Venturing into the unknown is always daunting. When the unknown has been for the past 50 years one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships and sorely lacking in tourism infrastructure, the level of anxiety rises.
With Myanmar, formerly Burma, opening only recently to the world, information changes rapidly. Stories abound of travelers arriving at a destination to find no accommodations. I prefer to wander the road freely and dislike reserving ahead, an imperative for the country’s popular tourism centers.
Bangkok is the primary point of embarkation for travelers to Myanmar. You fly either to Yangon in the south or Mandalay in the center of the country. Overland entry is virtually impossible. Much of the country is completely closed to foreigners as anti-government insurgencies by suppressed ethnic minorities are still active.
Arriving in Bangkok with the headlines of the New York Times screaming, “Mayhem in Bangkok” due to protests, I spend several peaceful days driven all over the city by Thai friends. No riots, no bullets, not even a protester to be seen, though protester-erected razor wire surrounds government buildings and adjacent, seemingly abandoned protestor encampments.
A two-hour flight takes me west over the mountainous border to Yangon, the former capital. Former, since the generals spent over a billion dollars building their new capital, Nay Pyi Taw, a couple hundred miles north, moving the government there in 2008. They also renamed the country in an attempt to encompass all ethnicities rather than the dominant Burmese.
We arrive with some trepidation but find immigration and customs proceedings smooth and efficient.
Modern technology meets ancient tradition
A 45-minute taxi drive takes us through minimal traffic to our previously reserved guesthouse two miles from downtown Yangon. Ensconced on the top floor of a tall building, its terrace provides a unique perspective on the teeming life in the streets and monasteries below.
As with everywhere we stay, we are greeted with warm smiles and surprisingly good English. The guesthouses in Myanmar fill the gap in tourism infrastructure by providing services usually arranged by travel agents or tourist bureaus. They’ll happily find you a guesthouse at your next destination and arrange the transportation to get you there.
An imperative in Yangon is a visit to the 500-year-old Shwedegon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred site. Situated on a hilltop, its 322-foot-tall golden stupa dominates the city. A $3 taxi ride — taxis are cheap and ubiquitous — brings us to a crowded street from which the eastern of the four enormous entries climb in broad marble stairways to the temple level. Numerous shops filled with religious souvenirs, beads and Buddhas plus offerings of flowers and fruit line the golden-columned hallway of intricate wood carvings. Huge paintings fill the eaves beneath a high coffered ceiling of polished teak.
Footwear is prohibited. Young boys swarm the entrance hawking plastic bags for your shoes. As we reach the top, innumerable golden temples and countless Buddhas surround the central stupa.
A polished marble plaza circumnavigates the temple area. Travelers from around the world mingle freely with natives, monks and nuns who sit on the bare stone worshipping and interacting with the golden Buddhas. Pilgrims place bouquets of flowers and fruit at their feet, burn incense, continually pour water over smaller figures and drape them with garlands.
Modern technology mingles with ancient tradition; pulsating psychedelic lights, as if a bizarre spiritual imminence, radiate from around the heads of the largest Buddhas. The sheer beauty of the masses of golden filigree’, gorgeous wood carvings, golden-columned temples, elaborate architecture and intricate roof designs is overwhelming.
‘Take Care of Tourist’
The next day, wandering the broken pavement and teeming sidewalks of Yangon provides a stark juxtaposition with the spiritual focus of the country. During the 60 years the British ruled Burma, they built a grid of broad avenues and tree-covered sidewalks fronted by tall, elegant buildings.
Today much of the city is in disrepair. Life is lived on the streets. Small vendors line the sidewalks. Tiny restaurants are ubiquitous from a single man frying seafood in a blackened wok to tarp-covered establishments propped against buildings, their derelict kitchens open to the street. Everywhere though, there are smiles.
The people of Myanmar may be poor, politically oppressed and isolated from the world, but we find them warm, smiling, open and deeply religious. With the sanctions of the previous decades lifted, signs and billboards loudly proclaim in cute English: “Warmly Welcome and Take Care of Tourist.”
Dennis Jones is a professional photographer and writer. He leads private photography workshops in the Vail/Beaver Creek area. To contact him, visit his website: www.dreamcatcherimaging.com.