I finished my trip in Myanmar towards the South of the country, starting with its largest city, Yangon. I arrived early in the morning, fresh off another night bus and actually saw the first sunshine I’d seen in weeks. I was staying in a hostel in the central downtown area, and took the chance of having nice weather for a change to visit the Central Park which is also home to the independence monument – a timely reminder of the countries independence from the British in 1947.
There’s not a whole lot to do in the city in terms of site seeing, but more in the sense of soaking up the atmosphere. There are busy, narrow streets, filled with street vendors and pop up market stalls, vast colonial buildings and a much more personable feel to the city than I’d found in Mandalay. I took all of this in whilst walking up towards the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest and most revered pagoda in Myanmar. Of course when I was almost halfway there the rain started up again, so I turned round and waited for the next day to make the visit a few kilometres north of downtown.
The next day I found some friends to go to the pagoda with, so it was probably for the best that I’d waited the day before. We headed into the city armed with cameras and found much more of interest in terms of the contrasting wealth and decay in he city’s buildings, streets and people. After a visit to the pagoda (we weren’t that impressed) we went to the nearby park – the largest one in Yangon, to find lakes green with algae and rubbish, and a lot of construction work around the whole area. It was quite disappointing when we were looking for a peaceful haven within Yangon, but fit with gritty feel of the city.
Downtown Yangon has been hit hard by the rain recently with many streets right in the centre flooded. It doesn’t stop people wading through water half way up their legs to get the the night markets and street food, but I noticed that not as many stalls were open as the previous night when the rains hadn’t been so heavy. In order to take a break from the rain we went in search of an ‘English’ style pub. It felt like I’d walked back into London with the way the place was decorated. There was English football on the TV, and they’d made the English experience even more authentic by pricing beers the same as back home…so we left pretty quickly.
The next day I jumped on a bus to take me to Kyaikto, South East from Yangon, and from there up to the village of Kinpun – “base camp” for visiting the golden rock. The golden rock is another famous Buddhist site, this one being truly breathtaking to behold. It’s a giant boulder, almost 10m in height, balanced delicately at the top of a mountain overlooking the valley below. Over the years it has withstood many earthquakes and extreme weather conditions, and in high season, flocks of Buddhist make the pilgrimage to this holy site in order to show their devotion to Buddha, worshipping and encrusting the rock with gold leaf paper.
You can either walk up the hill (7 miles, 4 hours) or take a truck – a modified lorry with wooden bench seats which leaves when full to capacity (approx 40 people). This takes only 45 minutes to reach the top, and a lot less effort. The driver clearly thought he was Sebastian Loeb, tearing round corners, flying over peaks and rollers in the road and being extremely happy to stamp on the accelerator and brakes (on the way down it felt like we were on a roller coaster with everyone gripping firmly onto the railings of the bench in front).
At the top, the clouds were setting in for the day, blocking off what I’m told is a spectacular view of the rock over looking the mountain and countryside below. The clouds did give an extra sense of mystique to the sacred place, but I think it really lacked the atmosphere that would come along with the hundreds of pilgrims earlier on in the year. The only real downside was the face that someone had decided to build the worlds ugliest building right next to the rock, meaning every photo was doomed to having this ghastly eye sore next to this remarkable sight.
It was only a few hours from Kinpun on to my final stop in Myanmar – Hpa-An. This was another area of the country that had been badly effected by the floods, and due to the miles and miles of flat country side, there was no where for the water to go. The countryside was beautiful, so green and with karst mountains rising up from the ground in every direction you looked. But the impact of the floods was apparent when visiting a pagoda which is usually a viewpoint out over the river and on to the mountains.
Instead, this pagoda had become a shelter to the hundreds of families from nearby areas who’s homes were now underwater, many of which I think we had driven past on the way to the town.
We saw more of the floods the next day with a trip out to the country side to visit the many caves and religious sites. The first of which required wading through water that at points was waste deep. Each cave we visited had many statues of Buddha and even large carvings etched into the rock faces. In one area, a total of 1121 statues line the road and stretch way off into the distance infront of you.
Hpa-an was definitely one of my highlights of Myanmar. I’d originally not even planned on visiting is country, but ended up staying for three unforgettable weeks. It will be interesting to see how the country adapts to the boom of tourism over the coming years, and this was for sure a great time to go to experience the authenticity of this country which up to now is still relatively untouched by backpackers and western travellers.