By Vishakha Darbha
The end of my first semester at NUS was marked by tearful goodbyes and hasty attempts at packing in between mountains of work and laundry, coupled with an insatiable desire to fling my messy notes out of the window. However, despite the chaos that defined my last week in Singapore, I was eager to be done with my exams and explore the not-so-chartered land of Myanmar. Part of the excitement of going to a country that has only recently been opened to the rest of the world is that there isn’t much information about what to expect. Anticipation and excitement fuelled a bunch of five travellers as we set forth on our final journey together before we returned to our respective countries.
Our flight was from Bangkok to the cultural city of Mandalay in Northeast Myanmar. My first reaction was to marvel at the huge difference between the two cities; we had moved from the loud, colourful, and chaotic Thai capital to a quiet city with that could have easily been from a movie from the 1950s. The streets were narrow and crowded with tempos (mini trucks) and cows. As an Indian, I must admit that I don’t find stray cows crossing the road an unsettling sight, but I can remark on how wide my friends’ jaws were; they were, quite literally, dropping open.
We didn’t get to spend too much time in Mandalay, but we managed to visit a small pagoda that we chanced upon while strolling down the relatively peaceful streets near the city palace, which was now the military headquarters. We met some local women and children who taught us how to apply ‘Tanaka’ or Sandalwood on our faces. Tanaka is supposed to have medicinal values for the skin and keeps you looking young. We let the women apply some of this yellow paste on our cheeks, leaving us with bright spots on our faces. The boys travelling with us decided to try on the ‘lungi’, a long skirt worn by men in Southern India and Myanmar, which inspired hearty laughs from all the locals as we walked past.
Our next stop was Inle Lake, a beautiful freshwater lake in North-central Myanmar. Despite accommodations being a little tricky to find, this region of the country is definitely worth the visit, with its neighbouring villages known for various handicrafts such as weaving, cigarette making, and silver moulding. The Burmese women create threads of silk from lotus stems, an act that seemed almost magical as the threads were transferred to the loom and were finally converted into a beautiful, though exceptionally expensive scarf. We also watched local fishermen rowing boats in the traditional Burmese fashion of pushing the boat forward by placing one leg in the water and rotating it. In the evening, we rented bikes and rode around the periphery of this lake, stopping at the different villages to play with the little children on their way to school or to watch the shadows change across the surrounding hills as the sun began to set.
After a rickety bus ride that left us with a sore back and barely any sleep, we reached the most awaited destination of our trip: Bagan. The ancient city of Bagan was home to the great Pagan Empire that existed during the 11th and 13th centuries. According to the enthusiastic locals, the old part of this city consists of almost 10,000 pagodas and monasteries. The easiest way to access these wondrous structures is by bike or horse cart. Viewing the sunrise from the tallest pagoda at Old Bagan is something I would recommend to anyone making a trip to this area. Because of the large numbers of people who would show up at that time, we camped at the site for an hour before sunrise. Despite the steep, scary stairway, the ungodly hour and the lack of space on top, watching the sun rays gradually illuminate the plains studded with pagodas was definitely worth it.
Our final destination was Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar. After the charming countryside around Inle Lake and the ancient grandeur of the pagodas at Bagan, Yangon seemed more like a sleepy town than a big metropolis. The Shwedagon pagoda, which is the oldest and the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar, was the first destination on our list of places to visit. Despite an entrance fee of 8USD compared to rest of the pagodas that have no entrance fee, the Shwedagon pagoda is a must visit for its sheer size and beauty. Yangon also had a variety of gastronomic treats for us, ranging from Khao Suey, a noodle soup, to Lahpet, which is fermented tea.
Myanmar is a country filled with beautiful landscapes, culturally rich cities, and generous people. Go on, take a trip to this enchanting country. It might remind you of how important it is to take a step back and appreciate the simplicities that lose their charm as we rush through our stressful lives.