Is it love at first sight Myanmar or are you just pleased to see me? I stepped off the plane and stepped into heaven.
Instead of being approached by what at first appears to be an angry mob but actually turns out to be taxi and/or rickshaw drivers, we walked to a desk for pre-paid a taxis and hopped into a cab on the way to our hostel, no negotiating required, standard price, how very civilised.
Myanmar seems so full with potential, days brimming with exciting and new adventures that the first thing we decide to do is get up and visit Shwe Dagon Pagoda, seen from a distance as a luminescent mountain of gold pointing towards the sky. We rose before the sun and walked through quiet streets, inhabited only by the trishaws and stray dogs strewn across pavements and huddled in cosy corners.
The contrast to busy Indian cities was so strikingly evident that it felt at first as if we walked through a ghost town. As we approached the Pagoda we were joined by a young monk on the opposite side of the street, painting a stark contrast to the greys of the street in his brick red robes, hurridly striding towards morning chanting.
We paid our K6000 to enter the pagoda after climbing the deserted eastern steps, where souvenir sellers would soon start spreading their wares and calling to the late morning swarm of tourists and prayer goers alike, and stepped onto the cool marble and into the shadow of dozens of smaller golden pagodas surrounding the main event.
It was like stepping into a golden wonderland, and it was only after I picked my jaw up of the floor that I really started to take in all that was around me.
The history and passion for a religion born from the hair of Buddha, still frequented and worshipped as lovingly as the day it was built. Many of the smaller pagodas cloaked in sheets as they undergo renovation from gold paint to gold leaf encrusted, not bad for the poorest country in Asia.
The eery magical silence was broken as we began our clockwise journey, only by the chanting of young monks swathed in their pink robes, a couple becoming distracted and glaring aimlessly around all the while chanting their well worn lines. I’ve come to lovingly refer to them, lovingly, as baby monks.
Warm and radiant in the rising sun, the magic only growing with the changing light taking the lamp lit bauble like Pagoda from golden orange to a sunkissed yellow. A tribute to the beautiful people of Myanmar a friendly school teacher on his holidays from north of Mandalay adopted us as ‘honorary students’ and guided us from one statue, relic and hidden treasure to the next, talking to us about his love of bookstand, his countries traditions and the pleasure he found in talking to foreigners.
Similar to many pagodas in Myanmar there are different ‘corners’ for days of the week, you pray at the corner which corresponds with the day you were born. Mine being a Wednesday I decided to join in with the well practiced locals and took up my cup of water to start washing the flower laden God, golden of course, which adorned the post, giving my thanks and saying my prayers, which unsurprisingly seem to be fewer and fewer of late.
As we walked with Zu, our guide, back down the steps he simply wished us ‘happy life’ and dawdled back up towards the glowing entrance, no hidden fees like in India, just a genuine kind soul, an introduction to the amazing people we’ve been meeting.
A post breakfast boat trip lead us across the river to Dala, here there are bamboo huts and markets but we have our sights set on Twante a 30minute, hot taxi journey along the river bank.
As we climb out of the cab to the middle of a bustling street we’re greeted by confused shrugs in response to the whereabouts of the pottery workshops and so we set off in whichever direction our instincts point to, soon to be picked up by Myanmars answer to the rickshaw and bicycle, the trishaw.
Hidden it seemed from the grasp of tourism we were taken to the Pottery house of a family who in our charade game of English showed us how each day they make hundreds of storage and cooking pots as well as vases and candle holders on pottery wheels turned by the foot of a young girl, playing Rita Ora on her iPhone, while her father moulds the unassuming clay expertly into his desired vessel.
From here they get placed onto their allotted shelf in the aces of space in order to dry, before being piled precariously at the back of one of the traditional kilns that line the back of the grass tents, making me feel more than a little nervous (and hot. Very hot.).
With the rising sun had brought the street food, our stomachs vocally expressing our hunger as we strolled past freshly prepared fried and baked goods, savoury buns and noodles, strange little pancakes and freshly cut fruit provided our obstacle course home to our free breakfast. Throughout the day one street vendor gives way to another fried snacks and noodles in the morning giving way to curries and road side bbq’s as the day progresses, by evening time the streets are your dining hall with everything to pig intestines to chickens foot, quail eggs to steam pork buns.
It seems the city leaves the comfort of their homes each evening to perch precariously around hour old buffets and and eat morsels of indecipherable pieces of meat with sauces of varying degrees of mind blowing. The locals themselves are prone to regular bouts of sickness and when you ask them what they’ve eaten “I don’t know” is the answer or so I’ve heard, nothing bad enough to put them off though obviously!
It was amongst this madness and food poisoning roulette we found the fair.
Oh the fair, to the unknowing eye just looking for a place to watch the setting sun, this fair appears pitiful and haphazard, a mixture of abandoned rides and… wait. what?! Pop up tattoo tents?!?!
However soon after the sun has faded the sky to tones of ‘oh my goodness’ pink the markets come alive and smells of food waft temptingly through the streets. Wrapping itself around the riverbank in front of Botahtaung temple this fast became yet another highlight of our day.
Loud music screamed at us from poor quality speakers and bright fluorescent lights made it reminiscent of a night out at Blackpool Pier, all mixed in with chanting from the nearby temple and delighted laughter of young couples and children alike on grunting and groaning fair rides. There was something just a little magical, a little beautiful. It was here we perched our bums on a closed shopfront doorstep and devoured an array of overindulgent street food.
If I’m honest I don’t know what half of it was and I don’t think I really cared. But hey I feel fine this morning, I’ve survived my first dance with street food roulette.