Seeing the world, one country at the time

Myanmar in a Nutshell

Myanmar is the Golden Land, a country of exquisite beauty and unspoken repression. If any country touched my heart, it was Myanmar. It was the biggest surprise of all, which made every moment in it one of wonder and delight. With so much Indian and British influence, it is unlike any of its neighbors. It has the greatest mix of eastern cultures that I have ever seen and I delighted in the variety of skin tones, facial features and accents. It felt like a sub-population of India had moved into Laos. The faces were more Indian, dark with longer faces and sharper features than in the countries east of it. Yangon was alive in its diversity.

As a visitor, you cannot ignore the question of civil rights and government repression. It is not evident, and as would be natural in a repressed country, few people will talk about it. Instead, we were struck by how easily the people smiled and how they seemed so much happier than the Cambodians, though they are still suffering. People immediately equate Myanmar with the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, but I found that there was little I knew outside of this. The Bogyoke Aung San museum celebrates the national hero of the country that has kept his daughter under house arrest for over ten years. General Aung San is revered for having helped achieve independence first from the British and then from the Japanese, yet his daughter is viewed as a threat. What happened?

Despite the undercurrents of the country’s political situation, Myanmar feels magical, a languid place that hasn’t been taken over by western principles; where you cannot find a Starbucks (hallelujah!) or McDonald’s. It feels like the west is no longer present, although it once was, in the form of the British Empire. The British legacy is the architecture that gives Myanmar its romantic flavor, and the Indian influence, which gives Myanmar so much of its color. A taxi driver I met still insists on calling Myanmar Burma and the streets by their old English names and didn’t mind sharing his political opinions.

Myanmar is men in longyis, women smoking cheroot cigars, faces covered or decorated in sandalwood and sawdust paste called makada, betel nut juice splattered on roads and loud market vendors beside run-down colonial buildings. It is people eager to learn English and monks and nuns begging, the worship of pre-Buddhist nats, “no foreigners allowed” signs, state propaganda, slow to non-existent internet connections with government-censored websites, and programs used to bypass the censors. It is unremarkable cuisine but colorful eateries, breakfast at roadside cafes, spartan tea shops and biryani and curry restaurants. It is the abundant home-cooked meals for one dollar at the Queen Inn, the colonial elegance of the Strand hotel’s bar, feeling sick after every meal and Lars getting a fever and dropping ten kg (22 lbs) in two weeks.

It is the Moustache Brothers, the golden sparkling stupas and pagodas of Mandalay, Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake. It is people at home in their dug-out canoes, rowing with their feet, fishing prawns with cone-shaped baskets, pulling up algae and mud with their oars and chatting as they paddle side by side. It is gypsy horse carriages in Bagan kicking up dust and sand, and dark-skinned trishaw drivers with lined faces and high cheekbones straining their wiry calves to transport passengers sitting back to back. It is ferries with locals sitting crowded on the floor, goods piled around them and women walking with their bundles and baskets balanced on their heads. It is misty, amber sunsets over countless temples of Bagan. It is school children in green longyis and white shirts, the girls with short-cropped hair and round circles of makada looking like clown makeup on their cheeks. Myanmar is smiles, and gentleness and secrets.

We arrived to Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, by plane, since arriving any other way is practically impossible. Three days were enough to discover the street life, the local Indian food, the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and other museums, temples and points of interest. Transportation in Myanmar is terrible and that distances take twice as long to cover as you would expect, so we decided on only three destinations: Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake.

A painful ten-hour bus ride brought us to Mandalay where we froze through the night. In Mandalay we stayed only one day, since friends had recommended we skip it altogether for other less touristed areas. We used it only as a transit to take the boat along the Irawaddy down to Bagan. Still, we managed to visit Mandalay Hill for sunset and catch a show of the Moustache brothers, a comedy troupe whose biggest claim to fame is that one of the brothers was jailed for seven years.

The next morning we were at the boat jetty jostling with hundreds of others for a spot to sit for our 14-hour boat ride. We watched the sunrise and sunset from the boat before we reached Bagan. Bagan was so peaceful that we stayed five days, taking three days to explore the endless stupas and temples in the area by bike or my favorite, by horse carriage. We met a nice German couple at our hostel. Peter and Micki are professional photographers and Micki writes for a top newspaper, so we had a lot to discuss and spent our evenings together. Bagan is so dream-like and relaxing, you feel like you are living a movie. We didn’t really want to leave, but we had heard that Inle Lake was even more beautiful.

We took a bus to Inle Lake, another day’s ride over curvy, winding mountain roads with hairpin turns. The temperature dropped and we were again reminded of how unprepared we were for this trip. I had a jacket, but not knowing how cold it could get, Lars froze in his t-shirt for days. Two days were spent visiting the lake, taking boats out with Finnish, Australian and Israeli travelers we met at our friendly hostel. It became a real home for the five days we were there. The family running it was so warm and welcoming and cooked delicious, filling breakfasts and dinners. There was a real community feeling there. Located beside the river, the mornings were loud with longtail boat engines roaring on their way to the Lake and the working day.

The Lake was beautiful, a small world of its own. It is self-contained and its people have their own culture and environment, living on stilt-houses and transporting themselves in canoes the way Americans use cars. They bathe and wash clothes in their canoes, go shopping, work collecting algae and mud to build up their “farmlands” and fish using conical baskets and nets, rowing with their feet. The Lake is where the most of the country’s vegetables, namely tomatoes, are grown. These fields stretched along the lake are floating and are protected by bamboo gates when the farmers aren’t tending to their crops. We visited markets, pagodas and a monastery that is home to trained jumping cats.

After a couple days on the water, Lars was flat on his back with a fever. I went biking with Natalie and Amiram from Israel, and took walks along the river to see the life ebbing and flowing as the sun rose and set. When Lars’ fever broke it was time to fly back to Yangon before our flight to Bangkok. We had a full day there during which we took another walk, ate our last Biryani and said goodbye to this place that I can’t wait to return to, this time with more time and a lot more, crisp American dollar bills.