Since I first stepped foot in Southeast Asia I have wanted to envelope myself in the mystery of Myanmar. In the north it straddles The Himalayas, in the south it boasts desert island paradise and in between are exotic-sounding names like Mandalay and the Irrawaddy River. Then there is Bagan, the other Angkor Wat, Shwedagon, a pagoda with stupas plated in gold, and Yangon, a crumbling city built by the British.
But like so many others I had been put off by the so called “tourist boycott”. Visit Myanmar, ran the usual tirade in the western press, and you’re putting your money in the hands of the country’s junta. Then there was the general negativity of a former work colleague who described herself as ‘Burmese’. She was forever distressed by the state of her motherland. Travelling to Myanmar, it seemed, would be a step too far.
The Time is Right
But enter 2012 and Myanmar’s pariah status and isolation is on the wane. As a measure of where Southeast Asia’s second largest country is heading, take the internet. For the past decade it existed, but service was slow and intermittent. A plethora of sites were blocked, too. Now, 18 months on from the replacement of the junta with a civilian government, the quality of the internet connection is still up for grabs, but websites are no longer blocked. And in certain locations, Yangon International Airport as well as some of the top-end restaurants and cafes in Yangon, the connection speed rivals that of the developed world. You can even get onto Facebook. However, outside of those places, such luxuries are nonexistant.
That such a change is taking place is a sign of a country that is opening up. Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the religious disturbances in 2007 have welded themselves to the national consciousness. Ceasefires are in operation in the tribal conflicts on the Thai border, and no longer is the old order deemed acceptable, a status quo that has shackled the country to poverty. And now, Aung San Suu Kyi, the talisman figure known locally as ‘The Lady’, is campaigning to be elected to the national parliament. A few years ago, with the west siding with the non-ruling power, such an eventuality would have seemed absurd.
Luck be a Lady
My visit to Myanmar coincided with The Lady’s ongoing and very public campaign to be elected to parliament. Just the weekend before I arrived for my six-day stint in this country, international headlines were swollen with news of her first rally outside of Yangon. This was followed up locally.
On the second day of my trip, four local newspapers ran with an image of her as their top story. And portraits of both Suu Kyi and her father, General Aung San — the assassinated visionary who brokered Myanmar’s independence from the British — were for sale on almost every intersection. Even a bootlegged copy of the recently released Luc Besson movie, The Lady, was being peddled on Yangon’s many overpasses. Crunch time is in April and the outside world is waiting for its outcome. Will there truly be change? In return, will sanctions be lifted? In the meantime, the hotels — at least the ones listed in Lonely Planet or on Agoda — are fully booked as tourists fly in and the businessmen search for opportunities. In a country with a decaying infrastructure and where English is still widely spoken, there are many.
What struck me during my visit were the people. In my six days over the border I took two overnight bus trips so I could cocoon myself in the man-made wonder that is Bagan. I had little sleep. Despite my fatigue and tendency to be irritable, in this region I have never been on the receiving end of such amiability and generosity.
The cordiality was first experienced a few hours after we arrived as myself and my travelling companion attempted to buy a SIM card in Yangon. Putting the SIMs into our phone — they cost us 20,000 kyat (VND500,000) — we couldn’t get them to work. And of course, the shop owners, despite selling mobile phones, were also unsure of what was wrong.
Simultaneously, the thought struck both my companion and myself. If the SIMs don’t work, then do we ask for our money back? In most other countries you would, but despite our short time in Yangon, we were already conscious of the poverty. There is vibrancy and a distinct colonial feel to this metropolis, but it’s also ramshackle and cracking at the joints. Even the cars — there are no motorbikes in the capital — were 25 years old.
The issue got resolved. But throughout the encounter, the shopkeeper and his assistant were so gentle and pleasant, that it was impossible to get angry. Later that day as we tried to buy bus tickets, someone explained.
“We’re just happy to see tourists here,” he said to me over Indian-style tea with condensed milk. “If you’re spending money, it’s good for our people, for our country.”
I wanted to try some betel nut. Get rid of the image of only old women with the red teeth tag, in Myanmar it’s chewed by everyone. The man went away and came back a few minutes later with a folded up leaf full of a white substance. I offered to pay. He refused. It was so bitter I was unable to chew it long enough for the leaf to turn red, but I felt the hit.
“We don’t really care who is in power,” continued the man. “All we want is for life to get better. Now we have hope.”
A few years ago, such a sentiment would have never been expressed publicly.
Love Thy Neighbour
As I wandered through Yangon and then later basked in the sunset and sunrise views over the temples of Bagan, I encountered many similar incidents and had countless, fascinating conversations. In Thailand you are ignored unless you’re spending money, in Cambodia, except for those working in the tourist industry, few people speak English.
I visited Hindu temples and the awe-inspiring Shwedagon Pagoda, entered the city’s mosques, walked through markets, ate as much street food as I could stomach and took a look round Yangon’s recently refurbished 100-year-old synagogue. I even drunk up the highs of living like an expat when I visited a former work colleague and his family in their hotel complex on Inya Lake. But my final day in this surprisingly multi-ethnic city remains embedded in my mind.
I had just got off an overnight bus and my hotel room was still occupied. So, with time to burn I decided to take the Circle Line train around the city. It’s a three-hour journey on trains that have not been replaced since the British left. For all those anoraks out there, it’s a revelation.
As I walked over the bridge to the train station I saw a woman begging and breastfeeding her baby. I gave her some money. A man walk passed and said, “Thank you!”
I was stunned.
In the station, I was having trouble buying my ticket — foreigners still have to go through a complicated process on the country’s train system. Together with a man who was sweeping the platform, a monk helped me out. Then, when I asked for a map of the line, they managed to get me a hand-drawn version in English. There’s nothing printed. On the train, another man, a meditation teacher who had attended conferences in both the UK and the US, got involved. He bought me some Burmese sweets and when I got off with him at Insein, he ensured that I got on the right bus back into town. He made sure I paid the right price.
These are all simple acts of kindness, but they are ones that are remembered, especially when you are a stranger.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a Scottish IT worker based in Saigon, told me about his annual trips to Myanmar. I had questioned him about whether or not he should be travelling there. He replied:
“It’s difficult. Really difficult. And it breaks my heart to see how the people are suffering. But, every time I go there I try and do some good. It’s worth it.”
Now in 2012, the country has started to open up. But spending time in Myanmar isn’t easy — at times it can be a struggle. Like Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia were in the late 1990s, this nation of 54.5 million people is raw and the country is largely undeveloped. Except in Bagan, where people’s attitude can be a touch more cynical, Myanmar’s population has yet to be affected by mass tourism. Get there now, before it changes.
Only in Myanmar
Used as both sunblock and make-up, this beige-coloured paste made from tree bark is applied to both male and female faces throughout the country.
Although trousers are catching on, the main form of male leg-attire is a tartan-like sarong wrapped and tied at the waist. Not good in heavy wind.
Although these days Myanmar's traffic drives on the right, most cars here are right-hand drive — think UK, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan. Many reasons are cited for this nuance, but the most likely is superstition.
Where to Visit
Most tourists visit ‘The Big Four’ — Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. With a minimum of ten days in Myanmar, getting to all four places is realistic. Internal flights with the likes of Air Bagan, Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways can save time and uncomfortable overnight bus journeys. For more information on visiting Myanmar do a search on Wikipedia or go to: www.myanmar-tourism.com.
Vietnam Airlines flies direct to Yangon from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Round trips cost around VND8.5 million including taxes and airport fees. The same trip via Bangkok with Air Asia goes for around VND6.5 million return.
Although there are now ATM machines and credit cards are accepted in top-end establishments, bring cash. American dollars and euro is best. This is easily exchanged into kyat. At the time of writing, US$1 = 800 kyat. Make sure the notes are blemish-free or they won’t be accepted.
Except for hotels, most financial transactions are made in kyat. The best rates are available in the downtown banks in Yangon and Mandalay. Make sure you stock up in advance. Rates elsewhere are poor.
Compared to equivalent Southeast Asian destinations, at times Myanmar can feel expensive. The worst offenders are the hotels. Although rooms start from as little as US$6 (VND120,000), budget rates in basic accommodation sit around US$15 (VND300,000) a night. Basic mid-range hits about US$60 (VND1.3 million). Going five-star costs hundreds.
Transport is also surprisingly dear. The overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan, for example, costs 15,000 kyat (VND380,000), 30 to 50 percent more expensive than its Vietnam equivalent. The train for the same journey costs US$50 (VND1.05 million).
Food, however, both on the streets and in restaurants tends to mirror the prices in Vietnam — a standard tourist restaurant meal will cost between VND60,000 and VND150,000. As an idea for how much money you should bring, use the following guide:
Budget — US$20 to US$60 per day
Mid-Range — US$100 to US$150 per day
Top-End — US$250 plus per day
The authorities place a tariff on most of the country's main attractions. Shwedagon Pagoda, for example, costs VND105,000. To get into Bagan you pay VND210,000 for one week.
To ensure your hard earned dollars go to those who need it most, spread it around. Avoid package tours. Eat on the street as much as you eat elsewhere. Stay in cheaper hotels and take rickshaws, local buses, local boats and the horse and cart in Bagan rather than hiring a Jeep or taking a state-sponsored tour. This way a larger number of people can get a share of the spoils.
28-day visas can be obtained in Bangkok in as little as 24 hours (expect to pay VND1.6 million for the privilege — check out www.vegatravelbangkok.com for more information). Otherwise the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City (50, Sam Son, Tan Binh) or the embassy in Hanoi (298A Kim Ma) can process applications in about a week for much less.