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Myanmar - December 21, 1999
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Hi there! I had originally planned to be in Thailand for this past month, but I've always been intrigued by Myanmar (which many still call Burma), and during this trip I met several people who have raved about their experiences there. Several women, including my trustworthy friend Courtney, have also told me that it is a very safe place to travel solo. This was another thing I really wanted to try during this last part of my asia adventure. Since it only took one day to get a visa and plane ticket in Bangkok, my decision was quickly made.

The one thing that stands out the most after my time in Myanmar is the incredible kindness, helpfulness and hospitality of the Burmese people. I've found this to be true in every country I've visited so far, but in Myanmar it was so far above and beyond that!

While I've heard that Myanmar is a very safe place, even for women traveling alone, I've been warned that it is a very difficult place to travel. I didn't find this to be true. I thought it was very easy to get around, with guesthouses in the most traveled places, and where there aren't guesthouses or restaurants, the people were always welcoming me into their homes for tea, meals and even to stay the night.

Although there is a strong military presence, it is fairly well hidden from tourists as they wear plain clothes when posted in public places. In the cities, there is an undertone of tension from people who are craving democracy but only dare talk about it in whispers. In the villages, however, the people seem very content with their simple lives. Here, families and communities join together in a life of agriculture to survive. There is some modernization in the cities, more than I expected, but for the most part this is a country very behind the times. Even the Internet is still not legal in Myanmar.

Yangon
My Myanmar adventure started in the capital of Yangon (previously called Rangoon). There I had my first traditional Burmese breakfasts of Mohinga and Oh No Kauk Swe (rice noodles with fried fish, onion and other fun tidbits and a tasty curry-like sauce). It was also my first experience with a traditional Burmese dinner in local restaurants, where they bring out about 15 different dishes of many unrecognizable, but wonderful things. You just east what you want, and then pay the equivalent of US$1.50 or so for what you decided to eat. In Yangon I also met some teenage boys who taught me how to play a game that involves kicking a woven bamboo ball over a net. I've been given at least 3 different names for this game and now can't remember any of them. I saw it first in Thailand years ago, but never got to play. It's really fun and somewhat resembles soccer. The most fun I had in Yangon was the afternoon when a young trishaw (like a tricycle with passenger seat) driver begged me to ride with him for free so he could practice his English. I said okay, but only if he would be the passenger and I could ride the bike. It took a bit of convincing, but we had a lot of fun and attracted quite a lot of attention from the Burmese people on the street who apparently never saw a tourist driving a trishaw before. Well, after the amazing food I've eaten way too much of on this trip, I need the exercise!

Mandalay
From Yangon, I flew to Mandalay where I made friends with two 22 year old monks immediately after arriving. One of them also really wanted to practice English, so he toured me all around Mandalay, to the nearby ancient cities, and several other villages close by, for the next four days. It was fabulous and I learned a great deal about the life of a Burmese monk. Did you know that they only eat breakfast and lunch (and don't eat after 12 noon) as they believe it helps improve their evening meditation? I sure could use that kind of diet right now. I also ate in the homes of various families I met three of the four nights while I was in Mandalay and the nearby towns. All of these families were interesting with adorable children, and the food was good.

Bagan
From Mandalay I took an all day boat to Bagan where there are hundreds of ancient temples. This was an amazingly place, especially beautiful at sunrise and sunset from the top of one of the very high temples. The view of the entire valley is stunning. There are so many temples, all tinted an orange-pink from the glow of the sun. I spent two days here on a bicycle touring around to see as many sites as possible. I also stayed a night in Mt. Popa nearby where I hiked to the summit. This is where I met a local forest ranger who talked me into eating a bunch of leaves from a certain plant to "cure" the cough I developed when I was sick. They tasted terrible, but my cough is already almost 100% better. Yes, perhaps it was a coincidence. I also got to help paint a pagoda at the top of the summit. It was fun but very messy! I ended up with as much paint on me after one hour as the local villagers that had been painting all day.

Kalaw
From there I moved on to Kalaw and trekked in the hills to see the Palao hill tribes. After meeting two teenage girls that followed me around everywhere, they invited me to stay the night with their family in the hills. The best part was spending the next day helping them gather tea leaves, learning how to dry them, and helping them roll the cigars that they sell in the market.

Inle Lake
After Kalaw I went to Inle Lake. I hired a canoe driver (you should see how they paddle with one leg while standing up!) to tour me around. We mainly went into small inlet areas, through flooded rice fields, and into many small villages all on stilts to stay above the water (including his). Here I met some of the Pa-O hill tribe women in one of the markets. They wear a beautiful dress of black with a very colorful turban on their heads. This area around Inle Lake was absolutely beautiful and I had dinner with the family of my canoe driver for the two nights I was there. These were the best meals I had in Myanmar! All he wanted in exchange was for me to spend an hour each night teaching his children and wife some simple English. Even that was fun.

Myanmar was really amazing. Even after writing this detailed travelogue, I feel like my written words can't describe how wonderful the Burmese people are and how kind they were to me. And, not only did I love traveling solo but I think that many of the unique experiences I had were because I was alone. I highly recommend solo travel to anyone considering it.

Cheers
Karen

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