In September we were fortunate enough to again have a week off from school, our third and final school vacation for the year. Way back in March, I had planned with some friends to visit the country of Sri Lanka during this break. In the following months I heard many ETAs proclaiming their love for the little known country of Myanmar (AKA Burma). I decided to bail on my original plan, and promptly bought tickets to Myanmar. For this trip, I traveled with two other ETAs, Josh and Maggie, and it was refreshing to travel with a different crew than my past adventures. All in all we had a total of 10 days in Myanmar, and with careful planning and scouring of our travel guides, we were able to make the most of our time there. I can say with great confidence that Myanmar is the most unique and authentic country I have visited (up to 7 countries at this time). The originality and traditions have yet to be comprised by western influence. What surprised me most about the people of Myanmar was their unwavering optimism amidst an oppressive regime.
We were greeted upon arrival in Yangon, Myanmar by heavy rain. We had been warned that it was the end of rainy season, and we were prepared to battle inclement weather for the duration of our trip. The main attraction in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Resting upon several relics of The Buddha, is a towering, conical-shaped pagoda shimmering in gold. Aligned around the tip of this tall structure are countless rubies, diamonds, and other precious stones. At first we were determined to rely solely upon our guidebooks for information on the sites but we quickly realized that we were overwhelmed. We enlisted the help of a cheerful, enthusiastic English speaking guide who taught me more about Buddhism in one hour than I had ever learned previously. Some of the more interesting facts were that statues of The Buddha contain one of fifty five different poses each with a unique meaning, there are thirty one different levels of reincarnation, and Myanmar Buddhists believe that the world has already seen four Buddhas and they are awaiting the fifth and final. Finally, the day of the week that one is born is significant and there were different shrines devoted to the seven days of the week and two for Wednesday (divided into halves for an astrological reason I couldn’t grasp). Josh, Maggie, and I all paid respects to our days, only after our guide whipped out a book containing calendars for every year so our specific day could be identified. After absorbing enough information about Buddhism to satisfy a college-level course we caught a ride in a taxi to a well known restaurant in the city called ‘Feel.’ We were struggling with what to order when a fellow ETA named Amy, who was traveling in Myanmar with her Burmese father, surprised us. Looking curiously at our ordering choices, Amy proceeded to order about ten different traditional Burmese dishes. What ensued was a most filling and enjoyable meal with many distinct flavors and spices.
The following day we set off on one of our many bus rides east to the town of Kyaitko, home to the Golden Rock Pagoda (worth a Google images search). Perched precariously upon a ledge, over two thousand feet about sea level, is the iconic Buddhist pilgrimage site known as Golden Rock. According to belief, the rock, which true size can’t be grasped from pictures, rests upon a hair of the The Buddha. This hair prevents the rock from tumbling over the edge, defying gravity every moment of its existence. We had to wait until our second day in Kyaitko to ascend the mountain, due to pouring rain, but that would end up being the last rain that we would see on our trip, fortunately.
From Golden Rock we took a bus to Kalaw to begin our three-day-two-night trek that would span over sixty kilometers. For the first day of our trek we were accompanied by a guide named Baracat who had the rare characteristic of having a Muslim father and Buddhist mother. He was able to shed some light on the religious conflicts in Myanmar (hopefully you have all heard of the Rohingya crisis going on). He was very level-headed and approached religion with a completely subjective approach. We also learned more about Aung San Suu Kyi, the founder of the National League for Democracy (NLD), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and the beloved champion of human rights in Myanmar. In the words of our guide, “She is my second God.” When I asked which was his first he responded, with an air of surprise, “Allah of course.” Our trek exposed us to the raw, untouched beauty of Myanmar. Our first day, which was primarily climbing in mountainous areas, was capped off by stopping at a monastery where I played Tacro (traditional SEAsia game) with some novice monks. The second day of trek brought us to the fertile countryside where many of the vegetables ingested by the citizens are grown. Our final day brought us to one of the biggest tourist attractions in all of Myanmar, Inle Lake. An entire town sits perched on stilts above this shallow lake, surrounded by opulent green mountains on both sides. For the duration of this trek we ate only foods grown locally, and a normal meal consisted of a small portion of meat with four or five different kinds of vegetables. The food was fantastic, but more importantly my body as a whole has never felt better or been happier with the fuel I was providing it.
Our final stop in Myanmar was the ancient city of Bagan. Nicknamed (by me) ‘Temple Town’, it is home to over 2,000 temples from the 12th century. The entire area covers over seventy square miles and to truly explore its breadth one must enlist the services of an e-bike. For the entirety of two days, we drove our e-bikes into the heart of this holy land to witness all of the architectural and historical beauty. There are four or five larger, famous temples that are well preserved but constantly flocked by tourists and panhandlers. Those temples provide an appropriate starting point, but the further off the beaten path you go, the more genuine and personal the experience becomes. Some of the temples allow people to climb up to second and third levels, where the view of the Bagan landscape is intoxicating. Josh and I would sit quietly in admiration for a while before spying a different temple off in the distance and attempting to make our way there, sometimes weaving through soft sand or evading prickers (and in my case not evading). I know it may seem like everywhere I travel to becomes my most-liked place, but I can say with absolute certainty that this was my favorite individual site. It was very different, and in my mind superior, to its counterpart in Angkor, Cambodia. It certainly doesn’t receive the same recognition, but I’m beginning to realize that the best places usually don’t.
Officially less than one month left at school, and seven weeks until my return to America. Time flies.
More photos from Myanmar: Here