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 coming in or reports of their human rights abuses getting out. And to protest their appalling human rights record, many humanitarians for years 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 want 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 here but look as if they had 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 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 be enchanted, just as Kipling was.
If I had to choose one word to describe Myanmar it would be subtle. Its people are deeply spiritual; 89 percent 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 are painted with murals with stories of Buddha; others are adorned with mirrors and tiles, and still others are filled with gold Buddhas, even pulsing, electrical, neon Buddhas. Young and old came to pour water over the Buddhas at stations each day of the week or to make gold-leaf offerings to Buddha, or to pray, or just to take strolls with their lovers or children. We were among the only Westerners in the vast complex, and around us daily Burmese moments—from the momentous (a naming ceremony) to the pedestrian (students goofing off) and everything in between—played out. This was one of the highlights of Yangon. Others include 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.
From Yangon we flew up to Bagan, whose title of land of a thousand temples understates the many thousands that actually dot its fields. 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 states of decay, like ancient prayers baked in brick and left for centuries. Some of our group chose to float over the temple fields in hot-air balloons (my fourth and favorite balloon experience), while others rode around them on bicycles. We all visited a local school to distribute notebooks and pencils, and 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 boat Road to Mandalay months in advance, as one must, since Burma has 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 more.) We were to sail from Bagan to Mandalay, but we learned on arriving that the Irawaddy River was too low (not because of lack of rain but because the government had diverted water) for the boat to travel that far north. Instead we had to dock in a small riverside town from which we could take buses into Mandalay. That day of exploring was long because of extra hours on rugged roads, but any hardship was more than offset by the bonus of being rare visitors in the town where we anchored. 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 the women in the surrounding stalls laughed with me, as that was clearly his only word for a woman, even one 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 on the water. 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 or 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. That 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.