Myanmar

My first surprise came during a visit to a vast pagoda complex in Myanmar. A Buddhist monk spoke to my wife Fyllis and me in English which, while not perfect, was good enough to be easily understood. Imagine, then, how astonished I was when he pulled a smartphone from the folds of his saffron-coloured robe and showed us pictures he had taken during his recent trip to Japan. More about the friendly monk later. This was but one of many fascinating encounters we have enjoyed during several trips planned by Myths and Mountains. That tour company promises journeys that “explore and experience,” and our time in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) lived up to that expectation-- and more.

No visit to Myanmar (ME-un-mahr) would be complete without stops at several, and maybe more, of the countless Buddhist pagodas, shrines, temples and monasteries that abound. No wonder that country is referred to as “The land of pagodas.”

If the pervasiveness of religion in everyday life leads to an assumption that Myanmar is only about Buddhism and Buddhist shrines, think again. In fact, it offers visitors a choice of interesting cities, intriguing villages and attractions sure to excite and delight even the most intrepid traveller.

One of the more fascinating aspects is the multi-racial and ethnic mix of its people. A total of 135 nationalities comprise Myanmar’s population. Each of those groups clings proudly to its distinctive dialects, clothing and traditions. It’s not unusual to cross paths with colourfully attired members of various splinter groups anywhere and at any time.

This variety may not be all that surprising in an area about the size of France and Great Britain combined. Those who visit there find plenty to satisfy a myriad of interests.

Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, is the biggest city and commercial centre. It boasts the most extensive collection of colonial-era buildings in Southeast Asia, along with a proliferation of new shops and restaurants that have sprung up in recent years.

A good way to get a sense of the city is to board the Circular Train that transports workers, students and shoppers to their destinations. A ride costs only 30 cents and introduces passengers to colourful slices of local life.

The tracks lead past upscale homes, ramshackle huts and a tent city. They run by apartment buildings with porches festooned by a colourful array of drying laundry. During the ride, vendors walk the aisles selling goods ranging from fresh fruit and cooked corn on the cob to bottled water and astrology charts.

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Mandalay, the second largest city, once was the seat of Burma’s kings. Now it’s a centre of arts and crafts, with different neighbourhoods dedicated to various trades.

At small workshops in Mandalay and throughout Myanmar skilled men and women turn raw materials into products that are as beautiful as they are useful, and provide a window into an important part of the local lifestyle. Workers toil long hours, often for wages in the $3-to-$5 a day range.

We visited a shoemaker and silversmith, workshops for textiles and teak furniture, and shops where people cast bronze and carve wood. Among a varied sampling of mini-factories, some linger in our memories. We were told that the shoemaker is the only one in the country who produces special footwear for people with a disability.

At a jade workshop and market, large green and white slabs of the ornamental mineral are cut, chiselled, polished and washed to product tiny gemstones. Workers in a marble marketplace carve, hammer and scrape images, most of Buddha in various sizes and poses.

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Visits to the workshops and other scenes provide an introduction to the challenges that people in Myanmar often face. Many tasks are very labour intensive.

We watched a man spend a full day cutting a lawn at a resort with a hedge trimmer, a task which could have been completed in an hour or so with a power mower. We saw teenage boys wielding heavy hammers for hours on end pounding slabs of gold into paper-thin gold leaf. And we passed women toiling at road repair projects carrying large heavy rocks on their head that I doubt I couldn’t even lift.

A scene very different from the workshops awaits visitors to the ubiquitous outdoor markets that fill sidewalks and streets in cities, towns and villages. These are good places to meet and mingle with colorfully attired members of minority groups, some of whom are there to sell and others to buy.

Sidewalks are blanketed by vendors’ stalls and streets are clogged with locals doing their shopping. Items are displayed on rickety stands and tiny tables and in places spread out on the pavement. Clothing may be next to flowers and near parts of animals, some of which were unidentifiable to me. Goods that range from cooking oil to curry powder, fish to fowl, beads to baskets are displayed, inspected by passers-by and, occasionally, purchased.

Fyllis and I found especially enchanting small villages that are scattered about the countryside, where people live much as their forebears did. Simple houses made of Intertwined bamboo line narrow dusty lanes. Domesticated animals often wander along the streets. In hamlets where few visitors have been Fyllis and I became objects of curiosity but always in a very polite, non-obtrusive way.

Our most memorable person-to-person experience occurred when we met Aung Pan Kyaung Tike, the friendly monk with whom we chatted. After sharing the photos of Japan on his smartphone, he invited us to lunch at the small monastery he heads. Seated on the floor, we enjoyed a multi-course vegetarian feast and heard about the charitable endeavors he supports. We also were treated to a Buddhism 101 course which described the search for inner peace and happiness that believers find through their simple lifestyles and seek to share.

That message, along with many other memories, continues to serve as a reminder of a visit to one of the more unusual, and unforgettable, destinations that Fyllis and I have enjoyed anywhere.

If you go. Myths and Mountains offer tours and custom trips to a number of destinations in Asia and Southeast Asia. For more information call (800) 670-6984.