A country the size of Texas is nestled between China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India, Burma boasts a population of 56 million. There is a beautiful coastline that borders the Andaman Sea and The Bay of Bengal. There are abundant natural resources like natural gas, timber, rice, oil and precious stones such as rubies, sapphires, jade and pearls, which are exported around the world.
Having missed out on an opportunity to visit Burma in 2008 as an extension of a trip to Bhutan, we quickly jumped on an offer to do this trip with our group of friends. Since the country opened up fully to tourism in 2011, Burma is now considered one of the most exciting and adventurous places to travel. Joint ventures with foreign partners have enabled the tourism infrastructure to expand with five star hotels scattered throughout the country in exotic places like Mandalay, Inle Lake, and the ancient capital of Bagan.
Here in Yangon we are staying in a beautiful hotel. From the third floor, our room looks out onto a small pond surrounded by colorful gardens and lush vegetation, like banyan, jack fruit, and rubber trees. Our room is very large, paneled in dark wood with many amenities, like plush robes, thick towels, plenty of hot water, and our very own internet router, which makes for an extremely fast computer connection. At the same time, our sink drips constantly, our toilet is backed up, and the shower doesn't drain very fast, but so far there is uninterrupted electricity and the air conditioning works.
We arrived very early on Thursday morning, January 2nd, on a flight from Bangkok where we spent New Years Eve with our 12 traveling friends. From the air, Yangon was covered in what looked like a smoky haze, but we weren't sure whether that was from pollution or whether it was morning fog or a light jungle mist. As we drove into town, the culprit was confirmed -- the haze had to be from exhaust and pollution, as the roads and streets were clogged and congested with buses, cars, and trucks. With very few traffic signals at major intersections, pedestrians and people riding bicycles cautiously walked and weaved among the slow moving vehicles, hoping to safely cross to the other side. The sounds and smells took me back to 2007 and my first trip to Southeast Asia ---Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos --- the first adventure with our traveling friends.
After a typical Burmese lunch of lentil soup, prawns in a mild curry sauce and a yummy cooked eggplant that tasted something like mashed potato, we began our walking tour of the colorful and busy streets of Yangon. People greeted us with friendly faces and when we smiled and said MINGALABA, the daily greeting in Burmese, they giggled and said MINGALABA back to us. "Where are you from?" one man shouted. "America," we shouted back. There were more giggles, smiles, and happy faces. They are so glad to see Westerners in their country after so many years of being shut off from the rest of the world.
Eventually, we made our way to one of Yangon's most famous sights -- Shwedagon Pagoda ---with its exquisite gold dome that shimmers In the blazing sun. Perched on a small hill in the city's center, Shwedagon is accessed by an elevator and visitors can enter through four directional gates. The word magnificent doesn't seem adequate to describe this enormous complex with 80 ornate structures, some of which go back 2000 years. The buildings are exquisitely decorated with huge amounts of gold, jade, rubies and diamonds. The main stupa is 322 feet high, and unless you have a very wide angle lens, photographs do not capture the scope or the enormity of this religious complex. Buddhists and religious people from all over the world are here to pray, chant, and just marvel In the spiritual wonder of this
THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES ........