The Question Every World Traveler Dreads

I’ve been to many amazing places. Each destination has a story and stirs deep emotions within my insatiable traveling soul. So when someone asks, “Where’s the most amazing place you’ve ever been?” – I dance and I dodge. “Come on, there HAS to be one!” Forced to come up with an answer, my go-to response has been Antarctica and its incredible, untouched beauty. Most are satisfied and left in awe of the idea of traveling to such a remote place.

As phenomenal as Antarctica is, I only give this answer to evade what, for me, is an honestly unanswerable question. I travel without expectations; to explore and discover the essence of a place. In every instance, I end up loving the location simply for what it is.  So, my answer is almost always “Antarctica.” It’s a safe answer, and it is amazing. However, in all my globetrotting, I’ve come to realize that the truly amazing places aren’t always the ones you’d expect. Such was my experience in Myanmar last November.

The Sulamani Pagoda, built in 1183, is one of the most visited temples in Old Bagan

Aside from a quick stop in Bangkok many years ago, I’d never been to mainland Southeast Asia. It had taken me so long to get there simply because there was too much to see, and I could never get enough time off work. I needed a full month minimum, and finally, I was able to swing it. I timed my trip to coincide with the Yi Peng / Loi Krathong lantern festival in Chiang Mai, and then built my itinerary. Let me tell you now, trying to cover the unmissable sights of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar in a one-month trip is TOUGH.  Really tough.  There is so much to see in this small area of the world!

Number one on my list was, of course, Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and the centerpiece of a region filled with incredible temples. The Lantern Festival helped me decide what time of year to go, but Angkor Wat that was the true ‘anchor’ of the trip. The anticipation I felt just thinking about finally seeing it was almost unbearable.  I was confident that my trip would be memorable – from the Temples of Angkor to laid-back Laos, and the infectious energy of Saigon and Hanoi. What I didn’t know was how much I would be affected by my time in Myanmar.

Beautiful Thatbyinnyu Pagoda is the tallest temple in Bagan at 201 feet (61 meters)

Fittingly, Myanmar was the last of the five countries on my itinerary. Best for last, perhaps? With the first openly-contested democratic elections in 25 years having taken place just weeks before I arrived, the excitement and optimism for the future was palpable. Myanmar, with decades of military rule now behind it, is just starting to open up to the greater world. And it is finally gaining traction and deserved recognition as one of the premier destinations in Southeast Asia. This magical place ignited my adventurous spirit like none of the countries I had just visited could even begin to do. Yes, you will see tourists, but it still felt off the well-beaten path, and has far, far fewer tourists than neighboring Thailand – for now!

My most eye-opening realization was that Myanmar, always a part of Southeast Asia in my mind, was the clear odd man out. Often I felt more like I was in Bangladesh or India, than in any of its eastern neighbors. The people, the culture, the food – they all pointed west. Shoes and socks were required to be removed upon entering all sacred places – and not just the building itself, but the entire grounds. I hadn’t experienced that in any of the other countries I’d just visited, but I had in places like India, Sikkim, and Nepal. (Pro tip: bring comfortable sandals and lots of baby wipes!)

You’d rarely find a local in traditional dress walking around a city in Thailand or Vietnam. But in Myanmar, the ‘longyi’, a traditional wrap worn below the waist, is the norm. Even in cosmopolitan Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, locals young and old wear their longyi walking around downtown, to the office, from the market – it doesn’t matter. Centuries-old traditions and culture are alive and well here, still resisting outside influence. The commonalities with the Indian subcontinent are clear, as locals in Dhaka, Kerala, and other nearby places to the west wear a similar wrap called a ‘lungi’. That said, Myanmar’s new openness to the world is causing more and more youth to look even further west, with many ditching the longyi for a pair of jeans. And here I was, doing things the other way around, proudly wearing my longyi while getting confused looks from the young, modern, jeans-clad locals.  I could almost read their minds: “These tourists are so strange!”

Wearing my ‘longyi’ and posing barefoot in front of my favorite pagoda, Htilominlo

I could have spent a month in Myanmar alone. Sadly, I only had seven days. Seven literally wonder-full days. I tried my best to see everything, from Mandalay with its wealth of history and fascinating old capital sites to the Inle Lake region and its beautiful stilt-villages, curious leg-rowing fishermen, and fields of countless stupas. I ventured into strange but awesomely tourist-free Naypyidaw, the ten-year-old capital built by the military government, and then ended the week in lively Yangon, the former capital and home of the impressive glittering-gold Shwedagon Paya. The friendliness of the people, delicious food (a distinctive cuisine all its own, though often described as a perfect blend between Indian and Thai), and wealth of still-intact cultural traditions (look up ‘thanaka’) make Myanmar an even more fulfilling destination.

If you’re familiar with Myanmar at all, you may have noticed that I left out one notable place from the description above – Bagan. Bagan deserves its own paragraph; its own post, really. In fact, Bagan, not Angkor, should have been the place this entire trip was built around, because it instantly rose to the very top of my list of trip highlights. More than the Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai, more than the Temples of Angkor, more than Luang Prabang or Saigon or Hanoi – more than anywhere, actually.

Bagan is a wonder above all wonders, a place unlike any I have ever visited. An ancient capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, more than 10,000 temples and stupas were built here between the 11th and 13th centuries. A staggering number remain waiting to be explored, over 2,200 of them!  Some of these incredible structures, if they stood alone, are a sight to behold and reason enough to visit Bagan. But there are literally THOUSANDS of them scattered across the plains.

The largest temple at Bagan, Dhammayangyi Pagoda, dominates the surrounding plains

How this place is not yet a UNESCO World Heritage Site (an esteemed distinction which grants United Nations funding and protection of the world’s greatest cultural and natural sites) is baffling. The rationale for the current exclusion is partly due to what some experts say are questionable restorations and reconstructions over the years by the military government. Many, including myself, believe that inscription on the World Heritage List should happen as soon as possible, as it would immediately protect what is currently unaltered. I do have to admit that this knowledge had little effect on my experience – there are simply too many stunning temples and pagodas to even notice.

My first foray into Bagan’s massive archaeological zone was nothing like a kid in a candy store – it was far worse. I was not just ridiculously excited, I was honestly stressed out. I hired a guide to take me around, and for the first time in all my travels, I did not know where to start. “I want to see them all,” I said. He just laughed. It probably wouldn’t even be possible with a month just in Bagan, and here I was with less than two days. The stress soon dissipated as I knew in my heart – I will be back. And with that epiphany, I carried on, happy to see as much as I could.

We drove from pagoda to pagoda – some crumbling, some almost too-renovated, but most somewhere perfectly in-between.  We climbed a pagoda, barefoot of course, to see the sunset over the vast temple-littered plain, mixing with monks, tourists and locals alike, all in awe of the towering architectural masterpieces before us. It was enthralling. Bagan completely mesmerized me. I decided, after seeing Bagan (and this was not a thing I would ever say lightly, I really thought about this!), that it is the most beautiful, the most amazing sight I have ever seen.  In my life.

My now forbidden sunset panorama, taken from atop the crowded Shwesandaw Pagoda

Note:  I got lucky, as climbing the pagodas was completely banned by the Ministry of Culture on March 1, 2016, just three months after I visited. My sunset panorama shots are now priceless souvenirs!

So, back to the original question: “Where’s the most amazing place you’ve ever been?” I will still dodge if specifically asked about my ‘favorite country’ or the ‘best city’.  But if anyone ever pointedly asks that question, I now have an easy answer. No dodging, no dancing, no explanation of how amazing everywhere I go is.  I simply say, “Bagan.”

Update!:  Facing backlash from the tourism industry, the Ministry of Culture revised their statement on a climbing ban to allow for access to a designated 5 pagodas for climbing and sunset-viewing.