When I was in school, I sat on the last row, just behind a girl who wore a small, pink ribbon in her hair every single day. My desk was directly in the center of the classroom, which meant that, if I leaned over to the side and out past that bow, I could just get a view of the chalkboard. But that day, the maps had been pulled down for our lesson in world history. My mind started to wander, and the lesson became a daydream; I paddled my canoe out of the classroom and down the Rubicon, watched the Crusaders from Jerusalem, and traveled the silk road into the Far East. When my teacher asked which traders first met the great Kublai Khan, I was suddenly back in my seat, wide eyed and wondering, as “Marco Polo” became more than just a game played in a pool. I’d realized that those world maps in front of the room were not just records; they were treasure maps for adventure.
As an adult, I’ve tried to chase those childhood visions of exploration to anywhere that might help me feel a little more like Marco Polo. This past spring, my search took me to Myanmar (more officially, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar), though most people living there refer to it as Burma. The country sits directly to the northwest of Thailand, and its opposite borders touch both Bangladesh and India. Despite the fact that it’s larger than Thailand by about 50,000 square miles, it has largely remained off the radar to anyone in the West. The British established a colony here in the early 1800s and ruled the region through World War II, but the military overthrew the government in 1962 and established a socialist regime that ruled by force. This included keeping Western influence out of the country for almost 60 years. While neighbors such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam have grown by leaps and bounds through tourism and economic partnership with the West, Burma has been almost completely unaffected, leaving much of the country undeveloped. In 2010, however, a reform government was elected, the country began to open up, and foreign tourists started to explore Myanmar.
Yangon, the former capital of British Burma, seems a city frozen in time, though it is beginning to thaw out and find its place in a more complicated world. Sidewalks are made of concrete slabs (many broken or even missing) that cover drainage gutters. There are few traffic lights, since movement regulates itself in the city center a few feet at a time. Crowded alleys between blocks serve as makeshift markets, selling everything from chicken feet to samosas to dragon fruit. As I looked to the ornate balconies that jutted out from the mildewed façade of the antique buildings, bright blue satellite dishes sat like sunflowers all pointed to the horizon. I loved these buildings most, as there is no greater collection of British colonial architecture surviving anywhere in the world today; these enormous buildings are from a time when construction demanded patience, and they speak to the idea that we live with these buildings, not just inside them. Somehow, the age of the buildings—their dilapidated roofs, and the chipped, fading pastels of 100-year-old paint—slows things down. On some of my jogs, I got lost looking at these buildings only to find someone else stopped to look with me; after a parting wave, we’d move on, smiling, in opposite directions.
Once I’d toured the former capital city, it was time to explore the rest of the country (and work off the tremendous amount of street food I’d eaten). Nine hours by bus brought me north to Bagan, home to the Angkor Wat of Myanmar. Unlike Angkor Wat in Cambodia, where the jungle has conquered the massive collection of Buddhist temples, monuments, and spire-shaped structures called “stupas,” Myanmar’s construction has better survived the tests of time. Over 10,000 structures were built at the height of the empire, and more than 2,200 scatter the plains of this ancient capital. Besides horse and buggy (which can be arranged), the best way to see Bagan is on a bike.
Riding south from the town of Nyaung U, I took the newly constructed roadway that is mostly devoid of cars. Outside of the big cities, most people travel by motorbike, and roads are wide open to bicycles. Though it is hot in Myanmar, the wind kept my face cool as the sun did its best to cook me alive. The trees on the roadside disappeared, the plains opening to reveal a horizon studded with spires that extended out of sight. It was breathtaking and hard to imagine how long it must have taken to build this many monuments in honor of the Buddha. The golden domes twinkled in the distance and stood guard between the castle-sized temples dotting the horizon. Inside every one of these larger temples are Buddhas—sitting, standing, or reclining in a thick coat of golden paint—that meditate eternally beneath the remains of hand-painted frescoes dating back to about 1,000 A.D. In the most popular spots, monks in ochre-colored robes walk the grounds, lending authenticity to the experience.
A trip to Bagan is incomplete without biking the sandy tracks to Shwesandaw Temple, where, from its top levels, you can watch as the moon rises from one horizon and the sun falls to the other. As I watched, the failing light set the horizon ablaze one final time; biking back to the hotel felt like a dream, and I couldn’t help but wonder why I’d never before heard of Bagan.
To escape the heat, I headed northwest on the shores of Inle Lake, the other top tourist destination in Burma and home to several tribal villages, including the Intha fishermen who paddle their boats with one leg wrapped around an oar while their hands are busy working nets or traps (an inspiration to any stand-up paddleboarder on Lady Bird Lake). Most visitors stay in the town of Nyaungshwe and hire motorized long boats for tours of the different villages. Some villages were best accessed by bike, including one famous for a special kind of yellow lentil tofu. The bumpy dirt road out of town was hemmed in on both sides by vast fields of rice that extended to the foothills of the mountains. The locals stood up from their work as I rattled past, and we shared an enthusiastic wave.
For many, getting out on the lake and visiting the tribal villages is the highlight of their trip to this area. As most villages consist of bamboo huts built on stilts over the lake, boats are the only way to visit; entire communities live over the water, and each tribe has some unique craft that sustains them—farming the floating gardens, silversmithing, tobacco rolling—and provides a source of income. People work hard; the women of the Kayan tribe, who wear brass ringlets that stretch their necks, combine weaving textiles for sale with serving as tourist attractions in Thailand. But, in general, the people I saw welcomed us with a smile and spoke to us like friends.
People make an experience memorable. While Myanmar shared its natural beauty, culture, and history, it was the easy laughter and friendly shouts of “Hallo!” that made this place so unique. Although the country is struggling to find its place in a modern world and is currently facing internal religious conflict, the kindness of its people will help Myanmar continue to grow and endure…and smile.
The author recently took a trip to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where tourism by bicycle is encouraged. If you are interested in arranging for a cycling tour of the country, information about several different companies can be found at tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g294190-i9408-k6036770-Burma_Bike_Tours-Myanmar.html.