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 Belmond 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 the Insider Trips Team.