A few months ago I would have been hard-pressed to locate Myanmar (previously Burma) on a map. The country has a long and complicated history that includes rising and falling monarchies, British colonization, conspiracy with the Japanese during WWII, the world’s longest running civil war, and a military junta that only recently began to adjust its stance that complete isolation from the Western world is in the best interest of the people. Just over one year ago, American tourists were finally permitted to enter the country, and political and ethical arguments aside, the buzz amongst travelers is that it cannot be missed. With this recommendation in my pocket, I set out to explore the country that, in many ways, seems to have missed much of the past 30 years.
As mentioned in my previous post, incorrect information abounds (from the US Department of State Travel website, no less) regarding the availability of ATMs, internet, etc. and so we decided to spend only one week in Myanmar. In the end, we chose to visit three of the “Big Four” tourist spots: Yangon, Bagan, and Inle Lake. Due to the brevity of our trip, we omitted Mandalay from the plan— a move that I don’t particularly regret.
Yangon was an assault to the senses—oppressively hot and humid, dirty, and packed with people. It took me a few minutes to gain some composure, and once I did I submitted to the complete experience of simply walking down the street. Small stalls offered old-school house phones so that people could pay to contact family or friends. Men wore long skirts (longys) made up of a large piece of fabric that tied at the waist while women dressed conservatively and painted their faces with a light clay-like substance (thanaka) as a sign of beauty and for sun protection. The amount of delicious looking street food was mind blowing, although I left with more questions than answers regarding one “mystery meat” or another. And the Shwedagon Pagoda… Wow! What a sight! The crown jewel of Myanmar stands 325 feet tall and is encrusted with 5,400+ diamonds, 2,300+ rubies, and a 76-carat diamond bud. Yup, that’ll do. There is absolutely no denying the beauty that abounds amid the chaos in the city of Yangon.
Bagan is a stark contrast to Yangon—a flat, dusty expanse of land peppered with over 2,000 Buddhist pagodas and temples. It is rumored that over 10,000 structures once stood in the 40-square-mile area, which seems both impressive and excessive. Kiera and I rented rusty, one-size-fits-none bikes and explored local villages while scouting out potential private pagodas for the sunset. The valley along the Irrawaddy River provided spectacular panoramas. We chatted with a student from Mandalay and learned that the cost of a cell phone has dropped from nearly $2,000 to $200 since the dissolution of the military junta in 2011. This simple fact helped to exemplify the government’s efforts to isolate its people; if they can’t afford a phone then they can’t contact the outside world and see what they are missing and they can’t plot against you over long distances. Simple enough.
Inle Lake provided a chance to slow down, although we didn’t take it up on the offer. We enjoyed a full-day tour of the lake, during which we spotted a Burmese cat sanctuary and promptly had our guide drop us off for an hour-long cuddle session. We watched men use one leg to steer the boat as they used both hands to pull in a fishing net. Women and children slowly rowed their way to the morning market and men tended to floating vegetable gardens and rice paddies by moving down the aisles in thin wooden boats. We trekked around the Shan Hills, visiting a cave that was once inhabited by Japanese soldiers during WWII but is now part of a Buddhist monastery. Our day was capped off with a visit to a village school for 52 children who are learning English along with their teacher. I had brought along two packs of candy-flavored lip gloss, and it was adorable to watch as the girls realized how good they smelled. Hopefully they didn’t take them home and try to eat them. Oh well, I tried.
Our week in Myanmar was incredibly special. I am thankful for the experience, but am also saddened to think of how life will change for those in Yangon, Bagan, and Inle Lake as tourist numbers increase. While tourism provides economic opportunities for many, it will likely also lead to the destruction of existing markets. Surely the women of Lake Titicaca’s Uros Island once participated in agriculture and inter-village trade. Now, however, they wait anxiously for the next boat of tourists to be dropped off so that they can dress them up in traditional clothing and ask them to pay to take a photo. Quite a far cry from an “authentic” experience. While I emphatically say “YES” to visiting Myanmar, I hope that you will also respect the existing culture and spread the economic love, spending your money with a number of family-owned guest houses, restaurants, etc. The country has made great strides in the direction of democracy and freedom for its people, and tourists can help to improve the situation by traveling responsibly.
I have struggled to put this experience into words and ask that you please check out my PHOTOS as I feel that they better tell the story this time around. Please feel free to ask any questions, especially if you plan to board a plane to beautiful Burma or mesmerizing Myanmar.