I had heard of the mystical road to Mandalay, ever since I was a child. I had a strong desire to see this spiritual, magical country. As the years passed, along with many aspirations to travel to many different lands, I forgot the yearning until I started travelling in Asia in my 20s.
I fell in love with Asia the first time I went there. We started a long and magnetic relationship, and I could never stay away for too long.
The backpacker circuit included Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, India and the off the beaten track countries of Laos and Cambodia. Back then, they were less developed and only visited by the hardy traveller. You could explore the countryside on the back of a pickup truck passing huge potholes on the roads. Without the restraints of the internet, you went wherever the driver or other passengers were going. The travellers you met in the hostels would tell you nightly stories of the adventures they had been on, and this often was your route for the following day. The Lonely Planet was the only other source of information plus the odd newspaper article you may have read.
If you were lucky, the place you were staying would have a visitors book. This logbook was often your only guide for your next few days of adventure. A guide by other travellers: where they had adventured, what they had seen and their favourite things to do.
These aspiring bloggers were nameless and never to be heard of again. Of course, Lonely Planet always was and always will be the No. 1 travel guide to use.
So… did anyone go to Myanmar in the 90s and 2000s? I’m sure they did. And I will probably meet a few people now. But you didn’t meet many people who did, (in fact I met no one) and they didn’t blog about it in the early days of the internet boom. Life was sure different then.
One year in 2007, I began to meet Burmese people who had started coming across the border en masse to look for work. They were working in the hotels and bars on the island of Koh Tao, Thailand.
On a whim, while on a road trip with my partner to Chiang Rai, in the North of Thailand, we crossed the border into Myanmar. Imprisoned Nobel peace prize awardee Aung San Suu Kyi had recommended that we do not visit Myanmar as a protest from the world against civil rights crimes committed by the ruling junta. However, we took this one-day trip into the border town as curiosity had gotten the better of us. We met friendly Burmese people that were eager to meet us. They told us their story. A story of feeling trapped without opportunity. They were happy to talk, as till now, they felt they had no chance to have a voice. They were living on the border, waiting for it to open so they could get out of the country!
It was a memorable day, and over the years Burmese were able to flee across the border. They came to Thailand looking for more opportunities. As we met more Burmese, a new interest to see their country came to fruition. It was the country hidden from the world, the road less travelled, the mystical spiritual land of years lost and time forgotten.
Aung San Suu Kyi came into power at the 2015 elections. For the next 2 years we kept saying we need to hurry and go to Myanmar. We feared Myanmar would be Westernised and turned into a pleasure park for privileged masses and the locals yearning to be just like them.
We didn’t go in a hurry, and as the blogging boom began it sounded like this country was quickly being assimilated into the West. The land of opportunity for foreign investors and wealthier or more astute locals alike.
Flash forward to 2017, and with all those enticing Instagram photos calling out to me, I could not wait another day. We were sitting in a Koh Tao cafe talking to one of the Burmese locals working in the service industry. He said after 8 years in Thailand he was now going back to Myanmar. He felt there was now opportunities there in the tourist industry. We had heard similar statements by other young Burmese. Reasoning this was it, the time before the boom, we went online, got a visa in 2 days and flew out of our tropical paradise in South Thailand one morning after 3 months of revelling in pure sanook and that night we were in Rangoon.
We were so excited to arrive into Rangoon, the place I had seen in movies showing a mystical life and British occupation. Now called Yangon and now a big city. This is where our Myanmar Adventure began. A fascinating adventure, full of culture and interested locals waiting to meet the world and share their life with you. An experience for the senses, of taste sensations and of cuisines inspired by both India, China and Thailand alike. A place of majestic temples and buildings showing a people full of spirituality and grace.
Myanmar was a trip of a lifetime.
Though, I feel it is only a matter of time before Myanmar is assimilated into the Western world. This has already happened to many Asian countries.
Don’t believe me? You probably never had to go into a telephone shop to make a phone call home when there was no other way to make a phone call. And you surely don’t realise that in Thailand 20 years ago there were no potato chips, lettuce was rare and cocktails were not the norm. Whisky, rum, coke and Redbull were the closest thing to a cocktail you could get.
If you want to see the land that time has forgotten, to see ancient cities without the masses of tourists descending en mass, and if you would love to have genuine interactions without being considered a walking ATM, now is the time to go.
And while some travellers may tell you that it is already a little too late. That indeed there are crowds of tourists, and hawkers badgering you to buy their homewares or begging for money. This is much the same as anywhere else in the world. I only experienced this a small amount in Myanmar compared to everywhere else we have been.
After visiting 30 countries in the last 4 years, Myanmar is one of the most authentic countries I have been.
I dare not wait too long to go back so I can continue to be lost in a time reminiscent to Cambodia and Laos 20 years ago.
Myanmar Faves – Do not Miss
The historical, old city of Bagan
Inle Lake and its picturesque floating villages
The culture, architecture and temples of Mandalay
The divine Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon