The night before my first trip to Myanmar (also known as Burma), there were a few essential items I triple-checked were in my backpack: my passport and printout of my visa, as well as the George Orwell classic Burmese Days and Amitov Ghosh’s historical novel The Glass Palace for relevant literary inspiration. But the item I was most excited to bring with me was a new watercolour sketchbook, its 12 blank pages awaiting my impressions — one page for each day of my trip.
For years, I had felt drawn to visit Burma. It might’ve been the country’s complex history and colonial past; its unique location in Asia and shared borders with such countries as India and China; or simply the countless photos I’d seen of its gilded temples and pagodas, especially those silhouetted at sunrise in the ancient town of Bagan. But no matter how many images I might’ve seen, none of them were my own… yet.
My first stop in Burma was the country’s largest city and former capital, Yangon, and my first stop in Yangon was dictated by my growling stomach. It was time for breakfast.
Through the city centre teeming with people, I walked past countless sidewalk restaurants comprised of colourful plastic tables and stools, every tabletop bearing silver teapots of Chinese green tea. Down a side street, I stopped at a stall serving mohinga noodles, where I sat down on a lime green stool and ordered my first bowl of the flavourful fish soup.
And it was here that my initial impressions of Burma began to make their way onto the pages of my sketchbook — from men wearing dark plaid longyis, or sarongs, to vendors selling garlands of fresh jasmine and bell flower blossoms, their fragrance sweetening the morning air. Sprawling cities such as Yangon can often feel unknowable at first, so sketching was my way of making sense of a new world.
“It feels great to be alive to the world again,” I wrote in my notes that night, “and with no agenda but to grow my understanding of this place as fast and deep as I can manage in 12 days.”
From Yangon, I took an overnight train to Bagan, where more than 2,200 temples and pagodas are spread out across a dusty plain. From Bagan, I headed northeast into the verdant Shan Highlands. Each time I left a place, there were a few more drawings in my sketchbook. Little by little, sketch by sketch, my understanding of Burma was expanding.
Just before leaving the country, I returned to Yangon for a night, where my time in Burma ended exactly as it had begun — sketching at another brightly coloured plastic table, this time in Theingottara Park at sunset. Instead of a single image, I drew a compilation of brief sketches, capturing some of my favourite motifs from the country: the bowls of noodles and bottomless cups of Chinese tea, the endless pagodas and ever-present longyis.
I’ve always loved this process of discovery that traveling allows us; how our blank-page knowledge of a place is slowly coloured with detailed perceptions. But, I’ve never watched it unfold as tangibly as it did in Burma, as though my sketchbook were a mirror of my mind.
At the bottom of my quick compilation–sketch that night, I wrote that Burma is “a place with a thousand layers, waiting to be known.”
I still had much to learn about the country, but thanks to my sketchbook, I was grateful for a few images of Burma that I could finally call my own.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Burma encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.