Myanmar became quite a peculiar place in our memories. When someone asks about the Southeast Asia country to me, the first image that comes to my mind is not that of the countless Bagan temples; the opulence of tons of gold on the Shwedagon Pagoda, in Yangoon; or e
ven from the peace and calm of Inle Lake. There’s no tropical landscape to fulfill my eyes, nor a special flavor capable of grabbing my stomach forever. Myanmar, for us, is it’s people. People that have been way too long under a dictatorship and now undergoes freaking fast changes. People that meet a tourist for the first time, who want to know about the world outside, and wishes to introduce us to theirs. That’s why Myanmar is for us also much more than Bagan, Inle, Yangon and even Mandalay.
We could count this four destinations as “mandatory”, if guided just for travel books. Well, if you’re a backpacker, you know this: there’s lots of arrogant people who swear being capable of travelling just with their feeling. But most of us has a Lonely Planet guide under an arm (or Rough Guide, or Routard, or whatsoever) and/or arrives avid to get hold of some old dirty copy available in the closest hostel to start a trip. No sin, except in case of arrogance, of course. But in Myanmar, where tourism is a new thing, we liked more the footnotes, the small letters with no highlights, or the seemingly unimportant things written on boards here and there, or overspread on internet.
With this methodology we’ve got, for exemple, to Pyin Oo Lwin. We were coming from Mandalay, an ugly city, maybe part of guide books less for it’s royal palace, or for the sunset from the hill that gives name to it, or for any of the omnipresent pagodas than for being a great starting point for daytrips or to go north. It was an unbearable hot weather in that time of the year. Burmese people were waiting for monsoon rain soon. Regarding us, well, the only thing left to do was bike around the wide, flat streets with no trees at all, counting on one more hose bath in every corner as part of their New Year’s Water Festival celebration. Everything looked rather chaotic, including the youth occupying the streets with their punk cloths – yeah, punks! – and lots of alcohol, generating some sort of insecurity on the city traffic… It was heading to Pyin Oo Lwin that we escaped from this weird carnaval.
The city, known before as Maymyo – everything in Myanmar got many names -, was created as a military post and had, among famous residents the young George Orwell, who, later, would write a romance inspired on those days when Myanmar was part of British Empire: Burmese Days. Today there are still some buildings in british style, for example the clock tower downtown and a big hospital, besides the British Burma Governor Summer Palace that today disposes some freaking shady mannequins (!) and can be rented for some hundreds of dollars. But if the greatest attraction in the place are the National Kandawgyi Bothanical Gardens, it would be far less interesting – as it is considerably european – without the omnipresent longyis – skirts dressed by men and women – or the faces protected by tanaka – a sap used by kids and women against the effects of the Sun. We have been there on a holiday and the super well kept green lake was matching perfectly the grass tones and contrasting with all those people having fun that will dwell forever in our memories.
We had our part in the festival by offering our heads to be wet by more and more water bottles caming from the kids (in some point looked like the Water Festival would never end) and by eating some scones cooked on fire pits in a corner of the park. Looks like offering food during the water festival is a good luck issue and refusing it sounded quite like a severe offence. Well, in fact accepting that was really tasty and, after lots of cycling around, having some food sounded like a good luck thing for all.
Also from some shy footnotes we embraced the idea of heading to Monywa. Definitely that is not a place for pieces of art. Yet hardly ever you will see so many buddhas in a single day of your life. Amusement starts in finding the bus terminal still in Mandalay. It is by bus that we got there, 130km away. On the decrepit bus station, be careful: if they sell all the bus tickets they will send away the bus with or without you. Obviously it went away without us! The only option left was staying there in the dust chatting while waiting for the next one.
To get from downtown to Thanboddhay we rented one of these chinese automatic motorbikes that everybody will ride at 40km/h – they cost about U$ 400 as people told us, what sounded a lot of money considering a minimun wage of U$ 84 (Reuters). The temple is the most famous in the city, with more than 500 thousand buddha sculptures. We would never dare their accountability: there are little 15cm sculptures in every corner and every wall. As usual, and even more in places that are out of touristic route, as interesting as seeing the little buddha collection is spending time with the other visitors, all quite impressed with the presence of these unknown foreigners.
Inversely proportional to the size of these first statues – and maybe coincident to the size of their faith – we also visited the “Maha Bodhi Tahtaung Laykyun Setkya” where you can find a 129m high statue of a buddha on his feet. Inside it, thirty one floors and ‘endless’ staircases crossed by the pilgrims. There are lots to learn with the paintings inside the buddha shaped temple and, I could bet, judging by the images of punishment, that the christian hell is much smoother than the buddhist. Beside it, there is another huge 95m buddha, this one reclined, and the place is packed with even more statues (of buddha, of course!) and pilgrims curious about you.
Today we face dozens of pictures from these unknown people that we collected without realizing. In a fair share of them we also appear, beside them, smiling and in poses with a “V” of victory to the camera that we would never do in other circumstances. But they just seemed so happy to live in our memories forever, or in making their children live in our memories forever. So, why not one more picture? That is the big spell from Myanmar: this sympathy without price or guide explanation.