Rollin’ On the River
Story and photos by Seth Bracken, July 2017 Issue.
Visiting Myanmar is taking a step back in time. Somehow the country, bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand, has remained nearly untouched by time.
Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is beginning to open to tourism. Last year, about 2 million people visited the country’s archaeological sites, relaxed on the pristine beaches and met the welcoming locals. But that number is already projected to more than triple this year. So, now is the time to explore the ancient sites and experience the entirely unique culture of this Southeast Asian country.
I recently spent two weeks on a river cruise with Brand g Vacations, a tour company that specializes in unique and small LGBTQ group tours to exotic and fascinating locations around the world.
A World Away
Before departing for my fourth trip with Brand g Vacations, I had some trepidation about the trip as it’s technically illegal for people of the same sex to have
intimate relations here.
The country was under dictatorial military rule for more than 50 years and progress, in nearly all senses of the word, was stalled. The infrastructure is tenuous at best, the education system is flailing and the health care system is nearly nonexistent. Last April the democratic party took control of the parliament and the government is working on coming into the 21st century.
But where do they start? Do they begin by improving a crumbling road and train system to allow for cross-country travel and trade? Or perhaps they start by building hospitals and schools? The list of improvements the country needs is daunting. But Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the government’s inaugural state counselor, is inspiring her people and instilling a sense of optimism for the future. She has been fighting for democracy since 1988 and was even under house arrest for more than two decades.
When locals acknowledge the many improvements that need to be made, it’s almost always followed with a smile and a comment about how “The Lady” (Suu Kyi) is working on fixing it. That was exactly the case when we had the opportunity to meet with a local LGBTQ activist and pick his brain about what he sees as the future for the community.
“We’re very optimistic about the future. We’re making progress and it’s hard to imagine where we’ll be in five or 10 years,” he said at a lunch organized by Brand g Vacations.
He went on to explain how members of the LGBTQ community have met with Suu Kyi and she has expressed unwavering support for advancing LGBTQ rights and protections in the country. It’s just that the list of priorities is already gigantic and overcoming 50 years of an oppressive and militaristic government doesn’t happen overnight, he added.
But progress is already being made by the people. For example, the third annual LGBTQ film festival took place this January.
The laws against LGBTQ people don’t come from local religious pressure, but are actually holdovers from when the British colonial government ruled the country until 1948. The vast majority of the country – nearly 90 percent – practices Theravada Buddhism, the oldest form of the religion, which focuses mostly on doing good deeds in this life in order to be rewarded in your next reincarnation until one reaches the state of nirvana.
The long history of Buddhism makes the country a fascinating visit. There are thousands of gold-plated pagodas (religious shrines) dotting the landscape – ranging from ancient to recently constructed.
An Immersive Itinerary
Our tour started in the most populated city, Yangon, where were stayed in a luxurious 4-star hotel that met and surpassed most Western standards. We visited the same stunning 2,600-year-old, 325-foot Shwedagon Pagoda that President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in 2014.
After getting a taste of the hurried metropolitan life of the city with 5 million residents, we met the boat we’d be staying on for the next nine nights as we worked our way up the countryside on the Irrawaddy River.
By cruising along the river, we were outside the major tourist paths and we stopped at several villages where foreigners were still quite the spectacle. As a white man with blonde hair, a red beard and a belly, everywhere my boyfriend (who also fits into the bear community) and I went, we were a sight to see. Walking down the streets, people would come out to stare or greet us with a handshake or hug. Some wanted photos with us, and others candidly snuck them with their phones as we walked by. When we entered local markets where women were most frequently the vendors, they would stare and giggle, especially after we made motions and acknowledged that we were, in fact, much larger than them and it was OK to laugh.
Despite being a bit of a circus act that’d come to town, we never once felt ridiculed or threatened. On the contrary, the people of Myanmar are the friendliest, most welcoming and open group of people I’ve ever met. In a village with no electricity or running water, my boyfriend and I were invited into a home to be introduced to a great-grandmother who was 90 years old, and had never seen anyone who looked like us before. When we visited a village that was famous for making nearly all the pottery that is used around the country to store and haul water we were welcomed to try our hand at the human-powered pottery wheel and shown around the open-air kilns.
And when we visited an elementary school where Brand g Vacations had previously sponsored a fundraiser to replace a roof, we were greeted with a school-wide chorus singing a song to teach the children English. We left the kids with two oranges and a bar of soap each, and I’ve never quite felt anything like I did when I saw the kids happily smelling their bar of soap as they went running and skipping home.
One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Bagan Temple Valley. The raw, rustic nature of Bagan immediately draws you in to a world where nearly 2,500 thousand-year-old temples cover an area of 27 square miles. Dirt roads, no entrance fees or restrictions make walking through this ancient city feel like an Indiana Jones movie come-to-life. Climbing to the top of a 50-foot-tall temple built nearly 1,000 years ago to watch the sunset over the valley was one of the most singularly beautiful moments of my life.
Another highlight was spelunking in what’s known as the painted caves. Nearly 1,000 caves were carved into a sandstone hillside and filled with stunning paintings and Buddha carvings that date as far back to the 14th century. But what made this experience so unique was being able to wander aimlessly through priceless artifacts without the typical restrictions that would normally accompany such a true archeological treasure. This area is also populated with small monkeys. Our tour company paid local “monkey minders” to distract the animals so we could explore the caves without being disturbed. But the same monkey minders would also help you feed and get to know the monkeys for 1,000 Kyat (around 70 cents).
The amazing exchange rate, stunning archeology and the amiable people are just a few pieces of the puzzle that makes this country an undiscovered treasure. Now is the time to visit; before Myanmar takes its rightful place as one of the most-visited countries in the world and begins catering to the droves of tourists who have added this must-see destination to their travel bucket lists.
For more information on Brand g Vacations, visit brandgvacations.com.