From Mae Sot in Thailand we crossed the border on foot to Myawaddy in Myanmar (formally Burma). In one of many moves to shake off the ‘shackles’ of British colonial rule, Myanmar changed from driving on the left hand side of the road to the right during the 1970s. As we crossed the border from Thailand (who drive on the left), we watched as cars driving towards each other had to switch to the other side of the road in the middle of the bridge! Getting away from the border was our first challenge, as the road out of Myawaddy is single track so traffic takes it in turns to travel in different directions on alternate days. Luckily we were able to leave on the same day and set off to Hpa-An. Our trip over the mountain was eventful, with a 40 minute wait whilst the road was blocked, followed by an (almost) vomit inducing drive at top speed along a winding mountain road. It was probably the worst driving we’ve experienced on our trip and felt like we were in a real life version of Mario Kart!
Myanmar has been isolated from the world for 50 years but is now opening up and taking small steps towards change for the better. However, despite taking baby steps towards democracy, such as releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the constitution of Myanmar remains fundamentally flawed. It states that for any changes to be made to it, support is required from over 75% of parliament; however it also states that at least 25% of parliamentary representatives must be from the ruling military elite. Therefore, sadly there is unlikely to be significant change in the near future. There are also still many closed areas of the country where tourists are not allowed to visit and there is still fighting between ethnic minority groups and the ruling military elite.
Despite the country’s ongoing issues, the people of Myanmar are incredibly friendly and are still curious about tourists visiting their country. Consequently, we reverted to the ‘celebrity’ status we had in Indonesia, where everyone waves and says hello to us and lots of people want to have their picture taken with us! Local men wear traditional Longyi sarongs and women cover their faces with thanakha, a traditional make up with cooling properties and sun protection. We learnt a few words in Burmese and the locals were very happy that we were using their language. Two children were so impressed that we said ‘Mingalabar’ instead of ‘Hello’ that they high-fived us and then ran off in excitement to tell their parents what we had said!
We stayed one night in Hpa-An before moving on to Mount Kyaiktiyo to visit the Golden Rock. The Golden Rock is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country. Legend has it that the precariously balanced gilded rock is able to remain stable due to a precisely placed Buddha Hair encased in the stupa. Male pilgrims are allowed to add gold leaf the the rock, to maintain its golden coating. The trip up the mountain and back was an adventure in itself. About 60 people were crammed into an open top lorry with metal seats. Going up was fairly painful. Going back down at top speed was like being on a roller coaster, with metal bars crashing into your legs, back and seat every time you went over a bump or round a corner. We were very bruised by the time we got back!
The next day we took a very hot and very busy 10 hour bus to Yangon (formally Rangoon), where we stayed for a few days. After having a day off sick due to food poisoning, we visited the impressive Shwedagon Pagoda, which stands on a hill overlooking the city.
We spent some time exploring the city, including the old colonial buildings in the downtown area and the People’s Park. We also did a trip across the river on a ferry. There was a special overpriced ‘foreigners fee’ to take the boat, so we decided to do the crossing twice to get our money’s worth! It was interesting to watch the hustle and bustle of the locals boarding the ferry and the hawkers at the pier. Whilst Kate was ill, Alex explored the area around the Kandawgyi Lake and saw some parades with some rather well dressed cows!
From Yangon we took a 10 hour bus to our next destination, Bagan…