Myanmar was far and away the most foreign place I’ve ever been, which made for some of my most difficult and rich experiences to-date. Here are my parting thoughts:
Trash: In the cities and along the train were countless piles of trash like I’ve never seen or imagined in my life. It was so utterly filthy at times that Mel and I just stared in amazement and shook our heads. This is a deterrent because it takes away from the incredible beauty of the country, which is vast and varied. But if they continue down this path (and it seems they will) they’ll be destroying one of their most valuable assets. And it’s not just in small, under-educated communities. It’s not uncommon to see people (businessmen and women, monks, children) pitch trash straight out the window of the train without a second thought about it.
Food: Myanmar’s culinary saving grace is the fact that it’s fairly well-populated with foreign cuisines like Thai, Indian, Chinese and French. Their own food – at least most of that which we tasted – would in no way make it a destination. However, it IS possible to have good Myanmar food – you just have to trek three day and two night through the freezing rain on lame feet to earn it. Stewed greens, flavorful curries, complex tasting pickled salads, creamy avocados, fresh fruit and delicate, comforting broths are all part of Myanmar cuisine, but it’s unlikely you’ll find it in any of their restaurants. My advice: make friends with a local and see if you can get an invitation to dinner.
Level of Difficulty- Teddy Roosevelt: Getting around Myanmar was a beautiful struggle. The language, the culture, the transportation. All of it presented unique obstacles and made for a very tiring experience. Don’t expect to go to Myanmar to relax. That’s what Bali is for. Myanmar is an adventure that you have to be ready for – throwing your full self into, armed with your most travel-savvy-ness. Oh you thought you’d just sit down on a toilet after eight hours of waking? Nice try. Squat and see if you can get back up again without falling in that pit of waste. Looking forward to a relaxing train ride? Gotta be more comfortable than a bus, right? Nope. Gird your loins because it’s gonna be a very bumpy, uncomfortable 30 hour ride. But, if you can stomach it, you’ll be rewarded with lifelong memories and stories.
Sights/Sense of Adventure: From Yangon to Bagan and Inle Lake, the whole of Myanmar was like stepping back in time. It is so completely beautiful and differs drastically from place to place (I’m told they also have incredible beaches but it would have taken us as long to get there as it would to spend there so we skipped it). The flip side of the level of difficulty being Teddy Roosevelt, is that you feel like Teddy Roosevelt. Discovering new things, going new places – like a children’s storybook, adventure awaits you in Myanmar!
People: You could not hope to meet nicer, more welcoming people than those in Myanmar. For me, it’s their greatest attraction in terms of tourism. They are interested in and excited about any and all visitors. You’re made to feel like royalty, posing for pictures and shaking hands and nodding your head like a campaigning politician. If you want a confidence boost, just go to Myanmar. They’ll tell you how much they love you – literally. Strangers told me they loved me.
Oh and a tip: if you really wanna get on their good side and win their ever-lasting affection, wear thanaka on your face. Thanka is a thin, milky paste, made from grinding bark onto a stone. It’s used for protection from the sun and as a sort of makeup for the woman – they’ll often swirl it on in beautiful designs. Mel and I didn’t do this until our final day and we’re so happy we did. Strangers on the street, cab drivers in their car, grandmothers sitting in the stoop – all of them smiled so widely at us it must have been painful. They pointed at their own faces “Thanaka!” “Yes,” we’d say with an awkward thumbs up and a wave. “So beautiful. So so beautiful.” Sometimes they’d make their hand into a fist and proudly proclaim “Myanmar!” “Myanmar!” We’d shout back. They loved that we were embracing their culture and idea of beauty and you could see how they swelled with pride at this.
All in all, I would recommend Myanmar for sure – but perhaps not to everyone. It takes a certain mentality and heartiness to be able to enjoy all that this complex, mysterious country has to offer. I certainly feel like more of a “real” traveler for having been there and it’s definitely an impressive notch on my proverbial travel belt to be able to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there.”