If you like this post, sign up at the bottom of the page for my weekly emails so you never miss a moment!
Really I should have called this post "How Myanmar Felt Specifically To Me In March of 2017." I'm under no delusion that my experience was the same as anyone else's (especially the locals). I did a lot of research before I left and the only thing I couldn't really figure out in all the lists of tips and advice was exactly what it feels like to be there. This is almost certainly a fools errand, but I'm going to try to describe it.
Myanmar is somehow touristy without being touristy. Bagan is the country’s most popular tourist destination, but somehow it still felt like it was my own. I think that’s what makes people wax poetic about Myanmar – it is safe enough that you can wander and large enough that it isn’t hard to wander away from the hoards.
Y'all know that Rome is my favorite place in the world. But it can feel like you're having the same experience as every other tourist in Rome, which to me really takes away from the magic. Myanmar feels like the opposite. It is almost impossible to not experience the magic that comes from wandering "off the beaten path". This is partially because the path, beaten or not, is very large, and partially because it isn't that beaten.
We flew into the capital of Yangon - a large, loud, hot, dirty city. There's traffic and bad smells and it isn't all that charming. But if you ignore your ears and nose and look up, you can see the old remnants of a beautiful city. If you let your imagination do some work, there's still charm to be found.
I also think Myanmar gets some of its charm from how little we know about it. Places like the Eiffel Tower rarely live up to the perfectly Photoshopped photos of it we've seen. I'd seen very few photos of Myanmar when I arrived there, but I knew what I was supposed to see. In Yangon, Shwedagon pagoda is the main site. I didn't know anything about it, but was completely awed.
Bagan (where we spent the bulk of our trip) is a mostly wide open expanse of dirt roads, surrounded and cut down the middle by paved roads. You can walk, bike, taxi or scooter through the network of dirt roads between thousand year old temples, stupas and pagodas. Some are populated by tour groups from Europe and the US. Some are filled with Myanmar people from surrounding towns and villages who have come to visit the temples for religious reasons. Some are completely abandoned.
Some are kept up by families who lives there. At one such pagoda, I walked up and was greeted by two young children who grabbed a flashlight and encouraged me to climb up the side and into a small window that led to a large, dark, cave. The sign in front had warned us from climbing up this particular structure, reminding us of the earthquake that occurred there last August. I couldn't make myself go too far in. The children were amused.
In March, the air is dry and dusty and it left a layer of grime on my skin. My nose and shoulders were burnt by our second day there. The bottoms of my feet may never recover from walking and climbing barefoot on stone temples in the heat of the day. The sun rises early and I literally saw one cloud the entire time we were there. It was hot, but on a bicycle or with a window open in a cab the dry wind cooled me right down. Despite the lack of greenery, Bagan is shady. Inside the temples, there's shade. Next to the temples, or sitting on them, there's shade. In an open-air restaurant, eating tea leaf salad and drinking an ice-cold lemon ginger slush, there's shade.
Being in Myanmar was as special as everyone told me it would be.
The day I came back from Myanmar, my dad sent me this article. The political situation in Myanmar is still fraught. I spent 45 minutes trying to understand whether I should refer to it at Burma or Myanmar and I'm still not sure I have a satisfactory answer. Basically, the military junta started referring to the country as Myanmar in 1989, saying that Burma was the name used by colonizers, but the junta was in favor of an ethnic supremacy so that is pretty medium and very complicated. In the local language, Burma and Myanmar are actually similar words and used somewhat interchangeably. It used to be that the name you used for the country demonstrated your political leanings, but this is no longer true as the government also refers to itself as Myanmar pretty often now. I recommend this article for further reading, but my conclusion was that what you call the country is less important than whether you understand its history.
Sign up below for my weekly emails and never miss a musing.