Finally I was able to leave Thailand and make my way to my first new country in nearly 60 days! I'd removed Myanmar from my list of countries I planned to visit about 2 months prior feeling like I wouldn't have enough time to visit it before heading home, but plans change and I found myself getting back in Bangkok getting a visa to this newly open to tourism country. Myanmar has only been accessible again to tourists since 2011, and thankfully I'm so thankful I changed my plans to make room for it in my trip!
Once back in Bangkok following Koh Samet I went to back to work on acquiring a visa for Myanmar (Burma), my next destination in Southeast Asia. I'd eliminated this country from my list to visit following a bit too much time in Thailand, and but fortunately some friends from earlier in my trip convinced me to join them for a few weeks there and I'm so happy I changed my mind!
It took about a day to get our visas sorted out, and the embassy in Bangkok was a near replica of what most of the buildings in Myanmar ultimately looked like. We dropped off our applications in the morning, filling in all the "important" details such as marriage status and religion that Myanmar requests, and by 3:00 the following day had a brand new full-page visa stamped in my passport. After a day of sorting out details, bus tickets, and catching up with old friends from a few months prior, I set off with two friends from England, Ben and Jon, on a night bus bound from Bangkok bound for the border.
We found ourselves as the only westerners on the seven-hour bus journey to the border town of Mae Sot, and after a 20 baht ($.70) tuk-tuk ride to the border crossing, we made our way across the Thailand border, across the bridge connecting the two countries, and straight into the welcoming arms of Myanmar. The Thailand officials literally escorted us to the front of the line of people crossing the border at 5:30AM, eager to see us out of their country. Myanmar on the other hand welcomed us with open arms and a big smile on their faces, excited about the prospect of foreigners and money coming into their country.
The border crossing was the easiest I've done yet in Southeast Asia, being treated like a celebrity all the way through. Upon arrival to Myanmar we had our passports stamped and quickly got a car hired to take us to Yangon (we didn't make it there in that car) for $12. We assumed this car would take just the three of us, but within an hour of driving our group went from three to seven, and ended abruptly in the town of Hpa An, nine hours away from Yangon where we'd thought our driver would take us.
He vaguely in broken English tried to explain to us that a bus would come shortly to take us the rest of the way, thought we didn't quite understand it all until about two hours later when our bus actually showed up. Once boarding, and not knowing exactly how far we had to go, we relaxed for another half-day and finally made it to Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, 23 hours after departing Bangkok. In hindsight a flight would have been much cheaper, but the day-long adventure proved to be a fun and memorable experience into the country.
I'd been warned that Myanmar was an expensive country to visit ahead of time (compared to the rest of Asia), and we found that hostels are not really a thing yet in this country. Yangon does have one, but like we'd heard it was a bit more expensive than most others in this region. Within a day, though, we realized this country wasn't actually that expensive given that a full meal and beer cost all of $1.50 in the cities. The food was one of my first "favorites" of this country, and our first night in Yangon we grabbed some delicious street food and roamed around Chinatown, $1.00 beers in hand.
The main attraction to see in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest religious site in the entire country and the most impressive Buddhist holy place I've seen yet. I've seen my fair share of temples at this point (they get a bit repetitive after a while just like churches in Europe), but this places was INSANE! The stairway up to the pagoda is an attraction in itself, stretching for hundreds of meters and several levels up. Once reaching the top of the stairs you're forcibly given (purchasing) a longyi, the traditional dress and respectful skirt required in all holy places in Myanmar. Not only do the women wear long "dresses" in this country, but the men rock out these stylish dresses as well, and I found I enjoyed mine more than I should have. Locals love seeing westerners wearing them, and love even more watching them attempt to tie them up properly.
We roamed around the Pagoda for an hour or so, snapping hundreds of photos which will sit contently in my photo library for the next decade, but the place as a whole was extremely worth the visit. Following our visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, we left and roamed the city for the remainder of the afternoon, taking in the sights and local life of the country. We came across some kids more excited about going to school than anyone I've ever seen and some crazy locals just wanting to have a chat about life. Within hours of being in this country I found the people to be the most friendly, welcoming, and lovely people I've ever come across while traveling. They greet you with a smile just walking down the street and are constantly asking you where you're from, your name, and several other personal details not relevant to any sort of first-time interaction with an individual. There were no boundaries when it came to questions in Myanmar.
Our second day in Yangon we'd booked an afternoon/night bus out of the city to Kalaw, but had the morning to explore a bit more. We found ourselves at the National Museum in town and roamed through that for a few hours before making our way back to the hostel to catch a taxi out to the bus station nearly 1.5 hours out of town during afternoon traffic.
All-in-all Yangon was a friendly city filled with amazing people and even better food. Though there isn't really that much to do there, it's a must see in Myanmar if you're visiting the country solely for its access to the Shwedagon Pagoda. There is loads more to do there such as visit the lake in town, stroll the river, visit some other temples in the city, and walk around, but the three of us had temple'd ourselves out at this point and were ready for something a bit different in Kalaw where we planned to trek for three days through the mountains to Inle Lake, a popular destination for tourists.