You don’t have to be popu-lar.
Find out who your true friends are.
– Titus Andromedon, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
I almost missed Myanmar also known as Burma. But thanks to some mild to increasingly persistent peer pressure from my friend Amie, I didn’t miss this beautiful country that feels untouched by tourists (a rarity in Southeast Asia). Myanmar only recently gained independence in 1948 after years of wars with the British over their colonial ruling, as well the Japanese occupation after WWII and a great deal of internal conflict that still exists today. After President Obama removed sanctions and reinstated relations with Myanmar in recognition of their move toward a democratic election, Myanmar opened up to the west in 2012. This country is unlike anywhere else I visited in Asia. Thank you, Amie.
I started in Yangon the former capital city that’s both bustling and yet doesn’t quite have the frenetic pace of Hanoi or Bangkok. As I’ve written about in previous posts from my visits to SE Asia, I have seen A LOT of temples. In fact I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve experienced what’s commonly diagnosed as “Temple Fatigue” among travelers to the region. It sounds so ridiculously ungracious considering how ancient, religiously and culturally significant and truly impressive these temples are, but after you’ve seen dozens of them, they start to blend together. So when I read that the Shwedagon Praya or the Golden Temple of Yangon is a “must see” I went feeling reluctant with a pretty severe case of TF. Well, good thing I didn’t skip this either because it’s the craziest, most audacious and over-the-top golden structures with more sparkly gems and sequins than a Miss Universe pageant. It felt like the Disney of temples — complete with Burmese families spending the day there to worship, sing, picnic and take photos.
One of the things that makes Myanmar so special are the people. It felt like everywhere I went even though not many people spoke English, locals went out of their way to show me their friendly curiosity and welcomed me with big smiles, eager waves and if they had cameras, taking photos of me. It was the first place I’ve visited where they would come running out of their homes or at least hang their heads out the window to stare, smile and wave. This was another example of this particular Asian sticking out among other Asians and feeling like a bit of a celebrity with giggling children and their moms/grandmothers/aunts wanting to know who I was and what I’m doing there alone. Here’s a common theme with many of my conversations with Asian locals.
Local: You married?
Me: No, not married.
Local: Why no married? You have kids?
Me: No kids. (Akwardly polite smile) I guess I haven’t met someone to marry yet.
Local: (Confused and perhaps sad expression) Ok
One of the most beautiful places I’ve visited throughout my entire journey was Inle Lake. I took an 8 hour overnight bus from Yangon to Nyuang Shwe, but it was a pretty comfortable bus ride with reclining seats and a random but awesome music playlist that included Britney Spears and Lionel Ritchie. I arrived to Nyuang Shwe at 4am and I was supposed to have a taxi waiting for me to take me to the boat dock to get to my hotel on the lake. So when I arrived in pitch black darkness, freezing cold and there was no driver waiting, I thanked god that I no longer just “wing it” without a local SIM card and phoned the driver who was asleep. By 5:30am I was shivering, exhausted and it was still dark, but I was shuttled on to my next form of transportation, a small boat that would take me for a 45 minute ride to my hotel. Yeah, I missed the 45 min ride part when I booked it and I was so freezing that the kind man who drove the boat gave me two blankets. I have to admit that I was feeling a little miserable and slightly hypothermic but as soon as we took off and I knew I would witness the sunrise on the lake and the mountains became more visible, that misery turned to complete and total AWE. I don’t know if I’ve seen anything quite like Inle Lake at dawn. It’s so quiet, the entire sky is reflected in the water, the mist starts to dissipate from the mountains and the only other people in the lake are the fisherman who start their work day in the dark. And my reward was arriving to the hotel that floats in the middle of the lake and my own personal hut/heaven where I’d spend the next couple of nights staring quietly at the sunrise and sunsets and feeling rapt with peace.
After a restful and quiet couple of days on the lake, I moved into Nyuang Shwe the small town at Inle Lake and decided to sign up for a day tour. I do that once in a while to get a more guided experience, as well as to socialize, something my hermetic tendencies can get in the way of and I also like to sign up for physically challenging experiences that I’m in no way prepared to tackle. So I signed up for a bike and kayak day trip, once again not reading the fine print that it’s a 40km mostly off-road/trail bike ride followed by kayaking in the lake. When I arrived at the tour office 20 minutes early and our guide explained the course, I started to get that “oh shit” feeling and prayed that the rest of the group would consist of elderly and/or morbidly out of shape people. Imagine my devastation when the two couples that arrived were all young, fit (i.e. One guy competes in triathlons and the other does multi-day marathons in the desert for fun). FML. I can’t believe that I thought my casual city biking in NYC in some way prepared me for this tour. Do you have any idea how long or how far 40km is?! And most of it was either on tiny, winding dirt roads, some so narrow I called them balance beams, up hills, rocks, sinking sand, wrong turns that could land you in a rice field or ditch? I had my first ever quad muscle spasm. Please let that be my last. Despite the physical torture of the bike ride, it happened to be incredibly scenic as we zipped through fields, bamboo forests, hills, etc. And as much as I wanted to hate my tour mates for their physical fitness and youth, they were actually very cool, especially this great South African couple named Lisa and Clinton who are taking their own long term travel adventure. The reward for an almost debilitating 40km bike ride was the thrill of kayaking in the lake, which would’ve been much more fun if I hadn’t tensed my entire upper body from death-gripping the bike for fear that I would end my amazing “Year of Joy” with a tragic bike ride. But paddle we did and the lake from the perspective of a kayak is pretty cool, especially because they were so bright and yellow it made the locals laugh seeing us paddle past their homes on the lake.
I took another 8 hour bus ride to Bagan, Burma’s temple city. It’s a bit like Siem Reap in Cambodia, home of the famous Angkor Wat in that the entire town is just full of temples, in fact over 2000 of them. It’s also one of the hottest places on earth. By 2pm you’re physically unable to do anything that involves exposing your body to the outside for fear of immolation. Bagan is a place I will never forget because it is there I got to check off a major item on my bucket list: riding in a hot air balloon! But before I get to the glamour and gorgeousness of riding in a balloon over Bagan, I have to share a far less glamorous moment that also took place in Bagan. Since the start of this journey, I’ve been joking (not joking) about writing a memoir and using my inappropriate humor to title the unwritten book based on whatever’s going on each place. Well, thanks to a lost battle with “village chicken curry” that I had a legit cafe with really yummy food, I am now considering “The Time I Literally Shit the Bed in Bagan and Other Exciting Tales” as a possible title. So after bragging about dodging Delhi-belly and any other stomach or food ailments for the past 7 months, the universe or salmonella showed me who’s the boss and this happened the night before my 4:30AM pickup for the balloon ride. It’s also worth noting again that I have a fear of heights so my anxiety/stress level, which often manifests with extra stomach acid, was also in play. Thanks to some deep breathing, prayers and also dehydrating and fasting before the ride, I managed to conquer both fear of heights and fear of public humiliation to go high into the sky and watch the sunrise over Bagan.
After my last 9 hour bus back to Yangon, I would end where I began my Burmese adventure. I met up with Lisa and Clinton who were also back in Yangon and we had a nice salmonella-free lunch in the city. And although my time in Myanmar was full of unexpected and sometimes really terrible physical consequences, I left feeling so very happy that I got to see this country full of smiling, waving, warm and friendly people.