Burma, now called Myanmar, was a true bonus on my travels through Southeast Asia. It was at the end of my two-month trip, and the perfect final chapter. I’d spent some time in Laos doing a Work Away and had saved money during that time to pay for the airline tickets, and visa to Myanmar. I’d also saved some free hotel nights from hotels.com and used those for a few of my nights in Mandalay.

Sunset over the Irrawaddy River in Mandalay.

I’ve been eying Myanmar for a few years, and can’t be happier that I was able to visit. If Myanmar isn’t on your travel list, it needs to be added and moved to the top of the list. Myanmar, formally Burma, has only recently opened to travelers, and will mostly likely rapidly change as more people visit. Visas are now easy to get, and can be done online, and there are now actually ATMs, and as of a couple years ago, Coca-Cola is available. ATMs have only been around for a few years, I talked with a lady that said she used to watch movies and wonder what these machines were that gave out money. She’d thought that maybe in America it was just that easy to get money, just go to a machine, push a button and money came out.

I started my journey through Myanmar in Mandalay. I’d just come from Laos, and took an overnight train to Bangkok, then flew Air Asia to Mandalay.  On approach, the landscape looked very different. This wasn’t a copy of the other Southeast Asian countries, but somewhere very unique. The area was much drier and much different vegetation.  Mandalay was set in a large valley, mountains on two sides, and the Irrawaddy River running down the length of the valley.

View from Mandalay Hill.

Mandalay was the last Burmese royal capital before the British took control and moved the capital to Yangon (Formally Rangoon). In Mandalay, I had a pedal bike and rode everywhere. I rode to, then hiked, Mandalay Hill for sunset views, rode to the river, along the colonial railroad tracks, around the city palace, to the market, and to my favorite tea shops. Tea shops in Myanmar seemed to be the center of life for men. The tea shops were always crowded with men of all ages; drinking tea, smoking, and watching American movies on a flat screen. The tea was made extremely sweet by adding boiling tea concentrate from a pot that was perpetually steaming, hot water, and mixing it with sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. Teenage boys were always the ones serving the tea, and if you needed more you’d make a kissing noise and your fresh cup of tea would be delivered to your table. I spent quite a few afternoons and nights sitting in tea shops watching movies. I was usually the novelty, as I was the only Western guy in the tea shops, but I was also the only one who understood the movies, so who was out of place? I noticed that I would be the only one laughing at any verbal joke, and they would all laugh if there was physically something funny that happened in the movie. While I was in Myanmar I watched parts of Jurassic Park, Air Force One, and Rush Hour.

Eating local food, one entree with numerous side dishes. Each one is treated almost like a condiment, adding a different flavor. Bitter, sweet, spicy.

From Mandalay, I went to Bagan, which is famous for a plain filled with thousands of temples.  This was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Myanmar, was to see this landscape of temples. These temples were built about 800 years ago and dot the landscape for as far as you can see.  The temples are spread out over miles between three little towns, and the river. The way to see them is the rent a little electric motorcycle and drive around. Foreigners aren’t allowed gas motorbikes, so are only given the electric bikes. Top speed is about 28 mph, and they are only about $4 to rent for the day. The silent transport through the temples adds the mystic experience, you cruise along passing temple after temple with no noise besides the crunch of dirt underneath your tires.

Temples spread through the valley in Bagan.
Met this kid while I was exploring the temples. He wanted me to buy a postcard, and I asked why he wasn’t in school. He said school sucks (in perfect English) and you don’t get any money in school. I told him how long I spent going to school (19 years?) and that now I make lots of money because of school. That part might have been a bit of a lie, but I wanted to prove my point. He then showed me the collection of small note currency he had collected from tourists.

After Bagan, I took a nine-hour bus ride to Yangon. My last day in Myanmar was on the 4th of July. I felt a world away from home and felt a little sad to miss the traditions of my favorite holiday. The US and Myanmar both share the fact that we both declared independence from the British Empire. Theirs was much later, Jan. 4 1948, and with a much different story. To celebrate our Independence Day, I took myself to Independence Day. This was the first time I have ever gone to a movie by myself. The movie theater was nice, little different snacks, and a smaller screen. It was in English though and in 3D. There weren’t even subtitles, so maybe again I was the only one who understood the movie, but the theater was completely sold out. While the movie played, a few people kept talking, and I finally realized that they must have known a little English and were translating to their friends next to them.

I was so impressed with Mandalay, Bagan, Yangon, and mostly by the people in Myanmar. The people were the nicest people I have ever encountered in my travels. During my time I had someone buy my dinner, pay for my bus ticket because I was out of cash, invite me to dinner, help me cross the street to get a taxi,  and countless other gestures of kindness. They’d never let me carry my own bag, from arrival at a hotel to boarding a bus, someone was always insisting on carrying my bag for me. My initial response was the refuse the help, but finally, I gave in. I might be spoiled now. At one bar, I was having a beer and trying to get the label off the front of the bottle, I collect them. The guy working at the bar saw I was having a hard time and came and took the bottle from me, soaked it in water, and brought back the label perfectly peeled off the bottle.  They are also some of the most beautiful people. I was continually transfixed by their faces. The women wear a clay-like sunscreen on their cheeks, and the men all wore a traditional Longyi, which is a piece of material wrapped into a long skirt. There was something about the people’s faces and the way that they carried themselves that was so intriguing to me. I could never quite put my finger on what exactly it was.

I was so lucky to spend the last ten days of my Southeast Asia trip in Myanmar, and feel like it might only be a preview. I was very much impressed, and would gladly return to spend more time. Myanmar has a unique culture to it, something that was very much its own. It has been said that Myanmar is where India meets China, but Myanmar is very much unique from either of those places. They aren’t even in the same hour as anyone else, they are a half hour in between two time zones. Being in Myanmar felt like not being in China, not being in India, somewhere in between, not this hour, or the next, in between.  Next, I’m heading to Singapore for a few days, then truly back home to the family farm in Utah to spend a few weeks really embracing life in small town America.

A vendor in Yangon making betel nut chew pouches.