Setting Foot in Burma: Just My 65-litre Backpack and I

First of all, if you have not noticed I’m using the old, now unofficial name of “Burma” instead of Myanmar in this post because I like the former better and I am feeling it much more than the official one. It has got this “classic” feel to it – at least in my opinion – and thus has a more “sovereign” connotation.

Just like I prefer “Saigon” to “Ho Chi Minh City”, and “Siam” to “Thailand”. I know lah it’s just a name, but I can have my own preference, right?

To be honest, I feel sorry for Burma.

Sorry because it is such a beautiful country with unbelievably friendly people of as many as 135 distinct ethnic groups, valuable ancient monuments that do not lag behind the likes of Cambodia’s Angkor Watt, and rich cultural and religions heritage. Yet it has yet to receive the positive publicity and international media coverage it deserves!

I knew nothing much about Burma until I accidentally came across a picture showing the panoramic view of Bagan one day, and thought to myself, “I have to visit this place!”

Bagan
Image credit to nationalgeographic.com.

Half a year later, I found myself standing at the arrival hall of the Yangon International Airport; what accompanied me was my favourite 65-litre backpack and also a sling bag I would carry everywhere.

If you are curious about the budget to backpack in Burma, frankly speaking, it should be a lot higher compared to other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand.

But in Burma, things are expensive for some reasons:

  1. Expensive fuel – The price of fuel is always on the rise due to the high inflation rate. From my understanding, the economic sanctions that some Western countries impose against Burma has also taken a toll on the fuel price.
  2. Expensive hotel rates – While Burma is starting to open its door to the world, especially in the travel and tourism sector, there is an acute shortage of hotels/guesthouses, which then leads to higher rates.

Other than those, rates for other items like food and zone fees are reasonable.

My backpacking trip was arranged by Yangon-based travel agency Compliance Success Travel & Tours, run by Burmese Chinese Annie and her partners.

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With Yangon-based travel agent Annie.

Maybe mine was more of a flashpacking than backpacking trip as it involved a personal driver and a tour guide in some of the locations, although not all. Also, from Yangon to Heho and from Heho to Mandalay respectively, I took a plane.

The entire package cost me USD600 (RM1920), but the value of service and exposure definitely far exceeded the cost I paid. In fact with the amount that I paid, I felt like living like a king there.

If I had travelled with a partner, the amount per pax would probably be slashed to about half of what I paid.

Annie was kind enough to let me make the full payment upon my arrival in Yangon. When asked how she was going to book my air tickets (for domestic flights) if I did not pay her some advance amount, Annie said,

“Our service is based on trust.”

After her saying that, I was even more certain about using her service! Details of Compliance Success Travel & Tours are as follows:

195 U Chit Maung Rd, Sayarsan (N-W) ward, Bahan
Yangon, Burma
Tel: +95 (1) 8603675, (1) 8603676
compliancesuccess1688@gmail.com

Please hor I’m not doing any advertising nor do I get any commission from the travel agency. Just that she was really good and able to organise a tour package based on my preference.

First day of my solo trip was on my own, and hotel was arranged by Annie. It seemed to me that most hotels did not offer single rooms, and thus throughout my stay in Myanmar I had the privilege to monopolise the queen-size bed.

IT WAS TOTAL AWESOMENESS!

I didn’t really have any idea on where to visit on the first day in Yangon, except I understood from my Internet research that there was one famous pagoda situated on a roundabout (I didn’t know there were three famous ones back then).

My hotel in Yangon was located at the 33rd street in the downtown area, and according to the hotel receptionist I could find a pagoda about 20 minutes away from where I stayed.

I did, after all.

It was the Sule Pagoda, the third largest in Yangon.

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I was busy camwhoring in front of the pagoda for like five minutes (it wasn’t easy to take a good picture that captured both myself AND the stupa at the back okay!) when two strangers came up to me and asked if I needed their help to take a photo.

I was stunned by their kind act for a split second before I nodded yes. For a moment I realised human hearts could be so simple and beautiful…

It was a rainy season when I visited, so it rained every other hour. Good thing was that apart from Yangon, other areas were not affected; therefore the rest of my journey had been great.

But then again as I’m recollecting my experiences on the first day, it was strange to realise how the occasional downpours throughout the day didn’t affect my journey that much – I always found myself at sheltered areas during rainy moments.

At the Sule Pagoda, I spent about an hour and a half praying, observing, chatting, and loitering around, after which I tried my luck to walk to the second largest pagoda – the Botataung Pagoda built some 2,500 years ago by the bank of the Yangon river.

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Botataung Pagoda

It was quite a distance from Sule Pagoda to Botataung Pagoda, but with people generously giving me the directions it was fairly easy to find it. I opted to walk instead of taking a cab because I always believe that you will see more when you walk.

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To be honest, I enjoyed Botataung Pagoda better than Sule Pagoda. Besides being bigger than Sule Pagoda, the Botataung Pagoda is way more spacious and less crowded.

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Which also means I could pray as long as I wanted and to my own comfort without having to be cautious about how others might observe me pray.

Okay lah the truth was that no one even cared lah but I just couldn’t help but to feel a little insecure as I wasn’t used to the Burmese style of performing prayers.

I walked in from the main entrance to find myself arriving at the front of another entrance leading to the golden spire said to house Gautama Buddha’s hair relic.

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The interior of the spire was so golden that it felt nothing but sacred. Except for the floor, I can’t remember any surfaces inside the chamber that were not covered in gold.

As a Buddhist it is only natural that I have grown to develop great admiration and respect of the Buddha. Being able to stand in front of a panel and admire the shrine exhibiting Gautama Buddha’s hair relic is therefore one of the most memorable and surreal moments in my life.

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Three Burmese monks studying the ivory shrine that exhibited Buddha’s hair relic.

Many devotees who visited kneeled down before where the shrine is placed to offer their sincerest prayers. They participated so relentlessly that their sincerity was certainly heartfelt.

In Myanmar, where 98% of the population are Buddhists, I found it stunning how meditation has become part and parcel of most people’s lives. Devotees would go all the way to the pagodas to pray or meditate before the statues of Buddha. They believe that meditation is the path to enlightenment.

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A man meditating before the status of Buddha in one of the halls within the compound of Botataung Pagoda.
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A devotee bathing the statue of Buddha.

The Burmese really go all out and put Buddhist teachings into practice. For example, people would place clay water pots along walkways for needy pedestrians to quench their thirst.

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Besides, regardless of whether they are rich, poor, or in between, people seemed willing to donate money (donation boxes could be seen everywhere along the streets without anyone stealing them) or offer food to monks. Also, when having nothing to do, shopkeepers would recite prayers or mantras in silence.

Maybe this explains why Burma is one of the safest countries to visit, without visitors having to worry about safety issues like robberies and snatch thefts.

The Burmese may be financially poor, but they are definitely rich in their religious, spiritual, and moral values. It is just unfortunate that the Western media has to constantly bring down this beautiful country and cast it in a bad light.

Next post on the breathtaking Inle Lake in Heho ccan be read here.