Saturday, February 22, 2014

My, Oh My, Myanmar: 10 Days in Burma

Mandalay, Myanmar

One of the most unexpected and surprising countries on this round-the-world adventure has been Myanmar, situated right where India and China meet. A friend from my writing group in Brooklyn, who moved to Yangon about a year and half ago, threw out an invitation to come stay with her and her family. Although our visit in this country was only ten days, every day was a rewarding experience and we both feel it is the one country we have been to that doesn't yet feel like it has been globalized. The people were warm and the culture eager to share with foreigners as much as it was accessible. Likewise, travelers here are also more friendly and somewhat more banded together because you have to be.
Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Myanmar
We flew from Saigon to Yangon, where we spent a few days being totally pampered by the sheer comfortability of my friend's home complete with a huge guest bedroom, a soft mattress with extra fluffy pillows, a hot shower with good water pressure, a WASHING MACHINE!!!, home cooked meals and a three year old that melted you the second you laid eyes on him. Mike and I thoroughly enjoyed our walk through Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and saw all of the colonial-era buildings left in different states of disrepair, a photographic dream. We had drinks at the Strand Hotel where authors like George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling once toasted glasses and also enjoyed some Western food at the new Union Bar and Grill, an example of the lightning speed development happening in Myanmar. We strolled around the Shwedagon Paya at dusk, watching the families come to worship and to enjoy the ambience. We also enjoyed a fabulous photography exhibit at the Institut Francais de Birmanie where one photographer carefully captured the aftermath of the violent conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims that light the the country on fire every few months. Filled in by dinner conversations with my friend and he husband, we quickly learned the state of the union in Myanmar which set the scene wonderfully for us before we headed to Mandalay for the Irrawaddy Literary Festival where we spent a day immersing ourselves in sessions with authors, BBC journalists, artists and former political prisoner, Daw Aung Saw Suu Kyi. We also did some sightseeing just before and walked through the "World's Largest Book," but the literary festival was one of the best days on this trip for me.
Yangon, Myanmar
From Mandalay we took a bus to Bagan, even though we have hit out limit with bus travel. (The overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay included a man with whooping cough seated right behind me.) The bus ride to Bagan did not disappoint in the same way that all bus travel captures a glimpse of the culture. When the seats were all filled. The bus driver's assistant pulled out tiny plastic stools that he placeed in the aisle for people to sit on and no matter how many people were packed into the bus, the bus always stopped to pick up locals waving them down from the side of the road. I could have done without the young man vomiting out the window behind me, but I certainly could feel for him and in a way someone getting sick on a bus humbles me instantly. It could just as easily be me with my head out the window.
Bagan, Myanmar
In Bagan we stayed in the Backpackers district in Nyuang U and Mike and I popped into several guesthouses and even left one we agreed to stay at before finding a room. We agreed to a room for $20 a night, but after five minutes in the room under punishing florescent lights, all of the "icks" of the room became too much to bear and by this point our threshold for what is and what is not acceptable is pretty flexible. But, this room was by far one of the worst rooms we had seen complete with stained (possibly dirty) sheets, a leaky, moldy, rusty bathroom, a few mosquitos and stifling, humid air. We turned our key back in, bit the bullet and stayed at a guesthouse that was a little above our budget but every dollar worth it. The next day we rented bikes and tooled around Old Bagan checking out Buddhist temples that had been standing since the 12th century. They reminded me of the cave churches and cave monasteries in Cappadocia, Turkey, also built the same century and how these two worlds so out of touch with each other, yet still somehow perhaps consciously connected, constructed these beautiful religious temples to their different gods at the same time and how amazingly they have all stood the test of time. The idea of "globalization" is perhaps just a clever word that compartmentalizes what has always been happening, which is that we aren't that different from each other after all.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
Pagodas at Inthein, Inle Lake, Myanmar
After Bagan, we treated ourselves to a cheap 30-minute flight to Inle Lake, by far one of the most spectacular experiences of the trip. We took a boat ride for an entire day going in and around Inle Lake. To see a culture so completely enmeshed with their eco system had a grace and a beauty I can't quite explain. The fisherman who row their boats with one leg wrapped around an oar so their hands can spear fish and wrangle the net looked more like a water ballet than fishing. We watched a girl break open a lotus plant and draw threads which we then saw spun by a middle aged woman which is then handed over to the elderly women to weave into scarves. Three young blacksmiths hammered away at a molten hot machete while an older man held the blade steady with thongs, a blade which then is used to swiftly crack open even the most stubborn of coconuts. Of course, these were "tourist" stops along the boat ride, but they still had an authentic feel perhaps by the hands off approach of the families we visited. There was never a pressure to buy anything. And while Inle Lake is a tourist destination, the tourism feels to be in the hands of the people and the lake is so enormous that you aren't bumping elbows with other tourists to try and see "real Myanmar." It simply just is.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
We dipped into a small village, Inthein, where we hiked up to some Pagoda ruins and then the Forest of Pagodas, where temples had been overgrown by Banyan trees and the landscape had reclaimed what was once rightfully theirs. Nature always wins.
In ten years, Myanmar will be completely different, I imagine. I feel so grateful to have experienced this country right now in this moment, on the crux of explosive development and yet still so open and welcoming to the curious traveler.


Carmen said...

ah! love how inspired your writing sounds from every stop and experience during this trip. so great!!!

daleboca said...

sounds beautiful!