Conspicuously missing for the headlines: a 6.8 magnitude earthquake on Wednesday, August 22; originating about 25 miles southwest of Bagan, Myanmar. And though the results of the ever-important Cormorant, MN. mayoral election also come down at about the same time, it’s a little troubling how little press the quake has received. That’s not to undermine the important progressive community work of Mayor Duke, but I feel like Myanmar needs a little love, lo let’s give it to them, shall we?
The quake damaged countless ancient structures and killed four; though none of the fatalities were in Bagan. It later emerged that much of the damage to the temples and pagodas was restoration work. How crazy is it that with all the modern advances, ancient structure still holds up better in a disaster?!
Location: Southeast Asia
Borders: China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand & Laos
Capital City: Naypyidaw
Largest City: Yangon (Rangoon)
Population: +/-53 million
Main Religion: Theravada Buddhism
What’s with the map??: The map to the right highlights most of the places I visited. Some places I just couldn’t find to put on the map!
Tourism has become a major source of income for Myanmar since they opened their borders to tourism. Try as I might, I could not find an official “opening” date, and it appears that the real turning point was around the time when Aung San Suu Kyi– who is utterly fascinating- was release from house arrest (she was under arrest for a total of about 15 years between July 1989 and November 2010).
Interesting Fact: Aung San Suu Kyi asked for tourists not to visit Myanmar, stating that the profits from tourism would go directly to the military regime. She went on to mention that continued tourism just proves to the government that their actions are accepted by the world. In 2009, Suu Kyi’s position softened a bit, as she said that some tourism may actually help- provided that it was run by private companies, not the government. Read more about it here.
I’ve written and re-written the opening of this paragraph probably 8 times over the past 10 minutes, so instead of getting all fancy and politically correct, I’m going to shoot real straight here for a minute. If you want tumultuous history, geographical beauty, and temples… basically anywhere in Southeast Asia will satisfy those cravings. So what, if anything, makes Myanmar feel so distinctly different?
You play by their rules.
In most places in SE Asia, with the exception of certain temples/areas within temples, you can come as you are. You can wear whatever you like, and within reason, act like you would in your home country. That is not the case here. Myanmar observes a level of modesty that requires a bit of research to ensure you’re prepared enough so you don’t insult the locals. The same is true of behavior; looking into gestures and behaviors that are considered impolite would be prudent.
You eat their food.
When I visited in 2014, there were few Western options. We were able to find things that weren’t necessarily Burmese, but the most varied menu we found was at The Moon restaurant in Bagan (delicious, by the way). There was no McDonald’s to fall back on if we couldn’t figure out where to eat. Burmese food is similar to northern Thai in flavor profile, and in my opinion, is h i g h l y underrated. We went on a food tour in Mandalay (which I HIGHLY recommend) and the first thing we ate was my absolute favorite thing from the trip! Though it’s not quite curry laksa, mohinga and the accompanying tempura bits is something I now crave from time to time.
Travel is/was complicated.
Getting between destinations in Myanmar was a unique challenge. Flying was pricey but buses were few and far between. We opted for the 10 hour boat ride between Mandalay and Bagan (Nyaung U), and then the overnight bus for a thrilling 8-9 hours from Bagan to Inle Lake (Nyuang Shwe). Options were limited, and as I understand it, the frequency and quality of transportation and roadways have improved a great deal since 2014. Even now with tourism being so new, think of the cool-factor of being on a bus or boat knowing that the route you’re following is relatively untraveled.
The people have a lot to say.
There were so many locals who wanted to talk to us. They saw two wide-eyed Western gals and really just wanted to chat. Let me tell you, the cynicism I had developed after being randomly approached in other SE Asian countries (because it is often someone who wants to sell you something) soon dissipated after spending an hour with a monk who wanted to practice his English and give us a tour of his monastery. Later in the day we spoke with another monk who was really eager to teach us about Aung San Suu Kyi and was overjoyed at hie new ability to speak freely with foreigners. Another man took us to a small pagoda and showed us how to climb up! There’s a lot to be said for interacting with locals and it was so easy and informative to do it everywhere we went in Myanmar.
The monk pictured to the left lives at the Mahagandhayon Monastery- if you’ve ever heard of a place that offers visitors the opportunity to see monks lined up for breakfast -that’s the place. He spotted my friend and I wandering around looking at things around the courtyard (which set us apart, as many visitors were gathered to watch the food line). He offered us a tour because he wanted to practice his English.
Ok, bear with me here for a moment. Now, something travelers/tourists/nomads/whatever don’t often openly admit, is that we like novelty. OH NO SHE DIDN’T. Heck yes I did! We love feeling like we’re doing something not only new to us, but also relatively new or unknown to the masses. As much as I love the “you’re going to have a great time, I hear the local art/beaches/mountains are stunning,” I also love the “uhh, why would you want to go there??” reactions. The answer to the question is usually that I don’t know why I’m going, I just want to. The novelty, the challenge, the ability to say that I’ve been while many others have not — all play into the novelty appeal. The fact that a place is mysterious and novel won’t impact the trip, except insofar as choosing the destination. Furthermore, places that are less-traveled can sometimes offer a more authentic look into another culture; the lurking sense of “oh no, not another tourist” doesn’t quite yest exist, and we’re as much a novelty to them as their land and culture are to us.
The coolest things I did in Myanmar:
- Mandalay Foodie Tour
- Visited the world’s largest book
- Climbed Mandalay Hill to see the sunset
- Visited U Bein Bridge
- Saw life along the Irrawaddy River
- Climbed a pagoda in Bagan
- Bought interesting local art
- Saw a Kayan woman with the elongated neck
- Talked to locals
- Saw the iconic fishermen on Inle Lake
- Have you ever been to Myanmar?
- What is the most novel destination you’ve been to or plan to visit?
- Have you ever visited a place that later had a major natural disaster?