Myanmar, nicknamed “The Golden Land,” is overwhelmingly beautiful. It is difficult and probably ineffective to retrace our trip. The genuine impressions would be lost in a retelling, but I would like to share the highlights. We stayed one night in Yangon before heading north to Kalaw in the Shan Province. The hills surrounding Kalaw, dotted with the bright golden pagodas in the region’s small agricultural communities, make the military town a popular destination for hikers or “trekkers.” ((Pagoda is a term used to describe any tiered tower. Stupa and temple are more specific. You can walk inside of a temple but a stupa is solid and cannot be entered. Both stupas and temples can be described as pagodas. This was a little confusing initially.)) The landscape, minus the gold of course, brought back memories of the tea-covered hills of Manow. My favorite pagoda was near the market in Kalaw, a fact that would probably make our guide, Palai, laugh. Palai travelled with us as our guide from Yangon to Mandalay. With just the three of us we were one of her smallest tours, which, I like to think, allowed us to have a closer and definitely more humorous relationship with her. Palai lives in Yangon with her husband and two sons but as a tour guide, travels with groups around the country, visiting the same temples and historic sites. In all the places we visited Palai always saw a friend, another guide on the tourism loop.
We saw hundreds of pagodas, new ones, gold ones, ancient ones, stone ones, but the small temple in Kalaw was covered in a mosaic of tiny pieces of mirror, giving it a more humble glitter than its more majestic relatives. Inside there were four brightly colored statues of the Buddha surrounded by equally beautiful offerings of fresh flowers, fruit, and glasses of water. Four boys were playing a loud game of tag inside the temples, using the four pillars as safeties.
Our next destination was the famous Inle Lake, also known as “Tomato Lake” because of the enormous amount of tomatoes grown in the lake’s floating gardens. At local markets, Palai always noted the difference between the deep red, ripe tomatoes of Inle Lake and the harder, yellowish tomatoes that were grown on land around the country. Unfortunately, I spent our first day at the lake sick in bed. While Grandma read George Orwell’s Burmese Days, I dozed in and out, my dreams turning the motorized boats outside my gently swaying room into helicopters flying to different villages around the massive lake. Palai also continuously came to check on me. She brought medicine that she had from the local pharmacy and water, which she poured into my mouth while sitting next to me in bed. Her closeness and lack of concern to the gross state I was in was such a comfort. I’m sure she’s an incredible mom.
The next day, determined to make up for lost time, Palai brought us to see silversmiths, blacksmiths, traditional silk and lotus weaving, and boat building using versatile teak wood. In between these quick visits we floated by the placid floating gardens of vegetables and flowers. I was struck by the abilities of the people living at Inle to live entirely on the water. The varieties of ways humans have adapted to live in the most unaccommodating landscapes are really unbelievable. It reminded me of days spent puttering up the steep hills of Seattle in my sad, dying Volvo.
In Mandalay, Palai pushed our limits on the pagoda-visiting front. Throughout the long days of sightseeing, we visited what seemed like an endless number of pagodas, each with its own story about the monk or king who had earned merits through its construction. “One more, I think you’ll really like this one,” Palai would say each time we climbed back into the van, an undecipherable combination of sarcasm and honesty in her voice. When we arrived at Kuthodaw Pagoda, which to the uneducated eye appears to be another large, elaborate place of worship, Palai exclaimed, “NO! It’s a book, not a pagoda.” The 729 stupas, each housing a marble slab inscribed with Buddhist scriptures, make up the world’s largest book.
My favorites from Mandalay were the free school in Sagaing and caves outside of Monywa where there are 12th century Buddhist frescos and monkeys that will pull off your skirt for a watermelon snack.
Next we left for Bagan, where Palai warned us we would see thousands more pagodas. We traveled to Bagan on a boat full of proper Europeans. The civilized feel of the boat was shattered after dinner when we ran back to our rooms through the thickest cloud of insects I have ever witnessed. Small, long winged grey flies created a moving blanket over everything on the boat. They were quick to cover everything in your room if you made the easy mistake of opening your door without first switching off the lights.
We arrived the next morning in Bagan, the romantic, yet somewhat eerie ancient city. Eager to explore the thousands of 12th century pagodas of Bagan, we turned down the tour and rented bikes. Although the ride ended rather quickly when Grandma’s tire popped, it was fun trying to find a place to get it fixed and, when it couldn’t be fixed, a replacement bike was delivered on the back of a motorbike. The problem-solving of travel without a guide so often leads to the most memorable experiences within a different culture. On our last day in Bagan we decided to get up early and revisit some of the temples we’d seen earlier in the trip. When the light was soft and the majority of tourists were still asleep, we walked through the now quiet temples. We also encountered the bats that live in the temples’ tall ceilings, and whose waste is still wet early in the morning. The discovery of wet bat waste as we walked barefoot around the empty temples also solved the mystery of the terrible smell in our clothes after our visits the day before.
Our last destination was Ngapali Beach, where we ate the freshest seafood and traveled on motorbikes through the jungle to meet a couple of incredible elephants. We also got a tour of the local fishing villages from a Costa Rican man who is starting a culinary school to teach locals who can work in the tourist restaurants. After moving to Myanmar about 10 years ago, he bought land under someone else’s name and has been working in the restaurants ever since. He showed us the beach where all of the fish and seafood comes in. It was a busy beach, littered with trash and parts of fresh and dried fish. The stench of fish was thick and unavoidable. People were everywhere: pulling in a fresh catch with the help of some water buffalo, spreading fish out to dry, or sorting a catch for the best fish. One girl, who was sorting through a massive pile of small silver fish found a little squid and quickly tried to hide it before anyone saw, but a woman next to her saw the treasure and threw it into another pile. Stray dogs also wandered around the business deals, looking for scraps of food and getting caught in the fish netting. It was a place that overwhelmed all of my senses and yet we went relatively unnoticed in all of the bustle.
Our very last day was spent in Yangon. We visited the famous Strand hotel, where many famous guests have stayed, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Mick Jagger among them. It was unbelievably hot in Yangon and I spent most of our day there speaking nonsense in the heat and taking photos of the street food.