I was watching the Late Show with David Letterman last night and became inspired. I know David Letterman seems like a strange thing to draw inspiration from, but it's true. His guest appearance was Drew Barrymore and the two chatted about her recent travels. Miss Barrymore said...

"I think it's important to get outside of our culture and go experience other cultures around the world because it is so humbling and it's so educational. Other than school really, travel is the way to learn about the world." And with that David responded, "it's the best investment one can make in oneself".

I adore both those statements and they remained in my thoughts for the rest of the night. Today, I woke up with an urge to write about my travels. So without further ado, I present the story of my two days in Burma.

In 2008, I traveled Southeast Asia for three months and spontaneously devoted two of those days to Burma. Burma was never part of the original plan, but neither was staying in Thailand for five weeks. When my 30 days of legal visitation were coming close to expiry, I jetted to the nearest border to renew my Visa.

My Swedish friend, Oskar, and I boarded the two hour bus ride to Burma without hesitation. When we arrived at the crossing we had our passports ready to be stamped and the fee: a CRISP $20 American bill. I emphasize "crisp" because we were instructed any bills that looked old with folds or tears in them would not be accepted. Those bills were fraudulent in the eyes of border patrol agents. Luckily I had crisp bills on hand that day.

Once we took care of business and received our stamps, Oskar and I had the rest of the day to shop for knock-off designer bags. I'm sure he wasn't as thrilled as I was skipping through the wonderland of Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, D & G and Ferragamo. Everything was bargained for and paid with in American dollars.

After the market we walked back into Mae Sai and bumped into a nice English couple who had spent the day in Burma with a Burmese tour guide. We walked a little ways with the couple and their guide who was informing them of the history behind the small town we were in. The couple was so impressed with their guide that they couldn't stop raving about their experience in Burma that day. The guide showed them the local culture, temples, history and they even tasted the local cuisine. My handbags were no comparison to those stories, so I jotted down the guides number and told him to expect a call from me the next day.

Oskar and I headed to the bus station to board our ride back to Chiang Rai that night only to discover we were too late. The buses stopped running earlier than we thought. We were stranded two hours away from our guesthouse and couldn't possibly afford the cab fare back. So with my 6-foot-7-inch travel buddy, I felt secure enough that hitch hiking was our only solution. This was my first time hitch hiking and I had no idea what to expect. I had visions of us traveling back to the guesthouse on the back of a farmers truck sitting on bales of hay and nudged between farm animals. I was hoping someone would stop soon because the night was slowly creeping up on us.

Someone eventually stopped and to our surprise he was driving a brand new sports car. We hopped in and explained our situation to the smiling Thai couple who spoke perfect English. They were headed to the same city we were, they had heated leather seats and they cranked Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys CD's for us during the trip. Oskar and I couldn't believe our luck that night and we laughed about the story for the next couple of days.

The next morning I called the tour guide and arranged a time to meet him at the border again. I had to stop at the bank this time to trade in a mangy $20 bill for one of those crisp ones. I received another stamp on my passport and once I got past the market of designer bags, I discovered a country very much in ruins - no garbage system, no paved roads and restrictions on where tourists could and could not go. I could not go 8 km from the border, as armed soldiers guarded opium fields beyond that point. Those were the same opium fields that enabled drug lords wealth and power in order to rule Burma alongside the government. And that was the same government who ordered it's soldiers to shoot monks in the streets just a year earlier when they were simply protesting peace within their own country. I learned all this and more that day.

A typical toilet in Southeast Asia. Place feet on side, squat, do business, then use water in bucket to flush.

For lunch we stopped at a meditation center. We indulged in traditional Burmese cuisine by sitting on bamboo mats facing a low table with a variety food served in an array of bowls. The bowls were filled with steamed rice, soft vegetables, soups, salads, wheat and rice noodles, meats and poultry and lots of fresh fruit. I ate only with my right hand to be respectful. One hand (the right) should always be reserved for eating and shaking hands, while another (left hand) should only be used to clean oneself after using the restroom.

We finished lunch with hot tea and then explored the grounds of the center. I watched as monks and the people who lived at the center meditated throughout the day. The intensity and dedication to the practice was so interesting to observe. Many even meditated in mosquito nets to ensure that nothing could break their concentration, not even a fly.

The daily count of people who attended the center (written in Burmese print).

We walked through an ordinary village on an ordinary day. Chili peppers were drying in the sun, children went to school and everyone but me shielded themselves from the scorching sun. When a local spotted me without an umbrella, she quickly came over to put whitening lotion on my face. In Asia, men and women clothe themselves from head-to-toe and use umbrellas on the hottest days to protect themselves against the sun. Tanned skin is considered lower class as peasants who work in the fields all day have more colour. They never did understand why I wanted to lay on the beach and suntan all day. Regardless of my explanations on western beauty, the woman insisted on putting whitening cream on my face and I finally allowed it. We then stopped into a nice little tearoom conveniently located in someone's backyard.

This is one of my all-time favourite photographs. I took this picture while walking in the village. The little boys were playing a game of marbles during their lunch break outside the temple.

Although every weekend in Southeast Asia seemed like an excuse for celebration, I was told I was lucky to visit Burma during such an important festival. Everyone came to the temples, brought food and beautiful flowers for Buddha and then prayed and sang for hours. The sight of red and gold decorations and the sound of ringing bells was magical. In a country so torn and corrupted it seemed that festivals and celebrations were the only way to bring hope for a brighter future. It was apparent the Burmese people were suffering and a heavy reliance on religion and spirituality seemed like a distraction and potentially a method to the madness.

Last stop on the tour was a series of temples. While all the men were away at work, the women stayed behind to cook and make their offerings to Buddha throughout the day. I didn't spot any other tourists that day and I had a feeling they didn't get many visitors either. Everywhere I went the locals would stare and children would run up to me to touch my arms. I wasn't sure what was going on, but my guide explained that most of the children had never seen a Caucasian person or fair skin before. They were told that touching me would bring them good luck. Once I knew that I felt more comfortable with all the children approaching me. I would hold out my arms and was happy knowing they left with a glimmer of hope that good luck was around the corner.

The elderly ladies pictured below were so lovely and welcoming that they took me into the temple and taught me the ceremonial customs of paying respect to Buddha. Although I don't practice the ritual, I still remember all the steps. It was also the first time they saw a picture of themselves. The digital camera was the talk of the village and after snapping a shot of the ladies, they laughed and joked when they saw themselves in the frame.

So Miss Barrymore is absolutely right. My experience traveling was very humbling and I learned more from my guide and my two days in Burma than I ever could have from a text book. I encourage everyone to travel and to make that investment in oneself.

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