The Myanmar people are probably the kindest, most genuine and friendly people of any country I’ve ever visited. Big call I know, especially as I’ve previously raved about how wonderful Indian people are (which I still stand by); but the people of Burma – or Myanmar, as it was renamed in 1989 – are such a happy and sincere bunch, especially when you take into consideration how difficult life has been in Burma in recent decades.
In a (very brief) nutshell, my understanding of Burma’s difficult past can be summarized as follows: In the 1800′s, the country was invaded by the British and eventually stripped of all it’s natural resources and exports, until one brave General in the Burmese Army stood up for his country and helped regain independence from the British (only to be assassinated for his efforts soon after); so while the local people assumed life would improve under Burmese military rule, it actually worsened horribly and they were forced to “put up and shut up” with how their own government robbed, jailed and killed them – until the brave General’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, stood in her father’s shoes and has spent her entire life fighting for her country (of which she has spent almost 20 years under house-arrest for daring to oppose the government). The Burmese military government have run their country into the ground, and refuse to allow the outside world to know the truth about how they are running the country. The people are lied to, and killed for even speaking badly about the government, let alone daring to do something about it.
But despite all these hardships, the local people are still smiling – and singing, always singing. And not that quiet, under your breath when nobody is nearby singing, I’m talking full heart-and-soul effort into each word of their chosen love song, all the time, and it never fails to bring a smile to my face when I hear it. On our very first afternoon in Burma, we checked into our Yangon guesthouse, the Motherland Inn, and asked for directions to a nearby teashop to get our first authentic Burmese tea leaf salad. Better than directions, the receptionist recruited our own guide, a cheerful teenage boy who happily led us down the street to the teashop, all the while singing passionately (he switched to Justin Bieber’s “Baby” halfway there, I assume that was supposed to be for our benefit), and after our lunch he then led us to the bus stop, told the bus conductor where we wanted to go and waved us goodbye from the street. 45 minutes later as we approached our bus stop, we tried to pay for our fare like everyone else had done and our money was refused – I was bewildered. As any Westerner who’s ever been to an Asian country knows, you expect to be treated like a walking cash-machine when you’re a tourist (and when you recognize that we make so much more money than they do and it means less to us than it does them, you accept this) so when this smiling young man refusing our bus fare and simply said, “Welcome to Myanmar”, it just blew me away.
We arrived at the amazing Shwedagon Pagoda in time for sunset, and I visited each shrine and said a prayer to the big man, Buddha, thanking him for allowing me to visit his country and meet these amazing people. I also said a prayer for my favourite Burmese troublemaker friend back home, and wished for the health and wellbeing of him and his family; a ritual I kept up for my entire Myanmar visit.
After a few days in Yangon we did something we NEVER do – chose an expensive plane journey over the cheap bus trip to head to Bagan. With only 15 days in this country and so much to see, we couldn’t waste a whole day on a bus – and it was quite an experience flying with the small local airline. We arrived in Bagan an hour later at 8am, and immediately set out for a day of exploring some of the 4000 temples in Bagan with our very own horse & cart, led by our friendly and knowledgable local guide.
The next few days in Bagan involved many dusty hours exploring temples on bicycles, and tasting with great enthusiasm all the local cuisine on offer. Brett & I have been very healthy over the past few months in Thailand, clean eating and all that garbage… But that’s all out the window as soon as we hit a new country and there’s new food to discover. We’ve been on an eating rampage; each day starts and finishes and is planned around what we’re going to eat, and where. Donuts, fried snacks, sweet milky teas and coffees are just the tip of the iceberg… I’m bound to regret going this crazy when I get home and have gained 3 kilos but right now I’m loving it (Update: Didn’t gain a single extra pound thankfully…).
From Bagan we took a bus to Kalaw, a small town in the north-eastern Shan state of Myanmar which attracts travelers purely because it is the jump-off point for treks to the very popular Inle Lake. We booked ourselves on a 2-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake for the very next morning, led by a local guide named Paul and accompanied by an older Irish couple and a British lass and her Thai boyfriend – these two run a guesthouse in Bangkok and we hit it off instantly.
The trek took us through dry rice and vegetable plantations and dusty villages, and we were sweaty and filthy from all the dust by the end of each day. But it was still better than attempting the trek in the cooler climate, or during the wet season – travelling in the low season means we barely caught glimpses of other tourists on the trail, which is usually PACKED with package tourists in high season. And wet season means you trek in the rain, and have to deal with leeches in inconvenient places, all day long. As our guide Paul said: “No happy tourists in rainy season”, he laughs. “They don’t like leeches between their toes.”
Sweaty and dusty on the hike (those shoes WERE black)
Overnight we camped at a Buddhist monastery in a small remote village, where the weather was cold and the food cooked by our young but extremely talented cook was out of this world. Endless bowls of delicious Burmese foods kept appearing on our table: pumpkin curry, chicken and vegetable stir-fry, tomato salad, choko curry, potato curry, fried rice, papadums, stir fried vegetables and of course, for any fussy foreigners: French fries. I wish I had photos of this feast, but after a long day’s trek and a table of hungry hikers drooling over the spread, pausing for photos wasn’t an option. Sorry guys – the good news is I’ve taken a million photos of the rest of the food from this trip so I’ll make it up to you with that drool-worthy blog post later this week.
We woke up at 5am for a pancake breakfast and hit the road early. By 1pm we arrived at the meeting point for the end of the hike: a restaurant near the longboat pier where we’d travel to our accommodation at Inle Lake. We all collapsed in an exhausted, dirty, yet satisfied heap just in time for lunch. While waiting for the bus, I did a double-take when I saw this leopard-dog… It had all the mannerisms of a ‘too cool for mere mortals’ attitude of a cat – no wonder it’s owner gave it a paint job.
We arrived at Inle Lake, where we spent the next 3 nights at Mingilar Inn – I highly recommend this family-run guesthouse for anyone coming to the area.
Sunrise at Inle Lake
We spent days circumnavigating the lake on bicycles, taking day long boat trips with our own guide, and even treated ourselves to a wine-tasting at a fancy vineyard restaurant, with amazing views of the city at sunset… For a mere $2.
Soon we were in Mandalay, the point of departure for our flight back to Bangkok – but we had a few days up our sleeve so we checked out nearby Pyin oo Lwin for a couple of nights, a leafy green town in the hills with a much cooler climate than stinking hot Mandalay. We wandered through the botanical gardens, posing for photos with giggling school girls (I think they just wanted to get a closer look at big handsome Brett) and getting mobbed by friendly locals. The following day we took a 4-hour train ride to nowhere, purely to cross a popular bridge in the area, which at the time of construction was the second highest bridge in the world – Burma’s claim to fame.
We hopped off the train at the very next station and began trying to find our way back to Pyin oo Lwin – we hopped on the back of a motorbike with some locals and got dropped at the highway where the bus passes, and while we waited we were befriended by a local at a roof construction business who invited us in, kept an eye out for the bus and generously fed us homemade cake and coffee. Unfortunately he was too busy chatting with us to effectively watch out for passing buses, so after we missed 2 buses in a row he called a friend to give us a lift; a Burmese guy driving a truck full of corn seed going our way. We happily hopped in, looking forward to being back in town an hour later to have a hard earned Myanmar beer… Unfortunately our timid driver must have thought the twisting roads would scare the poor white folk, and he drove at 20 kilometers per hour for the entire 60 km journey – so the quick one-hour trip took more than 3 hours. We definitely earned those few beers when we finally arrived home.
The next day we squeezed into a pick-up truck with 30 or so locals, with cramped bodies and fresh produce piled high above the roof, and for $1.50 we caught a lift back to Mandalay for our final 2 days in the country. There’s not much on offer in sweltering hot Mandalay, but we did all the highlights – checked out the Mandalay Palace, took road-trips to Sagaing and the U Bein Bridge, ate too much food at a $3 Shan-food buffet, and watched The Moustache Brothers show: a comedic stand-up routine with traditional Burmese dancing, which gives foreigners an insight into what most locals are too scared to tell you themselves – that the government in Myanmar spies on its people and arrests them if they are caught bad-mouthing or questioning the government. One of the brothers in the show has served 7 years in prison for performing their controversial show – but that’s not stopping them. Lonely Planet had recommended this show, and I’m glad we went – it’s important to support the people who aren’t afraid to suppress their feelings and admit the truth about life for the locals.
At last it was time to leave this wonderful country, so before our taxi to the airport we hit a huge local tea shop and ordered up big: platefulls of samosas, noodle salads, naan bread with beans, tea leaf salad, fried pastry snacks to dip in our sweet milky teas… The locals around us watched incredulously as these two white tourists tucked in with gutso devouring the local food, hands and all… A lot of tourists seem too scared to try the local food for fear of falling sick but I’m pretty sure after all our travels Brett & I have iron guts so we didn’t have a problem. And our huge buffet of food came to a grand total of $1 each. Damn this country is cheap.
But big changes are coming to Burma (I really should call it Myanmar, that is the country’s name now) – construction is happening on every corner of every town and city, as word is getting out that Burma is now open to visitors (until recently sanctions had been imposed, to prevent outside countries from doing dealings with Burma and in turn providing the government with more money to continue oppressing the nation. The fearless Aung San Suu Kyi believes if the government runs out of money, they will be forced out of power); and people are realizing how special this country is. I was expecting to find barely any tourists on our visit, but there were endless package tour groups trawling all the major tourist spots.
And while most locals are happy to have tourists come and visit their country, these package tourists who pay a lump sum to a travel agent in their own country and sit in flash hotels and restaurants run by the Government aren’t helping the people at all.
If anyone reading this is planning a trip to Burma, please please PLEASE take this one piece of advice: skip the package tour, and travel independently. The local people in local guesthouses and restaurants serving your meals with a smile need your patronage much more than the government or that travel agency in your home country does. Package tours just provide more money to the government, who continue to make life hell for these kind people.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Yangon, where she was held under house-arrest for almost 20 years by her own government
Even the most cautious independent travelers who refuse to patronage Government-run hotels or restaurants can’t visit Burma without the government getting a kickback – your visa into the country, and entry fees into the major sites all over the country go straight into the government’s pocket. It’s a catch 22: you want to come and visit and help the locals to make money after the government has taken all the food they have farmed, and stripped them of their own land – but simply by stepping foot in the country, you are funding the government to continue their oppression. But despite this, all the locals I met were happy to have us in their country, and wanted us to go home and tell people all about Burma.
It’s a wonderful country, on the brink of breaking free from its shackles; so it was lovely to visit during this pivotal point in Burma’s history. I really hope those opposing the government can achieve the impossible and get this country running how it should be, and I also hope that increased tourism to the country doesn’t change the happy smiles and optimistic nature of the people. It’s nice to visit a country as a white person and be seen as a friend, and not just a walking cash machine.
The one thing Burma WILL try to make you buy… Bloody sand paintings! (I fell for his kind smile & bought some)
Thanks for the memories Burma!