There's a ton of information about Burma out there, but you might be surprised to find that almost all of it is outdated. As recently as 5 or 6 years ago, you needed crisp $100 bills to exchange for the local currency, as there were no ATMs to serve you. Hotels were hard to come by, and flights couldn't be booked outside the country except by an agent. But all of that feels like a bygone era now.
While Burma still lives somewhat under the shadow of a strict military junta, it has been developing and opening up to the world at a pace so rapid that guidebooks can't hope to keep up.
We couldn't wait to see it for ourselves.
A day in Mandalay
We arrived in Mandalay with one full day to acclimatize and do some light exploring before heading to Bagan. Our day started off with a visit to Mahamuni Paya, one of Myanmar's holiest pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. After filing away our shoes and crossing the searingly hot tiles to the center of the temple, we watched with great curiosity as men crowded forward to press gold leaf into a massive Buddha statue, while women fervently prayed a short distance back.
Of course, if praying isn't your style, there are diversions of the furry variety to take up your time at the temple.
The day began to heat up, so we hurried into a cab to squeeze in a visit to Shenandaw Monastery. The monastery is one of the only surviving original buildings from the Royal Palace, having avoided destruction in WWII, but most notably it is made entirely of gorgeous weathered teak. In a religion where almost every important site is gilded, the monastery's utter simplicity makes it a standout beauty.
We decided to try walking the rest of the way home, but as we reached the halfway point we started to succumb to the heat. It took some time for us to find a taxi, but we fortunately had a little distraction in the form of some insane teenagers doing standup wheelies on motorcycles and scooters. They blazed down the street recklessly (and yet, quite adeptly) over and over again, flashing devil-may-care grins at us all the while.
The voyage to Bagan
At the crack of dawn the next day, we boarded a cozy little boat headed for Bagan. By the time we arrived at our destination, we were totally sold on boat travel. It's an amazing way to see a lot of the varied countryside without having to negotiate the roads or worry about directions. And with 10 hours to kill and no wifi on our cruise down the Irrawaddy River, we had plenty of time to get to know our shipmates in between relaxing with a book and watching the riverbank slip on by.
Once we pulled up to the dock in Bagan and hopped across three other boats to reach shore, we haggled somewhat successfully for a cab and started for our hostel. On the way there, our driver pointed out that the sun was close to setting, so he took us on a slight detour to catch the day's last rays from the top of one of the best pagodas.
Looking out over the dusky plain at the over 2000 pagodas standing in front of us, we felt totally humbled by the view. The pagodas are not only impressive in terms of sheer numbers, but also the expert craftsmanship of each individual one is evident when you get up close. We'd never seen anything like it.
We would spend the next two days dirt-biking around the massive complex, dodging herds of Brahma cows and covering just a fraction of these incredible shrines.
Floating through life
The next morning, we boarded a flight on our first Burmese airline to Inle Lake. Getting through the airport was an odd experience, with an interesting sticker-based security system, but once we were on the plane we were impressed by how utterly normal it seemed. More generous than most domestic American flights, they even offered snacks, which, curiously, were cherry danishes.
We arrived at our hotel on the lake and quickly took off on a tour by boat. We passed scores of local fisherman setting nets and paddling their boats in the traditional style that's unique to the region. With one end of the oar wrapped snugly in the bend of their knee and the other tucked under their arm, they're free to use both hands to pick their catch out of the nets or give a friendly wave as two goofy American tourists float by.
Our guide pressed on into some of the lake villages, where the locals lead surprisingly normal lives, just on stilts. They've got floating streets complete with functional gates and yards, floating gardens with loads of fresh produce, and even pets and livestock living on stilted levels below their houses. We chugged around the block in our little boat, totally in awe of peoples' adaptability to such a foreign habitat.
The next day we made for dry land and the big city of Yangon (or Rangoon, if you fancy standing up to the powers that be) and the unbelievably grand Shwedagon pagoda.
We spent an afternoon in a slow circle around the shining gold leviathan, not knowing whether to be more impressed by the incredible wealth that had been poured into the monument itself or by the veritable army of sweepers dedicated to its cleanliness.
We left Burma feeling lucky to have experienced it as it is now???accessible, but not without its quirks and opportunities for genuine interaction. While it's great for Burma's economy that so many people, like us, are clamoring to visit, there's always the risk that it'll swing too far away from its true self. But with a rich culture, lovely people, and stunning relics from the past, she's sure to fill you with wonder whenever you can get away to see her.
We're headed to China (kinda). The street food and skyscrapers of Taipei are calling our name.