Myanmar (Burma): Different, Not Same Same
Finally, a new blog post! It was challenging to write in Myanmar with the very slow, or non-existent Wifi. Daniel and I are now in Central Vietnam for the remainder of my trip. I skipped over and plan to write a later post about the Thailand islands, but felt compelled to write about Myanmar first. Daniel and I both fell in love with this country.
Traveling Southeast Asia, you frequently see t-shirts with the logo “Same Same, but Different”, which I interpret as a joking reference to the repetitiveness of the tourist trade. Myanmar is the first country we visited that really felt different. Everyone was friendly and curious about us. There was almost no solicitation to buy food, transport, etc. Myanmar only really opened to tourists in 2012 (the same year most citizens gained access to cell phones), and it retains its culture. Men wear longyi, a wraparound cloth resembling a skirt, and chew betel, a leaf that is a mild stimulant that stains their teeth red. Walking around, you see spit stains on the road which look like blood splatters. Women’s cheeks are painted white with sunscreen made out of thanaka, a ground bark. In Yangon, motorbikes are banned. We did not see advertisements for skin whitening treatments. Few restaurants and fewer bars cater to tourists. On our first night, we went to 19th street, Chinatown in Yangon which had amazing street food. We had delicious whole fish cooked in salt and garlic over a BBQ.
It was a challenge to get into the country. We had purchased a ticket from Phuket to Yangon, the old capital of Burma, with a stopover in Bangkok. But despite what we had read, we couldn’t do visa on arrival. It may be possible for Americans coming from Siem Reap in Cambodia, but from Thailand, we learned at the airport that our only quick option was to go to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. Fortunately, we loved Bangkok, so the pleasure of getting to spend another two nights and a day exploring it offset the frustration and unexpected cost of obtaining same-day visas. And one cannot expect traveling to only go smoothly; challenges will occur and all you can do is try to react to them with a good attitude. It was also challenging to get out of the country. We had hoped to visit Laos, but there is no bus between Myanmar and Laos because it would be too dangerous to travel through the fighting in northern Myanmar. We saw no signs of rebel activity where we visited. We decided instead to return to Vietnam and visit Hanoi. To do so, we had to wait several days for a flight, take a night bus from Inle Lake to Yangon, then a flight with an overnight layover in Bangkok. It was exhausting and took two full days.
Our second flight into Yangon was successful. Yangon is a fascinating city, and the best way to explore it is on foot, which we did both on our own and through a free walking tour offered by volunteers. You can find information at http://www.freeyangonwalks.com. We highly recommend this tour. Our guide, Petra, has lived in Yangon for 18 years after immigrating from Germany, initially to study Buddhism, and then to be a nun for several years. We learned a lot about the history of colonial Britain, the period of independence from 1947 to 1962, the subsequent military coup, and the recent democratic election, which has yet to change much as the government undertakes a thorough review of the previous administration. She spoke about the week that the capital city secretly moved from Yangon to Naypidaw in November of 2005, with government buildings emptied at night. You see the ghosts of colonial Britain in the beautiful old buildings throughout the city and especially in the old financial district. Many have fallen into ruin, and although there is a Yangon Heritage Trust with conservation projects, there is no organized effort or financial support for preservation and renovation. Some buildings are abandoned behind fences and homeless live there in the rainy season. Others house families in apartments. Some are used for government purposes, such as the stock building, which currently has 2 businesses that are traded. Several buildings have new businesses, i.e. restaurants and art galleries, that have renovated the part of the building they rent, while the rest remains in disrepair. We went to one, Gekko in the Sofaer building, for a wonderful sushi dinner. They have done a beautiful renovation job including preserving the original mosaic ceramic floor tiles shipped from Manchester, England.
It rained every hour we were there except for a lucky break the afternoon we visited Shwedagon Pagoda. I wasn’t sure what to feel about the Pagoda. It’s a wonder of the religious world, the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar and the primary tourist attraction in Yangon. It enshrines holy relics including eight strands of Buddha’s hair. The pagoda is built out of gold and encrusted with jewels, including 4531 diamonds, the largest 72 carats. I tried to appreciate it as a monument and symbol of Buddhism to its people, but it also made me feel uneasy to see the riches spent on this site in a country with a decaying infrastructure and so many poor people. At one point Daniel asked me, jokingly but serious, “Wasn’t Buddha a minimalist? I wonder what he would have thought of all this.” I was aware of some people glaring at me and did not know why. I was worried that my dress was disrespectful (although I covered my top with a shawl), or perhaps they were reacting to Daniel’s photography.
Visiting Bagan was a highlight, probably the highlight, of our travels. Bagan is an ancient city, the capital of the kingdom of Pagan that eventually became Burma. We rented an e-bike and spent two days exploring some of the 14,000 Buddhist temples, stupas and pagodas that were built between the 9th and 13th centuries. Each one houses statues of Buddha and paintings on the stones. We were waived down by Thien, who said it’s his job to teach people about the paintings. He showed us a mural of the story of Buddha’s life and enlightenment. We asked him about places to watch the sunset, and he showed us how to climb to the top of several stupas. Out of respect for these holy places, we removed our shoes. Climbing gritty stones in 100 degree heat was uncomfortable, but worth it for the incredible experiences. Each sunrise and sunset, we climbed atop one of the tallest stupas to take in a different view. It was breath-taking, so beautiful that it felt like my heart was in my throat.
In a huge contrast to Angkor Wat, we did not see other tourists for most of the day until we went to Pyathadar Hpaya to view the sunset. Bagan is beautiful, unspoiled, a holy place. The climate is desert-like, vast expanses dotted with stupas as far as you can see in every direction. We stopped for lunch at Minnanthu, a small agricultural village of 600 residents. We were waved down from the road by Tway Tway, a 19 year-old resident of the village. She said that most residents are farmers, and instead, she had the idea to give tours of the village. She enjoys practicing her English and she is a great business woman: the villagers demonstrate sand painting, weaving, making crafts of bamboo and lacquer, and jewelry making. We also took a puff of a cigar made of corn husks, wood shavings, and a small amount of tobacco with a 91 year old woman, who we were told is famous in Japan (on calendars and guidebooks). We also enjoyed exploring the Old and New Bagan villages. One of our favorite culinary experiences was Be Kind to Animals The Moon Vegetarian restaurant. It looks charming and unassuming, and the food was absolutely delicious, especially the tea leaf salad, a favorite national dish. After weeks of limited vegetarian dietary options and lots of noodles and fried food, it was a healthy treat.
We had not initially planned to go to Mandalay, but decided to go to break up the long bus ride to Inle Lake. It was a memorable bus ride and we learned to take bigger buses in the future. We were the only tourists and the bus was packed. It was so bumpy on swerving roads that most of the bus vomited into plastic bags, which they then tossed out the door whenever it opened to let on more passengers. Mandalay was my least favorite place we visited in Myanmar. Perhaps I was tired and not in the right mindset. But I did not find it visually interesting, and it was very hot and dusty. There are few restaurants and no bars, and we didn’t have any good meals there. The two highlights were our hotel Kaung Mint Hotel, a cut above hostels in comfort and quality service, and Health Center Thai Massage. For about $10, I had a 90 minute Thai massage that was unlike any massage I’ve ever had. I was confused initially when they gave me long pants and a top to wear. It made sense when I learned what an active, acrobatic massage it was. The masseuse, Tarn, twisted me like a pretzel, like her yoga marionette. I felt incredible afterwards.
Our last destination in Myanmar was Inle Lake. Inle Lake is a massive, freshwater lake located in the Shan Plateau, inhabited by ethnic nationals in villages along and on the lake. It is a picturesque water world ringed by mountains. The views on the bus ride were stunning, of jungle and mountains and small homes clinging to cliff sides. We stayed in Nyuang Shwe, which is full of great restaurants including Live Dim Sum House and One Owl Grill. On our first day, we took a boat trip around the lake arranged by a travel agency. This was our one experience that was something of a tourist trap – the itinerary consisted of lots of shops with demonstrations of lotus weaving, silver making, etc. – but our guide was flexible when we directed him elsewhere. The floating villages, organic gardens, and fisherman who row standing on one leg and paddling with the other leg, were incredible sights. The highlight for me was visiting the Inle Heritage house, which is a not for profit organization with the mission statement to preserve the cultural and natural wealth of the Inle region. Tours are free. It includes an aquarium, organic garden and restaurant, schools in cooking and hotel management and Burmese cat sanctuary. I am convinced that my cats are somehow part Burmese because they share dog-like personalities. These cats are very affectionate and playful, and seek constant love and attention. I loved seeing them swarm over Daniel. One climbed onto his shoulder and jumped back up after I put him on the ground.
Myanmar is a special place, rich in its culture and natural beauty. Although there are some challenges in traveling there – learn from us and get a visa online or at a consulate in advance – we highly recommend it. It is a great destination for travelers in Southeast Asia who are seeking a different and authentic experience of a country.
Follow on instagram @illuminatethisday
And Facebook https://www.facebook.com/illuminatethisday/