Three years ago this Christmas, my family and I embarked on our traditional end of year trip. Among one of our many stops was Myanmar, a country so different to any I had encountered before. We didn’t just stay in the capital city of Yangon and marvel at the Shwedagon Pagoda or the Chauk-htat-gyi Buddha Temple, but chose to travel around and fit in as much local culture and sights as possible.
My favourite part of the journey was exploring the very heart and soul of the country: the Mandalay River. We embarked on a nearly century-old boat and began our trip downstream, stopping off to visit artisan villages and temples. I have never seen such richly decorated temples, with each space covered in neons, gold and bling, resulting in a surprising mix of overt gaudiness and piety. I was also amazed at how the temples were not just for worship, but also encompassed every aspect of daily life, especially commerce. Indeed, on the way into the temple, there were sometimes corridors filled with stalls selling all kinds of objects, just like an indoor market.
In contrast to these bright, bustling and garish temples were the ancient archaeological sites, such as Bagan. We were fortunate enough to have a private candlelit dinner among the Bagan temples, whose sheer quantity is a testament to the historic religious devotion of the Burmese people.
The most magical time of day there for me was sunset, especially when we were on the river. We would gather on the upper deck of the boat and watch the orange and yellow sky melt into the water, the hundreds of temples and hills outlined clearer than ever.
A big part of our experience in Myanmar was the interactions we had with the people we met along the way, from the potters in a small village on the bank of the Mandalay to the women who showed us how to tie our longyi (traditional skirts) and applied thanaka paste on our faces, or even the gloriously elegant and beautiful Padaung woman who was selling jewellery outside a temple, her many neck rings gleaming in the sun.
Myanmar is a beautiful place filled with beautiful people and I can only hope that the current political and humanitarian situation there will be resolved in earnest.