Burma… The Highs and Lows of Travelling

August 23, 2017


I have been struggling with knowing what to call this country… Is it Burma or is it Myanmar? Apparently in the local language it is Myanmar and in the English, Burma. Burma just has a more romanticized ring to it so for the sake of his post, Burma it is.

Burma is unlike anywhere we have been so far. We have wandered off the tourist path in other countries but Burma is an entire county off the beaten track, which still has very little tourism. It’s so authentic and raw. Just a few weeks ago Burma had their first democratic election. Prior to this, the party in power was very restrictive, including being restrictive of their borders, making it hard to travel to Burma. It’s crazy to think that my mom and dad travelled to Burma almost 30 years ago when it was difficult to do so and had even less tourism… Not to mention they travelled before Internet! I can’t imagine not having the ability to communicate with family regularly or research places on the go with our phones. Even now the wifi is pretty unreliable or nonexistent in places, making it feel a little like we have stepped back in time. Kudos to my parents! You hear tourists complain all the time about places being too touristy but something we have learned along the way is with un-touristy areas comes a much more challenging way of travelling and you have to give up some of your comforts (like wifi and a clean bathroom). Additionally, with the tourism industry still developing there isn’t a whole lot to do, making for a slower pace of travel. 

In addition to tighter borders from the previous government, we noticed there was still restrictive rules imposed such as 10:30pm curfews. Furthermore, when we watched a movie on TV, women’s exposed backs, chest and legs were blurred out in the image as well as cigarettes and alcohol. Without less western influences traditional attire is still very evident and popular with men and women wearing long lungis (skirts). It will be very interesting to see what Burma looks like in 10 years!

We were mostly enticed to travel to Burma because the few people we have met along the way who have visited Burma said that the people were by far the nicest people they have met and really made their experience special. They said it was almost like they were so excited to see tourists that they went above and beyond at being nice. Although we found some real gems who were friendly and helpful, we didn’t really feel that overall the Burmese were the friendliest people. For example, usually when we were being stared at we would flash a friendly smile and it would be returned, however our smiles were often greeted with frowns or they would just go on staring at you intimidatingly which gave us the willies. Interesting how people can have very different experiences in the same place.

We started in Yangon, the capital of Burma and on our first night exploring the streets of downtown we ran into a big party celebrating the Chinese New Year. The street was filled with loud clanging music and Chinese dragons. I almost had a heart attack when fireworks were set off unexpectantly ten feet away from me and came raining down over our heads. There is a beautiful lake with parks in the centre of Yangon with the famous Shwedagon pagoda sitting on a hill in the distance. We enjoyed walking around the lake and noticed that there were so many young couples who were huddled up behind umbrellas making out hardcore. Everywhere we looked there they were, necking in the bushes! We guessed that because it is expected that you live at home with sometimes four generations of family under one roof, that they don’t get much privacy so they head to the park to get freaky! 

The Shwedagon pagoda is one of the most famous Buddhist pagodas in the world and one of the only real attractions to Yangon. Like I mentioned in my last post, temples, including pagodas are not really on my radar to go see anymore as we have seen so many they are beginning to all look the same. However we figured, the Shwedagon pagoda being famous for its size was worth the walk to go and see. We walked towards it, getting a little lost along the way and eventually found what we thought was the famous Shwedagon pagoda. We snapped some pictures and enjoyed sunset there. On our taxi ride back to our place was when we noticed that we had been at a pagoda next to the Shwedagon pagoda so missed the real one completely… They really are just all starting to look the same. The next day we attempted to see it again, as like I said, there really isn’t much to do in Yangon. We made it to the top of the hundreds of stairs when we noticed it would cost us $25 to get into the walls to see the pagoda. Hell no, not paying to see yet another damn temple, I don’t care how extravagant. So instead of paying, we ducked our heads through the entrance, took a quick look and crossed it off our list. 

One of the best things about travelling for me is trying the local food… Well, not in Burma. Seriously, I could have never guessed food could smell so bad. It’s hard to believe that people can eat food that smells this bad. Kevin was a little nervous about finding food in Burma, but after taking one look and smell at the food, I was faced with the same problem. I did try some of the local dishes like tea leaf salad and am able to confirm that tea is best served in a mug of hot water, not in a salad. We learned that to get a servers attention you make kissing sounds. This shocked us as it would be considered so rude, even harassment if we did that back home. We were not going to test this practice out but when we wanted to pay our bills and waited and waited and waited we jokingly made kissy sounds and instantly there was a server!

Now, the ease in which the Burmese devour their smelly meals may have something to do with a lack of functioning taste buds due to something called paan. Mostly men, but also some women, of all ages chew on this reddy brown molasses looking goop day in and day out. It’s highly addictive and gives a sort of buzz or high, similar but stronger than tobacco. It also turns their teeth and mouth a horrific blood red colour and smells like death itself. Kevin and I have come away from conversations with men chewing on this and actually feel nauseous from its smell and the occasional red dribble out their mouths. It gets worse though, everywhere you go you hear people horking up loogies and have to dodge flying red spit that falls in a splat next to your feet… Hmm now I don’t know if it was the food itself or having to witness this that made me loose my appetite. It’s safe to say that we weren’t the only ones disappointed with the food, anytime Kevin pulled out his jar of peanut butter we got envious stares and people commenting that they wish they had been that prepared. 

After Yangon we went to Bagan, home of one of the most photogenic and stunning views I have seen. Bagan has the most densely populated Buddhist temples in the world and when looking out to the horizon, seem to go on forever. We climbed one of the tallest temples in the dark to catch sunrise over the thousands of pointed tips. Dawn is by far my favourite time of day. My heart is filled with so much peace and I feel such a sense of calmness as the air slowly begins to heat up and the sun softly turns the sky from black to pink to blue. I often feel like you can breathe deeper and fuller breaths and words are not needed to communicate the magic you feel at this time of day because everyone feels the same way (Enters a bus load of Chinese tourists, scurrying around, climbing on ancient artifacts to snapping pictures while yelling at each other). Well maybe not everyone..

From Bagan we took a night shuttle bus to Kalaw to start a two day trek. The drive to Kalaw was torturous as our long legs couldn’t fit in the few inches we had for leg room so we sat diagonally and tried to sleep in between erratic turns up a winding hill. Our driver was also chewing on paan and spitting it into a bottle every minute. The torturous journey was totally worth it when we got to Kalaw and started the trek to Inle lake. It was one of our biggest highlights of our trip so far! We had an amazing group of people we got to chat with along the way, our guide was a total beauty, cracking jokes and teaching us about local plants and sharing traditional stories and the scenery was breathtaking. We trekked through farmland, waved at kids in the small villages, hiked over a mountain, stopped at local watering holes where women were bathing and cleaning their clothes and spent a night in a monastery tucked away in rural Burma. Once we arrived at Inle lake we took a long tail boat across the lake and watched fisherman throwing out their nets and doing this really cool paddle with their legs instead of paddling with arms. 

We had some time to kill in Inle Lake so we rented bicycles to explore the town and nearby villages, we went to a traditional puppet show, I practiced a ton of yoga, we chilled and read at restaurants and cafes and…. That’s about all there was to do. We realized after a week in Burma that a week was enough, yet we had flights booked and had another two weeks in Burma before heading to Sri Lanka. We found ourselves travelling around Burma just kind of killing time. We got in a little bit of a slump during this second week. We became homesick and began to really miss our families and friends back home. We also miss the comforts of home like a clean toilet, a shower separated from the rest of the bathroom so everything doesn’t get soaked, our comfy bed and pillows, being able to prepare our own food, or have good food in general. Not to mention my skin was flaring up on top of this. We found ourselves dreaming up what it will look like when we finish travelling. What do we want to change? What are our goals? Who brings out the best in us? Where will we live? What will we do for work? Etc, etc… All this thinking and planning for the future made us realize just how important being in Cochrane, close to family and nature, truly is for us. 
Talking about the future is an important thing to do in order to plan accordingly, however I think we may have got so caught up thinking about what happens when we get home and how much we miss the comforts of home that we forgot to live in the present moment, hence the slump. I read something that really spoke to this, “the wanting mind makes it impossible to be in the present moment. This wanting mind is too uncomfortable in the present moment because it does not have what it so desires so it bypasses all existence which is NOW and moves to acquiring something else.” This brings me to something my mom also said; “sit in this discomfort as much as you long for something else. There are lessons to be learned in the space of discomfort that will help you refocus your direction. Too often we want to push through hard times but it is through these hard times that we truly grow, learn and exercise our beliefs. We are not meant to only be on mountaintops, we must also experience the valleys.” I was bypassing the discomfort I was currently experiencing in the present moment by creating an experience for my future self that felt better. I was missing the point. It’s hard to sit in discomfort, whether it be grief, fear, homesickness etc. We are trained to cover up that discomfort with something that makes us feel better because it’s easier than facing it head on. I think that stress and anxiety is often born from this covering up of feelings that are raw and real because we don’t know how to sit with them. On top of trying to make sense of this discomfort I was experiencing guilt for even having these feelings while I looked at my situation and saw how lucky I am to be here, travelling to these amazing new places. Travelling is highly romanticized and not many people talk about the hard times of travelling. What I have learned is that it doesn’t matter where you are, you go through ups and downs. Being honest with yourself in these times and allowing time and space to reflect and digest your feelings is important. Kevin and I are so in tune with each other we often go through these highs and lows at similar times and our relationship grows deeper the more honest we are with each other. Just as in the case of a relationship, the more honest I am with myself in periods of highs and lows the deeper my understanding of myself grows. And in the end isn’t this the point of travel? Not only to see and experience the world around you but also to learn and experience more about yourself. 
Tom gave us some great advice that’s really stuck with me… Instead of putting a number of days on your trip, “maybe a year! maybe two years!” Just continue to travel until you feel like it’s time to come home. That is the beauty in the way we have set up for this trip, we take one step at a time and see what unfolds and where we end up. In fact that’s how we planned for this trip too… We took one step at a time in the direction of our goals and now it’s unfolding before our eyes. I think it will become very clear to us when we are ready to come home, and when that time comes I can’t wait to give you all a big fricken hug!!
We are off to Sri Lanka now where Kevin and I will part ways for a short period as I do a ten day silent meditation retreat… No talking, no reading, no writing, just straight up meditation. Kevin will head to the beach to do some surfing and we will meet back up. 6 months of travel so far and we haven’t had much more than a few hours apart… There may be some separation anxiety! 
Kevin will be checking in next time with more updates. 

Peace and love 

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