The bus I’d been riding for the last 9 hours finally came to a halt and I was informed that we had reached my stop. The time was 4:50am and the sky still dark. I was worried about getting to my hotel so early but that fear turned out to be wildly unnecessary because before I even reached the last step off the bus I was surrounded by men shouting numbers and modes of transportation at me. Taxi for 7,000! Bicycle for 5,000! Horse cart for 3,000! It was slightly overwhelming and I’m pretty sure I resembled a deer in headlights. And were they really planning on taking my bag and I across town on a bicycle? Likely story. But like little mind-reading robots the hoard of Burmese men all turned at the same moment and pointed to a tiny bicycle with a little seat attached to the side a la Hagrid and Harry Potter in the Chamber of Secrets. Oh, they’re serious, I thought… I think I’ll pass. But wait, did I hear someone say horse cart?
“What’s a horse cart?” I stupidly asked them.
“It’s a horse cart!” they kindly clarified.
Maybe it was too early for my brain to understand such a simple term, or you know, since it’s 2016 and not 1852 my mind didn’t immediately paint a picture of a noble steed and carriage waiting to gracefully trot me to my hotel, which as it turns out is exactly what it is, only the horse is a little less noble and the carriage a little more cart-like. Needless to say, I chose the taxi; it was 5am and my sense of adventure was still a little sleepy. And with that decided the driver led me to the car and we set off towards the rising sun.
Welcome to Myanmar.
It’s difficult for me to adequately express how much I love this place and why, but I think the fact that it is a third world country that has yet to be saturated by tourism plays a big part in it. The people are incredibly genuine and eager to show off their English, which is surprisingly widespread and well-spoken, and walking down the street feels like a scene straight out of The Truman Show. The locals smile at me and excitedly say “Good morning miss!” or “Hello!” or my personal favorite, “Obama!” It’s incredibly endearing. They have also preserved their traditions and culture, something that can’t be said for all places nowadays. Nearly every man wears a buttoned shirt tucked into a long skirt and the women are, in my opinion, the most exquisite in all of Asia. They wear long skirts called longyis paired with matching tops to create an ensemble that is modest yet shows off their slim figures which somehow still have curves. They have beautiful black hair, big eyes and high cheek bones painted with thanaka, a homemade paste made from grinding tree bark and that protects from the sun and helps with the skin. Thanaka basically looks like the equivalent of an American who put on face makeup and left the house without rubbing any of it in, only it actually looks good on the people here. I especially loved that everyone wore their own design; a square brushed on each cheek is most traditional, but each person wore it a little differently and like a proud statement of individuality.
I was initially nervous about coming here because it is a developing nation without a lot of information available. Google “Cambodia blog” and a million things pop up, do the same for Myanmar/Burma and it is far more limited. I mean, they did only open up their borders to foreigners five years ago but today they boast 5 million tourists a year (compared to Thailand’s daunting 29 million). I didn’t even know what to call it! Burma? Myanmar? Myanmar/Burma said quickly in a sentence hoping no one really heard me? I still don’t know… Some call it Burma because it is the country’s original name and the home of Burmese people, while Myanmar is the new name given by the military that took over the country. Others tell me that Myanmar was the name given after they gained independence. Some will explain that Burma refers to the large tribe of Burmese people and is not inclusive of all the smaller local tribes (that apparently don’t consider themselves Burmese?), so the name Myanmar encompasses everyone. It’s awfully confusing and usually contradictory and really depends on who you’re talking to. I wanted to properly research it but since loading a single Google page took approximately four hours, I just stuck with Obama’s default diplomatic description when he visited: “this spectacular country!”
With all that in mind it is safe to say I wasn’t sure what to expect and came here without any real expectations at all, yet this spectacular country has exceeded them far beyond anything I imagined. I found the capital city of Yangon (sometimes still referred to as Rangoon…) to be gritty in the best possible way and the temples of Bagan to be breathtakingly surreal. Being here also allowed me to travel in a different, slightly archaic way that is definitely underrated. It’s a sentiment to an era that was pre-phones and GPS and an ode to a time where paper maps were necessary and asking for directions the norm. Service isn’t really a thing here and WiFi is spotty in even the best of places, so accessing the internet while out and about isn’t exactly an option. Electricity isn’t even stable and city-wide power outages are more common than not. Basically, the sun pointed me in the right direction and my handy dandy paper map and I became closely acquainted. I’ll be honest though, it was actually kind of refreshing to connect via disconnecting.
What really made this place truly special for me were the locals. They are so kind and seemed to know what I needed before I did and were already in the process of making it happen. My taxi driver (shout out to my new best friend Ko Thor!) was an absolute gem. He asked what my plans were and I mentioned the different cities I was going to visit and he asked if I had bus tickets or local currency to get there. That was a no on all accounts, I just kind of showed up to the party unannounced. “Okay, we go and do now!” he happily declared. He never charged me more (and refused a tip) for taking me everywhere I needed to go and he even walked me to my hostel since his car couldn’t get there easily. And trust me, I would never have located it without his help. The next night he took me to the bus terminal and on the way we talked about living in Myanmar, my life in the US, his family and everything in between. Upon our farewell he gave me his card to call if I ever needed help. There was no underlying implications or ulterior motives and he wasn’t haggling me or in search of more money. He was only a genuine guy wanting to help a fellow human out and I am grateful to have met him. I imagined he was the anomaly and that I just lucked out by randomly picking his taxi at the airport. Nope. It’s not only him, everyone here is just that nice.
Case and point: while moseying around looking for food one night I stumbled upon a nondescript place with plastic tables and chairs out front. There was no name. Hell, there wasn’t even a menu and there is a 75% chance I walked up to someone’s house and they just agreed to make me dinner out of pity. Whatever the case, I kindly asked if I could have something vegetarian and not too spicy and she responded by waving me to sit down and giving me a look as if to say, “please, I took one look at you and knew exactly what you needed.” And she definitely did. She quickly ran to the market for fresh produce and made me a simple veggie and rice dish with the perfect combination of seasoning and flavor alongside a cup of the country’s beloved hot tea. All for $1.25! They just get me here.
But aside from the unbelievably great people and my daily struggle over confusing semantics about names, what exactly have I done here? Each city I’ve been to is unique and deserving of a post in itself, but I’ll make do with little snippets of my time here for now.
Yangon: The big city! It is filled with decaying old colonial buildings that are juxtaposed with shiny pagodas and market stalls sprinkled all along the roads. Despite being a bit dirty and rundown, I found it to be a charming place with a lot of character.
Bagan: So. Many. Temples. 3,658 temples dotting the horizon as far as the eye can see to be exact. Or at least that was the number told to me by a 13 year old girl as we precariously scaled the side of her family’s temple. I mean, she accurately told me there were 22 steps left to the top and proudly counted them as we went, so she seems to be a reliable source… The city gave names to many of the big temples but I think they kind of gave up after a while and now most are known by their assigned number. The highest number/name I saw on the map was Temple 2195, although I’ve also heard the number 4,000 casually thrown around. It’s as if thousands of years ago the king was like, “Hey villagers, whatsup? Nothing? Cool, cause I’m going to need everyone to build one temple a month for the next 15 years.” And then every king afterwards wanted to out-temple the king before him and suddenly there were 3,658 temples in the place. Or, you know, something to that effect. Whatever the story, it makes for one phenomal view.
Trek From Kalaw to Inle Lake: 2 days, 25 miles, clear skies, astounding views and basically the best time ever. Oh, and water buffalo. A lot of water buffaloes. Plus, I met two wonderful people and there was never a shortage of conversation to be had.
Inle Lake: Not that great, but not not great. I was hoping to relax by the water, but since it’s really only accessible by boat that didn’t happen and in the end I came to conclude that “lake” is just a fancy name for “really big swamp.” Aside from a boat tour, which takes you to different areas of the lake to see how they make their handicrafts and to see the fisherman going about their day, I didn’t find that much to do. On my last day I ended up aimlessly bicycling around and stumbled on a vineyard, and I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to accidentally find something in the middle of nowhere I’m cool with it involving wine. It’s amazing where you find yourself when you’re going nowhere in particular.
I can say with confidence that this is one of my the best places I’ve traveled to and I basically spent two weeks walking around with a perpetual fat smile plastered on my face. Oh, Myanmar/Burma/Spectular Country, I can’t wait for the day that we meet again (and I’ll have the name thing down by then, I promise).