The Golden Land
A regional sight-seeing trip to Myanmar
My regional sightseeing trips took me to Myanmar last month. Due to limited time - just eight days - we only explored the capital Yangon and the nearby cities of Bago and Kyaiktiyo. I didn't want to rush around, so we skipped the great city of Mandalay and the must-see temple town of Bagan, destinations I was fortunate enough to visit some years ago. If you wonder why of all places I chose Myanmar, the availability of cheap Air Asia tickets (2,150 baht return from Bangkok), the abundant cultural sites and the fact that I had already visited most of Southeast Asia would be the main reasons.
I do realize that with the international condemnations and boycott following the recent trial on trumped-up criminal charges of pro-democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the Golden Land, as Myanmar is also called, is probably one of the least popular tourist destinations worldwide (together with Iraq and North Korea). Actually, these countries are part of what George Bush used to call the Axis of Evil, although Axis of Poor Infrastructure might be a more suitable moniker.
Myanmar doesn't welcome a great many visitors these days, so the country isn't geared towards tourism like its Thai neighbour. Although people won't exactly stare at you, you'll generally have little interaction with locals, apart from hotel and restaurant staff. Also, although most people are either friendly or mind their own business, it is clear that many don't know how to deal with tourists, but they try. As Myanmar is not exactly the most prosperous Asian nation, local businesses could do with some extra cash and would welcome more independent tourists spreading their wealth around.
Visiting Myanmar independently doesn't mean you're supporting the reviled military regime, as you'll spend most of your money in private businesses such as hotels, restaurants, local guides, regional handicrafts and bus companies. There are of course some moderate entry fees to the most interesting temple sites, but these seem to go towards the upkeep and restoration of the sites, an admirable feat for a cash-strapped country that teetered on the brink of civil war a few years back.
Locals will have to learn to deal with travelling barbarians of course. For example, in downtown Yangon, there are numerous restaurants and teashops, yet there are hardly any tourists seen among the patrons. Lack of English menus, nobody to welcome you or usher you in and the fact that many establishments seem a men-only affair won't earn them many tourist dollars. Also, the crowded yet crumbling streets around Sule Paya that look like London after the Blitzkrieg don't provide a world-class culinary setting. Food is leaning mainly towards Indian, with biryani being served just about everywhere.
Although there is no lack of hotels and guesthouses, insufficient guests and income apparently hinders upkeep and renovation. This isn't hard to understand when the country has fewer than 1,000 tourist arrivals daily - a mere fraction of the 50,000 revellers its Thai neighbour welcomes every day. This has basically put the whole country off the beaten track, something which might attract the more adventurous traveller.
Although within in the country there are no visible signs of public disgruntlement with the hard-handed regime, this doesn't mean all is hunky dory. The Union of Myanmar, as it is officially called, is a quilt of seven divisions (mainly Bamar or Burmese) and seven different states (usually home to ethnic minorities, Shan State being the biggest). Many of the states have their own administration and separate armies and I wouldn't be surprised if future troubles or uprisings would lead to a Yugoslavia scenario, triggering the creation of a swath of new nations. Police and soldiers were nowhere to be seen during my visit. Perhaps they have retrenched or dug themselves in around the new capital of Naypyidaw, located somewhere in the jungle.
Tourist-wise, Myanmar really has a lot of wonderful sights to offer. If it weren't for its international isolation and lack of infrastructure, it could rival Cambodia and Vietnam combined. Unfortunately, it'll probably take a couple of decades and billions of dollars before roads are fixed and power plants completed. It'll also take a new, democratic government and a massive injection of foreign aid and investment.
Getting around the country can be daunting. There are lots of buses and even some train lines, but it often takes a lot longer to get from point A to B than you're used to. Flying is a quick and fairly affordable option (Air Bagan is one of the local airlines), but of course, you don't get to know the country very well doing so. As it stands now, travel is fairly easy but time-consuming. For example, the nearest beach is barely 100 kilometres from the capital, yet it takes four hours to get there and it is all but straightforward. Kyaiktiyo, home of the sacred and mind-boggling Golden Rock, is located just over 200 kilometres from the capital, but it almost takes a day to get to the top of the mountain (or vice versa). By the way, the person who designed the main bus station in Yangon ought to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Not only is it further from the city centre than the airport, it is also a cluttered and disorganised affair in the middle of nowhere.
In Myanmar, a new taxi is usually less than 10 years old, while the average age of the whole fleet is probably closer to 25 years. Air-conditioning in taxis or on buses means windows (and possibly doors) open. Some cars, buses and trucks could have been called new just after the Second World War. In spite of these minor inconveniences, the Golden Land offers a treasure trove of temples, historical sites and ruins - and can be a photographer's dream. Visas allow you a stay of 28 days and can be obtained at local Burmese embassies (be polite and patient).
In order to take it all in, the intrepid traveller will have to take his time, be patient and put up with a bit more hassle and a lot less luxury than in other countries. If you take the trouble though, you won't be disappointed. If you don't like to travel independently and make all arrangements yourself, you can hire a local guide with car to take you around the country for as long as you wish (30-50 USD per day, depending on your bargaining skills and quality of guide and vehicle). You will probably get to see a lot more of the country than when you travel by night bus. Finally, if you're married to a woman whose idea of having a good time is trolling around A/C shopping malls for bargains or brand name goods, I'd go it alone or give it a miss altogether.
Check out Philip's Myanmar photo portfolio on http://www.flickr.com/photos/philiproeland">www.flickr.com/photos/philiproeland
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