Burma (or Myanmar) and I have had a passionate, long-distance love affair since I first set foot in the country in 2005. At the time I was a travel neophyte, but quickly getting a heady dose of the globe while sailing around the world with Semester at Sea. Ours was the first sailing to visit Yangon since the 1997 US embargo and it felt rebellious and a little dangerous to step off that boat and onto the marshy banks of the Irrawaddy River. Men on mopeds wearing long, tube skirts that I didn’t yet know were longyis and drivers of rusted WWII era freight trucks hauling enormous trunks of teak trees pulled over to gaze curiously at the large ship. Our vessel was alone and seemingly out of place at the small antiquated river jetty. Tourism wasn’t happening in Burma at the time. Unlike the ports we had embarked upon previously, there was no press of hawkers pushing postcards or other overpriced items or guides aggressively vocalizing their services to the highest bidder. The near silence of our arrival was accompanied by the distinctive odor of cheroots, a type of cigar made from tree bark that is smoked constantly throughout the country. My friend Dana and I crudely communicated our desire to hitch a ride to one of the truck drivers, forked over a couple of US dollars, clambered up onto the logs and slowly started down the dirt road amid the creak of ancient gears and dark puffs of diesel.
Burma blew my mind. We had read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and decided to follow in the author’s train-hitching tracks, traveling north to Mandalay by rail. The book was published in 1975 but more than 30 years later, Theroux’s recollection of train travel in Burma was coming to life in front of our eyes. The cars (probably the same ones from the 1970s) creaked and swayed, stained blue curtains flapped out windows that didn’t shut and food vendors balancing baskets on their heads, filled with what appeared to be grilled and skewered sparrows, approached the train at every unplanned stop to sell dinner through the windows. We hopped off in the completely blacked out and silent town of Taungoo with plans to explore a nearby elephant camp for a few days before continuing to Mandalay. There were a billion stars in the sky and the boy who pedaled our bicycle rickshaw into town was singing in Burmese as he slowly pulled us down the dark streets. His melody sounded sad. I was completely in love.
We never made it to Mandalay. A chance encounter with a local named Victor led to one of the greatest and profoundly impactful adventures of my life, but that’s a story for another time. The years since meeting Victor have been filled with letters from Burma, sometimes in shreds from government censorship, but always carrying the faint smell of cheroot smoke with them all of the way to my mailbox in the US. One day out of the blue I received a phone call at work; it was Victor on the phone - he had found me online. An active and vocal opponent to the military regime, Victor was forced to flee Myanmar after the 2007 Saffron Revolution and had been on the run. Could I meet him in Thailand? So I traveled to Mae Sot and the Mae La refugee camp in northern Thailand to reunite with Victor and help smuggle him out of the camp and back into Burma to care for his dying mother. We crossed the border at night hidden beneath rubber tire scraps in the back of a truck and I promised to revisit him in Burma once the situation improved. In November 2012 a brief email informed me that he had been safely in Burma for more than a year. When was I coming to visit?
Victor and Kirsten in Mae La Refugee Camp
And that was the last I heard from him.
In January of 2014 I have a little more than two weeks to hitch around Burma. Since I plan other people's trips for a living, it is a nice change of pace to just book a ticket somewhere and go with very little planned in advance. Obviously tracking down my friend is a priority, but I’m also looking forward to exploring new and old places alike, finally making it to Mandalay and observing how the country has changed in light of the recently emerging democratic processes and resurgence in tourism. I don’t think I’ll have a problem finding a taxi at the airport to take me into Yangon, but I hope it still smells like cheroots.
Since 'opening up' to tourists a few years ago, the number of visitors to Burma has boomed each year and is projected to exceed 2 million in 2014. To avoid sleeping at bus stations and hitchhiking via livestock trucks like Kirsten will be, make your Burma travel plans under the guidance of an experienced tour operator like Wildland Adventures. Our Myanmar Cultural Adventure offers travelers time to explore Burma's main highlights while also incorporating unique cultural experiences like bike trips through remote villages and walks through local markets while being accompanied by an expert local guide.
Learn more about travel to Burma (Myanmar)