It’s undiscovered. Remote. The poorer cousin of the tourist mecca Thailand. On many traveler’s lists for obvious reasons. Part of the beauty in this pocket in South East Asia is the difference between it and its much more travelled nneighbors.
Since the political shift in 2011 the country has, and still very much is, undergoing rapid development in a massive game of catch-up. Spurred by outside investment all trying to gain an early foothold, such rapid change means useful info quickly becomes out dated. Nonetheless, pending some unfortunate nuclear holocaust, the highlights of Yangon, Mandalay, and the crown jewel of them all, Bagan, will always remain must visit destinations for anyone with their sights set on this South East Asian jewel.
And while these destinations are truly inspiring, most of your days or weeks will undoubtably revolve around temples. Or pagodas. Or stuppas. Or whatever they’re colloquially referred too. Oh and Buddhas. Lots of those guys too.
And I’m not trying to downplay their significance. Yes, absolutely yes, these pagodas are amazing. Take lots of pictures. Post those pictures on social media to make all your friends jealous. But as amazing as they truly are, the same can be said about the stars. You can only see so many before they start to turn stale. So if you find yourself in the position of visiting your umpteenth pagoda and frantically looking around for the nearest beer vendor, here’s a quick list of things to make your Burmese Days more flavorful.
1. Rent a motorbike in Mandalay.
Mandalay is a hot, dusty wasteland of dirt with unprecedented traffic unlike anything in the west. North America’s rust belt is more inspiring. And unless you get your jollies from the strident buzzing of motorbikes and hurried Chinese bound semi-trucks the city itself can be pretty dull. Most people quickly realize the only useful thing about the place is it’s location as a jumping off point for cooler (both literally and figuratively) destinations close by. But if you find yourself with some extra time and the need for an explosive adrenaline rush, rent a motorbike for the day. Really.
In the hierarchy of extreme sports, driving a motorbike in Mandalay probably sits comfortably between bungee jumping and a meth fueled game of Russian roulette. Things can get, for lack of a better word, intense. Your adrenaline rushes as you swerve your way to various sites throughout the city, pushing to the back of your mind the consequence of any error. Anticipating cars, trucks, pedestrians, stray dogs, street vendors, all become some rapid fire chess match to outwit your opponent. Adrenaline junkies would have a field day.
Take your life into your hands with a serious injection of adrenaline delivered straight to the jugular. Suddenly that disastrous traffic becomes a challenge. And for me, challenge accepted. Better get right with the Lord.
2. Ride the train from Mandalay to Hsipaw. Or anywhere really.
I honestly believe that there is no better metaphor to describe the journey of Myanmar’s political past than embarking on a train ride through the country.
The disjointed shift from colonialism, to rule by military junta, to the present-day watered down version of democracy, is characteristically described through a day long voyage. The tracks themselves, originally laid by the British during their long rule, represent the infrastructure and history that came along with the harsh effects of colonialism. The train journey itself is a cacophonous and stomach churning ride that, while calming at first, quickly turns into a day long nightmare you can’t wait to be over. The same can be said about the decades long military rule, originally welcomed after ending a brutal civil war quickly became the pariah that we know today. And finally, the cars themselves. Recycled Japanese passenger cars are a convenient reminder that one man’s trash is another man’s capitalist investment opportunity…err…treasure.
But enough about history and onto the journey itself. Of course you can’t just put 20 year old Japanese rail cars on colonial era train tracks and expect everything to chug along smoothly. Here, the gauge, or width of the tracks, doesn’t quite fit the width of the carriage wheels. But for a country that endured decades of international sanctions it’s just gonna have to work. And so you’re left with a Mcgyvered rail system that catapults it’s passengers from one destination to the next. Sleeping is only becomes possible for those in a medically induced coma while food that cannot be delivered intravenously will almost certainly end up everywhere but your mouth. And be sure your overhead luggage is SECURELY tucked into the overhead been before it comes crashing down on some poor old Burmese grandmother.
And once your get past all that, it’s best just to hang out the window, crack open some beers, and enjoy one helluva crawl to your final destination.
3. Take the boat to/from Mandalay.
While we’re on the topic of transportation while not add a third to the list. Boats.
The Irrewaddy River is a major artery running through the middle of the country. To experience this country without spending some time gazing the shorelines of this major thoroughfare is giving up a great opportunity reflect of your travels. To be honest, there’s not that much to see. And that’s kind of the point.
Boat travel forces you to slow down and take a step back from the rush of travel. When so much of your trip is built around seeing a certain destination, photos, catching the next bus and then figuring out how to do it all over again the next day, spending an entire day on a boat is like hitting one gigantic pause button. You have that time to reflect and digest of host of things you seen and done. If the boredom starts to pick at you, pick up a copy of Burmese Days. Orwell tells a fascinating story about the harshness of Burma’s past.
4. Take a long walk into the mountains.
Hill-tribe treks. Those long walks into the mountains that promise interaction with locals and families. Unfortunately, far too often you arrive to an orchestrated dog and pony show of locals who, head-to-toe in ‘traditional’ clothing, are really just an extension of the souvenir shop trying to sell you postcards and shot glasses. You’re strangely reminded of those walks of shame during your college years.
But Myanmar is still fresh and the almighty tourist dollars haven’t corrupted the hill tribe village way of life. Multi-day walks into the mountains of the Shan state, particularly around Inle Lake and Hsipaw, are absolutely unique. Little kids pause between games of tag to stare at a foreign face. Families don’t have a hint of phoniness or reluctance to feed and house a foreigner for the night. Put simply, it’s absolutely great.
And the scenery, while pretty, is far from the highlight. Instead your given a fascinating glimpse into a way of life that has been preserved for centuries. There’s not a whole lot of countries that can make that claim.
5. Watch the balloons in Bagan.
Ok, so this last one technically involves temples. And it’s in Bagan. But hey, they’re only somewhat related.
If you’re going to get up early to catch the sunrise, there is no better way to do it than watching the parade of balloons float gracefully overhead from the pagoda. While everybody is off running to the major temples to hord like ants on a log while they jostle for space to take the exact same photograph, go down to the southern end of the plain where many balloons take off. Shortly after sunrise you’l be dazzled with one of the most impressive displays Bagan has to offer.
It might not be the same view as a $400 ride in one of them, but it gets you pretty darn close.