land of green & gold


chasing light and color in southeast asia's newest attraction: Myanmar

Words & Photos by Debra M. Josephson

At 7:30 pm the sky is already pitch black. Several coach buses compete to be the first one out of the station and onto the paved roads. Cigarettes hanging from their lips, men act as traffic controllers in the overcrowded dirt lot, directing drivers who jerk the buses back and forth, inches from collision.

I close my eyes tightly with a nervous giggle as if I were stuck on top of a Ferris wheel. Soon I will be in Bagan, Myanmar, once known as a kingdom of 10,000 Buddhist temples and monasteries—far from any childish carnival.  

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is still in the infancy stages of global tourism. The Southeast Asian country recently ended decades of isolation with the rise of new leadership and now hosts millions of tourists annually. Craving a first look, I take the short flight from Bangkok to the capital city, Yangon, curiosity for the unknown pumping through my veins.

I spend three days in Yangon absorbing the vibrant culture. At the Shwedagon Pagoda—one of the most revered and oldest pagodas in the religious world—it becomes evident that life here revolves around Buddhism. The pagoda rests in the center of the city and before sunrise every morning, clusters of devout monks tread the pavement around the 325-foot structure as they pray. Their rhythmic chants echo throughout the city.

“Shwe,” meaning golden, is the prefix to the names of many temples and pagodas throughout the country, which are often clad from the ground up in gold and jewels. This sight, set against the lush land and cityscapes landscapes, forms the iconic image of Myanmar.

During the eight-hour drive from Yangon, nothing but intermittent flares of headlights peak through the tacky, patterned curtains of the coach bus. But as the sun rises, the countryside falls away to reveal the ancient city of Bagan.

The first rays of light run through the valley of Old Bagan like liquid gold and the 2,200 remaining sacred structures began to take shape amid the canopy of trees. Hot-air balloons rise above the ancient city, a 360-degree view that rivals the world’s wonders. The whole city comes alive because of that light—awakening the spirits of those present and past.  

Regret for leaving the sights at Bagan quickly diminishes as I speed through the darkness toward Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay, on the back of a small motorbike. It’s 4:30 a.m. and, with my 40-pound camera bag and tripod held faithfully between the driver’s legs, we head south to Amarapura, racing the sunlight for about 20 km. Although neither of us speaks the other’s language, I fear not for my safety but for the fleeting colors I want to capture.

When we arrive just before morning light, monks in saffron-colored robes from the Mahagandayon monastery are strolling along U Bein Bridge, stopping intermittently to practice English with foreigners or make a call on a mobile phone with spotty service

The 164-year-old teak bridge spans across Taung Tha Man Lake and serves as pedestrian highway for local workers. The calm water reflects the sky’s baby blues and pinks behind the bridge, a scene slowly interrupted as winged-tipped fishing boats spark the first ripples and the sun begins to shine.

The four-hour, bone-chilling bus ride to my next destination climbs 3,000 feet in elevation as we make our way to Inle Lake. A few miles in the open bed of a truck follows the long bus trip and takes me to the waterfront.

As the fishermen paddle boats with one leg from the shores of Inle Lake, nearby in Ywama village, women dressed in vibrantly colored clothing pick the best catch at the market. Puffing the smoke of sweet-fragranced cigars or cheroot into the morning air, they choose the freshest fish to prepare for the day. Here and all throughout the country, women gracefully carry goods on their heads with babies secured in a basket on their backs.

These are the scenes that permeate every moment of the Myanmar experience. The country has yet to develop a seamless tourism system, which makes it all the more intriguing and authentic. When faced with delays, frustration or confusion, it’s crucial to set western ways aside. Those details become insignificant once you set your eyes on the beauty of Myanmar—the country of green and gold.