Danica and I have a visitor on this leg of our trip – her boyfriend George. Before she left the states, he made her promise that she wouldn’t go to Myanmar (Burma) without him, but shortly after, we started hearing from other travelers how great it was and how we should go before it gets overrun by tourists. When I told Danica I really wanted to go, she made a phone call to George and 48 hours later, he had a flight booked to meet us in Yangon a few weeks later. I am truly grateful that he could come and experience this magical place with us because even though it has been less than a week, I love this country! The people here are kind and excited to practice their English on us. Everyone asks where we are from and when we tell them America their reaction is always a variation of “Obama! Very good country. Do you like Trump? We like Obama better”. We encountered this over and over again, at each temple from the kids trying to sell us postcards, lacquerware, clothing, and other trinkets. One of my favorite “scams” comes from the kids who have wallets filled with bills from other countries, and when you tell them you are from America, they ask for just one US dollar to add to their collection because of course they don’t already have one in their billfold. Their English is so good and they are so persistent that you want to part with that dollar and make them smile. Fortunately, we were only carrying the local currency (kyat), but I did happen to have a few Taiwan coins from our first airport connection and Danica had a low bill from Thailand, so we happily parted with those.
We spent the few first days in Yangon seeing all the main sights, meeting Tuya and Mar Mar (see my earlier post), and trying the local cuisine. Whoever said Burmese food was mediocre surely was going to the wrong places! There are a multitude of cultures and religions that make up Myanmar and while it is not a melting pot in definition due to the ongoing ethnic conflicts, it truly is in terms of cuisine. With a heavy Indian influence, mixed with Chinese, Thai and of course the local Burmese dishes, the flavors are nothing short of delectable. For example, while walking through “Scott Market” (Bogyoke Aung San), a local man was selling triangle-shaped samosas, so we bought a bag of five for 1000 kyat (less than one USD) and while I still have no idea what was in them, they were fantastic. We also prefer to eat like the locals, so we always ask for recommendations from our hotels or in one instance from Dana Moe, the travel agency we used to book our flights (yes, it is a bit backwards here in that it is cheaper to book through a travel agent than to book internal flights online). One particularly helpful employee at Dana Moe directed us to a Burmese buffet-style restaurant a few blocks over, called Danuphyu Daw Saw Yee, where we were ushered upstairs to a display case of foods, told what each dish was, given recommendations (such as butter fish, sweet corn, beef curry) and the food was promptly delivered to our table, along with a few Myanmar beers. Everything we had was fresh and flavorful, down to the hard candied dessert called jaggery, which was sitting in a tupperware on the table. Sidebar: this same employee also saved us a trip to a conflict zone! We were planning a flight to Lashio and a trek from there to Hsipaw and just before another agent booked our flights, he jumped up and told us we couldn’t go there because of the current “war”. To our surprise, a violent conflict had broken out the week before and not only is the trekking impossible, it is quite dangerous. So thank you Dana Moe! We opted to travel to Kalaw and do an overnight two-day trek to Inle Lake instead after a few nights in Bagan. We still have more to see in Yangon, but will have some time at the end of our stay in this beautiful country to enjoy the rest of the city.
On Saturday, we headed to Bagan for a few days of pagoda seeing, which is where I learned to ride an electric bike (“ebike) in the pouring rain. I have read many blogs about these ebikes and how renting one for the day is the best way to visit the more than 2000 pagodas around the city. The ebikes are basically little motorcycles that run on batteries, and are fairly easy to ride, even without a tutorial. Typically, you can rent one from your hotel or pretty much any stand on the main road (a cheaper option, but one that can leave you with a low battery stranded somewhere in Bagan…thankfully that is not where my story is going). Sounds fun and easy – and it really was – except for the rain that dumped on us out of nowhere the actual minute we hopped on our ebikes. The forecast had a 30% chance of rain at 3pm (it was 10am) and it wasn’t just a light rain, it was a downpour that left the streets flooded and our entire bodies soaked. The cool thing about experiencing Bagan in this weather is that the streets were less crowded, and with the quiet of the ebikes and soothing sounds of large raindrops hitting the pavement, it gave me pause to reflect on where I was and what I was doing there. It didn’t matter that I was soaking wet, I was enjoying the peaceful ride and cool rain surrounded by centuries-old pagodas. I wasn’t thinking about taking pictures or when we were going to pull over, I was just zoning out and taking it all in. Sure I was a little uncomfortable and chilly, but that’s all part of the joy of traveling. After a while, we did pull over at a hotel to dry off and sip hot jasmine tea while we waited out the rain and plotted our route. Sure enough, the rain passed in about an hour and we were well on our way to pagoda seeing for the rest of the afternoon. And while we were out, we ran into a couple we had met the night before at our hotel, Simeon and Viki, who live in Singapore and who we ended up spending the next few days with. At one point, I actually felt like part of an ebike gang with George in the lead and me in the rear, ensuring the safety of our friends sandwiched in between. Don’t be surprised if you see a post from Singapore in the next few months!