Impressions of Myanmar – A Boundless Journeys Preview By amorton
You may have caught wind of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, a Southeast Asian nation that is emerging from relative isolation and entering onto the global stage. If you are an adventurous traveler and someone looking for an experience out of the ordinary, there’s reason to turn your attention to this place. I’ve just visited Myanmar to develop a tour for Boundless Journeys and here’s a little snap shot of my ten-day journey.
Arrival in Yangon
I was anticipating sprawled human settlement to appear outside my ovular plane window as we began our descent into Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, an estimated population of 3 million people. But as far as the eye could see, there were verdant rice fields, farmhouses and ancient Pagodas – Buddhist shrines- dotting the landscape. I realized then that I was in for something extraordinary.
Artisans of Mandalay
Venturing through the artisan districts of Mandalay, you encounter stonecutters covered from head to toe in white stone dust from carving, cutting and polishing marble Buddha statues. Gold beaters, use heavy wooden mallets to pound by hand thousands of individual paper-thin gold leaf plates destined for the monasteries and pagodas throughout Myanmar. Rather than using a clock, they measure time by putting a half coconut shell in water, and when it sinks (after about 30mins) this indicates they have completed one of numerous rounds of pounding. Women weave sliver and gold sequence-studded tapestries, using care with each minute detail. They all seem casual, but focused and content with their work. Each of these trades is passed down through the generations and remains vibrant to this day.
Invitation for a massage
As I made my way through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of buyers and sellers at the local Jade market in Mandalay, I happened upon an opening where onlookers encircled two men sitting cross-legged on the ground: one, a traditional healer, and the other a layman. The healer was rubbing his hands on an assembled mass of various animals’ horns and specimens doused in aromatic oil. He sucked some substance from one of the horns and then proceeded to forcefully contort the patients’ back, while blowing on specific areas. The crowd seemed to take lightly the grunts of discomfort coming from the patient. Being the only foreigner, my curiosity drew too much attention and upon completion the healer motioned to me, as if I were next in queue. I shook my head with a courteous smile and then quickly slipped back into the labyrinth of the market stalls.
The Irrawaddy River winds its’ way from north to south of the country and remains a major trade and transportation route for much of Myanmar today. A cruise down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bagan, gives you a unique glimpse into life on the river. Small fishing villages inhabit the shoreline, large barges transport foodstuffs and export goods, laborers carry gravel by in bamboo baskets perched on their heads, pottery villages make use of the abundant clay on the river delta, and ancient ruins and temples are a constant feature of the land. All sense of time is lost as you make your way down the Irrawaddy.
Arriving in the Ancient Capital
I’ve never been the seafaring kind, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of arriving at a port of an unknown land. As I hobbled ashore in Bagan, attempting to shake off my sea legs, I felt wonderment for what lay ahead. Thousands of pagodas dating back to the 11th to 12th centuries are scattered throughout the landscape of deep red earth, encircled by distant, hazy blue hills. I explored by horse and carriage, still a main means of transport for villagers. As I meandered on dirt pathways interconnecting the ancient temples, discovering their elaborate frescos and golden Buddha statues, ancient Bagan came alive, enhanced by my guide’s tales of the extravagant and at times volatile kingdom. I concluded my day watching the large, rounded fiery sun setting behind the countless monuments spread over Bagan’s misty plains.
Leg Rowers of Inle Lake
My leg rower was wearing an Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt. I wasn’t quite sure what to be more curious about: What this political figure, who has been the leader of the democracy movement in Burma since 1990, meant to this young man who has grown up in the remote, backwaters of Inle Lake. Or, how he precariously stood on the bow’s upper ledge with his left leg, while simultaneously wrapping his right leg around a wooden oar and deftly propelling the boat forward. This method of leg-rowing has been used for centuries, allowing them advantageous viewing of the fish in the waters beneath them, while also freeing up a hand as they cast their nets. I pondered how my leg-rower seemed to be balancing in two worlds: the tradition of fishing he learned from his father and the desire for political freedom.
Merit and Hospitality
The land is bucolic, the history rich, and the culture vibrant, but in my opinion it is the people of Myanmar that really win you over. Hospitality to the people of Myanmar is something woven into their daily lives. They believe that if you take a stranger in, you will accumulate merit for your next life. There was not a village that I visited where I was not extended an invitation into a home for a cup of tea, or a meal.
Near the end of my visit, while I was wandering through the stalls of a local market, I came across two Buddhist nuns (one just a girl and the other an elder) dressed in their traditional pink robes, walking barefoot, each carrying a modestly-sized basket. They were collecting food donations from the various vendors and lay folk for their daily meal. After buying some grapes from a nearby vendor, I gestured to the nuns and placed a small amount in each of their alms baskets. The elderly nun bowed to me and said something in Burmese. I turned to my guide for a translation, and she told me the nun had blessed me. She asked that I have a successful journey through Myanmar, that I have richness and peace in my life, and that I may always have protectors looking after me.
About Boundless Journeys
Boundless Journeys is an award-winning small group adventure tour operator. With a diverse collection of locally guided, small group itineraries and Private Collection trips around the world, Boundless Journeys offers “The World’s Great Adventures.” The adventure trips for 2-16 guests are active, ranging from leisurely cultural explorations and wildlife safaris to challenging trekking ― with plenty of easy to moderate walking and sea kayaking in between.
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"I cannot say enough good things about our guide, Kinley, and our driver, Tsering. Kinley was not only incredibly knowledgeable about Bhutan, Buddhism, the culture and life in general, he also took our personal interests into consideration to make the trip a richer experience."
- Erika Jaeggli, Bhutan: Hidden Kingdom in the Himalayas Private Collection