By our second day we’d regained some energy and were ready to explore the temples and pagodas of Yangon. We started with a small temple that was walking distance from our hotel. There were a handful of other tourists, but mostly it was Myanmar people who had come to see and pray before the relics of Buddha housed in the temple (usually hair or teeth).
We wandered around, dazed by the loud music and unfamiliar customs, not entirely sure what we were looking at. Luckily, a sweet monk came over and guided us through the process that Buddhists follow. He showed us how to pour water over the Buddha statue and flowers, light the candles in a small chapel-like structure, fill two bowls with water and light the incense in another building, then finally throw a coin in the bowl for good luck. What it all meant was a mystery to us, but we were thrilled to be walked through the sacred process.
Anxious to plan the second leg of our trip in Myanmar, we then drug ourselves to the train station to check out our options for going to Bagan. After chatting with the ticket agent (and by “chatting” I mean another man graciously translated our conversation), we decided that a night bus the following evening would be our best bet. We were keen to make it to Shwedagon Pagoda that evening for sunset, which was quickly approaching, but in the midst of bartering with a taxi driver I stopped short…
There, walking towards me with his Japanese girlfriend, was my old Polish pal, Gawel.
“I told you Asia was small,” he said with a smile.
Fated back together in the same city, we decided to meet for a drink later that night. Have I mentioned how much I love traveling?
Luckily, Mel and I were just in time to enjoy Shwedagon in the daylight and twilight, which is a MUST. The pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred building and it’s not hard to see why. It’s absolutely massive in size. An monstrous, gilded, dome-like building, surrounded by hundred of ornate structure varying in size and style. Fun fact: A pagoda differs from a temple in that you can’t enter it – it’s a solid structure that you walk around.
We spent hours there, walking around, talking, and people watching as monks and Buddhist faithful came to kneel and meditate. Despite the large crowd, it was quiet and calming to be there. Per usual, we drew stares and posed for pictures when asked. Once the sun had gone down, people lit the thousands of candles that encircled the pagoda. Again, it’s not hard to see why the pagoda is so revered – it’d be impossible not to feel something during a visit.
The following day, before our 12-hour bus ride up to Bagan, we met up with Gawel and his GF for a ride on the circle train, which goes around the city. I’d make better time on a bike, but it was actually quite relaxing and enjoyable to just sit and look. The first train was hot and the windows didn’t open, so we jumped off at one of the stops to air out, grab a drink and catch the next train (which would hopefully be one with windows).
We walked through the village, which was the opposite of touristy. The river was not of water, but of trash. The people stared in wonder (they weren’t rude or intimidating, they were just surprised and amused at their visitors). We circled the block and – after waving at the school kids and tiny monks who came out to gawk at us – we came upon a place with a fridge where we decided to sit for a cold drink (fridge = cold bottled drinks = safe to consume).
We sat with a plump, happy woman and her brother who spoke with us in one and two-word English sentences. We discussed our names, how to say “hello’ and “thank you” in Myanmar, where we’re from, and how an American, Swiss, Polish and Japanese came to be friends. We talked over pop and mandarins, but when we heard the train coming we waved goodbye as we ran to catch it. It didn’t stop but a moment and we had to hurry alongside it a bit to heave ourselves inside. But we made it, found four seats together and two windows that opened. Life was good.
Sitting in the old Japanese train and subway cars (which serve as their trains on rails that are too narrow for them) rocking back and forth down the tracks with the windows open made for a really enjoyable afternoon. We looked out at the villages and the Myanmar people with their painted faces (done so for protection from the sun). You see what they have (and what they lack) and reevaluate the things you have, the things you felt you lacked, and how much you actually need. I spent more than 30 minutes taking photos and videos of three Myanmar boys as they hung their heads out the window, shouted, laughed and were just being boys. They were covered in dirt, had no shoes and were collecting plastic for money. Yet when they jump off the train they seemed free, happy and each of them thanked us for taking their picture. THEY thanked US. It was the perfect picture of the spirit of Myanmar people.