There are countries where you really have to seriously consider what you want out of a destination. If you are into no surprises and guaranteed comfort you may want to opt for a nice vacation in a fully developed country; reliable Wi-Fi, available CNN, recognizable food. However, if you are willing to be flexible and venture out of your comfort zone, you have a good chance of being amazed like I was in Myanmar.
Myanmar, also know as Burma, is one of those counties that are not for beginners. The country has only recently begun to open up to the world after decades of military rule. Tourism infrastructure is only now beginning to keep up with demand. With the installation of the new government in 2015, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar and its friendly people are open to change. But there are still challenges. This may be the poorest country in South East Asia but, in my opinion, the richest in genuinely welcoming people.
Min-ga-la-ba, said in a sing-song tone, means “it is a blessing”. It is the typical welcome or hello in Myanmar. Everyone says it; taxi drivers, children, vendors, strangers in the street…and you say it back to them.
I decided to hit at least the big three in Myanmar; that’s Yangon, formerly Rangoon, Lake Inle and Bagan, land of over 6000 pyramids. I also wanted some down time at a beach and chose Ngopali (pronounced “Napoli”) Beach on the north west coast.
The first thing you notice when you arrive in Yangon is the humidity and lush vegetation. I immediately set out with my maps and sturdy walking shoes to find the fabled 2500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda which enshrines stands of the Buddha’s hair. One recommendation for this amazing site…prepare to spend several hours exploring the vast complex.
A special treat in Yangon is the food. Head to an area known as 19th street in the Chinatown section. Its the “restaurant row” of Yangon where food stalls and smaller restaurants are found. I took a food tour which I found on a local website and was treated to a sampling feast at five different locations around 19th Street. All the samplings were delicious from the coconut fish to lamb curry to the local specialty, mohinga, a fish based soup. Burmese food is a category in and of itself but is heavily influenced by flavors from China, India and other south east Asian countries.
Here is a sign you are likely to find in many restaurant restrooms in Myanmar.
I was pleasantly surprised that travelling around Myanmar was not an issue at all. Taxis are cheap and plentiful. Travelling locally by air is fast and efficient.
I had heard so many great things about Lake Inle. Inle is a town built in and around a large lake. Most of the local transportation is by boat. The people live on the lake in houses on stilts. Vegetation is grown on the water itself anchored to the ground with poles so they don’t float away. On market days the lake is covered with floating markets selling everything from fabric to food to pets. Ethnic minority people come from the surrounding areas to sell their produce and handicrafts.
The lake has a beautiful, serene feel to it after the merchants have left at dusk. The peaceful days in Lake Inle were a welcome respite from the hustle of Yangon and before heading out to Bagan.
Sometimes when you travel it’s difficult to decide what to see given the limited time you usually have. You can never be entirely sure if what you are going to see is a tacky tourist trap or a meaningful representation of the culture you are visiting. The Pindaya caves near Inle Lake was a tough decision. All I had to recommend it was a brief blurp on a tourist brochure. I took a chance anyway. All I can say is WOW! Pindaya is a network of caves about 150 meters long. Over the centuries devotees have donated and installed over 9,000 Buddhas in the cave. These are crafted from gold, jade, volcanic rock and precious wood. One of the most incredible sights I have ever seen.
BALLOONING OVER BAGAN
Bagan is on the site of the ancient Kingdom of Pagan built on a large, flat plain in the Mandalay region of Myanmar. Over 10,000 religious structures; stupas, monasteries and temples were built in Bagan during its heyday from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. The large pyramid-like structures dot the plain as far as the eye can. Many travelers have compared Bagan to Angor Wat in Cambodia although the architecture is very different.
Without a doubt the best way to see Bagan and appreciate the size and scope of this archeological site is by air! There are two services that offer balloon rides, Oriental Ballooning and Balloons Over Bagan.
What country do you really want to visit but hesitate to go to? What are the concerns that hold you back?
Read a great blog post The Authentic Long Neck Women Villages from Against the Compass.