Burma Travel Blog
You may have read our previous blog posts relating to our recent tour of Burma. If you didn’t or haven’t got the time, this is a summary of what two ‘flashpackers’ thought of our Burma experience.
We had a strange affair with Myanmar. It’s a bit like the first time I ate an olive, the taste was a little bitter and I wasn’t too enamoured. Then as I tried a few different varieties, I decided my first impressions were a little harsh, and I’m now particularly fond of this little fruit, its what I would describe as an acquired taste. Before I get too gushy, this is not one of my favourite travel destinations in Asia, but there is something beguiling about the place that manages to warmly grab at your heartstrings and keep hold of them for your visit.
If I had to compare it with any other Asia country I have visited thus far, I would say it reminds most of India. It’s a little chaotic at times, especially in the cities, its noisy, bustling and a bit worn around the edges in places. Once you leave the urban settings, you get a completely different perspective and experience, for us the countryside offered a chance to experience the cultural delights of Myanmar.
So far, in our Myanmar blog posts, we’ve written about the cultural and religious sights. In this final post, I will end our travels in Myanmar, with an insight into some of the people we met, the things we observed and some of our more contentious flashpacking thoughts.
I said earlier that I thought the country had a feel of India, and that is not surprising given it shares its western borders with this country. The north east of the country is bordered by China who have long been friends with the current regime! Certainly as we headed further north from Yangon (Rangoon), we found these Chinese influences too, in the foods and the culture. In fact some of the best cheap eats we had were in Mandalay from the Chapati stalls, and you can find Chinese style dishes on virtually every menu.
We found the older generation here very shy, and you could easily have mistaken this for unfriendliness. Its not, this shyness, once broken with a badly pronounced Burmese “hello” (Min Gala Bah) enabled you to crack that veneer of reticence and you were in to a warm hearted, friendly and a genuinely inquisitive group of people. Perhaps this reticence is wariness, given the political and military rule over the last few decades? There was a marked difference with the younger generation, who were far more open and eager to chat with foreigners; with them nearly always making the first approach.
Relations with the locals got much easier once we moved north from Yangon, and even more so when we made it out into the smaller towns and villages outside the main conurbations. Laughter is an infectious part of the Burmese psyche, and once you start, you just can’t stop.
One common language, that we found in Myanmar, is football. They are absolutely fanatical about it. Being from Manchester and Liverpool this always gave us a great opening discussion topic on our travels, although it seems that Arsenal are nearly as popular as Manchester United here. I would say on balance that Manchester United is the most popular team, although I am biased on that one.
So if you want to please the Burmese, fill your case with UK Premiership team trinkets, keyrings, pens or just about anything else with a team logo and you will make Burmese friends for life. One fans dedication even stretched to having a forearm worth of “MAN U” tatooo to prove his dedication to the mighty reds. I guess he ran out of money or ink to complete the “NITED”
One thing I never got used to was the spitting, and blood red staining of both teeth and pavements, caused by the almost epidemic use of Betel nut here. It appears about 90% of men use it on a regular basis, many women also indulge, and leave their red stained evidence across the towns and village floors. The Burmese love of this pastime, is not nearly as popular as dental hygiene, as prolonged use of this stuff does some terrible things to your pearly whites. John claims he now needs veneers to rectify the damage caused to his teeth. I can’t see any difference and I don’t think three weeks of chewing 5 tabs a day can have any affect. Any excuse for a Simon Cowell smile me thinks!
This title is clearly an oxymoron. There really isn’t that much technology on offer here. Although the locals are hopeful this will change, along with many other things, due to Myanmar’s ascent into the ASEAN community.
A flat screen TV is a rarity. What technology is available was probably imported or smuggled into the country across the neighbouring borders from Thailand and China. The internet, when available, relies as far as I can tell on old recycled 56K dial up modems which transported me back almost 10 years, in years of internet speed. They tease you sometimes by attaching wireless routers to these modems, so that a few of you can fight it out for whatever bandwidth the poor little thing will deliver.
What the country lacks in technologically, advanced gadgets and gizmos, the Burmese make up for in innovation and ingenuity. They can manage to piece together whatever mechanical junk they can find in terms of old vans, cars, motors, electrical installations and make it work well beyond its natural life. We saw old van carcasses that had their front engines and axles removed and replaced with small tractor assemblies on the front. Taxis in the cities were twenty year old saloons (both left and right hand drives) held together with duct tape, dodgy welding and any manner of screws, nuts and bolts.
Mopeds, like most of Asia, are everywhere except in Yangon. In our whole time in Yangon we saw a few mopeds out and about on the streets. Not sure why, if you know please enlighten me?
With the exception of the new manufactured capital city (I’ll get to the ridiculousness of that later) mains electricity is guaranteed to go off at some point; so most businesses and hotels have a generator on standby, that are used on a daily basis to keep the basics up and running. This doesn’t always include your air conditioning and hot water supplies, so check ahead if this is important to you.
Budget hotels are of a very low standard, when compared to other countries like Cambodia and most of Asia. At the budget end of the market (I am still talking around 20-30 US dollars a night for a room) you will get some very basic accommodation.
Mid-ranged priced hotels are around 35-75 US$ and in some cases, comprise of what we’d consider basic accommodation. Hotels don’t really promote their tariffs on the internet, and prices in most guide books are seriously outdated, so we found it easier just to turn up and look around, but we travelled in low season. I think due to the rapidly increasing number of tourists to Burma, and not the greatest selection of hotels available, if we were travelling in high season we’d do our research and book ahead. I am not sure how much of the room rate goes directly to the government in the form of Tourist taxes levied on the hotels to gain their licence to rent rooms to foreigners.
There also seems to have been a government monopoly on paint too. Which they issue in a pea green or mint green colour, as it seemed to cover the walls of many of the hotels we stayed in and cafes we ate in, or maybe its just considered lucky.
I am sure the government run hotels (or those now owned, by those who have been blessed by the regimes leaders) offer more luxury but for that you will need to fork out anything from 80 -150 US$ and often much more. These favoured hotels also have a habit of being built in some ridiculous locations such as one owned by Tay Za in the centre of the temple areas in Old Bagan. Remarkably, this person was able to get approval to build not only the luxurious Hotel on the this sacred ground, but also a 60M high viewing tower which dwarfs the surrounding temples, breaking planning laws. Its a ridiculous monstrosity completely out of place with its surroundings.
The Political Struggle and the Government
This gives me a neat segue into some political observations on the country. While we were there the newly established American Ambassador arrived. There was much talk on the streets as some sanctions were being lifted, and a whole host of good news stories in the government run newspapers about the future democratisation and economic investment that will be forthcoming.
However, we also witnessed police jail vans packed with people being ferried across the cities, saw a young man in chains and handcuffs being led onto a train in Yangon station who was petrified as his guard poked and intimidated him. Military personnel on the streets of Yangon with machine guns, handguns and what looked like baton round weapons. Arrests were made of the students who were commemorating the student uprisings in 1998 So while reform appears to be underway there are constant reminders of the regime and its ‘management style’ from the last few decades.
When we were in Bagan, one Burmese man, told us how hundreds of families had been evicted from their generational homes in Old Bagan for relocation. The homes were condemned and a new commercial zone created. After the dust had settled, the governments friends were allowed to purchase these properties as future homes and hotels.
Poverty is rife and we saw some extreme examples on the journey from Yangon to Mandalay. Families living on remote train platforms, or by the side of the train tracks. One of their ‘survival income streams’ was the gathering of empty plastic bottles and cans from the train passengers as the train moved through the stations. We saw them calling out and bottles and cans would be thrown by passengers from the carriage windows and they would scuttle round after them.
The government is reforming, but the old regime, while making strides to democracy still has a hard time relinquishing many of its old habits. Myanmar capital moved from Yangon in 2005 to Nay Pyi Taw. This is a government manufactured city in the middle of nowhere that the government created from a dusty town. Probably for protection and to lower its public profile.
Not surprisingly, since then investment in the old capital of Yangon has been on the decline (maybe that’s why we didn’t like the city). This new city boasts six lane highways, ‘always on electricity’ and mansions for the military and political leaders in closed off zones where the common people are not allowed to venture. An incredible waste of precious resources when so many in the country are in need of basic infrastructure.
It is a sure bet that tourism over the next few years is set to explode. This isn’t surprising due to the cultural experiences that Myanmar has to offer. The problem is the infrastructure probably isn’t ready for such a large influx of tourists. I think it will be a bit of a messy transition as the country and its businesses try to cope, against government interference.
We were here in what is normally their low season and many hotels were full or only had the crappiest rooms left for sale when we arrived. It also looks like faster internet connections are on the horizon too and this will also bring a new level of competition to the hotel sector, as customers will be able to use the likes of Agoda.com and Tripadvisor.com to make a better judgement of the services and facilities on offer. Hopefully, this will shake the market up a bit and begin to improve the quality at the budget and midrange levels.
The people we spoke to though are hopeful that change will come and they are putting enormous faith in the NLD (National League for Democracy) and more specifically in Aung San Suu Kyi. I hope for them she can deliver, but it will take a generation to wrench this country out of the 1950’s where it finds itself at the moment.
These are our impressions and observations and we felt it only right to air some of these thoughts as our final post on what has been a magical country to visit. If you are going to visit Myanmar, don’t let any of the above put you off visiting, this is still a relatively unspoilt place, and it’s probably best to experience the heritage before it becomes another Angkor Wat UNESCO nightmare. We’re glad we visited and will return again in a few years to see what change has delivered.