Few are the travelers who add Burma to their Southeast Asia itineraries. But, as we discovered, those who do are profoundly rewarded.
Because the Burmese military regime rules the country with an iron fist, they dictate where tourists can and can’t go on a visit to Burma. The government tries vehemently to tightly control interactions between foreigners and the people of Burma and the mere discussing of politics with foreigners is under penalty of imprisonment. To that end, much of the country is completely off-limits to tourists and we were only permitted to go to certain, approved regions.
To no surprise, this hindered our ability to travel freely through Burma, but what it did not inhibit was a rich and authentic experience in an often forgotten land.
Here’s a bit more on where and how we spent our time in Burma.
Click on the video below for scenes from Yangon.
After readjusting to Western comforts in Thailand, I braced myself. We flew into Burma from Bangkok, arriving in Yangon. As the country’s largest city, Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is the former capital of Burma. Although the military government recently relocated the capital to Naypyidaw in central Burma, Yangon continues to be the country’s largest city and the most important ‘business’ center.
Immediately upon arriving, we were brought back to our days in India. The smell of stale urine and sewage prevailed and the country’s infrastructure was little to none. Most roads are unpaved and many still get around on cycle-rickshaws. Most everyone was clad in traditional dress – men and women in intricate, ankle-length sarongs they call longyis – and we found women guarding themselves from the oppressive heat with colorful parasols. Accompanying the parasols, was a thick paste caked on their faces, which really caught my attention. I soon learned this paste is made from mixing sandalwood bark with water and rubbing it on the face. It’s called thanaka and is used by Burmese women as a sign of beauty and to guard their skin from the sun.
I found street markets bustling with every kind of item you could think of. Strong Chinese and Indian influences were visible and remannts of the British occupation were readily apparent in the crumbling colonial buildings on nearly every block. Electricity was scarce and comforts non-existent. It was then I realized two things: 1. I had to toughen up (Indian tough, as I told myself) as it wasn’t going to be an easy ride but 2. This was a special place and we would surely be rewarded.
The ancient city of Bagan is located in the dry central plains of the country. Home to more than 4,000 Buddhist temples in a 26 mile radius, it’s one of the most spectacular religious sites in Asia, and perhaps the world. The temples were built by Burmese kings between the 9th and 13th centuries at the height of the Burmese Empire. The skyline of temples leave an indelible impression with stone and brick stupas enveloped by mountains in the distance.
We spent two days taking in the awe-inspiring temples, first on the back of a horse-drawn carriage and then on bikes. Our driver we called Midnight (for lack of being able to pronounce his name) took us down the bumpy dirt path and past the temples on a horse-cart. With no other tourists in sight, the area felt deserted, almost as if we were discovering a place left untouched for thousands of years. The following day we went out on bikes, accompanied by a young artist (and gentlest of souls) who we’d met in a temple the day before. Strangers-cum(quick)-friends. He took us to all sorts of less-discovered temples and with torch in hand, he revealed beautiful frescoes and Buddhist relics fit for a world-class museum.
Bagan was submitted to become a UNESCO heritage site but many speculate corrupt politics as the reason for the exclusion. It more than deserves a spot in my book.
We’d seen the sites and met the people, but still left to discover was the natural beauty of Burma. Along the still waters of Inle Lake, it was time.
Click on the video below for scenes of Inle Lake.
Inle Lake is Burma’s largest lake and our favorite stop on our Burma adventure. Refelcting a vibrant blue sky of puffy white clouds and stilted villages, Inle Lake is quite possibly one of the most scenic places we visited on our five-month Asia journey. Here, saffron-clad monks stream barefoot and solemnly poised out of crumbling, gold pagodas at the water’s edge. Narrow wooden boats cut like glass through the water filled to the brim with women from the surrounding hill tribe communities. They sit silently with gazing eyes under colorful head scarves, holding bamboo-woven baskets full of goods to trade at market.
Rows of barefoot fisherman stand on the stern of boats. With hands free they cast out nets almost in unison into the calm waters as they row the boats with their legs. Stilted villages, floating markets and crumbling pagodas, these are the scenes of mystical Inle Lake.
On a boat ride on the still waters, cycling through teakwood villages and watching the setting sun behind silhouetted pagodas and fishing boats shimmering on the lake, we were captivated by Burma’s natural beauty. Over hot cups of joe with the Burmese while rooting on the USA in the World Cup, bumping down a dirt road on a horse cart as our driver shared his life story and learning to eat rice with our hands as our rickshaw driver joined us for a meal, we fell in love with the people. It was here we confirmed Burma would become a part of us.