Since I’ve returned from South East Asia, people are continually asking me what was my highlight, where was my favorite spot. The best answer I can come up with is ‘All of Myanmar’. It amazes me to think back about my trip that was only a couple of months ago and think about this beautiful, largely undiscovered country.
Take for example the morning that a small group of us did a little photo tour to an area just outside the downtown area of Yangon. We walked for about 15 minutes and were outside of the business district, watching the city wake up and begin bustling with locals preparing a small market. We were there before sunrise and saw the monks lining up for their morning rounds and collection. I’m really not sure who was more curious, them or us. It is so incredibly interesting to go to an area where tourists are so rare that they actually become an attraction in the place they’ve gone to visit. I’ll admit, I was a bit shy, not knowing how to approach or talk to the monks, but soon enough I came to understand that they were happy to see us and happy to practice their English skills.
I wandered around taking a few photographs and then one of the locals invited us in to the monastery to enjoy a local breakfast. A few minutes later the group of us were taking off our socks and shoes and following the kind man into a large dining area filled with locals. Barely with our bums in the seats, local men and women were coming out of the kitchen area with various dishes in hand and filling the table with typical breakfast consisting of rice, noodles, fish soup and then sweet sticky rice came along a little later. They filled our bowls and when we were done, they immediately appeared to fill them up again. They certainly didn’t want us to leave hungry. These were the community members who came together to cook food for the monks at this monastery, but the monks were all out on collection at the time. After we finished our meal, we were surprised as the locals gathered around and wanted their photos taken with us. It was only my second day in Myanmar and I was already learning that tourists were as much of an attraction as the attractions were to the tourists.
With an open mind, even the simplest of pleasures can turn out to be a highlight of the trip. Similar to most, I expected extreme poverty. After all it is one of the poorest countries in Asia. To my surprise, our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was beautiful, high end and even had a hostess on board. It was comfortable, with reclining seats to a much better decline than standard buses. Each of us was given a thick warm, fuzzy blanket and a hostess was available for questions and assistance throughout the night. On top of that, the recently built divided highway was mostly smooth sailing and despite the rain, I didn’t feel fearful or uncomfortable at all throughout the night. I just laid back and slept.
Most of the tours that are offered to Burma / Myanmar, range from 12 – 17 days. Sadly, I was on a shortened version and had to pack as much as possible into only 10 spectacular days. Because of the shortened itinerary, we had only one full day to explore that wonders of beautiful Mandalay. Although the core of the city itself isn’t really a highlight, there are lots of beauties to enjoy on the outskirts. A few hours to half a day can be spent enjoying the beauty, history and culture of the ancient U Bein bridge in Amarapura. Just simply watching the way of life, traveling by boat across the lake and then returning by walking across the 1.2 km ancient teak wood bridge. Along the way you can stop and taste local delicacies, take in the spectacular views and meet a few new local friends selling souvenirs.
Don’t be put off though, despite the fact that they are there to make a living and sell their wares, I found the local kids particularly respectful, friendly and interesting. We only had about an hour to spend, which was far too rushed for this beautiful spot, but in that hour I managed to take a boat ride to the middle of the lake and then return on foot across the bridge. I met a young girl who walked back to the main land with me. We chatted about her family, her schooling and life on the lake. Her English was excellent, she was friendly and she didn’t ask me to buy anything until we were nearly back to the main land. It was at this time that I bargained with her a little and purchased two necklaces … one with jade elephants and the other with amber.
We spent the remainder of our day in Mandalay crossing the Irrawaddy river to Mingun, a small community with some big claims to fame. The tiny community hosts the world’s largest bell (over two tonnes of iron), the unfinished, Pahtodawgyi pagoda and the beautiful Hsinbyume pagoda. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, visiting the sites and dodging rain, which came and went in fits and spurts. Although the rain slowed us down a little as we waited for it to stop under the cover of a big leafy tree, it certainly didn’t ruin the experience and I wouldn’t change it for a second and replace it with a mass of tourists. I’d much rather travel in green season dodging a bit of rain than dodging hundreds of tourists. Having said that, it’ll be quite some time before Mingun sees hundreds of tourists at one time.
Possibly the largest and best known attraction in Burma is the community of Bagan where they boast over 2100 pagodas, temples and structures in 42 square kilometers. The desert landscape dotted with structures of all shapes and sizes is absolutely spectacular. Take the time to see it at sunrise and sunset; it is truly spectacular. You can spend hours biking amongst the structures on dirt roads winding through ancient old Bagan. But, beware of the heat. Make sure you have sunscreen, lots of water and a hat to keep the sun off your face. Although the land is nearly flat, the heat adds it’s own challenges to your physical abilities. Stop often and discover as many of the structures as you can. Each one is unique and the art and architecture will amaze you time and time again.
After enjoying the beauty of Bagan for a couple of days, we were off for a short visit to the Mt. Popa area. Mt. Popa is a volcano and an area that you can hike, but we simply passed over and twisted around the big mountain with a stop in the community to hear about the spiritual nats that are worshiped at the pagoda atop a mountain. Oh yes, and to meet the cheeky little Macque monkeys that scatter the town. If you have time, you can climb the 777 steps to the beautiful monastery at the top of the mountain, but beware as the monkeys live and play along the way, so I hear it is dirty and smelly.
Our next stop was a lovely lunch and visit to an elephant conservation camp. Hearing the story of how the organization started and how they have retired five or six elephants from the lumber industry to live peacefully and well taken care of until the end of their lives was inspirational. This organization has purchased these elephants, each of their handlers (Mahoot) and the Mahoot’s family. Not only have they given the elephants a respectful home, but also have created a community and schooling for the Mahoots and their families. We had the amazing opportunity to feed the elephants banana snacks and then help bathe them in the river. They are so large, yet so quiet and gentle. I stood mere inches from their mouths, which were big enough to swallow me whole, and I grinned ear to ear with excitement the entire time.
Last, but not least, we visited beautiful Inle Lake, which had different, yet incredible feel. As you can imagine, life on a lake is quite different from life on land. From the local market that we visited to the leg-rowing fisherman balancing on one leg on their flat boats, to the craft industry workshops – seeing the local way of life was eye-opening and incredible. Again, we were a bit rushed as our trip was a condensed version, but we managed to see the highlights and even take in the largely undiscovered and quiet Indein where there was not another tourist to be seen amongst the many hundreds of stupas and structures. Magical is not a word strong enough to describe the experience.
At the end of the trip we asked if it was possible to visit an orphanage or monastery and arrangements were made for our last evening in Yangon. We made a donation to the orphanage and had a tour of where schooling takes place, where the children sleep and the communal areas. Then we had the amazing opportunity to dish out food as the young monks gathered for supper. Young boys as little as four years old walked up to the serving area perfectly mannered. If we gave them too much of something, they politely put a portion back. It was a great lesson in humility and understanding to only take what you need and leave the rest for someone else. Of course, the monks were allowed to come back for seconds, so no need to waste food! Take only what is needed and if they are still hungry come back for more.
It’s simple, every single activity, every single day was a highlight. There was something new, exciting and simply beautiful around every corner and I just couldn’t get enough. 10 days was a great overview and a taste for the amazing destination, but easily I could spend a month exploring just the nooks and crannies of the ‘tourist’ areas, not to mention the lesser visited areas. And, as tourism begins to grow, more and more areas will be open for exploration by foreigners. In my opinion, Myanmar is a destination to be visited now, before it explodes in popularity, and then visited again and again as the economy gets stronger and new areas open up. There’s nothing quite like seeing a destination that isn’t used to tourists and getting an authentic feel for the people, the culture, the food and the beauty without the corruption of the tourist traps. Go see this destination soon to get an authentic feeling for the country. Then, explore it again later as more destinations open up. You won’t be disappointed.
NOTE: My fabulous tour was with Tucan Travel. The are a small group adventure company with hundreds of tours to choose from. However, I highly recommend them for their Spiritual Burma Tour. I was on a condensed version, but the full trip would be amazing!