A loud pop and hiss punctuated the low humming of a river of people flowing behind me as I cracked open a cold Burmese beer. The sun glowed red in a periwinkle sky and its last golden rays teased my eyes before it disappeared behind the horizon. My friend interrupted my twilight-induced reverie by softly clinking my beer with his own, then enthusiastically chugging down the local brew.
We had claimed the best vantage point for the dramatic sunset, sitting cross-legged on the U Bein Bridge in Mandalay, Myanmar. Said to be the world’s longest and oldest teakwood bridge, U Bein stretches over a kilometre across Taungthaman Lake, its no-frills structure painting a surprisingly impressive silhouette against dusky skies and idyllic waters. Although I had landed up at this popular viewpoint just like the dozens of tourists around me, I didn’t feel like a foreigner in Myanmar. An undercurrent of soothing familiarity ran through the exotic vistas and the strange language, and a sense of nostalgia enlivened my gait.
The reason? A Shillong native, I had grown up trading little yellow packets of Burmese sunflower seeds for little blue packets of Burmese berries with my friends. After school, we would collectively ravish our loot, rendering the trades meaningless. During chilly winter nights, I would sink into the folds of my brightly-coloured Burmese blanket. My tryst with Myanmar began long before I finally had the chance to visit the country.
Our journey began with multiple gruelling bus rides, as we traversed the 600 kilometres between Shillong and Moreh—the last Indian town en route to Myanmar—on rough dirt roads. Finally, our faces grey with layers of dust and our spirits alive with adventure, we bid goodbye to India and arrived in Tamu, a Burmese bazaar town five kilometres from Moreh. The gateway to Myanmar, Tamu is usually inundated with Indian visitors, but there’s still a lot to discover. Tamu’s bustling markets offer everything under the sun, from clothes to carpets to shoes and electronics.
With relief, we accepted the invitation of a Burmese family to recuperate from the road in their cosy home. We had our first taste of Myanmar here, gorging on traditional Burmese century eggs salad and relishing ngape, a pungent ground fish curry.
Having received us warmly with hospitable locals and delicious fare, Myanmar drew us further in with its exquisite Kabaw Valley. Driving from Tamu to Mandalay, the former royal capital, in a Japanese sedan, we were enamoured by the shamrock hues of the vegetation on the gentle hills, and by the pearly mist that seemed to crown them. Our hearts full of the views but our stomachs clamouring again for food, we stopped at a dimly-lit shack that was buzzing with activity. Here, we were introduced to a true Burmese staple: the Shan noodle. A hearty broth topped with rice vermicelli, minced meat and ground peanuts, it was food for our souls. After several cups of green tea (which is drunk like water in Myanmar), we hit the road again.
We’d already noticed that Myanmar was quite pocket-friendly, with meals for two—including the ubiquitous beer—costing only around Rs 500 to Rs 600 (tea is always free). Over the course of the week, the fact that the country provides great services for low prices was confirmed by bus rides and hotels usually coming in under Rs1,400.
Mandalay is a city between the traditional and the modern, between romance and functionality. It has a chequered history; the last royal capital of the Burmese kingdom of Konbaung, Mandalay was colonised by the British in 1885, annihilated during World War II, ravaged by fires in the 1980s, and then rebuilt by Chinese immigrants in recent decades. The city’s patchwork appearance reflects this past: there are quaint cafés with typical sloping roofs scattered between nondescript industrial complexes, and vibrant street markets coexisting with Buddhist pagodas and monasteries.
We set out to explore the city on a rented scooter, zipping through its wide streets. Our first stop was the majestic Mandalay Palace, the seat of Burma’s last kings. Set inside a sprawling fortress, which also includes the Royal Mint and a teakwood watchtower, the palace grounds are circumnavigated by a wide moat. The palace is actually a meticulous replica, the original having been razed by Allied bombing during WWII. As we sauntered through the lawns, we craned our heads up in admiration of the multi-tiered red and gold roofs, or pyatthat, that crowned every structure. The most striking feature of the palace, however, was the lofty pyatthat of gilt filigree that adorned the main throne room. Its soaring golden spire is not so humbly called the “centre of the universe.”
Myanmar seems to have an affinity for grandiose titles, for 20 minutes away from the “centre of the universe” is the “world’s largest book.” The sacred Buddhist texts of the Tipitaka Pali canon is inscribed on 729 stone slabs at the Kuthodaw Pagoda. Each slab is enshrined inside a white stupa, and the pagoda’s gilded dome shimmers softly in the sun above them al. The pagoda was built in 1857 by King Mindon to preserve the Buddhist text in its entirety. Walking through the maze of the spired stupas led us to the top of Mandalay Hill, where we feasted our eyes on the stunning panorama of gold and white before us and the city skyline beyond.
After Mandalay, we headed to Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, in a very comfortable bus—it had generous seating space and snacks at regular intervals. Yangon marries together the sundry roles it has held in the past. The formidable façade of the red-brick Secretariat building, the 20th-century glitz of the century-old Strand hotel, and the neo-gothic porticos of the High Court building are some of the most salient remnants of the city’s past as the commercial and administrative hub of British Burma. It is also home to the Botataung Pagoda, a 2,500-year old site which was destroyed in WWII bombing and had to be rebuilt. Legend has it that Buddha’s hair was enshrined in the pagoda, but it is in the rebuilding that the relic was discovered and is now on display for visitors. Later, we went to the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, who died in exile in 1862.
If Mandalay is best explored through its iconic monuments, Yangon reveals its secrets to those who stroll its streets. A walk across downtown Yangon means getting lost in the embrace of a bygone era—the colonial landscape almost untouched as a result of the decades-long isolation imposed by a military coup in the 1960s. We paid a visit to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, a sprawling bazaar set inside a heritage building with salmon-coloured arcades. Shops sold everything from precious gems and jewellery, to traditional garb and avocado shakes. Above us rose the golden spires and green roofs of the Karweik Palace, which resembles a barge on the Kandawgi Lake, set against a surreal yellow and orange afternoon sky. The Shwedagon Pagoda glimmered at a distance.
Later, on the shore of popular Inya Lake, I sat in a humble eatery that couldn’t be further from Yangon’s golden skyline, though it was only six kilometres from downtown. A steaming bowl of Rakhine mohinga noodles warded off a chilly December draught. Myanmar was certainly a country of contradictions; yet, though it seemed to be half in the past and half in the future, it had my whole heart.
Edited by Pragya Bhagat.