For anyone who has ever known me well enough could describe me as a control freak, organiser extraordinaire, a meticulous planner, a follower to a set of rules or norms. Pretty much anything but spontaneous or free spirited.
I had always wanted to be more carefree and less “planned” however, it felt like if I left things up to somebody else or the universe to organise, I would be disappointed. That’s the point I have been missing all these years, isn’t it? That when you are carefree with no plan you can never be disappointed and everything can be a surprise with some very magical moments. That is where this journey begins. Come with me on my unplanned trip to Myanmar.
Myanmar (Burma) sounded like one of those places you just had to visit before it got really touristy. Like before the “golden arches” family restaurant reaches its streets. I have seen pictures of the ancient temples with hazy city skylines in the backdrop and hot air balloons floating over them in glossy magazines and Instagram feeds. I have heard about the culture and the friendly nature towards the adventurous and off the beaten track tourists. I have read about the local Rohingya people, a minority Moslem group of people over to the west, that are basically stateless, in a Buddhist dominated country. The problem is, the Rohingya people are not nationals to any country because they are not being granted identification and citizenship and therefore somewhat homeless, displaced, or with no belonging. Even though it is not a perfect country, I wanted to see and feel the magic of Myanmar in real time.
Kuching (KCH), Malaysia
First stop is Kuching in Malaysia to meet a friend whom I stayed in touch from my Borneo Tour in 2016. He says he will take me to some local beaches and villages. It will be nice to have a local tour guide and friend to hang out with in a relaxed one-on-one environment.
My friend Air has a beautiful soul and kind heart. He says he struggles with expressing his thoughts and feelings into sentences. I taught him the English word, inarticulate. He taught me some Malay, like jagung (corn), piseng (banana), biru (blue). His English is way more diverse than my Malay. He actually has fluent English.
Everything he does is with passion for the people through community projects. Music festivals, agriculture, hydro and anything to teach people how to be in touch with their souls, be self-sufficient and sustainable. His idea is, if he could teach people how to grow their own food they could not be reliant on the food from the market. He also helps everyone around him, especially his family with the restaurant. Here is a perfect example of his kindness. When we went to a row of street stalls in a tiny village. Naturally, he naturally gravitated to the elderly lady (probably in her 70’s) as she is still working hard making treats and selling them to passerby’s.
It was a joy to take him away from his normal busy life for a while. At the beach in Lundu he took his guitar out of the car and serenaded me under the moonlight and stars. Oh my heart! I sat there thinking about how far I had come with all the events that occurred since my last visit. I thought about my mum and smiled. I miss her so much. I know she would be proud of me for living my dreams. I could hear her voice inside my head.
In the moment of sadness there was also an enormous amount of happiness. Look around! I am surrounded by beauty. The night sky and the moon’s beams lighting up the ocean. The sound of the waves crashing against the shore. The salty air and sea breeze on the warm May night hitting my face. The sweet sounds of the guitar and Air’s beautiful folk voice. I finally understand that it’s okay to feel more than one emotion at a time. Something I’ve struggled with in the past.
Air’s song that captures me every time he sings it, is called, “leave with no regrets”. To which I like to think is called, “live with no regrets”. Either way the message is the same. My favourite line from the song is “the furthest away you can be is from your past”. It is so true. Yesterday is gone. All we really have is this moment right here, right now. The past is just a story that we re-run through our minds and attach emotions to and sometimes become stuck.
I had a beautiful time in Malaysia, however leaving Kuching is when the comedy of errors from non-planning comes into play.
My flight is due to leave just after 5am so I needed to be leaving the Waterfront Lodge at about 3am. Last time I was in Kuching, I caught an Uber to the places I wanted to visit. This time, at 3.30am in the morning of course, my phone tells me that Uber is unavailable in the area. I tried calling some taxi numbers but no-one is picking up. Then I remembered that the young man on the reception desk had told me the night before that he would be going to sleep soon and asked if I needed anything. Regretfully, I had to search for him and wake him. He was asleep on the bench at the back of the reception area. I softly and nervously whisper “Hello? Excuse me.” And then again as he didn’t stir. I felt absolutely dreadful when he woke with a fright and had to pat down his clothes and rub his face to look respectable and awake. Generously he called me a taxi and I had to quickly dash to the ATM to withdrawal more cash as I was trying to get rid of my ringgit the night before. Taxis only take cash. Crisis averted and I board the flight to Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur (KUL), Malaysia
Everything was going smoothly in KL and I found my new gate for the next flight to Yangon. I grab a coffee with the little ringgit I had left and I wait. It was a short transit of only an hour and something.
Queuing in the long line for security screening and when I reach the front of the line am patted down by the lady officer and as I get to the next checkpoint I am asked for my visa. Huh? Wait, what? I honestly didn’t think I needed one. How could I be so careless? Needless to say, I am not making this flight today and all I want to do is go home. But why? Just because I am faced with a small problem? I realised in that moment that I should be brave and work through it. Now just think. Talk to the people. See what you have to do. First thing, I need to get my bag back. Secondly, I need to find out if I can change my flight to tomorrow. Then, work out how to get a 24 hour visa. Is it even possible? These three things are the most important right now.
I was directed to the lost and found to claim back my bags. The lady there was super helpful although very direct. “You missed your flight? Oh! No visa!” Imagine someone rolling their eyes at you in a jokingly way. Half laughing to herself I am sure. I felt like a five year old getting into trouble for something I should have known not to do.
There’s a very attractive younger lady at the airline ticket counter. I honestly think she felt bad for me. She offered to hold the ticket open so I can get my visa. Then pay the change fee tomorrow when I’m good to go. I smile at her in the most grateful way. Her words to me are, “it’s okay Miss”.
Next stop is the taxi rank and provide the driver with the address and ask how much. He says it is no more than 150 ringgit. I jump in discovering it is a 40 minute drive away. Whilst in the taxi I am messaging my friend and colleague from home asking if she can help me with;
a) changing my accommodation in Yangon; and
b) find out if it’s possible to get a visa for Myanmar in 24 hours.
While she does that, I am looking on booking.com for some cheap accommodation and asking the taxi driver questions about certain areas of KL. I book a room at The 5 Elements, Chinatown for $43.
The ironic part of this story is that it is election day in Malaysia and upon arrival to the Myanmar Embassy, there is a “closed” sign on the gate. Honestly, I am really drawing the short straw!
By now I know the cab driver feels sorry for me and happily agrees to continue on and take me to my hotel that I booked from the backseat of his vehicle. When we arrive he gets out and lifts my backpack out of the trunk while I fumble around for some money. He tells me that it is ok to pay 150 ringgit even though it worked out to be more with the extra driving. I retorted, but he would not have it any other way. “Terima kasih” I say with a look of relief and gratefulness.
By this time my friend, my saviour, has found the link to apply for a visa online in 24 hours. I now needed a power to charge my phone and getting working on it. It is only just after 10am and check in to my room is normally 2pm. I thought I should just dump my big bag and sit in the foyer next to a power point. Adam, the boss of the man serving me at reception allows me to check in early, like right now! Then I need to give them a fifty ringgit refundable deposit in cash for the room, however my wallet comes up with only thirty. This time my eyes are rolling (at myself). The guys can see my hesitation mixed with desperation and I probably look shattered, so they accept it. I could have hugged them both so hard. I told them my story and you could tell they felt genuinely sorry for me, but honestly, I have done this to myself. Their empathy was well appreciated. They also helped with organising a taxi for tomorrow morning.
Into my room I go. Level 10, non smoking. I get a view from here overlooking the Chinatown streets and stalls. I stand at the window and blankly stare out. Quickly reality strikes back as I need to start this online application otherwise I will most certainly run out of time. Filling out the forms, trying to upload photos took me more than four attempts. I try to keep calm and soon enough I am at the payment page. Now fingers crossed. Deep breath. Submit. I check my emails to make sure it definitely submitted. Now for the waiting game.
It isn’t long before my friend from home emails me new vouchers for accommodation in Yangon. Luckily this was only a small expense to change. I forward the email to reception to ask for a printout.
Exhausted, I fall onto the bed and sleep for four hours. When I wake I check my emails and the visa is approved. Hooray!! I am feeling so relieved and at ease now. I forward the approval letter to reception and ask them to also print this for me. In the meantime, I email the hotel in Yangon and organise a private transfer for USD20.
I decide to venture outside to find a convenience store and buy the guys on the reception desk some treats to say thanks for all their kindness and help. They were fabulous. I truly want them to know that. Also I gave them a glowing review on booking.com.
Yangon (RGN), Myanmar
I am met by a driver at the airport. “Mingalaba” I say as I smile and nod at him holding the sign, “Miss Barbara”. He generously takes my bag and shows me to his vehicle. It wasn’t until we were driving down the road that I released that the cars are right-hand side drive (like home) but they are also driving on the right! It feels normal until you get to a roundabout and the direction of traffic is reversed.
At the hotel reception the manager suggests that I go to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda this evening. Only a twenty minute walk. It is the best time apparently. Sunset. I took his advice. So much gold, so many Buddha’s, so many bells and wind chimes. The atmosphere is indescribable. The sounds of the wind chimes, the hums of prayer, the birds coming home to nest and the size and variations of temples scattered around the main pagoda makes it breathtaking. I can feel the glow inside my body like a yellow sunbeam of light that hurts your eyes.
I strolled home wondering if the streets are safe at night. There isn’t a warning feeling in my stomach, so I know it is okay. As I turn left onto my street I see a massage place. I go in and get a manicure and pedicure. The young girl is amazed by the length of my fingernails. Yes, they are super long. She calls over the other girls to see. The sounds from their mouths was like “woah”, “ooooh” and “wow”. She confirmed with me that I wanted them cut and was nervous to know what length. I nod and say, “it’s ok” and then show her with the nail scissors the amount to take off. Secretly, I think she wanted to keep my nail clippings to show all her friends later on. Maybe she did?? Maybe she thinks I am a witch, or a god. Ha ha.
My body woke me at 6.30am this morning. A pleasant surprise. I had breakfast (fresh fruit with yoghurt and coffee) outside in the courtyard of my hotel and then headed to Bogyoke Markets.
After wandering the markets and buying a few souvenirs I continue along the busy city streets towards the river. At the ferry terminal I was approached by a young girl who offered to guide me across the river to Dalla (Dah-La). My hesitation kicked in, but she seemed so sweet and kind, so I obliged.
Rain (that’s her name) escorted me through the village via tuk tuk. We ventured to a pagoda, a fishing village, the very poor bamboo village and the local market. Rain is 19 years old, a mother of one, with very good English. I even visited her home, which was literally a shack, and met her baby.
The most heartwarming part of the day for me was visiting the bamboo village. This very poor community relies on the kindness of others for food, water and shelter. Their homeplace was destroyed and many people died in the tsunami. When I asked how I could help, Rain took me to the rice store and I could buy bags of good quality rice to be distributed throughout their village by a “master”. On behalf of my friends and family I made a donation of two bags of rice. You will see from the photos of today.
Oh, and if you are wondering why there is what looks like paint on some of the people’s faces.. it’s sunscreen! And it smells really pretty.
Rain did not expect money from me. She said at the beginning that it is up to me on the amount, if any. She spent a good 5 hours with me, so it seemed fitting that I could give her the equivalent of $40. Almost enough to pay her rent for the month. The reason for this is partially because it is the tourist off-season and also because she was so kind and warmhearted. She kept thanking me for giving to the people. A lovely, lovely girl. The nicest part was she hugged me on my departure and wished me well with my travels and for my future. Rain is Moslem, not Buddhist, which surprised me in a country that is concentrated with Buddhism.
Bagan (NYU), Myanmar
I walk along the road with my map in hand. The exercise would be good and it is a nice way to take in the surroundings. There’s about three temples I can see in a very short distance. I walk to the first one down a dusty track. I enter the gate and thongs come off. It is mandatory to remove your shoes. The hotel had a very good book called, “Tourists do and dont’s”. While most things are common sense there are handy tips you might forget to ask or the people may not be able to explain properly to you.
An elderly man is sitting crossed-legged inside with his sand paintings on display being held down by rocks. They are fabulous. I start up a basic conversation about the colours and the meanings. He shows me more paintings that are rolled up. I buy three for a total of approximately $25. These are really, really good. I thank him and throw in an extra $5. Totally worth it. His works are unreal.
Back to the road I go and begin wandering again as scooters and cars are passing by with horns beeping. A man, Cocoshannir (let’s call him Cocoa), pulls up on the road beside me on his scooter and asks if I want to be shown around. I hesitate only for a second, then smile and jump on the back. Quickly we begin to chat about local life. He is a Buddhist. Actually, the entire town is Buddhist so it is very, very safe. He is 23 years old and looks after his family and mother. He is willing to take me wherever I want to go and away from the majority of the tourists. Secret locations only locals know about. Ooooh. This is going to be good!
Although climbing the temples and pagodas is frowned upon, the locals know the ones that are okay to do so.
I found out that Cooca is afraid of snakes (there are many but not poisonous) and the river. He cannot swim. Some of the locals do not like the dogs however he likes all the animals, except the snakes. We laughed together about this.
He literally shows me everything in an afternoon and the following morning. Sunset, sunrise, monasteries, monks, temples, pagodas, the Irrawaddy, new Bagan, old Bagan, the Big Buddha, markets… And he wanted to keep going and show me more.
Cocoa is also a painter. I bought two that are painted with the rocks and leaves from the area. I paid him well as a token of thanks and appreciation for showing me around and providing me with his local knowledge. We are now Instagram friends for anyone wanting to visit. You can DM and he will come pick you up from your hotel (@baganrapper) Please let him know I sent you. Paying it forward, right?
When visiting temples and pagodas there are local women selling pants, bamboo products and postcards. At the wooden, handcarved monastery in a small village a little girl was selling her handdrawn postcards for about $1. Adorable. I had to buy one from her because she’s so clever. Smart girl.
It is Mother’s day today. While standing looking and admiring the Irrawaddy, I asked about the life around the river. I was told that the locals refer to it as “the mother”. It was touching to hear these words today. A really special moment. Mum, I know you are never far away because you live within my soul everyday. I love you and thank you. ❤️
I shed a tear and then explained why to Cocoa. He asked me if I was ok. I said yes, that I was happy and sad at the same time. I asked if he could take me to the market to buy flowers to give to his mother. I would really love to do that. He said of course!! By the end of the day I forgot and so I sent a message from my hotel to Cocoa to ask if he was able to come pick me up to go to the market. His reply,
It is ok. Thank you very much for your kindness. I already bought the flower from (the money) that you give me. I tell my mom that (the) flower was giving from my friend. She (was) very happy to receive your flower to offering for the Buddha. Happy Mother’s Day for your mom. I wish you all the best of your mom.
Amazing!! Life is very peaceful here. The people are super friendly. It’s a must see. Add it to your bucket list and make it a priority. I am in love. ❤️
Mandalay (MDL), Myanmar
After today, I am templed and pagodaed out. Promise! I toured around by scooter to some Monasteries, Pagodas, InnWa Ancient City, Sagaing and U Bein Bridge.
Around InnWa Ancient City it wasn’t as relaxing or as enchanting as Bagan. This was due to the number of street vendors trying to sell antiques, old coins, jewellery and artifacts. They were quite pushy and at one point I had to say, “Enough! Please Stop!!” in my stern voice. It was very disappointing. On one occasion, a young lady kept following me around. It was hard to enjoy the ancient ruins and scenery with her begging and harrassment. She was probably in her 30’s and kept telling me she had to feed her family. Ironically, her plump and round body suggested that she wasn’t going hungry at all. Perhaps she was carrying 10-15kgs more weight than me.
They say that there was no tourists around. It is the off season as it is getting too hot now. It was probably around 40 degrees today.
U-Bein bridge is 1.2 kilometres long and built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and (once) longest teakwood bridge in the world. While strolling across, a few people stopped me to ask for my photo. The white skinned, blue eyed girl.
And now for the funny story. At one of the Monasteries there were 5 young monks being taught by a leader to read their books and chant out aloud. One of them farted and giggled while the others laughed and then covered their noses. It was smelly. True story. Wish I had captured it on video. The monk leader didn’t even blink an eye. 🤭
Yesterday, I met a young taxi driver at the bottom of Mandalay Hill. JoJo asked if I had already organised some sightseeing. I felt bad as I had already with a lady earlier while walking to Mandalay Palace. I ended up jumping in his taxi for a ride back to the hotel. Apparently, at 7pm, I was his first customer for the day! Mandalay Hill is the perfect place to see the sunset. You just have to walk up the 1,729 steps first.
I asked if he would take me to the airport at 7.45am tomorrow morning. He was upfront and honest and told me his cost was 20,000 Kyat and the hotel’s driver is 15,000. I didn’t mind at all as he was very interesting and good for conversation. On the way to the airport we talked about lots of things. His family. His life. The tours he takes tourists on by scooter or private car. He also showed me photos of his family trip to the beach from his phone. He gave me great advice for Inle Lake and what to expect. A lovely and very good looking young man of 27. We connected by messenger and I promised I would send some more tourists his way. (Insta: @jojokyawzintun / FB: jojo.kyawzintun)
I had suggested to JoJo that he look up Intrepid or G-Adventures and apply to be a tour guide. He would be great at it. I just know it. I must remember to send him some links to help him along.
When I asked how he learnt English, I realise how brave he would have been approaching tourists at Mandalay Hill to practice. His first time was 6 years ago. So courageous. He also learns from an app on his phone that has an American accent.
JoJo’s school life was only from 5-13 years of age as he had to work and look after his family. He said he wished he had a proper education but they live in a very poor society. His home at the bottom of Mandalay Hill was given to his grandparents by the monks at the monastery. There is always the possibility that one day the monks will take the land and hut back.
Life seems to be very (fragile, insecure). Taking each day as it comes and hoping for a good day of business. At the airport, I wished him well for more customers.
Now it’s off to Heho airport to visit Inle Lake.
Inle Lake (HEH), Myanmar
Arrived to Heho (Hay-Ho) airport. My driver met me and we take the forty minute journey (driving at 50km/hr) through the township and down the hill to the lake. I spotted a Jacaranda tree on the way. Yes, really! It is very rural and peaceful here. In the village streets everyone seems to be busy. In the country there are men and women working the fields. On the way I saw corn and potato but I am sure there were many more crops that I couldn’t recognise.
Staying at Hu Pin Resort, as many of the other resorts are closed because it is low season, was a great decision! I am not disappointed at all. Wow, wow, wow!! Amazing. It is unbelievable. I should have brought a book to read though. The one I had I finished in Kuching and left it behind. The only internet is in reception so I am going to be free of communication for a few days. I think I might take a boat trip or hire a bicycle and roam around.
The four hour boat trip took me through the floating gardens, past local fisherman using their feet to paddle while working the nets with their hands, a lotus silk handweaving centre (the only kind in the world. US$100 for one scarf), a gold and silver centre, the markets (selling antiques, jewellery and artefacts) and the Shan ladies with the rings on their necks. The number of rings depends on your age. Can I tell you, those rings are very heavy. Brass I think? I picked up some that were on display. The weight would have been something like a 1.25L of coke. I can’t imagine having the weight of the world on your shoulders. Very interesting.
I probably bought too many momentos and souvenirs. There was some amazing things to buy and I could not help myself!!! Found a few treasures for friends and family at home. My backpack is now full.
It has been a restful few days here and the sunset each evening was spectacular. It is kind of the place and moment you should share with someone. This is the first time on my journey that I have truly felt this.
Tomorrow is my flight back to Yangon for my last night before heading home. This has been the greatest and my most favourite adventure to date.
For those hesitating, solo travel through Myanmar is safe and not threatening at all, even for a female. I was never looked at indecently although people did look. I was told afterwards it is because I had blue eyes. Remember to dress appropriately with covered knees and shoulders to respect their culture. There are ATM’s widespread in the bigger cities such a Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay. The hotels and private drivers accept USD for payment and the local markets and villages take local currency, Kyat. The currency conversion from Kyat to the Aussie dollar loosely translates as 50,000 Kyat is 50 Australian dollars. Easy to remember.
Once last thought before I fall back into routine and the mundane. My life is pretty great. I am single. I do not have a lot of possessions. I am not poor. I am not stuck. I have an education. I am not alone or lonely because I have made friends around the globe. I cherish and am thankful for the things I do own. I am rich because I have travelled. I am free to do what I choose. I am a lucky and fortunate girl in this great wide world.
For those at home that have mixed or strong emotions about refugees entering our country. You may say they are not welcome, that they may take your job, or they may never learn English to fit in. My advice is stop blaming others. Go get that job. Learn another language. Study. Grow. Travel. Travel as far and wide as you can to see how others live. Understand what they have to do to survive. Learn the language. Be like them. Live how they live. If or when you become hesitant or afraid, watch how they welcome you with open arms and open minds. Do not let fear make up your mind for you. Listen to your heart. Follow it. Your heart has the answers.