The beginning of this adventure.
I left Omaha early on February 1. A winter storm almost kept me there for a few more days, but with a change of flights, I was off to Houston to Tokyo and to Bangkok after saying what was easily the toughest goodbye of my life to Alex at the airport.
I arrived in Bangkok late, in the same circumstances I had arrived about two years earlier when I first visited Thailand, only this time I wasn’t nervous, and I knew exactly how much to tell the taxi driver I would pay him to take me to the city (I’ve gotten burned enough times to know how to put up a good fight when it comes to bargaining, now).
I spent four days in Bangkok, and it wasn’t at all eventful. I worked on getting my visa for Myanmar at the embassy, talked to some interesting people, met up with Chevy, a fellow Nebraskan, for drinks and swimming. Mostly I just walked around in a jet-lagged daze remembering how much I really don’t like Bangkok’s hustle and bustle and letting it sink in that I was about to be on this continent all by myself for three whole months. It took me a bit to get over that.
But then came Myanmar. I’m wrapping up my third week here, and all I can say is that this country has my heart. The people here are simply wonderful. I get a smile everywhere I go, and you can tell they’re so hungry for interaction with the outside world, having been shut away from it for far too long. It’s one of the friendliest places I’ve been – on par with Kenya and Uganda and the Dominican Republic. The spirits of those who live in the simplest, most difficult circumstances never cease to amaze me. And then there’s the natural and cultural beauty that’s in every part of the country, from the mountains and waterfalls in the north, to the way the men dress themselves in the traditional longi, and the women cover their faces with thanaka makeup. This place is teeming with an authenticity that’s hard to find on the typical tourist trail, and I’m kind of in love with it.
I landed in Yangon in the afternoon. In my hour-long taxi ride to my hostel, I made mental notes of everything I was experiencing. First: it smelled and felt like my favorite place in the world, Africa. That’s always a good sign in my book. Second: Burmese people drive on the right side of the road with cars that are supposed to be used in places that drive on the left side of the road. It’s strange. Third: Yangon’s traffic is awful.
I spent my first afternoon walking for two hours. I took in the city and just kind of watched the hustle and bustle of Yangon happen around me. It’s busy and alive and interesting. I saw no tourists for two hours. Finally, I reached Shwedagon Pagoda for sunset (and found the tourists).
On day two, I boarded a train that circles Yangon, which just happens to be known as “the circle train.” I had three hours of listening to my music, breathing fresh air, and staring out the window at beautiful villages around Yangon, and it was the first time since being in Asia that I really felt ready to take it on. I think I needed to get out of the city.
After three days in Yangon, I’d had enough of trying not to get hit by motorbikes when crossing the street, and booked a night bus to Bagan with some people from my hostel. We arrived just before sunrise and immediately found a taxi to take us to the temples. Our hostels wouldn’t be ready to take us anyway, so we figured we might as well hit the ground running. We all loaded into the back of a pickup and ascended a giant temple to watch sunrise. If I didn’t feel connected to Myanmar before, I certainly did after that experience. Looking out over the pitch-black horizon and then slowly, slowly watching all of those amazing temples come into view was picture perfect.
On my second day, I met Vero, from Chile, and Christian, from Italy. The three of us spent our next days exploring the temples together. Each day was like clockwork. Every morning, we arose in the dark before the sun was up and drove our little e-bikes through the cold, quiet streets, whooshing by shopkeepers setting up shop, restaurant owners placing child-sized plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk, other tourists finding their way to a good temple for sunrise. And in the pitch dark we’d find the secret stairs in whatever temple we’d chosen to start the day on and climb to the top, as high as we could. Sometimes we’d settle just at the top of the stairs, and sometimes we’d scale the walls even higher for the very best view. And then we’d wait.
Watching the sun rise in Bagan feels like watching the whole world wake up right in front you. (Except the world you’re watching is thousands of years in the past). First, the stars slowly start to fade away and the sky begins to change, and suddenly this great big red ball of fire is rising as thousands of temples come into view. And all I can hear is my music and camera clicks.
I started every morning feeling exhausted. Usually after a day of exploring in the sun and staying up late, drinking Myanmar Beer or just talking. After sunrise, I always felt a jolt of energy and love for the country I’m in and the place I’m at and for life in general on my ride back to the hostel, when the streets are suddenly awake, with buses, motorbikes, and cars whipping by and adorable Burmese kids riding their bikes to school. Each day when we returned to the hostel, breakfast would always be ready. We’d eat, relax, and then get right back on our bikes to spend hours in the sun at the temples. We went everywhere and stared at the insides and outsides of the temples in awe. Finally, at some point, we’d break for late lunch, sunburned and exhausted before scoping out a good place for sunset. And we’d repeat our morning, only backwards — watching the sun dip below temples and waiting for the dark to set in.
I’d read on blogs and in my guidebook that at some point in Bagan, you get “templed-out,” or tired of seeing the same Buddha’s, the same architecture, the same sunset. After five days, I still wasn’t “templed out,” though I’ll admit that the pagodas I’ve seen in Myanmar since leaving Bagan certainly haven’t been as stellar. In a way, I felt like I could have repeated the days I spent there over and over and never tire of it. A friend asked one of the Europeans working at our hostel if he ever got tired of watching the sun rise over the temples. He said never. I’m not surprised.