#12 – Burma

Part of Burma’s appeal to me is its mysteriousness. A country closed off from the world for decades, led for the greater part of the past century by a corrupt, democracy-repressing, and heavy handed North Korea-esque military junta. On top of that, the country is facing one of the worst and longest-running civil wars that the world has ever seen. Burma – controversially renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military regime – is home to 135 distinct ethnic groups, many of them fighting tenaciously against the illegitimate government for their own autonomy. What has resulted is a constant and bloody clash between some of these ethnic rebel groups and the Tatmadaw (Burmese army). There are countless reports of the Tatmadaw infiltrating villages, shooting and killing those who try to escape, raping the women, and hauling off the remainder of the innocent villagers to labor camps. The situation is ugly. Numerous international organizations have called on Burma to clean up their human rights situation, to little avail.

Because of all of this, travel to the hermit country has been controversial in recent years. The National League for Democracy – Burma’s leading opposition party to the ruling military – called for a tourism boycott in the mid-90s until 2010, requesting that foreigners stay out of the country, as visiting it would essentially support the generals and validate their human rights abuses. Today, the military generals who once ruled the country are no longer in positions of ruling power (a taxi driver of ours claimed that they are “holding the tail of a tiger”), but it’s said that their deep pockets have funded a massive amount of the tourism infrastructure within the country – including tour and taxi companies, bus lines, and hotels. This means that the uninformed tourist who spends his/her dollars in Burma without doing a fair share of research could unknowingly line the pockets of these criminals without even knowing they’d done so.

But we in the states don’t want to be characterized by our grim past, and neither should the Burmese. This country is full of intriguing beauty. The people are some of the most fascinating I’ve encountered anywhere. And Burma possesses a degree of innocence that’s very absent in Thailand, its neighbor to the east.

Our first stop was the former capital Rangoon (Yangon), a bustling city of five million in southern Burma which I found to be riveting. I vividly remember walking through the city center in the sweltering 2pm heat, feeling like we’d just been chewed up by some monstrous animal, tossed around in his belly, and spat out several blocks later sweaty, hungry, and confused as all hell. This city is raw, rich in culture, ungentrified, and it heightens the senses with startling immediacy.

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This is the Sule Pagoda, where on August 8th, 1988, during a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration, the army massacred an estimated 3,000 people

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This is the size of the stack of money you end up carrying around in Burma, it’s absurd

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These little stalls are everywhere, satiating the Burmese’s appetite for the betel nut

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This right here is probably one of my favorite things I ate in Burma. A super greasy form of roti sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Plus the dude serving it looks like a Burmese Jesus.

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Shwedagon Pagoda, a must see in Rangoon

Our next stop was Mawlamyine, a coastal city 300 km southeast of Rangoon. This turned out to be my favorite spot in Burma. The city has seen little tourism so far, and as a result the people were super curious and friendly to us.

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One of my highlights of the trip through Burma is our time spent at this BBQ stall. We attracted a warmhearted crowd of people who I’m pretty sure – by the looks of it – rarely see a western tourist eat grilled chicken

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While in Mawlamyine, Tara and I rented a scooter to explore the surrounding area. The highlight here was definitely seeing the Win Sein Taw Ya Buddha, the largest reclining Buddha in the world at 180 meters long. The Burmese tourists there were so ridiculously happy and enthused to talk and take pictures with/for/of us – it was a really memorable experience.

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The yellowish white paste you see on their faces is called Thanaka. It’s a cosmetic paste that protects from sunburn and cools the skin. Both men and women alike wear the Thanaka

From Mawlamyine, Tara and I took a bus up north to Bagan – a dusty ancient city scattered with some 2200 picturesque temples and pagodas.

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One of my favorite parts about Burma is its affinity for tea. Hot, extra-sweetened, and milky – you can find tea shops serving these little cups of glee on just about any block. During the morning, afternoon, and late evening, these shops are completely packed (interesting though – only men). My guess is that this tea-time tradition is one that was picked up during the British rule from 1824-1848.

After several days of cruising around Bagan, we headed towards Lake Inle, which by comparison to Mawlamyine is a tourist mecca. The lake is gorgeous and is home to 70,000 people, many of whom live on wooden stilt houses on and around the lake.

We explored the lake and one of its local markets by a hired longtail boat with a pushy tour guide…which was super unfortunate. But the lake itself and the commerce that moves on and around it is remarkable.

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Novice monks playing soccer in the monastery courtyard

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Our trip to Burma ended with an overnight bus ride to Mandalay, where we caught our early flight back to Bangkok. Altogether I really enjoyed our time here, and I’m stoked that the country has opened its doors to tourism.

Next up: The Philippines