Published: April 21st 2012March 15th 2012
Upon leaving Yangon’s modern-looking airport, it quickly becomes apparent that the city is quite unlike anywhere else we visited in south-east Asia. Ancient cars, designed for the left hand side of the road, are driven on the right. Taxi drivers’ lips and gums are stained red by chewing betel leaves. Periodically, they wind down the window (if there is one) to spit large quantities into the gutter.
Motorbikes are banned in Yangon, and outside rush-hour, the streets can seem eerily quiet, especially when walking by huge buildings deserted by the military government when they relocated to Naypyitaw, two hundred miles to the north. Aside from this, it seems little has changed in Yangon in the last half century. There are few brands that a foreign visitor would recognise, no ATMs they can use and English is not wide spoken or understood.
Buddhist temples and monasteries dominate Myanmar’s cities and countryside, architecturally, spiritually and culturally. The temples' ostentatious displays of wealth and status contrast with the lives of those who live around them.
Visiting the scarcely believable number of temples around Bagan is an awe-inspiring experience. While some of the larger temples closer to tourist accommodation may attract the
Interior of Botahtaung temple, Yangon
Each of these narrowing chambers encircled a central cylindrical chamber that housed a supposed Buddha relic.
most attention, arguably the best way to experience Bagan is to do so independently, following one’s instincts and venturing down quiet sandy lanes, to find that one has an ancient temple all to oneself. We did so mainly by bike (of course) after using horse and cart on the previous day. This had the advantage of being less effort, but the disadvantage that the horse seemed to decide where we would go, despite the impression of authority that the young man in charge tried to convey.
Many aspects of Myanmar seem to be stuck in the past or at least in dire need of overhaul. One guide enthusiastically and optimistically spoke of the changes that he and his friends and family hope to see. Universal access to good education; real roads; better availability of decent healthcare; a fairer distribution of their country’s wealth.
He spoke of how, just a couple of years ago, if gathered in a group of five or more, even in a public tea shop, he and his friends could be, and often were, moved on by local police.
There is a long-standing culture of fear, of not knowing who might be listening, informing,
Shwe Dagon at dusk, Yangon
Shwe=golden. Lots of things in Myanmar are called Shwe-.
that is only now easing. While villagers handed us professional-looking National League for Democracy (NLD) badges, they did so with furtive smiles.
Not all locals are so reluctant to speak with candour. A Bagan restaurateur proudly displayed his poster of ‘The Lady’, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and was happy to talk at length about the political, social and economic situation in Myanmar. He bemoaned the hidden costs of the education system, costs that deter many families from having their children properly educated. He scoffed at the recent reduction in the price of SIM cards, which has come down from US$3000 to a barely more affordable $1000. Unsurprisingly, mobile phones are scarce in Myanmar.
One trekking guide to whom we spoke told us of a group of guides taking their government accreditation exams. All failed. Upon resitting, one guide was advised to leave some money with his completed paper. To no-one’s great surprise, he learned that this time, he had passed.
Corruption and cronyism are rife in Myanmar. A jovial Yangon taxi driver gestured flamboyantly as he poured scorn on the ‘idiots in government’. He even boasted of having given rides to government officials, and giving
them a piece of his mind. He was eager to point out banks, hotels and executive apartment buildings, detailing by whom they were owned and how they were connected to the reviled government.
But for how much longer will the government be reviled? Shortly after we left Myanmar, there was a by-election in which Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat that is as symbolic as democratic. A full election is scheduled for 2015. Who knows what the country will be like then; it’s changing even as you read this.
There are more photos below