I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!
There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.
It begins like this…
I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.
I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.
I’d seen photos of this place for years: its ancient temple-tops peering out over the jungle canopy, fog burning off across the landscape, a sea of relics strewn across a massive plain, a centuries-old board game interrupted by the future. Like something out of an adventure movie, Bagan called to me.
And so it was that I travelled from Inle Lake to Bagan to start this leg of the journey.
I arrive in the evening (a far less traumatic taxi ride than the last), my taxi depositing me at the hotel, a gardened temple replica tucked behind a tour bus-filled street thronging with supping masses. A pit of dread lodges in my stomach as I hope my experience here wouldn’t be this, erm, crowded. The staff: doting; the room: miniscule. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on spending much time inside anyway.
Bagan is an ancient sacred Burmese city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the summer of 2018. That means protection and restoration (and the climbing of temples now prohibited), but it also means it’s not an under-the-radar destination anymore. I’m glad I’m seeing it now.
Essentially, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is a minefield of temples and stupas and pagodas and monasteries strewn across a 100 sq km area, encompassing over 3500 complexes built between the 11th and 13th centuries. In its day, there were over 4000, and by some estimates there are/were over 10,000 individual structures here.
My first day’s mission was to see some of the larger sites. I hired an e-bike and set off. You pay the equivalent of about $5 for a day’s rental of a silent scooter to shuttle you about Bagan. It’s necessary, I soon learn, as the place is enormous, and the air is hot and dry. If nothing else, the breeze is refreshing as the red dust nestles, well, everywhere!
I make it to the Shwezigon Paya early-ish, and the market is not yet in full swing. A pushy but not unfriendly woman points out a good place to park my scooter, and duly notes a good place to leave my shoes while I wander the site. She comments that I should come visit her shop in the market on my way out. Similar to Shwedagon in Yangon, this paya is thronged with tourists even at this early hour, so once I’m done, I bee-line it out of there to get to some of the other sites before the mobs do. The experience walking through the gallery on the way out of the pagoda made me feel not unlike a piece of meat: vendors, like dogs, drooling and nipping at me to get me to buy something; some more rabid than others.
Annoyed by the time I get to the door where I left my shoes, I was verging on incensed when I realised they weren’t there. The lady at the shop has them I was informed. My shoes are being held ransom I thought. After gathering my shoes from the woman, at the risk of being hexed for not making a purchase, I hastily make my way out of there.
I was not enjoying Bagan at all as yet.
The thing about Bagan is that there is a temple of some sort pretty much every 20 feet. So I head down the main road towards Old Bagan, joining the melange of motorbikes, horse-drawn buggies, taxis and e-scooters going my way. In the process, I found some pretty amazing sites. I also tracked down the only Hindu temple in Bagan, which is also said to be the oldest here, built in the 10th or 11th century. It is a temple to Vishnu and houses statues and wall paintings not only of Vishnu, but also of Brahma, Shiva and Ganesha.
I spend the rest of the day alternately cursing tour buses (and their occupants) and gaping wide-mouthed at the temples large and small, as I maneuver around the sites on my e-bike. It is really no wonder they’re here (the tourists, that is), but the crowds also make for a less-than wonderful experience. The afternoon wanes, and in trying to escape the throngs and hawkers and sleazy tour mongers (want to see the sunset? … want to buy this [trinket/bauble/blanket/hat/postcard/painting]?…want to go to a secret spot to climb a temple?), I finally find a hilltop from which to watch the sunset (empty when I arrive but full as the sun dips below the horizon).
I end the day not overly impressed with the Bagan experience thus far, while being simultaneously floored by the architectural wonders around me.
My goal for Day 2 is to avoid the swarms and visit only sites that have no parking lots, no tourist buses, no mobs of people milling about. Before I embark on this mission, my morning starts with one of the 2 or 3 splurgiest things I’ve ever done: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan.
It was a surreal hour, beginning as the sun came up, and ending with us landed in a field, drinking a glass of champagne (as one does).
Hedonistic as it was, the flight really helped put the scale of this place into perspective! Each temple, pagoda, stupa, or monastery feels like it ought to be an historic site on its own, so seeing this (collective) wonder from above was just an amazing experience. Highly recommended!
I spend the rest of the day scooting around the city, taking interesting-looking and/or less-travelled dirt roads (one even led me into someone’s yard!!), then wandering down bramble-lined paths among and between the ancient structures… I explored large temples and small, even stumbled upon a spectacular monastic complex hiding in plain sight.
This day ended with me feeling fuller, and more fulfilled, than I did the day before. I even took in a traditional puppet show at dinner.
In a nutshell, I spent two very long but very different days amongst these ruins at Bagan, seeing the well-known and the, well, not-so-much. Some of the sites clearly generated something like magnetism for me, drawing me in through their stone archways and ancient doors. And some made me want to forget that I’d ever been there. There is certainly energy afoot, and it’s not surprising that each of the structures calls to different people differently: what I find fascinating might be a dull pile of old brick to the next wanderer-by; the ghosts of each temple chanting centuries of silence to those who listen carefully.
I said goodbye to Bagan before dawn this morning and boarded a boat to Mandalay, hoping one day to be back.
The thing to do in Inle is get out on the lake. I’ve just arrived and don’t really know what that means yet, but I allow myself the luxury of sleeping in a bit my first day here. But the leisurely morning ends there: within about 6 minutes of finishing brekkie, I find myself on the back of the hotel lady’s motorcycle en route to a boat. I don’t yet know much about the boats here either, but she drops me at a property with a small cottage and a bigger shed and something that looks like an outhouse. There are some people milling about, and there are chickens and dogs wandering in the driveway, some motorbikes scattered around, and some chairs (occupied and not) around an unlit fire. A smiling guy comes out, and my hotel lady leaves me in his hands. He ushers me towards the back of the property, which I realise abuts a canal. It’s like Venice, if only for the gondola-like boats, but not at all otherwise, for all the dust and beeping and stray dogs about, a texture to the air which I can’t place, but breathes of wood smoke and fish sauce. Welcome to Inle Lake. You are not in Kansas anymore.
We head down the rickety ladder and my new guardian now hands me off to a smiling boat guy with tanakha’d cheeks, and we set off to see the lake on this long boat with a puttering engine, its long-tailed propeller designed to tackle the lilies and lotus greens that grow like weeds on the lake and its tributaries. I’m seated on a wooden chair that sits atop the wooden slats in the bottom of the boat. I’ve got a cusion, life preserver and umbrella (for sun or rain). We’re ready to go!
I’m still not at all clear on what we’re off to see, but my boat driver shuttles me down a mud-banked river along which he dodges the patches of green which seem to sprout up spontaneously. The river opens to a massive lake (about 50 sq mi), ringed with a low mountain range. It’s beautiful, this first glimpse of Inle, a morning layer of fog-smoke still burning off the lake’s surface.
We motor across the lake and into a neighbourhood of sorts, its houses and shops and restaurants on stilts. Inle Lake boasts a plethora of skilled craftspeople, and part of the tour is to their workshops. Our first stop is a silver-maker. I’m dropped off, given a cup of tea, and guided into the shop, where there’s an area in which a craftsman is showing how they make the silver here. I’m shown the stones they get the silver from, and then the mortar and pestle-type thing they use to stamp and mold the material into the jewelry I’m shown next. Then, I’m guided into a room bigger than the actual workshop, glass cases with rows and rows of jewelry that was clearly not handmade here, interspersed with some that may have been.
Next, we visit the cheroot makers, and I get out and watch as they demonstrate the cigar-making. After this, we navigate the watery streets (the neighbourhood is literally in the lake) and stop at a temple, thronging with boats and bustle. I have to pee.
I walk up into the melee, remove my shoes, and I’m immediately accosted by a woman who insists I buy offering flowers. I politely decline. She shoves the flowers in my face again. I decline again. This goes on for a couple of minutes until I find an opening and make my escape (sans fleurs). The temple is loud and crowded. The toilet is frightening. The tourists are pushy and rude, more into selfie-taking than worshipping. A shrine to what I wonder, as there are no monks anywhere to be seen.
I’m having a weird visceral reaction to this place, like I need to get out of here before it eats my soul. And I do, and then I explain to my boat driver that I need to see nature and culture and no more crowds. So after lunch, he motors us away from the crowds, down a series of green-lined rivulets, and to a market that appears to be bustling, but he points upwards and says go there. There looks to be another temple, this one with a zillion stupas, their gold and white and stone spires pointing to the heavens.
Between me and the temple is a covered stairway, lined with sellers of all manner of stuff – longyis and trinkets and jewelry and woven crafts. I’m relieved that while the waterfront is bustling, the market and the site is not. I am one of only a handful of people there, and I take my time walking up the hundreds of steps to the temple.
We’re at the Shwe Indein Pagoda, and I’m standing in the middle of what I realise is more like a village of centuries-old stupas, in various states of restoration. I spend nearly 2 hours wandering amongst the 1000+ structures here, awestruck at each turn. Some are meticulously restored, while some, gorgeous carvings and all, are tilting and overgrown, the jungle threatening to take them.
When I get up there, I am literally stupa-fied.
As I make my way down the hill again through the near-deserted market, I’m feeling better about this place. The energy here is so much different than that of the earlier pagoda, and it makes me very aware of the subtle cultural idiosyncrasies at play, not merely an east-west thing, but also region-to-region and temple-to-temple. Somewhere in the sub of my consciousness rings there is a place for everyone, and for everyone a place.
We visit a lotus weaving workshop next, where they demonstrate how the fibers from the lotus stem are woven to create a strong material, more precious than silk. And we visit the Jumping Cat Monastery, well-known for its trained cats. There are cats here, but I learn that they don’t jump anymore…it turns out that one of the practices the old monk didn’t pass on before he passed on was the training of the cats.
The day ends with a gorgeous sunset on the lake and large pot of Tom Yam soup. And, per the guesthouse’s suggestion, I reserve a boat for the following day to take me out to the lake’s farther reaches, to the town of Samkar.
We leave before dawn so I’m also treated to a sunrise over the lake. The journey takes about 3 hours, across Inle and down a river that is more marshy waterway than actual river. And while Inle lake is known for its oodles of pagodas and temples, it’s also famed for its fishermen. These iconic symbols of Burma’s Shan State go out on the lake every morning, doing their traditional dance: one leg wrapped around the oar, the other maneuvering their wooden skiff (a manual version of what we’re on), while his hands work the basket-like net. I’m already feeling a little hustled and shuttled like a tourist from the prior day (don’t they know I want an authentic experience rather than pay-per-view??), so I skeptically wonder if this, too, is a show for the tourists (and do I exit through the gift shop?).
But I’m drawn in by the nature of this longer journey…lush terrain lines different parts of the lake, and the greenery narrows around our long and narrow boat. I’m in bird-watching mode, spotting egrets and herons and cranes and a variety of other water birds as we navigate through the marshy lotus patches. These wetlands morph into fields and it’s sometimes hard to determine where the wet- ends and the -lands begin. It’s like two enmeshed cultures: land and water. Like a lotus, they need to find stability and nourishment in the solid bits, make peace with the water for equanimity and balance, and look skyward for wisdom and direction.
Because I opted to journey a bit off the beaten path today, I missed the floating market. And also the 5-day market. But we visited a sake-maker (with samples!) and some stunning pagodas along the way; and at most of them, I was the only one there. So the reward for the long, cold ride this day wasn’t that I got to see what everyone else does at Inle Lake, it was that I got to experience the stillness and the serenity of these sites; the only sound at times, the bells atop the crowns of the stupas, tinkling in the light breeze.
I won’t have a physical souvenir of these places, and I don’t know the names of most of them*, but the reflection in the mirror-like water, the bells in the air, and the scent of incense wafting from the altars are all the keepsakes I need.
My days at Inle Lake close with a 3-hour bicycle ride around town. Along the way, I was given a thumbs-up and blessed by a near-toothless monk, and had some of the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten outside of Rajasthan. In Inle, I got rained on. I experienced world-class Burmese smiles and warmth and genuineness. I saw some surreal temples. I (re-)learnt that sometimes the best way to deal with an experience that isn’t for me is just to leave: there are mobs of people enjoying it whether I’m there or not. Once I take myself out of the equation, it just IS.
On the way back to the airport, the taxi passed the spot my other taxi driver crashed only a few days before, and I briefly wondered if I were a jumping cat, how many lives would I have used up thus far?
But for now, it’s onwards to Bagan and to one of the great architectural wonders of this world!
*In Samkar, I saw the Tha Kaung Mway Taw, Taung Tho and Samkar pagodas, plus a little ancient site sitting below a “newer” pagoda (here newer is a relative term; many of the temples here are over 1000 years old).
I’ve connected with a friend-of-a-friend who is a certified tour guide in Myanmar. She’s going to show me as much of the city as we (read: I) can absorb in 24 hours, before I continue on to Inle Lake and Bagan. There are 3 imperatives on the list: 19th Street (Chinatown), Shwedagon Pagoda for sunrise, and the Rangoon Tea House.
The taxi drops a nitrogen-weary mermaid at her hotel in Yangon, and it’s like night-and-day to the Bates-esque experience of the previous night. I check into the Yuzana Garden Hotel (which I’ve booked online for maybe $5 more than what I’ve just paid in Kawthaung) and feel like I’m walking into a renovated palace with its 15-foot ceilings and wood and marble finishes.
N.B. For this trip, my hotels average ~$25USD per night, and this one (very much in the price range, thanks to Agoda) is by far the snazziest!
After getting settled, we head out on foot to wander the streets of Yangon, not aimlessly, but since it’s later than anticipated, the anticipated market is closing for the evening so we walk past one of the city’s “Christmas in Yangon” stages that have been set up for tonight’s celebrations.
I say a private Happy Birthday Dad and we walk on, then jump in a cab and arrive in Chinatown for a beer and Yangonese BBQ on 19th Street, which, I’m told, has become one of the only decent places for young people to hang out together in this city. And so it seems: the street is bustling, as millennials (plus only a v small smattering of tourists) line the restaurants, drinking beer served up by the beer girls from Myanmar and Chang, and chatting up a storm over BBQ. You fill a basket with skewers of every imaginable thing, from chicken feet to quail eggs, squid to sausages, and hand the basket to the BBQ guy who sends it to the kitchen to cook, and the meal is delivered to your table with rice and a fantastic dipping sauce.
We don’t have much of an agenda tonight so we wander the streets of Chinatown and beyond, eventually making it back to the area where Christmas is in full swing, and we arrive at the same stage we were at earlier to catch local renditions of Feliz Navidad and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Is he? I wonder… We’ve been talking tonight of the monumental changes taking place in this country since the Regime was ousted only 3 years ago. It’s like a new lease on life for many of these young people here, and the significance that we’re on the street after 9pm watching a modern-clad local songstress belting out Western Christmas music is not lost on anyone in the massive crowd, myself included.
Next morning, we head out before dawn to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Myanmar, and as such attracts devotees and tourists from across the globe. We arrive well before 6am, and while there are no tourists here at this dark hour, there are streams of worshippers at every possible corner of the place.
There are no words that can describe it here: the air smells of jasmine and incense and wood smoke. My ears are buzzing with the sounds of chanting and individual mantras, all in languages I cannot decipher, but that join together in a soundscape that melds with the nag champa. The rising sun turns the mesmerising 100 metre-tall gold leafed stupa first pink, then a vibrant, lustrous gold that seems to drink in the morning’s rays.
It’s said that 8 hairs of Gautama Buddha are encased in this stupa, archaeologists estimating that it was erected c. the 7th century, though legend says it was built 2000 years before that. And while I’m not a practising Buddhist, one cannot help but be drawn into the story and embraced by the surroundings here.
As we exit the temple, a market of sorts is set up, selling materials for prayer offerings and myriad other goods from refrigerator magnets to local handicrafts to idols. What gives me pause is the wicker cage full of songbirds that are on offer: you purchase one in order to set it free, symbolic of releasing one’s attachments and so forth. It hurts my head and heart to think about the contradictions. And my guide agrees with my disdain: they’ve found a way to usurp the teachings for their own profit. Prophets, they are not…and my skepticism of organised religion continues.
We continue on to brekkie, more wandering, a ride on the railway, the bus, and a local ferry across the Yangon River to Dalah, just to make sure we’ve hit all modes of transport here. We visit another pagoda and admire their reclining Buddha, its soles telling Gautama’s horoscope. And of course, lunch at the Rangoon Tea Shop, rounding out the musts for the visit here.
My impression? There’s not a lot to do in Yangon, but Shwedagon is literally awe-some. The food is excellent, and I note the Indian, Chinese and Western influences in nearly everything we’ve managed to inhale these past 24 hours. I find it amusing that at every meal so far I’ve been asked, you can eat spicy food? or told, very concerned, that’s spicy. Yes, I reply, donning my chopsticks and smiling.
Bonus: I’ve also managed to find custard apples, an Asian fruit I’ve only ever seen before in India. Now, onwards to the next (next) part of the journey that begins with an unexpected jolt.
Inle: They say what doesn’t kill you makes for a good story after-the-fact, right? Just so, because as I was worried about flying Myanmar National Airlines, I was not worried at all about the taxi I’d take from little Heho airport to Inle.
The air here is fresher than Yangon, and a smoky evening mist is settling. I get in the mini-van and we start driving down the steep 2-lane road that winds up and over the small mountains that surround Inle Lake. The views are stunning in the waning light. About 15 minutes in, my driver starts slowing down and veering towards the edge of the road. There’s a nice scenic overlook where others are stopped, so I think he’s slowing to give me a photo opp.
Problem is, he doesn’t stop.
Before I can figure out what just happened, we’ve crashed into the white and red safety pylon thing that separates us from the 100+ metre drop-off, which at this point is directly in front of the vehicle. The driver has either passed out or fallen asleep at the wheel, and the jolt wakes him enough to look back at me with these hauntingly glassy eyes (and for me to ask are you okay?). I think I’m in a bit of shock, because it takes a moment before I realise I must get out and get help. Immediately.
My mind is racing but I am not moving. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if we were going any faster. It’s almost sunset. I’m in Burma. The absolute only place I know I DO NOT WANT TO GO on this trip is a Burmese hospital. Will the post hold? I just read a book about the opium trade. I wonder if he’s on opium. Get. Out. Of. The. Van.
I drag myself out of my own head and get out of the vehicle.
The post is holding back the van; it’s bent over, and the vehicle does not look good: there is a massive dent in the front bumper in which the post is now embedded. Time feels somehow warped, slow but too fast, and as I put my hand out to flag down a passing taxi, he is already pulled over. He gets out, checks the car, checks the guy, points to his cab and says, Get in. Get in now.
It takes me a moment to remember to grab my bag from the back, but we get it loaded and there is a very nice and very concerned older Swiss couple in the back seat. Glad to be safe, we continue onward and the taxi driver calls the authorities.
Shaken, but not deterred, I profusely thank the driver and the lovely Swiss duo for rescuing me and getting me to my hotel in one piece. Still, part of my brain is also wondering what to do about the glassy-eyed driver.
The rest of the evening goes better: this hotel is lovely, and a hanging garden full of orchids and greenery lines the pathway to my room.
Armed only with a guidebook and a hotel reservation (and Burmese fisherman’s pants), I know how to say hello and thank you, and I’ve got no idea what to do first here, but this is my launch pad for the next few days as I explore the famed Inle Lake.
I silently wish my co-adventuring Calvin were here to continue the journey with me. I make a cup of tea and try to shake off the recent events and doubts.
Culture shock again, as I step off the boat and the guy tells me wait here. As if I have a choice… someone in the vicinity has my passport, and in it, the stamp that will allow me to roam freely in this rustic place. Rustic isn’t necessarily the first word that pops into my head as I look around, the buzz of this port of entry, with its tuk tuk and scooter beeping all around, street food vendors everywhere I look, and what appears to be pagodas and stupas on the hills in all directions.
I’m on a dock, in something like no-man’s (or woman’s) land, an immigration office to my right and the boat on which I’ve arrived still at the dock, my fellow divers waiting for their exit stamps. It’s like a miniature version of Bangkok, or perhaps what it looked like before the westernization and mass build-up happened there. The gilded arches are impressive for this place, reminding me a little of Jaipur in its buzzing frenzy.
Major observation #2: I am wearing the wrong shorts. Having just landed from a week of wearing not much more than a bikini and/or wetsuit, I have put on a pair of normal (read: Western) shorts for the transfer. As I look around, I recall the conversation I had prior to leaving Bangkok about what (not) to wear in Burma. I have forgotten to put on one of the pairs of Burmese fisherman pants I’ve been given for this leg of the adventure. And now I appear to be the only westerner in this town, standing on the dock with my luggage, no passport, and in the wrong shorts.
The guy comes back, my passport in hand, loads me onto a tuk tuk and sends us off to my hotel. I know zero Burmese, which does not go in my favour, as I try to pay for my hotel room. They cannot change dollars, nor do they accept credit cards, and I’ve used up most of my Thai Baht. My only option: go to the market and change money.
Note: It is 700 degrees outside (F or C, it really doesn’t matter…this may be the hottest I’ve been. Ever.) and I am still in the wrong shorts because I haven’t gotten into my hotel room because I do not have any money. I walk down the street, find the market and then a bank, but most of the US dollars I have are either folded one too many times, too used, have a small ink mark on them, or are not acceptable for myriad other reasons. I am able to change $70. This will pay for my hotel and get me to Yangon tomorrow. They, too, run off with my passport, but I am finally given 103,000 Myanmar Kyat. And I thought conversion to/from the metric system was complicated math.
I am looking forward to a shower and then a change into clothes in which I can wander about comfortably, for a given value of comfortable. The good news is that the room comes with a bathroom. The not-as-good-news is that it makes the boat shower I’ve just had for the past week look good, which means I’ll do any luxuriating in my Yangon shower once I get there.
So I do. Wander, that is. First, up to the temple I’ve seen from the port, which I find out is Kawthoung’s most impressive landmark, the Pye Taw Aye temple complex, with its gilded hilltop pagoda. From here, I walk down and across town, passing through the market again. I’m stopped by 3 little girls whose mum runs a shop that sells all manner of local wares, and they want to paint my face with the traditional thanaka, a bark of sorts that is used not only for design but for sun protection and medicinal purposes. Face painted (of course I purchased some with my newly-procured local wealth), I march on… receiving smiles and waves from everyone I see along the way. And the next smiling face I see is one of the boatmen, who is having tea with some of his colleagues from his other job. I think I’m beginning to understand this culture a little as I’m invited to sit with them for tea and snacks.
My first real day on land here in Myanmar rounds out with a sunset atop the park that marks the southernmost point in Myanmar.
Tomorrow really begins the next leg of the journey, and with it a trip northward to Yangon.