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Published: August 21st 2010
Wifi hasn’t quite reached Myanmar so I haven’t been able to update the blog. I’ve just written one entry for my visit to the country. (Hence why there are several pages of photos!)
While the rest of South-East Asia is gradually turning itself into the new Club Med neighbouring Myanmar remains trapped in a parallel universe. The country's annual number of tourists is lower than an average Bangkok brothel. Once one of the richest countries in the region, Burma was heralded as a model for economic development. Successive attempts at implementing a planned economy squandered all this. Currently the country is classified as one of the UN’s illustrious group of “Least Developed Nations”. It also has the honour of being ranked both the most corrupt country in the world (tied with Somalia) and least economically free (tied with North Korea). The current military junta took power in the 1960s. It sustains itself with revenue from the country’s enormous Ruby deposits (allegedly extracted by slave labour with workers enduring appauling conditions).
There’s an entire chapter in Lonely Planet about the issue of whether or not it’s morally right to visit. The government controls such a wide range of aspects of
the economy it’s impossible to visit without directly supporting what is without one of the most brutal regimes in the world. However avoiding government run options where possible visiting can directly support local communities and importantly show Burmese people the outside world still exists.
Not content with their Ruby money (not to mention Opium: the country comes second only to Afghanistan in terms of production) the military junta is keen to promote tourism. Visa requirements have been relaxed and visas are now available on arrival for all nationalities. I was queuing for the visa and the guy in front of me was flicking through his passport. Syria, Lebanon, Russia & Mongolia stamps. Just when you think you’re vaguely original!
I started in the country’s former capital Yangon. The government moved the capital to isolated Naypyidaw a few years ago. Inland and far from major cities the move reflects the move aims to protect the junta from both foreign threats and those closer to home.
Yangon really couldn’t be more of a culture shock coming from Bangkok. The shabby buildings and the unpaved roads are the first sign of being firmly in the developing world. More harrowing,
in the short time I was there I saw 3 people lying in the street with large infected open wounds effectively dying in the street. The government is one of the lowest spenders on healthcare per capita in the world.
Culturally the country’s like a mix between India and Thailand. The people look like a mix between the two nations and there’s fantastic Indian food almost everywhere. Most of the men wear long skirts and chew a leave called Pa’an which stains their mouths red, staining their teeth and making their mouths appear filled with blood. Not all but many people still wear traditional yellow face paint in various circular patterns.
I was walking down one of the main streets and I overheard a shop playing some Western music. I listed for a second and realised it was the Corrs. Obviously the country is even more cut off from the world than I had expected.
It’s not the most attractive city in the world but there are a few nicer parts. The Shwedagon Pagoda is spectacular and there were barely a handful of other tourists there. The city is dotted with dilapidated colonial buildings including the enormous
former government buildings. The level of decay pretty accurately captures the state of the country as a whole.
I was shocked how friendly the locals I encountered were. Tourists are still something of a novelty and several people just approached me in the street and struck up conversations. They seemed genuinely friendly and interested. The topic of politics was deftly avoided but one guy actually asked me: “Are things better or worse than this in your country?” .Where do you even start?
Officially the exchange rate is 7 kyat to 1 USD. In reality even hotels offer an exchange rate of closer to 900 kyat to 1 USD. The rate on the black market is about 10% higher again. The hostel I stayed in was full of scare stories about changing money on the street. To be honest most of these people deserved to be ripped off, it was effectively a tax on their own stupidity.
Next stop on the Myanmar tourist trail was Bagan; home to the largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world. I arrived at around 4am after yet another overnight bus journey. I was absolutely wrecked and took
a taxi (horse & cart taxi) straight to a hostel.
The temple site is enormous so it’s more or less impossible to get around by foot. I rented bike which was cheap but cycling dirt roads in 30 degree heat on a bike with no gears made for a long day! No question though one of the most impressive places I’ve been. Other than a handful of temples where buses ferried groups the place is more or less deserted.
From Bagan I visited nearby Mount Popa; a single column like mountain with a monastery on top. The monastery itself is pretty average but the setting is stunning. I took a pickup truck then a pickup then motorbike taxi which never ceases to be eventful. One of the guys I was crammed on the roof of the pickup with started chatting to me. He asked me if I’d heard of his favourite band: Westlife. Apparently very popular in Myanmar!
On the trip back the pickup was even more packed (including a dozen life chickens hanging from the back). The woman opposite me was breast feeding the entire time and the woman beside me kept rubbing the hair
on my leg and laughing. Once she started everyone joined in. Pretty surreal journey overall.
The following morning I took a nightmare bus ride to Inle Lake. It wasn’t too long, only about 10 hours, but the bus was a rickety old Chinese banger. China’s complete lack of respect for human rights definitely extends to bus construction. Internal flights are definitely the way to go if you’ve got any money at all. Having said that though the scenery through mountains and rice paddies was pretty spectacular. It’s just hard to fully appreciate that when you’re so cramped your knees are touching your chin.
The last town the bus stops at is the Eastern limit of where tourists are permitted to go. What lies beyond this town no is a mystery. Likely answers include massive opium plantations, drug lords, ruby mines and even armed anti-government militias.
The only way to see Inle is by boat so I went on a tour with some guys from the hostel. It was a totally chilled out day saws loads of the local Fisherman, great scenery, people living literally on the water as well as the standard pagodas monasteries etc. We also
stopped at a Rice wine factory. There are no words to describe how horrendous the wine is. It’s 60% volume but you don’t so much get drunk as just poisoned drinking it.
Looking around the area you really get the feeling here that life hasn’t changed in 100s of years. It’s hard to tell if these people would even know any different if it was still a British colony.
On my final day I went hiking around the surrounding mountains. I stumbled across a really tranquil Cave monastery. My bubble was swiftly burst when a tour guide showed up with a group. I wasn’t particularly well prepared for the trip and flips-flops weren’t exactly ideal. At one stage I was literally ankle deep in cow shit.
I was hoping to stumble across some of the country’s infamous Opium plantations, not much chance around a tourist resort unfortunately! A single poppy plant was the best I could manage. Having recovered from this disappointment it was still a great hike.
That day a Korean guy I met had the unfortunate experience of experiencing Myanmar Healthcare. He reacted badly to some mosquito bites so he went to a doctor.
The doctor drinking while a bottle of beer wrote a prescription for anti-malarial medication on a piece of toilet paper. The next morning 2 others tested positive for malaria. I don't think I'll be forgetting to take an ant malarial pill anytime soon.
As I left Inle to get the bus home I went to one of the Indian Tea shops to stock up on Samosas. The owner looked genuinely upset as my leaving clearly meant a massive drop in sales. I was pretty upset leaving myself. I’m really glad I decided to visit the country. If you want to experience something real in SE Asia, a place that hasn’t been completely hijacked by the tourist industry Myanmar is the place to go!
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