1. My cousin Cathy and her husband Robert. Part of the reason we went to Myanmar when we did is because they were going to be there soon after we went to Thailand and it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel like that with extended family. Also, who travels to Myanmar on Christmas vacation? Badasses like Cathy and Robert, that’s who.
2. A man cuts shafts of bamboo in his front yard in the village of In Thein, on the shores of Inle Lake.
3. Up river from Old Bagan, a smaller temple complex that includes both restored and ruined temples and is the site of a working monastery.
4. A puppy watches humans from the threshold of the dwelling. Like many developing nations, Myanmar has large numbers of stray dogs and cats. While these animals are sometimes fed by locals, there are no efforts to curtail their population, so sightings of street puppies are common.
5. A local speeds past an ornamental barge in the traditional long boat on Inle Lake.
6. Women make traditional cigars at a tourist attraction on Inle Lake. Notice the patches of thanaka, a cosmetic paste made from ground wood, on their faces.
7. Colorful parasols are a famous craft of the region, and though I don’t like spending money on anything labelled a ‘traditional craft,’ this vendor knew how to showcase her wares.
8. A ride in a hot air balloon at sunrise is a quintessential Bagan activity. Actually seeing the balloons rise and fly over us was pretty cool though- and also free.
9. A golden Buddha statue holds a bouquet of wilted jasmine flowers.
10. Recling Buddha in the donation box is a baller Buddha.
11. The Bagan temple complex is huge and for the most part only a small percent is really seeable. It’s best to take it all in as you zip around on an electric bike!
12. In front of one of the larger and more restored temples in Bagan, Nikita pauses for a photo on our sassy pink electric bike.
13. An enormous reclining Buddha, close enough to touch. Unusual in that his eyes are open.
14. Our local guide for the Inle Lake boat tour. He spoke no English but was completely comfortable navigating the long boat around the lake all day.
15. Myanmar’s advertised appeal is its people. They are very sweet and accomodating, but sometimes the drive to photograph individuals can seem insatiable. Especially here, when a young boy is scolded by his mother for not wanting to get his picture taken by a tourist. Classic.
16. A beautiful photo (one of our most popular on Instagram), yet it comes with somewhat of a disheartening story. My original caption claimed that, despite tourism, fishermen from the area still fished the way they have for generations on the lake. I thought this was the case, despite the abundant gift shops and tourists. The truth is that the man in the photo is posing for tourists, tourists like us. Many locals attempt to make a living by simply pretending to fish and asking for small cash tips from tourists in exchange for helping to create that perfect Inle Lake photo. I have to admit that I’m deeply saddened by this and the implications for Myanmar and global tourism in general. It’s on me to better understand the realities of the places I visit.
17. Jumping Cat Monastery is an attraction on the Inle Lake Tour. While there are no longer any jumping cats, there are plenty of regular, well-fed cats.
18. Besides the heat of midday, motoring around the lake is cold!
19. Lethwei Boxing, or as I like to call it, Muay Thai’s dysfunctional twin. Our stay in Yangon timed perfectly with a Lethwei Boxing event. Lethwei is a traditional Burmese martial art, similar to Muay Thai, but more brutal in rules and customs.
20. A thanaka-faced baby (thanaka helps protect the skin from the sun) watches me as his mother waits to cross the street in Yangon.
21. Myanmar is still very traditional, unusual for almost any place in the world these days. These pieces of fabric are longgyi, the sarong-type skirt worn by both Burmese men and women. These beautiful patterns are traditional designs for women.
22. Colonial buildings are still a fixture within the bustling city.
23. Wear and tear. Peeling paint, grime, mold and tarnish are all fixtures of Yangon’s architecture. Decades of political strife and civil war have left the country in poverty, and even as Yangon is rising to meet the global modern era, it’s evident that much has suffered. The city’s municipal budget can barely cover neccesities and building restoration is out of the question.
24. Trash is a huge problem for the entire country. Yangon is shockingly dirty, but even I was surprised to find this alleyway to be a neighborhood trash receptacle. The rest of the country isn’t faring much better; rural areas deal with garbage by strewing it across a larger area or burning it. Due to the lack of infrastructure throughout Myanmar, I’m guessing the ample air pollution comes from burning trash.
25. Still, there is intense, breathtaking beauty in Myanmar. Like Sule Pagoda in the sunset.
26. Burmese women and Buddhist nuns stroll through the massive Shwedagon Paya temple complex in Yangon.
27. Robert catches up with the world. ‘Looks about right for a newspaper,’ he says.
28. There’s no telling how much gold paint the religious institutions of Myanmar require. Outside the beach town of Dawei, a cliffside pagoda featured minature golden stupas on the rocks around it.
29. Burmese beach goers on the strand at Maungmagan Beach. Beach towns are remarkably similar the world over.
30. Best coffee drink ever: avocado coffee. If you like Southeast Asian desserts or smoothies, you may have heard of an avocado smoothie. This coffee drink takes it a step further and adds milk, espresso and blends them together over ice. This is actually a Thai rendition of an Indonesian drink, but nonetheless delicious!
31. Touristing around Myanmar is highly enjoyable and surprisingly easy via motorbike. And when you need gas, it’s available by the liter in resuable bottles at roadside convenience stands. A Burmese woman will even fill your tank for you 🙂
32. Halfway up the mountain that blocked us from the beach, we hopped off our motorbikes to take some pictures of the view. Some local teenagers were hanging out and probably doing the same. They wanted a picture of us, so we returned the favor!
33. Beachside villages that were once remote are now accessible with the explosion of motor bikes in the country. This little fishing village looked, as Robert put it, ‘straight of of Pirates of the Caribbean.’ I’m sure the villagers would be pleased, as I found PotC to be quite popular in Myanmar.
34. Free-grazing cattle on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe.
35. Crystal clear water, white sand, blue sky. A perfect photo except for the water droplet square over Robert’s face. C’est la vie!
36. Rows of stunningly huge palms. Someone planted tons of palm plantations around Dawei and the peninsula, but their massive size makes it clear that they’re no longer in use. Beautiful to ride by, though.
37. A different type of palm, the toddy palm. This tall and skinny variety is a producer, making fruit, sugar and sap that’s turned into wine. Drinking it is a seasonal past-time and it’s quite alright to prop up a ladder against a road-side palm, shimmy up to the top, and tap the tree to fill up a large bamboo cannister of the stuff.
38. Myanmar beer! Standard lager beer that was plentiful throughout the country. During our visit to the country, they were running a promotion whereby every bottle cap was a ticket to win a prize. You could win back small amounts of kyats or your whole bottle. My cousin and her husband are hearty drinkers and won what we thought was a considerably lucky number of free bottles during their trip!
39. Did you know this is how naan bread was made? I didn’t! Dinner plate-sized pieces of dough are slapped onto the side of a burning hot oven. Cooooooooooool.
40. Hpa An has a unique landscape: its flat plain is peppered with standalone cliffs and mini-mountains.
41. Statues and worshippers look out from the mouth of a cave near Hpa An.
42. One of my favorite Buddhas on the trip, an unsual fired red clay Buddha. This one was so beautiful and unique, yet small and set off to the side. Guess no one wants an unusual Buddha 🙁
43. Hpa An has many caves as well, with most being converted into shrines.
44. In the dry season, a popular Burmese past time involves drinking a daily brew of wine made from toddy palms. The juice is collected in the morning, fermented throughout the day (drinkers can partake at any time), and guests come to drink and eat snacks in palm shacks along the road. These three locals were definitely enjoying themselves.
45. The old and the new. A Buddha statue sits in front of centuries-old cave carvings in Sadaing Cave, Hpa An.
46. Our tour group (all mostly French speaking, luck would have it) braving the back of the tuk tuk through the Hpa An day trip.
47. The strange and pictaresque Water Lake Monastery outside of Hpa An. I still need to know why it’s called ‘Water Lake.’
48. Making my way through Saddar Cave. There is no natural light in most of this huge cave, the walk way is thinly lit with LED lamps.
49. The fantastic temple outside of the famous cliff padogda in the middle of Water Lake. Interesting and unusual architecture for a Burmese temple.
50. A monk paces the floor of the open air temple.
51. Buddhas and demons. Though ample Buddha representation is an obvious requirement, mythology plays a big role in the iconography of Burmese religious institutions.
52. Sadaing cave, my favorite of the Hpa An caves, is an optical illusion of ancient Buddha cave wall carvings and more modern Buddha statues. A less eloquent way for me to put this would be, BUDDHA BUDDHA BUDDHA BUDDHA ROCKIN EVERYHWERE
53. Thai and Burmese Zodiac are a bit different from Chinese or Western astrology, focusing on days of the week rather than years or months. In Burmese astrology, each day of the week has its respective animal zodiac sign, one of which is a guinea pig. This probably explains the pen full of guinea pigs at Water Lake Monastery.
54. A golden stupa amid the multi-colored, textured cave walls.
55. Rice patties and reflections near Saddar Cave, Hpa An.
56. Visitors wind through the passageway in Saddar Cave.
57. What is this? A giant stalagmite/tite? Someone please tell me.
58. A Burmese woman in traditional dress gets up from prayer at the Buddha’s alter.
59. Field trip! Young locals enjoy the cave too.
60. This kid could not have been more than 10, yet he held down the fort alone, including taking care of us, at the bus terminal for a solid 20 minutes until his mom (at the right) showed up. Not once did he show signs of distress or break his friendly demeanor. Here, he is actually taking a real phone call. Adorable.
61. A monk stands at the overlook for the Golden Rock. I was shocked to see the ‘Ladies Not Allowed’ sign. This applies to overlooks close to the rock as well as applying gold leaf, a quintessential Golden Rock custom. The first I had seen throughout Myanmar. A bit shocking and frustrating, but as this custom is clearly bound to religion it’s unlikely to change. Enjoy your view, Mr. Monk.
62. New Year’s street party in Mandalay. The fire works ‘display’ was actually locals just shooting hand-held fireworks into the sky at 12:00ish. While it was mostly young Burmese in attendance, it was our first time seeing anyone in the country really loosen up. Copious drinking was involved, but true to their cultural nature, the revelors remained whole-heartedly friendly and happy.
63. A friendly, curious local photo bombs our shot. Seconds later we were surrounded by his whole squad, as they took turns getting photos with us on each of their phones. This happened at least 10 more times as we made our way through the streets leading up to and after the official start of New Year.