“What does Burma have to give the United States? We can give you the opportunity to engage with people who are ready and willing to change a society.” – Aung San Suu Kyi
Many of the people who stumble on this blog may never have thought about traveling to Burma, or even know exactly where it is without glancing at a map of Asia. That’s OK, it’s a big world. Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Burma photos that just might make you want to visit.
Beautiful, isn’t it? But don’t say I didn’t warn you- if you visit, you’ll fall in love.
Sometimes I feel guilty about writing the negative aspects of my posts. Even though honesty demands that the negative be included along with the positive, I tend to feel like an ugly, entitled American when another country doesn’t live up to my expectations. To help combat that feeling, here is a list of 24 things I absolutely loved about Burma.
The people are so nice, and genuinely try to be helpful to lost foreigners.
Tiny monks everywhere.
Gorgeous temples everywhere.
The food is pretty good.
I felt completely safe nearly everywhere as a solo female traveler. Being a Buddhist country, there is very little crime, especially against tourists.
Many people have learned a little bit of English, either in school or free classes taught in the monasteries, and are very eager to try out what they know. Especially cute are the shy little kids who will run up to you and yell, “Hello-goodbye!” before running back to their parents.
Women and children wearing thick yellow thanaka paste on their faces as sunscreen.
People here have a charming affinity for western cartoon characters. Even grown men will travel with a Mickey Mouse or Snoopy duffel bag.
The hot air balloon ride in Bagan. Pure magic.
Children are remarkably well behaved here.
The Islamic community in Mandalay. My hotel was right next to a large mosque and I loved to sit in the window and list to their calls to worship.
Chapatis and Nepali food in Mandalay.
Horse carts in Bagan.
Going barefoot in all the Buddhist temples and monasteries. Somehow the act of removing your shoes makes the experience so much more reverent.
My first day in Yangon, a toothless old woman approached me on the street and handed me a beautiful white flower. Thinking she was selling them, I shook my head ‘no’ but she pressed it into my hands anyway and said, “Gift!”
The way people worship their Buddhas, lovingly covering them with gold and flowers, washing them and making offerings of rice and incense. Misdirection of time and resources that it might be, I think almost all forms of worship are beautiful to witness.
Little nat (earth spirit) shrines hidden in tress and other surprising places.
Even though so many people here are going hungry or lacking basic necessities, there is virtually no theft. I watched a homeless man sitting on the dirty street pick up money and go chasing after the German tourist who had dropped it.
The pervasive smell of jasmine.
Making a wish at Shwedagon Paya in the ‘wish fulfilling place’.
Nylon Ice Cream Bar, Mandalay.
The beautiful, if chilly, boat ride across Inle Lake.
The smell of incense.
People who speak some English eagerly try to communicate with foreigners. Those who don’t just smile and laugh a lot.
March 24, 2009- I’m excited to be able to check off multiple bucket list items on one trip. While I was researching this adventure, I spent a lot of time reading hotel reviews and travel forums, trying to make my tight budget stretch as far as possible. Luckily, traveling in Southeast Asia is notoriously cheap and there were plenty of options that wouldn’t break the bank. One thing I knew I was going to have to make room in the budget for as soon as I saw it was a hot air balloon ride over the temples of Bagan. Balloons Over Bagan is a UK company with an impeccable safety record, and even though flights were pricey, it immediately went on the itinerary.
I have to wake up at 4:00 a.m. for the sunrise flight. This trip is a lot of things, but relaxing isn’t really one of them. Note to self: try to build in more leisure time in future. I’m picked up in a rickety old red bus at 5:30 and we drive to an open field next to a golf course. Two other buses have already arrived with other passengers and the crew is unfolding our balloon. Three European couples and two monks, my fellow passengers, are having tea and coffee while the balloon pilot, a funny little British man, runs around the crew, giving orders.
The balloon flight itself is absolutely magical. Floating through the air over these temples that look straight out of a movie set is an otherworldly experience. The valley is hazy with fog, which is a shame for photos, but feels like a dream. The occasional burst of noise from the burner is the only sound- everyone in the balloon is mesmerized into silence and the world below is still asleep. I know this is going to be the absolute highlight of my trip, and probably one of the travel highlights of my life.
The flight only lasts about 45 minutes, which is far too short. I’d like to stay up there all day. Our landing is relatively gentle, for a basket full of people dropping out of the sky. The crew serves us champagne and pastries before the buses take us back to our hotels. As we’ve landed in a field right next to mine, I could have walked (along with all the local women carrying baskets on their heads).
More than seven years after this experience, I can confirm- this hot air balloon right was easily one of the highlights of my life. If you find yourself in Burma, don’t miss this!
There is really no such thing as high-speed travel in Burma. Infrastructure is spotty and unreliable, no one puts much stock in punctuality, and it’s just assumed that every journey is going to take a lot longer than you planned. The ancient kingdom of Bagan, home to thousands of picturesque temples, is less than 400 miles from the capital city of Yangon. The bus ride, however, takes 15 hours. Yes, you read that correctly. By hour five I am composing a love sonnet to the travel agency that booked me two seats next to each other so I could sort-of stretch out and sleep. The only other American on board (the only other American I would meet on my entire trip) is not so lucky. He sits wedged between an extremely large and sweaty Burmese man and a young boy squatting in the aisle. (Just because all the seats are taken doesn’t mean the bus is full- if you can find a spot to wedge yourself, you can come aboard.) A saintly woman across the aisle with a face heavily caked in thanaka paste does her best to fan the wilting foreigners until the driver finally allows us to crack the windows in the sweltering bus.
It seems to take days to reach Bagan, as we make countless “dinner breaks” at roadside food stands, and pass through several military checkpoints. The other American, two Indian tourists, and I are taken off the bus to have our passports and visas examined at each one- the military junta insists on knowing the whereabouts of all foreigners every night.
We finally pull into Bagan at 5:30 a.m. and a driver is waiting to take me to my hotel, which is a pleasant surprise. Not a hotel at all, it is a private bungalow on beautifully landscaped grounds overflowing with tropical flowers and plants. Fighting the urge to shower and go to bed, I tell Zaw, my eager to please driver/tour guide that I’ll be ready to begin sightseeing in about two hours. I can’t even remember how many temples we rush through as I’m struggling to stay awake. By lunchtime I tell him that I need to go back to my room and sleep for a few hours.
When the alarm wakes me up at 4:00 p.m. I wish I had just called it a day, but we press on through a few more temples. I wish I had weeks to spend in fascinating Bagan instead of just two days.