If I told you that, about a week ago, we were invited to join a party where young boys dressed as girls rode albino ponies wearing rainbow headdresses, where those ponies danced with us to the rhythm of traditional Myanmar live music provided by a man screeching into a microphone, where little girls painted our faces yellow as another man offered us money, where a white faced 70 year old man in pointed white shoes and bouffant blue pants showed everyone how to dance and where we sang a terrible rendition of Oasis’ Wonderwall to the beat of tam-tams and the Myanmar equivalent of a xylophone, would you have thought that I was describing a very strange dream I’d had the night before?
But the story isn’t a figment of my imagination – I’m not even sure I could have made up such a strange afternoon – and, as it turns out, parties such as this one are not rare in Myanmar. Before they don the burgundy robe of a monk and join a monastery, young boys are allowed a special day of celebration. They are showered with riches and dressed like princes (or princesses, by any Western definition): the boys wear white satin robes, shiny jewelry (including earrings!) and more makeup than I wear in a week. We unfortunately found out that these were not little girls the hard way – i.e. by asking a restaurant owner who the girl on the life-size poster on the wall was, only to be told that this was his nephew (oops!). The boys are then paraded through town on the back of a horse, truck or elephant depending on how wealthy their family is. An albino pony, in case you were wondering, ranks between a truck and an elephant.
After the parade comes a party, which is what drew our attention as we drove by. We stopped and were quickly invited to join in on the dancing and singing (although I’m pretty sure they regretted the latter after our weak performance). The kids were overjoyed to take photos with us and paint thanaka* onto our faces. It was a perfectly magical moment.
* Thanaka is a fragrant yellow paste made by grinding the bark and wood of the thanaka tree. Myanmar women, and men to a lesser extent, use it on their faces as makeup. It is also believed to protect the skin from the sun and to help with skin issues such as acne.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that I arrived in this country with a few apprehensions: the country’s history of military regime and the recent echoes of violent clashes between the Buddhist and Muslim populations didn’t make the country seem particularly inviting. Although these issues are still an ongoing problem, my experience of Myanmar made me forget those apprehensions very quickly.
In Mandalay, we met young people eager to learn English and interested to know more about the strange white people that can now be seen walking on their streets. Although it is the second largest city of the country, foreigners are still so uncommon that we attracted a large number of curious looks from people who, when we caught their eye, offered us such warm smiles that they made our hearts melt. We walked on the longest teak bridge in the world, known as the U Bein bridge, and visited the largest jade market on Earth. We observed workers beating lumps of gold into leafs measuring less than 1mm thick, a process that takes hours of backbreaking work.
In Bagan, we saw more temples than we could handle (literally). This ancient city counts over 2,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas concentrated in a small area! We couldn’t, however, get enough of watching the sun rise behind those 2,000 glistening peaks as hot-air balloons slowly drifted across the changing sky.
Near Mount Popa, we climbed the 777 stairs leading to the curious little monastery built on top of a volcanic chimney, home to hundreds of small macaques. This time, I made sure to hide behind Julien the whole way to avoid a vicious monkey attack similar to the one I survived in Nicaragua.
At Inle Lake, we discovered that it’s possible to grow tomatoes on a bed of floating weeds. We admired women using ancient man-powered looms to create intricate pieces of woven cotton, silk and even lotus (who knew it was possible make a fiber out of lotus?) destined to become scarves or longyi, Myanmar’s version of the sarong, which is worn by both men and women. In fact, Julien liked the idea of wearing a skirt so much that he bought one for himself!
And, in Yangon, a large rat snuck between my feet. That was definitely a first for me!
It was such a privilege to visit this country before it becomes tarnished by the ever growing influx of tourists. Although I can only urge you to visit this marvelous place, I must give one word of caution: one must visit Myanmar with the utmost respect of local culture in order to avoid destroying what it is that makes this place so special.
Where are we now? Find out here.