Photo Of The Day: U Bein Bridge Sunset

Myanmar’s iconic U Bein bridge, near the ancient Burmese capital of Amarapura, is a much beloved (and photographed) site among tourists and visitors to this intriguing Southeast Asian nation. Today’s shot, taken by Flickr user American Jon, is a fantastic example of what makes this ancient wooden structure so visually captivating. The teak bridge’s long expanse, when photographed against the early morning/late day sun, makes for a striking silhouette. This particular shot is all-the-more eye-catching due to the dramatic clouds in the background.

Taken any great photos during your travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user American Jon]

12 Hours In Yangon, Myanmar

For most of the past two decades, the only images and sounds of Myanmar that have reached the outside world is of its repressive military regime and the heroic resistance of the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. For years, travelers found themselves caught up in the debate over the ethics of traveling to Myanmar resulting in the country becoming more remote and inaccessible.

Now, with extraordinary political changes sweeping the country, Myanmar is once again back on the global stage. There is a near frenzy of who gets there first, to (re)discover this ancient land lodged between India and China. Most tourists that arrive will immediately head to Bagan, a dreamland of ruined pagodas, or Inle Lake, to soak in the serenity of its placid waters and photograph the famous leg rowers. That is indeed a great choice if you want to experience picture-perfect Myanmar – the Myanmar of myth and mystique. But if instead you want to feel the pulse of Myanmar as it is today – experience the sounds, sights and smells of a living, breathing city on the move – then stay a while longer in Yangon, the biggest city and the commercial capital of the country.

10 a.m.: Visit Bogyoke Market

Every great city has a thriving, bustling market to call its own and Bogyoke is Yangon’s. Most still know Bogyoke by its old colonial name – Scotts Market – and come in search of crumbling colonnades and cobblestoned lanes that bulge with an extraordinary variety of Burmese specialities. You could spend your entire day here, so keep your focus. Best buys at Bogyoke: traditional longyis (the Burmese sarong that is the de facto national dress), green tea from the upper Shan States, jade Buddhas, ruby pendants and teakwood shot glasses.11 a.m.: Learn to tie a longyi

So you bought the longyi at Bogyoke – now you have to learn how to tie it. The Burmese longyi is more artful than the Indian lungi or the Balinese sarong; getting the knot just so comes with weeks of practice (and at least a few public embarrassments). To find a longyi tutor, just clutch the cloth around your body and look around helplessly. It may sound like a cliché but the Myanmar people are among the world’s friendliest and most hospitable, so soon enough a crowd of longyi experts will collect around you. Just keep saying, “Keizu be” (pronounced, chase-oo-bay), which means “thanks,” as they hover over you tucking and tying.

12 p.m.: Slurp down a bowl of mohinga

If there is one national dish of Myanmar, it is mohinga. This flavorful dish is basically fish broth with noodles and can be had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like other Southeast Asian classics like chicken rice (Singapore), pad thai (Thailand), amok (Cambodia) and phó (Vietnam), each bowl of mohinga tends to carry the uniqueness of the place, despite the sameness of basic ingredients. Some are spicier than others, some include a quartered egg, others fritters and green beans. What is true of each bowl is that it is always delicious and immediately addictive.

1 p.m.: Walk down Sule Pagoda Road

You haven’t been to Yangon if you haven’t walked down the Sule Pagoda Road. Located smack in the heart of downtown, it is a vision of a city on the move. Here you will see the varied textures of Yangon come to life: the modern Traders Hotel that bustles with the energy of businessmen searching for new opportunities in a fast changing country; the tall Sakura towers that clamor with the squawking of travel agents and tour operators trying to manage the rapidly increasing tourist numbers; the ever popular cinemas playing everything from John Carter to local Myanmar favorites; the rows of roadside tea stalls swelling with gregarious customers; the bus shelters crowded with longyi-wearing Burmese smoking green cheroots, their mouths reddened (and ruined) from chewing betel leaves; sugarcane vendors with their grand wheel presses; and rising from the middle of it all, a tall, graceful, gilded pagoda that gives the road its name.

2 p.m.: Release a bird (and earn eternal merit)

Myanmar is overwhelmingly a Buddhist country and the religion is an essential part the country’s cultural fabric. Everywhere you go you will find monks, pagodas and rituals that keep religion in the foreground. One of these rituals is the practice of releasing captive birds to earn merit. Outside Sule Pagoda itself, you will have the opportunity to release yellow crested sparrows for a dollar each. Pay your kyats (the local currency) and you will have a squawky little thing in your hand. Plant a kiss on the head and with as much flourish as you can, hoist it to the skies. Most tourists suspect that the birds come right back to their cages but you still get your merit points!

3 p.m.: Drink tea at a streetside stall

The Burmese obsession with tea is even greater than their passion for chewing betel leaf (and that’s saying a lot!). Strewn across the city are low tables with a flask (or a kettle) of hot Chinese tea. Sit down and pour yourself a cup or several – it costs nothing and you can empty the whole thing without paying a kyat, though it’s polite if you order some food for the table. These roadside stalls offer great vantage points to people watch and just soak the city in.

4 p.m.: Visit Aung San Suu Kyi’s house

You cannot come to Yangon and not be faced with the charismatic presence of “The Lady.” Since the new political reforms kicked in, and ‘Daw Suu’ and her party, the National League for Democracy, won nearly all of the seats up for grabs in the April by-elections, images of Suu Kyi and her father – independence-era hero, General Aung San – are everywhere. It is safe to say that in contemporary global politics there is absolutely no one that evokes the kind of devotion and emotion Suu Kyi does in her people. While you are unlikely to have the chance to see her in person, make sure you make the trip down to her now iconic house on the wide, tree-lined University Avenue where she spent much of the past two decades under house arrest.

5 p.m.: Walk around Inya Lake

Not far from Aung San Suu Kyi’s house is Inya Lake. Hemmed in by a neat promenade, this is where the Burmese come out for their daily constitutionals. If your image of Burma is only saffron-robed monks or rural farmers, get ready for breathless joggers and fitness freaks in fashionable sportswear. A hotspot for dog walkers, this is a good place to check out Yangon’s prettiest canines.

6 p.m.: Take the ferry across Yangon River

For a change of scene, head over to the Pansodan jetty and take the ferry across the caramel waters of Yangon river. The large boats, which take over 200 people, convert themselves into busy bazaars. You can buy hats, watermelons, clothes, DVDs, snacks, flowers or just join the thronging crowds in the babble of conversation and a communal camaraderie. One of the most spectacular things about this ride is the flock of seagulls that fly alongside the boat – in hundreds – and it is an incredible sight to see them swoop down on the fritters being offered by the passengers.

7 p.m.: Play a football match

Football came to Burma with the British and it hasn’t left. Yangon is a die-hard Manchester United city and be careful if you disagree. Football is everywhere: on television sets by streetside shops, on T-shirts and keychains, and in neighborhood parks and narrow bylanes. When you spot a game going on, or a group of boys practicing head shots, just join in with a smile and a nod of the head.

8 p.m.: Visit Shwedagon Pagoda

To not visit the Shwedagon Pagoda when in Yangon is to not visit the Taj Mahal when in Agra. This gleaming stupa of mammoth proportions dominates the Yangon skyline and you will see its towering dome several times as you make your way around the city. It’s considered to be the oldest pagoda in the country (about 2000 years old) and it’s most sacred. Its main stupa is a glittering construction of gold (tons of it), diamonds (thousands of carats) and a mind-boggling amount of precious gems. Sitting inside the pagoda, on its cool stone floors, is a most humbling experience.

9 p.m.: Get a drink at the Strand Bar

Unarguably the place to be seen on a Friday evening, the Strand Bar is just as chic as it was a century ago. Managed by the same group that is famous for iconic properties like Raffles Hotel Singapore, the 1901-built Strand Hotel, Yangon, is the ultimate showcase of discreet luxury and boasts a guest list that includes “royalty, nobility and distinguished personages.” It is also a historical landmark that continues to preserve the colonial heritage in a city where most other buildings from the period are crumbling away with disrepair. If you need more convincing, Happy Hour specials are offered from 5-11 p.m. and you can toss back a glass (or three) of Strand Crush, for just $3 each, alongside diplomats, ambassadors and well-heeled journalists. The service is impeccable and the food, particularly the chicken skewers ($7), is impressive.

10 p.m.: Visit a nightclub

Yes, you read that right. Yangon is a young city and knows how to get a party going. To start things off, head to 50th Street for a few drinks and a round of pool at, well, the 50th Street bar. The crowd here is essentially EAWs (Expat Aid Workers) but you will meet several Burmese who speak fluent English and are probably more widely travelled than you. As the buzz kicks in, head towards Inya Lake where you have the choice of two nightclubs: DJ Star and GTR. DJ Star is better known because it’s been around for a while, but the newer GTR is all the rage in Yangon these days. For one, there are fewer hookers there (and so if the girl is interested, there is a chance that it is not your money that she is after) and second, it doesn’t have a cover charge (K10,000 at DJ). If you still have energy you can head to BME 2 on University Avenue, or for a peek at the Yangon underbelly, to Pioneer Club, but the night isn’t over until you have sat around at the tea stall in the wee hours of the morning and wolfed down a plate of rice and peanuts.

Travels In Myanmar: Under A Night Sky

I had no idea what to expect that morning in Yangon. Inside the city’s once grand but now decrepit train station, a few lonely bulbs fought weakly against the dark. Across the arrivals hall was the silhouette of my transport, an intimidating iron locomotive. I moved hesitantly towards this slumbering rusty giant, past anonymous passengers squatting on the cracked cement floor, huddled in the chill of pre-dawn. The station’s shadows whispering with nervous energy. Who knew where this day was headed?

In the vague outlines of my journey, only one detail was certain: I was in a country called Burma (or was it called Myanmar?) and determined to witness a mysterious festival of “Fire Balloons” in a distant Shan State town of Taunggyi. Beyond that, I knew little. The previous day I had wandered into a travel agency hoping to find a way to get to the festival. Buses and flights there were full, and the agent had suggested heading north to the rail depot at Thazi to arrange further transport. It sounded like a half-baked plan. But with dwindling options and a burning desire to witness this strange festival, I had agreed.

As I considered my uncertain itinerary, the shaky locomotive rumbled its way out of the station in a fog of anxious dawn. The ancient carriage embraced a landscape of endless, monochrome-green farm fields, shrouded in a mist of faint light. A treacherous white-hot sun soon pierced the horizon, igniting a furnace of unrelenting heat. Out the window I could make out distant water buffaloes lumbering across shimmering rice paddy fields, trailed by men hidden beneath sun hats. Amtrak this was not.

Inside the train car, red-robed monks stripped to the waist in the warmth, fanning themselves with wilting sports pages. Meanwhile, men puffed on fragrant cheroot cigarettes, the smoke curling its way into every orifice and fabric. Young boys roamed the aisles hawking glistening nooses of freshly plucked chickens, while the heat painted sweat stains in mosaics on my pants and shirt. I sat stewing in this pungent mixture of sweat, billowing cheroot smoke and grease, drowning in second thoughts as the reality of the unknown journey inched forward.

My motivation for visiting Burma had so far escaped introspection. Romanced by visions of countless travel writers and the exotic, I had left my job and life behind, traveling alone to this reclusive Southeast Asian nation in search of something different. I wanted to have an adventure and discover some deeper meaning to my journey. But as the hours bobbed and squeaked past tiny wooden villages and muddy brown farm fields, fat and thick with monsoon rain, I felt invisible and wracked with uncertainty. I desperately craved something familiar – an anchor to the reality I had discarded far behind in my relentless search for discovery.

Twelve dripping, exhausted hours later, a small triumph shook me from my daze. Thazi! I made it! But Burma wasn’t ready to let me off easily. The plan was to meet some other travelers in Thazi and find a ride – but I was the only one there. Come to think of it, Thazi didn’t even have a bus station. It was no more than a dusty main road littered with stray dogs and wobbly Japanese pickups. It was nearly dark and I was fenced in by my stupid choices. Growing nervous with dwindling options, I stumbled to a nearby pickup truck owner and pleaded for assistance.

“Can you…take me to Taunggyi?” I asked haltingly. The man sized up the tall foreigner in his midst, grinning at his luck.

“Maybe tomorrow. 20,000 kyat.” he spat out, with a smile.

My shoulders sagged. The vehicle was barely upright, let alone roadworthy – the cream-colored exterior was polka-dotted with rust. Four balding tires looked ready to deflate or burst, I couldn’t tell which. But the prospect of spending the night in that strange city, alone, drove me to further action.

“I’ll pay 10,000, and I want to leave tonight,” I countered.

The owner grimaced and crossed his arms in thought. Meanwhile a visibly intoxicated man and several kids crowded behind us, intrigued by the transaction. The cost was worth less than a dinner back home, but it felt like something large was at stake.

“OK, we go – but very far. You pay 15,000.”

Adrenaline surged. Taunggyi was now within my grasp! How naive I was. The truck still needed to fill with passengers and goods before it would depart. We waited for what seemed like hours. Six women climbed into benches in the back. Three more men perched themselves above the truck’s metal scaffolding. A precariously stacked bundle of wicker baskets was lashed to the roof. The truck looked less like transport than a vehicular Jenga game ready to topple. I sat on the curb, eyes wide and mouth agape. The drunken man from earlier hovered over me babbling, gesturing at the pickup and chuckling.

The evening was well under way before we departed. I climbed into the pickup’s front cabin with the owner and a young camouflage-clad man named Mikey, my knees jammed against the dash and head poking against the cabin’s roof, backpack shoehorned beneath my knees. The intimate seating arrangements encouraged Mikey to strike up a conversation.

“Where you come from?” Mikey inquired in his halting English.

I got asked this question a lot while I was in Burma. Frequently the desired answer had less to do with learning your citizenship than simply conjuring your state of mind.

“Man, it’s been such a long day, I can’t even remember anymore” I groaned.

We set off shakily, our pickup struggling to gain speed with its massive load. A horse-drawn cart rolled past, leaving our shaky vehicle in the dust. Shortly after departing Thazi, the pickup had its first breakdown. An hour later, the owner stopped to secretly siphon gas into the tank from a roadside oil drum. As we drove, Mikey chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes blowing smoke in my face in between eruptions of flatulence and cackling giggle fits with the driver. Spending the night in Thazi began to look like an attractive option.

Despite the setbacks, I realized my earlier anxiety was gone. Each unexpected stop seemed less like a challenge than a bizarre novelty. I found myself smiling at the ridiculousness of it all. Mikey even bought me a can of iced coffee, trading a grin and thumbs up of solidarity. As I sipped my shockingly sweet Coffee King beverage, I happened to glance up at the night sky, which had unfurled itself behind the Shan foothills like a blanket of twinkling brilliance. Sparkling meteorites zipped and swooshed with startling frequency. Distant constellations seemed to pulse and move like the rhythm of a cosmic ocean. In my semi-lucid state, I stared in wonder, mouth agape. At that moment, all the doubts, insecurities and vanities of my journey faded. This was exactly where I needed to be.

After each repair, we were back on the road, our ride wobbling ever higher in the foothills of Shan State. The smooth pavement became a dirt road treacherous with potholes. It was not much more than a single car wide, and we had to share with the hulking Chinese semis lumbering past, showering our vehicle with aromas of diesel fumes and dust. It was all I could do to keep from gagging on these noxious clouds, fortifying myself with the knowledge that clean night air would soon return to my window, along with that luminous sky.

Seven hours passed before the lights of Taunggyi shined in the distance, glittering like a city on a hill. It had been over 20 hours since I left Yangon that morning. I found the nearest guesthouse, banged on the door until it opened and collapsed on a bed. My longest day soon faded into the memory of the stillness of night.

Life frequently requires us to make decisions without fully understanding their impact. I keep asking myself the same questions about my purpose and finding no clear answers. Where am I headed? What’s the point? With so much uncertainty and doubt, it’s easy to believe I’ve lost my way. Except that I haven’t. Whenever I have these moments of doubt I remind myself to take a deep breath, and look up at the night sky. Suddenly I find myself transported back to that night in Burma when I rediscovered my purpose, gazing up at a blanket of stars shimmering with light.

Photo of the Day: Workers on a bench

The best photography captures candid moments – those split seconds between fantasy and reality when our subjects’ guard comes down and we get a glimpse into their true nature. That’s why I liked today’s photo by Flickr user t3mujin – his shot of workers relaxing on a bench in the Burmese city of Yangon feels like one of those candid moments. I love how each man’s body language is slightly unique yet quite similar – the two on the ends with their knees up act almost like “bookends” to the men in the middle with both their legs down.

Have any great photos from your own travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Video: Catching a moving train in Burma

A Reddit user submitted this video of people catching a moving train in Yangon, Burma. Note that the train doesn’t actually *stop* in the station. The first woman gets an assist from a train employee as well as a man on the ground, who then has to run down the platform – in flipflops, no less – and catch the train with several bags to carry before it leaves the station. The video uploader explains that the train was running two hours late and had no time to stop, and the man had seven bags to get onto the train in less than a minute.

Imagine Amtrak (or even your local commuter train) adopting this new policy for late trains. Think you are intrepid enough to jump on a moving train with luggage?