Magical Myanmar – the ruby in the crown (Part One)

Mandalay – Myanmar

It is sometime after sunrise and I am in bed, laying on my back, listening to the noise outside the hotel window in the second biggest city in Myanmar – Mandalay.

I believe it was monk chorus blaring from a loud-speaker which initially woke me, and now I can hear roosters crowing, motorbikes, people and trucks moving all along the dusty unsealed street outside. Life starts early in Myanmar, something which we have found out during the last three weeks visiting and touring north in this beautiful country.

Similarly to Cuba – Laurent and I had grand expectations for Myanmar. In a few sentences:- Colonial British architecture/buildings; its geographical location being a melting pot for Chinese, Indian, Thai and local culture; a transforming country whose recent political past has been in the world’s spotlight (Aung San Suu Kyi) and; a land of mystery – unique for travellers, providing a sense of discovery for the ‘average Joe’ traveller.

So, were we to be disappointed? Should we have cut it short and spent more time in Cambodia which will be our last stop? What did we even know about Myanmar?

Little did we know 3 weeks ago, Myanmar would become the highlight of our 7 month journey – the ‘ruby’ in the crown, so to speak.

Our story in begins south in Myanmar’s largest city – Yangon (formally Rangoon*)

*Note: Every name has been changed back to its original name in recent years in Burma…err Myanmar.

Our first contact with Myanmar was a ‘slow landing’ as we experienced the ex-pat lifestyle while hosted by our French friends (Thank you Guillaume, Julie and Ines).

Think – personal driver, high speed internet access, air conditioning from door to door and the best restaurants Yangon had to offer. What a shock it was to be dropped off at the bus terminal (more like open-air bus graveyard) for our first excursion alone and without Mr Guillaume’s private driver.

Local men in their longyi (long unisex sarong-like skirts) spit the dark red juice from the betel nut onto the ground – the spray catching my white long-sleeved shirt. The chaos that surrounded us also intrigued us. We were not hassled  or bothered, it was just the locals doing what they were doing, sometimes taking a longer than usual glance at our ghost white skin and if we were lucky, we were flashed with a wide red stained smile along with a ‘hello’.

Quickly suspicious of the kindness of strangers, smiling faces, and random greetings,  we were surprised that no one actually wanted anything. We were not getting ripped off, and were given fair, local prices. It seemed everyone was going out of their way to make our journey to ‘Golden Rock’ enjoyable and memorable.

Well, ‘Memorable’ is the word I use. I will explain.

The bus we settled on was right hand drive (they drive on the right here – they switched from left to right overnight one day) which made overtaking a breathtaking experience. The driver who we think, didn’t know how to drive, sporadically used the brake for no apparent reason and was constantly beeping at unsuspecting traffic; he was also speeding on a pot holed road with no intention in giving way to anybody. To top it off, he had a co-pilot who was high on betel nut and shouting instructions at the top of his lungs (of which we couldn’t understand a word). All this made us regret taking the first two seats at the front of the bus where we could see the texting, crazy braking driver overtaking on the left of a right hand drive bus whilst music is blaring so loud I need to pull out ear plugs.

We stopped for lunch at one point, where all they served was crickets, unidentified curry and watermelon slices (guess what we took) and continued on the 6 hour journey to see the famous Golden Rock.

Stopping for lunch
Stopping for lunch

But we were in for another surprise. Golden rock was not so golden – instead it was entirely covered with cloth and scaffolding! NO!!! However, like most things, it is the journey not the destination which can be forever etched in your mind.

The 45 minute winding truck ride up to the site was equally exhilarating as the bus ride – if not more. Wedged between the metal side of the open aired truck and the other 45 locals either sitting or hanging onto the side and back of the truck, we kept one eye open and the other closed, as the truck hurtled around the tightest of corners at ridiculous speeds. It wasn’t the first time that day we thought we were not going to survive this fateful journey.

Although we didn’t see the Golden Rock and promptly planned our torturous bus journey back to Yangon – we had the ride of our lives. Local tradition and spirituality runs deep here – and we were only two among a handful of tourists who made the pilgrimage along with the 100’s of locals to see the covered, not so gold at the moment, rock.

For a gigantic rock on a cliff which presently wasn’t golden and shielded from view, it was surprisingly very busy. We observed monks fanning themselves laying on cloth lounges, being carried by porters up to the top of the mountain, barefoot children playing ball games around the base of the site and beautiful women, faces painted with traditional thanakha, shopping at the market in the morning.

This journey to Golden Rock was the beginning with our love affair with Myanmar. The people, the atmosphere and most of all – adventure!


A mini 'Golden Rock' imitation we found a week later...
A mini ‘Golden Rock’ imitation we found a week later…

More on our Myanmar adventures in our next post … Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay.


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