Moving into our third week on the road, we look towards exploring our fourth country within south-east Asia. Myanmar is within reach, but not before discovering Thailand’s ancient history in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sukhothai Historical Park. Here lie the ruins of the 13th century Sukhothai Kingdom, which is alleged to be the beginning of modern Thailand. Our last day in Central Thailand was adorned by a beautiful sunset over the remains of Wat Mahathat, with the reflection of the sun-bathed ruins illuminated in the moat surrounding the temple.
From here we were eager to cross the border and into the unknowns of Myanmar, a country that until recently, was cut off from the rest of the world for half a century. After crossing the border, we saw the biggest change than any other border crossing this trip.
We had stumbled into a wild world where everybody drives on the right-hand side of the road despite all vehicles being right hand drive. There are trishaws, side-cars and tricycles everywhere. The small trucks run on completely exposed tractor engines and the traffic uses horns relentlessly as a security measure and as a declaration of every kind of emotion on the road. It is also where a traditional single lane road is used commonly as 4 lanes, causing high levels of anxiety for a front seat passenger as a truck speeds towards you while overtaking another truck, missing by what feels like centimetres. Luckily for me (the front seat passenger), I have Mick McDonald (driving extraordinaire, road-train master, and all-round skilled professional wheel jockey) at the helm. Don’t get me wrong, to begin with there were a few moments holding the grab rail and reconsidering my trust in Mick’s decision making, but once used to this new version of the road rules, it became quite enjoyable to have the better view of the road and scenery ahead.
Myanmar is also known as “The Land of Pagodas”. When you look out over the lush green jungle you can spot a golden pagoda at the top of nearly every hill. These bell-shaped stupas can be painted gold, covered in gold leaf or sometimes made from gold plate. An expensive build for families who are devout followers of Buddhism and wish to show their faith.
The people are curious and welcoming. Initially it felt like people were staring, but once a friendly smile and “Mingalabar” (Hello) was exchanged it was all about smiles, crazy waving and intrigue. We have felt like celebrities everywhere we’ve been, with locals wanting photos with us, including monks! There is not much English spoken or written outside the main tourist places, so we rely on a game of charades or our local guide Tun Tun.
To travel overland in Myanmar (with your foreign registered vehicle) you are required by the government to have a local registered tour guide with you. Tun Tun and his driver, Than, are our guides through this amazing country. They have been showing us some wonderful sights including the worlds largest reclining buddha (180m), one of the worlds largest sitting Buddhas (near Kyaikto), one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimages in Myanmar, The Shwedagon Pagoda, and also a tour of the old capital city, Yangon.
The Swedagon Pagoda stands at 100m tall and is built on a 14-acre terrace which houses 84 different monuments and 4 staircases. The top half of the pagoda has been covered in gold plates and more gold plates are added every 5 years by new donors during restoration. Currently it weighs 380 tonnes and growing. While here, we saw ceremonies for people who were entering the monastery as monks. These people were dressed up in their prince dresses, carried by horse and shaded by golden umbrellas held by supportive family members. Their mothers and fathers led the procession, proudly carrying the robes that their children will wear in the monastery. A fascinating look into the lives of local people
While in Yangon we also visited the historic Strand Hotel. This Victorian style hotel is Yangon’s answer to Raffles Hotel in Singapore. While perhaps not as grandiose, the Strand offers much more affordable cocktails at Sarkies Bar!!! Mick and I indulged in a “Strand Sling”, similar to a Singapore Sling, fabulous and much more palatable on the wallet!
Heading North away from the city of Yangon we were treated to some twisty mountain roads where workers were hand laying the road base, bitumen and gravel. We drove through villages and were able to see the daily life of the villagers and monks. Between villages we drove down tree lined roads looking out over the rice fields for as far as the eye can see.
Monsoon season started May 1st and we have had rain every afternoon since. The rain is welcomed as it provides a little relief from the hot and humid environment. We have also been treated to some amazing lightening shows at night.
I have to keep reminding myself that the best of Myanmar is still to come. We are settling into this incredibly fast developing country and are looking forward to what the next week will reveal.
For more information about the 90-day Asian Overland Expedition please follow the link below to our Expedition web page.