Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a Southeast Asian nation of more than 100 ethnic groups, bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand. As of 2017, the population was about 54 million. Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the country’s largest city, is home to bustling markets, numerous parks, and lakes, and the towering, gilded Shwedagon Pagoda. The world-famous breathtaking Valley of Bagan is a true gem and also a World Heritage Site.
Dear Reader, enjoy this rare photo essay by our contributor Colin Johnson.
This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.– Rudyard Kipling
Myanmar – The People are True Treasure
The people of Myanmar are the friendliest in the world. That is the answer to a question I’m often asked, “Who are your favorite people you’ve met during your travels?”
We all travel for many reasons; nature, wildlife, food, drink, shopping, nightlife, history, culture, etc. And when I am asked which nation is my favorite, I find it hard to give an answer. Each country excels in one of the categories listed above. But when I am asked about the people…the people of Myanmar are in a category of their own.
My trip to Myanmar, also known as Burma, was in 2015. Exiting the airplane in the city of Yangon I encountered smiling faces on everyone I saw. My guide for the first part of the trip met me at the airport and happily talked about his nation on the drive to our hotel. He was excited to show us his homeland and was especially proud of the fact that Myanmar had zero McDonald’s restaurants. The country hadn’t been commercialized by western corporations yet and felt culturally authentic wherever we traveled.
Buddhism in Myanmar
Buddhism is practiced by nearly 90% of the population of Myanmar and is predominantly of the Theravada tradition. It is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population.
The Buddhist monastic schools helped to give Burma a rate of literacy considerably above those of other East Asian countries in the early 1900s.
Myanmar – Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo
The next morning we headed out of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, to visit the golden rock of Kyaiktiyo in the east. Legend has it that the giant boulder precariously perched on the side of a cliff is held in place by a single strand of the hair of Buddha.
It has become a pilgrimage site for the nation’s Buddhist population, who flock to the site to pray, commune, and cover the rock in gold leaf as a sign of devotion. Getting to the site is not easy. Sitting in the back of an open bed truck up a switch-back road cut into the mountain is the only way to the top.
Pilgrimage to Golden Rock
The challenging journey to the top was well worth it. I had seen photographs of the golden rock, but seeing it in person was inspiring. The boulder barely touches the ledge below it. A strong breeze should send the rock toppling over the cliff, but it has withstood severe storms for millennia.
Each morning pilgrims buy food from the market stalls to leave as an offering near the rock. There is constant prayer and meditation during the day. At night pilgrims continue the praying and offering, including lighting candles and incense, before rolling out blankets on the tiled ground to sleep under the stars. The entire experience was amazing.
Most of the people visiting Kyaiktiyo are from the rural parts of Myanmar who never see Westerners beyond a Hollywood movie or a TV show. They were very curious about me and wanted to take photos. Pretty soon I was doing posed handshakes with people, and standing surrounded by school children. They were all so friendly and happy to have that interaction with me. They spoke no English, I spoke no Burmese…but we communicated with smiles and head nods.
Often at religious places around the world, I would feel like an intruder or outsider. At Kyaiktiyo I was welcomed with the happy faces of people who were glad to have me experience something so important to them.
The Ritual at Kyaiktiyo
One of the rituals at Kyaiktiyo is applying gold leaf patches to the ‘Golden Rock’ for good luck. I asked our guide if it were possible for foreigners to touch the rock. He said only men could touch the rock which meant my wife Amanda had to stay behind. I made my way to the boulder. Suddenly I was standing before the miracle.
The pilgrims at the rock turned to me and smiled before parting enough for me to touch the gold-covered boulder. There was something intense about the experience I cannot put into words. I didn’t get a jolt of power or a feeling of nirvana, but I recognized something special about the moment. I think it was because this site means so much to the Burmese people…and I was welcomed to join them and share in that unique and special experience.
Of all the religious sites I have visited around the world, this one had the most profound impact on me. I couldn’t explain the natural phenomenon, maybe it is a miracle after all.
Myanmar Exploration Continues – Inle Lake
After Kyaiktiyo we traveled to Inle Lake. The community is called the ‘Venice of Asia’ because of the canals linking the elevated structures erected on the lake. The people of Inle Lake have learned to gather everything they need from the water itself. They fish the lake for the proteins they need, while harvesting vegetables in floating gardens or man-made patches of earth.
In Inle you travel everywhere by boat. The lake is a bustling city. There are restaurants, hotels, and markets. The hotel where we stayed doubled as a training site for young Burmese looking to get into the hospitality trade. They were eager to make our stay as perfect as possible. Over the course of the stay at the hotel on stilts, I never saw an employee without a genuine smile on their face. They loved what they were doing, were proud of their community, and happy to meet us.
In the morning I went out on a boat to capture the morning light. At the widest point in the lake, I encountered fishermen making their morning runs. As we floated by, the fishermen were smiling while I was taking photographs in the stunning morning light.
After the morning boat ride, we visited some local markets. This is where we encountered women from the Kayan tribe from the northeast border with Laos. The Kayan are famous for adding rings around the necks of women to elongate them. They are known as ‘giraffe women’ and often do masterful weaving.
The handicrafts in Myanmar were incredible. Outside of Inle Lake, we toured a silk factory and paper factory. At the paper factory, I watched artisans making umbrellas by hand, stunned at the level of craftsmanship. Immersed in their work, they always worked with a smile on their face.
Wherever you go, go with all your heart.– Confucius
Myanmar Wonder – Valley of Bagan
After Inle Lake, we traveled to the Valley of Bagan, famous for being home to thousands of magnificent Buddhist temples.
Bagan is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar. From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom, the first kingdom that unified the regions that would later constitute Myanmar.
Our guide was a university professor who was excited to show us one of the most magical places on the planet. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone. Today, only the remains of over 2,000 temples and pagodas survive.
We visited as many temples as we could during our stay, learning not only the history of each temple but insights into the land of Myanmar as well. Our guide was very open about his feelings of the past and future of Myanmar, but also the current political scene. This was refreshing to hear from a guide. He told me it was liberating to speak his mind on any and all topics because only a few years earlier he wouldn’t have allowed to speak to me beyond basic small talk and pleasantries.
Colin’s Parting Thoughts About Myanmar
Prior to visiting Myanmar, I knew little about the country. I knew it was located between India and Bangladesh to the west, Thailand and Laos to the east, with China to the north. I was aware it was a former British colony and major battleground during the Second World War.
But I was less aware of Myanmar’s history in the second half of the 20th century and after. That is because Myanmar fell under a strict military regime almost as soon as the British left. Media was controlled and outside visitors were limited, resulting in Myanmar being completely cut-off from the outside world. Free speech was non-existent, hence the joy of my guide to speak with us freely, beyond small talk and pleasantries.
Brief Recent History
In 2010, a democratic election was held and the military junta was defeated by a party led by activist, Aung San Suu Kyi. The new civilian leadership gradually ushered in an era of openness with the outside world. Aung San Suu Kyi, known affectionately as ‘The Lady’, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work turning the grim past of Myanmar toward a better future. Sadly, her image got tarnished when she didn’t denounce the treatment of the Rohingya people in regard to ethnic strife.
The military continued to hold a strong position in Myanmar and on February 1, 2021, they regained power in a coup d’etat.
Myanmar had a brief 10-year window of relative freedom. The people I met were ecstatic to be able to speak freely and have access to media and information from around the world. They were always joyful, friendly, and welcoming to see us wherever we went. Most of all, they were proud of their country and culture.
As anywhere in the world, most people just want to live their lives in peace and harmony. I wish the best for the people of Myanmar in their current circumstances. They are the friendliest people I have ever encountered in my journeys around the world and deserve a much better life.
I am glad I was able to visit Myanmar when I could, and I hope I can visit it again at some point in a better future.– Colin Johnson
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