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Rediscovering the Spirit of Travel in Myanmar

By most estimations, Myanmar remains the world’s second most isolated country. Off the radar of travelers with a conscience for decades, the country has only recently reemerged as a navigable pin on the world map. Ripe for rediscovery, it’s a place where the spirit of curiosity has come to roost.

On a recent visit to Myanmar, I followed that spirit … and found a country poised at the edge of a moment.

Floating In the Shadow of the U Bein Bridge

Its bright paint is faded and the carved flourishes are chipped, but this old wooden sampan boat still commands the wide Taungthaman, a lake that’s currently ablaze in reflected sunset. We weave between fishermen who have spent their day tending nets shoulder-deep in water. Inches behind me, balanced on the small sampan’s stern, the boatman propels us along, carving quiet ripples each time he crosses his long oars and pushes them through the water.

We’re far enough from Myanmar’s famous U Bein Bridge to be removed from the sounds of conversation, but still close enough to catch the silhouettes of kids on bikes, young women peddling necklaces, and old astrologers telling fortunes—all of them caught against the brilliant orange sun as it sinks behind the old teak boards of the bridge.

After spending my days in villages without street names or electricity, this bridge on the sleepy outskirts of Mandalay feels positively big city. It’s a feeling that intensifies as as we thread the needle between the pillars and emerge on the other side to see, posed next to the exquisite corpse of a massive tree, a film crew totally focused on a single figure: a woman out of time.

There’s nothing quaint about traditional dress here in Myanmar. It’s alive and well—women and men sport the longyi skirt, and people around the country adorn their faces with thanaka paste like it’s the latest runway fashion. But this woman stands out as if she’s a much earlier chapter in the same book. Her costume is clearly out of place in the modern world—it’s too heavy, too ornate.

She is an apparition come to life, a stowaway from another time, and I’m a curious onlooker slowly drifting by. We are the ghosts of past and future. She adjusts her parasol; I fumble with my phone to take a photo.

She glances in my direction between takes, and for an instant we are caught in a moment. Myanmar is in such a moment, too, as the past and the future both tug at the present. The promise of democracy looms while the people—who long ago learned that political promises aren’t as ironclad as they may seem—wait through this optimistic transition.

Seeking the Unknown

When Aung San Suu Kyi—more commonly known in Myanmar as The Lady—and the National League for Democracy (NLD) invited the world to return to Myanmar a few years ago, they did so to encourage respectful, responsible tourism that benefited the people, not just the government. Happily, independent travel is possible, and the companies that have been drawn to offer guided trips in Myanmar are, by and large, heavily invested in supporting the Myanmar people.

We humans, we’re an adventuring sort. That’s why we remain—in spite of the betters and worses of history—explorers looking to decode that elusive curvature of the horizon. Consider the newfound openness of Myanmar as an invitation to seek the unknown and peek into a part of the world few of your contemporaries have seen. And to revisit, perhaps for the first time, the spirit of travel.

Because unexplored corners grow fewer each year.

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(Photos: Christine Sarkis)

Christine Sarkis hopes that Myanmar finds new ways to thrive in the coming years. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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