Are you ready for this? It has been nearly a month since our last post and we’ve been itching to tell you all about our experiences! We’re splitting it into two posts to give you a break and have split the photos by locations. If you only have time to look at some of the photos, definitely check out Bagan and Inle Lake.
Part 1: Bangkok, Yangon, Bagan
Part 2: Mandalay, Inle Lake, Yangon, Bangkok
Before flying to Myanmar, we spent a few days in Bangkok. What seems to be the beginning of some crazy overnight bus schedules we have submitted ourselves to, we arrived in Bangkok a little before 5 a.m. In a state of bleariness and confusion we managed to catch one city bus, a subway train, and finally a sky train to our hotel.
Our visit to Bangkok was especially exciting because we got to meet up with a friend of mine, Gaby, from graduate school whom I hadn’t seen for a couple years. Gaby was great in giving us some places to check out before we could meet up. Aside from some religious sites, we were introduced to what had to be countless city blocks of multistory buildings filled with shopping of every kind. The amount, variety, and quality of shopping was truly impressive. There were stores for everyone. Bryan was super excited for the five story building of everything IT.
(Tons of technology!)
The skytrain in this part of the city was raised high above the streets and had a nice walkway below the train. It was refreshing to not have to dodge traffic and street vendors while walking this section, and it provided some good views. On our second day in Bangkok we were determined to get some skyscraper views of the city. We decided to ask at the front desk of one skyscraper. This was the Central World Tower, connected to one of the largest and most upscale shopping centers. To our surprise we were able to go up for free, where there happened to be an outdoor cafe that circled the top of the tower. On our way up we passed through an area where Forbes Magazine was holding a conference. If only we had the formal wear to blend in! The views from the top were fantastic and the wind was refreshing. I can’t say Bryan was very fond of the glass railings and glass stairway!
(Megan on top of Central World Tower)
The day before heading out Gaby first took us out to lunch and ordered for us. We shared from three Thai dishes that we had never tried: a spicy soup, a salad of sauteed vegetables, and some type of fish. They were all excellent! She then took us to the Vimanmek Palace, the largest teak wood building in the world, which was used by kings in the early 1900s. Some of the smaller buildings were filled with pottery and jewelry from excavation sites in the country and with photographs taken by the current King Bhumibol Adulyadej as his hobby. Later we took a ferry to Asiatique, a historic pier and boardwalk with cute shops, nice restaurants, and a huge ferris wheel. We had an upscale dinner near the water where Gaby again ordered for us: green curry, pad thai, another type of sauteed salad, and a pastry appetizer. Once the sun had set and we were about to burst from so much good food, we hopped on the ferris wheel and enjoyed some beautiful nighttime city views. Thanks so much Gaby for such a fun day and for introducing us to new foods! We hope we will get to spend some more time with Gaby after she settles into her new job.
(Megan and Gaby)
The flight to Yangon, Myanmar from Bangkok only took an hour and getting into the country was totally painless. We weren’t sure what to expect since there has been so much recent change within the country and government. We had received our Visas while we were in Cambodia and had done quite a bit of research about the do’s and don’ts, while we also paid close attention to the current events. Myanmar seemed to be in the international news every day, both good and bad. In the North/Northwest part of the country, serious religious clashes and a cyclone had been in the news a lot. We didn’t expect to see any of the violence since it was further out in smaller villages. In the more positive news, Myanmar’s economic situation is changing so rapidly that outside investment is blowing up, infrastructure is getting new attention, and hotel prices are skyrocketing from the influx of tourism. We are so happy that we got to experience the country now, before it completely changes and before the tourism industry really catches up with it. Even upon arrival locals were very excited to see us, as there still are not many western tourists visiting. The friendliness of the locals was beyond comprehension. We experienced something new in these people: complete honesty. Everyone there was eager to help you and business didn’t price gouge.
Three years ago a couple of our friends went to Myanmar, made all the stops that we did, and it seems had quite different experiences in some ways. While we could get internet sometimes, albeit not reliable and not fast, our friends never had it; and as we were chatting over the internet from a Western-style cafe in Yangon, they had never seen a Western-style restaurant of any type in the city.
Our first stop in Yangon was to see the reclining Buddha. We were almost to the top of the stairs when an old man came up and introduced himself as the teacher at the monastery there. He eagerly offered to give us a little tour of the monastery buildings. Grasping an opportunity, we gladly followed. As he took us into the oldest building (little more than a wood shack now filled with old junk), he explained how it used to be used. If I remember correctly it was over 100 years old. A student of his joined us for the rest of the tour. They showed us the current sleeping quarters and classroom for the monks, we walked through a dark building where monks were currently studying by light from the windows, and we went into the meditation building where, if there were any unpracticed meditators in the crowd, we surely disturbed them as the teacher directed me to take photos. All through the tour the pair were openly talking down on the Myanmar government, something, they explained, they couldn’t have done a year ago without fear of retribution.
In the last few months we have been lucky enough to meet some incredibly strong people who have been through terrible times and were willing to talk about their experiences. This teacher, now in his 70s, sadly lost his entire family in 2008 from Cyclone Nargis, the largest in Burma history. The military government refused international aid for several days, adding to the death toll. The government’s official death toll is less than 150,000 but the people believe it was closer to half a million. At that time he had been a public school teacher, but after that he no longer wanted to work for the corrupt government and felt he could do the most good at the monastery. The student told us his teacher still has terrible nightmares sometimes, but through meditation and teaching he finds peace and happiness.
(Us and the Professor)
Two hours later our spur of the moment tour was ending and we were finally seeing the enormous reclining Buddha. We didn’t get the chance to ask them why this particular Buddha was wearing blue eyeshadow and lipstick.
The most popular site in Yangon is Shwedagon Pagoda, an incredible, enormous temple built on a hill and lit so bright at night it could probably be seen from Mars. We have seen a lot of pagodas throughout Southeast Asia, but there is nothing else like this one! Grand, covered stairways lead a very long way to the hilltop where the giant pagoda is surrounded by many smaller, similar structures. The place was huge and the Buddhas were never ending. We made it just as the sun was setting and the lights were beginning to illuminate the gold structure. It was absolutely beautiful.
We arrived to the town of Nyuang U just North of Bagan at 4am. As usual, a mass of “taxi” drivers were waiting for us at the bus station to take us to a hotel, but instead of seeing taxis and motorbikes, we were greeted with horses and buggies. Completely adorable! After some haggling we hopped on a buggy and were carted around to a few hotels until we found the cheapest one with an opening. I forgot that horses are Bryan’s worst allergy. Oops! He recovered a little while later and we decided no more buggies. After a short nap we were up for the second time that morning and pedaling out of town on some sad looking bicycles.
Bagan is… Phenomenal! The majority of the hype is centered around “Old Bagan” which was a walled fortress, and as you move away from Old Bagan you are greeted with temples, pagodas, and stupas of all sizes and shapes. The largest and most popular are closest to Old Bagan, with over 2,000 in total spread out over the plains. That first day we rode our bikes through dirt and sand to get to some of the temples that are least visited. For most of the day we saw nobody except the random sleeping salesman who would maybe wake up and offer us trinkets when we approached a temple. Most of these temples were in ruin, which made them all the more fun to explore. We climbed crumbling, dark stairways that felt like hidden passageways and stairways so steep and narrow we had to use our hands. The scenery took my breath away. You could see miles of perfect palm trees complementing old red ruins in every direction. After exploring the more popular temples, we decided we were much more impressed by those that were farther out. Most of the popular ones had been “restored” at some point where much more damage was done than good, and all but the bottom levels were closed off. There were a couple of the closer temples in which access to the higher levels was still allowed, and these were very popular for sunrise and sunset photos.
(Sunset over Bagan)
We attempted two nights of sunset viewing and two mornings of sunrise. The ride took about 30 minutes from our hotel to the popular viewing temples. We only got clear skies for one of each, but we enjoyed all four attempts as the dark night/early morning bike rides were very peaceful (and much cooler) and clouds or no clouds, there is nothing like that view.
On another note, we’ve got a story that will make your skin crawl. We had our first run-in with bedbugs in Bagan! We stayed three nights at that “cheap” $14 hotel (which is twice what we are used to paying for cleaner hotels, thanks to the tourist boom in Myanmar). The first night, no problems. Shortly after turning out the lights the second night, Bryan felt something on his leg so I flipped on the light and we found a bedbug. EEK! A quick search turned up no more so we hoped it was a fluke. On the third night, 15 minutes after laying down I felt something bigger on my arm so I flipped on the light – I wish I could describe this better – THE ROOM WAS FILLED WITH WINGED TERMITES! WTF? The spot I was just laying on the bed – covered. The floor – covered. The air – totally infested. It seems they were spawning from their nest in the walls to start another colony like ants do. I ran down to get an employee who immediately told us the light attracted them. No dude! The light was OFF when they arrived! He didn’t get it. They swept the room (pretty sure they didn’t own a vacuum) and left. Little translucent wings covered everything, and as Bryan started picking the dead and wings off the bed, he started finding bedbugs. A lot. He lifted the corner of the mattress and tons that were waiting for the right moment went running from the light. UUuuuggggghhhhh! We stood paralyzed for a few moments staring at the bed and trying to decide what to do next. The termites were gone as quickly as they came, but the bedbugs weren’t going away. We decided to keep the light on and see if that kept them at bay. Five minutes later Bryan felt a few under his leg. He was too close to the wall and his shadow provided enough darkness that they came out. So then we curled up together in the middle of the mattress as far from the walls as we could get. Throughout the night I awoke frantic several times, immediately searching the bed for any evidence of the bugs. It worked. Not once did I see another bedbug with the light on. But that’s not the end of the story. In the morning we left the room to get breakfast, naturally turning off the light. I went back first to finish packing my bag for the bus ride to Mandalay. As soon as the door swung open, all I could do was step back and resign. The room was again infested with flying termites, but this time it was double the previous amount. An employee got most of our stuff out and we finished packing in the hallway. I was brushing little wings and termites off my back for awhile, and they still show up in our bags sometimes.
(Whats left of some of the flying termites)
We’re a bit more diligent about checking the mattresses now!