Too much has happened in the last five days to NOT write…
First, Yangon was great. I met up with a Smith alum who kindly offered me a place to stay for two nights and took me around in the sweltering heat all day Saturday. Burmese food is delicious, and I had coconut noodle soup for breakfast, lots of curries or Indian biryani lunches, and endless MANGOS for snacks. The pictures below are of sweet Burmese tea in a classic tea shop.
It is mango season in Myanmar, folks, and I thought I knew mangos before this trip after living and traveling in other sub-tropical countries. This was until the delightful sien ta lone, or “diamond mango”, entered my vocabulary and stomach. This mango, small but plump, is unlike any mango I’ve ever tried before, and I think I’ve discovered the gold standard for mangos. I will recreate the famous marketing phrase (diamonds are a girl’s best friend) and say that diamond mangos are a Hannah’s best fruit. One day, I ate 4, without blinking, between noon and dinner. I got a lot of stares from Burmese fruit vendors as I peeled the mango skin away, like a banana, and ate the mango meat like an apple, leaving not one drop on the seed. “This weird white lady,” I expect they thought…
From my mango awakening in Yangon, I took a bus (the only foreigner going) to Naypyidaw, where I contacted a Fulbright alum who had studied public health at the University of Texas, and is now working in Naypyidaw. He picked me up from the bus after a 5-hour bus ride (with a mango break), and was so generous with his time. And Naypyidaw is a WEIRD capital city. There are 6-lane highways and not a soul on them, and lining the highways are well-groomed lawns and landscaping, with the occasional giant government building or hotel.
While my friend/Fulbright contact worked one morning, he dropped me at an elephant camp, assuring me that the elephants were “happy”. I quickly discovered, after he left to work with a promise to pick me up in 3-4 hours across the river at an ecoresort, that these elephants were not the happiest. Granted, they are not hauling teak wood anymore (the adults used to haul logs of up to 2 tons!), but they are now used as a tourist attraction to give rides. I watched some other Burmese tourists get on the elephants and get walked around, and I was a little more than disgusted. This is an example, I think, of a westerner assuming that something is absolutely, without question, wrong, and seeing it through a local’s eyes where they might think that my wrong is just “way better than it used to be!”. So, I fed the elephants corn and sugarcane, pet their muscular trunks, napped on a bamboo platform, and crossed the river in a boat, to a refreshing dragonfruit juice while I waited to be picked up at the ecoresort.
I hopped on another Hannah-is-the-only-foreigner bus from Naypyidaw to Bagan and seven hours later, with I-don’t-know-how-many stops in small towns along the way, I arrived in scorching Bagan. Still, on the ride to my hostel (Ostello Bello, which I would HIGHLY recommend to any solo traveler!), we passed monument after monument popping out of the surrounding vegetation. I arrived, did some sunset yoga with a group on a sandbar island in the middle of a river, and went to bed early.
This morning, we left the hostel at 4:45 a.m. to see the sunrise from a temple about a 10-15 minute e-bike ride away. We climbed up to a higher level in the temple and sat facing a cloudy sky, watching temples illuminated in the background as the sun rose. After breakfast, I went on a tour of some of the different monuments with a guide from our hostel (a FREE tour! Another brilliant thing about Ostello Bello!). We learned that in Bagan there are 4000 monuments, some of which date back to the 11th or 13th centuries, and cover 55 different kings. There are 5 different monument types: pagodas (which you can go in and also walk around), temples (which you can enter), stupahs (which you cannot enter), monastery (for the monks), and ordination hall (school for novices).
Several earthquakes in Bagan’s history have destroyed or damaged hundreds of monuments. Some are in repair, and it is crazy to see original stuccos or frescos from the 11th or 13th centuries next to original Buddha statues. The tour was from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., with a lunch break, and by 2 p.m., if felt like we were e-biking through an oven.
I have one more full day in Bagan, where I hope to climb Mt. Popa with some new hostel friends. Next stop is Kalaw, and a 3-day trek to Inle Lake, with more mango stops (yes, I got one today in the market on the way back from the tour), more sweaty time gawking at natural and man-made wonders, and hopefully onto a slightly cooler climate than Bagan!