Tell us a bit about you and your travel partner. I know you're an experienced traveler - what are some of your favorite destinations? (Other than Myanmar, of course!)
In 2014, I set out to achieve a life-long ambition to spend a year traveling around the world solo. At the one-year mark, I was having so much fun that I just kept going for nearly three more. I settled back in Salt Lake City in 2016, and this trip to Myanmar was my first big adventure since the end of my extended journey.
My travel companion Kenton and I have known each other since high school. We're both in our mid-60s but still a little bit like kids when we travel, and our style is definitely experiential - we want to see, smell, touch, and eat everything, and talk to everyone. Kenton and I and two other friends visited Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley in 2016, and Peru quickly became one of my favorite destinations. I also love Thailand and Vietnam - Southeast Asian food is my favorite and the people are the kindest, friendliest people in the world.
How did you first become interested in Myanmar as your destination of choice?
I've wanted to go to Myanmar for a while now – I have several friends who have gone over the past couple of years and raved about it. I wanted to experience the country while it was still relatively unspoiled by tourism, which was definitely the case. It was fascinating to interact with people who have had very little experience outside their own country, and in many cases, even their small village.
You had already traveled extensively in Southeast Asia. How was your experience in Myanmar different - or similar - to the other countries you've visited in the region?
Myanmar is less developed touristically than places like Thailand, Malaysia, and even Vietnam. Although our guides all spoke English, relatively few of the other people we encountered spoke anything other than Burmese. Myanmar is one of the most devoutly religious countries I have ever visited, with religious offerings and rituals occurring continuously. It was fascinating. Life in Myanmar is very simple and uncomplicated, and it was really a privilege to observe it.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
What part of your trip stands out as a favorite?
We had so many amazing experiences – one that really stands out was the full moon festival in Kalaw. We watched the procession through town and joined thousands of other people to watch the fireworks competition. They set off a tower crammed with fireworks, literally in the middle of the crowd!
Another memory - we weren't able to do a hot air balloon ride at Bagan because of weather, so we did it over Inle Lake instead, soaring at 10,000 feet over the lake and the mountains. The prevailing wind conditions kept us from being able to get back to the launch site, so we ended up landing in a cornfield. All the villagers ran out to see the balloon! They were taking pictures of us and we were taking pictures of them. It was very special.
I also really liked the passing interactions with the local people. On more than one occasion, a couple of women would indicate that they wanted to take a picture with me because they had not encountered very many Western tourists. The open interest of the people we encountered in wanting to know more about us, just as we wanted to know more about them, was one of the very special aspects that wove its way throughout our journey.
Did anything about Myanmar surprise you?
I knew going in that Myanmar was a relatively undeveloped country, but I was a little surprised by what that really looks like on the ground. The people of Myanmar still farm using oxen, and in Mrauk U they were repairing a road with rocks by hand. I was also somewhat surprised by how much of a role religion plays in Myanmar's culture - it is part of the essence of the country and the people. Also, I know from experience that the people in Southeast Asia generally tend to be exceptionally friendly and helpful, but I was surprised by the degree of friendliness of the people we encountered – they were helpful, and kind and generous beyond my expectations.
What's your advice for travelers interested in traveling to Myanmar?
My best advice for travelers interested in Myanmar is to go! Go now while it is still unspoiled. The country is just emerging from decades of military dictatorship, and this is an absolutely critical time for cultural interaction with people from outside the country. We met so many wonderful people who simply have no vision or experience outside their small circle, but they want to know. You will be enriched, and so will they. You should definitely use a local guide. While it is legal and possible to travel without one, we would not have had the same experience without the guidance and insight supplied by our specialist Anne, kimkim, and our in-country guides.
Where are you going on your next adventure?
The next trip isn’t really so much of an adventure – but to Europe in the spring of 2018 for the French Open and some bicycling in the Baltic states, and then to St. Petersburg for the White Nights. The next real “adventure” will most likely be to India (and possibly Nepal and Bhutan).
Sara's trip was planned through kimkim by Anne Cruikshanks, our local travel specialist based in Mandalay, Myanmar.