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We all travel for different reasons, but deep down I suspect each of us is seeking something that we feel we don’t possess. Maybe our lives aren’t exciting enough. Maybe we’re looking for validation or admiration. Or maybe it’s the sense of adventure. Chasing the romantic image of faraway places. But no matter where we go or what our motivation, there’s something satisfying about an authentic experience in a new and unfamiliar land.

old wooden raft on a river in Cambodia
In search of something real…

If you’re like me, you’re looking for ways to truly connect with the places you visit. It’s not good enough to just go, snap a few photos, and move on. If you’re after something more meaningful, look no further than the history of your host country. Stories and legends rich in meaning are often found right under your feet. That busy sidewalk cafe may have been the site of an ancient battle that changed the course of history. That dirty ferry terminal may have been a 17th-century trading port that shipped clothing and exotic spices to your ancestors. Everything springs to life and the mundane takes on a whole new meaning once you dig a little deeper.

But it’s easier said than done. Travel has changed over the years. Even previously “off the beaten path” destinations have become commercialized. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the beaten path. A place like Angkor Wat attracts 2.5 million visitors yearly. That’s a lot of people! But that doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring. Still, understanding the history provides context. And that’s what makes for the most memorable experiences.

Seeking a Deeper Connection in Myanmar

The 2nd biggest country in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is by no means a tourism hub (at least not for now). It is, however, home to some amazing destinations. The scenery around Inle Lake is sublime. But with the recent surge in tourism, it’s easy to see how one might feel disappointed. The shops are filled with authentic (apparently) crafts and jade jewelry. The long-neck Kayan women smile for photo ops. But in the back of your mind, you can’t help but wonder if it’s just for show.

Floating village above Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar
Floating villages of Inle Lake

So it’s up to us to uncover the truth. People have lived here for thousands of years. They’ve developed their own distinct culture over time. Their history is unique, found nowhere else on earth. No amount of tourist buses (or boats) will change that. If we can get through to those people, their history, their culture, then we’ll find the authenticity that makes it all worthwhile.

Hpaung Daw U Pagoda and the Legend of King Alaungsithu

Hpaung Daw U Pagoda is home to 5 gilded Buddha images. It’s the most highly revered pagoda of Inle Lake. It’s believed that the images were brought here from Bagan over 800 years ago by King Alaungsithu.

Hpaung Daw U Pagoda of Inle Lake
Hpaung Daw U Pagoda of Inle Lake

The reign of Alaungsithu was prosperous. He continued the rapid construction of temples in Bagan that began with his grandfather. It was Alaungsithu that built the tallest structure in Bagan, Thatbyinnyu Temple, which stands over 60 meters tall. And that was in the 12th century! It still stands to this day.

But King Alaungsithu had trouble at home. The story goes that his eldest son, Min Shin Saw, had an attitude problem. He once refused to kneel before the queen. Another story says that he stripped a robe off of a royal attendant. At first, the rebellious crown prince was imprisoned for these offenses. But eventually, his sentence was reduced to life in exile. It was then that the king’s second son, Narathu, became heir to the throne.

Centuries-old temples of Bagan
One of the thousands of temples scattered across the plains surrounding Bagan

Fast forward. Years later, King Alaungsithu fell ill. Eager to take control, Narathu moved the king out of the palace and into a nearby temple. When he recovered, he was furious that own son had pushed him aside so quickly. Unfortunately for the king, there was no time to vent his frustrations. Narathu snuck into the temple and murdered his father, sealing his fate.

Upon hearing of the king’s death (but not knowing the circumstances), Min Shin Saw returned from exile to claim the throne. He was consecrated as the new king upon arrival, but his reign was short-lived. Later that night, he was poisoned by his ruthless younger brother, Narathu.

So what became of Narathu? After executing both his father and brother, he became King of Bagan in 1167. He continued in his homicidal ways by killing his wife, who was from a kingdom in present-day Chin State near the Indian border. In 1171, the chief of that region sent 8 assassins disguised as Brahmin astrologers to avenge her death. They concealed their swords beneath their robes and killed Narathu in his own palace. Legend has it that when the king’s guards realized what happened, they all committed suicide.

What the Legend Teaches Us About the Travel Experience

As we venture out into the world in search of whatever it is that we’re searching for, we always have the power to choose. Either accept the destination as it’s presented or dig deeper to experience it in a new light. Every city is amazing. Each village is unique. Every culture has its own quirks and oddities. Its own myths and histories. And by exploring these subtleties, we’re able to experience new places in ways we never thought possible.

Bagan landscape, temples as far as the eye can see
Imagine King Alaungsithu looking out over this land 800 years ago…

Look back now at Hpaung Daw U Pagoda – the one with the 5 gilded Buddha images. Do you see it the same way that you did before? Look out across the vast plains of Bagan. The dry, dusty landscape, dotted with thousands of ancient temples for as far as the eye can see. Imagine it through the eyes of King Alaungsithu. See it just as he saw it 800 years ago… How does it make you feel?

How does it make you feel?

That’s what travel is all about. It moves you. Stirs the emotions. It has the power to change your perspective. On everything.

Blaze Your Own Beaten Path

Travel provides so many opportunities. Not only do you see incredible places and meet amazing people, but you a lot along the way about your connection to the world. But the most memorable experiences rarely come from being a passive observer. Don’t sit back and accept the destination as it’s presented. Be active. Ask questions. Stay curious. Get out there and learn about the destination… and yourself. You’re traveling for a reason. You’re searching for something. Don’t wait for that something to find you. Discover it for yourself.

Like this post? Then you’ll love my monkey_on_a_bus Instagram. That’s where I share most of my stories, myths, and legends from around the world. And don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE below.