By Victor Block
I was 3,000 feet high, floating in a hot-air balloon over a vast plain dotted with massive and magnificent centuries-old Buddhist pagodas, temples and monasteries. This was but one of many fascinating activities and encounters I enjoyed during several trips planned by Myths and Mountains. That tour company promises journeys that "explore and experience," and my time in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) lived up to that expectation — and more.
For example, the balloon ride sailed over the ancient city of Bagan, which was the capital of a kingdom from the ninth to the 13th centuries from which Burma later evolved. More than 2,200 Buddhist structures survive today and are part of the reason Myanmar is referred to as "the land of pagodas" — but only part.
An itinerary that includes a seemingly endless array of religious places may threaten to cause a bit of pagoda overload for non-Buddhists. Even so, I learned that sites like Bagan and other Buddhist complexes belong on any "must-see" list.
If the pervasiveness of religion in everyday life leads to an assumption that Myanmar is only about Buddhism and Buddhist temples, think again. In fact, it's a multiracial country with interesting cities, intriguing villages, stunning nature and attractions sure to excite and delight even the most intrepid traveler. This variety isn't surprising in an area about the size of France and Great Britain combined.
Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1948, but an oppressive military junta that took control in 1962 left a lasting stain on the nation's history. The generals suppressed dissent, were accused of civil rights abuses and allowed the economy to stagnate, largely isolated from the rest of the world.
When free elections were permitted in 2015, the political party of Aung San Suu Kyi won a resounding victory. She is an activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but whose advocacy for democracy resulted in her being under house arrest for 15 years until her release in 2010. She now serves as state counselor and has instituted new freedoms and economic reforms. However, Myanmar's constitution still gives the military a strong voice in governance of the country.
In recent years, tourism to Myanmar has slowly increased, and those who go there find plenty to satisfy their myriad interests.
Yangon, the largest city and commercial center, boasts the most extensive collection of colonial-era buildings in Southeast Asia, reminders of when Britain was in charge. Mandalay, the second-largest metropolis, was the seat of Burma's kings before British colonization. Now it's a hub for arts and crafts, with a number of different neighborhoods that are dedicated to various trades.
More special to me were the villages 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.
One place where life has changed little is Inle Lake, and a fascinating way of life it is. That large, shallow body of water is home to the Intha people, one of 135 nationalities that comprise Myanmar's total population. Each of those groups clings proudly to its distinctive dialects, clothing and traditions.
Small villages built literally in and on the lake consist of rustic two-story houses on wooden stilts. Here and there is a restaurant, store, post office, barbershop or other establishment of similar construction.
All transportation is by boat, primarily long, narrow teakwood dinghies that are propelled by whining outboard motors. In a kind of over-water ballet, fishermen propel their vessels with a paddle held in one leg, which leaves their hands free to cast a net. Farmers plant crops in floating gardens comprised of water hyacinths and weeds bound together and anchored to the lake bottom by long bamboo poles.
Even in this unique setting, pagodas dotted around the lake serve as reminders that you are, in fact, in Myanmar. It's just another experience, along with countless others, that make a visit to that destination so intriguing.
WHEN YOU GO
Recently there have been continuous news reports about atrocities by Myanmar's military forces against Rohingya Muslims who live in Rakhine Province. The Rohingyas originally came from the neighboring country of Bangladesh and have been viewed as interlopers since they arrived. Both the United Nations and the U.S. government have described the campaign against the Rohingyas as "ethnic cleansing."
Because the unrest is confined to a narrow strip of land along the border with Bangladesh, it's safe to travel throughout most of the country. However, some people believe that to travel to Myanmar at this time could be construed as supporting, or at least turning a blind eye to, the violence.
Others say that tourism supports Burmese civilians because the money that visitors spend helps to provide a livelihood for people who work in the tourist industry. According to Voices for Burma, a pro-democracy advocacy group, tourists assist by "bringing money to local communities and small businesses, and by raising awareness of the situation worldwide."
Myths and Mountains operates tours and individual custom travel to Myanmar and a number of other destinations in Asia and Southeast Asia: 800-670-6984 or www.mythsandmountains.com.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.