For most of my traveling life, I have thumbed my nose at organized tours. The sight of large a/c buses parked outside the Taj Mahal and colored umbrellas carried by tour guides in St. Mark’s Square often made me squirm. I don’t like being told what to look at when; I’d rather explore on my own, getting lost down small side alleys and discovering a lovely cafe.
With Myanmar, however, I made an exception. For years it’s been high on my list of places to visit, so I had to make it work during “Asia Tour ’13/14”. Since they opened their borders more widely to tourists post- military regime, there has been a huge rush. Approximately 800,000 tourists in 2011 became 2 million in 2013, and accommodation prices have tripled in the last two years. The demand outweighs the supply, and the infrastructure has not caught up. I was concerned about this shortage, and the idea of someone else organizing the logistics was admittedly tempting- especially after so much time in India where buying a train ticket can take six hours. And then there was the mom factor. She was (ahem) not thrilled with me visiting a country whose 50-year military regime has been out of power for only a few years. At the mere mention of the word “tour” she said, “Yes, PLEASE YES!!!” Ok, it shall be done.
It took more than a week for my 15-day “Burma Adventure” tour through Intrepid to be confirmed. I even had to get my visa in Bangkok before knowing if I had a spot because of the high demand. Intrepid has more off-the-beaten track options, and the “basic” tier made use of public transportation, where possible, instead of monstrous tour buses (although those did make an appearance). Essentially they take care of the logistics and let you choose your level of involvement via optional activities.
One of my biggest concerns was the roommate situation. It’s expensive to get a single supplement, so I left it up to the travel gods to deliver someone I wouldn’t want to strangle in the middle of the night. I figured most people on this particular tour were probably not travel newbies, but beyond that I was unsure. Thankfully I had two fabulous roommates (they switched during the trip). Bella is a management consultant from London, and Julia from Germany also quit her job to travel. Julia had been wandering around Asia-Pacific for the last several months, and just ended a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Yangon. These were definitely ladies I knew I would get along with- thank GOD! That first evening I met the rest of our 12-person group of various ages and backgrounds. Among them was a married couple who also quit their jobs to globetrot. Apparently my hair brained idea was not so unique.
Yangon was not as I expected- not that I really knew what to expect. Where I thought I’d find locals huddled in teashop corners whispering amidst the backdrop of government ears, were smiling faces going about their lives. They ran stationery shops and restaurants. They sold fruit in the market. Men and women walked the streets in traditional longyi, long wraparound skirts. Signs of British colonialism were alive, but crumbling. Once-beautiful buildings were chipped and black from years of neglect. Colonial rebellion was also present, although half-heartedly. While they still maintain right-hand steering in most cars (there are a few lefties), they changed the roads from left to right so you have right-handed driving on right-handed roads. Not so great for buses as the doors open up into traffic. There was also no sign of western invasion in the form of coffee or fast food chains. Coca-cola, however, was ubiquitous.
The jewel of Yangon is Shwedagon Pagoda, the 2,500 year old golden relic in the middle of the city. It is the country’s most cherished site and it’s not hard to see why. Several temples and stupas make up the complex, providing a destination for tourists as well as locals. Unfortunately I only visited during the day, but evening is supposed to be magnificent as the gilded structures glow in the reflective lights. Even catching a glimpse of it from the street at night is awe inspiring. No fleck of gold leaf was spared.
After a day and a half in Yangon, we boarded an overnight train for Bagan. I’d heard about this train; how decrepit and jostling it was. No joke. Everyone in the well-traveled group said it was the craziest train ride they’d ever been on. Side to side, up and down it bounced for 18 hours. The bathroom was an effort in balance, strength and luck. After my first attempt I stopped drinking water. Climbing to the top berth of the sleeper car was another coordination test. A few hours after reaching Bagan, we were still swaying, trying to find our sea legs.
Recently the LA Times advised people to visit Bagan and other parts of Myanmar before high-rise resorts turn it into Disneyland. It’s easy to see how that could happen as this travel itinerary “must see” is home to more than 3,000 pagodas built between the 11th and 13th centuries.
The landscape is dotted with pointed brick stupas, poking out of a dust-filled haze. We climbed up one of the larger pagodas to watch the sunset over the row of tour buses. A line of early arrivers set up tripods in prime spots, which made me wonder what it was like a few years ago when there were only a handful of foreigners to block the view. Even still, with the large number of temples, you could easily visit several of the smaller ones without crossing paths with another person.
Most people in our group toured the area by bicycle, while a few of us (me included thanks to my 80-year-old ailing back) were transported by pony cart. Most of our pagoda stops housed Buddhas, but even the external structures themselves were impressive. It felt like we’d traveled by time machine instead of train with stupas scattered as far as the eye could see. While waiting for the sunset, we saw herds of cows and goats run across the earth, leaving behind a plume of 12th century dust. Unfortunately shoddy reconstruction has kept Bagan on the “tentative” list for UNESCO, and efforts are underway to properly restore some of the crumbling structures. I can only hope this will be one of the benefits of tourism as it really is a magical place.
Next up: Mandalay, Inle Lake and Golden Rock