Myanmar is the most "off the beaten path" country in both Reid and I's travel itinerary, so we decided early on in our planning that we wanted to explore the country together. We had set aside a month for Myanmar with no itinerary or place to be in that time. Our meeting point was Yangon because our family friend, Tim, would be in town on holiday. Tim lives in Houston, but is originally from Myanmar and has a house in Yangon. He comes back every other year for a month with his family, and Reid and I timed it so that we could meet up with him.
Tim picked me up from the airport and took me to his house just down the road. One of the first things I noticed when the car started rolling was it was right hand drive (like England and Japan) and we were on the right hand side of the road (like America). I think that kind of sums up Myanmar perfectly. It is a country that marches to the beat of their own drum.
Reid had already been in Yangon a few days and was waiting for my arrival. He started his backpacking trip two months before me, and I hadn't seen him since. I was excited to finally meet up with my little brother. We spent the first evening with Tim and his family and met with him a few times during our week long stay in Yangon to have have lunch or dinner.
While in Yangon, Reid and I did a lot of walking around to the local markets. We visited Shwedagon Pagoda, which is over 2600 years old. The main gold-plated dome is topped by a stupa containing over 7,000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires. There is little wonder that the Shwedagon is referred to in Myanmar as "The crown of Burma."
We also rode the circle train around the country side of Yangon. It is a slow moving, tired train that the local farmers ride into town to deliver their goods to the market. It cost us around $0.50 to ride and took 4 hours to ride it all the way around.
The last thing we did before moving north to Bagan was try betel nut. Its a nasty habit that many of the older locals participate in. Its a natural concoction of betel nut, limestone paste, a dab of tobacco and nutmeg all wrapped in a betel leave that you chew. It looks like you have a dip in and when you spit, its blood red. The streets throughout Myanmar look like they are covered in blood, and there is a betel nut stand on every corner where you can pick up a "made to order" bag of 10 for about $0.30.
Reid and I took an over night bus from Yangon to Bagan, land of a million pagodas (feels like there is a million, but actually, there is around 4000 in and around the town of Bagan). All the pagodas were built between 10 A.D. and 13 A.D. and most of them have been restored after a large earthquake toppled some of them a number of years back. For a week we explored the pagodas on our electric bikes battling the dry desert like heat to see as many as possible in a short time.
One of the evenings after toasting in the sun all day, we took an hour taxi drive to Mt. Pope with with a couple we met at Ostello Bello Hostel. There was a lot of really angry monkeys that didn't like the camera being pointed at them on our assent (see below photo of one trying to attack me). One of them even stole my water bottle that was strapped to the outside of my backpack, bit a hole in the side and drank the water all the while just outside of reach. At the top of the mountain there is a temple with a great view for sunsets. We all snapped a few pics then made a mad dash down the 700 steps back to our taxi before it got dark and the monkeys descended upon us like the flying monkeys of Wizard of Oz. I'm certain they would have tried to hold us captive if we had not escaped the mountain before dusk.
The town of Nyaungshwe on Inle Lake was our next stop. As the crow flys, it was not far from Bagan, maybe 100 miles, but because of the primitive winding roads that lead into the mountains and back down again it took us 8 hours to get to our destination. Inle Lake is a shallow lake famous for its fisherman who use a unique style of paddling with one foot, serpentine, on the bow while working their nets with their free hands to catch fish. Since Inle Lake is in the mountains it was considerably cooler than Yangon and Bagan . During the day it would usually be around 85 degrees and 70 degrees in the evenings. One day we hired a long boat that took us on a tour of the lake which included the local market, where many of the surrounding villages and tribes come down from the surrounding mountains to sell their goods such as tea, spices and fruit. A silk making business where they hand wove silk to make sarongs, scarves and headbands. We also toured a local business that hand made cigars by hand, and to finish up the tour we visited two women from the Kayah State in Myanmar. They are the tribe that wears the gold rings around their neck that it makes it look like they have long necks. The rings don't actually lengthen their necks, rather they push their collar bones down giving the effect that their necks are being stretched out like Stretch Armstrong. Many of the Kayah State people have fled their homeland and can also be found in Thailand as well. The two women we met came to Inle Lake and make silk everything by hand.
A few days later Reid and I met up with some friends and did a bike ride around the lake. About an hour ride outside of town we paid a local fisherman to take us across the lake with our bikes. Once across we started making our way back towards town, but not before stopping by a local winery.
Reid and I voted to stay at Inle Lake a few extra days as to avoid the heat at our next and final stop in our adventure through Myanmar, the city of Mandalay.
In the two days we spent in Mandalay we rented motorbikes and toured around the outskirts of the city, stopped by a few pagodas and met the coolest monk in all Myanmar. His name was Tiloka. He took us in, gave us Sprite, taught us the meaning of Buddhism and showed us around his temple. After that Reid and I watched a gang of motorbike riders doing tricks on a newly paved road. The guys saw my camera and instantly upped their game to standing tandem wheelies, for us. We ended our last day in Myanmar watching the sunset at Taung Tha Man Lake drinking Mandalay Beer and eating our last bowl of shan noodles.
Myanmar has culture like nowhere else on earth and was an eye opening experience that I will never forget.