Myanmar: Golden Land of Smiles and Stares

As our gaze drifted from the deserted beach of Koh Chang Noi laid before us, up to the grey tides of the Andaman Sea, and further out to the islands of the Myeik Archipelago obscured in the distance by a rain lingering for days, two truths became discouragingly evident: First, we were the only ones left on this soggy, little island. And second, it was only a matter of time until the forces of nature caught up to us. This would be as close as we came to our dream of exploring the rough and undeveloped southern coast of Myanmar. Traveling in Southeast Asia in the rainy off-season certainly has its benefits, namely, fewer crowds and lower prices. It also comes with the obvious drawback of bad weather. In our case, it was a meteorological roadblock that stopped what we thought would be one of the most exciting and challenging parts of our adventure year in its tracks.

After spending a couple weeks in southern Thailand, moving from the sport climbing paradise of Tonsai Bay, to the misadvertised jungles of Khao Sok National Park, and eventually to the rain drenched Koh Chang in Ranong, we had come to Myanmar’s southernmost border crossing. Myanmar gained its independence from British colonial rule in 1948, but after a coup d’état in 1962, had endured of over 50 years of military dictatorship until recent democratic elections in 2015. These decades of military rule had essentially cut the country off from the rest of the world. But it was beginning to open up to foreign investment and travel ever more with the release from government house arrest of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the ascension of her party to power in recent landmark elections. This progress toward democracy has quickened the pace of change in the country, with various regions coming on-line all the time, effectively making travel guidebooks moot, virtually upon publication. And although it was becoming a destination of sorts for those seeking a bygone era, its southern coast, stretching hundreds of miles down the western side of the Malay Peninsula, remained entirely undeveloped for tourism. With the exception of expensive live-aboard cruises that take lucky tourists skirting around its islands, similar to those in the Galapagos and other protected marine environs, the mainland of this southern extremity had been off-limits to foreigners. That is, until quite recently. Within the last year, land travel between the port cities had opened up to outsiders and we hoped that if we could just get to the towns of Kawthoung and Myeik, we could find boatmen or perhaps the very rudiments of a tourism industry that could take us offshore. This was our destination, the islands of the Myeik Archipelago – remote, pristine, and home to one of the only people in the world to live entirely on the water, the Moken sea gypsies.

Was being the key word, due to a number of factors. Our hopes for a further opening up in the months approaching our arrival were dashed when we learned that independent travel to the islands was still off limits to foreigners. And even if we could find someone willing to bend the law a bit to take us out for the day, the virginal waters we hoped to find would be emulsified by a rainy season the severity of which we simply hadn’t anticipated. Sitting in that thatched roof hut on Koh Chang Noi made it exceedingly clear – making a go of the southern coast would be an exercise in stubbornness. So, we changed our plan. We traded what we thought would be a journey into an aquatic wonderland for some of the country’s most intriguing hinterlands.  

Instead of pursuing the unconventional path of crossing at Kawthoung and moving northward, we flew, as do most travelers bound for Myanmar, into the country’s largest city, Yangon. The closer we moved in our taxi from the airport to our downtown hotel, the slower we began moving and the more apparent it became that this was unlike any other city in the region. It had exactly zero motorbikes on the road. Compared to places like Ho Chi Minh, where the ratio at times exceeds 20:1 motorbike to car, this was a quite a change, and it resulted in the most heinous traffic we’ve experienced to date. No one could explain to us why motorbikes had been outlawed, they just had. Only after spending a couple days in the congested city center did I realize, almost every car is a taxi. The taxi lobby must have had ties strong and deep with the military junta government, and so, along we crept.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the downtown area, including the first of many golden temples, Sule Pagoda. If Sule weren’t so dwarfed by Shwedagon, it would garner more mention, but the latter is considered the most revered temple in all of Myanmar and one of the most magnificent in the world. Having seen only a fraction of the world’s temples, I can be no arbiter, but this one was definitely something to behold. Similar in its gilded glory to that of Bangkok’s Grand Palace, but maintaining its authenticity as a place of worship before a tourist destination, Yangon’s Shwedagon is a special place, indeed. Monks and Myanmar people (they prefer that term to “Burmese”) alike walked in circles around the base of the 345 ft high golden spire, ascending to the heavens, appearing as a massive golden pawn in the game of deity worship. Having seen less than a dozen western tourists the whole day added to the unique feel of this place, which is the first new country for me since we arrived in Korea in July. After a day spent in consternation over where to go next (remember, we’re winging it here after our plans to galavant around the still restricted southern archipelagic islands failed to come to fruition) and how to replace Jenna’s phone (which had been silently corroded by battery acid on Koh Chang Noi), we decided to move west along the other southern coast of Myanmar to the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe.

Aside from its status as a capital, Sittwe is the gateway to the remote temple city of Mrauk U and the Chin tribe villagers who live on the Lay Mro River. While waiting in line at Yangon’s disorganized domestic terminal, we struck up a conversation with the only other noticeably western person there who just happened to be standing behind us in line. A wonderfully charming woman, we learned that she too was bound for the far reaches of Rakhine State, and so a traveling companionship quickly emerged, at least for the next few days. So, when I say “we” in reference to Mrauk U, it basically means, Jenna and myself, along with our new Aussie mate, the lighthearted Laura. Regarding Sittwe, there wasn’t anything inherently special about the place, but because it was our first taste of “real” Myanmar (outside of Yangon), the local marketplace proved, shall we say, interesting. As the only foreigners in the town, we were as much a spectacle to the locals as they were to us. Over the course of the next couple weeks in country, we’d become accustomed to people being quick to return our smiles but also long to stare at us, even after we’d averted our gaze.

The next day, we boarded a five-hour river boat to the secluded Mrauk U, a place that has only recently gained accessibility via land. We chose to take the traditional method, on the slow boat, through the gaping channels of the Kaladan River, growing ever more bucolic as the narrowing of the river brought rice paddies nearer and nearer the closer we came to our destination. Before the boat had even fixed its moors, a man jumped onto the deck and approached us; we could tell right away he was prospecting for customers. The man’s name was Aung Zan and he said he would like be our tour guide the following day, taking us three hours further into the interior to visit with the minority Chin people in their small villages. After hearing his description and price, we accepted. Our boat ride up the Lay Mro River brought us to three villages full of smiling children and stoic ancients, the former with faced painted in traditional thanaka powder, the latter’s inked with timeworn tattoos. This faction of Chin people were forced from their homes in WWII (and as a result of continued oppression by the military government) and took refuge in the nether regions of Rakhine state. So, without access to the rest of their culture, and lacking the services of a local tattoo artist, the tradition of tattooing faces stopped generations ago. Though fascinating, like many other traditions, the time had rightly come for this one to end, as young girls are no longer subjected to three days of extreme pain. The tour finished with a visit to the largest of Mrauk U’s myriad temples, a deserted Koethaung, the best part being a series of corridors, graced with 90,000 Buddha forms, conjuring in us an Indiana Jones-esque sense of wonder and discovery. Early the next morning, I set out alone to watch the sun rise over the temples. From my perch atop a small ridge, I watched the mist that settled in the valley, making islands out of the surrounding hills, disappear with the sun peeking over the horizon, as the town below began to buzz with the sounds of children on their way to school and adults on their way to market and their work in the fields. The rest of our time in Mrauk U was spent riding push bikes with our Australian mate around the temples, eating feasts of Myanmar curry, with its vast collections of various side dishes, and donating school supplies to the kids at local schools. The supplies we sent with Aung Zan to the Chin villages were enough to provide every kid there with a pen, a few pencils, and notebook 🙂

As if we hadn’t seen enough impressive pagodas in Mrauk U, our next stop took us to the land of 4000 temples, Bagan. Considering that the two are only separated by 125 miles, as the crow flies, the journey shouldn’t take that long. But factor in that the route is actually about 300 miles on two-way roads never wider than a single lane, much of which is through extremely mountainous and rough terrain, coupled with the facts that the busses run late, slow, and don’t arrive where they are supposed to, and we were left with a 20-hour journey door to door. At least we were able to make the journey by bus; it wasn’t until just recently that the route opened to foreigners. Needless to say, the following day was spent sleeping, but we arose just early enough to catch the sunset and moonrise from a set of abandoned temples without another tourist in sight. Deciding against going to Inle Lake because of its reputation as the most touristy place in Myanmar, we were afforded another couple days in Bagan, which we took advantage of, getting up early for sunrise both days, to climb to the top of various temples and watch the low angle light set countless hundreds of temples across the plain ablaze in crimson and gold. After sunrise, we took our e-bikes around to a few more paya before going back to our hotel for breakfast and a reprieve from the heat of the day, rising again to watch the sun go down. The e-bikes we rented from our hotel proved to be one of our favorite modes of transport, reaching speeds of 60km/hr in dead silence and never needing to fuel up, just unplug and go. For as many large and spectacular temples as Bagan plays host to, the best way to experience it all lies outside the main temples’ walls, by climbing to the highest point of any given minor temple and surveying the myriad steeples, stupas, monasteries, and monks scattered across this enchanted land.  

When we had originally thought about Myanmar, most of our time was to be appropriated in the south, with only a week or so in the tourist havens of Yangon, Bagan, and Inle Lake. The more we read and researched, the less Inle Lake appealed to us, because of our concerns of its authenticity. Instead we planned to go to a less touristic place for trekking, Hsipaw. But then, the night before setting out, we found this other place, even less touristic, that was said to have a countryside that in places exceeds the charm and beauty of Hsipaw. That’s how we came to the mountain hamlet of Kyaukme. Getting there proved to be one of the most frustrating trips of our entire journey, with a barrage of misinformation, manipulation, and mean guys, we were essentially forced into taking an overpriced taxi three hours from Mandalay. But when we arrived, we were welcomed by some of the most hospitable people, the Khin family, at one of the town’s three guest houses. They helped us set up a trekking guide for the next day, so we were set; the rest of the night was spent sampling the best of Shan state street food and waiting for web pages to load (painfully slowly or not at all) at the town’s only wifi cafe, staffed, apparently, by no one older than 13 years of age.

Our trek, led by one of the junior guides in town, Moeset, took us three hours into the hills on motorbike, stopping for tea in a roadside stand along the way. We were only a few miles from our final destination when it started pouring; this, coincidentally happened to be the hardest few miles, down steep, rocky, muddy, and slick paths. I consider decking the bike only twice in this stretch a success, in light of the fact that Jenna and I remained on our feet both times. The trek on foot that followed took us through the tea plantations for which Shan state is famous, with scenery made all the more dramatic by low hanging clouds, clinging to the side of the steep slopes, and ended in a small village nestled high on a saddle between two peaks. Jenna helped our homestay hostess cook a delicious vegetarian dinner (The hill people here eat almost exclusively vegetarian, except for the occasional pig that is slaughtered for weddings.), while Moeset and I talked about the politics and history of his home country. Crashing early, we arose the next morning to clouds pouring through the doors and windows of this teakwood home, later, eating breakfast as our hostess prepared her granddaughter for some of her first days of kindergarten. The second day of trekking was less remarkable than the first in terms of scenery but Moeset brought us to a few interesting places to make up for it: a tea factory, a bamboo paper factory, a monastery and nunnery, and some rice paddies, before calling it a day.  Although visually stunning in its own right, this trek made me appreciate that much more the rich culture and verdant terraces of Sapa in Vietnam, my favorite .

Having been without real internet (I consider internet to be real when it works in our hotel room) for what seemed like an eternity (closer to three weeks), we headed to Mandalay the following day in the hopes of getting our e-addiction fix. We opted for the 110-year-old-and-not-updated-since train from Kyaukme to Mandalay, which took us through the countryside of rice and corn fields, through a few tunnels and towns, and precariously over the famous Gokteik viaduct, a 335-foot tall, 2200-foot long bridge that was considered a civil engineering marvel of its time….way, way back in the day. Back in Mandalay we hunkered down in our posh (for us) $30 per night hotel room for two days, feverishly uploading weeks of pictures to Google photos, editing and posting blogs, and researching our next stop: Nepal. Our last adventure in Myanmar was a day-long excursion called a Glimpse of Mandalay, the central piece of which was a cooking class. We started out, as do most cooking classes we’ve taken thus far, with a trip to the market and then on to a tea house. In Myanmar, things of great import aren’t discussed over drinks at a bar or even in a boardroom, but instead, at the tea house. And as would only be appropriate, over a breakfast of noodles and teas, the conversation turned to politics. Our guide for the day, Aung, told us the story of how the nation’s daughter, mother and savior, Aung San Suu Kyi fought for its freedom. Then we were off to the cooking class, which was held in a small village outside of the city, to make an assortment of salads, curries, and sweet floating rice balls. The delicious meal proved too much for us, but our hosts had anticipated as much, penciling in an hour of napping on bamboo mats, in bamboo huts, with bamboo pillows to let the food really sink in. After waking, we took a short bicycle tour of the countryside and then went to the top of a hill, the sides of which were adorned by dozens of monasteries. Watching the sun go down through the haze that hung above Mandalay, we could think of no better way to bring our time here in Myanmar to a close.

Even though we spent only 18 full days in Myanmar, looking back, it feels like we were there much longer. For a hot minute in the 16th century, this place was home to the greatest civilization in the history of Southeast Asia, and then after British colonization, it again became the most advanced. But military dictatorships over the last 60 years arrested any further development and made this truly a land that time has forgotten, in many ways. In trying to describe something that is different, we tend to draw connections to things we do know. So I’d say Myanmar is shades of Guyana 25 years ago, when that country was the second poorest in the western hemisphere, although parts of this are even more rural and still less developed. It brings me back to my brief time in Cambodia last summer, where piles of trash riddled the streets and much of the countryside, only the people here in Myanmar seem to have even less regard for their environment, the most diverse ecosystem in all Southeast Asia. Even as a national hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner has fought for the country’s freedom, it is still generations behind most of the rest of the world with respect to human rights and intra-country relations. Despite all this, I’ve never seen a people so quick to return your smile, ask to pose for pictures with you, or simply say hello. I can’t imagine another place on earth with more temples per-capita and its people are a reflection of that devotion to a higher power, as all Myanmar men are required to perform at least two stints as a Buddhist monk during their lives. In some ways, it’s a land of extremes, but we weren’t even able to see the most extreme parts of this land, with the azure southern coast still off limits to vagabonds like us and the Himalayan far north left for another time. Two more reasons to return to this golden country of smiles and stares and see if it is able to accomplish the dream of all developing nations: make progress and retain its culture. The adage “Only time will tell” works here, but I’m hopeful, given the lady in charge.

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“Freedom to Lead”, a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi by Shepard Fairey

Here are some pictures of the places I describe above.

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Myanmar people and a monk in prayer at Sule Pagoda in Yangon
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Jenna at the impressive Schwedagon Pagoda
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My dorky Myanmar temple pose in front of Schwedagon
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Beetle leaf, a staple of Myanmar people
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Young monks in the Sittwe Market
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Ma Bwon, one of the last remaining tattoo-faced women of the Chin Tribes in Rakhine State
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Our Guide Aung Zan and a local friend
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A young girl in her family’s boat on the Lay Mro River
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Ma Titwee, another of the tattooed ancients. I purchased the decorative scarf she is wearing to help her provide for her family.
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Koethaung Temple in Mrauk U
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Sunrise in Mrauk U
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Sunset in Bagan
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The fields of Bagan
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A tea field worker on her way home
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Pack horses trudge through the tea fields of Shan State, near the town of Kyaukme.
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A doorstep in one of the remote villages of Shan State.
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Low clouds cling to the side of the Shan Highlands in the rainy season.
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This tree in Shan State is 700 years old and as villagers pass by they make offerings to it.
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Sleepy cat on a tin roof in Shan State.
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Yong nuns and their adolescent counterparts in a Shan State nunnery.
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The Mandalay Express Train. It’s actually even slower than it looks.
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At our cooking class in Mandalay

Next stop: NEPAL!

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Kathy says:

    AMAZING photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so jealous!! And beautiful photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. While you are traveling, can you look for projects the the Mt. View Pay it Forward Club can help with?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It focuses on acts of kindness around the school, the community, and the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jim Hilbert says:

    Another intreging chapter of your journy. Wonderful pictures too.

    Liked by 1 person

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