Written by Kristyna Zaharek
Photographed by Chinh Le Duc and Kristyna Zaharek
I am a window-seat kind of gal.
We all know why the middle is the worst – who loves being squished between two strangers?
And the aisle can be nice for frequent bathroom-users.
But I love the window seat. There are few things as wonderful as pulling my knees up to my chest and leaning against the plastic porthole as we rush faster down the runway.
Soon, the plane is off the ground. I look out and see the earth disappear beneath the carpet of clouds.
This is the closest I will get to having the power of flight.
Time passes. The clouds break, and we descend beneath a fluffy barrier. The first sight of upcoming adventure. Holding my breath, I scan the world I’m about to explore, to see not buildings or cityscapes or Eiffel Towers but lush, rolling hills abundant in greenery.
I didn’t choose Myanmar because I wanted good food or romantic ambiance. I chose it for the landscape – a first for me (I usually go the foodie route). I chose it as a place to lose myself.
And lose myself I did.
Myanmar used to be called “Burma.” There are over 100 tribes in Myanmar, and the Burmese tribe is the biggest and most well known. When the English colonizers came in 1886, they couldn’t pronounce the original name of the country (Pyidaungzu Myanma Naingngandaw). But they could pronounce “Burma,” so that’s what they called it. (“Burma” is actually a name for a colony within the country of Myanmar. It doesn’t include the people as a whole.)
But for the next 100 years, the people fought back to reclaim the name, and since 1989, most recognize the country as “Myanmar,” which is closer to the original name. Interestingly enough, many of the Myanma people do not recognize the new name as the nation’s official title.
As soon as I landed in this gorgeous country, I knew in part what would be waiting for me. Using a taxi service, I hired a driver (roughly 120 USD) to take me the four-hour trek from Mandalay to Bagan.
Cattle roamed the sides of the streets – skinny animals that didn’t look as if they could produce quality milk. Pigs also lay in the shade. Some of them even let their bodies lie under the water while I could only see their heads.
Though the drive was in the evening, I could clearly see people living in tiny straw huts on the side of the road. Water rose up even to the makeshift homes.
“They live here during the rainy season,” my driver, Pho Se, informed me. “See those bushes? They’re actually the tops of trees. During the late summer, parts of Mount Everest melt and overflow the rivers.” The homes were completely submerged.It was only thirty minutes into my adventure, and my heart was already breaking.
Myanmar isn’t a first-world country. It is, in fact, one of the eight countries of the third world, in terms of “political rights and civil liberties.” As a whole, the country is a little smaller than the state of Texas, with a population of 52.9 million people.
Now, let’s talk adventure.
Like I mentioned earlier, food is typically what I’m most excited for in a trip. However, Burmese food was found to be a bit of a disappointment. When eating in Myanmar, you are limited to eating at specific times or else you are forced to eat at non-authentic restaurants. Breakfast was always very early; lunch was served at 11:30–2:00; and dinner, 5:00–7:00. If you showed up for the latter part of the meal, your food would almost be cold. So if you find yourself eating in this beautiful country, arrive early!
One of my favorite places to eat was a restaurant that I found on the side of the road – quite by accident, too! I was even thrilled to see my tour guide from the day before eating with his friends. The food is served in a manner similar to Korean. The main dish was a noodle soup of chicken or beef, with rice on the side, and tons of side dishes. Though everything tasted wonderfully unique, I couldn’t finish anything other than the soup. Everything was incredibly oily! This was something I noticed in all traditional Burmese meals. It was all very oily, salty, and spicy; and rarely did they venture away from the trifecta.
In fact, since the colonization of the country, the amount of true Burmese food was rare. In a tea house near a giant pagoda – I was probably the first foreigner they had met – the only meal served was similar to fettuccini. Oily, salty, spicy, fettuccini with a yellow sauce that I still can’t name.
This is the land of pagodas. With 90 percent of the people being Buddhist, you can guarantee that proper dress would be required. Men could wear almost whatever they wanted. Women, on the other hand, were required to cover their knees and shoulders.
When I travel, I tend to not bring much clothing with me. I like to buy the clothes of the country I visit. When in Rome…, you know? So as soon as I arrived, Pho Se was more than excited to take me shopping to get me properly dressed.
The hostel I stayed in also provided a free tour, so I was able to visit a woman who made and sold clothes in a provincial village. She also made her own cigars, which she let me smoke. At 91 years old, she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. Who ever said smoking was bad for you?
I just want to point out that everyone in this country had amazing hair. They may be third world, but the barbers and stylists know what they’re doing.
The amount of beauty in this country is almost ridiculous. Before the earthquake of 1975, over 10,000 pagodas decorated the ancient city of Bagan. Now, unfortunately only about 2,000 remain. Still, the sunrises and sunsets of this country are unbelievable.
Of course, I signed up for a sunrise with a local. In the early morning darkness, he led us to a pagoda. I couldn’t see any steps along the outside. I began questioning my decision when he took us into the pitch of the pagoda’s interior. We couldn’t see it, but there was a hidden staircase on the inside! Carefully, we climbed the stairs to the roof of the pagoda.
The sunrise was purely breathtaking; I think I actually held my breath for the majority of the time. My heart forgot to beat as well. There are these moments in life where you feel everything is right. You exist in that moment. Nothing else matters. Standing atop the pagoda, watching the sunrise, and listening to the birds chirp – this was one of those moments.
I stayed at Ostello Bello Bagan. My hostel wasn’t cheap, but it was clean, the people were kind and helpful, and it offered free cigars. Definitely a win.
A place is made by its beauty, its food, its culture, and its people. Though it was beautiful, this is not what made the country the most memorable for me. What truly stood out was the people.
As I noted earlier, Myanmar is a third-world country. Despite this, the people who live there are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. You can be walking down the street and smile at a local, and they’ll smile right back at you. It’s not a painful smile, either. They smile brightly and honestly.
Though I can’t speak for the whole country or even the whole city, I can tell you that every interaction I had with the Burmese people left me smiling from ear to ear. Because of them, I was ready to quit everything and just stay. For the first time, I wanted to cancel my plans. I did end up coming back to Korea, but, boy, was I tempted to stay in the country of golden pagodas.
I recommend Myanmar to everyone. But if you go, don’t just go to see. Go to experience, to be a part of the community. They’ll welcome you with open arms.
Sit and smoke with a 91-year-old woman, and you’ll discover meaning in the moments.
Stand atop a pagoda, and you’ll remember why you’re glad to be alive.
Smile at a local, and you’ll learn what it means to be truly happy.
Go to Myanmar.
Kristyna lived in Gwangju, South Korea, for two years. She is a hopeful novelist with a heart for travel. She also really likes dark chocolate.