Copper skies of smoke welcomed me home to Chiang Mai. I thought back to the bright orange fires I watched burn through the windows of the overnight buses in Burma. The flames engulfed old crops, sending nutrients rushing to the soil, welcoming a quick start to new crops. This slash-and-burn (swiddish) agriculture lifestyle has been a common problem in Southeast Asia, mainly within Hill Tribes of Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Thailand has been proactive on the situation, however they are the ones bombarded with smoke from their neighbors.
My time in Burma was indescribable. It was beautiful, unexpected, and much too short. I traveled with one other girl from my program, Ashley. We started our journey with an overnight bus to Bangkok, then an early morning flight into Yangon. We hadn’t pre-arranged any hotels, so we took a taxi into the city to walk around and see our options. A young lady approached us and offered to help us find a hotel. After we checked in, she then offered to show us around, which we gladly accepted. We scratched all previous “must-sees” from our to-do list and happily followed our two new friends around, doing as the locals do.
Yangon was a blur of packed local buses, traditional Longyis, faces smeared with Thanaka, bright red Betel-chew teeth, golden pagodas, Monks’ burgundy robes, Burmese curry, Jackfruit, new friends, bare feet, and unfortunately, a small bout with food poisoning. We were sad to say goodbye to Yangon after a short two days, but our next destination was calling, Kyaiktiyo.
In my research before traveling to Burma, I read the legend of the Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo. Supposedly, a strand of Buddha’s hair is maintaining the balance of the rock on the cliff. In ancient times, the rock levitated so high that a person could crouch beneath. However, due to the sins of humanity, over time the power has been lost and is now only levitating the width of a strand of hair. Being at the Golden Rock was a magical, yet almost disappointing experience.
The scene is beautiful and spectacular, as imagined, but what you can’t help but realize is that as a tourist, you don’t really know what is going on. The Burmese people make pilgrimages to this important Buddhist site from all over the country. They dress in their finest Longyis, make designs with their Thanaka, and bring lunch. It is an all day event, and there is a lot to do around the grounds of the pagoda, most of which a tourist could not understand unless with a guide. I had so much respect for these people, carrying children up the steep stairs, making the trek as elderly devotees, making donations that they probably couldn’t afford, and really showing their spirituality. It was amazing in such a mysterious way.
Our next destination was Inle Lake. In my ideal trip through Burma, I would have spent days here, lingering beside the water, watching the fishermen and enjoying the happy hellos from the boats passing by. Unfortunately, we only had one day here, and by one day I mean we arrived in the morning and were taking a night bus that night. We only had time for one thing, and that was an all-day boat tour.
After a short walk down a dirt road in the village, a man on a bike stopped us. He smiled, showing his bright red teeth. He was an older gentleman, with a very kind heart. He offered us the same boat ride we had been offered by countless travel agencies. But there was something about his offer that seemed better, more authentic (besides the cheaper price). After storing our backpacks at his sister’s office, we followed him back down the dusty road, past a monastery with Monks receiving their daily alms (it was still early in the morning). He led us to his bright yellow and green boat, which we gladly climbed in, and got our cameras ready.
The lake was so much bigger than I had expected. Our trip was excessively enjoyable, the sun bursting through the clouds, fishermen actively pursuing their daily catch, and getting a glimpse of the stilted-village’s daily life. We stopped at a market, where I honestly regret not purchasing anything. At the top of the hill, however, there was a site with countless stupas, built by the various ethnicities throughout Burma. Each with their own style, beauty, and grace, they reached toward the clouds, offering stunning photographs and a bit of cultural eye-candy.
Our night bus was crowded with tourists, which we were surprised to see. We decided they had all been hiding in this gem of a village, which was completely understandable! We were then off to Bagan for a day and a half. Considering our bus’s inhumanly early arrival to Bagan, we decided to catch the sunrise since we were already awake. It was stunning. Sitting at the top of an ancient temple, watching the temples come alive with a rustic orange glow and air balloons begin their descent was absolutely magical. I came alive with each breath, forgetting my tiredness and accepting a spiritual awakening. There were countless temples within the reach of my eye, and even more beyond that. A haze floated through the area, a tangible fog that I couldn’t help but imagine was a presence, rousing the sacred early morning beauty.
Our day spent by bicycle was hot and tiring. Traveling from site to site, exploring the ruins, climbing the stairs, kneeling in front of Buddhas, talking to peddlers, and ending the day with our feet caked in dust. We caught the sunset that evening as well. We forwent the most common temple to watch the sunset (considering that’s where we watched the sunrise) and we couldn’t have made a better decision. A local led us to an empty temple and as we waited we watched the other one fill up with every other tourist in Bagan. I have to admit the sunset was even more breathtaking than the sunrise, if possible. The sky burned bright red and the sun lowered itself behind the mountains, forcing the landscape into an amazing silhouette.
Our journey through Burma was already coming to a close. We had one full day to see Mandalay, and were flying out late the next morning. We took a taxi around the city, seeing some important sites, including the ancient city. We ended the day at U Bein Bridge to watch the sunset. There were many more Burmese people here than I expected. We were approached by a young monk who spoke flawless English and was incredible intelligent. He walked with us across the bridge and took us into the temple on the other side. We stood in the glory of Buddha as he taught us about religion and life. His insight was inspiring, and how he communicated it to us in English was even more impressive. I miss his laugh.
Our last morning, we woke up early again to hike to the top of Mandalay Hill to see the sunrise. Even with high ambition, it was hard to find a taxi. We stumbled in a luxurious hotel, asking them to call one for us. We overpaid, and opened the taxi door to a breeding ground of mosquitos. We suffered through the short ride, not wanting our last morning to be a bust. The walk was long, the stairs never ending. But upon reaching the temple at the top, we were welcomed with colorful tiles, a golden glow, and the satisfaction of completing our goal.
Looking back at this short time I spent in Burma, the only thing I regret is not having more time. I would love to return one day, to see the places I missed, to spend more time in those I have already been, and to really learn about the people. My trip offered me a glimpse, only whetted my appetite for more knowledge on this beautifully mysterious place. A place with heartbreak, misunderstanding, but a place that holds true to tradition. A country with more genuine smiles than I have seen in a long time. A country full of inspiration.