A few weeks ago now, Laura and I took time out from a work trip to tour the famous sites of Myanmar. We hoped to see Myanmar before the onslaught of tourists and investors change it into the Southeast Asian tourist paradise that they envision. On my final night in Bangkok, for example, a Finnish man said to me, “Do you know what you what everyone should bring to Myanmar?”, after a long pause he continued, “$10,000 because I guarantee that within five years any land you buy will be worth at least triple”.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Myanmar. Having visited Cuba, Afghanistan, and a few other places that are off-limits to most Americans, I imagined that the country would feel run down, be expert at taking foreign currency (through differentiated pricing for locals and foreigners), and have a general, albeit under the surface, distrust of the motivation of foreigners to visit. We definitely found the first two and are unsure about the third.
I spent the first week in Yangon commuting between the hotel and the office. The four or five square blocks of Yangon that I became acquainted with were not much to write home about. Most of the buildings show signs of tropical age – black or green (what I assume to be) mold developing on the vertical walls from years of monsoons and insufficient cleaning or painting. There were some things that reminded me of Cuba and Afghanistan, besides the general drabbines, namely the Sovietesque work trucks that turn the front wheels through an external fan belt, public transportation split between belching seventies era buses and modified pick-up trucks with benches and people hanging off the back, and traffic police that spend more time sleeping than doing anything else.
The nicest aspect of my week in Yangon was its proximity to the Schwedagon pagoda, the largest Buddhist shrine in Yangon and all of Myanmar. Its golden dome shone in the sun during the day and glistened all night long.
From Yangon we flew to Bagan which is known for having 1,200 Buddhist temples crammed into a relatively small area. One thing became immediately apparent after arriving: it was hot. We never looked at a thermometer, but the heat reminded me of how my brother describes Tucson in summer, damn hot. I’m guessing it was 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit. And it was generally a dry heat, something we didn’t expect in the typically humid tropics.
Waking up early the following morning, we rented a horse and buggy to take us around to the temples. As the heat of the day built, we visited five or six. Most of them were impressively large and impressively serviced by people hawking the exact same crafts at every one. Laura and I would dutifully fall out of the horse cart, take off our shoes (you are not allowed to wear shoes in the temples), go inside, walk a circle around each temple looking at the architecture, fend off craft sellers, and drink as much water as we could manage. By about 2pm, and probably more like 10am, we were all templed out.
As it happened, our favorite temple was not particularly large or architecturally spectacular. It was the first we visited, so it was early in the day and relievingly cool when we arrived. Most importantly of all, it was empty; there was no one else besides us. While our horse and buggy parked under a nearby tree, we were able to explore it on our own, even climbing up the dank steps to the roof. It was like discovering an old tree house that was unknown to everyone else with views across the plain looking out upon the small and large temples near and far. We were in our own private Idaho.
If you love Buddhist temples and you love feeling like a traveller somewhat off the beaten path where you can discover the wonders of an ancient temple city all to yourself, we highly recommend seeking out Bagan soon and during the hot season! If the ‘all to yourself’ part isn’t a high priority, come during the main tourist season and you’ll probably enjoy it more than we did.
One of the mixed blessings of Bagan was the general lack of tourist infrastructure. Near our hotel, located in the main town, there were almost no restaurants that served food for tourists. We enjoyed trying different Myanmar food during our few days, but it was certainly hit or miss. Our favorite, and served at almost every restaurant, was Burmese tomato salad. We highly recommend seeking it out in a cookbook or at a website near you.
From Bagan we headed to Inle lake, where there is a town of stilts on the lake, floating farms, and locals that row (e.g., punt) with their legs. We enjoyed Inle lake more than Bagan, not least because it was blissfully cool after the hellacious heat. We spent the first afternoon walking as far as we could up the mountain road near our hotel because we had planned a lake tour for the following day. The trip up the mountain was quite nice. It was obvious that very few tourists venture up the road we took and most of the Burmese people we met were very friendly and smiled as we walked past their houses.
The following day we took a tour of the lake with a guide furnished by the hotel. The first stop was the local market, which was pretty cool. The market was thriving – with everything from local produce to machine parts for boat motors. Then we went to a silk weaving facility, a local smith shop, a silver smith shop, a temple, and by the floating gardens.
The floating gardens were a highlight of the day. The lake is shallow enough that if you stake down a local plant it will root into the lakebed. You can then begin to build a ‘floating island’ of variable size on which to grow produce. Most of the floating gardens were producing tomatoes and were arranged in long rows so that a farmer could paddle up and down the rows to tend their crop. Most of the farmers never left their canoes.
After the high intensity of Bangkok, Myanmar felt like a sea of tranquillity. But underneath the tranquillity, we left wondering whether we would recommend visiting to friends. For those that love travelling, spending a week or two would be a fascinating adventure. The people of Myanmar are friendly, the country is safe, and it sits at a unique place in its history. The Myanmar of today will most likely disappear, for better and worse, over the next few years. For those of you that are more like tourists, Myanmar has some infrastructure for you but there are definitely moments when you need to do it yourself or when finding the comfort of western food or other amenities can still be difficult. Ultimately, we wished that we had done more research before our trip and look forward to reading Burmese Days by George Orwell and Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin.