Although I’m still a couple of months off the end of my trip, I feel confident that Myanmar (previously called Burma) will be the best surprise of my travels. A country that has been isolated from the world for decades under a military junta, in many ways it feels paused in time – where you’re more likely to find posters of beloved monks on bedroom walls than pop stars; where outside Yangon, men wear long skirts and women cake thick layers of yellow bark root on their faces; where the pavements are stained blood red by the beetle-nut locals chew and spit. A country without McDonalds, Starbucks or HSBC. But what it lacks in frappés and traveling comfort it more than makes up for in its people, spirituality and beauty. And with the country now officially open to visitors and new leadership in place, the pace of change and development in Myanmar will be rapid.
Unlike being in Indonesia where people shout greetings across the street to you or Thailand where many are accustomed to tourists, the people of Myanmar are curious but wary, wanting to connect with you but still getting used to seeing foreigners in their country. Especially when in the smaller towns, those who could speak English would first ask politely if they could talk to me, children would slowly approach to investigate me and most people greeted me with broad smiles – except for those too shy to make eye contact.
Lesson 12: Everyone has a story. Listen.
I met some locals so eager to share their story it took me off guard. One evening I was sitting at a table on the street (typical of local food joints) awaiting my dinner, when a Burmese man asked if he could join me. He offered me some whisky – the staple amongst the men, they all carry round a bottle – and we swapped the usual questions.
Once through the pleasantries, he explained he worked for the government and wanted to know how I was enjoying Myanmar. This made me nervous, and I answered as delicately as possible whilst trying to maintain an appetite for my tea leaf salad.
He then shared how tired he was of being part of such an ineffective government who harmed their own people. We discussed his growing frustration of being a cog in a machine he didn’t believe in, but staying due to the fear of repercussions. He was optimistic about the new leadership – but wanted the world to understand that change would not be quick or simple… decades of thoughtless control had left dysfunction at all levels of the country.
Upon finishing my meal, I asked for the cheque as I had to meet a friend – and he asked if he could pay for my meal (I refused). Then we said our goodbyes.
I thought about that conversation a lot after I left… how hard it must be to have to be part of something you don’t believe in, feeling trapped trying to keep your family safe, still facing such uncertainty… and how open he was about his past. Others shared their stories, often through broken English, but they all praised the pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘our Mother’, and were optimistic about the future under her leadership.
Although many of the countries around south-east Asia are predominantly Buddhist, Myanmar was something else. Myanmar’s history has been deeply rooted within Buddhism for over two centuries, and today is the country with the highest number of monks in relation to population. However this intense focus on Buddhism has also led to the persecution of those of other religions, such as Muslims, going back to the 16th Century. Such fighting and persecution in some areas of Myanmar is still making headlines today, although generally not seen if you stick to the tourist routes.
Driving across the country almost every skyline features a golden pagoda, with the city of 4,000 temples in Bagan being a highlight. In Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a 105m diamond-studded golden pagoda and the closest to a Buddhist theme park I’ve experienced, visited by families, meditators, tourists, monks and nuns alike. Even if you’re not Buddhist or disagree with such grandeur for a Faith which preaches lack of material attachment, it’s an awesome sight and the perfect place to people watch.
I loved learning about meditation during my Vipassana course, visiting the pagodas, observing how others pray and learning about the importance of Faith in their society; but other experiences were disappointing. I joined monks on an alms run, where the monks walk around their local communities collecting donations for the monastery, and I was in awe at the number of locals who lined the streets with multiple bowls and plates of food, cooked in their road-side shacks, and handing monks fists of cash as offerings, when they couldn’t afford shoes. On the flipside I often saw monks smoking, drinking alcohol and eating meat (against the core Buddhist precepts), pocketing money for themselves rather than putting it in the monastery’s alms pot and a young monk even stole a volunteers phone whilst I was staying in a monastery. Of course you get this behaviour everywhere, but it highlighted not everything is as it seems…
Driving around dirt tracks in Bagan on an electric scooter, there were countless scenic snapshots that literally took my breath away (probably not great for my biking). You can watch sunrise and sunset over the 4,000 pagodas from the rooftop of big temples, explore individual pagodas with 900 year old carvings inside and visit cave monasteries. Or near Mandalay, watch the sunset from the world’s longest teak bridge. Or go to see the golden rock, said to be held in place at the edge of a cliff by one of Buddha’s hairs.
Outside the hustle and bustle of dirty towns are beautiful empty landscapes. On the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake we navigated through farmland, forests and a canyon to get to the huge Inle Lake. Unfortunately most of the wildlife that used to exist was hunted and hides sold to the Chinese in the last half century, but the scenery at the end of the rainy season is electric.
Lesson 13: Never rely on an airport having an exchange. Ever.
Well, this wouldn’t be one of my ramblings without something utterly stupid from me.
Whilst out in Yangon, I lost my purse with my cards (sound familiar?). Luckily a friend withdrew me some kyat (Myanmar’s currency) to tide me over until I saw my Dad in Cambodia. The next few days I was in small towns with no exchanges, so I had no opportunity to change the money to dollars.
Knowing Yangon had a new snazzy international airport, I went for my flight assuming there would be an exchange in the terminal. It turned out there were no exchanges in or around the airport (apparently the airport needed posh designer shops, but NOT an exchange?!), but the airport attendant assured me I could exchange kyat in Bangkok’s airport where I was heading, no problem.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. In Bangkok I was told no exchange is allowed to touch kyat, and it was unlikely any exchanges in the city would deal with it either. With my flight to Cambodia in 2 hours, I begged the staff and explained it was the only money I had in the world – as I had no cards – but they just apologised.
I started melting down, knowing I couldn’t even afford the visa to enter Cambodia, let alone food or accommodation for the night. Truly up sh*t creek without a paddle. All I had was a bundle of useless notes…
At that moment I had a thought, and checked the monitors. I ran to the only flight bound for Myanmar, boarding shortly, and decided I’d beg someone to exchange. I didn’t have much hope, who would trust a random frantic girl in an airport?! But they were the only people who might consider kyat to be more valuable than toilet paper.
The first people I spoke to were a French couple… I breathlessly explained my situation, barely holding back the tears, and although they couldn’t understand most of what I said they took all the kyat and gave me dollars at better than market rate. I thanked them profusely as they went to board their flight… Trying to explain they had saved my neck… And they just shrugged, not understanding, and waved. I’ve never been so grateful for the kindness of strangers.
If you’re interested in Myanmar, get there soon, as the pace of change is extreme. For recommendtions on where to visit, just let me know. Thanks for reading.