After traveling for many months, the end is coming closer and closer. Myanmar will be my last Southeast Asian country, my last country in general to explore before I (have to) return to Germany. Burma (how the country was recently called) was the reason why I went to Southeast Asia in the first place. I saw pictures of balloons flying above thousands of old temples while the rising sun was turning the sky in shades of pink, purple and red. This picture had such an impact on me that I decided to go to Southeast Asia to see it for myself. Myanmar should be my final destination. Everything comes to an end no matter how great and beautiful it is. I cannot deny it any longer… At least the end was one of the best imaginable! See and read for yourself…
Coordinates: 16°51’N 96°11’E
I just spent a few days in Yangon to acclimate to Myanmar and explore its most-known, not capital city. Compared to other Southeast Asian cities I have visited so far, Buddhism was more visible than ever. Myanmar’s landmark, the Burmese monk with shaved hair in a dark red or orange (female monks in a pink) robe walking around barefoot. It is impossible to miss them. You will spot them everywhere. The number of monks is comparatively high because it is obligatory for Burmese to stay for one year in the monastery as a child and for another year as a young adult. They will be dressed like monks even though they might not be one yet. I spent a lot of time doing one of my favorite activities: Observing. Doing that, I noticed immediately a big difference between Burmese monks and any other Buddhist monk. In Myanmar, monks drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or cigars, eat meet. They are humans just like everybody else. Soon I lost the picture of the holy sinless monk I always had in my head. You can just talk to them and hang out with them like with everybody else. Something I for two days. When I went to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda to take lots of pictures of the beautiful golden temple and its many visitors, I was having a very long, interesting conversation with two monks. We were talking about everything and nothing. At the end, they invited me to come to university the next day to talk to their English students. How could I say no to this nice offer as a former teacher? So the next day I went to the English class and had an unforgettable experience. I came there, the English teacher put me immediately in front of a group of about 60 people all ages, gave me a microphone, gave a microphone to the student sitting in the first row. After a short introduction of myself, the round of questions began. Every single student was asked to talk to me and ask me at least one question. Here are some examples of the funniest questions I got: Is it your natural hair color? Would you die your hair? How much money do you earn in a month (in USD)? Do you have a boyfriend? Why are you single? (One older student even offered me to go on a date with me.) Are you working as a model? Long story short, it was one of the funniest lessons I ever had. Even though I was blushing pretty much all the time…
Coordinates: 21°10’N 94°52’E
Yangon was a very quiet, relaxed and clean city compared with other big Southeast Asian cities. Of course, there was also a lot of crazy traffic going on, but somehow it appeared calmer and better organized. Probably also because motorbikes are not allowed within the city center and nobody is honking. Nevertheless, I did not want to spend a lot of time there, because it was also crazy hot and there were no swimming spots to cool down. So I headed up North to Bagan, my final destination, the reason why I came to Southeast Asia in the first place. I was very excited to go there!
I spare you the details and sum it up: I had a lovely time in Bagan! It was one of the most beautiful, breathtaking places I have ever seen in my life! I put it in Marco Polo’s words who described Bagan’s pagodas as ‘one of the finest sites in the world’, Bagan as the ‘surreal capital city of ancient Burmese kingdom’. He is absolutely right! Watching the rising sun early in the morning and the setting sun in the late afternoon – nothing, but gorgeous! When the red, horizontal Crescent was arising in the evening, I was completely speechless. In Bagan, I had to hold in many times, because I just could not believe how lucky I was to be there. When life is too good to be true! Once again, I felt like I was at the perfect place at the perfect time. Nothing could be any better. I feel so lucky to be able to travel and explore all those beautiful places in the world. Life can be so incredibly good!
Joti, Yangon – Vipassana Meditation Retreat
After all those incredible months of traveling, all those unforgettable moments, all those wonderful people I met, I felt ready to work on myself before I return to Germany, to hold in and think about everything that happened. Already last November I applied to participate in a ten-day meditation retreat. The so-called ‘Vipassana’. It is a form of meditation where you keep noble silence for 10 days. That means you are not talking to anyone, you are not making eye contact, you are not allowed to use any form of body language, any form of communication. “’Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was taught in India more than 250 years ago as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e. as an art of living.’ (Dhamma) During the retreat you learn to see things as they truly are, not as you want them to be. The meditation is free from any religion or any beliefs, which makes it accessible to everyone. Apart from noble silence, you are not allowed to take notes, listen to music, doing sports or any other thing that might distract your senses. You are entirely focusing on meditation. 12 hours a day. It was hard work, but I am proud that I did. After the ten days you feel
very connected to the other students even though you could not talk to each other the entire time. It was not surprising that we were talking, talking, talking a lot at the very end when we were allowed to do so again. We stuck together for a short while and exchanged our experiences. We felt so connected! After the purification of our minds, you could clearly feel the positive energy of the participants. It was incredible! To be honest, I do not have the words to describe those amazing days and people! If you ever have the time, if you ever feel the urge, just try it yourself! It might change your life! (And if you are a smoker, it is the perfect opportunity to quit. Like I did! 😉 )
Coordinates: 20°33’N 96°55’E
After ten days of silence, of meditation, of purification of my mind, of hard work, of an acute lack of sleep, I was ready to chillax for a couple of days. Once again, an exhausting ride with the night bus to go back to the North of Myanmar. This time to Inle Lake, that is famous for its traditional fishermen. Apart from hanging out and giving myself a break, I did not want to do much while I was there. Only one day I went on a 12 hour (!!!) boat tour organized by the hostel that I was staying in. They guaranteed it was not a shopping tour. So I went. Why twelve hours? Because we went to see the sunrise and the sunset. Unfortunately, when I was at Inle Lake the weather was not (to my surprise) really good. It got quite cold during my night. I had to put several layers of clothes on not to be cold anymore. Apparently, even during the dry season there were two days a month where it was raining. That was exactly during the time I was at Inle Lake. I did not really mind. It was actually a nice change to have rainy weather in-between all the humid heat.
The first thing we saw on our boat trip were the ‘typical fishermen’. As I was already told before, they are not fishing anymore. They are just going out on traditional fisher boats wearing the typical clothes to pose for a nice sunrise picture. Afterwards they will ask you for money.
Next stop: Checking out floating gardens and villages. Even though our tour was a more ‘alternative’ one, you could clearly tell locals were not really happy to see tourists float through their villages. After all, you could see how people were taking a bath in the lake. I understand entirely why they are upset to see hundreds of boats passing by with tourists taking thousands of pictures of everything and everyone they see. That was the only time where Burmese did not wave or smile back. Normally, they are the friendliest people in the entire world. Just not at Inle Lake anymore.
Therefore, it was definitely more interesting to stop at local shops where women were webbing silk that was made out of lotus flower; to go to a pagoda that you can only reach by boat; to have lunch with a local family of several generations in their floating house; to canoe for a little bit in the rain; and to visit a family that was rolling cigars that consist of honey, brown sugar, banana and other stuff I cannot remember anymore.
After all twelve hours were definitely too long, but it was nice to get an impression of the Lake and its surroundings. One day of sightseeing, a couple of more days to relax 😉
Coordinates: 16°53’26’N 97°38’0’E
Hpa-An, already my last stop in Myanmar, gateway to Thailand. Many backpackers are stopping here on their way to Thailand or on their way further into Myanmar. Therefore, it was very surprising not to find any Western restaurant, café or even hotel. Everything was pure Burmese, pure Myanmar. No more Western products; no more Western food. Quite a pleasant change at the end of my trip! Quite a different atmosphere! Finally, I found the authenticity I was missing in other Southeast Asian countries…
Hpa-An does not get much attention in the Lonely Planet, which is probably the main reason why most of the backpackers just quickly pass through and miss the hidden beauty of its surroundings. Taking a scooter to explore the area is the best you can do here. What you will find are beautiful pagodas, breathtaking caves and stunning scenery. Honestly, I was not expecting any of that, which makes Hpa-An an even more lovely surprise. But be ready to get lost! Not only once, but several times. Even when you have a map with all the different points of interest, you will not find many signs that show you the actual way. While you are looking for the actual way, you will get in touch with the most wonderful, warm-heated, friendly people. Not only kids, but also adults will smile and wave at you when you passing or asking in sign language for directions. At the end of the day, your cheeks are hurting from all the smiling and laughing. Burmese are most certainly the friendliest and kindest people of all the Southeast Asian countries I have visited. Even if you get a flat tire (which happens quite likely due to very shitty dirt roads), people will immediately help you and fix it somehow.
And if you still do not get enough of Myanmar’s probably most authentic, least touristy little town, you can climb up Mount Zwekabin, which takes about two hours and a lot of endurance, and stay overnight in the monastery on the very top of it. There, you can get in touch with monks and get totally lost in soothing quietness. The setting sun in the evening and the rising sun in the morning that puts everything in a light purple color are totally worth the effort!
Hpa-An, an unexpected highlight at the end of my trip!
Goodbye my Love, my Myanmar
My oh Myanmar! I truly fell in love with you! Honestly, I do not want to leave you… Please keep all your good characters! Stay exactly as you are! Do not let tourism, money, capitalism change you. Do not become like your neighboring countries! I really hope you can keep your authenticity, your unique traditions, your lovely people. I wish do to come back soon and explore all the other wonderful places I did not have the time to visit for on this trip…