Myanmar: Is this heaven? No, it’s Burma.

Alternate Title: Myanmar to the rest of the world: “Quit ‘yer bitchin’, life is good.”

Is this heaven? No, it’s Myanmar. Corny, sure, but the iconic exchange between Kevin Costner and Ray Liotta in Field of Dreams struck halfway through our second day on the sprawling plains of Bagan. Beyond the obvious connection of the stunning natural beauty of Iowa (sorry, this computer doesn’t have sarcasm font), it was the oddity of the location in which we’d found our little slice of heaven that made the connection.

Which leads to the “alternate title” of the post as well. Myanmar, previously Burma, has been in a state of turmoil for the better part of the last 60-years. The ruling military junta perfected the art of treating its citizens like property, murdering and stealing at will, mostly along ethnic lines. Myanmar is nearly synonymous with all things wrong with global governance. The country has lead the world in differing decades in genocidal deaths, opium production, and number of times at the bottom of global human rights watch lists. The cherry on top, they locked up the charismatic opposition leader, a daughter of a former national hero (ironically, founder of the country’s military…), for basically calling them out on it while abroad and being foolish enough to return home to attempt to lead her people from the wilderness.

Given every reason in the world to be glum, downhearted, and skeptical of just about anyone, the Burmese have instead responded with a brilliant zeal for life. The streets overflow with joy, smiles, and MINGALABA! (Burmese for Hello). Foreign languages are widely spoken and George Orwell books are among the most hawked items despite public education ending around 11-years of age for most children. The natural and historical beauty is first rate. And if Shan Noodles aren’t the best noodle soup in Asia, then we’re Mr. & Mrs. Claus.

Even simple travelers like us could write a book on the endless juxtaposition of the joy in the hearts of the Burmese people against the hell they suffer at the hands of their government daily. But for now we’ll stick to telling you about twelve of the best days of this crazy journey yet.

We arrived in Myanmar on a total travel high. The previous week in Thailand had been a welcome rejuvenation. Great as Thailand had been there was no trepidation about leaving, as Myanmar had been at the top of Grant’s life list for years and anticipation was at a fervor.

Tropical heat and humidity were in overdrive upon our arrival and we bee-lined to the hotel to rid ourselves of the backpacks. Something to note, in the past 10-years as tourism demand has outstripped infrastructure supply, Myanmar has developed a reputation as a fairly pricey destination by the standards of Southeast Asia backpackers. Instead of the 8-25 a night you’d pay for a private double room in Thailand, Myanmar runs closer to 20-35. For those not absolutely shoestringing it however, the value you receive in return is unmatched in the world.

Enter, Hotel 8, by the far the best value we’ve received on a hotel room in 6-months on the road or for that matter in our lives. The staff rivals the attentive service of an old guard luxury hotel, the rooms are spacious and well appointed, and a nice breakfast is served on a terrace with panoramic city views. For $22 a night.

After cooling off we struck out for a long walk and were introduced first hand to that Burmese hospitality and learned “mingalaba!” from the thousand people who greeted us at random.

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Day two was a solid tourist day. We hitched up with a local character, whom we’ll call Mo, to see the city on his special “government free tour.” You see, a dozen years ago the oppressors in power made a big tourism push to draw in global money that otherwise rarely touched Burmese land. However, nearly 90% of revenue by the kindest of estimates went straight into military coffers. Temples, bridges, parks, every entrance fee, every camera fee, found its way into the hands of people who weren’t doing nice things with it. Not nice things like locking our friend Mo up for 5-years for “anti-government speech”. To his third grade class. No, you’re not misreading that.

No longer able to teach, Mo (now you know why we’re not using his real name) now drives a taxi and gives a fantastic Government Free Tour of Mandalay. You visit all of the temples, attractions, villages and monuments whose entrance fees flow just about anywhere else but the government. He also tells really tasteless off-colored jokes, like any good former convict 🙂 .

We started off in Mandalay proper by climbing Mandalay Hill with its dozens of temples and soaring city views.

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And a UNESCO World Heritage Listed Temple

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After our morning in Mandalay we headed south to the Ancient capital of Burma during the Konbaung Dynasty, Amarapura. and its famous U-Bein Bridge, the longest teak wood bridge in the world.

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And the nearby village:

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All looks peaceful, right? Well, it was, except when Hurricane Burma decided to fire up about 2/3 of the way along our trip back from the village.

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So, we took shelter and spent the next hour chatting with this wonderful fellow and his sister’s family all of whom were from Mandalay. He taught himself conversational English just by reading after he dropped out of school to become a monk at age 12.

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Following our trip across the bridge we settled into a cafe to wait out the storm, except for the first time in either of our lives we were flooded out. People started scattering everywhere, waiters grabbed electronics and set them on high, and in rolled a foot of rushing water. Mother nature always wins.

We reluctantly left behind our posh pad in Mandalay early on the morning of day three. We were headed off to what was the single most anticipated location of the trip for Grant, Bagan. It was to be a long, slow, beautiful trip down the Irrawaddy River, worth every moment.

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As an added bonus, we made a travel friend!

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Tom, from England, teaches English in Thailand after falling in love with the country over numerous visits. He was totally not in Myanmar doing a visa run. We hit it off over Cuban cigars and Indian whiskey and being on the same track for the next few days decided to partner up. As an added bonus, Tom possesses a real camera, so our pictures of Bagan were to be much improved.

The fancy camera turned out to be nearly superfluous; Bagan is photographers dream. The landscapes make even camera-phones capable of mind bending images. What phones don’t excel at is capturing those stunning faces of the wonderful people who really made our trip, so the addition was very welcome.

11 long hours after setting sail from Mandalay the silhouettes of dozens of pagodas came into focus. Dozens turned into hundreds as we neared and by the time we were on dry ground thousands of spires filled the horizon.

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Bagan, the former capital of the eponymous former kingdom spans a plateau of a little over 40-square kilometers. It’s home to over 2,200 standing temples and archaeologists estimate nearly 10,000 dotted the plain during it’s 11th-13th century peak.

With three hours before the famous Bagan sunset, we got in a little temple hopping right out of the gate.

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The star of Bagan is sunset. The light show brings thousands of people a day to the top of pagodas across the plain. While a few more clouds than ideal were present, we still got an amazing show.

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That evening we explored town, ate the amazing locally grown and roasted peanuts, drank copious Myanmar Beer with our new friend, and eventually tucked into another amazing hotel in a teak bungalow theme.

The next day we three musketeers set off on bicycles to spend an entire day exploring the area.

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A hilarious moment happened when these two disappeared into a hole seemingly just in the middle of the dirt in a yard. Then SIX people piled out of it a few moments later, we dubbed it the Myanmar Clown Car. Turns out, the Burmese (or, to Tom, the Myetnamese) dig deep holes in which to plant their mango trees, then cover them with tarps while they’re saplings so their roots run deep from the beginning.

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All the young ladies and several of the men wear a concoction made of wood and water, ground to a paste, and spread on called Thanaka. It’s said to be a natural sunscreen and insect repellent, but we’ve noticed it’s mostly used as cosmetics.

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In the most fulfilling of chance meetings we pulled into a temple with a hand written sign proclaiming amazing views from a climbable temple in the early afternoon. We were greeted by the temple’s caretakers, a young Burmese girl named E-E and her huge beautiful family. Friendly, funny, and engaging, several of the children were quick to open the temple and begin to show us around. 11-year old E-E quickly latched onto Tom & Kate and was part of our little troop within moments. One can only imagine how intelligent she really is, but after leaving school at 10-years old, E-E had already taught herself fluent English, German, and Spanish, was learning Mandarin, and showed reasonable control of Japanese, Italian, and French. She was a miraculous young lady.

Completely taken with E-E and her 4-year old sister, who by this time had become Grant’s sidekick, we spent the remaining 4.5 hours of daylight with our new friends. We hopped through all of the temples her family oversaw plus a few more, taking time to linger at each, swung on swings, hauled them around on our bicycles, and just generally soaked in two of the most magnificent young people in the most serene locale you can imagine. If Myanmar is heaven, E-E might just be St.Peter welcoming everyone in every language imaginable at the gates with her infectious smile.

Our big happy Burmese family:

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E-E did Kate’s hair and Grant’s sidekick brought him a flower for his glasses as well.

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Hours were spent on this swing learning about life in Myanmar, E-E’s hopes and dreams, and soaking in life. Grant and sidekick were usually running in circles somewhere around the temple.

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Off to explore another temple.

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Tom let Grant play with his camera. So we took lots of pictures of sidekick, her official name now 🙂

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If ever you are going to Myanmar, please reach out to us. We’d love to tell you how to find our new little Burmese family. You’ll never find better people or a more enjoyable “tour”.

The next two days went by somewhat uneventfully. Our third day in Bagan was unfortunately rained out by an unwavering tropical storm. We made the best of the situation by making more travel friends (Hey Tamsin!) and tucked into a local watering hole overlooking the river for an afternoon of laughs and stories. We transferred via overnight bus to Inle Lake (Nyaung Shwe) where we explored the town, arranged our boat for the next day, figured out onward travel for Tom, and ate some long overdue western food, delicious pizza. Then Kate shook her head for 6-hours as Grant and Tom conducted vital international diplomatic talks over multiple bottles of Mandalay Rum, making friends, and generally having a grand time. An American and a Brit even managed to convince two French ladies we weren’t THAT bad and Marion & Stephanie agreed to join us on Inle Lake filling our boat out for the next day (we’re pretty sure Kate actually convinced them, but the guys are still claiming the victory in the name of diplomacy!).

This was the scene at 5:30a the next morning.

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It was cold, wet, & early, but it soon subsided and a most surreal scene unfolded before you. A boat trip on Inle Lake is best described as a ride through a story book. At every corner there is another fascinating scene, a group of local tribesmen, or an artisan rolling beautiful cigars 🙂

The morning started so early as we were determined to make the 20-kilometer trek south before 0700 in time to catch the beginning of the Paung Daw Oo festival. Brightly colored boats representing each village full of rowers, buddhas, monks, flowers, food, and festivities abounded.

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After the festival we set off to another set of nearby ancient pagodas, which were beautiful, but more importantly we found delicious food and unadulterated local tribes-people interactions at the market.

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No visit to Inle Lake would be complete without a trip to the Karen tribe sect of the Long Neck Ladies. The story is of the stretched necks (actually, sloped collarbones…), but you can read that at your leisure. They’re lovely, friendly women, with quite a knack for weaving.

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Our jaw-droppingly beautiful lunch locale.

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Local cigars for an after-lunch digestivo, you betcha!

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And finally a long cruise back enjoying stunning scenery, an incredible array of fishing techniques, and many a turned pages of the storybook that is Myanmar’s Inle Lake.

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We arrived back in Nyaung Shwe by late afternoon and bid Tom farewell. Without a doubt he’s been the best travel companion we’ve come across and we were thankful to have him and his love for thanaka, Burmese ladies, & longyis along for the trip.

It wasn’t back to the two of us long though as our other Bagan buddy, Tamsin, made Nyaung Shwe that afternoon and we spent another evening telling stories over drinks on the town.

Back to the two of us the next morning we enjoyed a day of doing little but eating our favorite local meal of Shan noodles (Shan State is the largest state in Myanmar and home to Nyaung Shwe among many other natural wonders), exploring the market, writing, and napping.

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With a bus out that night we spent our fourth and final day in Nyaung Shwe back in the saddle of bicycles and exploring the villages and countryside surrounding the lake. Starting with The Teak Monastery, built without a single nail and holding dozens of novice monks.

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We proved the Buddhist belief of reincarnation at the Teak Monestary, Yoda this cat reincarnated is.

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As if stunning scenery and fresh rolled cigars weren’t enough, Myanmar went and threw beautiful wineries on top (work still to be done on the wine itself…).

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Crossing back to the west side of the lake we left the mountains and entered a marshy wonderland of villages and wet farmed rice paddies. These guys appeared to be rowing through the grass…

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For such a small place we are so happy to have taken the time to immerse ourselves in both the local and traveler scene of Nyaung Shwe. We can’t imagine how much we’d have missed out on by rushing through this picturesque slice of paradise.

We arrived early the next morning in a city with a serious identity crisis, Yangon. Then known as Rangoon it was the capital city of Burma for many years. During the height of British colonialism Rangoon was the crown jewel of colonial Southeast Asia. After the British withdrawal and the subsequent military takeover by the local junta, anything colonial was scapegoated as the root of any evil that befell the country. Stunning colonial buildings were left to rot, the name of the city changed from the colonial legacy Rangoon to Yangon, and recently capital status was stripped from it and relocated to Naypyitaw, a purpose built city 35okm north. Yangon is left as a hodge podge of decent markets, several nice and one stunning temple complexes, and architectural beauty rotting alongside modern…less than beauty.

Despite this, and often because of it, Yangon is today a worthwhile visit though one has to wonder what its future looks like as investment moves north with the government and much of the history that draws tourism begins to disappear from decay to collapse.

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For three days we wandered around town taking in the beautiful colonial decay, eating tasty street food, catching up with our French friends from Nyaung Shwe who were also through town, and riding the rails on a tour through daily life.

Every good day starts with a nutritious breakfast and after we had our nutritious breakfast we went to the amazing Rangoon Tea House for coffee and cheesecake!

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We walked it off along the boardwalk around this beautiful lake. Yangon does have some really nice green space in the form or parks and lakes.

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No trip to Yangon is complete without a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the holiest sights in the country.

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Lastly we road the city’s circular train. A lumbering ramble around the city, through villages, and straight into the daily life of Yangonites.

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With a final night of street food and one more bowl of Shan Noodles thus concluded our trip to the most wondrous of places. With all of this happiness it’d be nice to end the story on a positive note and that is, we think, possible here. For it would seem the hope and happiness of a nation can change its course. While still heavily seasoned with totalitarianism, democracy has come to Myanmar. Open elections were held for the first time in over half a century five years ago and more are scheduled for next week. The leader of the opposition party is none other than Aung San Suu Kyi, the prodigal daughter mentioned in the opening. She’s now a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient in The United States (along with dozens of other nation’s awards, including being only the 4th person granted honorary Canadian Citizenship), and a global personification of the fight against tyranny. Safe to say, the Kangaroo Court and subsequent years of house arrest for Ms. Kyi backfired in the most spectacular of ways. The red flag with bright yellow star and peacock of her NLD party are the predominant art work adorned to seemingly every car, tuktuk, office building, and even bicycle in Yangon & Mandalay. Of course despite a representative body and the NLD Party’s best efforts (among other smaller pro-democracy sects), the military has enshrined in its constitution a guaranteed 25% of the seats in any parliament (all unelected) and absolute veto power over any law regardless of popular vote, though only one dissenter from the Army ranks is required to bust the veto. Armed conflict and strife between the over 130 different ethnicities and tribes, (specifically Buddhist and Muslim hardliners) isn’t expediting matters any. The military has found it a useful straw man to retain a few shreds of lingering good will with voters.

The road forward will be long and challenging for Myanmar, or Burma, or whatever those happy go lucky, loving, beautiful people want to call themselves once they “throw the bums out.” But count us among those most excited to welcome them into the ever shrinking world, we could all use a little more MINGALABA in our lives. Maybe the Burmese can teach us all to smile and be thankful for what we have, for if they can find the beauty in life, surely the rest of us can as well.

Mingalaba from Laos!

Mr & Mrs Trading Paradises

Filed From: Pakbeng, Laos

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