When venturing to new destinations, many visitors want to be transported – literally and figuratively – often seeking a land untouched or trodden by outsiders. While such destinations are becoming more difficult to find in our increasingly globalized world, my recent visit to Burma this April provided the authentic experience I’d been seeking. As I explored this land over a span of ten days, Southeast Asia’s largest country, and perhaps largest enigma, transported me to an Asia of times past, and I was so grateful to witness it. My days were packed with moments I will never forget, from locals welcoming me with curious smiles, to exploring Inle Lake in awe of the Burmese fishermen navigating by me in their one-legged rowing style, to the simple act of replacing my Levi’s with the traditional Burmese longyi for a local dinner; all of these experiences struck a chord with me in their own way. Burma is, as author Rudyard Kipling put it over one hundred years ago, “quite unlike any land you know.”
Of all the glorious sites I witnessed as I made my way through Yangon, Bagan, Salay, Mandalay, Amarapura, and Nyaung Shwe, the Shwedagon Pagoda defined Burma at its purest. As I sat cross-legged on the cool tile floor, I couldn’t help but surrender to the colorful spectacle that is the Shwedagon Pagoda: the hum of the faithful reciting scriptures of the Buddha; the countless chimes and bells tolling and echoing around me; the sweet scent of jasmine flowers perfuming the air; the glow of layers upon layers of gold, the dazzling jewels covering every corner; and the twitter of birds swirling around me. Today was the first day of the Burmese New Year, Thingyan, which, for me, meant a unique opportunity to witness procession after procession of young gentleman being ordained as novice monks. Adorned by their superiors with elaborate head dresses and intricately decorated thanaka paste, the soon-to-be monks were guided to the various stations around the pagoda as they welcomed their new fate, their families beaming with joy alongside them. As the sun’s rays set in the hills beyond us, candles and lamps replaced them, illuminating the now glowing stupa to create an entirely new ambiance. As the crescent moon above signaled it was probably time to go and we descended the gilded steps into the Burmese night, my guide, Win, stopped me in my tracks and exclaimed, “You’ve broken the record! I’ve never had anyone stay at Shwedagon for more than three hours – you’ve stayed almost five!” I could have stayed all night. Those magical hours spent exploring the serene oasis in the heart of bustling Yangon will remain with me long after my photos have faded.
As I continued on my journey, a quick flight brought me to another of Burma’s breathtaking sights – the ancient city of Bagan. Across the rolling plains of central Burma some 4,000 temples, monasteries and stupas lie in varying states of ruin, a testament to the grandeur of the Kingdom of Bagan’s golden age some 900 years ago. Not only was I able to climb to the top of these nearly millennia-old structures, but my guide granted me special access to some of the most stunning temples and monasteries that are normally locked to the average visitor. While exploring these often overlooked temples we came across brilliantly painted murals depicting the life of the Buddha, freshly shed viper skins and cooing owls! The highlight of my visit? Peeking around the corners of the temples by flashlight as the Burmese kings staring back at me from the frescos came to life with my guide Hla Maung’s tales. I had been transported.
Burma provides the ultimate Southeast Asian experience for the adventurous traveler, and Burma Explorer is perfect for first-time visitors. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have about taking an Absolute Travel journey to Burma!