I have to admit — when my mom suggested spending the last five days of her Southeast Asia trip in Myanmar, I didn’t really get it.
TBH, The only things I knew about the country, formerly known as “Burma,” was that it was the source of the world’s most valuable rubies and that it had a really complicated military history. I remember listening to the news on the way home from school in the early 2000’s and hearing about all of the atrocities inflicted by the nation’s strict military government, and remember distinctly thinking, “I guess I’ll never go there to see where rubies come from.” I vaguely remember watching the news that the first democratic elections were being held from my college gym in 2010, and the whole thing sounded like a mess.
Truthfully (which I’m embarrassed to admit), everything I knew about the country made it sound really, really, dangerous, and not at all like a place I wanted to visit. I actually wasn’t even sure that tourists were allowed in.
Apparently (which, please don’t judge me — I didn’t know.) the country opened its borders in 2015 after 50 years of being totally closed to foreigners. Thanks to its incredible history, intact ancient architecture and authentic native culture, it’s quickly becoming one of Asia’s hottest destinations. But despite the boom, every recent article that I read (from 2011-2016) made it sound like there wasn’t even so much as an ATM (let alone, speedy WiFi) available for use… Basically, it seemed like which was actually pretty appealing. After feeling frustrated by what felt like very touristy experiences in Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City and Bali (… which, I know, I still need to write about), the idea of going somewhere where tourism was still a novel concept was actually deeply appealing – I was pretty over being hocked fake LV bags and crappy tchotchkes at double what they were worth.
So I booked the trip through my sister’s travel agent friend over at Well Traveled Living, who set us up on a 5-day private tour with a company called Trails of Indochina. We’ll be spending five days traveling through Yangon, Bagan Not only is the nation ripe with #content, but its history and culture are so rich and unknown that I feel compelled to share every detail of it.
Here’s a breakdown of what I saw, did and learned during my first 24 hours in the nation’s capital of Yangon (Formerly known as Rangoon, but apparently not at all related to Crab Rangoon, which was kind of a letdown). It was a lot of touring, but the day shed some important light on a lot of the nation’s history and gave me a pretty major crash course in Buddhism
After a decadent East-meets-West breakfast at our Shang Ri La Sule Hotel, we started the morning at the Sule Pagoda, one of the cities less-grand but most important pagodas. It’s 2500 years old, smack in the middle of the old town square and surrounded by Colonial-style buildings that were built during British occupation. Because the Pagoda is so central in the city, it’s been majorly important in National and City politics — it was a central rallying point during the 1988 uprisings and 2007 Saffron Revolution.
There was a street market with people selling everything from fresh fruit (the first strawberries I’ve seen since I got to Asia!) to lottery tickets to fried crickets. There were also a lot of people rolling “betel leaves,” which are Southeast Asian chewing tabacco that turns your teeth black. There were parts of the downtown area that were a lot more developed than I expected – There was a KFC, a Dominoes, and various electronics stores, and there were ATM’s literally everywhere. It was kind of crazy to experience in real-time how quickly things can change in underdeveloped countries once tourists start coming, which made me grateful to be able to experience Myanmar before it’s become totally saturated.
The National Museum
The National museum in Yangon is one of two National Museums, which is a little bit confusing. This one opened in 1956 — a few years after the nation gained independence in 1948 — when Yangon was still the capital. in 2015, Myanmar opened another “National Museum” in Naypyidaw when that city became the capital.
As far as museum visits go (which, FYI, I’m not a huge fan of to begin with) it was a little bit depressing. As it turns out, most of the Burmese artifacts were taken by the British during their occupation of Myanmar before 1948, and Yangon has very few actual historical items left in the city to teach the younger generations about their history (aside from the temples that are still left standing). After Myanmar gained independence, the British sent back 100-something of the “borrowed” artifacts — including some of the royal regalia — but they kept the precious gemstones which are currently on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum (and I weirdly saw when I was in London in December). Myanmar is the ruby and sapphire capital of the world, so it’s kind of heartbreaking to think that some of the most precious ones aren’t here anymore… Personally, I was really excited to send my boyfriend pictures of them as a reference for future gifting, so that was a letdown.
Though the museum as a whole wasn’t my favorite, I did love the costume exhibit (… I mean, obviously). It showed off dozens of different examples of traditional dress from some of Myanmar’s native tribes. The nation is made up of 136 different ethnic groups, most of which live outside the city and all of which have their own styles. We’re going to be seeing some of them later this week when we get outside of Yangon (including the Kayan women North of Inle Lake), and this exhibit got me very excited. It was also completely crazy to see how similar some of the traditional tribal pieces look to some contemporary designers who I’ve actually worn — Lemlem, Ace and Jig, Chance —especially because I never realized how fashion forward Myanmar really is. I’m going to see some of the traditional weavers in the villages later this week, so stay tuned for more on that.
Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple
“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” my mom and I said in unison as we approached the 70m statue of the reclining Buddha (… two months in Asia and I’m sort of, kind of starting to learn the metric system).
Not only was the Buddha enormous, he was draped in a mirrored gold gown and decked out in makeup that rivaled most models’ on the FW17 runway. The temple itself was filled with even more gold mirrored shrines, and so many statues and images of Buddha that I lost count at 103.
The Buddha lays with his head facing to the East and his feet to the West to signify that he’s preparing to reach Nirvana (and therefore preparing to die). His feet are decorated with 576 images, each of which represents one of Buddha’s previous 576 lives before he was reincarnated.
At the back of the temple, there’s a shrine with eight Buddha statues that are meant to signify the eight days of the week in the lunar calendar. People come and pray to the day they were born, and each day coincides with an animal:
Wednesday Morning- Elephant With Tusks
Wednesday Evening- Elephant Without Tusks
Friday- Guinea Pig (this is what I am, and I can’t say I’m thrilled about it).
Sunday- Garuda (A half man, half bird)
At the temple, you pray by pouring three cups of water each on a buddha statue, a column and your animal, then you make a wish. Then, you go over to an enormous gold rock across the temple, pledge your devotion to a different buddha statue, and try to lift the rock. If it lifts easily, your wish will come true. If it doesn’t, you are SOL.
Outside of the temple, there was a woman selling birds that you could set free and make a wish on. There were also a lot of sleeping stray dogs, which happen to be the best-fed dogs in Asia. The monks who live at the temple stop eating at 12pm every day, and when they are finished the dogs get their leftover food. Pretty amazing, right?
Green Elephant is listed on pretty much every tourist website as a must-do in Yangon, so even though the menu was totally traditional Burmese food the restaurant itself happened to be filled with white people and their tour guides. That said, it was pretty fabulous. We dined on a family-style meal of various curries (which are less spicy than Thailand and India’s, TG) and lime-ade, and had fried bananas and honey for dessert.
At this point in my travels, I feel like I’m the foremost expert in Southeast Asian markets (… I have bought so much stuff in the last two months that I already had to buy another suitcase) and this one was one of my favorites. Since Myanmar is still very new to tourism (the borders opened up in 2012 after 50 years of being closed), everything feels really, really authentic. There are far more locals shopping than foreigners, and they have everything from wedding cake decorations to priceless rubies to everyday bras and underwear.
The real highlight of the market, though, are the custom “Longyis.” In Myanmar, everyone (men, women and children) wear wrap skirts called longyis that are made in the most brilliant woven and silk fabrics in every color and pattern you can imagine, and they buy them primarily at the local markets. You can pick out your fabric and the tailor will sew and finish it for you within 10 minutes — I opted for a red, blue and yellow one and paid $18. They also do more formal designs for special occasions, and you get to pick out everything from the zipper colors to the trim to whatever embellishments you want.
The best part of this market wasn’t the goods, though — it was the people. No one was yelling at me to buy from them (or, worse, grabbing at me the way the do in Ho Chi Minh City) and people happily posed for pictures and even let me take photos in their shops without buying anything (a huge “HELL NO” everywhere else I’ve tried it). I felt very safe walking around by myself, despite being one of the very few foreigners.
Remember when I said the reclining Buddha was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen? Yeah, that was nothing compared to this. Walking up to the platform of the enormous gold dome (which, as it turns out, has seven smaller gold domes sealed inside of it), I was speechless for what I think may have been the first time in my entire life.
… Doesn’t that photo look photoshopped? It’s not. I took it. But I digress.
We arrived at sunset, and the light was bouncing off the gold-leaf in a way that made it look like it was a different color from every side. There were thousands of people praying and making offerings to lord Buddha. There were also hundreds of monks, some of whom were wearing the traditional brown robes of the Myanmar monks, and others in “saffron” robes that indicated they came from other parts of South East Asia and were at the temple on a pilgrimage. There were so many zillions of buddhas, and I walked around the dome three times trying to take it all in. Finally, I had to just sit on the ground and watch what was going on around me, and it ended up being my favorite part of the entire day. I watched a group of monks taking selfies with the dome,
There were so many zillions of buddhas, and I walked around the dome three times trying to take it all in. Finally, I had to just sit on the ground and watch what was going on around me, and it ended up being my favorite part of the entire day. I watched a group of monks taking selfies with the dome and listened to countless children giggling while pouring water on buddha’s head as an offering. When the sun finally went down, I didn’t want to leave.
Even after only one day here, it’s evident to me that the Burmese people are not only resilient, but they are happy — in large part because of their religious dedication and love of all living things. I feel so grateful to have been able to see this growing city before it has grown so much it starts to grate on these values, and am both eager to see and saddened to think about what may happen in the coming years as more and more Western influence enters the area.
From here, I go to Bagan and Inle Lake, which are significantly less developed than the city. I can’t wait to see what’s next.