Golden Pagodas, Ancient Kingdoms & An Incredible Country Frozen In Time

On May 24, 2014, my fiancé, Andy, and I got married in New York City. A week later, we hopped on a plane with two carry-on suitcases and two one-way tickets to Paris. We had just pressed pause on our careers, sublet our apartment, and moved all of our things into storage. The only plan was to have no plans at all — and we ended up traveling for 394 days through 25 countries, stopping in nearly 100 destinations. Over the next few weeks, come along on this crazy journey to learn more about how we did it — packing, plotting, budgeting — and see some of the tens of thousands of photos we took along the way.
The first stop on our tour of Southeast Asia was Myanmar, a country in a tornado of change. Recently, it emerged from more than 50 years of military dictatorship and self-isolation, and began opening its doors to tourism — and working toward becoming a full-fledged democracy.
This isolation preserved the country from globalization, and has made it a huge draw for tourists. In many parts of Myanmar, it seems as if time has stood still. Women cover their faces in the traditional cosmetic yellow paste called thanaka, men wear long skirt-like sarongs called longyi, and people everywhere chew a combination of spices and tobacco called betel nut. They smile at you with bright blood red teeth, and spit out red juice that stains the streets. In rural areas, it’s common to see people get around by ox and cart. You don’t have to go to a museum to view thousands of years of history, you can watch it play right out in front of you.
Because of all this, Travel + Leisure put Myanmar on its cover in 2014, and named it the Destination of the Year. Part of me hoped that by the time we arrived, we’d still be able to fully immerse ourselves in the local culture, without a tourist in sight. But the secret is definitely out. Since the government restricts visitors from certain parts of the country, and keeps them on a ‘tourist circuit,’ the amount of foreigners feels amplified. Every other stop felt packed with tourists. It seemed like so much had been commercialized, and many of the locals were onto the game of profiting off of tourists, along with the invasion and observations of their daily life. It’s part of the greater conflict surrounding tourism in Myanmar: We’re all so eager to get there and catch a glimpse of this untouched culture before the Western world arrives at its door, but our very presence chips away at its authenticity.
And yet, the overwhelming majority of people we met were hospitable, funny, warm and, as in India, shared the same innocent curiosity for us as we had for them. They were eager to share their country’s culture and history. It might not sound like much, but this total openness is a rarity in our globalized world.

More from Travel

R29 Original Series