As I came off the plane in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, fresh from the mega modern city of Bangkok, I could feel that I had stepped into a land forgotten, a still timeless world, barely struggling to enter the modern age.
Yangon is a busy, dirty, sprawling capital with a decidedly Indian feel, chaotic with commerce, simplistic in function. Sidewalk markets spring up everywhere at differing times of the day, selling cheap clothing, produce, CDs and all manner of bric-a-brac. People everywhere chew betel and spit the red juice, a habit I’ve never been able to grow accustom to.
In the middle of this humanity stands the great Shwedagon Pagoda, a living, breathing testament to the great reverence for their Buddhist religion. It is the most opulent and grand shrine in Myanmar. Sitting at sunset, watching the pilgrims praying, a few tourists taking photos, I am reminded of the grandeur of another bygone age. Clearly it is not a place to linger.
I leave Yangon the following day via the surprisingly efficient Air Mandalay, to Bagan, where, over 3,000 temples and shrines dot the vast plain. Bagan has not woken up to the modern world, although it is stirring with a few tourist restaurants and internet spots in town. For the most part, the overwhelming feeling is of having left the world behind and stepped into a parallel world of horse carts, bicycles and a pace that seems in no hurry to go anywhere.
Having been to Angkor Wat last year and battled with hordes of tourists and an inability to see any of the temples without a crowd in tow, Bagan was infinitely more rewarding on many personal levels, equal in greatness and importance as an ancient archeological masterpiece. From Bagan, I once again hopped a low cost Air Mandalay flight down to Ngapali Beach in the south, not too far from the border with Bangladesh.
Ngapali is said to be the most beautiful of Myanmar beaches, and indeed it was pristine, clean and peaceful, but already showing signs of development. The finest beaches were to be found on several day trips by boat to offshore islands. Finding endless untouched powder sand beaches and perfectly clean muti-hued ocean, I was adopted by a sea gypsy family, with a 10-year-old girl and boy bringing me coconuts with bamboo straws during the day, inviting me to their grass home for a meal in the afternoon. Never once was I asked for money. I came into their world and, therefore, I was to be cared for. By far this was the high point of my time in the country, it will stay with me forever.
What surprised me the most was the ecological wholeness of the country. The rivers are blue, so clean. Even the great and storied Irrawaddy, running 500 meters wide in places, was the prettiest river I’ve seen in many years. Never was there trash on any beach or floating plastics in the ocean. Of course, the issue of the government of Myanmar is a difficult one. Many would say you shouldn’t go, but during my two weeks there, I saw nary a military or police presence, little, if any, of my money went to the government. No doubt being there helped the people in many different ways, economically, culturally and most importantly, exposing them to the possibilities and realities of the outside world.
Most people I spoke with agreed that the situation was improving, that Myanmar was opening up, at a measured pace. Being a confirmed wanderer for the past 35 years to over 45 countries, I was caught “off stride” by my experience. It was a trip back to the Asia of the 1940s and 1950s. Outside the cities you clearly felt like time had stood still. Watching the sun go down over the Irrawaddy River from the top of one of the many pagodas, it could have been hundreds of years ago.
Air Asia flies daily to Yangon from Bangkok for as little as $40.00. Air Mandalay flies direct from Chiang Mai to Yangon or Mandalay. Myanmar Airlines is the government airline, should be avoided, if possible. Twenty-eight day visas are obtainable at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, same day (expedited) or two days. It is highly recommended to have your travel agent arrange your visa to avoid a long day in line. Daily costs for hotels and food are less than in Thailand or Indonesia