“It will always be Burma to me.” – J. Peterman
Sure, I stole the title from George Orwell, and from a book I haven’t even read no less. But I thought it sounded good. Anyway, Myanmar, which until 1990 was known as Burma in honour of its overwhelming majority of Burmese people, has long been one of the most controversial destinations for travellers to visit, or choose not to visit, or to visit and fill the coffers of the evil empire with their tourist dollars, or visit and do their damnedest to avoid government-owned business and “spread the money among the people”, and so on. The decision on whether or not it was ethical to travel in Myanmar was more greatly debated prior to 2011 when the country finally succumbed to international pressure and economic sanctions to introduce their version of a democratic government, or at least something faintly recognizable as similar to one, anyway. Since then general consensus seems to be that they are headed in the right direction, as long as you are willing to accept “the right direction” as one that makes them more similar ours in the West. Then, earlier this month the National League of Democracy, notionally led by formerly oppressed opposition leader Aung San Kyi who spent 15 years under house arrest and is affectionately known as simply “The Lady”, won the first (relatively) open election in a landslide. She will not actually be named President, however, due to a somewhat questionable law that precludes her due to having children who hold British passports (and possibly owing allegiance their own evil empire, the one known as Chelsea FC). She is so popular that among all the usual crappy tourist t-shirts (I <heart> Myanmar, photos of random stupas, Bagan!) you will regularly see her prim little visage looking back at you from behind her contact lenses, smiling serenely in a way that suggests that not only is she a generous and enlightened pacifist, but that she can tell at a glance that you are definitely not, but she’s magnanimously okay with it. That’s just the kind of cool chick she is.
Now, with all that heavy political information and subjective morality in mind, let’s get down to some more serious business, namely talking about all the funny shit we saw there. I mean, politics aside, this is still Southeast Asia, a place where the biggest festivals involve water guns, where everyone loves the food even though their stomach rarely can handle it, where the term “ladyboy” can be used without sounding derogatory, and where men routinely pluck their meagre facial hair in public settings. So, needless to say, we were really looking forward to exploring a new part of it.
We started, as most do, in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon under British colonial rule, because obviously that sounded far more British), with just enough time for a couple brief excursions. One, Shwedagon Paya, one of most world’s most famous Buddhist temples. For Buddhists it is not only beautiful but religiously significant and deeply spiritual. For non-Buddhist foreigners, it is crazy gold. As in literally most surfaces are bathed in gold, making for a mesmerizing, if occasionally gaudy, spectacle, and some phenomenal photo opportunities, especially when the setting sun starts reflecting off the sides. So we spent an hour or two roaming the gilt halls and shiny marble floors of this overwhelming testament to piousness before wandering off through the rough, hectic streets nearby in search of places a little more akin to my version of church – the famous Burmese “beer stations”. Traditionally, I believe, these were not really open to women, but rather solely for exhausted, hard done by men desperate to escape the difficulties of life at home with all its domestic anarchy and grim frowning. Now, however, either due to the lucrative financial lure of boozy female tourists or simply a sign of changing times, there were a number of women in attendance in the most popular venues, resolutely proving to all the men around that they are just as capable as we are of consuming unwise quantities of alcohol and scarfing down heavily deep-fried foods all while remaining steadfastly focused on their smartphone. Although apparently gender equality isn’t all the way there just yet, considering the only bathroom was simply called “toiLet” with a crooked arrow, and featured nothing but tiny urinals set far too high up the wall to be practical for women, or your average little Burmese man for that matter. But the beer is good (especially the aptly named Myanmar beer), and still very cheap (less than $Cdn1 for a 650ml bottle), reminiscent of Thailand 15 years ago before they realized that giant beers at road/beach/river-side tables are to backpackers in SE Asia what strawberry-flavoured meth is to a teen pop star.
We also spent an entire morning riding the Circular Train around Yangon. This is a local line that just happens to circle the city (hence the name), providing an easy, relaxing way to discreetly witness a slice of local life. The women in their traditional skirts and yellow sandalwood swatches of colour on their cheeks and foreheads, men with disgustingly red and rotting teeth still happily sucking away on a mouthful of betel nut, conservatively dressed commuters, uniformed school children and, of course, an extraordinary number of monks – old and young, both male and female, as bald and beige as free range eggs – all of whom patiently while away the journey by either staring out the window at the passing piles of burning trash or sporadically tapping away on their phone.
Taxis are also cheap in Myanmar and, far more shockingly, the drivers seem in no great hurry to rip us off. A typical encounter: we step slightly onto the road, wait anywhere from 7 to 9 seconds for the next taxi to appear, wave him down, he smiles at us like we’re long-lost takraw teammates, we state a destination, he purses his lips to demonstrate deep thought, provides a number, either in English or by holding up fingers, we repeat the number to confirm, he does, we quickly accept his price and climb in smiling happily because, no matter how you slice it, $2 is way too cheap for a 15-minute ride to a distant neighbourhood. Plus, during one of our several taxi journeys (by far the best one as it turned out) we were briefly able to watch a monk and a kebab vendor engaged in a dance-off right on a busy street. Or so it appeared, my only other reasonable hypothesis being that the agitated monk was trying to show the rest of the food stall crowd how surprisingly lewd things had gotten during the most recent Dancing with the Monks talent show.
After that we visited Inle Lake, our adrenalin-inducing ride from the airport not made any more comfortable by the fact that even though cars drive on the right side of the road in Myanmar, almost every car originates from elsewhere in Asia and has the steering wheel on the right, making those blind passes on winding hillside roads just that much blinder, and correspondingly more capable of causing involuntary clenching of our nether regions, although also just that much more satisfying every time we didn’t actually die.
We stayed just upriver from the lake in a scruffy, dusty, busy little town called Nyaungshwe in what turned out to be the best hotel of our time in Myanmar – Yar Pyae – where the room was large, the bike rentals just $1/day and there were always at least three girls behind the front desk armed with varying phrases of English to help decipher all our hearts’ desires. Never being ones to pass on a ludicrous deal, we spent nearly a full day exploring the lake’s environs on fashionably-basketed old cruiser bikes. Unfortunately, our round-trip circuit of the north end was somewhat disappointingly hectic, lousy with taxis, motorbikes, bellowing trucks and, rather inexplicably, so many white 4-door sedans. There were plenty of highlights as well, though, with passing rural scenery, picturesque temples, a couple rough but serene back roads, a short but enjoyable boat trip across the lake to complete the loop, a 450-metre long wooden bridge and, every now and then, some kid with a homemade crossbow-slingshot hybrid obliterating some small, furry animal in a ditch. And, while Nyaungswhe’s main street was a loud and anarchistic disaster, the side streets were much quieter and more pleasant, other than the occasional trash fire, naturally, and our continued explorations by bike of some of the smaller paths near the river ended up among our highlights.
Due to a large, popular and reputedly highly unregulated and astoundingly unsafe hot-air balloon festival in a city about an hour away, the lake was busier than usual with domestic tourists (which we referred to, quite cleverly, I felt, as DTs) which, although meant more boats and bigger crowds in the villages, also gave us the rare opportunity to taste the tangy flavour of fame, and experience the strange combination of ego boost and awkward social interaction unique to celebrity. Local Burmese tourists, presumably from other areas that see fewer foreigners, seemed continually thrilled and almost awed by our presence, a development that was both surprising and shockingly inexplicable considering the sorry state of my only pair of shorts and my $6 Thai haircut. Most of the time the attention was limited to a bit of staring and some furtive whispering and pointing, but every now and then someone, usually a teenage girl who probably exists almost entirely through social media and simply couldn’t bear to allow such an opportunity to pass her by, would rouse the courage to ask if she could join us for a photo which, of course, we graciously agreed to (who are we really, if not vain), where she would wedge herself between us, grinning maniacally, while her friend took the picture. This usually set off a whole chain reaction of people rushing in for their chance to have a meaningless photo taken with some inconsequential foreigners who, unbeknownst to them, do not really have jobs and barely still have a home. Flattering but uncomfortable, especially the time several middle-aged men joined in the fun, the short one hooking his arm tightly around my waist like he’d recently learned we were long-lost Eskimo brothers.
The following day our boat trip around the lake proved both scenic and fascinating. We passed many older, traditional fishermen propelling themselves with one leg wrapped around a long paddle to keep both hands free to handle their nets (and a few young, less traditional ones simply performing for tourist handouts), before dropping the nets back under and repeatedly smashing the paddle against the water (using their hands now, and probably a little bit of Sharapova-like grunting) as a way of literally scaring the fish to their ultimate doom. Inspirational. Then there were the Floating Gardens, literally kilometres of floating foliage being used to grow all sorts of different things (although mainly, and somewhat disappointingly, common tomatoes), with long bamboo poles used to pin the gardens in place and keep them from wandering off in the night like a restless husband, or a hobo who’s been living rough so long he can no longer sleep under a roof without urinating all over his only pair of linen pants and rope belt. We wound our way through several narrow, foliage-choked canals to visit the tiny village of Indein, where a phenomenal collection of old stupas gradually transitioned from ancient and imperious, to partially restored and striking, to fully restored and typically kitschy. It also featured one of the longest sales gauntlets we’ve ever seen, with hundreds of wily merchants keenly monitoring our every move, constantly on the lookout for even the slightest glance or merest hint of interest triggering them to pounce.
For us, the highlight of the lake was undoubtedly the incredible village of Nampan, with all the homes hovering just above the surface of the lake on narrow wooden stilts along with a couple restaurants, a school and even a post office, not to mention several small gardens struggling to grow on the tiniest islands of grass and weeds. The surroundings were amazing with the unexpectedly varied stilt houses reflecting off the placid water while local life took place all around us, all mainly by dugout canoe, and mainly involving either transportation or fishing, which made sense based on the group of kids repeatedly trying to fly a kite and proving wildly unsuccessful. We passed on the silversmith shop, said no thanks to a nearby weaving demonstration and opted out of a tour of the local cheroot factory, but we did buy a couple bananas and a sucker, so it probably evened out in the end.
Then there was Bagan, one of the most famous historical and religious sites in Southeast Asia, possibly the world, which, based on those criteria and its status as best place in Asia for an non-Buddhist to spend entire days climbing ancient stupas in bare feet and a poorly-wrapped sarong, I feel warrants an entire blog entry of its own. So you’ve got that to look forward to next week.
Finally, we ended our Myanmar journey in the famous city of Mandalay, one which seemed, at least to us, to be not nearly so much cultural and interesting as dirty, busy and truly teeming with dogs. Even with just one night there, however, we did make it out to popular U Bein Bridge, a 1.2 kilometre-long teak bridge across a lake in the Amapura district. Unfortunately, heavy cloud cover rendered the sunset less than inspiring, although the walk across and back was still quite interesting, as was the traditional methods of farming taking place below in places where the water was low enough to expose the soil at least for the time being. Then we stopped off at a waterfront beer station to relax and gather ourselves, downed a couple final Myanmar lagers, took some photos of monks crossing the bridge and one guy in a rather surprising Hartford Whalers jersey, then made our way back downtown to mentally ready ourselves for yet another return to Bangkok.
All in all, we really enjoyed our short amount of time in Myanmar. I know this is the case everywhere in Southeast Asia, but the people really were extraordinarily friendly and helpful and, even though our visit was limited to only the absolute most popular tourist destinations, we didn’t notice any of the tell-tale weariness and cynicism that inevitably creep in when a place is constantly inundated with outsiders. And, while it may be physiologically impossible for a Thai person to actually come across as jaded (although occasionally taxi drivers in Bangkok test this theory), in the most popular areas it is nonetheless quite obvious that they’ve seen it all a million times before, whereas in Myanmar widespread tourism is still so new that you get the feeling they’re still really enjoying the ride. Throw in the truly world-class sights and surprisingly excellent food (a perfect mix of Burmese, Thai and Chinese) and Myanmar definitely exceeded our expectations, and will definitely warrant a longer trip to some of the more obscure areas in the future. Consider them warned.