NUS allowed me eleven days to study before final examinations began. I am used to having only one “reading day” to study for finals, so with eleven days for study, I was unsure of what to do with myself. So, my friends and I planned a trip to Myanmar.
Myanmar only became “Myanmar” in 2010. Before this, it was Burma. It seems the people are largely trying to forget being “Burmese”. The language is now called Myanmar, and the people are the people of Myanmar. The government only recently opened the country up to tourism, and because of continuing political and religious struggles, tourism in Myanmar is not quite “mainstream”, even for Southeast Asian travelers.
Because of this, I was on high-guard upon arriving in Yangon, Myanmar’s capitol, but after just a few hours in the city, I found myself feeling quite safe. Of course, we remained alert and attentive to large crowds and other suspicious-looking situations, but overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the stability of the areas we visited. There really were no “suspicious-looking situations”. That said, tourists are only able to visit a very select few areas in Myanmar, so what I saw is not even the slightest bit of Myanmar’s true, current state.
So, we kept to the typical “tourist circuit”. Even along this route, we were asked to take photos, as has become typical, as we looked quite Western, even in our long pants and longyis, which we wore at the temples out of respect (in 109 Fahrenheit weather!). In Yangon, we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is 99 meters high, gilded, and holds four relics of Buddha. Naturally, many monks and other Buddhists seek to visit the pagoda in their lifetime. This was the first time in my lifetime that I had seen that many monks. We saw female monks, male monks, child monks, monks with iPads, monks drinking cold beverages at corner food stalls, monks posing for photos, etc. My image of a “monk” was certainly changed after Myanmar. There were monks everywhere!
We later visited the market and a reclining Buddha statue before preparing to take a night bus to the ancient city of Bagan. The bus ride was the only time I was slightly frightened in Myanmar. At one point, in the middle of the night, the bus just stopped. The lights went out and the driver left without a word. We heard voices outside, but everyone on the bus was quiet. I think another bus was having technical issues and our driver left to help, but at the time his lack of explanation was a bit alarming, in combination with my sleepy, middle-of-the-night-daze.
We arrived in Bagan just in time to see the sunrise over the 10,000 pagodas and temples that surround the city. I think Bagan may have been my favorite experience of the whole trip, not just because it was an ancient city, but because of the serenity that comes with temples. In the afternoons, we climbed up the steep steps and through the tiny archways to sit atop the temples and just think and embrace the peace of the city. Bagan uses very few cars and the “taxis” are mostly horse-drawn. Even the electric bikes most people use to get around the thousands of temples are quiet. We saw two sunrises and a sunset in Bagan and spent a bit of time at the market. Here, a woman and her two children shared a botanical with me, a skin protectant. It smelled quite good and decorates many Myanmar women and young children. This is the gold you may see on Myanmar women’s faces in photos.
Next, we headed to Kalaw, which is a village next to Inle Lake. Here, we stayed at my favorite hostel, yet. For just $3 a night, we were supplied a bed, a shower, a delicious breakfast, and access to the hotel’s trekking services and bus-booking abilities. April is the month of Myanmar’s New Year, so buses were difficult to come by, as was quiet, as prayers over loudspeakers were continuous.
With only six days in the country and a student, not backpacker’s, schedule, it was necessary to stick to our pre-determined bus routes. The hostel also suggested the best monastery for seeing the sunset, and its employees were very accommodating of my peanut allergy.
We began the trek to Inle Lake the next morning after a delicious pseudo-banana-crepe-savory-pancake breakfast. This was a two-day, one night 23-mile walk in the desert of Myanmar. Our guide, Paul, was wonderful. Upon informing him of my fear of snakes, he showed me his cobra bite. We felt safe and well taken care of with Paul.
We also went with a cook, who made us the best meals we had in Myanmar. The guide, the cook, our food, and our stay for two days and one night were only $35.
Throughout the trek, we passed several villages and stopped to talk (which consisted of Paul translating) to many of the villagers. One kind lady donated snow peas from her farm for our dinner. They were delicious. Our guide helped her carry her animal feed up a large hill. We also met several children playing. The trek was long and vast, but we didn’t go more than two miles at any given time without seeing children playing in the open fields and red clay dust, or a farmer and his ox and cattle. The landscape itself was a bit similar to the American southwest.
We slept in a village near our halfway point. This was a very cool experience. Our village house was made of weaved bamboo trees and was hoisted up on stilts. The walls were blackened from the use of a fire for cooking for many years. We were told that the home used to belong to a family, who had since moved. That night, we heard many tales about the people of Myanmar and the conflicts of tribes throughout Myanmar’s history.
Our tour group was also full of interesting people. We were composed of one British man who was residing in Singapore, an Irish backpacker, a Swiss couple, and a Korean mother and daughter pair. We were a big group, but the conversation never dwindled.
We completed the trek the next day at Inle Lake, where floating villages and fisherman are the norm. It was a beautiful experience on a beautiful day. Upon arriving at the village outside of Inle Lake, our amazing tour comrades offered to let us use their showers at their hostel, as we were to take a bus back to Yangon that afternoon. The bus ride was thirteen hours. There’s something about buses in Asia: thirteen hours feels like five. The scenery is so wonderful and you’re usually so tired that thirteen hours of sitting on a bus sometimes doesn’t feel like long enough.
Myanmar was certainly an experience: we did not see real soap or “real” toilets for almost six days (though the sharing of hand sanitizer was rampant), but I have never met kinder people and experienced such unique and “non-touristy” things. Asia is certainly re-defining my ideas on cleanliness, safety, and well-being: one non-existing toilet and dirty street at a time.
The people of Myanmar are quick to smile, will go out of their way to help you, and are a kind and gentle people curious to know about their country’s visitors and to learn from them, as visitors to Myanmar hope to learn from its residents. The kindness of the people is what I will remember most about my travel to Myanmar.