Read Also: Bagan Dispatch
I have long believed that the best moments in travel are those that are unscripted, the chance encounters or sudden disruptions that send you on an unexpected course and allow for the most memorable discoveries. On our recent trip to Burma, or Myanmar, that is exactly what occurred. Myanmar has the lure of the forbidden; the country was cut-off and off-limits for decades. The generals running Myanmar didn’t want foreign influences to come in or reports of their human rights abuses getting out. And to protest their appalling human rights record, for years many humanitarians called for a tourist boycott. Now, the country is open. Obama has visited. Boycotts have been lifted, and everyone wants to rush in to see the land that Kipling immortalized in poetry before it becomes too Westernized.
Travelers are right to want to go, but not if they are the kind who wants to stay in fancy hotels and check off major sights like clockwork. The infrastructure remains primitive with more than three quarters of the city of Yangon commonly without power. The tour buses are the best available but look like they may have been retired from service in Las Vegas fifteen years ago. Credit cards are accepted almost nowhere. The first ATMs are just arriving; we went to an office building where the money exchangers were set up between curio shops and the exchange rates were different for brand new and worn bills. However, adventurous souls who can handle changes in plans, are open to discovery and appreciate the magic of foreign encounters will find themselves enchanted just as Kipling was.
Because if I had to choose one word to describe Myanmar it would be subtle. Its people are deeply spiritual; 89% are Buddhists. Its landscapes are more poetic than dramatic. Its beauty unfolds gently and serenely. You have to slow down and pay attention to let it reveal itself. Those who are rushing and want something orchestrated or served up on command will probably be disappointed. On our first day in Yangon we went to the legendary Shwegadon Pagoda, where a massive gold stupa rising more than 330 feet into the sky sits at the center of dozens of smaller temples. Some were painted with murals with stories of Buddha; others adorned with mirrors and tiles and others filled with gold Buddhas, even pulsing electrical neon Buddhas. Young and old came to pour water over the Buddhas at stations for each day of the week or to make gold leaf offerings to Buddha or to pray, or even take strolls with their lovers or children. We were among the only Westerners in the vast complex and around us Burmese daily moments—from a momentous one (a Christening) to pedestrian ones (students goofing off) and everything in between—played out. This was one of the highlights of Yangon. Catching glimpses of the crumbling grand colonial buildings, which may or may not be preserved as foreign investment pours into the city; staying at the charming, old world Governor’s Residence and meeting a prominent Burmese artist and dining in his art gallery were others.
From Yangon we flew up to Bagan, the land of a thousand temples, but its fields are really strewn with many thousands of temples. Bagan, like Luxor or Angkor Wat, cannot be comprehended until you see it in person. In every direction rise the spires of stupas in varying degrees of decay, like ancient prayers laid in brick and left over for centuries. Some of our group chose to float over the temple fields in hot air balloons (my fourth and favorite balloon experience) and others rode around them on bicycles. When we all visited a local school to distribute notebooks and pencils, the polite, all-in-a-row children dissolved into giggles and goofy poses when we snapped pictures of them with our iphones and digital cameras and showed them the images. We shared no common language but technology bridged the gap and our smiles and eyes communicated more than words. We left awed and silenced by the exchange.
We had booked our berths on the Orient Express Road to Mandalay boat months in advance—as one must being that Burma has suddenly become a must-visit destination but still has very limited space for tourists. (Once you are there that is a blessing because you see very few other travelers; there simply aren’t enough beds for many.) We were to sail from Bagan to Mandalay but we learned on arriving was that the Irawaddy River was too low (not because of lack of rain but the government had diverted water) for the boat to travel that far north. Instead we had to dock in a small riverside town where we could take buses into Mandalay. That day of exploring was long because of extra hours on rugged roads, however, it was more than made up for by the bonus of being rare visitors to the town of our anchorage. There families invited us into their houses. We rode on bicycle rickshaws into various neighborhoods and wandered in the daily market. When a sleepy toddler pointed at me and said, “Ma Ma.” All of the women in the surrounding stalls laughed with me as clearly it was his only word even for woman who looked so foreign.
One night on our cruise on the Irawaddy, there was a surprise on deck after dinner. We assumed fireworks would light up the tropical night sky, but instead in the distance we noticed pinpricks of light. Slowly their number grew and they drifted toward us until finally we were surrounded by hundreds of floating candles. There was no music, no explosion, no whirr and boom or sparkle. Were we moving toward the flames or they toward us? It was hard to tell and like so much of the trip, the experience was subtle, personal and enlarging, which is exactly why one should go to Myanmar. Not to check it off a list or be among the first to go but to see it unfold and be returned to wonder and simplicity.
We will have another Indagare Insider Trip to Myanmar this coming October. For details contact, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trip to Myanmar 2012
Myanmar 2012 is an outrageous shape shifter.
Before I left on my trip there in March, I had read extensively about this southeast Asian country, not least because its appalling history of military dictatorship demands due diligence from travelers. But owing to how fast things have been changing, nothing I read had actually prepared me. Most everything I experienced—from the relentless street scene in Yangon to the serene temples of Bagan —was more complex, vibrant and profound than I imagined. It was the type of journey where your brain is on all the time, because everything you see invites further questions. If things continue to change as fast as they have been, it will be different to visit even six months from now, let alone years when—predictably, hopefully—the longtime U.S. and European-imposed sanctions will have been lifted, and investors will have discovered this culturally rich place.
Since the contested elections in 2010, Myanmar has been steadily moving towards democratic change. What began as a whisper of transformation has grown louder, as timid but extraordinarily hopeful signs point toward a lasting shift. The release of longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, known as the Lady, from house arrest in 2010 was a marker, as was the state visit by Hillary Clinton in November 2011, the first by a U.S. official in over fifty years. Just one year ago locals were not able to access online blogs, could not exchange U.S. dollars and could get arrested for distributing pictures of the Lady or her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). On my recent trip to Myanmar, I met residents who have Facebook pages; I was able to pay with U.S. dollars even at some smaller markets (though the local currency is, naturally, preferred); and I visited the NLD’s headquarter in Bagan, reopened in January, where I purchased T-shirts and cards bearing the Lady’s portrait. There was an overwhelming sense of history being made right now.
For me, Myanmar was the trip of a lifetime. There were big experiences, like seeing Aung San Suu Kyi at the Yangon airport, visiting the massive golden Shwedagon Pagoda and drifting in a hot air balloon across Bagan’s temple-strewn fields. But it’s the small moments that got under my skin and that stay with me still: the smiles exchanged with locals at a rural market; the visit to a monastic orphanage run by an engaged, beautiful, 35-year-old monk; discovering floor-to-ceiling murals in a hushed, dark temple, whose caretaker encouraged me to illuminate them with a flashlight he provided.
One of my extraordinary guides told me about the Buddhist belief that the more lost you are, the more alms you get. This was certainly true of my trip. I lost myself in Myanmar—and am richer for it today.
WHY GO NOW:
To catch a destination in midst of change. Virtually overnight, Myanmar is on the top of everyone’s travel lists, but due to the fact that the hotel scene remains modest, it’s also a place that cannot accommodate huge amounts of tourists—yet. (This is sure to change: at the Yangon airport, a driver was holding up a sign for “Mr. Zecha,” and surely the city’s gorgeous, crumbling Colonial buildings are of great interest to the Aman’s founder.) It’s not so undiscovered that you will have major sites to yourself, but in Bagan a “busy” temple means five tour buses and in Yangon, you can walk into any top restaurant and get a table. The trickiest thing is actually booking such coveted hotels as Governor’s Residence and Road to Mandalay, the Orient-Express’ wonderful boat that cruises along the Irrawaddy. Contact our Bookings Team for help planning a trip.
WHO SHOULD GO NOW:
Curious travelers who are eager to experience the treasures of historic Burma and to understand the complexities of modern-day Myanmar. Visiting the important religious sites (temples, pagodas, reclining Buddhas) may bear some similarities to those found in Thailand, Cambodia or Malaysia. But it’s the country’s present-day story and the current changes that make it so unique. In an Op-Ed piece for the International Herald Tribune, a friend of mine described Myanmar as both “beautiful and tragic.” (Read the article here) Hopefully in the coming years, the tragic will fade into the historic while the beautiful will be developed thoughtfully and carefully—and both of these depend greatly on tourists who “get it.” Travelers who don’t do well with last-minute itinerary changes, non-connectivity and those who don’t have a sense for adventure should probably pass on Myanmar for now.
Here are some quotes from my conversations with locals that helped me understand the nuances of Myanmar.
- “We were never North Korea.” While the U.S. and European sanctions have resulted in the absence of many familiar brands, Myanmar still deals with China and India, so it’s much more commercial than I had expected. Yangon is plastered in billboards, some with large video screen; there are stores for cell phones and televisions; and locals with the means to have TV have no problem getting CNN, BBC and even HBO.
- “When it works, it’s fantastic but you have to expect the unexpected.” Myanmar is still the type of place where flight schedules change on a dime, electricity can go out as often as once a day and Internet connectivity can be sketchy (that said, some of the main temples in Bagan had WiFi, leading to many connection-desperate travelers to come early to get their Internet fix.)
- “Many don’t realize that what’s happening right now is the hard work of a handful of men.” Optimism that lasting change is here prevails, but there are also residents who voice apprehension that it’s all too good to be true (and happening too fast). President U Thein Sein is working hard on pulling the country into a road towards democracy, but some of the old regime shadow in the background. Travelers have a responsibility to read up on Myanmar’s recent history and tread carefully when addressing issues of political change with locals (another revealing quote was one person telling us: “I am 80-90 percent comfortable speaking about politics.”)
- “We want to say that we are the same as girls around the world, with the same goals, passions and strength. We love our traditions and we love yours, too.” The five members of the cheekily named Me N Ma Girls, Myanmar’s first girl band, have iPhones and trendy hair cuts and chat about boys, soccer and MTV, as if they grew up in the States. Their dream is to perform at the Grammy’s, though for now they are building a name for themselves in Myanmar (original songs are unheard of in a place where the newest Madonna and Brittney simply get covered by local bands). A lengthy piece in the New York Times (read it here) captured how the girls are “pushing the limits of artistic acceptability in this socially conservative country.”
- Yangon: Governor’s Residence
- Yangon: Helping Hands Loft
- Yangon: River Art Gallery
- Bagan: Biking in Old Bagan
- Bagan: Ananda & Shwedasaw Paya
- Bagan: Balloons Over Bagan
Read a New York Times Op-Ed piece from March 30, 2012 about change in Myanmar.
Contact our Bookings Team for help with trip planning.
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