor bikes, we rode around the dirt roads of Old Bagan for the entire afternoon. I lost count of how many pagodas we saw, but each one was more beautiful than the last, and I loved every moment of exploration. Driving the motor bike was liberating, and I don’t remember the last time I had that much fun.
After a jam-packed and exhausting day, we returned sweaty and grimy to the hotel for showers and rooftop beers. We watched the sun set over hazy pagodas and hot air balloons with cold liters in hand. An American geologist sitting nearby noticed that we spoke English, so he approached us and we all talked for a bit. I found out that he discovered catacombs in Springerville, Arizona, a very small town only a few miles from my family cabin. It’s amazing how the world can go from so big to so small after having just one conversation with a stranger.
That night, we met up with a group of other SASers for drinks at a local hostel bar. We kept the beers coming and taught each other card games for a couple hours before calling it a night. I felt like a true traveler, laughing and exchanging stories with people I hardly knew in a wildly foreign country. It was one of the greatest days of my life.
The next morning, my group woke up bright and early for the 6 a.m. shuttle to visit an elephant sanctuary just outside of Bagan. After picking up several other groups in the area (all of whom were SAS students), we arrived at the reserve about an hour after sunrise.
When we researched this place, we were excited because we genuinely thought that this was a sanctuary that treated its elephants well and protected them from poachers, lumber labor, etc. However, my first view of the gentle giants broke my heart.
Enclosed in small wooden corrals with woven saddles attached to their backs, these elephants looked miserable. The workers mounted them, mini pick axes in hand to steer them around with jabs to the head. The sight was sickening. I fed them slices of watermelon and cantaloupe and patted their heads and trunks, trying to make them feel all the love I could offer.
I suppose this kind of life is better than what they previously experienced in Burmese lumber yards where they were forced to haul massive beams of heavy timber, but they still looked so upset. Elephant eyes are incredibly expressive, and I could see the sadness in them plain as day.
I refused a ride on the beautiful creatures because I couldn’t bare to think of contributing to their pain. Instead, I walked down to the big lake down the hill to watch another group of elephants bathe in the water. This experience was far better than what I left behind up the hill.
The elephants were totally different in the water. They let themselves tip over, completely emerged except for their trunks sticking in the air like submarine viewfinders. They were so visibly ecstatic to get to play, and as I tossed handfuls of water on their backs and faces, their newfound joy gave me a much better feeling. I hoped they got to do this every day, because it was the very least they deserved.
Finally, it was time to leave, and because everyone was sleep-deprived and muddy, we were more than happy to head back to civilization. Since we had already checked out of our hotel, my friends and I decided to crash the pool at a fancier hotel across the street.
What was supposed to be a quick swim and a relaxing lunch turned into an all-day excursion. The hotel staff was so happy with our constant food and drink orders that they didn’t kick us out for eight hours. I took a nap in the sun and later got a massage at the spa for a considerably cheap price. I hadn’t had a day of real relaxation since the voyage began seven weeks earlier, so I welcomed the lazy day with open arms.
As the sun set, we packed up camp by the pool and returned to the bus station for yet another dreaded night bus. This one was worse than the first, with smaller seats that retracted back so far that the girl in front of me practically had her head in my lap. I accepted the fact that I would not sleep and passed my time listening to every playlist I’ve ever made.
In the brief time remaining in Myanmar, my friends and I decided we needed to get some rest if we were going to be at all productive that day. We arrived in Yangon at 6 a.m. and immediately boarded a shuttle to the city center. This thing was so packed that I had to sit on the fold-down seats in the middle of the aisle, blocking anyone who had to get off at the stops. I sat next to a musty-smelling man who repeatedly hacked up his lungs, a pleasant companion for an hour-long ride.
A few minutes into the drive, Sophia realized that she had left a bag of clothes on the bus, so she and Tori panickily exited the shuttle to taxi back to the station while Erika and I continued to meet Kacie, who had taken a separate night bus, at a hotel near our shuttle station.
When we got to the hotel, I enjoyed a very delicious but very expensive American breakfast with Kacie and Erika at the hotel café. Since we would have to wait for Sophia and Tori for another few hours (the bus that contained her clothes had already left and wouldn’t return until 9 that morning), we decided to hang around there and try to get some rest.
I fell asleep on a couch in the fancy hotel lobby but was quickly awakened by a worker shouting No sleeping! No sleeping! over my exhausted body. I was so low on energy that all I could think about was getting back on the ship. Even though I wanted to take in the sights of Yangon for the last few hours I had before boarding the 2 p.m. shuttle, I simply couldn’t bare the idea of exploring instead of sleeping.
When Sophia and Tori finally made it to the hotel, we were all so tired that we agreed we just wanted to relax at a bar with one more Myanmar beer before heading home. I drifted in and out of sleep on the shuttle, and after getting my bags checked at the dock and a quick dinner at the buffet, I went to my room and slept for 13 hours.
Before disembarking in Myanmar, I was taught some disturbing things in pre-port about what the Burmese military has been involved in, such as the current genocide of the Rohingya Muslims, but I did not encounter anything troubling in the country. This was expected, however, as my fellow students and I knew we would not witness a warzone. But these events are indeed occurring outside of our limited scopes.
It saddens me to know that so many lovely Burmese citizens who want nothing to do with the carnage are now stereotyped as killers. Many of the voyagers were incredibly upset that we would even go into a country engaged in such atrocities, and apparently this is the last SAS voyage visiting Myanmar. I don’t know enough about the crisis to discuss it here, and the ship’s terrible Wi-Fi has prevented me from educating myself further, but I feel very lucky to have had an opportunity to see the country before it undergoes potentially vast changes that close it off to the world.
Myanmar provided me with some of my favorite days in my whole life, and that is something I will never forget. This was unexpected because I literally knew nothing about the country beforehand except that it has two names. The people were so kind and the landscapes so unique, and I am very thankful that I got to visit such an underrated country. I hope that Myanmar will soon achieve peace so that more global citizens can witness its magnificent history and encounter its wonderful people.