It's easy to get rapt in the busyness of everyday life - work, responsibilities, relationships, aspirations, that's just par for the coarse. However, it can lead us to fixate on individual things and lose perspective or underappreciate the things we already have. Admittedly that's something I'm guilty of.
I chose Myanmar not only for it's beauty and splendour but for the hardships it's people have to endure - to get out of my comfort zone, learn more about others' lives and become more humble and appreciative in my own. This is an account of the people I met.
Situated between Bangladesh and Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) is rife with beautiful landscapes, ancient temples, and gorgeous people rich in culture and religion. It was the perfect place to escape the rat race, relax and reflect.
Traveling in May is rather hot and also sees the start of the rainy season, with temperatures averaging 36-40°C and rainfall for a few hours in the afternoons - I spent two days in Yangon, seven in Bagan and one in Mandalay. I would sightsee from 8am, return to the hotel at 12pm to have lunch and escape the scorching midday heat, then go out in the evening.
Maha Aung Mye Bon Zan Monastery, Mandalay. One of my favourite explorations. It's 'basement' area lead to some dark, mysterious paths with bats completing the experience!
Arguably Yangon's most popular attraction - at over 100m tall, it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Shwedagon is more than just an attraction for tourists, it's a sacred place for locals. as thousands visit daily. It's the most sacred of Buddhist pagodas in Myanmar as it houses four relics belonging to previous Buddhas. It's also a place of calm and serenity. A place where, regardless of who you are or what you may or may not have, materialism falls away as families, friends and couples come to pray, walk around or simply relax. I spent hours sitting on the tiles made warm by the day's heat, taking time out to decompress, take photos and observe people as they passed by. It was peaceful and immensely rejuvenating for the mind and soul.
Bagan is the epicentre of the Archaeological Zone which consists of (literally) thousands of temples and stupas. From small 2-3m stupas to large temples 60m in height, they embody the essence of religion and architecture from a time aeons ago - some around 1000 years. The sublime feeling of wandering through ancient temples, dimly lit passages, gazing upon statues and murals centuries old feels magical - as if you're in a movie searching for a long lost relic or secret passageway leading to a forgotten chamber.
928 year old Ananda Temple
Bagan is also where I got to meet many people and learn about them or their lives. The first I met was Than Htike - a sand and marble stone painter outside Abeyadanar Temple. Sand paintings begin with a piece of cotton cloth layered with glue, sand is then sprinkled over the surface. After drying, a picture is painted upon it. Than's art was really fascinating and inspiring. He painted sacred animals in Buddhism such as peacocks and six headed elephants and the piece I bought was a depiction of the next incarnation of Buddha. As someone who illustrates and enjoys art, I could appreciate the time and skill that went into his paintings. He lit up when I complimented his work and continued by explaining his ideas and use of colour with the type of pride and joy that made it clear he had incredible passion for what he does.
While in town I met Ie Ie (pronounced ‘ee-ee') - a nine year old girl who works at Mya Thit Sar - a family run lacquerware workshop and store. Lacquerware are crafted goods vastly ranging from items as small as jewellery boxes to large objects such as chests of drawers. Made from bamboo (small items can even be made from horse hair), the carved items are covered in 18 layers of lacquer - nine on the inner side and nine on the outer. Intricate designs and patterns are engraved into the wood and filled with coloured lacquer before one final layer coats the whole item. Ie Ie and her siblings are slowly being taught the craft as the next generation in the family business.
Next was Myo - the manager of the hotel who helped me out a lot. Actually, she was a godsend! I somehow managed to get the flu a few days after arriving in Bagan. Myo took me to a pharmacy in town, got me flu tabs, sent some ginger tea to my room and within a day I was somewhat back to normal!
The night before leaving Bagan, I was contacted by my travel agent informing me that my internal flights had been cancelled and instead of finding alternatives, she wished me good luck getting back! Again it was Myo to my rescue. Although it was 10pm and she had already gone home, she still phoned a few airlines until she was able to book two alternate flights for me. I was extremely grateful for her help.
Next was Naing Tun Aung. Aspiring to be a photographer and tour guide, I could see he, too, had a distinct drive to follow his dreams regardless of the opposing challenges. Challenges such as Bagan not having any form of tertiary education to further your knowledge. Moving to a city like Yangon or Mandalay to study and live in was an expensive and sadly impossible exercise. He accompanied me on a few of my day trips and we quickly became good friends, keeping me informed with interesting facts and relaying stories to me as we made our way through the countryside.
One such story was on our way to Mt. Popa, part of the trip was along a stretch of deserted road with nothing but arid land as far as the eye can see with trees sparsely scattered about. As we drove I noticed roughly every 30m or so there would be a elderly person, appearing to be between the ages of 60-80, sitting alongside the road in the blazing heat, who would meekly raise their hand or stand up in an attempt to stop travellers. I initially shrugged it off as them wanting a lift but after passing over a dozen people, it seemed unlikely. Naing Tun explained that the people of the area are very poor and have little to no education to get jobs in the cities. They predominantly grow peanuts for only one season but due to the area being dry with low rainfall, agriculture isn't always successful or substantial so they depend on donations from travellers.
An hour and 20 minutes east of Bagan, Mt. Popa is home to many temples and pilgrimage sites including Taung Kalat - a monastery built upon a volcanic plug at a height of over 600m. Although the 777 steps to the top are covered by metal roof panels, it's still not a simple task in the almost 40° heat. The steps are teeming with monkeys with attitude who won't hesitate to steal snacks from you. There are also spots to take a break along the climb and a locals make a living keeping the steps clean of monkey excrement in hopes of a tip or selling cold drinks out of cooler boxes. As I rested on a bench I looked aloofly at a young guy selling drinks, I pondered the likeliness of what my life would have been like if I had been born in Myanmar. I've always said; a flower cannot choose where it blooms.
As with other needful parts of the world - some areas and people aren't afforded even basic needs such as running water or plumbing. It was the first time that I used a long drop toilet. Definitely an experience in itself. Although many people may struggle, or may not have many luxuries, in fact despite all the hardships life may throw their way, they still remain hard working and make the most of what they have - and above all remain generous, humble and grateful. It's always great meeting kind, good-hearted people. I returned rejuvenated with a fresh perspective and appreciation for life. While money is important - you can't survive without it, there's more to living than chasing zeros. Count your blessings and help those in need - it costs nothing to be kind.
Thanks for reading.