The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Grant is not a travel grant. This has been pointed out to us a number of times, particularly when the prickly subject of the travel policy comes up. However, Indonesia is not only a large country filled with beauty and culture, but it is also located in Southeast Asia which is filled with even more beauty and culture (and other things, but let’s focus on the beauty and culture here). And though we have a travel policy that might rub me the wrong way at times, we do get to travel—14 days of an international “grace period” (aka for travel, appointments, interviews, etc) and 14 days of domestic travel within Indonesia.
Some say that the best parts of being a teacher are June, July, and August. I won’t say that the best parts of being an ETA are exam weeks and December vacation, but it has definitely been a highlight. So where did I escape travel to?
My first stop was definitely not the first place I would think of when I think about Southeast Asian travel: Myanmar. Formerly known as Burma, this new democracy was barely on my radar. Before it was proposed to me as a tourist destination my knowledge of it was limited to a murky idea of radical Buddhists and the image of Aung San Suu Kyi’s face in a “Che Guevara and the Japanese empire’s rising sun meets Obama’s HOPE” style poster. If I’m being totally honest, my knowledge about Myanmar’s politics has only increased slightly since my visit. But do not go to Myanmar for the politics. Go for the food. Go for the sun glinting off gilded pagodas. Go for disarming friendliness of the Myanmar people to foreigners and for the surprisingly booming Myanmar rap industry being pumped out of speakers stores.
Note: At the end of this blog I will include some succinct Myanmar Travel Info, Tips, and Advice in case anyone stumbles upon this post looking for that kind of information.
My journey started with three plane rides (that decreased in length but increased in my discomfort and impatience with flying), one mad dash through the Bangkok airport, a surprise reunion with another ETA (shout-out to Hiram) on the last leg of my journey, and a nearly hour long taxi ride through Yangon as we drove in circles trying to find my guest house. And I’ve got to admit, the journey didn’t get less hectic from there.
The plan Izaak (my traveling partner) and I had created was: spend a night in Yangon, take a night bus the next day to Kalaw, trek to Inle Lake, take another night bus to Mandalay, sleep in a bed (oh thank you jesus), take a day bus to Bagan, and take a night bus the next day back to Yangon. We did basically that, except for the second night when traffic to rival Jakarta’s made us miss our first bus, so we just took a night bus the next day straight to Inle Lake.
If you are wondering: that’s 1 day bus, 3 night buses, 4 cities, in 8 nights. It was a crazy ride but it was wonderful.
So let’s start with Yangon. In our first day in the former capital (yes, FORMER—something I somehow didn’t figure out until I actually got there) we got to see the impressively large and gilded Shwe Dagon Pagoda, walked through People’s Park in front of it, paid a visit to the National Museum, and got our first true taste of Myanmar cuisine. Yangon is quite the city. It seems half modern and half colonial with a midst-of-development sense that I’ve recognized in a number of Southeast Asian countries. One thing I noticed was that there was much less cigarette smoke because the mild stimulant of choice is betel nut, which is wrapped in the betel leaf and chewed. The pleasantness of cigarette smoke-free air is countered by the splats and stains of the red juice that is spat out on the streets and sidewalks and out of cars.
Yangon has a pretty diverse population of Myanmar, Thai, Indian, and Chinese as well as being home to Buddhist temples (obviously…), a number of churches (Protestant and Catholic), mosques, and even one synagogue! The diversity was refreshing and comforting and contributed to the culture in a number of ways. Like the cuisine.
Hot damn, Myanmar food. That shit is amazing. Perhaps it’s because it has more Chinese and Indian influence than my cuisine out here on Sulawesi and perhaps that makes it more similar to Chinese, Malay, and Thai cuisine that I am used to at home, but dang I love Myanmar food. It was unexpectedly easy to find not only vegetarian food, but also lots of vegetables (the two surprisingly don’t always go together). You may say “well, Shalina, of course it was easy—it’s a mainly Buddhist country!” Yes, well go find a Buddhist and ask if they’re all vegetarian.
But the true apex of their cuisine is that they have roti canai (chah-nai), also called roti prata. Thank the gods for Indian influence. This flaky buttery flat bread competes with avocados and Bay Area style sourdough bread as my number one favorite food. A staple of Malaysian cuisine, I had been hopeful to find it in Indonesia. Alas, Sulawesi is too far from Indian influence and I’ve only found a pale attempt at it in one restaurant.
Our culinary adventures continued after missing our first bus and sitting through hours and hours of shockingly terrible traffic. A traveler from Canada that we met at the guest house joined up with us and we headed out to find Chinese barbeque. The way this works is that you pick out a bunch of skewers that have vegetables, meat, or tofu stuck on them, put them in a basket, and wait 5-10 minutes until someone comes to your table with deliciously grilled kabobs. Pair this with a chilled glass of Myanmar self-branded beer and you have a satisfying end to our hectic day. Top it all off with some Indian sweets and, missed bus or no, we all happily went to bed with full bellies.
Because we had an extra day in Yangon we kind of just wandered around the next day. We walked around the center of town, walked to the old train station, meandered through side streets, and perused the markets before getting a taxi to the bus station (hours ahead of schedule so we wouldn’t miss another bus).
Myanmar: Inle Lake
Our first night bus experience was not bad! We left around 6pm and were given blankets and snacks. The backs of the seats had screens with a pretty good collection of movies and we stopped for dinner around 8 or 9. Around 4am we arrived in Inle Lake (well, really Nyaung Shwe). Pro tip: just because you take a night bus doesn’t mean you can skip booking a place to stay! Because you will be freezing and stranded on the side of the road at four in the morning. Luckily, that didn’t happen to us. The original plan had been to arrive midday after our trek and because we were going to take a night bus later we weren’t going to book a room. But I figured we’d want to shower anyway so we did and thank god for that.
Unfortunately, because we arrived at a hellishly early time, our hot water wasn’t turned on. This was unfortunate because it was freezing cold in Nyaung Shwe. Cold. COLD. I am repeating this because it was a bit of a shock to the system after spending 4 months in a place where 75 degrees is considered downright frigid. Anyway, after a nice rest (aka sleeping until a normal time of morning) we headed out, rented some bikes, biked around town, and ate some local snacks at a coffeehouse. By midmorning we returned our bikes and headed down to the river to rent a boat (and boat driver) to take us around Inle Lake (aka one of Myanmar’s main tourist attractions).
Inle Lake is an interesting beast. On the one hand it is 100% geared towards tourists. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the men rowing their boats with one leg are actually fishing and maybe skip on seeing the long necked women because they’re certainly not from that area. But on the other hand you do get to see a lot of crafts and culture. For example, we got to see the lotus weavers (not the Lotus Eaters). We were taken around the “factory” to see how lotus fibers were hand extracted from lotus stalks, rolled and spun into thread, and woven into lotus cloth or mixed with silk or cotton. We also go to see how Myanmar cigars were rolled as well as some cool teak woodwork (and temples and pagodas because this is Myanmar). It was a cool experience and being on the water was relaxing and enjoyable.
Our second night bus was to Mandalay and it was a bit of a step down from our first one—no TVs with movies and music and games. But they did pay for our dinner! Honestly night buses suck, but I think that these Myanmar companies try to make them not suck as much.
We arrived in Mandalay again in the wee hours of morn but were rewarded with a nice actual real hotel room (aka not just a hostel or guest house). The following rest of the day was filled with visiting the large monastery there and then essentially walking all over the city. We treated ourselves to some fancy Indian/Thai food and walked more. It was cool to see a Myanmar city at ground level (aka not just hopping from tourist destination to tourist destination). It felt much more like a city than Inle Lake (because that was a lake surrounded by small towns) and had a different feel than Yangon. Yangon is a pretty polished place with colonial style buildings, wide boulevards, and manicured median strips. Mandalay was different. Much less manicured but still clearly a bustling city.
We hoped to check out the palace grounds but the thing is so huge it was impossible to find the gate that was open to foreigners before late afternoon crept into evening. Instead we hopped a taxi to Mandalay Hill and viewed the sunset from its lofty heights. Mandalay Hill offers a beautiful view of the city below and its majestic surroundings. You can also talk to some of the monks that hang out up there (the place is surprisingly lax about dress code as well as the whole “women don’t touch monks” thing—I saw shorts as well as hugs and handshakes).
That night we got our first reward of a full night in a bed! It was glorious and perfect. But we couldn’t sleep in too late or else we’d miss our first and only day bus!
Bagan. Oh my goodness what an incredible place. I won’t call it a city because the area that we were in barely counts as a town, but as soon as you arrive you will see why the call Myanmar the land of a thousand pagodas. You’d think you had already seen lots of pagodas. They dot the countryside and pop up in the middle of cities where you wouldn’t expect them, but this is because you haven’t been to Bagan yet.
Unlike the bright and gilded pagodas of Shwe Dagon’s ilk, Bagan’s “skyline” is dotted with hundreds a brick colored stupas that complement the dusty browns, reds, and greens of the dry landscape. This was the sight that greeted us as we rolled into town in the early afternoon. After a short rest at the (remarkably fancy) hostel, we rented e-bikes from across the street to go visit some pagodas.
E-bikes are the way to get around Bagan. You can also rent bicycles but I highly recommend the e-bikes. Because I had never driven a scooter or motorcycle before, Izaak and I rented one of the larger e-bikes for the afternoon. While it doesn’t get as much kick—certainly not as much as a motorcycle and especially not with another human (me) on the back—it’s a pretty nifty way to get around. Though be warned of the sand! This part of Myanmar is a chaparral-y type desert and the trails often feel like off-roading it—a thing these e-bikes don’t take very well. We had one little skid that resulted in some torn pants and scrapes (sorry Izaak, you got the brunt of that one) but it was pretty smooth sailing besides that.
Our first afternoon was filled with enjoying the air on our faces and popping off onto side streets and trails to see what ancient pagoda it led us to. And yes these things were really ancient—nearly all of them being built between the 11th and 13th centuries at the height of the Kingdom of Pagan.
We viewed statues of the Buddha and paintings in the ruins of monasteries. Walked barefoot on stones a thousand years old and climbed the steps that monks of ancient kingdoms climbed before us. The highlight of that day was seeing the sunset from the steps of a stupa. Either from the dust or pollution, the sun made for a beautiful pink disc sinking into a field of pagodas. A good day.
We spent the night at our hostel and had a full day of pagoda viewing before our last night bus back to Yangon. We woke up very very early in order to join a group that was heading out to watch the sunrise. This time Izaak and I rented separate e-bikes (I chose a smaller one since I had no scooter/motorbike experience, but it was pretty easy to get the hang of) and joined the group through the pre-dawn dark. Honestly it was a little nerve-wracking to learn how to drive one of those things in the dark and the sandy trails were rough going, but it was a fun experience. And watching the crepuscular light slowly seep into the sky from the top of a temple was breathtaking (but breathtaking in a way that took like half an hour to happen).
We headed back to the hostel for breakfast and a rest before journeying out again on our bikes. One might think that it is impossible to provide tourist information for so many pagoda sites besides the big ones. However, nearly every pagoda (or monastery ruins) is accompanied by a band of entrepreneurial Myanmar people selling their crafts and wares but also providing historical insight into that temple’s history (with the hopeful expectation that you’ll visit their shop set up afterwards).
I was quite surprised by how well developed the tourism industry seemed to be—from the easily online-booked buses, to the well-informed souvenir sellers, to the racks and racks of elephant pants without which no Southeast Asia backpacker wardrobe is complete. That, combined with the remarkably high level of English, made Myanmar a surprisingly accessible place to visit.
Anyway, our final hours were spent watching our last pagoda sunset before we returned to the hostel for the night bus pickup.
Myanmar: Yangon, again
I have no love for night buses but it was a little sad that it was our last one, which meant it was the end of our trip. I hesitate to call things “magical”, but this trip to Myanmar was really wonderful. I had a blast learning about a country and culture I barely knew and experiencing Southeast Asia in a way I hadn’t before. And honestly I really needed the vacation. It might seem silly that after just three months of teaching I already needed a break, but by the end of November I was counting down the days to my flight.
Our final night in Myanmar was spent at a swanky Japanese restaurant and bar presumably geared towards expats before our early morning flight out through Singapore. I was sad to go and I felt kind of empty and lost waiting alone in the Singapore airport for my flight back to the Nesia.
I have enjoyed my time in Indonesia and the days in Manado following my trip to Myanmar made me feel even more connected to my Sulawesi home, but it was good to get away. It was good to escape my kost confines, to forget about co-teachers and students and lesson plans and English clubs, to experience a new and different culture, and to spend time with a fellow ETA.
Myanmar was a wonderful country to visit and I hope I can go back again. It will be exciting to see where this new democracy will go, but I hope their pride in their culture and heritage will last.
Myanmar Travel Info, Tips, and Advice:
Book your bus tickets through go-myanmar.com ahead of time. It’s easy and convenient! Also book places to stay even if you’ve sandwiched a city between night buses. Your night bus will arrive at 4 or 5 in the morning and then you will be tired and sad if you have no place to stay. Be sure to pack modest clothing (sleeved shirts, long skirts, no shorts) for your trips to temples and pagodas. Additionally, consider wearing shoes that are easy to take on and off as you will be required to remove them in the temples.
Chan Myae Guest House is staffed by incredibly friendly people, has amazing service, and provides delicious breakfast that changes each day. I stayed in both a private room and in the dorms. Both were pleasant and clean. Each bed in the dorms has a curtain for privacy and there are hot showers. As for sites, Shwe Dagon Pagoda is hands down the main attraction. The Bogyoke market is fun, but is closed on Mondays. People’s Park is nice for a walk. The museum is cool but kind of sparse for information and weirdly arranged.
I’ve heard the trek from Kalaw to Inle (or original plan) is really cool, so do that. Otherwise, Inle by itself is also pretty neat—both the smaller towns around it and the touristy places right on the lake. We stayed a little outside of Inle (Nyaung Shwe) and really enjoyed that. Gold Star Hotel had fine service and nice clean rooms with yummy breakfast. Like I said, make sure to book a room even if you’re leaving that night. We were fine with having just one day to visit the lake, though I saw some signs for cooking classes and that could have been cool to do. Oh, be warned that you have to pay a $10 visitors fee to enter the “Inle Lake Area”.
To be perfectly honest, I probably could have skipped Mandalay and been perfectly happy. The monastery is beautiful as is Mandalay Hill and I wish I could have seen the palace grounds. But honestly its nothing overly spectacular. I’d say if you want to go to Mandalay plan it for a day but don’t go out of your way to spend more than that here. However you do get to feel a certain amount of satisfaction if you read Rudyard Kipling’s poem On the Road to Mandalay while there.
Spend as much time as you can here! We had one and a half days, but I would have been happy with another day (maybe replace Mandalay). Also renting e-bikes is a cheap, easy, and common way to travel. We stayed at a nicer hostel called Ostello Bello which was run by some Italians. It was a marvelous hostel with incredible service, services, helpful staff, and a lot of other travelers to talk with and enjoy their company. They have happy hour, yummy (if a little pricey) food, and events like Myanmar language classes, cooking classes, and a trivia night. Highly recommended if you can swing it. (Also we ran into the Canadian traveler from our second night in Yangon, so that was cool). Oh and Bagan is another area that you have to pay to enter (I think maybe $20 if I remember correctly?). Be sure to carry around your little entrance ticket because you could be required to show it at pagoda entrances.
Accessibility note: Bagan is best for travelers who do not have difficulty with walking or light climbing