The "Sisters" at Kyaik Pun Pagoda - Bago, Myanmar

The “Sisters” at Kyaik Pun Pagoda – Bago, Myanmar

I arrived in Yangon yesterday afternoon and was immediately treated to a sunset drink and early evening stroll around town with a lovely woman from Buffalo Tours. While I didn’t fall hard and fast for this city as I did for Hanoi, our walk amongst its dusk-covered pagodas and Catholic Churches and old, colonial buildings helped me become quietly smitten with Myanmar.  That said, upon awakening this morning and setting out to tour the outskirts of Yangon, I discovered that …

This part of the country is not, at first glance, exactly beautiful. The city is, quite literally,  rife with bumper to bumper traffic. Many of the old colonial buildings – while architecturally stunning – are seemingly painted with a deep gray layer of ~100-year old sooty grime.

A dog nestled into soft, discarded plastic enjoying a coveted crate in the shade

A dog nestled into soft, discarded plastic enjoying a coveted crate in the shade

When we escape the city the streets are lined with sad piles of rubbish – layers of tattered plastic fluttering amidst a scattering of discarded bottles and random bags filled with who-knows-what. Even the lazing dogs seem dustier and skinnier and, perhaps, even a little less dogged (sorry couldn’t help myself) than their brothers and sisters elsewhere in Asia. And that’s saying a lot. And yet…

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A nun shrouded in pink smiling from underneath the weight of fresh apples

There are glimpses of splendor everywhere I look – if I just look hard enough. Especially when it comes to the people. Their smiles, though timid at first, burst open as soon as I grin and nod their way. I seem to be a bit of anomaly in Bago – its remoteness apparently keeping other westerners away. So small children and even older women appear to warm as I approach – their friendly, curious stares making me feel oddly welcome.

Woman (and cat) happily posing for a shot

Woman (and cat) happily posing for a shot

Even unobserved they seem buoyant – whether it’s a gaggle of young women chatting animatedly as they hang mightily onto the metal cage surrounding the back of the pickup “taxi” they’re riding in. Or the quick grin of a guy stirring a local curry in a giant wok on the side of the road as my driver MinMin pulls over to ask for directions. Or MinMin’s look of sheer delight as he watches the 20-foot long snake at the “Snake Monastery” undulate toward a shallow pool – his eyes shining as he catches my glance … making him look a five-year old kid.

The aforementioned snake … beautiful and, though you can’t tell, roughly the width of my leg

I cannot yet tell if my growing regard for this country is solely due to my longing for the grittier, edgier Asia I’ve been craving of late. But I recognize that I would have been moderately horrified by the surface aesthetics – the trash, the traffic – earlier on my trip. This “reality” would have once again shattered my romanticized, and yes, delusional, expectations of glimmering, green rice paddies framing quiet lanes dotted with quaint tea shops and colorful lanterns. I’m coming to realize that this idyllic version of Asia is, at least in my experience, hard to come by. And I don’t mean to sound cynical. There are still jaw-droppingly gorgeous things to see here – some of which I hope to glimpse as I travel around this country over the coming weeks.

But today’s trip made me realize that I am coming to know, and finally accept, the real Asia. And this is because months of travel have thankfully made me more observant, less judgmental (because let’s be honest – I was). My gaze seem to have softened. I’m able to see the pageant in front of me as merely the way things are here. And as I embrace it – rather than yearn for the way “things used to be” – I am coming to see the beauty.  And I am grateful for this lesson … That beauty is always around if I keep my eyes – and my heart and my mind – open.

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Speaking of beauty – this woman is selling (and wearing) a local “beauty product” called Thanaka, made from a tree grown only in Myanmar. I saw the pale paste made from the branches of this tree decorating the faces of almost half the women – and quite a few men and children – in Myanmar. All of them beautiful.