I visited Myanmar a decade ago. It was a closed country. No mobile phone network, internet was mostly blocked, and all the money needed for my one month stay had to be brought across the border in pristine USD bills.
Back home, after the trip, my then 5 year old daughter saw the photos from Shwedagon Pagoda. She started calling it “the golden city”. I promised to take her there.
– 2008 –
Waiting for my flight at Bangkok airport. There´s less than 20 of us at the gate, and I seem to be the only “westener” about to board the plane.
The big Air Asia jet takes off almost empty for the short flight to Yangon.
After landing, I turn my mobile phone on. No connection. Communication is under very strict government control – as are many other things inside the country. First message I’m able to get out, using a hacked Gmail connection at an internet cafe, reaches my family after three weeks of blackout.
There are mostly dirt roads in central Yangon. People keep stopping me asking why I’m here. In the evenings, we gather in dimly-lit tea shops or around the few communal TV´s carried to roadsides.
Power cuts are common. It´s an unusual feeling walking across a completely dark city lit with only passing cars, candles and flashlights. Feels a lot like going back in time.
Parts of the country are completely off-limits for tourists. Most places south of Yangon are closed from outsiders and even when traveling to regions where I´m allowed to go, there are a number of government checkpoints on the way. The stops make the excruciatingly long and bumpy bus-rides even longer. Myself and the locals are equally nervous at checkpoints – especially during night stops if armed the soldiers appear to be visibly drunk.
During my month in Myanmar, I toured most of the currently familiar tourist spots visiting Mandalay, Hsipaw, Bagan, Chaung Tha, and the Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo. I learned to love the country and the people.
On one of the many lengthy bus rides, I became friends with a guy from Yangon. We met with his family, and eventually formed a bond that has lasted through all these years. When the country was becoming more connected, we started communicating over Facebook watching our children grow while we didn’t feel like aging at all.
In our previous lives, we must have made a donation together to meet again in this life.Sawblue, 2018
– 2018 –
Finally, a decade later, I made the decision it was time to keep the promise I had made to my daughter. She was now a 15 year old teenager. We´d go see the golden city and re-unite with my friends in Yangon!
My friend is waiting for us at the airport. He looks exactly the same as I remembered him from 10 years ago. We recognise each other immediately, and after a long hug, he is already arranging us a local SIM card to be able to communicate through our stay.
His wife is waiting outside with a car and she hasn’t aged a bit either. We climb to the back seat and immediately engage in a chat. It feels like we have just departed yesterday and none of us can believe it has been 10 years.
The people are the same, but everything else is different. The car, their house, tarmac roads on the way there, and the city all around us. Everything looks new and modern – a stark difference to the Yangon I remember.
The thing that remains is the feeling of peace. It´s like moving through a slow-motion movie. Regardless of the heavy traffic, we just flow through the city.
We stay with my friend in Yangon a couple days before heading south. I want to see the parts of the country that weren’t accessible during my previous visit.
As soon as we get out of the city, it´s starting to look a lot more familiar. This is the country I remember. Wooden huts on the roadside, rice being dried on the road. It´s still easy to find remote villages where you’re the only westener around.
Buses are still old, the steering wheels are on the wrong side, and VIP buses are still freezing. This time, I was experienced enough to bring warm clothes for the overnight rides.
The distances keep feeling huge, and most long-distance roads are in really bad shape. Something that´s right next to you on a map may well be a 5 to 20 hour bumpy bus ride away. And the buses never miss a stop for lunch or dinner in a roadside restaurant.
All around the country, the people are willing to stop whatever they´re doing to ask if we need help. Even though they don’t really speak English. And when we let them know we´re ok, they still continue chatting.
No one seemes to be in a hurry.
Feeling of peace is amplified in pagodas.
The world around is blocked out and we´re surrounded by a sense of calm and quiet. I vividly remember why I didn’t want to leave the country the first time.
We shelter from the mid-day heat in a stony temple. I walk around, filming the monks sleeping among pillars, and my daughter sits in a corner reading a book. She’s approached by a nun inviting us for lunch at the nearby monastery. No English, but the sign language is quite obvious.
I pack up the camera and we follow her in.
20+ hour bus ride south from Yangon, a taxi to the edge of town, and a motorcycle ride across a mountain. After riding through jungle we eventually arrive to a single guesthouse in the middle of a 2km long beach facing the sunset. There´s nothing else around.
Mountain behind us blocks all the signals, cutting mobile phone and internet connection. There’s only us, jungle and the sea. We stay, living in a small bungalow, until a thunderstorm breaks the solar generator and we run out of fresh food.
On the front, Myanmar looks like a different country from the one I learned to love 10 years ago. But when you look closer, it´s really still the same.
It was my second time leaving Myanmar. It was the second time I was really sad leaving the country behind. There´s something really powerful here I can’t quite explain.