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Published: December 9th 2009
View of the Swedagon Paya from our hotel in Yangon.
What do you think of when you hear the word "Burma"? British men (wearing linen suits) sipping gin and tonics while resting in wicker chairs being cooled by ceiling fans? Stunning ancient temples and abundant natural resources? A horrible and oppressive military regime? Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the government's initial refusal to accept foreign aid? Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi's ongoing house arrest?
It's all of the above.
Here's what we know about Burma based on information contained in our guidebook and other sources:
Burma/Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia with one of the most oppressed populations in the world. The infant mortality rate is high and the life expectancy is low. It's a gross understatement to say that human rights in Burma are a joke. The leader of the democratic movement in Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi), who technically won the only election held in the past 30 years, has been under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years. Forced labor is common in Burma and people live and work in deplorable conditions in order to build roads, airports, and palaces for the generals who rule by fear and, when needed, brutal force.
The educational system in Burma is sadly and intentionally under-resourced. For those who can read, the back page of the daily newpaper is covered with anti-democratic propoganda. Our morning copy of the newspaper had messages like "The VOA (Voice of America) and BBC are evil" and "Political reform is being accomplished through peaceful means." Even the slightest sign of an uprising (or independent thought) is ruthlessly squashed. Penalties for the smallest transgressions are huge. Steal from a foreigner and you'll get a minimum of 5 years hard labor.
So now to the question you are probably asking yourself as you read this blog...is it Burma or Myanmar? A small history lesson is in order:
This is an extreme over-simplification, but let's just say that, until the 1800s, the country now known as Myanmar was comprised of several large ethnic groups (and many smaller ones) whose loyalties were constantly in flux. The largest ethnic group back then (and now) was the Barmar and they occupied what is now central Burma. The Shan (actually Tai - closely related to people in Thailand today) were (and still are) the second largest ethnic group. Besides the Bamar and Shan there are another 100 ethnic groups/tribes. Over the years, these other groups would opportunistically form allegiances and then break them based on whatever was in their best interests at the time. Collectively, these groups were a fierce power in the region and several times they conquered kingdoms in neighboring areas (today Burma borders on China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos).
Everything changed in the 1820s when the British arrived. The British hoped to take advantage of the lucrative industries of rice, teak wood, petroleum and gemstones. The Portguese had arrived in the region first but the British were more successful in their conquest. Through a series of wars the British conquered and then ruled the entire country as an extension of their holdings in India. Unable to understand or pronounce "Bamar" (the largest ethnic group), the British simply referred to the entire country as "Burma" (say "Burma" with a British accent and you'll get it). The British colonial masters also changed the names of several cities and rivers: the Ayeyarwady River became the Irrawady River and the capital, Yangon, became Rangoon.
The British ruled Burma until January 1948. By the mid-1950s, the Burmese military had taken control of the government and military officers filled or appointed cronies to the major cabinet positions. Even today when referring to the government, people talk about "the Generals". In 1989, a year after violently squashing a pro-democracy uprising, the generals changed the names of several major cities and rivers in Burma back to their pre-colonial names (Yangon, etc). "Myanmar" became the official name of the country. According to the generals, Myanmar is a more inclusive name for the country, one that recognizes the 100+ ethnic groups in the country; not just the Bamar. However, many pro-democracy activists still refer to the country as "Burma".
The generals also mandated that the population switch overnight from driving on the left to driving on the right. Crazy but true. Today many cars in Burma have steering wheels on the right hand side - weird considering they drive on the right side!
We arrived in Yangon around 2pm. Travel to Burma requires a prearranged visa and the process is a bit complex. The application is five pages long and very detailed. We needed to provide a lengthy work history (job, company, title, "duties"), our fathers' full names and a lot of other personal information that other countries are not interested in. The generals want this information in order to ferret out any activists or journalists who may attempt to lead a rebellion or report on one. Fascinating.
Yangon International Airport is divided into a domestic wing and an international wing. Today we saw the international wing. It looks very modern, not exactly what we had expected but not too surprising. In the early 1990s, the generals had the idea to make 1996 the "Visit Myanmar Year" to encourage the lagging tourism industry and to increase GDP. The generals set about building a crazy number of airports, hotels, roads, etc, using forced labor under horrific working conditions. Long story short - the Visit Myanmar Year was a flop. Less than half the projected number of tourists showed up. Tourism is growing slowly now and the infrastructure serving main tourist attractions is still pretty new. Most of the country is off-limits to foreigners - and even the Burmese themselves - especially anything near the government controlled gem mines.
The customs and immigration area at the airport looks and feels a bit Soviet (bare grey walls, unsmiling officials in olive-green military uniforms) but clearing customs was surprisingly painless and we collected our luggage without any problems. The arrivals lounge was complete chaos - extended families meeting traveling loved ones and a crush of taxi drivers vying for business. Luckily we arranged a driver through our hotel - he greeted us with a warm smile and quickly whisked us away from the insanity. The drive to the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel took about 20 minutes and we got to see the Northern reaches of the city. The roads are filled with cars (but surprisingly no motorbikes), most in pretty sorry condition and some seemingly just a shell of rust with a motor. The streets are lined with a mix of old cement block buildings, dirty and crumbling, and large homes behind security fences. We also saw several new condo and office buildings, many of which, we found out later, are vacant due to increasing economic sanctions from many Western countries. U.S. citizens are permitted to travel to Burma but U.S. companies are no longer allowed to invest in Burma - as a result there are few Western brands and shops. No 7-Elevens or Subways or McDonalds which can be found all over neighboring Thailand. The primary investors in Burma are the Chinese - and it shows.
There's a big debate about whether tourists should travel to Burma. One side argues that foreign money flowing into the country supports the regime and all the evil things the regime stands for. The other side argues that it is possible to travel responsibly, and, with some effort, to direct tourist dollars to the people and not the government. Yes a simplification of the thoughtful positions on both sides. We decided to go and, like many tourists traveling indepedently (vs. in large tour groups), try to ensure that our dollars go directly to the Burmese people. The Lonely Planet guidebook is a good resource for how to travel responsibly in Burma - it clearly outlines which hotels, restaurants and attractions are government-owned and which are owned (at least mostly) privately. Basically the idea is to avoid the government-owned establishments.
The Kandawgyi Palace Hotel sits on pretty Kandawgyi Lake and has beautiful views of the magnificent Shwedagon Paya (a stunning gold stupa ((called Zedi in Burma)) and temple that rise above the center of the city). We think the hotel is pretty nice for Burma. The rooms are fairly modern (Western toilets, etc) and have AC (interrupted by frequent power outages in the city; the hotel has a backup generator that kicks on). The large lobby contains comfy chairs and couches to relax on. There are several restaurants, an afternoon tea service and an OK-looking pool. There's even a large dinosaur lurking in the tropical foliage outside (the hotel has had many lives and it served as the National Biological Museum in the 1960s). The "gym" is pretty bad - just a few ancient, rusting pieces of equipment on a back porch.
After getting settled in to our room we wandered around Kandawgyi Lake. There's a lovely raised boardwalk that loops around the lake and there are extensive gardens along the banks as well. At 5pm, the boardwalk was filled with tourists and locals alike. Many people were walking and a few jogging. A bit worried about mosquitos we only went for a short walk.
Despite being brand new (published in May, 2009), our guidebook is already outdated. A nearby restaurant that was highly recommended has closed (according to our concierge, the lady who runs the restaurant has emigrated to the U.S.). Instead we decide to try "Monsoon" which is located in the downtown area. The guys at the hotel negotiated the price for the taxi for us: $2 U.S. It seems that none of the taxis in this country are less than 10 (15? 20?) years old. They are mostly rusty Toyotas without AC, stereos, door handles, etc. A pretty interesting and bumpy ride.
On the way to Monsoon we see busy streets lined with people eating at casual outdoor "restaurants". Lots of old crumblings buildings. A few new ones. Many neon signs advertising restaurants or clothing shops. Overall there's a good energy in Yangon but the city is definitely dingy. We haven't been to Cuba but we imagine that Havana may be similar.
The contrast between the Monsoon restaurant and the surrounding buildings is striking. Two men rush to great our taxi and two/maybe three escort us through the doors into the restaurant. The restaurant is beautiful and modern and seems very out of place.
The food is delicious! It may even be our best meal since Cambodia. We tried "long bean" (green bean) salad, a butterfish curry (fresh from the Ayeyarwady River), a beef curry and coconut rice. Of course, we sampled the local beer and are happy to report that "Myanmar Beer" is quite good. It's similar in taste to Tiger Beer (from Singapore). Perhaps a bit better than Tiger Beer and much cheaper.
Tomorrow we're going to explore Yangon and will stop by a travel agent's office to get some help in mapping out our remaining seven days here.
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