Myanmar has a different soul than all other countries in Southeast Asia that I’ve traveled to. As we went from city to city, I noticed that though the scenery changed in dramatic fashion, the people did not. In a good way. Myanmar will forever be stuck in my head as a land of happy people.
It is a country that has only been open to tourism for a decade or so, and the infrastructure and tourist-pampering traits of certain other Asian countries have yet to appear. This might be the secret to why it had such a different feel and impact in just two weeks I was there.
With a closed off, controversial, and brutal history in recent memory, most people I spoke with consider this an exotic and offbeat and dangerous place only the most daring adventurers would travel to — much like the response I got when I told people that I was going to Haiti. Just like Haiti, the media and general consensus were wrong, and it was the people of Myanmar who made the trip memorable.
The more adventurous and culture-seeking travelers that had been to Myanmar always said the same thing before I arrived: MYANMAR IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE COUNTRIES!”
No wonder. My experience, just as the others, was raw and real and unhindered by over-saturated tourism and fading cultural identities and, dare I say, 7/11’s. Dun dun dun! I know, right?In a nation that has had so much upheaval and change in the past decade, let alone past two years, an influx of foreigners might cause some xenophobia or the sudden urge to change everything to meet Hollywood-esque ideas of what travelers want.
The people are the subject featured most in the following photos from my trip through Myanmar. That is because, dammit, they are awesome! All were genuine and kind and always eager to help with a smile. I never felt someone would scam us. I didn’t even have the thought cross my mind. I was always asked by some wide-eyed Myanmar passerby with a giant smile in towns or on trains or during festivals, “Are you happyyyyyy?” because they wanted to make sure you were.
Myanmar did make me happy.
As I sift through the thousands of photos of the trip, I’ve chosen 20 of my favorite photos from Myanmar that represent aspects I love about the country.
One of my favorite areas in Myanmar, Bagan is the region most known for the 2000+ ancient temples that dot the red sand valley. Most temples are over 1,000 years old, some in ruin, some hidden, and some glorious like Ananda Temple built in 1105 AD. Just before the sun set, beams of the dying light streaked through the clown and made the gold flecked tops glow.
LEAVING A LEGACY
In the first temple we visited in Bagan, down a sandy path off the main road, a woman came and let us inside the locked gate. After we finished wandering the hall, we stopped to look at the artwork the woman laid at our feet. You can find art and artists all over Bagan at the larger temples selling artwork, but here, this woman and her family sell art they create in this very temple.
Some smaller temples have the keys handed over to a local family who are tasked with upkeep and visitors. Since they have a key to the temple to let people in, they can also sell their family’s art exclusively here. But, as was told later, if she or the family offended an official in any way, or broke a law, they could have the keys taken from them, and in turn their income.
U BEIN BRIDGE
Though Ubein bridge is a major draw for locals and the small amount of travelers that do visit Myanmar, it was a calming place to watch one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve witnessed. The red sun crept over the jagged horizon, breaking blue hour and igniting the dark grey mountains and silver light in a fiery gold.
In the rose-colored morning haze, monks draped in crimson robes strolled across the old teak bridge, their flip flops clapping soft while in conversation, though not a word was ever heard as distant prayer calls drifted across the river. Most photos I see of Ubein Bridge are of the bridge and stilts at sunrise with monks in the distance crossing, but I wanted to show a different perspective.
A Myanmar woman stands in the shimmering lake reflecting the last moments of golden hour as another wades out deeper to draw fishing nets through the water.
The fog of the morning cleared as our train from Mandalay click-clacked and huffed along the century old track to Hsipaw through mountains, as Myanmar people and travelers alike hung out the window to watch the dreary morning mist clear retreat through the valley.
One of the only times we could sit with the windows open during the train ride to Hsipaw given the water festival celebrations and hoses being shot into the train. Everyone was in a sleepy dazed silence but all staring at the glorious daybreak.
These two novice monks were a couple of favorites I came across, as they were paying a game that I’ve seen played across the world with all kids, and one that I played myself. As they rolled the tire around and chased after it with a stick, other young monks watched and laughed. And I stood in this surreal scene with an ancient buddhist temple behind them that sprouted a tree from the top.
One of my favorite points of my trip through Myanmar was the two-day trek through the Shan state and tea plantations. For many reasons it was a favorite; the locals we me, fresh Shan-style foods, and learning of the culture and history. It definitely wasn’t the heat though. But the hike did provide for some stellar scenery.
Through the small mountain villages of the Shan region and Paulang we came across locals and farmers and even rebel soldiers, and no matter who it was, even if they were ringing laundry or holding a gun, they always smiled at us and called out, “Mangalaba!” in greeting.
Just outside one village, Myanmar gave us another surprise and a first myself when we came across a baby owl. It was random and I almost passed right by it, but something on the hill caught my eye. I whispered for everyone to come over and all gasped at this tiny and beautiful owl resting in the brush just feet away.
While on the two-day trek from Hsipaw to the Shan mountain villages we passed through swaths of farmland and tiered plantations, and though it was dry season and nothing was being grown, I had never seen a tiered plantation before and it stopped me in my tracks.
A Myanmar woman stopped and looked up while our trek group passed by through the endless cornfields and smiled, and even though she was busy, she kindly let me snap a photo. I kept on saying to everyone that I’d be buying one of those hats because everyone needs an adventure hat, but I never got around to it.
When we finally reached the village where we would stay for the night high in the mountain, this young monk was first to greet us. He sat there as the sun set, eyes on the hills. It is mandatory for young Myanmar children to become a monk for a short time, and some stay longer if their family struggle to support them, or for better education opportunity, or for their own choice if they make it.
There are divas in all parts of the world. In the small villages we passed through on the hike kids ran about trying to catch dragonflies they buzzed about or pretend to fly planes and the like. As I stopped to snap one photo, the self-proclaimed Queen of the kids made sure to make a goofy face. Earlier, when I wandered about the village, I spotted her and a troupe of girls strutting about and making sure the other young ones knew they were the head-honchos of playtime.
A young Myanmar boy and his father sit by a lake and fish. I remember going to the lake with my mother and sometimes my brother when I was a boy, and is always a special memory. They glanced up briefly as we passed, and then went right back to the calm lake and patient waiting.
These kids were a riot. And when I mean a riot, I mean super cute. Both were atop a fence climbing around as I passed, and we stopped to snap a photo with mohawk dude and the boy with a DC cap since I’m from DC. They laughed and giggled after a friend I wandered with gave them each a bracelet, and ran off all smiles.
Many of my favorite memories of Myanmar were the people, and much of it were the various kids we met along the way who all had a unique personality all their own. Like Baby Rambo, who we all referred to that is pictured here. He rode up, leading a small herd through the village, calling out to the other kids while shirtless and wearing a giant machete on his belt. I think I know who his idol is. As a kid, I ran around my neighborhood with a toy gun, donned neon sunglasses and a goofy army jacket, and pretended to be Arnold in the Terminator.
One of my first impressions of Myanmar and the most memorable one who showed the genuine traits of Myanmar people was this man, John the wood carving teacher. Mon Mon, or John for the English name he claimed, was a chance meeting that saved the beginning of our trip. As Thingyan (the Myanmar water festival) was about to start, all transportation was booked.
We were fucked, like everyone else stated as they moped around the hostel. But instead, we chose to stay positive and wander around town. That’s when John approached, asking if we needed help. He walked us to the train station in the pounding heat to an unknown ticket booth that helped us get tickets for three legs of our trip, and even told us not to book hotels with them because they were too much.
Because of John, we were able to escape Yangon when others were left stranded. Because of the kindness of a Myanmar local, we were able to have an amazing adventure which might have not happened if we didn’t meet him.
Myanmar, again, is a special place and one I hope to revisit, but I have plenty to revisit and remember while sorting through photos and videos so there will be more Myanmar to come. If you want to see more, subscribe to my newsletter and I’ll let you know when I post other stories and media of this incredible country!
What do you think of Myanmar?