Kyra: My parents, Lynn and Roger, visited us in Myanmar and helped write our post on the country. Cheers to them for not only meeting up with us but for doing their homework on Myanmar, as evidenced below!
November 22 – December 5
Lynn: Myanmar has had a long dark history with the armed forces in charge since 1962. According to filmmaker Robert Liebermanhe, who filmed a documentary on Myanmar in 2012, Myanmar was the “second most isolated country in the world, after North Korea.” But it has been changing rapidly, and the recent landslide victory of the party of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi on November 8 made this a momentous time to be in Myanmar. To get insight into current Myanmar news, read the weekly English language Myanmar Times.
Ben: We saw a live performance of the Mustache Brothers in Mandalay. While not completely understandable, it provided a glimpse of the history Lynn mentions above, wrought with imprisonment and in some cases for telling a joke.
Getting to Myanmar
Lynn: Roger and I flew Minneapolis-Chicago-Hong Kong-Yangon, a 26 hour marathon of flights and layovers on the way there. However the return took us 40 hours. Whew! But trust us, it was definitely worth it! What a joy it was to spend 11 days with our dear Kyra and Ben!
Ben: Cars, Buses, and Planes. We started off at our hotel in Shanghai where Li booked us a Didi car (comparable to Lyft in the US) which took us to Shanghai International Airport. The flight didn’t leave for an hour so we grabbed some final sticky buns and milk tea. We then flew to Hong Kong (after a slight delay) and had a 6hr layover there. Kyra and I inquired about an earlier flight upon arrival, but found out they only have one flight per day to Yangon, so we waited and were rewarded with the sunset below:
Where we stayed
Kyra: Thanks to my mom’s diligent planning, we saw a vast array of cities in Myanmar including Yangon, Mandalay, Hsipaw, Inle Lake, and Bagan.
Lynn: We had read that when Aung San Suu Kyi announced the end of the tourism boycott in 2010, she did so with the caveat that tourists should not stay in large luxury resorts because the larger high-end accommodations are owned or run by the military generals and their families or the close cronies of them. She requested that tourists stay in smaller independently-run guesthouses or hotels so the money would help ordinary working Burmese.
We planned our own travel in Myanmar and used the services of a small Yangon-based travel agency, Proniti. We received excellent service before, and during, our trip. Wah Ko at Proniti booked all our internal transportation, our hiking and boat trips, occasional guides, and a day-long trip to a monastery and school that provides free education for 504 village children. We booked all our own accommodations, using Trip Advisor and other websites.
Roger: We were pleased by all the guesthouses and small hotels we stayed at. We found:
- Delightfully warm service at every place we stayed. They just could not do enough for us.
- Breakfast included with every meal, which usually included scrumptious fruit of the season, freshly squeezed juice, choice of Burmese noodle dishes or eggs and toast, coffee and tea.
- Tipping is not part of their culture but since workers make only an average of $2 per day, we left 1,000 kyats (75 cents) for each server. It never failed that they would run after us, thinking that we had inadvertently left our money at the table.
Lynn: Both Kyra and Ben, and Lynn and Roger, started our trips in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, a city pushing seven million residents. We were told that only three years ago, there were almost no cars on the roads, but the opening of Myanmar has brought with it an exponential increase in the number of people who now can afford to purchase cars, most of these Japanese. Apparently they have no drivers’ tests to get licenses and lanes seem to be non-existent, with drivers weaving in and out on the roads, providing a chaotic environment and the constant honking is sometimes deafening. We were all only too glad to leave Yangon. However, the rest of Myanmar was delightful.
How We Got Around
Lynn: Access to significant portions of the country is restricted to foreign travelers and so often the only way to get to where you want to go is by air or boat. Air travel is pretty cheap and is reasonably fast. We were all surprised by how lax security is in Myanmar airports. Liquids out? No, don’t bother. Shoes off? Why? Cursory glance at the suitcase? If that! For a country that spends 29% of its budget on the armed forces, they sure don’t use deploy many of the military personnel for airport security.
Roger: The government has woefully under-invested in infrastructure for decades. Consequently bus, car, and train travel is slow, bumpy, and arduous. One day we found ourselves stopped on the mountain by traffic that was snarled with vehicles driving on the wrong side of the roads and drivers getting out of their trucks to direct traffic. But in typical Burmese fashion, everybody was very good-natured about it all.
Lynn: Burmese food centers around rice and curries, accompanied by a large variety of side dishes that are primarily plant or seafood-based. Three ingredients are particularly important in the food of Myanmar: pork, mango and lahpet. Mango appears in meals and as a salad, but is also served pickled as a condiment that is eaten with virtually everything. Pork is widely used as a staple meat, although it is avoided by the country’s Muslim population and more devout Buddhists. Lahpet, a form of pickled tea leaves, is eaten as a garnish and as a salad. Fish paste, or ngapi, is used in nearly everything – in all kinds of dishes and also as a condiment and as a base for soups and curries. Rudyard Kipling, who spent time in Myanmar, referred to ngapi as “fish that is pickled when it ought to have been buried long ago.” The local markets are overflowing with wide array of fresh fruits and vegetables, sold by farmers who often walk hours to bring their crops to market.
Kyra: I loved the curries we had, made with ginger, garlic, and turmeric, but apparently the country has a bit of a reputation for bad food. It certainly isn’t always appealing for a timid Western palate…
Local View and Lessons Learned
Lynn: Family is central to the lives of the Burmese people and three to four generations often live together in two to three rooms. Children are viewed as treasures, and we witnessed this time and time again in our travels. Waiters would take babies and walk around with them; infants would happily be passed from person to person; parents were forever kissing their children. Never once did we see anyone raise his/her voice at a child.
Kyra: Tea houses are the epicenters of politics and culture in Myanmar. When ordering a tea in Myanmar, you will receive one steaming cup of sweetened condensed milk and tea along with an empty cup and tea pot.
Kyra: Myanmar, like other developing countries, has quite a problem with garbage. It isn’t collected with any regularity or disposed of properly which means it is often burned on the side of the road.
Ben: This was my main gripe with Myanmar but one that’s hard to avoid in developing countries due to lack of infrastructure. Hopefully tourism and a new government can bring change to this area.
Roger: Buddhism is an integral part of the fabric of Myanmar. There are 500,000 monks, more than any other country in the world. Buddhism is not centered around a god and is considered a psycho-philosophical system. We have read that the Burmese were able to endure so many decades of repression while retaining their patient and cheerful demeanors because of the Buddhist philosophy that the world is characterized by impermanence and suffering.
Lynn: But Burmese try to hedge their bets, perhaps, because it is common to try for a better life by giving the monks rice, donating in temples, and worshiping regularly at the local temple, allowing individuals to accumulate “merit” through such deeds. In fact monks are a ubiquitous part of everyday life in Myanmar.
Roger: All Burmese males are expected to take up temporary residence twice during their lives – once as a noviate between 10 and 20, and again as a fully ordained monk after age 20. They are expected to give up all earthly belongings except a razor, cup, toothbrush, filter to keep insects out of drinking water, umbrella, and an alms bowl.
Kyra: In Bagan, we took at cooking class with May who runs a library out of her home. Over dinner, I asked her about a sign we saw in a number of temples, “women prohibited in front.” In past, I had asked guides why that was and was met with the same response, “out of respect to Buddha.” When I asked May, she told me that women hold a lower place in the eyes of society. She said that when they are reincarnated, women hope to come back as men so they will have a higher role in society.
Stupas, Pagodas, and Temples
Kyra: Much of the landscape is dotted with Stupas, Pagodas, and Temples:
- Temple – A pagoda that has two chambers (inner and outer). You can walk in to the outer structure, around, and then in to the inner structure (like a pagoda). Often, these are also multi-leveled.
- Pagoda – A structure with one path in leading to a figure of Buddha
- Stupas – A large mound that you cannot walk in to. They look sort of like pyramids.
Roger: Chinlone is a non-competitive game which consists of a team of six players who play a version of “keepy uppy” by passing a woven 5- inch rattan ball around a circle using their heads, knees, and feet. We saw boys and young men playing this all over Myanmar.
Lynn: Burma versus Myanmar – In 1989 the military junta decided to change the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar, no longer wanting to use the British name by which it had been known since the mid-1800s. Myanmar is more inclusive since the Burmese people make up no more than 80% of the population. However, many opposition and ethnic groups continue to call it Burma, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who felt that the military changed this without involving the will of the people.
Lynn: Burmese is part of the Tibeto-Burmese language group and is spoken by 10 million people.
Roger: “Minglelaba” – “Hello” and best delivered with a slight nod and bowing of the shoulders to show respect.
Lynn: This is a country of cute kids and beautiful faces so picking just one photo was hard. We decided to rebel and chose three:
Kyra: Kids in Myanmar are seriously cute because they have no aversion to strangers. There is no stigma attached to kids wandering and playing freely. As such, we were greeted by a great number of smiling young faces wherever we went.
Irrawaddy River Boat and Dolphin Watching
Ben: Lynn organized an incredible two day boat trip up the Irrawaddy River for us. I loved the huge upper deck for reading, conversing, and imbibing.
Lynn: We travelled the Upper Ayeyarwady River, called “the lifeblood of Myanmar” as it is the main transportation route for people and cargo. We rolled by people working in their rice fields, villagers washing dishes and taking baths along the riverbanks, gold-spired monasteries and stupas gracing the landscape. There was time for endless conversations between the four of us and our engaging 20-year-old guide Shan Lei , who shared his thoughts on the future of his beloved country and his own entrepreneurial aspirations as the economy begins to open up.
Ben: After cruising up the river for most of the day, we docked and transferred to smaller boats that took us out in search of dolphins. The 60 dolphins in this area are known to assist fisherman, using signals to tell the fishermen when to cast their nets. Unfortunately, some local criminals have been electrocuting the river in order to harvest fish. This is illegal for good reason, but Shan Lei said it continues to happen because the officals are afraid of the locals.
Roger: We really wanted to take advantage of what is said to be one of the greatest train rides in the world, the journey across the Gorteik Viaduct. When this was built in 1901, it was the second highest railroad bridge in the world. Nowadays, the train slows to a crawl as it crosses the viaduct to avoid putting undue stress on the aging structure. In the video below, you can get a sense of the train’s smooth ride. (We tried to get a shot of the resident mouse in our first class car, but it was camera shy.)
Kyra: I spent most of the time on the train listening to my podcasts, watching out the window, and being careful to keep my feet away from the mouse.
Kyra: At one stop, a few men were yelling and pointing at the side of the train. They all gathered to inspect something underneath then began tinkering with it. That was reassuring.
Lynn: After the train we reached Hsipaw, a charming town, our hopping off point for a two day overnight trek to the Shan and Palaung hill villages. The six-hour ascent was challenging, and the midday sun draining.
Lynn: Our host was an affable talented cook, who was often seen holding her six-month-old daughter. We never quite caught the infants’ name because we thought for much of the time that it was “Sigmund.” This misunderstanding arose from her explaining in her accented English that her daughter was “six months” when she thought we were asking how old she was.
Kyra: On our hike back down, we walked through a village where kids literally came running from their houses at the site of foreigners passing by. They immediately latched on to our limbs and screeched with laughter at being spun, high-fived, and carried.
Lynn: The storied 13×7 mile lake is dotted by stilt-house villages, floating vegetable and fruit gardens, and island monasteries. It is a bird sanctuary and we saw cormorants, herons, egrets, and warblers. We spent a full-day on a longtail motorboat, visiting workshops for lotus and silk weaving, cheroot, silver jewelry making, and parasols.
Lynn: The fisherman on Inle Lake stand on one leg at the end of their longboats and wrap their other leg around the oar, so that they can see the reeds and water plants in this very shallow lake. This also frees up their hands so they can work with their fishing nets while moving the boat.
Lynn: We said a tearful goodbye in Inle Lake, with Kyra and Ben heading to Bagan and Lynn and Roger returning to Minneapolis.
The absolute best part of this trip was spending time with Kyra and Ben. As parents, having the chance to spend eleven focused days with one’s adult children is so rare. We never tired of being with them and were amazed at their insights and sense of adventure. But most of all, we were delighted and inspired by their continual joy at being in each other’s company.
Ben: After we said goodbye to Lynn and Roger, Kyra and I flew to Bagan, a city Lynn and Roger had visited before meeting up with us. This is the place that’s probably most well-known in Myanmar and home to thousands of pagodas.
Lynn: Bagan ranks with Angkor Wat in Cambodia as the two most important religious cities in Southeast Asia. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the stupa and temple-building coincided with the regions’ transition from Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs to Theraveda Buddhism. A 1975 earthquake destroyed many temples and stupas but more than 3,500 remain today. Set against a dusty plain along the Ayeyarwady River, Bagan feels other-worldly. The white, gold, and deep red structures dot the landscape and spending the day biking from stupa to pagoda to temple was very serene.
Kyra: Enamored with our new found mode of freedom, we rented the bikes another day and explored a few more temples, roads, and restaurants. On our drive back into to town, we pulled over to examine a large group huddled around a pick-up truck stacked with speakers. As we got closer, we realized they were watching a few children dancing, presumably to celebrate the month-long Pagoda Festival.