“This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” Rudyard Kipling, 1889
My 59th country was the mysterious land of Myanmar (Burma). This country has been cut off from the world for most of it’s existence, more lately by an inward focussed military regime. Sadly that regime has seen one of the richest countries in Asia slide into poverty. Average GDP per person is a mere $1000 per annum with a massive gap between people at the top and the bottom of the tree. Yet Burma was rich. The temples topped with gold and precious stones are a testament to that.
Temples today that are surrounded by dust, haphazard development, poor maintenance and piles of rubbish from poor rubbish collection systems. Access to clean water, sewerage, health care and education is poor. Travel by road, plane and train is not easy! Hotels are a little more basic and much more expensive than other parts of Asia. On the other hand, cookie cutter chain stores are refreshingly absent. It is a very real place to travel through not a sanitised bubble.
The culture of Myanmar is a mix of Indian and Chinese influences with local traditions. Theravada Buddhism is the single largest religion, and there are temples everywhere. Christianity, Hinduism and Islam are also part of the belief landscape. People participate in religious observances all day. We saw our taxi driver buy flowers, kiss them and pray using them whilst waiting in traffic, families presenting their kids at the temples to become monks, nuns and monks collecting offerings in the streets and markets.
What impresses visitors to Myanmar, aside from its amazing temples, are its people: “The mother … laughed, and the baby laughed, and we all laughed together, because that seemed to be the custom of the country, and returned down the now dark corridor where the lamps of the stall-keepers were twinkling and scores of people were helping us to laugh Kipling again from 1889. We felt welcome- and safe all the time with genuine, generous, hospitable people who went out of their way to make us welcome.
Yes, we also got stared at a lot and in the tourist areas approached a lot (with offers of paintings, postcards, money change, tours, taxis). We found you pay for everything. Want to walk in the park? As a tourist that will cost you. Take a photo from this temple? Please pay! Its never a lot each time but you have to expect it!
This for me is the greatest dilemma. What will be the impact of tourism on this land? Hopefully it will raise incomes but not at the cost of the positive sides of the country and I hope the country does not become a “sanitised” version of itself.
While Myanmar can be very hard work to travel through, it is also blessed with extraordinary sights I will never see anywhere else. As Kipling said: quite unlike any land you know about. If you are looking for an easy poolside trip with shopping head to Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, Hawaii or Fiji. If you are looking for adventure, Myanmar is waiting!
On Tuesday, I will share my experiences of a Myanmar rail trip that was simultaneously one of the worst and best rail journeys of my life! Thursday, a review of Bagan, my favourite part of the country so far.
- ATMs have arrived and you can withdraw local cash from your own bank account
- Credit cards do not work all the time – do not rely on them – in fact my Visa card never worked
- US dollars reportedly used to be the preferred currency for tourists. This seems to have changed. Most locals were not interested in dollars at all except money changers
- Your US dollars are must be crisp and clean with no tears, spots or blemishes for banks and moneychangers to change them
- Moneychangers are everywhere
- Be ready to bargain .. prices start 3 to 7 times higher than local prices on most goods- we found them to be delightful fun and hard bargainers
Transport and Communication
- Since 1970, cars switched from the left to the right side of the road in Burma, but many cars on the road are made for driving on the left side!
- Power goes off regularly
- The internet is also an uncertainty quantity. Do not rely on it especially not for downloading anything
- Get travel insurance
- many tourists report stomach illnesses. We were very careful but ate happily. We washed our hands before meals, checked that stuff was freshly made, looked for fly protection and ensured that ice cream was only bought from stores with generators
- take lots of anti bacterial hand wash
- Bring travel sickness tablets for road trips
- Dengue fever is rife- take mosquito repellant
- One of the other most disconcerting customs is that of chewing betel nut (paan). The red juice covers pavements, drips down the sides of buses and trains and builds up in gutters. People’s teeth are black from it. A sight regularly revealed through the many wide smiles we encountered.