Myanmar, and then specifically the endless sight of temples in Bagan, has been on my bucket list since I started exploring the far corners of the world. For me, the magic in travelling lies in connecting with people and experiencing the vibrancy of cultures that are so different than mine. And for a cultural experience, Asia is always a good idea, there is so much depth and thought in everything people do here.
Words & Photography by Romy Louise | @romylouise.nl
It is after the first step you place on Burmese soil that you will realise that everything in this country is thought-over and balanced out. How the people will welcome you with tea out of a tiny decorated glass, a bow with vowed hands to show appreciation, the little relaxing and faint-tinkling sounds you hear in the temples and the smell of incense. It all feels so spiritual and whether you are into yoga or not, it will drag you along.
This cultural journey started off in Yangon, there where the shining golden Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance will dominate every sight. This golden beauty stands solid on a hill in the middle of this bustling city and is Myanmar’s most sacred pagoda. Besides that, it is considered one of the most important Buddhist temples in the world. Of course our trip to Myanmar would not have been complete without paying our respects to Buddha here.
Already when walking up the steps towards the center of this pagoda you will feel the spirituality. The longyis (Burmese draped cloth) we were given made us fit in with the atmosphere. Once we took of our shoes and stepped on the holy grounds we felt so relaxed that we could have circled around for hours. Every few meters there were posts of worship, people kneeling and low murmur sounds. Each day of the week is represented around the pagoda in the Burmese Zodiac signs. We searched for our own Burmese Zodiac signs and poured water on our Zodiac animals, the lion and tiger.
After we took in the city of Yangon we were ready for the emptiness and tranquility of ancient Bagan. It took one night of sleeping on a rusting old bus to see our first magical sunrise here. In Bagan no time should be wasted, and greeting the sun should never be skipped for rolling onto your other side in bed for a few more hours. So we did not waste a minute.
We got up early in the dark, to go back to the quiet temples we discovered during the daytime in Bagan. Once we arrived at the temple we would take off our shoes and enter, placing our bare feet on the cold and shady stones inside. This all felt so scary and magical at the same time, to be in the middle of nowhere at these utterly spiritual places using a little flashlight to get around in the darkness.
Narrow dark and century-old stairs would take us up from the inside of the temple to the higher platforms; here we would place our cloths on the ground and cuddle up to each other to watch the scenery change. Once the sun would appear at the horizon the temples all perfectly lined up as silhouettes against the orange sky. After a few minutes the hot air balloons would come floating into our view, this is the most striking show I have ever seen. It was here, sitting on our cloths, watching this gift from mother earth that goosebumps appeared on my skin and tears in my eyes when realized, once again, I am the luckiest girl in the world to have my Bagan dream come true.
With the bright sun up and running our days of E-biking around the dusty and rocky valley would start. With a total of around 1000 temples, you will see them in any direction you gaze. And no matter how many there are, even after 5 days in this fairy-tale desert you will appreciate each one of them for their uniqueness. With Myanmar still being fairly undiscovered we often found ourselves completely alone on the top of a temple overlooking the scenery.
We could not get enough of this; the days here were so pure and intense. Warm colours brushing the sky in the morning, absorbing the warmth all day until you watch the colours shift for darkness again. It makes you live the days to the fullest and aware of this tiny spot we are in the universe. For me this is what travelling is, seeing the familiar in a new light, being on the other side of the world is not necessary for this; it only makes it easier. Far from the daily distractions, you give yourself the time to appreciate and watch things that are always there, as for instance the sun or stars. These are the things you take home. This is what makes travelling the greatest lesson you can learn about life.
After spending 5 full days in the sandy fields of Bagan we hopped on an old-, not air-conditioned minivan to Kalaw, the scenery changed drastically. Through the dirty windows we saw the sand make place for banana trees and jungle, there were hills, farms and the land looked fertile. Different from Bagan.
Once in Kalaw we were going to work for what we wanted to see, this time no E-bike but our legs were going to take us places. That place was Inle Lake, but as always the journey itself deserved just as much attention as the destination.
From early in the morning until sunset we would walk through hills, past the drying chili peppers that formed bright red squares in contrast to the green fields. We would pass villages with different customs every few kilometers, different clothing and weaving styles.
Everywhere we were offered something, tea or a special treat. With the sun burning on our skin and the blisters blushing on our heels, we were happy to be welcomed for a seat in these colorful villages.
The nights here were special; with people you just met that turn into friends after the first few kilometers you walk. Singing to songs everybody knows, creating our own songs and dancing around the bonfire with the locals who were not so used to drinking beer. After a long night we all found our ways to the beds in the open shed, tired enough to fall asleep anywhere.
60 kilometers later we reached our destination, Inle Lake. How can I explain the beauty of this place without repeating myself, it was just so picturesque. And again so different than where we had been so far. Villages that are completely built on water surround this vast lake. No cars or bikes here, only boats; even schools and temples are built in the water. The Venice of Myanmar you could say.
A friendly Burmese man took us around on his longboat, he showed us the villages and told us about the traditional fishing customs. While it used to be the number one job, now only few fishermen spend their days on the boats in the middle of the lake. Fishing with nets and paddling the boat forward using their legs, like you will see only in Inle.
Myanmar gave us so much and exceeded all our dreamy expectations, even though our trip did not yet end here in Inle, it felt a bit like that. Soon we would leave to our last stop in this country, the city of Mandalay. After the time we spend in the countryside we would go back to civilization, we felt a bit sad at the thought of leaving this peaceful and quiet landscape. But travelling wouldn’t be travelling if you stay in one place. So we swung our heavy backpacks on our backs, left the dirty hostel and took place in a sidecar bicycle. With our backs against each other and our belongings on our lap we watched Inle Lake fade away.
Mandalay was just a night bus away, but once we woke up by screaming taxi drivers and smells of exhaust fumes, we felt very far away from where we just came from. We opened our eyes and looked out over the grey and depressive sight of a parking lot covered in rubbish.
I wondered if I am the only one who always hopes the night bus will arrive later than expected. If it would only be to avoid that lost feeling when you arrive before sunrise while carrying a heavy backpack and having no place to stay.
These moments should never take long, once we found a place to have breakfast and a tea we got enthusiastic again to explore the urban.
Mandalay makes this easy; no map should be used when walking around in this city. It won’t matter where you are, what part of the city... You will be safe and people will welcome you in their suburb with a smile.
Before our visit to Myanmar I read about Buddhism. I have always been fascinated by religions like Buddhism, Hinduism or the Inca religion of Pachamama. Rarely when reading about Buddhism you will find a female perspective; the (male) monks in Buddhism have a special status. A (female) nun will not be looked at in the same way. Yet in Myanmar, you will see many nuns; beautiful girls with shaved heads wearing light pink robes. Early in the morning in Mandalay, you will see them around the markets for the morning alms, the collecting of food for that day. Both monks and nuns rely on the generosity of others for the basic necessities of life.
When strolling around the city you will see the long pink lines of nuns with umbrellas, you will hear them singing soft-toned songs in small groups for the street vendors. Grateful for what they will receive. There is something so peaceful about these rituals. It is touching to see how at the end of the day it is the people with the least to spare that give the most.
We were running out of time in Myanmar, soon we would leave to the airport. We had our last Burmese food, sitting on a tiny chair at the corner of two busy streets. That rats were running around in the outside kitchen didn’t matter, because food had never been this good as when sitting on the street surrounded by the friendly Burmese people. The waiter created a table for us out of some boxes and gave me an extra chair to save my Millican bag from the filthy pavement because the tourist in Myanmar should be pampered. They hoped we would come back, or at least tell the world about this beautiful place. We will do both I promised him.
The ground underneath us starts to run away faster each second, the cabin makes a cracking sound that is somehow comforting and the engine is working hard to get us up. I feel we lift from the Burmese soil and whisper a quiet ‘thank you’ to Pachamama, mother earth. With my eyes damped I realise how I am going to miss this place.