Since 2013, Myanmar has held a top five position of countries on my wish list. One of my favorite travelers had recently visited in 2013 and after learning about her journey, my interest had grown more.
Different than its Southeastern Asian neighbors, Myanmar has yet to be aswarm with a vast number or tourists traveling from the West. Different from any other part of the world, Myanmar has been rated as the third most isolated country in the world behind North Korea and Somalia. So secluded, that most persons are unable to geographically identify the country on a map. Intimidated by the 100 ethnic nationalities speaking 132 dialects of the Burmese language, most tourists would opt to visit destinations that are more English-speaking friendly rather than have to take the risk of stepping outside of their comfort zones. Additionally, the lack of corporate influences have kept the culture intact. Now, some of the more-than-4,000 ancient temples are ready and welcoming explorers to come and relish in their magnificent wonder and beauty.
Three years later after hearing about her trip, the time presented itself. Unbeknownst of what awaited me, I was overwhelmed with sheer joy. As we deplaned, my travel squad all gave me a look that suggested, “well playa, it’s on you, we are following your lead!”
Here’s a taste of my experience in Myanmar.
With all the temples in Yangon, there is no doubt which one is held in the highest regard. Visible from almost everywhere in Yangon, the Shwedagon Paya Buddhist Stupa commands attention like no other in Myanmar. After reaching what I thought to be the entrance, I took my shoes off to comply with Buddhist customs and looked up. With a deep breath, I exhaled, and we started climbing what felt like 10,000 steps towards the clouds of pearly gates and finally, we proceed through the real entrance.
Just after paying admission, I met Thiri, a local who offers to give us a personal tour. To be frank, I had no concerns about her. Her pitch was perfect and I know the money would go directly to her rather than a foreign company taking 99 percent off the top, leaving pennies for person doing the real work. We begin to walk and I have the chance to get up close the stupa, I stand in awe. It is every bit of majestic as I have imagined. As Thiri continues with the history lesson, we pour out questions, all of which are answered.
Then I meet He Min, a monk that provides even more history of the stupa and of Buddha's Teachings. As we walk alongside of each other, I ask He Min if he would meditate with me. We stop between the north and northwest corners and entered a smaller monastery. Sitting down, our feet and legs crossed like when I was elementary school during story time. We then position our hands to reflect the Dhyana hand sign, both hands resting palm-up on the lap, signifying meditation. He Min did not ignore my request, he provides the moment I had traveled halfway around the world for: mediation with a monk at the most sacred temple in all of Myanmar.
It is 5:30 AM; our eyes are wide shut, exposed skin covered in Deet, and our day packs are on my back. It is dark, very dark. I can hear the sound of soft winds blow by my ear, crickets alarming us with their presence, the shifting of water buffalo moving about the camp. That is when it hits me, we are in the middle of the jungle, folks. As we approach the boardwalk, we settle into the longtail motorboat which awaits us. We are politely welcomed by our private guide, Hia Win Tun, who paddles us through the narrow delta to Inle Lake. Within minutes, the paddling slows down to a near halt. As the ripples move about the lake, I look just beyond the front of the wooden boat and stare in awe as the clouds and the mountains reflect off the water.
The landscape is so serene, the horizon was barely visible that my frontal cortex is convinced I am gliding through the sky. It is as if Mother Nature speaks to my eyes. We continue sailing through the lake, admiring the stilt-house communities, Buddhist stupas in the distance and the transporting of local goods about the villages. It is no doubt that the showcase of the lake are the fisherman that perform a technique of leg-rowing, in which one of their legs wraps around a long paddle to churn the face of the blade through the water like a slow-wine at a Trinidadian Carnival.
During my conversation with Daw Tin Tin Sein, a propagator of Buddhism, I come to understand that Bagan is the temple town of Myanmar and home of more than 3,000 Buddhist temples covering 26-square miles. Originally constructed between the 11th and 13th century during the first Burmese Kingdom, some have been renovated. Our temple guide, Kyi Swe, shares more details about the region while en route to our sunset point. We sit atop of one of the many temples and just after the 6 pm hour, the sun begins to set in the west and paint the sky with vibrant slices of orange. There are just no words to describe it. It is one of the places you just have to go experience and see for yourself.
Less than 12 hours later, we find ourselves atop of another temple at 4:45 am, preparing for the ultimate rise and shine. And then, it happens. I can see the sun kiss and highlight the details of the inscriptions of the temples. Between, sunset and sunrise, I had no regrets. Myanmar had given me all that I could ask for and then some.
Every time I travel to Southeast Asia, I always walk about the local markets. There is something unique about wandering around entrepreneurs and getting lost in a web of hustlers who are simply trying to either feed their families or drive towards their pursuit of happiness.
In Yangon, I find myself once again, admiring the anticipation of negotiating with locals. It does not take long until I met Chit Min, a local art dealer. He is skillful and clever; street smart and business savvy. Chit Min and I converse about art, his family, the history of Myanmar and all things in between. As I ready to make my purchase, the battle of bargaining sets in. We eventually land on a fair and equitable deal for a few pieces that would bring smiles to faces of those who I love.
Inle Lake has a much different market style. We stop at the Indein Village, which translates to 'shallow lake' in Burmese. This is by far the livest local market I have yet to witness in Southeast Asia. The foot traffic of local shoppers and vendors pushes into the dirt streets creating a frame-worthy photo opportunity.
Bagan's Mani-Sithu market is good mix of the aforementioned. This market is mostly visited by travelers looking to score souvenirs and cheap eats on the go while moving about the more vibrant Nyaung U area within Bagan. What I like about this market is the ease of navigating through each boutique. At the same time, it has the appearance of walking through a medieval time period.
Myanmar, the Rice Bowl of Asia and the former British colony empire, has been influenced by military regimes since 1962 and today I feel like a welcomed guest here. I am always greeted with a smile, a cup of hot tea and interest in me. I am most certain, there are not many people who look like me that travel in this part of the region and whenever I speak to the locals, I feel their eyes wanting to know more about me. It is almost as if this is the first time they have seen a Black person in the flesh. Myanmar shares its cultural differences, togetherness and learnings. If considering this region, I would highly recommend considering Myanmar.