Category Archives: Myanmar

Sharing an Inspirational Travel Tale

We love to travel and love to be inspired by our travels. So when CNN challenged readers to submit stories about inspirational travel experiences, we couldn’t refuse. I was at first intimidated about submitting something to a network that airs the likes of Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour. However, the more daunting task was figuring out which story to tell. Some minordiversion readers were inspired by our time with Elephants in Chiang Mai. Others enjoyed our culinary pursuits and the more adventurous among you liked our Himalayan trek. In the end, I shared a personal reflection of our time in Bagan, Myanmar.

Here is an excerpt from the submission, which I was very humbled to find out was shortlisted by CNN to be featured on their site.

The bicycle didn’t have a light. My eyes were straining to see in the moonless night and my legs seemed too stiff to peddle through the sand and gravel. I could sense the sun stretching. This was my one morning in Bagan and didn’t want to miss the sunrise over the fields of ancient Buddhist temples.  

You can read the full story here. If you like the piece (or not), please let the producers know by using the voting buttons at the bottom of the article.


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The Unique World of Burmese Driving

Some of the world’s drivers are used to sitting on the left side of the car and driving on the right side of the road. The UK and most former British colonies are used to sitting on the right side and driving on the left side of the road. Switching from one to the other takes some adjustment but, as Sandeep can attest from his Indian driving experience, it’s not that hard.

But how about having right hand steering and driving on the right hand side of the road? Myanmar has the distinction of having this split personality.

Myanmar was a British colony until 1948. The cars had right hand steering and drove on the left side of the road. In 1970 all traffic was moved to the right. I asked several people for the cause of the change and there are two commonly held theories, both of which point to the eccentricities of General Ne Win. One theory is that Ne Win’s wife’s astrologer said that the country would be better off driving on the right side of the road. The second is that the General had a dream that the country should switch directions. Either way, the General called the shots and traffic was directed to move sides overnight.

Despite the lane shifts, virtually every vehicle in Myanmar has right hand steering. Many vehicles are very old, and those that are considered modern are second hand imports from Japan. It isn’t just the cars that have to catch up. One can still see old traffic signs in downtown Yangon facing the wrong direction.

I would think all of this would increase accident rates and confuse drivers. However, Myanmar drivers appear orderly, within the cities as well as the countryside. Whether they are in two, three, four or eight wheelers, drivers stick to the right side of the road and, despite logistical challenges, take-over without any negative consequences.

There is one anomaly we found to the right hand driving set up. The boats in Inle Lake still stick to the left when they pass each other. Perhaps time has indeed stood still in some parts of Burma.


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Games People Play in Myanmar

In the States, it’s a common sight to see people playing basketball in their driveways or in neighborhood parks. In Thailand we saw people playing soccer in every available open space. In India the default street game is cricket. During our two weeks in Myanmar we saw the most varied games we have seen in a country thus far. It seems as if everyone, regardless of age or ability has a game of choice.

Our first game sighting was the Burmese national game of Chinlon, invented over 1,500 years ago for Burmese royalty. The game is more of a social dance than a competition. Traditionally, it has six participants who move in a circle, keeping a single rattan ball called a Chinlon in the air by using a combination of knees, feet and heads. It’s similar to playing with a hacky sack, but the repeated sound of the clicking rattan ball adds a musical element to the measured moves of the players.

A Chinlon is also used to play a modified version of volleyball, where the objective is to use only heads and feet to land the Chinlon on the opponent’s side of the net. Skilled players can actually spike with their feet. When we walked through the old Indian quarters of Yangon we saw little kids playing cricket in the streets. Apparently, cricket is only played among the Indian Burmese. I suppose our love for the game is strong no matter where in the world we are.

In the alleys of Yangon’s Chinatown we found this group of men playing checkers. The pieces on one side we beer bottle caps facing up. The other side had the bottle caps facing down. The men were liberally consuming beer while playing, which I am sure is part of ensuring that they never run out of game pieces.

We witnessed what may be the most magical setting for a chess match – oversize pieces on a board set along the moat of the royal palace at Mandalay. The players were so fascinated by our fascination of them, they invited us to play.

While in Inle Lake, our boat driver settled into a game of carom while we ate our lunch on the water.

Many children in Myanmar haven’t seen an Apple product, let alone a mechanical toy or even a set of coloring pencils. In the villages we trekked through in Kalaw we say these children happily adapting their own game of marbles using stones.

Apart from the chess pieces, all the material needed for these games were simple. Yet in contrast to some of the highly competitive games we play (Sandeep and I can get very nasty with each other in Scrabble) people engaged in their games were happily interacting with their opponents, keenly aware of the social aspect in task.

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Faces from Myanmar

People travel for various reasons – adventure, landscape, food, history, culture. Myanmar offers travelers many of these things, but what stood out the most to us were the people. For a country the geographical size of Texas and with the population the size of Ukraine, Myanmar is remarkably diverse. Myanmar has had various countries stake its claim on its lands. It has also been a significant trading port, and been caught in the middle of wars not its own. This history has brought with it the influence of many cultures. Even within the country, there are over 100 ethnic groups, some of which have been heavily involved in one of the world’s longest civil wars. Outsiders such as us who spend only a few weeks here cannot begin to understand the various subcultures. However, on the surface I was able to get a glimpse of the vibrant faces of Myanmar.

One of the first things we noticed when we landed in Yangon was thanaka, a sunblock paste, on nearly every woman and child. The paste is made by rubbing the bark of the thanaka tree on a stone block in circular motions. Add a little water and out comes sun block.

Burmese mothers seem to take particular artistic liberty in applying clown like thanaka patterns to their children’s faces.

Kayan has not quite mastered the art of photography. When he sees a camera he gets behind the lens to see his picture, not realizing that he first has to stand in front of the lens. His shortcomings aside, it seems universal that kids around the world love getting their pictures taken.

Burmese children, particularly in the villages where digital cameras are not common, get very excited at seeing their pictures. One of our most memorable experiences from Inle Lake was stopping at the local elementary school. The kids greeted us as our boat pulled into the floating playground, each child wearing green pants or skirts and white tops. The uniform is common for every child in a government school in Myanmar.

Myanmar remains a majority Buddhist country. In addition to the fact that one apparently can’t turn anywhere without seeing a pagoda or monastery, the faces of Buddhism can be seen in the monks, nuns and novices that make their daily alms rounds. In Thailand, we had to get up at the crack of dawn to witness monks seeking alms, and we did not see any nuns at all in Chiang Mai. By contrast, Burmese monks, nuns, and novices (monks in training) make alms rounds throughout the morning and, particularly in the north, nuns are a very common sighting. Alms rounds are a way for the monastery or nunnery to receive food as well a for Buddhists to make merit in their donation. Most Buddhist households prepare the morning alms for the monks before preparing the meal for the family. I love the sight of monks in saffron robes, but had never before seen Buddhist nuns dressed in elegant baby pink.

Monasteries and nunneries serve as centers for education and social welfare. Many young novices come from poorer families, some others are orphaned. They are brought to the monestaries and nunneries to be cared for, fed and educated. Once they reach adulthood, they can determine whether or not they want to remain in their orders. Once a week the novice nuns leave the nunnery to collect alms with the older nuns. We saw this little girl running across the street in Yangon after collecting alms from a restaurant.

While trekking between Kalaw and Inle Lake, we spent time in minority villages. We met friendly basket weavers and fieldworkers.

As we saw in elsewhere in Myanmar the women are out doing fieldwork while the men do ‘patient’ work, such as weaving.

By the end of the trip, I was integrated enough into the Burmese way of life that I mastered thanaka application and used it liberally myself.


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Living on Water in Inle Lake Myanmar

Imagine living your life on water. Not on an island, but literally on water. Where your post office looks like this and the postman delivers your mail by boat.

Where the school bus is a school boat that takes your kids to a floating playground. Where vegetables are grown in floating farms.

And delivered on boats.

Where the rest of your shopping is done in a stilted store.

And this is the closest thing you see to a highway.

This is your neighborhood. If you need more land, you can dig it up from the lake bed and float it on bamboo rods. Want to relocate? Pick up the rods and move your land elsewhere.

Such is the world on Inle Lake, a 45 square mile lake resting at an altitude of 3,000 feet in the middle of Myanmar. The lake and the surrounding areas is home to about 70,000 Intha people, several fish and snail species found no where else in the world, and tens of thousands of migratory seagulls. The Intha live simply in bamboo thatched huts and earn their keep mostly by fishing or farming. These communities and farms thrive on man made floating islands.

The lake is shallow and the water fertile, with an average depth of seven feet. The combination creates an ideal environment for growing vegetables such as tomatoes.  The water is rich with fish and harvesting them amid dense reeds is a challenge the Intha have mastered. To give them the elevation required to see what lies beneath the water surface, the fisherman use a technique of anchoring themselves to the stern with one leg and rowing with the other. It’s a workout if I’ve ever seen one. I kept expecting a fisherman to lose balance and fall in, but that never materialized. I asked a few people, but no one admitted to ever seeing a rower fall into the lake.

We were lucky to be in Inle during the seagull migration. We found out quickly that if we tossed up some bread, the gulls swoop down in droves and snatch  it mid air. This was fun for a few seconds until we realized that we were running out of bread but the gulls weren’t running out of appetite. With visions from Hitchcock’s The Birds flashing before my eyes yelled at our boatman to go faster!

Inle Lake is still exhibits much of its unique ecosystem and culture. However, it is facing severe environmental challenges. The water area has decreased by about 30% over the past 70 years. Farmers have taken to using synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, which in turn affects the water quality and fish. What once used to be safe drinking water is now too contaminated even for cooking. Additionally, increased tourism means more motorboats, which also has a devastating impact on the area.

We try to be aware of our environmental impact wherever we travel. For example, in Kottayam, our garbage didn’t go far from home. By contrast, we found Chiang Mai making huge efforts in recycling and pollution control. As lovely as a destination may be, I do think that we as visitors have to be conscious on the role we play to ensure that it remains so. After a half day of being taken around Inle Lake on a motorized boat, we decided to watch the lake from our floating hotel for the rest of our visit. It wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but we’re trying to be more responsible travelers where we can.

Life on Inle fascinated me and I couldn’t stop asking questions such as “How do you walk the dog?” to every local who spoke English. We’ll just have to come back and spend more time on the water to find out.

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Layers of Temples In Bagan Myanmar

For the 230 years leading to 1287, Burmese kings commissioned over 4,000 Buddhist temples in the plains of Bagan. The building fest was triggered by the region’s shift from Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism. At its height, Bagan was a vibrant religious and cultural center. The exact cause of Bagan’s decline is contested, but a combination of invasions and natural disasters (most recently a 6.5 Richter scale earthquake in 1975) compromised original structures and drastically reduced the population. Many of the temples have now been reconstructed, although historians claim with minimal respect for authenticity. The government relocated all remaining inhabitants of Old Bagan in 1990. Despite these controversies, Bagan remains what Marco Polo described as “one of the finest sights in the world.”

What makes Bagan so breathtaking is that thousands of temples lie in an area of just a couple of square kilometers. While each individual temple is less grand than the striking white and gold pagodas seen elsewhere in Myanmar, taken together the old brick structures for me rivaled sites such as the pyramids of Giza or Angkor Wat. Moreover, since Myanmar is still relatively new to mass tourism, it’s easy to explore the temples at a slow and leisurely pace, generally without the interruption of other tourists.

Bagan isn’t that far from Mandalay, but rather than fly the distance we opted to take the boat down stream on the Irrawaddy. There are local boats and tourists boats that make the journey. Usually we opt for local service, but in this case it meant adding another six hours to the ten hour journey so we went the tourist route. The trip was so comfortable that Sandeep set up is own home office, complete with coffee service, while I oscillated between a lounge chair on the open deck and stuffing myself with fish curry in the dining hall.

The trip down this portion of the Irrawaddy may lead one to believe that there are no people in Myanmar. Once out of the Mandalay area, the riverbank is isolated save for a few shacks and the occasional pagoda. Life on the river itself is pretty quiet, and we passed another boat every 10 minutes or so. Most of them were small row boats, each carrying one or two fishermen.

We approached Bagan at 6 PM, just in time to catch the sun setting over the temple town.

We only had one day in Bagan so got up early (as in 4:30 AM) to catch the sunrise. Cycling is the best way to explore the ruins but cycling in pitch dark back roads was a little more adventure than we planned. Many of Bagan’s quieter temples are either closed or have compromised structures, so it can be a challenge to find one to climb and watch the sun appear. Fortunately, we had a guide who knew of just the right temple, unmentioned in our guidebook, and led the way as we followed in the early morning darkness. The temple was deserted and steep stone internal stairs echoed ominously and smelled of bat droppings. But the view from the top was entirely worth it. As the sun stretched higher into the sky it revealed layers and layers of temples.

We decided to make the most of the early morning cool and cycle to some other temples. Luckily, at our first stop I befriended the ‘watch woman’ who had a daughter Kayan’s age. She also happened to hold keys to the gate of the internal staircase. For 1000 kyats (about $1) she was happy to unlock it. We had the temple to ourselves for an hour and made the most of its various vantage points. This particular temple was completely built from red brick, with the exception of the golden umbrella on its stupa.


Most of Bagan’s temples are quiet ruins. The few that are active temples hold fascinating relics such as dozens of miniature Buddha statues at Ananda temple. Every temple is an exploration sight, particularly for those who can brave the narrow and dark staircases and alleyways.

We continued our journey through side roads, catching glimpses of local life, such as this goat herder.

After cycling around some more the sun set in and we turned back to our hotel, where I treated my legs to a one hour massage for 4000 kyats ($5). Rejuvenated, we hopped on the bikes again to catch the sunset. We had cycled to the turnoff of a pagoda that Sandeep’s brother had recommended. When we got there, we realized the back road was too sandy for our bikes. With the sun threatening to set at any moment, we dropped the bikes and started running to our destination, yelling something about how this felt like a scene from Amazing Race. In the end we had to settle for watching sunset from a field. Not our plan, but breathtaking none the less.

Slightly defeated, we started our slow peddle back home. It quickly became faster as it got darker and we realized this time, without our guide, we didn’t have a flashlight to lead us back. We spent a total of six hours cycling around Bagan in one day. The bike rental from the hotel cost 3000 kyats ($4). Even though our bodies (well, maybe just mine – Sandeep seemed ready to cycling through the night) were signaling shut down, we still think that cycling is the best way to explore the lesser visited pagodas of Bagan. Our flight out of Bagan was at 7:50 the next morning, so we were able to catch one more sunrise before departure.


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Ava and the Ancient Kingdom

When we were expecting Ava we didn’t know her gender. We were prepared with a boy’s name and the name Ava for a girl. The name selection process was intense. We wanted either Indian or Persian (my mother’s heritage) roots, yet something that would be easily consumed in America. We scoured online name dictionaries and settled on Ava, which in Farsi means angel of water. What we didn’t realize what that the year our Ava (pronounced like lava) was born, Ava (with the a pronounced as in able) was one of the top five most popular girl names in the U.S. So despite our best efforts to pick a name that is easily understood, Ava will spend her life correcting the way people say her name.

Regardless, we still love the name and love it all the more after visiting the ancient upper Burmese capital of Ava. Legend is that the British, who couldn’t pronounce the Burmese name Inwa, renamed the capital Ava. Inwa meant city of gems, fitting for our jewelry obsessed Ava.

Ava is an island about an hour south of Mandalay and is only accessible by boat. Once on the island, one can walk or take a horse cart. Since the route is long and dusty, we opted for the latter. After years of war and a severe earthquake, what is left of ancient Ava are ruins of original pagodas, remnants of palace structures and a reconstructed watch tower. Most of the remaining palace was shipped to Mandalay when the capital moved, and even unwanted teak was taken off the island and used elsewhere in the country, such as on U Bein Bridge.. What has since grown are some small farming villages and new pagodas. I’m convinced that there is one pagoda per capita in Myanmar. We were warned of ‘pagoda fatigue’, but somehow I can’t seem to get enough of the structures.

Instead of getting carted around, we gave our horse a break and explored some of the island on foot. This pagoda complex is one of the few left from the ancient kingdom. As much as we like off the beaten path places, sometimes it’s wise to stay on the horse cart. We realized we went a little too far when, as I snapped this picture, a snake rustled through the greenery just in front of Sandeep.

As usual, it’s hard to take a picture in Myanmar without a combination of pagodas, monks or pink-robed nuns in the background.

What we loved about Ava was the quiet. The island is very rural and, apart from us tourists, farms, pagodas, and a few monasteries provide all the action. What our daughter Ava would love about the kingdom Ava would be the pink nuns and the gold pagodas.

It’s easy to find quiet spots in Ava to explore the ruins and meander through serene farmland. Just keep a stick to announce your arrival if you plan on getting off the horse cart. While our decision to name Ava had nothing to do with the ancient Burmese capital, her name has more meaning for us after our time here.

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Scenes from U Bein Bridge in Myanmar

Despite U.S. and European sanctions against direct importation of Burmese teak, the industry is thriving. Teak, and particularly Burmese teak, is prized for its durability and size. The wood bends, but resists breaking, making it ideal for construction. It resists water and insects, and certain varieties exhibit a glorious a red hue. Teak, along with precious gems, are major sources of revenue for the Myanmar government. One can find teak everywhere in Myanmar, from monasteries to bridges.  We passed teak forests on the way from Yangon to Kyaiktiyo. Along the Irrawaddy River in Mandalay we saw caravans of cargo ships piled with teak logs.

The ancient Kingdom of Ava (yes, a striking coincident to our daughter’s name and even pronounced the same way) built its palace compound out of solid teak. When the capital was moved to Mandalay, unwanted teak made its way to other purposes. One of the resting places became the U Bein bridge, located in Amarapura, about half hour south of Mandalay.

The bridge is 1.2 km and, as one walks from Amarapura to the other side, the scene from the bridge gets increasingly bucolic. Each teak log is magnificent on its own, and taken together the span looks like a page book from a bygone era. Local life seems to resume as it has for decades, with fisherman casting nets in the water and people farming the fields on the banks.

What I found just as fascinating was watching the morning progress beneath the boards. Women worked fields.

While some men took a break near their bullock cart. Incidentally, a trend I have noticed in Southeast Asia is that women work hard and men generally assigned to calmer tasks, such as fishing. This may be a global phenomenon, but it does seem more overt in this part of the world.

If you find yourself in Mandalay, cross the length of U Bein Bridge, then relax (particularly if you are a man) over a cups of tea in one of the tea stalls under the bridge and watch yesteryear yourself.

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Exploring Mandalay on Cycles

Travel websites, visitors to Myanmar, and even our Burmese friends told us that Mandalay was avoidable. The city, after being razed to the ground most recently in World War II is a new metropolis of wide multi-lane roads and buildings. Despite its name conjuring up exotic images, Mandalay is on the surface another city in an emerging country. My parents were keen to see the surrounding areas, so we spent a couple of days in Mandalay. While they went off to the hill station of Pyin Oo Lin we decided to rent bikes and discover the city. One of our first observations when we arrived was that it appeared very bike friendly. To us New Yorkers, who fear for our lives every time we get on bikes, it was an opportunity to hop on cycles.

Before we wheeled in, we spent an hour observing the rush hour crowd, most of them on bicycles. They all appeared to be riding at a leisurely pace and in a very orderly manner. No one wore helmets.

Cycling in Mandalay, more or less without any destination, was easy. The roads are generally smooth. The cycle lane is only shared by motorbikes, who respect cyclists and don’t move too much faster than cycles themselves. It was much less stressful than riding a bike through the streets on New York City, even without a helmet.

Experiencing Mandalay on a cycle rather than a car made a big difference to our appreciation for the city. We were able to wind through little alleyways where locals spin sugar into jaggery, pound metal for pots and carve wooden boats. We even crossed a local teak bridge above an Irrawaddy River tributary.

Since we cycled outside of the city, we were also able to enjoy a quiet lunch perched over the Kandawgyi Lake at Secret Garden Restaurant.

Our post lunch entertainment was being caught in the middle of a Shinbyu, an initiation ceremony of Burmese boys into a monk order. Most Burmese boys spend some time in their youth as novices in a monastery. The occasion is one of joy, and includes a colorful procession of the dressed up boys on horses, several animals, loud music and plenty of dancing. The entourage encouraged us to join, and we briefly did before starting the return trip home.

We wound back through a settlement alongside a canal that ran the length of the lake. Each house had a bridge driveway leading to its door.

Our final stop was at a longyi stall. Longyis are wrap around skirts worn by men and women. I was so intrigued by my fellow cyclists’ ability to ride in them that I had to try it out.

We’re happy to have had our day in Mandalay. Cycling gave us a feel for the city and we can now look back on it as a city with its own soul, rather than just a launching pad to its outskirts. It also allowed us to take our time and speak with the people of Mandalay. Sandeep made a quick friend at the end of our cycling day. This man came up to him and proclaimed, “You’re going to look like me when you get older!”

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Off The Tourist Path in Kyaiktiyo Myanmar

I have had a mystical notion of Burma (now Myanmar) for years. The fact that it has been difficult to reach, generally closed and politically tumultuous intrigued us even further. The timing of recent government reforms was perfect for us to include it on our itinerary. We decided to do Myanmar without Ava and Kayan as we were advised that the medical facilities and infrastructure are challenges. In hindsight, we could have taken the kids, but going without them enabled us to do a few off-the-beaten path things like trek and stay in a monastery. Our travel partners were my parents and this gave us some time to bond with the generation ahead of us. Meanwhile, Sandeep’s parents were on baby duty back in Kerala.

One of our first stops in Myanmar was Kyaiktiyo, about 130 miles northeast of Yangon. Kyaiktiyo is home to the Golden Rock, a 25 foot boulder precariously teetering on a cliff. Its position is said to be possible due to a single enshrined strand of Buddha’s hair, which allows for just the right balance. Private vehicles are not allowed in the area, and the ride up from the base of the mountain is only possible in the back of an open air truck, efficiently outfitted with seven benches, each seating six people.

I embarrassingly admit that to being ‘that tourist’. The one who takes pictures of an entire family on motorbikes, people hanging out of trucks or clinging onto the back of buses. This was our chance to experience what it’s like to be ‘those people’. Even though our rears took a beating and the truck huffed up like the little engine that could, it was wonderful. During the half hour ride, we had the opportunity to literally get up close and personal with locals and in touch with nature.

Our hotel was a 10 minute uphill walk from the designated drop off point, and we recruited porters to help us carry our bag. They must not have been used to carrying 20 kgs at a time, because an intense negotiation ensued about which one would be brave enough to take the bag up. Finally one hardy gentleman agreed, and hoisted another back on top for good measure.

My mother, who doesn’t have the lung capacity to walk uphill, was ported up by four men in what looked like a very comfortable sling chair.

The official statistic is that Myanmar welcomed only 300,000 tourists in 2011. However, our experience is that we all seemed to be after the same targets, and tour buses galore followed us wherever we went. Since we were told that most foreign tourists don’t visit Kyaiktiyo, so we imagined getting some peaceful time with the boulder. However, the Golden Rock is a pilgrimage site and draws Buddhists from all over Myanmar as well as the rest of the world. Some pilgrims believe that three visits to the rock in one year will bring wealth and recognition.  (That’s a great marketing technique if I’ve ever heard one…). Unfortunately, only men are allowed to touch the rock, so I suppose the women search for their wealth and recognition elsewhere. As a tourist, the experience was somewhat anticlimactic due to the crowds. The boulder itself is quite a sight and I would have loved to enjoy it in serenity. Luckily, the camera is able to ignore crowds.

Determined to find a peaceful spot, we decided the following morning to take a walk to a monastery that we were eyeing across the valley from our hotel. The entire night, we heard monks taking turns reciting prayers and we wanted to walk to the source of the readings. The monastery was not on the tour bus route. It requires climbing half an hour of continuous steps to reach. During the early morning trip, we saw a village waking up and collecting water.

At the top we found the peace we sought. The quiet view from our hidden monastery of the Golden Rock in the distance was almost more rewarding than the view of the Golden Rock from its own platform. When we found ourselves jostling herds of tourists, we initially thought that the trip to Kyaiktiyo was a mistake.  However, with some adjustments, and off-the-beaten-path adventure we were able to experience a slice of the Myanmar of our imagination.


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