“How annoyed will you be every time I say, ‘When I was here before, things were different…’”? I asked Marie, shifting into my old man voice.
“I guess we’ll find out,” she answered warily.
We were on our way to Myanmar – the Southeast Asian country previously known as Burma. I first visited Myanmar in 2010, and the country truly is different now. Nine years ago Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. Getting a visa was a long, complicated process. The transportation infrastructure was patchy and unreliable. WiFi was almost impossible to find. There were no ATMs in the entire country, so I had to arrive with all the money I’d need in the form of pristine $100 bills (which, given that I flew there from Bangkok, were challenging to find).
These days Aung San Suu Kyi is sharing power with the military. A visa can easily be acquired online. It’s surprisingly easy to get from place to place. Relatively strong WiFi is common. ATMs are everywhere.
Once again, though, deciding whether or not to visit was difficult. In 2010, the fear was that visiting would support the oppressive military dictatorship. In 2019, the fear is that visiting supports the government’s brutal genocide of the Rohingya people. Many travelers have decided to stay away. And it’s undeniable that at least some of the money tourists spend – e.g., the visa fee – goes to a government that is engaged in an abhorrent abuse of power.
Still we decided to go. I continue to believe that visiting countries with authoritarian governments does more good than harm. A majority of the money spent by independent travelers like me and Marie goes to small local businesses. Meeting and talking with everyday people can help to incrementally shift viewpoints over time. And governments tend to behave better when foreigners are around. I’m on board with author and traveler Pico Ayer, who wrote, “The only question to ask before visiting a place is whether the locals at the other end would rather see you or not.”
Our plane landed at the Yangon airport in the late evening and a taxi dropped us off at our hotel close to midnight. The heavy, humid air and friendly smiling faces streaked with yellow thanaka triggered a rush of happy memories from my first visit – how exotic Yangon had felt, how the people on the street seemed so much more diverse and eclectic than in Thailand and Cambodia. But this time I didn’t feel the same magic.
Travel writer Paul Theroux has described that exhilarating sense of “otherness” I experienced so frequently during my around-the-world trip nine years ago: “Often on a trip I seem to be alive in a hallucinatory vision of difference, the highly colored unreality of foreignness, where I am vividly aware (as in most dreams) that I don’t belong; yet I am floating, an idle anonymous visitor among busy people, an utter stranger.” Probably unsurprisingly, I’m finding that feeling to be far more elusive when I visit a place for the second time.
This was Marie’s first time, however, and I’d been looking forward to sharing it with her. Unfortunately she caught a cold at the start of the trip, and jet lag combined with congestion and a sore throat may have dampened her initial appreciation. We spent our first full day walking around Yangon, stopping for coffee (and sweet, sweet air conditioning) at the iconic Strand Hotel. At sunset we made our way to Shwedagon Pagoda.
From Yangon we flew to Mandalay, where we hired a guide for the standard day tour around the area. We stopped at the Mahagandaryon Monastery, Sagaing Hill, Inwa, and Mingun before ending the day at the U Bein Bridge, apparently the longest teak wood bridge in the world.
We’d hoped to cruise down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Bagan, but September is still the rainy season in Myanmar and the river was too unruly for the boat to navigate. Visiting in the off-season was mostly great – prices were lower and there weren’t many other tourists – but we were sorry to (literally) miss the boat.
Instead we hired a driver to take us to Bagan, where we learned that another activity was still shut down for the rainy season: hot air balloon rides over Bagan’s temple-filled plain. We weren’t sure we wanted to take a balloon ride ourselves, but I had definitely wanted to get sunrise photos of balloons over the temples.
I’d been especially fired up to see Bagan again. It’s an incredibly photogenic place, and my 2010 visit was largely rained out. So I was disappointed that there’d be no balloons flying at sunrise. And it was even more of a gut punch to find out that people are no longer allowed to climb the temples.
My favorite part of my first visit had been Indiana Jones-ing through all the mysterious, half-hidden passageways and cobwebbed stairs of the ancient temples, not to mention the fact that the tops of the taller temples have the best views for sunrise and sunset photos. But all that exploration is now forbidden. I understand and respect the need to protect the temples (as well as the tourists, who in the past have suffered fatal falls), but Bagan just isn’t the same.
The best view Marie and I could find at sunset was from a small man-made hill near the Sulamani temple.
A local showed us a decent spot for sunrise at a minor temple in Old Bagan that still allowed people to climb up a single flight of stairs.
One positive development in Bagan is that e-bikes – basically just battery-powered scooters – are now ubiquitous, making it really easy to get around without a guide. It was also nice to be able to retreat to our hotel pool during the worst of the mid-day heat.
Bagan might not be the same as it was nine years ago, but it’s still a pretty incredible place.