On kindness, beauty and expectations in Myanmar

As I write this, it’s after dinner and I’m sitting in my little porch at Nong Khai, Thailand. I see the Mekong River, something that I only saw in textbooks ten, fifteen years ago. Laos is right across this sleepy border town, so near and yet so far.

I have ten more days to go before I have to fly home and I know, without a doubt, that I haven’t gotten wanderlust out of my system yet. Why is it that the more we travel, the more we crave for it?

And it’s not even comforting all the time. Waking up in the company of strangers, tiptoeing around them and hoping not to make any noise. Struggling to say hello and thank you in the local language. Dealing with uncomfortable train rides and unexpected weather. Coping with loneliness, fear and the occasional missed meal.

I’ve been meaning to write about it here, but I keep starting then stopping, choosing to stick to old school journal writing instead. I’ll probably write more when I come home in ten days(!!!), so for now here’s a peek into things I know to be true in Myanmar:

Kindness is Myanmar’s unofficial motto

The Myanmar locals are the nicest, kindest bunch of people I’ve ever met. It’s a bit surprising, given how much they have suffered through years and years of political turmoil. I’ve traveled quite a bit in Southeast Asia and I know how terrible the tourist scams are in this region. Myanmar is the exception. They won’t cheat you with the price, they’ll even apologize when you ask how much an item is. They won’t badger you with “Lady, lady, please buy a postcard” – they’ll tell you once and when you say no, they’ll leave you in peace.

Some of my favorite moments:

shwedagon

  • When the locals let me sit inside a temple while the skies poured down over Shwedagon
  • That time when a temple caretaker in Bagan pointed me to a secret staircase, showing me a stunning view of the land sprawled out with the Irrawaddy as its backdrop.

mandalay

  • In Mandalay, a group of four women gamely posed for a photo in the teak monastery then proceeded to giggle after seeing the photo.
Burmese food is delicious

myanmar food
The Westerners that I met often disliked it or found it lacking but to me it strangely tasted like home. It was on the spicier side, but I surprisingly enjoyed the curries matched with steaming, white rice. And it ‘s cheap too! My cab driver in Mandalay took me to this Shan restaurant that served an all day buffet of curries, veggies and rice for 4000 kyats. That’s 3 USD, with absolutely no limit on how many times you want to go back to the buffet line! The most expensive meal I paid for was at a fancy bar and restaurant in Mandalay, my bill amounting to barely 8 USD. The waiters will check on you once in awhile, asking how you’re doing or how do you like the food, so be prepared to convey your gratitude.

I look Burmese (and beautiful)

meryl in myanmar

I always get mistaken as a local. And it’s not only in Myanmar, it’s in all of the Southeast Asian countries I’ve been to. I’ve actually made a game out of this, gleefully playing with the locals as they tick off one country after another: “Myanmar? Malaysia? Indonesia? Korea? Japan? China?…. What?” They can never identify me properly as who I really am: a Filipino. And when they finally find out, they’ll say some name of a Filipino soap opera (Amaya! Jezebel!) or show off a Philippine peso bill, saying how someone gave it to them and asking me how much it is in kyats.

The Burmese people are also very, very generous with compliments. I’ve never been called beautiful that much in the span of ten days and they say it so sweetly, so carefully, that you know they mean it with all their heart.

Myanmar is not made for walking

bagan
I’m the kind of traveler who will willingly walk 5km in the middle of the afternoon because I enjoy it. I love sightseeing on foot because it allows me to stop and take photos or just pause and watch the locals at their element. Unfortunately, most of the sights in Myanmar will require you to ride a taxi or at the very least, bike.

And here comes one of the reasons why I found myself having a hard time in Myanmar. It wasn’t the food, and certainly not the people. It was the sad, sad fact that I couldn’t wander off in my preferred style. I felt stuck – riding a taxi felt too constricting and expensive, and I can’t, for the life of me, bike or motorbike. I had to learn how to adjust and it was too late by the time I had fully accepted this reality.

Expectations will only disappoint you

bagan morning
This is the thing I should’ve left at home. I’ve had romantic notions of Myanmar – the sun beating on my skin as I looked up the Shwedagon, climbing deserted temples at Bagan and visiting three ancient cities outside of Mandalay. They were items to be ticked off my bucket list, something to take photos of, write about and talk with friends. Half of these didn’t happen but the most glorious things did happen – when I wasn’t too busy whipping out my phone to take a photo, when I took a chance despite the rain, when a local helped me tie my scarf as a makeshift longyi skirt.

Go with an open mind and an open heart. I know I was so fixated over some things at one point – the perfect weather, the perfect shot, the perfect people – and it took awhile for me to get out of that funk.

u bein

I’m certainly going back to Myanmar in a couple of years’ time and hope to see it with a fresh perspective. Does anyone want to tag along? 😀

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