Sunday Sofa Sojourns #4: Yangon & Bagan, Myanmar

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

I think visiting a country for the first time feels a bit like plunging into a pool — there’s a mild feeling of disorientation initially, but you slowly adjust. Then you start to see the similarities.

To me, Yangon looked like Quiapo, and its old creaky buses looked like those Love Buses popular in Manila during the ’80s.

The Burmese looked just like us. The Hub got mistaken for a local at least twice. Women and men both used thanaka, a white pasty cream spread on their cheeks and forehead (in some cases, all over their face). Our cab driver said it’s a traditional cream made from tree bark and acts as a coolant / sunscreen. Useful in the sticky heat.

A young boy sporting thanaka patches on his cheeks

We visited the Sule Pagoda and the much larger Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The latter was crowded with tourists and locals alike. We took off our shoes and the feeling of cold marble under our bare feet was nice since it was so hot that afternoon. Around the pagoda were labels with the days of the week. These corresponded to certain planetary saints and birthdays. We also saw the locals conduct a coordinated sweep of the marble floor with long walis tambo — a long line of women with thanaka-covered faces.

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We took a cab to the bus terminal for JJ Express. They run an overnight bus that would take us from Yangon to Bagan in the Mandalay region, where the ancient pagodas were. There were several stops along the way. We had a late dinner at Feel Myanmar Express, a local fast food. I recall we had fried eggs, fried rice, and something that looked (and tasted) like beef tapa.

We arrived in Bagan around 6am and made our way to our hotel in Old Bagan. The Hub started to sing “We’ve only just Ba-gaaan…” (to the tune of The Carpenters’ ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’) and it cracked me up.

It took us two days to tour the temples in Bagan. We hired a car from our hotel the first day, and took our time visiting each temple, marking it off the map as we went. The heat was amazing — but our hired car came with cool towels scented with lemongrass (the driver seemed to top this up mysteriously every few temples or so) and cold bottles of water. We made good progress, and the Bagan pagodas were more interesting to explore than the newer ones in Yangon.

We watched the sunset from the Shwesandaw Pagoda. It was gorgeous — but the crowds, the jostling, and the nonstop camera clicking dampened the mood somewhat for me.

Behind every great sunset photo, a crowd

Bagan has over 3,500 temples, stupas, and monuments scattered around the landscape, built between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Sadly though, I read that several of the structures were restored a little too hastily by the military regime, and some academics viewed this as having damaged the integrity of the old architecture. While this initially impeded Bagan’s designation as a UNESCO heritage site, in July 2019 Bagan was finally officially named by UNESCO as such, 24 years after the military government first nominated it in 1995.

In line with this, from last year onwards Bagan has stopped tourists from scaling the temples. A good move, I think.

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The second day we had a buffet lunch at Golden Myanmar. It was a wide array of food at a carinderia-style establishment. Excellent value at 4,000 kyat (Php 150 or US$3) per person, with dishes that looked and tasted like Filipino dishes: binagoongang baboy (pork in shrimp paste), adobo (but an oilier version), pinatisan (meat in fish sauce). Familiar yet unfamiliar.

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The third day was especially exciting, as we had booked a ballooning trip with Oriental Ballooning (they use green balloons). They compete with the established Balloons Over Bagan (which uses red balloons) — but as we later saw for ourselves BoB left the ballooning grounds later than we did and landed earlier than we did. I also noticed BoB had bigger baskets that held more people, which (to my non-ballooning expert mind) probably meant heavier balloons and lower flying altitude.

We woke up 5am and were fetched from the hotel. The deflated balloons lay spread on an empty field of dusty red clay. Oriental Ballooning served a light breakfast of unlimited coffee/tea, croissants and small banana muffins. It was a chilly morning. We were given a safety briefing then they started pumping the balloons with air.

Our balloonist-in-charge, Mike, hailed from the UK and had only been in Bagan for three weeks. He had been flying balloons since 1982 as a hobby. He told us most of the balloonists only stayed 2-4 months, some for half a year, then went back home. He was still getting to know Bagan’s temples himself.

Ours was the first balloon to go up. We also went the highest. We watched the sun rise higher over the landscape and color all the temples in soft red, then orange hues. There was a light mist and in the early morning light, the view seemed surreal.

We waved to people down below, and they waved back. One kid actually hurried out to greet us — she was so excited she hadn’t tied her wraparound skirt up properly and almost tripped.

We had champagne and papaya slices afterwards.

A beautiful start in beautiful Bagan, and hardly past nine in the morning.

Think critically dear readers,

4 thoughts on “Sunday Sofa Sojourns #4: Yangon & Bagan, Myanmar

    1. Another thing to add to the growing list of ‘things-to-do-after-the-situation-stabilises’… Still hopeful this comes sooner rather than later. Thanks for reading, Dok!

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