In High School some of my best friends were in fact from the country of Burma (presently known as “Myanmar”) and in college when I was an intern for Michigan’s Refugee Development Center I taught English to young Refugee student from Burma. Naturally when I discovered that I would travel to Burma I was in shock, thinking “I am going to visit a place that people flee from?”. Although my understanding of the unrest in Burma is limited, I worked to prepare myself. Not two weeks before we ported into Burma there were protests nation wide. These protests were held by the Buddhist Monks of Burma fighting for their rights and beliefs as people. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but nevertheless I was excited to experience a country only few foreigners have gotten the chance to explore.
We ported into the capitol city Yangon, Burma (Myanmar) and my experience on this day would be to explore the city in depth. The first night started out with an evening transfer to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which proved to be absolutely beautiful. I honestly expected a pretty building to take pictures of, but this went simply beyond that. The Pagoda was huge, going beyond my initial expectations. You enter and remove your shoes, and follow a walk way into the main center of the Pagoda. Once at the center, you are surrounded by countless small Pagodas, Buddhists statues, meditation/prayer areas, worship area, and of course there are Monks walking around and basically relaxing everywhere. Smells of incense filled the entire area, and when the sun set it became an even more amazing sight to see as the lights turned on to brighten everything in sight. The Pagoda itself (the stupa_ stood over 98 meters into the air. Following the Pagoda we had a stop for dinner, where I was able to taste Burmese curry. Not exactly my favorite kind of curry, but it wasn’t half bad. I can now officially say I have tried every kind of curry offered to man.
(above curry imagine from google)
The following day I had a field lab with my Theater class. This labs topic was Burmese Puppetry. The day proved to be more interesting than I expected, especially since I have never been a fan of puppets. We watched the puppet masters create these works of art by hand, which was incredible. Something I really found to be interesting was that these puppets are made with care, and the genitalia is included in their making. We asked why this was, and the answer was that to the puppet master these are more than just mere puppets, but real beings with soul, therefore it is crucial to include all the essential parts a creature would need to survive – from genitalia, to fingers and arms, they put careful detail into every part. Later, we watched a performance with the puppets, and in it depicted Burmese culture and music. From the puppet show I learned that religion (Buddhism) is a very important part of Burmese culture and daily life.
(above puppet image from google)
On my third day in Burma I gathered with my friends and we prepared to head off to Ngwe Saung Beach, located about 6 hours from Yangon. This was an adventure I organized through a local tour company, and I was excited to see how it would turn out. En-route to Ngwe Saung Beach we stopped in a city known as “Pathein”. In Pathein we took a visit to a small market where I was bombarded with small children begging for change. I had a large bottle of water than I let them have..which didn’t last long among them. After the market was a stop at a smaller Pagoda. Again, we removed our shoes and headed up. This one was, while much much smaller, still very beautiful. At the end a local monk asked my friend and I to take a photo with him and a few other locals. I found this to be so exciting. Locals in Burma apparently do not see tourists often, at least this is what I was told. I really loved taking photos with them as well! ❤
After the Pagoda we had lunch in a small local outdoor tea house. To play it safe (as this place was not very clean and we had trouble trusting most of the food) we decided to order fried chicken. A small portion of the menu was written in English, so we pointed to what we wanted, however the server later came back to make an attempt to explain that what we requested was not actually chicken..but just..fried chicken bones. We were all very confused…
Upon making it to Ngwe Saung beach, we checked into our hotel, which was actually a gorgeous beach-front Bungalow! For only about 30 a night, I was staying at an amazing resort. I couldn’t believe it. It was absolutely breath-taking! During the days we walked the beach and found random, and really nice, places to eat at. Again, the food was cheap. Try and go to a beach front restaurant in the states..you won’t get a fry for 3 bucks..but here an entire meal was between 3-6 dollars. On the beach I rented a horse from a local for about 10 dollars and road him along the beach for an hour – it was difficult, but a lot of fun. We also rented motor bikes and road them from one end of the beach to the other, including a visit to a local island you are able to walk to during low tide. This island, known as “Love Island”, had beautiful statues built on it, an amazing view of the beach, and a weird tree that grew a very thick branch that I was able to climb and swing on. During the evening locals continued to smile and welcome us, and even ask for more photos. This is something I loved about Burma – the people were almost too incredibly kind and could easily be compared with Japanese hospitality. One night we walked to a little Japanese/Burmese restaurant that had an evening fire show.
On the way back from Ngwe Saung Beach we stopped at a local Elephant Camp. For 5 dollars the elephant keepers took us on a ride through the jungle with their elephants. It was amazing! Elephant are so much fun.
I left Burma on the final day wondering how such a country could be in current unrest. Maybe it was because I stuck to touristy areas, but I felt Burma seemed like a beautiful, still-developing country. A lot of the voyagers were complaining heavily about their Burmese experience, that it wasn’t clean enough, there were not enough banks or ATMS..but I honestly loved the developing charm Burma had. It was indeed a whole new world, but I enjoyed every moment of it and would love to see Burma again one day.