Last month eight of STA Travel’s luckiest employees jetted off to explore Myanmar on a weeklong Stray bus tour *sigh*. Here is Pete, one of our finest Travel Expert’s first-hand account of his epic trip – in fact it is so epic that we have split it into two parts. Here goes..
With an awkwardly placed smile to the Visa control lady, she politely asked me to look into her camera. What seemed like a precariously placed 2002 webcam, I stared into the lens with a somewhat un-nerved excited feeling in my stomach. She hands me back my Burma stamped passport and gave me the go ahead. I was in.
Day 1: Mandalay
From leaving the airport I could smell the smokiness of the morning sun and see the dust dancing in the hot air. You could instantly tell this place was untouched and I was itching to explore unknown territory. Before I knew it we were in a breezy air con coach, updated with the plan for the week and gazing out the window spotting several temples in the distance.
The city of Mandalay is packed with high city blocks in a chessboard-like formation. We couldn’t get too lost even if we tried, but we stuck to the local markets as advised. Wandering in flip flops, trying to determine the mystery local produce at each stall is a great way to immerse yourself into the Burmese culture. The spices really do hit the back of your nostrils as you meander through stall after stall of native cuisine.
The first night we had a group meal and some well needed ice cold beers. My group were great, all of us united in the knowledge we were in for something completely different to your usual Asian adventure. Unlike Thailand, the traveller here sticks out like a sore thumb. We picked up the local greeting, and before long we were confidently smiling and saying ‘Mingalabar’ to every local that we passed.
Day 2: Bagan
The night coach was a surprisingly comfortable sleep and we arrived in Bagan before sunrise refreshed and ready to explore the maze of curious temples that met us there. The climb up to our first temple was steep – I made it to the level just one shy from the top. Clutching the broken brickwork I turned to see the glorious setting of red stained desert showered with temples with golden tips. This spiritual experience is impossible to capture in a photograph, it is a truly unique moment that needs to be seen with your own eyes. As the clichéd phrase goes, you really do have to see it to believe it.
After visiting several more temples, we checked into our hotel and headed out to the nearest ‘beer station’. Warning – pathways don’t really exist round here so stride confidently (but cautiously) along the road and be aware of the bikes!
Day 3: Bagan continued
The next day we were awoken by a low toned bell echoing through the hotel rooms. I poked my head out the door to see a long chain of Monks on their way to the monastery for what I could only assume to be their morning rituals. What a wakeup call!
Before we knew it we were all up and riding E-bikes (kinda like mopeds) around dirt tracks hopping from temple to temple! I felt like I was part of some elite biker squad chasing the dust in front to the next Pagoda while slipping and sliding in the sand. From each temple we received more knowledge of the Burmese culture and the Buddhist religion.
After exploring the temples we wound up in a small lacquer work shop full of handmade jewellery cups and ornaments. We shuffled into the backroom to receive a full blown tutorial as to how each item is made and the different techniques used to craft such items and objects. I decided to purchase a few bangles as I figured the gorgeous chest of draws for 60USD wasn’t going to fit in my backpack anytime soon.
Onwards we rode to the river boat cruise we had planned. We set sail into, what seemed like, a thunderstorm. Gliding through the waves everything felt a little bit freer out there, to be un-surrounded and lost in a steady choppy tide. The thrilling idea did cross my mind to get lost at sea, making new friends to footballs called Wilson and Tom Hanks. Before I could even entertain the thought we were back on land accompanied with alcohol, mangos and bamboo huts. A great experience!