No matter how awe-stricken I was when I stood in the middle of the huge Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, it did not prepare me for the experience that I was to face the next day. 
We took the overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan and arrived in the wee hours of the morning. The group spent some time having coffee and tea at a shop which was luckily open at that hour. A few drivers and their horse carts were at the bus terminal, eagerly waiting for us to decide what we wanted to do at such an ungodly hour. I honestly cannot remember whose idea it was to watch the sun rise on top of an abandoned temple but I'm glad we did.
Out in the dark
The group patiently waiting for the sun

Imagine sitting on a loose brick atop an abandoned temple while watching the whole place come to life as the sun cast its rays on more than four thousand pieces of century-old temples, stupas, and pagodas scattered in every direction.


I.was.breathless.in.Bagan.

The feeling was beyond words.

Here, there
and everywhere!

It took a while before I finally got back to my senses and started taking photos of the view around us and actually include people in it! Based on this photo, we might have been discussing some really serious matter.

Somewhere in the middle of the discussion, a visitor came up and said hi. Say hello to this young Burmese. 

This kid and his sister, Htay Htay, invited us over to their house located right behind the beautiful temple in the photo below. Thanks to Ed's post, it all came back to me in detail. Their family taught the guys how to properly wear their longyis and gladly let us try putting on thanaka. A thanaka is a cosmetic paste applied mostly to the face but it can be used on the body as well. It is made from a bark of a thanaka tree and aside from aesthetic purposes, it is also used as a sun block.

The guys in their longyis
How to wear a tanakha - I think I can pass as Burmese!
It was finally time to say goodbye to the generous family. We still had a full day ahead of us and we needed a quick rest. Before we left, they gave all of us a piece of thanaka stick to use on our faces for the rest of the trip.

That early morning trip was a proof of the kindness of Burmese people. And it is also, by far, my best sunrise experience.

It has been a year since that trip and I still could not come up with apt words.

You know that quick judgment that you make the moment when you first set foot in a new place? That Ahh, this place is laid-back or This one feels busy and fast-paced.. that did not happen with Myanmar.

I could not put my finger on it at first. The country is poor but not depressed, quiet despite of people chattering, and a part of me wanted to think of it as uneventful but I could not dismiss the nagging feeling that there was something beneath the surface. Or maybe I was just being extra careful.  At the airport, my friend started to take a video but a guy came up to him and warned him to not do such things.

Looking back, I guess I felt an air of subdued anticipation and feigned obedience. The same way we behave when we know a secret and we're trying to hide the smile on our faces. Or that feeling when you just said yes to follow the rules only to break them.

I'm going to try and recount that surreal experience before a year passes by and I slowly forget.

First stop: Yangon.

In my mind, this is how Philippines might have looked like in the 80's. The rest of the world, with its neon billboards and bullet trains, have left Myanmar trapped in the past century. It felt like a trip back in time and I had no problem imagining Ferdinand Marcos as the ruler. I thought of Yangon as a cleaner version of Recto, with the throng of U-belt students replaced by men in longyi.

It is a country with a few skyscrapers in sight and hardly no ATMs.

ET Phone Home

It was a rainy day when we arrived. The streets were clean and litter-free but most buildings were dingy, to which I attribute the Recto-feel.

There were magnificent architectures in different stages of ruin. Below is a photo of The Minister's Building which used to be the home of the administrative seat back in the time when Yangon was still the capital of Myanmar. We walked around the block and was disappointed when we found out that the gates were closed. Then came another letdown: military men were washing and drying their clothes out in the vast lawn. Sure that huge structure can house troops but there seems to be other worthwhile things to do with a century-old edifice than let it crumble away. I bought a guava from a street vendor and munched on it on the way back.
The Minister's Building - View from the Olympic Tower


We visited the Sule Pagoda, Shwedagon Pagoda, and Bogyoke Aung San Market. Here is a shot of the Sule Pagoda gleaming against the gray clouds. We went around the pagoda silently, snatching photos here and there as devout Buddhists said their prayers.

The next stop for lunch: Bogyoke Aung San Market. I forgot the name of the dish but I remember it tasting like our local misua dish. The right photo is a vendor of an okoy-looking food.

After a filling lunch, we walked towards Shwedagon along with the monks. Vendors were lined-up on both sides of the street selling everything from Buddha images and candles to necklaces and plastic flowers. The boys decided to get their own longyis and got a free tutorial on how to wear one.

The way to Shwedagon is through a long flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs, this wide open complex of pagodas plated in gold greeted us. I have never seen so much gold-plated things. At the tip of the Shwedagon is a 76 carat diamond. 
I made several attempts to create a panoramic shot but I just couldn't bring myself to steady my hands and come to a full circle.

I spent the day noticing things and making little notes in my head. After Shwedagon, I decided that I liked Myanmar. With all the contradicting things that I thought of, what won me over was the way how things subtly gelled together. For a country with an economy that is one of the least developed in the world, who would expect to see huge gold-plated pagodas and a larger-than-life Buddha patched with golden leaves daily?
The first day ended with a trip to the station for our overnight bus ride to Bagan. Little did I know, I was in for a bigger surprise. It really pays to stay away from Google before going on a trip.. unless, of course, if you're doing the itinerary. 🙂
For the itinerary of this trip and all the nitty gritty, please visit Eazy's post.
This is Day 1 of a week-long trip to Myanmar. Next stop: Bagan.