I look around not really sure what to expect. I'd just spent a few days in Bangkok where everyone is trying to get your attention to hopefully get you to part from you money. I was now in Yangon, the capital of Burma (Myanmar) and having just gotten off the plane, wasn't really sure what to expect. So I looked around. Only I didn't see anything.
“Hey You!” This time the voice was louder, but where was it coming from. And then I looked up and saw a construction worker on a nearby building several floors up on some dodgey looking scaffolding waving at me and grinning.
Local kids on the U Bein Bridge
You get this everywhere you go in Burma. People are genuinely happy to see you. Walking through one of their many sacred pagodas, there is no anger at westerners treating their temples as a tourist attraction. They're just happy to see you there and will more often than not try to speak whatever English they can to you – even if its just “Hello!”
I had a group of school students following me around a supermarket at one point. I could hear them practising a phrase while hiding around the corners, before eventually one of them stepped forward and in his best English asked “How you doin'?”
I'd heard previously that the best part of Burma was the people. I thought all that meant was that the country lacked something in other departments, but that was far from the case. There are many amazing temples and historical sights and plenty of amazing scenery, and I didn't even get a chance to check out the places that are considered to be the top of those lists – Bagan and Inle Lake.
What I did see in Yangon/Rangoon was the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda, Kandwagyi Palace which resembles a boat on the lake headed by two golden swans, and the former home of General Aung San (below)
In and around Mandalay I was able to see the impressive Mandalay Palace, the U Bein bridge (worlds longest wooden bridge) and the Mahamuni Buddha temple.
View of Mandalay Palace from the watchtower
And yet it is still the people that make the place what it is.
I was actually fortunate enough to meet some great fellow travellers in both cities as well – always part of the backpacking experience – instant travel companions! One of these, whom I met in Yangon, was actually someone who had lived in the country many years ago and spoke the language. This meant we could negotiate the bus system – which to that point was completely incomprehensible to me. Some of these “buses” were little more than pick up trucks that would cram as many people as possible into, which at times got a little uncomfortable, but for the price of about 10 cents, how can you complain? And any time needed some more directions or advice on a good place to eat, the locals appeared like they could not wait to help, just waiting for us to ask.
A Yangon "Bus"
While in Mandalay, myself and a group of new travel friends hired an excellent local guide to show us around some of the sights outside of the city. One of these was a monastery. Not a famous one, and not a special one, but a regular monastery which we were able to take a look through, and on the invitation of the elder monk there, share lunch with them. The experience was surreal, with everyone eating in complete silence, and certainly not something I thought I would ever have a chance to do. However for them, it was just being polite.
Monks, as well as the other members of the monastery praying before eating lunch - we were invited to join them shortly after this
This kind of politeness is not just among the spiritual leaders. While on a 15 hour train ride from Yangon to Mandalay, I was sharing a sleeping compartment with three men in their 50s and 60s. Any time they would buy or take out some food they would insist I have some and not let me refuse. I was a guest in their country and they wanted to make sure I enjoyed my experience. That feeling was evident everywhere I went in Burma and the feeling was quite overwhelming.
Centuries old temple at Inwa
Burma has had a pretty rough history over the last 150 or so years. In that time they've been ruled by the British, Japanese and their own military with only brief periods of free and fair elections in intertwined. Even now, most of its bountiful natural resources are being taken by outside interests who are leaving little for the locals.
With all of this you could forgive the Burmese people for being cold, stony faced people, but it is the exact opposite. They're warm, welcoming and truly friendly. There is a real innocence about the people there that I hope is not lost as the country opens up more and more to tourism.
Finding a country full of people like the Burmese is one of the biggest reasons why I travel, and the biggest as to why I'll definitely be going back.