A few months ago I came up with a list of places I wanted to visit “that are still extremely different from the West and will look very different in 15 or 20 years.”
Shay and I can now cross Myanmar off that list.
Go. Now! As in right now, stop reading this and go book a trip before anyone else figures out how incredible it is.
For those of you who don’t know, Myanmar (once called Burma, still called Burma by lots of locals) is a fairly large, devoutly Buddhist, country sandwiched between India and Thailand. A harsh military regime, subject to decades of international sanctions, is finally loosening its grip, making tourism a real possibility.
If you’re going to go, you better like planes. For most Westerners, you’re looking at three flights just to get into the entry point at Yangon. And once you’re there, you’re going to take at least three more flights on airlines you’ve never heard of to get to see the real magic of this country.
On account of the sanctions, tourism infrastructure is under-developed and Western tourists are few and far between. You’ll need a tour operator to book hotels and internal air travel. I’d suggest going with the company we used, Myanmar Shalom. They are extremely reasonable and run by the most interesting people: the father / son duo of Moses and Sammy Samuels. They are Burmese Jews of Baghdadi decent, who, in addition to operating the agency, also look after Yangon’s only synagogue, an amazing structure built in the 1890s.
Beyond the (very small) community of Burmese Jews, you’ll quickly realize that this is a deeply spiritual country. Buddhist Monks in bright red robes are everywhere. Gigantic pagodas adorned with gold and diamonds glitter over the skylines while tens of thousands of Buddha statutes watch over your every turn. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood realizes that Bagan is a dream set.
The cities are clean and the streets are vibrant but they feel trapped in the 1980s—pre international sanctions. One person we met said that the only noticeable differences are that people now carry mobile phones and Korean film stars are setting fashion trends.
The villages are a whole different story. In many cases, they have no electric or running water and it genuinely felt like you stepped back in time to the 1800s. But you didn’t get a sense that they were impoverished. Food seemed plentiful, the children were smiling, and everything was spectacularly clean.
The people are wonderful, innovative and curious. Many still wear traditional clothing and most women apply at least a dab of Thanaka—a yellowish cosmetic made of tree bark. The cooking style is uniquely Burmese and all of the ingredients are fresh. Almost everything they have, especially in the villages, is made in Myanmar—and they are extremely proud of this.
Say you’re from the US and they smile like you’ve never seen. As a frequent traveler, I can say that this is perhaps the only place I’ve ever been where sharing that you’re from “the USA” gets you more mileage than saying “New York.” I can’t remember how many times I was asked if I thought Obama would visit one day.
It’s true, there are no ATMs and nobody accepts credit cards. At ~850 Burmese kyat to the dollar, everyone wants USD—but only if they are clean, crisp bills, fresh from the bank. I expect credit cards to come soon, but in the meantime, “cash only” added another dimension to the trip.
Most surprising, we’ve never felt safer. And unlike the rest of SE Asia, even the wild dogs were relaxed.
A lot of what we read before the trip suggested that we’d be flying into a military state where guns ruled and the people were terrified. Maybe others had different experiences, but aside from the heavily armed airports and the high fencing around government buildings, we just didn’t see that side of the country. In fact, everyone we spoke with about politics was very open about their position: They hate the current government and consider Aung San Suu Kyi to be their true leader. Affectionately, many called her “the Lady.”
While I could go on and on about the art, the temples, the time-trapped logos, the sunsets or the people, this is a photo I took near a small village on Inle Lake, deep in the hills of Shan State. Getting there involves a two hour flight from Yangon to Heho, followed by a one hour drive to the commercial docks in Nyuang Shwe and finally a one hour plus boat ride to the southern tip of the lake. For Shayna and I, this was about as far away from the West as we’ve ever been. It was kind of like a fairytale you read about when you’re a kid but never thought you’d actually see.
Alright. Enough about that. So where’s next:
- The Serengeti
- The Amazon
Drop me a line if you want to organize a trip to any of the above or want to hear more about Myanmar.
Looking forward to the next adventure!