I left Myanmar this morning with a flurry of mixed emotions and feelings. Sadness, gratitude, relief. This land was at once welcoming, confounding, beautiful, tragic, and generous. Allow me to try to explain.
In my last post I wrote about how I found Myanmar’s challenging environment to be in such contrast to the beauty of its people. And that theme continued as I traveled to the amazing splendor of Bagan, the hustle and bustle of Mandalay and the quiet countryside of Inle Lake. The one constant was the kindness demonstrated by everyone I met along the way.
In Bagan, my beautiful guide Thaw Thaw (pronounced Taw-Taw), her dark silky hair falling to her waist and her cheeks decorated with pale squares of powdery Thanaka, toured me around temples and pagodas – teaching me about her hometown’s ancient history and mesmerizing landscape. Perhaps my favorite part of this visit was sitting with her on the top of a temple waiting for the sun to set. As the sky changed colors and the scattering of temples and pagodas began to disappear in the slowly descending darkness, I learned about Thaw Thaw’s home, her education, her dreams. At one point we talked of our shared love of dogs and she told me of the puppies she recently found and tried to save – only one of which survived. She named him Mickey and, to my delight, the following day she offered to take me to her home to meet the little guy. Watching her patiently hold that little black and white pup while I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to ingratiate myself with proffered slices of white bread was a highlight of my visit.
A slow wooden boat then took me up the Irrawaddy river to Mandalay where my next guide UD (pronounced You-Dee) met me with a huge smile. He took me to an long, ancient teak bridge and even more ancient temples and monasteries where I got to help a smiling monk work on his English. Another day we toured other historical spots, finishing on the top of a mountain watching the bright orange sun descend behind hills topped with even more golden pagodas.
And yet again – the highlight of my visit to Mandalay was my time with UD … After hearing me mention in passing my interest in meditating, he personally arranged with the head monk of a Buddhist center for me to join the locals to sit in meditation. And insisted on driving me to the remote location on his day off. UD pulled up to my hotel on his motorbike, fashionable as ever – on this day sporting crisp blue jeans and pale tan slip-on loafers rather than his traditional longyi (a long, wrap-around skirt that looks super comfortable) and velvet flip flops. After handing me my helmet he whisked us off into the chaotic Mandalay traffic.
Before we settled onto the bamboo mats laid about on the hardwood floors, UD translated what the monk whispered to him upon our arrival: “Breath in through your nose and repeat to yourself, ‘I know, I know'”. I desperately wanted to ask him, “But what do I know? What does the monk know?!?” But there was no time. And naturally my mind tried to figure out this puzzle for the next hour – only rarely settling into the empty, peaceful state intended. Sigh. Despite telling me when we arrived that he was only going to stay for 15 minutes, UD was still sitting next to me an hour later. It was his first full hour of meditation and we both seemed a bit giddy as we mounted his motorbike for the dusty ride back through town. When I had to say goodbye the following day, my eyes were wet as I tried to explain to him how grateful I was. I just hope he understood.
I then flew to Nyaung Shwe to visit Inle Lake and its floating villages and markets and more ancient monasteries and pagodas. Alas – I had eaten at a suspicious Indian restaurant in Mandalay and a severe bout of food poisoning laid me low for my entire visit to this purportedly beautiful region. We’re talking the kind of sick when your kneecaps ache, you shiver under your bedcovers regardless of the layers of Asia-appropriate hot-weather wear you’ve piled on, and the mere thought of the homemade Mac & Cheese you’ve been dreaming of for four months makes you physically shake your head in attempts to dismiss the nausea.
Regardless … I tried… My amazing tour company Buffalo Tours had arranged a free-of-charge hot air balloon ride on my first morning that I just couldn’t pass up. A low slung wooden boat scooted a few of us across the misty lake before dawn and our massive balloon floated above the villages as the sun rose. It was a magical site made all the more enchanting by the villagers running out of their houses waving and cheering at us. I was even able to snap a few pictures before my stomach heaved and I had to sit on the bottom of the basket (the captain had given us stern instructions to not drop anything over the side of the basket … not sure if the contents of my stomach counted).
When I arrived on the ground I told my guide Thet that I was simply too ill to continue the day’s planned outings and headed to bed. And bless his heart, he checked on me throughout the day, bringing me extra water and dehydration salts and even a thermometer – and upon seeing my pale face and shaking body mid-afternoon insisted on taking me to the local clinic. As my van pulled out of Nyaung Shwe two days later I felt heartbroken and close to tears … We drove slowly past villagers heading to the local market and wide fields of green beans and bright yellow sunflowers and lumbering, massive cows pulling old wooden carts. I’m pretty sure I would have adored this charming part of the world.
So as I close my chapter on Myanmar I feel like my time here is unfinished. That there was so much more to see, to experience. I am grateful I was here at a momentous time in this country’s history – a time when there is hope for democracy and a better life for the people here. Because they are some of the most courteous and buoyant of any I have met along my journey. I was so touched that all my guides left me with the hopeful words, “When you return…” I can’t say with certainty that I will come back to this country. And yet … and yet…