A Burmese Tale – my experience of traveling in the Golden Land
My travel experience, undoubtedly, has been greatly enriched by the decision to go to Myanmar.
For the first month, I traveled as I thought best. Arriving in Bangkok, the bus took me to the north where I fiddled around for a few weeks. Then, crossing into Laos I peeked into a completely different world. However, this ‘trail’ was full of backpackers and the path has been blazed for one to easily make the journey. Picking up on these sentiments of reality, I was longing for something more. With perfect timing, as my last post described, I got the word that Burma was the land of authentic travel experience – so, packing my bags, I headed west.
What I experienced, more or less, was a major slap in the face…in an utterly positive manner. Two lessons arose from this experience:
(1) What you give to the world, you get
(2) Without your health, you have nothing
Arriving at Yangon International Airport with merely $500, no map, no reservations, and no idea which way was even north or south, it all seemed okay. I had been in similar situations numerous times by now, and history has taught me that this spontaneity is the ideal way to travel.
As I turned 360 to seek a mate to share a taxi into town, I landed my eyes on the most interesting traveler I have seen to date – Michael Brown. This 6’6, long blonde dreads, 70 year old hippie appeared to me as a shining light of experience and wisdom. Accordingly, I struck up conversation and we headed out passed the rip-off tourist priced taxis for the local bus stop. Immediately, after the kilometer to the station, I saw what all the ‘hype’ concerning Myanmar was all about. The people – composed of a wide variety and mesh of ethnicities including Burmese, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and more – presented an expression of incredible intrigue as we walked up. This phenomena, certainly, was not unique to the bus stop.
The whole time in Myanmar the same-same occurred with each individual I made eye contact with. It went a little something like this: I peer around and make eye contact (this was quite easy since every single person is staring). There exists a moment of awkward blankness, until I crack a smile and greet with the common term “mingalaba.” Then, the energy of the other is released into the brightest and most appreciative smile the world has to offer.
*A little context: Mass tourism in Myanmar began in 2011 when the government saw the dollar signs that would result from opening more area to foreigners. First year, there were 300,000 tourists. 2012, 1,000,000 people visited Myanmar. In 2013, there were over 3,000,000 travelers… Those numbers show the alarming rate at which tourism is exploding in the nation, which will surely change the people’s view of the western world. Still though, the ‘outside world’ is quite novel to the people. They have so much interest in our way of life, our perspectives, the notion of materialism, and so-on. I describe it as “utter intrigue.” So the interactions were exemplifications of the interest they have towards travelers like me. I later learned that not all visitors are as nice, so the local people are hesitant to smile and greet first because of fear of non-reciprocation – or put more simply – rejection. The streets of Yangon were quite interesting. I describe it as harmoniously chaotic. The streets are all lined with countless food stalls where people sit around what we use in the states as toy tables and chairs, as they sip endlessly on Burmese or Chinese tea and share conversation. Bus yappers roll by doing their repetitive call expressing the bus number and end destination, as they pull up for a split second of opportunity to hop on. And the buildings brilliantly alternate various colors and styles, jetting endlessly down the way.
Wanting to see the small towns in between the major attractions, the first stop was Pyay. And Pyay took me in with open arms.
I spent the first day trotting around town through unchanged villages, and ordinary city streets. People would commonly come running out flagging me down, followed by one of the only phrases the masses knew: “Hello! Where you come from?” “USA,” I responded, “Thank you for welcoming me to your country.” The afternoon was spent at the ‘tea shop’ – a ubiquitous aspect of Burmese culture where the local people congregate over endless tea. There, a group of men invited me over to their table wanting to practice English and learn more about America – in exchange, they taught me a thing or two about Myanmar
Of course, they wouldn’t let me eat alone, so we all went out for a nice dinner on the river where more friends were called together – a joyous experience. As I promised Natagoe, one of the main guys I connected with, I was ready at 9am outside the tea shop. Late the night before, we were sitting outside his home playing music and enjoying traditional singsongs. He offered to show me his town the next day. On his moto, we trekked from attraction to attraction, viewpoint to viewpoint, and – best of all – friends to friends. Per Natago’s connection, I met with an antique jewelry dealer, moto mechanic, blacksmith, English teacher, and a university student eager to study in the states. Each individual had a unique story, and overall the personal tour gave me a clear view into life in Pyay. I also got close with a man named Chris Topher, one of the nicest people I’ve met on the travel thus far. Then, I boarded the overnight bus to Bagan.
Bagan is an ancient location filled with numerous temples of various ages, styles, and significance. Spread out over (approximately?) 20 square miles, they sit in idle as countless tourists stride through on bicycle to get a look and absorb the breathtaking views.
I spent the day with Seb Hale, who I met at my hotel, peacefully experiencing the fascinating place. We took our time as we visited those we felt drawn to. The pictures below really sum it up I guess. It was a major tourist town, so I decided one day would be enough and I would move on the next day. The relationship I developed with Sebastian, however, positively affected the course of my trip – more details to come in the next blog about the Thaislands.
However, Bagan is when the tide began to turn. Myanmar is one of the most challenging places to travel in the world for two reasons that I identified: nutrition and transportation. The roads are lackluster at best, 1.5 lanes, packed to the brim, turtle speed slow, and bumpy as the ride to hell. Furthermore, most long-distance buses travel overnight which sets arrival time around 2 or 3 in the morning. So not only do you not sleep on the bus (impossible!), but also you arrive when all guesthouses are closed and thus need to yell for the doors to be open for a spot on the reception floor until morning. Then, after a few minutes, maybe hours, of sleep, you try your best to make the most of the day. The following day, your body is still recovering from the lack of rest – throwing off the mood and physical energy. Oh but wait! It’s time for another overnight bus to transport, thus starting the cycle over again.
This, along with general travel fatigue, began to wear me down.
And the nutrition … My naïve perspective coming into SE Asia was of beautiful lush lands of relatively organic crops flooding the street markets and providing for a healthy population. I was straight up wrong. The widespread poverty has ushered in the heavy use of synthetic goods (such as chemical coffee mix provided as the only option for caffeine), an abundant amount of spray such as pesticides and inorganic chemical fertilizer, as well as deep fried vegetables as the only option for ‘healthy’ food. Travelers often get sick in Myanmar from the terrible sanitation standards, but at this point I was feeling the lack of quality nutrition catching up to me and I was becoming weak. Still, though, I trekked on.
When I arrived in Pakkaku, 1 hour north of Bagan, our pick-up truck (of which I was the only foreigner) dropped us off in the dead center of the town market. It was morning, and the citizens were doing as they normally do: greeting their friends and acquaintances, collecting vegetables for the day, and making their way to do the day’s work. I walked with my backpack, and was again greeted by the countless bright faces glimmering at the sight of a traveler in their small town.
The reason I ventured to Pakkaku was a recommendation about the ‘most incredible guesthouse in Myanmar’: Mya Inn. Here, there lived the sweetest grandmother running the guesthouse with her daughter and four grandchildren. With 8 rooms upstairs, and the family sleeping down below, it really felt as though they were welcoming us straight into their home. Each morning, we ate breakfast together and we had the opportunity to consume endless stories and informative content about the country, history, the family, and much more. I highly recommend a stay here if anyone is headed to Myanmar in the near future!
The first day, I trotted around the town looking to simply explore. In the few hours out and about, I had tremendous conversations with the director of the board for the town monastery, a local NDP party leader who spent 3 years in jail (1997) under the oppressive military government, schoolchildren delighted to gather in a group for a photo, a university student eager to practice English, and many more interesting characters. The day was pretty much what I was looking for in my Burmese travel.
However, when I got home tired from walking all day in the 90 degree dry heat, I began to question how long I’d stay in the country due to my growing fatigue, malnutrition, and lack of quality sleep each night. As I laid in bed and decided I would leave Pakkaku the next morning, I heard laughter and cheer downstairs. When I stepped down the creaky steps, I saw the rest of the travelers in a circle with Mya Mya (the grandmother) as she answered questions and told stories of the near and distant past. There, we spent the next 3 hours laughing, joking, and receiving quality insight. When another traveler invited me to join her tomorrow on an adventure, I retreated on my mental decision to leave, and gladly accepted!
The adventure, I found out in the morning, was a local wedding in a small village about a mile or two from town. We were invited and guided by the groom’s sister who lived down the street from the guesthouse. The wedding ended up being one of my fondest memories of Myanmar, and oh yes was I glad to have stayed another day. This isolated village, more than anywhere I went in Myanmar, was shocked at the sight of foreigners. Far more than any street I walked down, eyes glued to us like sap of a leaf. Honestly, it was one of the most overwhelming feelings ever experienced, especially because nobody spoke enough English to have a conversation and break the curiosity besides our guide – who herself was just getting by with diction. Nonetheless, smiles were all around as the party kicked off to celebrate the union of the bride and groom. Loud, over distorted music, shouted across the property as kids ran around, elders sat for a chat, cigars lit up, endless food passed around, and countless pounds of ‘beetle’ were chewed. This was truly a gathering of a large family and all members of the community to celebrate this joyous time. We received gifts of the old outdated Myanmar 1 Kyat (now useless, as the lowest denomination bill is a 50 Kyat), and exchanged it with our own offering of 5000 Kyat for congratulations.
The ceremony was extremely different than Western weddings. The party, for one, was before hand and no speeches were given. Then, we all lined up single file and journeyed a mile to the groom’s personal home, where the male elders and a Buddhist advisor discussed the meaning and importance of a marriage as well as the responsibilities and commitment it entailed. The two bowed a few times in honor of their parents and ancestors, showing respect as they begin to depart on their own path, and were declared husband and wife after being showered by flowers and allowed a modest kiss on the cheek. Simple as that, it was over.
As we sat preparing to venture back to town, two AMAZING people came out of nowhere and sat at the table. With the brightest smile I’ve seen on my travels, they extended greetings with very good English and showed high interest in having a prolonged discussion. Yemanoo and Air-Air are their names, and being that it was at peak heat for the day, I asked if they would like to spend the evening together however they pleased. At 6pm, the young couple picked us up from the guesthouse and drove us a few blocks to their modest home – a single room with a bed, refrigerator, and beautiful photos. We took a seat on the ground as we launched into deep discussion about their lives, recent wedding, education, work, culture, and endless other topics. I returned with information about American lifestyles, customs, perspectives, and so-on. We then were chauffeured to the local Pagoda (temple) where they paid respects to Buddha and discussed the personal importance of their religion in their lives. Following, we were brought to their favorite restaurant where we all enjoyed fried rice with chicken, and a few pints of Dagon draught beer. As we departed, after a long day of joyous conversation and quality time spent together, contact information was exchanged and best wishes extended. Then, things turned for the worst.
The stupid freaking bus stops. Never eat at them, as the hygiene standards are completely inexistent and bugs are incredibly common. My ignorance led me to indulge in the buffet provided, and 5 hours later it all caught up to me.
After checking in and going to the highest point in Mandalay – Mandalay Hill – the group we formed in the lobby enjoyed sunset over the distant mountains as we played around with a little photography. My stomach started to growl. As we headed back, my head began to spin and fever shot up. As I ran to my room (luckily I had my own bathroom), the sickness began. I was doing a combination of throwing up and other things until 4 am, while incredibly annoying, oddly distorted, and screeching loud rock music played outside until the wee hours. Apparently there was a local festival, though it certainly was no joy to me.
I proceeded to lie in bed all next day, missing my bus to Hispaw – a small village in the north where one could proceed further into nature and remoteness for a multiple day trekking. It was here in bed that I declared my exit from the country, and the following day I set south for Inle Lake.
The reality is that for a month and a half I had been going-going-going, not staying in a place for more than 3 days. The constant travel, with low-quality nutrition, and endless heat weighed heavily on me. Due to the poor (overnight) transportation I spoke of earlier, amongst other factors, it had all caught up to me and threw me into a daze of illness, fatigue, and negativity.
The drive to Inle Lake from Myanmar, though, was one of the most beautiful of any part of the trip. When we arrived, I immediately realized that this was a tourist-only location, similar to Vang Vieng in Laos where the whole town caters to foreigners and no local culture really exists.
The next day, we hired a boat, as everyone does, to take us around the lake. We were, however, brought to shop after shop where a local guide explains to us the tradition – be it weaving, welding, jewelry making, etc. – where we were then presented with endless opportunities to purchase. The best part, though easily the saddest experience so far, was the far end of the lake where we rode through an undeveloped part of the lake. It was obvious our boat wasn’t the first to come through, as the local people fishing, farming, and performing other tasks on the lake barely showed us their face.
One of the themes of the whole travel, for me, has been an exposure of the dangers of mass tourism. As exemplified on Inle Lake, it destroys local culture and subsidizes life with materialism and a capitalistic culture. The joy of the Burmese I witnessed in Yangon, Pyay, and Pakkaku were inexistent here – and it is my fear the rest of the country will eventually suffer a similar fate as Inle Lake has.
After making the loop from South-West-North-East-South, I was back in Yangon – perhaps my favorite major city of the world. I recouped, met up with Sebastian (the friend I spent the day with in Bagan) for dinner, and glimmered at the final chance to soak up the Burmese spirit with constant smiles and hellos left and right. I turned before entering my hotel for the night and gleamed down the major street – Myanmar, ahh, what an incredible land. The next day Seb and I set out for Koh Phagnan on a 15 hour travel journey, eventually landing us in paradise (to be continued in the next post!).
My mindset was shaky for a period just before, during, and after the physical downfall on the way to Mandalay. I had come to Myanmar seeking a raw, remote experience – one that Hispaw would have provided had I the strength to continue on. For a bit, I felt disappointed or that I had come up short. This lingered over me, in agony at times. As I sat in my Yangon hotel the night before I left Myammar, however, it all clicked. As always, things happen in mysterious ways to result in incredible life or travel lessons – invaluable for years to come.
The lessons of Myanmar clicked right then:
(1) What you give to the world, you get
(2) Without your health, you have nothing
The first one is in reference to the communication phenomena I experienced with the local people. At times the constant stares and encroaching curiosity got to me, as I chose in those moments to refuse eye contact and get to my destination. For the majority of the time, however, I extended my energy to those I came in contact with and shared a smile, greeting, and – commonly – conversation. This dichromatic option represented the phenomenon I then realized. Give good energy to the world, and you will receive the same.
Secondly, as I noted I had extreme desires to venture to the remote ends of Burma, though the fatigue, illness, and lack of energy made that literally impossible. Without your health, you have nothing. This is a concept I had been previously introduced to as I experienced the tremendous effects of Pristine Hydro and the nutritional protocol the lifestyle entails – providing an abundance of energy, flexibility, clarity, quality sleep, and a relief from physical pain…amongst many other benefits. (I will try to post my Pristine Hydro testimonial when I get back to the states). This notion rang incredible clear to me though in Myanmar, and I have reinforced my commitment to healthy living both for the rest of the trip but more importantly when I return and begin teaching. There is no way I can be effective teaching in the classroom if I don’t feel my best.
And perhaps I shall include another: Follow your heart and instincts. As much as I longed for tremendous adventure in the outback of Burma, my body and mind was telling me to head for the southern islands of Thailand. After almost two weeks here (Koh Phagnan and Koh Tao) I have never been happier, rejuvenated, and at peace with life – worry free. So in the end, yes, I think Myanmar was an incredible opportunity from beginning to end – equipping me with experience, insight, culture, and much more to last a lifetime.
Living, Laughing, & Loving, Jay