Month 4 kicked off with us ringing in 2017 at the Golden Rock in Myanmar, but I’ll back up a bit and start from the beginning of our time in Myanmar. We arrived in Myanmar on December 28th, flying into Yangon (which used to be the capital city of Myanmar). Myanmar is a really interesting and unique country due to its corrupt government that didn’t allow tourists to enter for about 50 years. We had heard nothing but good things from people who had visited though, so we decided to visit for ourselves.
As we were about to touch down in Yangon, I looked out of the window and was greeted with the flickering of lights across the city. I was confused at first, until I realized that it was the instability of the electricity across the city. Stable electricity has never been a concern in my day-to-day life, and this was the start of my eye opening experiences in Myanmar.
Once we had passed through immigration, we set out to get SIM cards for our phones, and the electricity dropped in the airport. I asked the lady at the cell phone booth if this was normal, and she giggled at me and told me “all the time.”
The next 2 weeks were going to be interesting…
And they were.
We spent 2 days exploring the colonial streets of Yangon, taking in the sights and sounds, and the thing that shocked me the most about Yangon was how quiet it was. I had expected the streets to be loud and overwhelming, the way one might picture India, but it was hardly like that. The people are quiet and calm, and although many streets are busy and bustling, they seem calm and hardly chaotic.
We felt as though 2 days wasn’t enough time to truly explore Yangon, but we made the most of it. Along with exploring the city center and seeing some of the major pagodas, we also took a tour to the more rural parts of the city to see how the locals live. We took a bumpy, slow train around the outskirts of Yangon for over 3 hours, stopping at a local wholesale market. It was very different from our idea of “wholesale shopping” over in the west, and reconfirmed why I don’t eat meat.
After Yangon, we took a bus to the base of the Golden Rock, and then hopped into a jam-packed open air truck and made our way up the winding road to the rock itself. Most tourists don’t go to the Golden Rock, but I’m really glad we did, and particularly for NYE. The Golden Rock is a place of worship for the Burmese people and when we arrived at the top on December 31st, we joined thousands of local people who were preparing to ring in the new year. It was much different from your average North American celebration in the best way possible.
We watched the sunset for the last time in 2016, before we made our way about 30 minutes on foot to our hotel, where we had one of the best meals that we had during the entirety of our trip to Myanmar. Once we had finished our meal, we went to bed, exhausted from the day. We hardly made it past 10pm, but we felt as though we had one of the best NYE’s we’ve ever had together.
The following morning, we made our way back down the mountain, caught a bus back to Yangon, where we killed time for a couple of hours before we caught a night bus to Inle Lake. Despite purchasing the luxury bus to Inle Lake, it was a rough night. Our bus may have been luxury in the 1980’s, but was hardly luxury by our standards. This was a moment where I had to check myself, and simply be thankful that it was a functioning bus that got me safely from point A to point B.
We arrived in Inle Lake in one piece, although we were painfully tired and immediately settled in for a nap. Our first day in Inle was spent napping and lazily exploring the sleepy town of Nyaungshwe. We planned to rent a boat and head out to see the lake itself the following day, although it ended up pouring rain the entire day.
That day was probably one of my most frustrating travel days to date, and I posted a very honest post on Instagram about how miserable I was. Myanmar, albeit beautiful, was challenging me in more ways than I had expected, and I was totally unprepared for the pouring rain, and unstable electricity and internet, among other things. I attempted to work and when that failed, I took it as the universe telling me to slow down and just appreciate the moment, and we ended up spending the majority of the afternoon with new friends at a coffee shop exchanging travel stories.
Since our focus of this trip has been working AND traveling, I’ve found myself losing touch with the joy of days spent simply doing nothing. I am constantly trying to work through a to-do list while juggling the things I want to see, and in all honesty, I think it stresses me out more than anything else to try and find the balance of work and travel. As with anything, I know that it takes time to find a routine in a new lifestyle, but this one has been harder than I ever imagined it would be.
Fortunately, we woke up the next day to grey skies but no rain, and were able to get on the boat to see Inle Lake – it was totally worth the wait. Inle has been made famous by the fishermen who balance precariously on the front of their boats, using their hands to wield the net and one of their legs to paddle with the oar. It was awesome to watch, and to tour around the floating villages. Inle Lake is getting pretty touristy, and this was the first time that I understood people who had told me “Go to Myanmar now, before it changes too much”. Inle Lake is slowly losing its authenticity and businesses appear to be popping up all over the place simply for the sake of tourists. I’m torn between my desire to see an authentic culture, and for the people to have the opportunity to open thriving businesses after so many years of repression, and the entrepreneur in me knows I need to root for the latter.
Later that evening, we hopped on an overnight bus to Mandalay, which was only 8 hours from Inle. After a frustrating misunderstanding with our bus ticket, we were on our way, arriving in Mandalay at 4am. I had planned ahead and booked our hotel room for that night, so we were quickly escorted to our room to sleep the rest of the night away!
I had heard that Mandalay itself wasn’t really a great city, and outside of the really yummy shan noodles near to our hotel, I have to agree. We spent most of our time in Mandalay taking advantage of the good internet, but we did make our way to the U-Bein bridge to see one of the most magical sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life. Myanmar has to have some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
After 2 days in Mandalay, we took an uncomfortable bus to Bagan, the place I had been looking forward to in Myanmar the most. Bagan has been made famous because it is an old city with over 2000 temples scattered among the trees. We had 2 full days in Bagan, and we took advantage by renting scooters both days and exploring as many temples as we could.
We took in the sunset for different temples both days, and got up on our second day to watch one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen, only made better by the unreasonably expensive hot air balloons floating over Bagan. Bagan certainly didn’t disappoint me, and if anything it exceeded my expectations, which is saying something because I went there with high expectations!
Unfortunately our last night in Bagan was tainted by terrible food poisoning. I haven’t been that sick since I was in Ecuador, and I didn’t even eat anything raw (I was sick off of a taco salad in Quito… I don’t recommend that)! I spent the entire night glued to the toilet with my head in a bucket being violently ill…. and we had to check out the next day. The guesthouse was kind enough to give me an extra hour before check out, to cancel the tour we had booked for that day, and to get me rehydration salts and a pillow so that I could sleep in the lobby. I slept until our bus at 5pm, and by that time I had stopped throwing up (thank God).
After a very long 5 hours bus ride, we made it back to Mandalay. We were relieved to be back in Mandalay for our final last few days, and by this point, I was ready to be out of Myanmar. I had known that the chances of food poisoning were high due to the bad sanitary conditions in the country, but I was disappointed that I had gotten it so badly in our last 3 days. It was close to 5 days before my appetite was back and my stomach was feeling back to its normal self.
Two days after I had food poisoning, Ryan got sick as well, so we spent most of our time in Mandalay, sleeping and watching movies with a quick trip to the Palace by bike. In case you’re wondering, Mandalay by bicycle is terrifying!
Despite having food poisoning, I loved Myanmar. It challenged me and pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and I know that I needed that. I have become used to being comfortable with constant access to wifi, nice beds, and good food, and it’s easy for me to forget that not everyone is privileged enough to live the life I live.
Many people have asked me about Myanmar and have been surprised to hear that after traveling 50 countries that I found Myanmar a challenging country to travel. I’ve thought a lot about that, and I don’t think it was challenging in the way in which people may think. Organizing safe and efficient transport is easy, Myanmar is extremely safe and petty crime is hardly even an issue, the food is actually really good (as long as you don’t get food poisoning!), and the people are so, so friendly. Rather, it was challenging for me because it forced me to look at my own life and the things I complain about in a different way. Being in Myanmar reminded me to appreciate where I come from, the amazing life I live, and the fact that I hold a passport to a country that allows me to come and go as I please. It’s easy to get caught up in the things that aren’t perfect in my day-to-day life, and Myanmar burst my tiny bubble and reminded me that that I have it pretty damn good. It was a rude awakening to the fact that there are people in the world who don’t have the freedom to leave their country, to start a business, or to even go to school. And the part that struck me the most is that you will not find a friendlier, more welcoming culture than the Burmese culture.
If you think even for a second that you might want to go to Myanmar, the only thing I can tell you is do it! Learn about the terrible history so you can appreciate the culture, be open to new experiences, and allow yourself to take in the country fully and completely, because it will certainly change your life for the better.
Stay tuned for Month 4 Part 2!