“Veree beeyootiful?” The boatman calls out in a thick accent from the end of the boat. His face breaks into a huge grin, revealing teeth stained red from chewing betel nut. It takes me by surprise as he hasn’t said much throughout the boat ride.
He raises a hand, brown from years spent as a guide and boatman in Inle Lake, and points towards the west. The sun, an orange disc so perfect you could pluck it from the sky and hold it in the palm of your hand, is sinking slowly behind a range of periwinkle mountains, the sky vibrant with luminescent hues of orange and pink.
The boatman turns off the engine and the boat rotates lazily in place, giving us a 360-degree view of the lake. I nod and smile back at him: yes, it is beautiful.
My older sister moved to Myanmar about a year ago to work as a lawyer, so I took the opportunity to travel and visit her there. Before leaving, I was asked many times: Why Myanmar?
Why not? I wasn’t sure myself how to explain to inquiring friends and relatives why I chose to go to this country newly opened to the world. Whereas any mention of other places would get people all fired up with suggestions – Go to this place! You have to eat here! Stay at this hotel! – Myanmar would leave them stumped and wondering, Myanmar, huh?
I met these reactions with amusement and excitement. It’s rare nowadays to visit a place with fresh eyes, to travel unfiltered, without the thoughts, commentaries, and biases of other people ringing inside your head. The likes of Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Neruda, and George Orwell, however, have visited the country and written rapturous praises for the Land of Gold. “This is Burma,” Kipling wrote. “It is quite unlike any place you know about.” Inspired by their words, I flew to Myanmar wildly excited, seeking to answer the question, Why Myanmar?
I’ve spent one week there and now I’m home – ask me now and I cannot even begin to say what I loved about it, what beauty I found in Neruda’s land “of blood, gold, and dreams.”
But if we must start somewhere, let’s begin with the bare facts. In Myanmar, the pavement is stained red with betel juice and spit. The men wear skirts called longyi, and everyone has yellowish white paste smeared on their faces called thanakha to keep themselves cool. The drivers sit on the right side of the vehicle – a British colonial affectation – and there are no meters in the cabs; one must negotiate fares before riding to avoid getting overcharged.
Quoting my sister, Yangon – Myanmar’s metropolis – is “like Manila in the ‘90s” with its dated architecture, the closely spaced low-rise buildings, and walls covered in dirt and grime with lines of colorful clothing adorning balconies. I watched the city unfurl before my eyes as we rode a cab from the airport, the slanted afternoon rays tinting the streets and structures in sepia, completing the nostalgic picture painted by my sister’s words. It felt like I was going back in time.
We didn’t stay too long in Yangon, but it was there that we first laid eyes on the glittering gold that Myanmar is famous for – that which adorned the spires and stupas of its pagodas. We entered the monumental Shwedagon Paya, walking among other awestruck tourists and locals who came in offering flowers and prayers to gilded shrines.
In Inle Lake, which is a one-hour plane ride away from Yangon, the weather is cool. The people are exceptionally nice and thoughtful, always ready to help even if it’s to fix a broken bike seat. In the morning, the streets are covered in a light mist and the cold is almost too much to bear, especially if you’re on a boat moving swiftly across the river. Luckily, our boatman was ready with some blankets and I wrapped one around me as a flock of squawking birds flew by. We toured the town surrounding the lake all throughout the afternoon.
After two days, we flew west to the mystical land of Bagan… Bagan is a dream come true, a plain populated by countless temples constructed in a building frenzy between the 11th and 13th century.
Biking through the hot, dusty plain, I felt like I had stumbled onto the pages of a fantasy-fiction novel. It was unbelievable, the surrealism broken only by the appearance of a fancy hotel or restaurant. Bagan was the one place in Myanmar familiar to me because of the famous photos I had glimpsed online: the giant balloons flying over the temples at sunrise. And seeing them finally in person was nothing short of a miracle.
Words and photos could not do justice to this beautiful land. If there were any better, more effective way to answer the question, Why Myanmar, I’d do that. If I could, I would bring you to see the glittering stupas of Shwedagon Paya; I would ride with you through the dusty plains of Bagan; I’d climb to the top of a temple before the break of dawn to watch the most beautiful sunrise with you. And at sunset, we’d ride the boat across the vast Inle Lake. I’d nod towards the blazing sky and maybe then you’d be able to say with conviction, yes, it is beautiful.
All images © Trish Lim
Since leaving her advertising job, Trish has gone around the country and documented her adventures in a blog called Trish in Transit. Because of her weird sense of humor and love for puns, she’s been accused a few times of writing taglines for a famous local airline. She has yet to confirm this allegation.