For years, I have dreamed of Burma. In my imaginings, it was a land outside of time: golden temples, untouched hillsides, mysterious histories, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner under house arrest. But there were always reasons not to visit — it wasn’t safe, or there were sanctions, or it was just too far away. Right now, however, things are changing really quickly here, and when we planned our 2016 trip, Burma — or Myanmar — was at the top of my list.
As it happens, we have arrived at a time of historic importance for the country. The current government is poised to turn over leadership to Aung San Su Kyi’s wildly popular NLD party, and the details of this are being worked out this month. When we arrived in Yangon at the start of February, 2016, there was a buzz in the air — on our first day, a man literally stopped us on the street to make sure that we knew that the country had just held elections and that the new president would be announced any day. He beamed as he told us. There must be twenty different newspapers in Yangon, and at every street corner, people were reading them. Everywhere we see signs of rapid change: the introduction and expansion of cellular networks here greatly affected people’s ability to get and share information. Dirt roads are being paved all around the country, new buildings are going up. Easily obtained visas, new options for transportation, fewer restrictions on where tourists are allowed to go — we are here on the cusp of something big.
But Burma still feels quite different from anywhere else we’ve travelled so far. There are fewer tourists by a wide margin than we encountered in Siem Reap or Bangkok. Our boys are overnight rock stars here, especially blond Jonah — again and again, all over the country, I look away for a moment only to look back a moment later to find him surrounded by young Burmese people lining up to snap photos with him. “I had no idea you were famous in Burma,” we tease him. Thankfully, he is tolerant of all the attention, and we joke about the fact that these days, as our guidebook reminds us, it is generally considered gauche for tourists to take photos of “cute local children”. “But no one asks me if it’s okay, they just put their arms around me and take my picture,” Jonah comments. And it is always done with such genuine delight that we are not able to say no.
The differences are challenging sometimes: the ATMs do not always work, and there is some bizarre custom of only accepting US dollars in completely pristine condition (“We don’t know why,” a hotel manager kindly tells us, “It’s just the way”). Travel outside of the cities remains slow and arduous, over roads that are frequently unpaved. The boys struggle with culture shock for the first time in our trip — sadly, I fear the awe-inspiring Shwedagon will always be linked in my mind with a day of tears and homesickness — and I understand where it’s coming from. We are far from home.
How far becomes clear when we look out over the plains of Bagan. Here, as in so many other parts of this incredible country, I find the Burma of my imagination — vast plains dotted with over 3,000 temples, spires rising into the fading distance like some kind of fairy land, orange brick work glowing as the sun sets, dust rising from the dirt paths where herders walk their goats. We spend days here drifting in the back of a horse drawn carriage or exploring on little scooters, down unmarked paths to discover the secrets of the temples — a giant buddha statue, a fading fresco. At sunset, visitors and locals alike find themselves a temple to climb up while we chat and watch the light streak its colors across the sky.
I am struck by the number of Burmese visitors at the temples — this is not just an historic monument, but a crucial part of daily life for people here. Astonishingly, in this very poor country, we learn that much of the restoration work done in recent years has been funded by local people — temple restoration being a key way to earn merit according to Buddhist tradition. This has created some controversy, I read, as the local methods of restoration are not always the same as those desired by UNESCO and other international groups. It’s a puzzle that I have enjoyed considering as I visit the different places: on the one hand, careful restoration seems essential, to insure that the history and legacy of Bagan are preserved for the ages. On the other hand, it seems just as clear that Bagan does not really belong to UNESCO or anywhere else –this is a Burmese site, used by the Burmese as a part of their daily returns, and perhaps the Burmese do get the final say on how to renovate it. It’s a thorny issue, one I certainly do not know enough to resolve. Mandatory photos of our blond child, political disputes over the maintenance of ancient sites, and the first truly effective election in decades: in different ways, all of these encounters remind me how little we travelers truly understand of this complex country and its complicated history.
Looking out at another perfect sunset, though, everything else drops away. We sit in awestruck silence, marvelling at the landscape. Three thousand temples on a dusty plain. Light slants through the clouds in a golden hue I have seen nowhere else. Writing it doesn’t do it justice: just as my dreams of Burma failed utterly to prepare me for the reality, there are no words, and even the photographs cannot remotely capture it. There is nowhere like Bagan. We have travelled around the world for this. It’s hard and foreign sometimes. And in these magical moments, it is utterly, resoundingly, worth it.