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Isolated Destinations: Bhutan and Myanmar

Exotic Myanmar
Exotic Myanmar

It sure made me nervous, but I did it. I got up in front of 60 people and gave a travel talk at Aquinas College last week . Knees knocked and voice cracked a bit, but once the lights were turned low and I could share the fascinating places I’ve been in the last two years I got more comfortable.

Why do I do this to myself? I love to travel and I love sharing the experiences. I also think it is good to “get out of one’s comfort zone” as the cliche says.

Thousands of Pagodas in Myanmar
Stupas in Myanmar

The talk was loosely called Travels with Susan because Sheila, the director of Olli at Aquinas College said I could do whatever I wanted. I had trouble picking a country (all so fascinating) so I selected four that have a similar characteristic. For one reason or another they have gone through a period of isolation.

In our hyper-connected world, I think it is interesting to look at countries where people don’t look at Facebook every other minute and time is elastic and they don’t understand our way of life.

Thankha in Burma
Wearing thankha in Myanmar
Ages old Bhutan where time stands still

What comes to mind is when I was in Bhutan visiting monasteries and I asked our guide if it was ok to take photos of the young novices. Would they be bothered by that? Often I’d see them staring intensely at us. Not smiling.

Sha’s response: “I’ve talked to some of them and they are really perplexed. They have no idea what the outside world is like. It is confusing to them that you would come here and be interested in their world. They don’t understand how different yours is.”

Here are some photos of some of those guys.

Bhutan: little boy wearing gho, the traditional garb for men
Novices in Bhutan
Novices in Bhutan
Novices in Bhutan curious about foreigners
Young novices in Bhutan, peeking out at us

One day this little girl followed one of my fellow travelers and me. We had such fun taking photos of her and showing them to her. She was so intrigued with our ability to do that.





Bhutan is one of the four countries I talked about and have six blog posts about this far away and distant place on It was totally closed to the outside world until the 1960s, when the king opened the door a crack. There were no roads, no school system, no electricity, nothing. It was a country that operated like feudal times.

Tourists were allowed in starting in the early 1970s. They capped the number of tourists for many years, only allowing about 20,000 a year. Now that number is up to 100,000.

The goal is to preserve their culture.

Monk at a market in Bhutan
At market in Bhutan

Another country, hidden from modern view is Myanmar (formerly called Burma).  It’s isolation has been the result of a nasty military dictatorship. The people there are now embracing visitors from all over the world, more than 5 million expected this year. This is up from 1 million in 2012.

Most fascinating to me was Inle Lake. Click here for a blog post about that remote and isolated part of the world. I’ve done several.

Isle Lake in Myanmar
Inle Lake in Myanmar
Isle Lake Myanmar
Inle Lake Myanmar
Inle Lake, Myanmar
Paddling while standing on one leg, Inle Lake, Myanmar
Inle Lake, Myanmar
Washing dishes, Inle Lake, Myanmar
Isle Lake, Myanmar
Gathering area on Inle Lake, Myanmar
Weaving in Myanmar
Weaving in Myanmar

The folks all over Myanmar face the challenge of an infrastructure not updated in 60 years. Only 1/3 of the people have access to electricity. They don’t have the hotels, roads, tour guides or facilities to accommodate all of the folks who want to see the place written about so eloquently by Rudyard Kipling.

For the wind is in the Palm trees,
an’ the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier,
come you back to Mandalay!’

Nuns in Myanmar
Nuns in Myanmar

But the spirit is positive and life is looking better for the 53 million people with a beautiful culture and exotic history. An example of the new energy is this image, pulled from the web of young people at a Festival in Yangoon called “Cosplay” where enthusiasts gather to imitate characters from anime series, comics and video games, many drawn from Japanese pop culture.

Welcome Myanmar to the 21st Century.


Myanmar-a changing place
Life is changing in Myanmar
Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    Gavin and Jackie Sugden
    Apr 26, 2016 Reply

    Well done Susan….we wish we could have been there to enjoy your talk. You’ve awoken our interest in Bhutan again, it will have to be on our list. We have Prague, Madeira and New York booked to the end of this year and then New Zealand booked for January so lots to look forward to.

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Apr 28, 2016 Reply

      Oh, what lovely travel you have planned. When will you be in New York? We’ll be there in November. Wouldn’t it be fun to meet up?

  2. posted by
    Apr 27, 2016 Reply

    It sounds like a fascinating evening! How wonderful to have so many people attend. I wish I’d been there. I’d love to see your gorgeous photos in that setting and hear your take on it all, the comparisons between countries.

  3. posted by
    Apr 27, 2016 Reply

    So proud of you for going outside your box and putting together this fascinating talk. I know it took a lot of time and energy to find all the information for the 4 country comparison! Good Job!

  4. posted by
    John Halliday
    Apr 28, 2016 Reply

    Mari and I enjoy your posts immensely having been on the Bhutan trip with you! I have always wanted to go to Myanmar and it is on the bucket list. My great grandmother contacted typhoid on a journey from London to rejoin her husband in Australia and passed away in a hospital in Rangoon. I have always wanted to try to look it up! My grandmother and her brother were both under eight years of age and with their mother when she passed. They finally got money for steamer tickets to Australia, but because their father was a circus man and couldn’t take care of them they were put in an orphanage. Finally, the “star” of the family Polly Lee send money to pay for passage to San Francisco and for her to live with an Aunt. I think you will find a lot about Polly on google or wikipaedia. Probably, more than you wanted to know about our family. Keep up the good work Susan! The BEST from John & Mari Halliday, Burbank, California

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Apr 28, 2016 Reply

      Oh absolutely lovely to hear from you, John. Thank you so much for sharing your family story. I hope you go to Myanmar. Be sure to visit Inle Lake if you do. Typically people go to Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan but they really miss out if they don’t visit Inle Lake. We really loved our experience. For me it was very interesting to compare and contrast Buddhism, culture and all with what I saw in Bhutan. Best to both you and Mari.

      Do stay tuned to for a couple more posts on Myanmar. As you know I love taking photos…..have lots more to post.

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