Myanmar: Mandalay and Bagan

Sorry for messing with a chronological posting order, but I’m just getting to sorting through some of my photos and the notes that I jotted down earlier this trip! The following talks about my time in Myanmar (a leg of my trip that I’ve already completed!) and I’m currently writing from Vietnam. I’m also simultaneously posting about some of the things I’m seeing (and eating!) while I’m traveling between Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi, so sorry for any of the confusion that might happen as a result!

After Thailand, Marta and I flew to Myanmar – taking a flight from Phuket and stopping over in Bangkok for a few hours in a layover. We made it to Mandalay and stayed there for just over a day, which gave us a chance to get a glimpse at the city. We walked around Mandalay a fair bit, even though we were only there for a little more than 24 hours. We landed at 12:30, but going through immigration, withdrawing money, and catching a bus to ET Hotel ended up taking a few hours so there wasn’t much left of the afternoon once we had unwound at our hotel.

We walked to a restaurant called Aye Myst Tar, which offered a full menu with a lot of options neither of us had tried before. We were pretty obviously lost, and (more than once) had to ask the waiters to explain what some of the side dishes were. Our meal was really delicious, and left me totally stuffed. Before coming to Myanmar, I had only tried Burmese food once – so it’s been a really positive experience to expand my understanding of culinary traditions around the world. It’s no secret that I love tea, so I’ve been thrilled to be in Myanmar where leaves from the tea plant are both brewed as a beverage and eaten in salad form! Consider me a very happy camper.

In Mandalay, we had time to see the Mandalay Palace, which we had walked past the evening before. While there, we asked another couple of travelers to take a picture of us, and we ended up starting to talk and going out to lunch together. I really like how friendly folks are, and being a twenty-something backpacker seems to give you enough in common to strike up a conversation and become temporary friends. We didn’t have much more time for sight-seeing after we parted ways with the rest of the group, so we did miss out on Mandalay Hill and U Bein Bridge, but I don’t really regret it.

Our hotel helped us book a bus to Bagan, and we left Mandalay around 4 pm. We passed time on the bus by snacking (I swear, Marta is the ultimate travel companion because she insists on buying chocolate wherever we go) and watching Children of Men. A co-worker gave the movie to me over the summer, though I’m just getting around to watching it now. While the film was quite good, I have to say that it felt pretty unnerving to watch this while we were on the road – there are multiple scenes with violent car chases, and the uneven rocky roads taking us to Bagan certainly made you feel like you were part of the film. We got to Bagan in one piece, and settled into Innwa Hotel.

Two classmates from Yenching were also in Bagan, though we only overlapped for the first night that we arrived. After some back and forth debating where we should meet, Marta and I caught a motorbike taxi over to their hostel where we spent the night hanging out. Mikk and Luyolo gave us some suggestions for things to do and places to see, and we took down the name and location of a temple where they had caught a particularly beautiful (and semi-private!) sunrise and sunset.

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Bagan is noteworthy for its many sacred spaces – more than 2200 temples and pagodas stand today as holdovers from an architectural frenzy that lasted between the 11th and 13th centuries. During the heyday of the Kingdom of Pagan (which would go on to eventually become modern-day Burma), 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were erected. For three days, Marta and I explored the temple ruins, and caught a number of breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. Without exaggeration, I think that these couple of days can claim the titles for the most beautiful beginnings and endings that I’ve seen in my life.

In the mornings we’d wake up at 4:30 am, and rent the e-scooters from our hotel reception that we’d use for the rest of the day. With vague ideas of where we were heading, we made our way down the roads that frequently forked and turned from pavement to dirt, and dirt to sand. When we found a temple that would give us a good vantage point, we’d slip out of our shoes and climb narrow staircases and perch on the stones and wait eagerly as the deep blue of early morning to give way to the warm blush that comes with the dawn.

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There’s something really quite magical about mornings in Bagan – there’s a heavy mist that hangs above the earth, and when you’re on one of the many temples scattered throughout the archeological zone, you’re just a little above it all so you can see the grey of the fog dissolving as the sun breaks over the horizon line. Once the sun has started its climb, a modest army of hot-air balloons is launched and they take lazy paths across the landscape.

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Most people in my life can attest to the fact that I’m not usually one who wakes up quite so early. But I loved the routine of waking up, wandering around, and then returning to our hotel once the sun had risen. We’d eat breakfast on our rooftop, sipping teas and coffees to shake off the morning chill, and then take a few hours of down time before heading back out to explore again under the sun.

We rented e-scooters every day that we were there, which is (in my opinion) the only way to cover a lot of ground. Marta and I managed to escape injury while driving, which is no small feat considering that neither of us has been behind the wheel much before. I loved zipping through Bagan this way, and peeling off from the main roads whenever we caught sight of a temple that we liked and wanted to check out.

Sunsets felt just as otherworldly as the sunrises did, and altogether too brief. In fact, we spent our first evening chasing the sun, racing against the clock as it dipped beneath the faraway mountains. We caught the colors streaking the sky, and took in the last of the retreating light with drinks along the Ayeyarwady River, at a bar attached to the Bagan Thande Hotel. So, even on the nights where we missed the main attraction, we still got a chance to appreciate the beauty of Bagan. Other evenings took us to different temples, and each sunset was gorgeous and gave us new and different panoramic views of the archeological zone.

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My favorite vantage point for both sunrise and sunset was the view recommended to us by our classmate – the Winido Temple. It was fairly close to the hot air balloon launch point, so we got to see the balloons take off and fly away. We never had a wholly private sunrise/sunset to ourselves, but I’d consider the crowd at Winido to have been a modestly sized group that didn’t distract from the views that we were taking in. While I can understand the appeal of a private sunrise or a private sunset, I also think that it’s nice to be able come together and share these moments with total strangers. In the moments leading up to the sunrise and sunset, there’s a quietness that spreads over the crowd where you’re all there waiting for the exact same thing. It’s equally calming and electrifying to have this sense of common ground with people from all walks of life, and I’m pretty blessed to have experienced it here.

I’d like to say that there’s a lot of beauty in the world. It’s something that I guess I forget about when I’m entrenched in routines and get such tunnel vision that I fail to see the bigger picture. So I’ll take this as a small reminder that there’s a whole lot more going on out there.

Overall, I feel really glad that I got to make this trip and doubly glad that I got to share being here with Marta, who is one of my closest friends from China. It wouldn’t have been a trip without taking a few moments for personal vanity and snapping a couple of portraits here and there. So here are a couple of shots of Marta and myself that I’m pretty fond of.

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We ended our time in Bagan after three days, as Marta needed to make it Yangon to catch her flight back to Beijing. So, we took a nighttime bus to Yangon, which departed at 9 pm. I was glad for this – the overnight travel meant a night that we didn’t need to find a hotel for, and leaving late gave us a chance to catch one more sunset.

I hope to return here someday, but until then I’ll have to keep myself satiated with the huge number of photos that are now saved to my computer. While I hope to be able to share some more of these pictures with loved ones in the future, it’d be a dream come true to share the experience in person and have the chance to see some of these sunrises and sunsets together. Missing you plenty.

Love,

Kristen

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