Time is gold, as the popular saying goes. In the country known as The Golden Land, time is ticking, development is creeping in, and now is the time to pack your bags and witness its beauty.
Myanmar, formerly named Burma was secluded under the military rule for more than 50 years. It was only five years ago when the military junta decided to open up the nation to tourists. To finally satisfy our curiosity about this long-isolated country, my boyfriend, Geoff, and I decided to fly to the Golden Land.
We began our trip in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. What greeted us were signs of slight economic development: new hotels and malls already dotted the city’s landscape, and traffic jams were horrible in most areas — something that we’ve gotten used to in the Philippines.
In the midst of all the hustle and bustle were calming showcases of the Burmese people’s grandeur and spirituality. Golden pagodas, big and small, can be seen wherever you go in Yangon, proudly glittering under the sun. Surrounding these towers are poor street vendors, selling various wares ranging from flowers for religious offering to local food and refreshments. Downtown, new buildings can be seen alongside dilapidated Victorian-era establishments — remnants of their British colonizers.
Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda is a must-see. Considered the holiest site in the world for Buddhists, it is also the largest pagoda in the country. Pilgrims come from near and far to worship amidst the ornate cluster of sister pagodas and holy trees surrounding Shwedagon. The biggest stupa in the center is covered in thick plates of solid gold with receptacles accentuated with jewels near its apex.
Apart from touring the city, satisfying our palate is on the top of our list. We were eager to discover Myanmar’s cuisine, which is largely unknown outside the country.
With the help of Geoff’s Burmese friend, we went to a local favorite restaurant, and had a taste of mohinga, a fish-based soup with rice noodles, boiled vegetables and onions considered to be Myanmar’s national dish. You can also throw in some chickpea fritters, lime, eggs and chili to the dish for added flavor.
To have a taste of the city’s nightlife, we strolled down 19th Street in the Chinatown area. Lined with all sorts of street food, this chaotic area is the best place to have barbecue and beer, while enjoying the atmosphere of Yangon. After finding an open table outside one restaurant, we feasted on a whole grilled fish beautifully rubbed in a marinade of red chili paste and a few extra spices.
The mixed smell of all the foods, exotic and otherwise; the noise from the locals doing business; and the tourists walking here and there can be overwhelming, more so for a Southeast Asia first-timer like Geoff. So we just sat back and relaxed, capping off the night with a couple of crisp Myanmar lagers.
Inle Lake — A Portrait that Came to Life
After a few days in Yangon, our next destination was Nyaungshwe, near Inle Lake, in central Shan State. Going to this picturesque place was one of the highlights of the trip.
We spent almost a full day touring the entire lake community aboard a long, one-person-wide wooden boat. This is how we saw Inle’s iconic leg-rowing fishermen. It’s a spectacular sight: they stand up in their boats and paddle with one leg to keep their hands free for their nets. Such astonishing grace and full-body coordination!
We also visited the traditional floating craft villages featuring a pool of the village’s artisans. We saw traditional gold and silver wear hand-made by goldsmiths and silversmiths, weavers producing cloth from the fibers of lotus stems, and women making handmade cheroots (local cigar).
Enjoying the delightful breeze, I saw the beauty of Myanmar unfold as we made our way past floating gardens and villages of rustic single and two-storey wooden stilt houses. Everything was just unimaginably poetic.
After a full day on the large but shallow lake, Geoff and I opted to take it easy in the evening and chill at our hotel’s rooftop, slowly drinking our beers. Little did we know that we were in for a nice treat. In the distance, young boys having a good time sang Burmese pop songs (in my ears they sounded like love songs). It was already getting late, yet through it all, the singing felt peaceful; yet another layer of calmness in this quiet area of town. We actually felt we are being serenaded from afar.
Inle is even less developed than Yangon. Roads are rough and there are no big establishments yet. But the serenity of this area and the one-of-a-kind charm of the lake is enough to entice people to spend a couple days here.
The Beauty of Bagan
After braving more than eight hours of traveling by bus on poorly-paved roads, we reached the ancient city of Bagan — Myanmar’s capital from the 9th to the 13th century.
During this period, noblemen and poorer people made it a mission to construct 4,450 pagodas and temples – some grand and splendid and some more modest structures.
Despite their location in active earthquake zone, more than 2,200 temples stood the test of time and now dot the 26-square-mile plain – a sight often compared to Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat.
Considering the vastness of the area, Geoff and I spent two days atop rental electric bikes scooting around Old and New Bagan. We drove among winding dirt roads and overgrowth amidst lonely pagodas. We secretly climbed some of them only to be amazed again and again with the glorious view. Everywhere we looked, there is a temple or a cluster of them that will still leave you awestruck.
The magic was most evident when we climbed the Shwesandaw Pagoda and watched the sun set over the massive plain, leaving silhouettes of the temples against the play of pink, orange and gold hues in the sky!
These structures have been taken down by earthquakes and have been poorly restored, but lived to show the world a glimpse of the glorious days of Bagan.
The beauty of Myanmar lies in its rawness as a consequence of its long term inaccessibility. But slowly, this fragile area will have no option but to adjust to the expected deluge of tourists wanting to experience its culture. In all the places we visited, traces of developments were already visible.
In the face of massive change, the locals did not seem to change their attitude. We were surprised that very few establishments became rip-offs for tourists. Taxis do not use meters but drivers do not overcharge.
Personally, I felt like I was disrupting the normal simple pace of life the locals have known all their lives. When we went inside pagodas, the locals would be deep in prayers, not minding the curious tourists walking around and taking pictures inside. Once in a while children would come up to us and ask Geoff where he’s from, proof that westerners were a rare sight for Burmese kids until now.
Despite the legacy of poverty and political repression, the locals are genuinely happy and friendly. Despite the language barrier, every misunderstanding is easily settled, thanks to the sweet faces and sincere smiles the Burmese offer to everyone.
The weather can be uncomfortably hot. The streets and sidewalks are stained red with the spit from betel nut chewing. The choice of food can sometimes be limited, but always delicious. When we go through all our pictures, we forget the uncomfortable moments. Myanmar may still have a long way to go but is definitely ripe for exploration.
Now is the time to go. Go before the country internationalizes and dilutes its well-preserved culture. Go before the locals in remote villages become so familiar with tourists that they stop being curious about you and view encounters purely as a business transaction. Go before this country transform as a consequence of much-needed economic growth. Go before everyone else goes!
[Entry 186, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author
April and Geoff travelled in Myanmar during the dry and humid month of October. April is a Communications Officer of the Department of Transportation. Previously, she was a news producer for various news and current affairs programs for TV 5 and had a short stint as a public relations practitioner in Dubai. She plans to explore more of the world in the years to come.