Updated: Apr 17, 2019
Mee-ann-mar. Me-er-mar. My-an-mar. Or Burma. These are just some of the ways I've heard this country identified. The story behind the Myanmar/Burma debate is that when the British colonized Myanmar, and discovered that the locals called themselves 'Burmese', they said "Hey, this must be Burma!" and thus Myanmar became Burma to the British and to all the other people that didn't want to bother with pronouncing Myanmar. Generally the locals tend to stick to the original name of their country. At least, that's how the whole debate was explained to me.
Anyway, Myanmar was one of the places I was most excited to visit- mainly for the fact that I had not heard of it and knew basically nothing about it. What I learned was this:
Myanmar used to be a very closed off country, and has only recently made the transition to democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi played a major role as leader of the NLD (the National League for Democracy) and was put on house arrest for more than 12 years as a political prisoner. Today, although she has been barred from being president due to a rule made just for her (saying that anyone married to a foreigner cannot be president), she is now the State Counsellor and Foreign Minister. Her book, Letters from Burma- a really great book- explains some of her motivations and reasons for fighting for democracy. The reason i'm explaining this is because part of the excitement of being in Myanmar was that we were there at such an exciting time of transition. It was like exploring another world, and I would love to visit in 10 years and how it has changed.
Okay, I'll get to what I actually did in Myanmar. The first night, I went to a dance show at a place called Le Planteur, a beautiful restaurant in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. We sat outside, and although the weather was warm I wasn't uncomfortable. We had a fancy dinner with free wine and watched dancing and it was great. It was definitely a place meant for tourists, but who says that is always a bad thing? (Isn't authenticity more than what's off the beaten path? Can you really discount anyone's experience by saying it isn't authentic enough? Isn't authenticity just what you experience ? Sorry, I'm getting sidetracked!) On the way back our bus got stuck in traffic at the pagoda festival not far from the ship- more on that later!
The second day I visited the Swedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most iconic location. Pictures I saw before visiting showed a gold structure that rose up like a magician's hat from the ground. When we got there there I realized how much I had underestimated it. Maps revealed how huge it really was, and it was surrounded by shrines and Buddha statues. Barefoot people wandered among the blinding gold and white structures (you have to take your shoes off at pagodas!) and for a minute I could swear I was walking through heaven.
The Swedagon Pagoda and some of it's surrounding structures
That day was actually a field lab for my Contemporary World Literature class. We ate at a place called the Strand, where George Orwell used to hang out (We read Burmese Days for class. I wasn't a huge fan but I'm glad I read it I guess). We also went to Bogyoke Aung San market, which was pretty cool. The only thing that could have made the day better would have been if I didn't have to write a paper about it!
The rest of my time in Myanmar included a lot of monasteries and markets. I tried to meditate unsuccessfully. Trying to completely clear your mind is harder than you would think. We also passed out food to monks and nuns. Apparently you are supposed to give them things with two hands as a sign of respect. Here's a link to an article I wrote for The Pine Log if you'd like to learn more about monks in Myanmar: Monk Visits SAS, Shares Beliefs
Burmese food was not bad- their specialty seemed to be non-spicy curry. I had an avacado smoothie that was good. I also went to an orphanage and played soccer with some kids one day also, which was interesting. Another adventure included 12$ massages after a failed search for elephants.
One of craziest things I experienced during my entire voyage was the pagoda festival. There were people everywhere and it was utter chaos. Walking through the traffic surrounding the festival was a game of not getting your feet squished. Me and my friend Noble decided to go on one of those boat-like rides that you see at amusement parks and were screaming our heads off the whole time (We sat at the very end and the construction of the ride was questionable- the floorboard by us was a little loose...). While we were screaming like idiots, the ride operator hopped onto the ride as it was going to give us our change like it was nothing. It was definitely one of the strangest nights of my life, but i'm not complaining.
Myanmar was one of the most surprising places we went. It is amazing to me how only four months ago I knew so little about such an amazing place. It's definitely on the list of places I must go back to!