It was a privilege to visit Myanmar, it is probably the most interesting country we have visited because the way of life in Myanmar is so different to our own.
Mass tourism in Myanmar is still in its infancy and the lack of influence of Western tourists was evident and most welcome. When we travelled outside of the cities, people would stare at us with a hint of suspicion until our smiles of reassurance were met with their broader returns, and then, a following request for us to pose for photographs. It was such an interesting time to visit the country, we felt like we were travelling on the curve of a ball that could roll any direction at any time. If Aung San Suu Kyi succeeds, the country will continue to roll towards a democratic regime, but such a conclusion is far from certain and it was that uncertainty that made our trip to Myanmar so interesting. The elections are tentatively set for November 2015 but even if Suu Kyi wins power, it is questionable how far she will be able to wield it. The states constitution doesn’t recognise a president who has a foreign husband and that is but one of the obstacles to overcome before the ball can roll a steady path.
If the country continues to attract increasing numbers of tourists I hope in vain that it will be protected from the worst of the Westernisation that has overtaken Thailand. The need to protect the majesty of Myanmar is as important, in my view as the need to protect the environment in general. Interestingly, whilst in Yangon, I found out that Suu Kyi doesn’t support a policy of promoting tourism in Myanmar, although her stance appears to have softened of late. I suspect that she has better vision than most and understands the damage that can be done when the culture of east meets the commerce of west.
We landed in Yangon after two flights from Phuket. We took a taxi downtown where we had arranged to stay. On the way we passed Shwedagon Temple, the most magnificent temple in the country which enjoys a graceful but dominant position overlooking the city . Our taxi drove passed frequent groups of people squatting over smouldering pots at the side of the road cooking food at their impromptu street cafes that lined the kerbs. When the taxi pulled up outside our hotel it was a little intimidating, it was late but there were various shady looking congregated groups gathered under the dim street lamps who generally seemed to be doing not very much at all.
The next morning the same streets outside our hotel hosted a very different scene, the Yangonese were hurriedly going about their business, the women wearing beautifully ornate traditional dresses, the men often wearing longyis or sarongs. The mouths of Myanmar men frequently looked like they were bleeding and the women’s faces, untouched by Western make up, were being protected from the sun by pasty white face paint plastered across their smooth cheeks. The blood red mouths, we learnt, were a product of the national obsession, chewing betel leaves, a saliva inducing stimulant that turns red in the mouth, the product is then subject to the nations other favourite pastime – spitting. Everyone spits anywhere and the streets are lined with red blotches where betel spit has landed. In an effort to find Christmas, we went to a church service on Christmas day and I couldn’t contain my laughter as a member of the congregation hawked up a large one at about the time that the priest was blessing the alter – nobody blinked.
Whilst in Yangon we visited the Shwedagon Temple that we had passed in the taxi on the way from the airport. The temple is a colossal imposition of gold surrounded by quaint, mystical Buddhist shrines. Buddhism is of course the religion of choice and the peacefulness and calmness of the practice provides a subtle background to everything that happens in Myanmar. Monks can be seen everywhere but their presence milling about around the pagodas was particularly enchanting.
We ate lots of local food. Orthodox Myanmar food consists of small dishes of stews and curries, additionally there is a more traditional Indian curry influence where rotis and biriyanis are served with refreshing glasses of sweet lassi. Most Myanmar food is served with a side saucer of mashed tea leaves, a rather odd accompaniment but tasty all the same. The serving style takes a bit of getting used to, the food is usually pre prepared in large tin trays, the potential diner points to what they want and the food is then served at a sometimes luke warm temperature.
On about the third night we went to a local bar to watch Manchester United. We met an English balloon bender who was travelling alone, the three of us moved on to another bar where we met a local man that spoke English, the four of us made a night of it. Talking politics with locals is largely discouraged but it was interesting to chat to the local man about the state of the country and he seemed comfortable with the conversation that flowed. We got on so well that he offered to take us on to his own restaurant at the other side of town. The night was young and the four of us were getting on famously so we obliged. It wasn’t until we were tucking into the free food that was provided a taxi ride later that I began to understand that our hosts politics were a bit hard line, by that point we had travelled outside of the city and the situation suddenly seemed a little tense so we made our excuses and left. The next day, we were kind of relived and a little confused about whether the experience had provided an interesting window on local life or whether we had crossed the line in terms of travellers nativity and actually escaped a potentially dangerous situation.
Christmas day arrived without pomp or ceremony, Christmas just isn’t celebrated in the Buddhist place called Myanmar. We decided to ride the Yangon Circle Line, a three hour circular train journey which showcases traditional rural life through the windowless carriages of the rickety, rackety train. A film of our trip can be found here. We also took a train to Bago and hired a motorcycle taxi to take us around the many temples and pagodas. We got so much attention from the locals in Bago, I couldn’t reconcile the conundrum as to how a people that have been so historically oppressed were some of the most genuinely friendly, welcoming people that we have met on out entire journey.
After one night in Bago we returned to Yangon and caught an overnight train to Bagan. This was without a doubt the craziest journey that we have taken on the trip. The train, another ramshackle length of jostling carriages took about 19 hours to reach its destination – I was just glad it reached its destination at all! A film of that amazing journey can be found here. It was fascinating to travel into the deep Burmese countryside to witness local life at its truest. As we pulled into remote stations locals would walk to our windowless carriage and stare at us, they seemed quite amazed and overjoyed that we could speak a word of their language, “minglaba”, “hello”! That journey was special and will forever stay in our memories.
Bagan was often breath taking. A series of three townships nestle between miles and miles of flat land that house hundreds of spiritual temples. We hired electric bikes to visit the main sites and occasionally climbed to the top of a pagoda to see the magical, mystical view as the hundreds of golden spires interlaced the land as far as the eye could see. Sunsets were spectacular especially over the River Irawaddy, a wide murky river with occasional fisherman waist deep casting nets, it reminded me of what I expect the Ganges in neighbouring Bangladesh to look like.
Three days later we sailed up the Irawaddy to Mandalay. New Year’s Eve had passed as uneventfully as Christmas day, we were both in bed at 8pm suffering heavy colds, probably after the excess of Yangon and the lack of sleep on the night train. Before we left the UK we had grand visions of a big new year’s eve in major city but Myanmar works off the lunar calendar so not much happened, but we really didn’t mind, we were having a fantastic time in this other worldly place. The boat up the Irawaddy arrived in Mandalay 12 hours later after leaving Bagan at 5am. It was such a relaxed day as we sat back and cruised up the Irawaddy waving to occasional fisherman and marvelling at tribal life which was taking place adjacent to bamboo huts on the river banks. Some parts of Myanmar are still off limits to tourists and I suspect life in those areas is as primitive as can still be found.
Mandalay was a bit uninspiring, a dusty commercial, traffic laden city with occasional cultural niceties to take the edge of the choking streets. The Mandalay Majorettes puppet show was a highlight, as was a walk up Mandalay Hill. After the puppet show the 86 year old master puppeteer came to meet the crowd, he seemed so proud that his show had appealed to so many Western faced tourists, and it was a pride that was reflected in many of the people that we met in Myanmar who seemed to be thrilled that we were enjoying their beautiful country. Tracy got a touch of food poisoning which lasted for the last three days in Mandalay but I was grateful to stay indoors to look after her as the dusty, busy streets were more than challenging as we also continued to suffer with the remnants of our colds, or flu in my case. On the last evening I dined alone at a street cafe, I ate mutton curry, two bowls of mutton soup, a roti and a saucer of vegetables. The bill, including cola came to about 80p, I paid double and left. A few yards along the road the owner of the street cafe pulled up on his motorbike and insisted that he give me a ride back to the hotel. I climbed aboard and chatted to him explaining that Tracy was down with a bad stomach. The Indian looking man then insisted that I wait outside the hotel whilst he sped home to get me a potion that would cure Tracy of her ills. Not ten minutes later he arrived back with a clear plastic bag with a kind of ultra strong black tea. Amazing friendliness, amazing people and an amazing country – we loved our time in Myanmar.
The next day we flew out to Chiang Mai. It was a laboured journey for Tracy, food poisoning and planes don’t really mix but we made to Thailand without tear or trauma.