Burma? Myanmar? Golden Land? Who cares?!

Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Feb 01, 2013

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Monday, January 7, 2013

This is Burma. It is quite unlike any place you know about.”

Kipling may have written those words last century, but they still resonate today. We weren’t quite sure what to expect of Burma*, but we were both very excited about being able to come here. Our first glimpse of the country was on our approach to Yangon airport and, true to the self-styled label “golden land”, was a patchwork of fields, small clusters of wooden houses and gold stupas (of which, if you read our blog posts for all the places we’ve visited in Myanmar, you’ll know we saw many more!).

Once we had had been waved through customs and changed our pristine dollars for the local Kyat, we had an exhilarating journey from the airport through the streets of Yangon to our hotel. It was an incredible feeling - we were finally in a country we had both really been looking forward to visiting - and we were drinking up all we could about the sights around us and the incessant chatter of our driver. Because of a quirk of history, the driver sits on the right (as in the UK) but drives on the right-hand side of the road, leading to the front passenger seat being dubbed “the suicide seat”. Luckily, we enjoyed all of this from the safety of the back seat.

We learnt very quickly that the locals are (1) keen to engage with foreigners (who are still very much a rarity) and (2) football, specifically English Premiership, mad. Posters of mainly Manchester United and Chelsea line the streets and, amusingly for us, Manchester United is the “Official Noodle Partner” of one of the most popular brand of noodles here. Newspapers pullouts of team information and posters of the star players are displayed all over the walls of teashops, coffee shops and restaurants. Much to A’s disappointment and disgust, which he didn’t hide, the vast majority of the locals are Man U fans. The rest, who really are in a minority, follow Chelsea or Arsenal. They had of course all heard of Leeds United: “they used to be good, not so much now” was the inevitable view of the locals. 

Yes, the locals are football mad and this is a country in which you can’t buy a cheap SIM card, but Premier League games are shown for free in bars and at major traffic intersections. We’re not kidding. 

Mobile phones are available in Burma and, in the cities, there are mobile phone shops everywhere. But being mobile doesn’t come cheap. It costs USD 120 for a SIM card - this is down from USD 800 two years ago, but still out of reach for the man on the street. What we have gleaned from those lucky enough to have saved enough cash to get themselves a phone is that, without exception, the locals have excellent taste in ringtones. Many a time in a temple, the air of quiet contemplation was shattered by Lionel Richie’s “I just called to say I love you”, Wham’s “Last Christmas” or Ronan Keating’s (or is it Boyzone? We’re really not sure) “You say it best when you say nothing at all” (in fact, is that even the name of the song?!?). And they’re just the songs we can remember.

The choice of ringtones is just one indicator of the fun-loving nature of the Myanmar people. Get speaking to them and you learn very quickly that they love to joke around and enjoy teasing each other - and sometimes unsuspecting tourists. Our guide in Yangon “taught” A a “more polite” way to say hello and suggested that he use it when checking into our hotel at the Golden Rock. A, the multi-talented linguist that he is, did so and couldn’t understand why the girl on reception, and all of her colleagues around her, fell about laughing. It turns out that he had asked her to marry him - and he’s been proposing to Myanmar women (and some men) ever since. It’s a great way to get a smile and is always warmly received. Much to V’s surprise, not one of them has yet said yes. Perhaps it’s the beard? Just in case you’re interested, it’s pronounced “ming-ala-som-maye”.

We were amused to see the local version of London’s Oyster Card, “iPay”, being used by a small handful of locals on the Yangon to Dalla ferry. Another thing which surprised us was the number of modern multi-use complexes springing up across Yangon. Some of these were just receiving their final licks of paint. In more exclusive areas, large billboards advertise luxury living with onsite gyms, coffee shops and restaurants - none of which would look out of place in Docklands, let alone any other major world city. Shops too were being fitted out and we could see global brands about to move in. Someone here is making a lot of money out of selling bright, white paint.

That someone is probably a Chinese businessman or a person connected to the military regime. The luxury houses we saw were, without exception, surrounded by high walls, gates and security cameras. These were inhabited by wealthy Chinese, who have been allowed unlimited access to the country’s natural resources, and by those generals and their relatives who enabled them to get rich quickly. These residences are in stark contrast to the dwellings of the average Myanmar person, who remains poor and is understandably excited about the prospect of improving standards of living as a result of the expected increase in tourism and the government’s cosying up to the West. A number of the people we met mentioned how Obama’s visit was a turning point: a real sign that the world now wants to do business in Myanmar.

Internet cafes can be found and “free wifi” is advertised as being available in the odd teashop, but as expected, the connections are slow and unreliable. Trying to get online is made all the more difficult by the constant power cuts - lights in our hotel room would go out several times an evening. Despite all the signs of a country scrambling to get connected and complaints by one guide that young girls, influenced by South Koreans, are wearing short skirts and make up, it is still very traditional. Even in the more modern, connected cities, men still wear the traditional longyis (which, rather aptly, means “tie securely’), women and children still smear thanakha on their faces and exposed skin as a form of sunblock and moisturiser and locals everywhere have blood-red mouths stained from chewing betel nut.

The longyis are a very versatile item of clothing and we’ve seen men in all trades wearing them. While on U Bein’s bridge in Amarapura, we watched the local fisherman deftly wrap their longyi up around their legs and tuck it in at the waist to prevent it getting wet while they waded through the water and climbed into their boats - and then they let it out again once in. All very elegantly done.

The average person in Myanmar works incredibly hard and this is in a country where they don’t always have the luxury of modern technology. Despite this, things just get done and with the minimum, if any, fuss. A classic example of this is the operation of the airports: other than at Yangon International Airport, the staff, none of whom wear uniform, manually check in passengers with paper tickets, checking names off against a list from that airline’s central office. Passengers are given handwritten boarding cards and colour-coded stickers to ensure they get on the right flight. Boarding is announced, well, yelled that is, across the terminal by a man or woman holding up a piece of cardboard with the flight number. The baggage handling is similarly simplistic: a tie on label is fixed to the handle of each bag, thrown into a pile in the middle of the departures concourse (which is often the same as arrivals) and then taken out to the plane at the right time. 

We took five internal flights (road and rail travel being very, very slow, overcrowded and unreliable) with Air Mandalay, Air Bagan and Asian Wings. These airlines are running small operations: Air Mandalay has one plane (which we used three times); Air Bagan is one of the largest with four planes; and Asian Wings has two aircraft. They all fly the same circular route around the country - generally starting in Yangon early in the morning and finishing back there by mid-afternoon. We found the service to be reliable and well organised. Don’t be put off by what has been written in the UK press as regards safety and an overburdened system. Yes, the planes are working all day, but the operations here are no different to the short-haul daily European shuttles.

Our final domestic flight was a highlight: as usual, a non-uniformed chap checked us in, took our bags and then told us to “go relax” while we waited. We enjoyed a delicious iced-coffee while sat next to the runway. We saw our plane land, ambled through security (the security guard had a Chelsea shirt on) and waited in the “lounge”. A few minutes later, another chap asked us if we had been through immigration, which we hadn’t and so A wandered back through security to pass us through immigration. All very simple!

On the subject of coffee, our iced coffee at the airport was all the more special for it was not one of the “3 in 1” coffee mixes found all over the country: the 3 in 1 being coffee, creamer and sugar. These mixes are everywhere and it seems to be quite the thing. Indeed, they are what you would generally get if you order a coffee. They are almost as abundant as golden stupas.

While in Myanmar, we visited a lot of temples. We initially struggled to reconcile the sanctity of these places with the following: the flashing “disco” lights which often adorn the head of buddha images; the loud talking (or shouting) across the heads of people praying or meditating; and the prolific use of mobile phones in those complexes. But we learnt to accept all of these: it is Myanmar. As one of our guides said, “if this distracts them, they are not meditating properly”.

All of our guides, who spoke excellent English and, in some cases, other languages (for the most part, self-taught), were keen to talk about life in other countries. One of our guides, Spring, who speaks Japanese, had had the opportunity to visit Japan as an interpreter on a football club tour. His language skills also meant he’d been able to do the same in Vietnam and Thailand. He told us that he’d bought a lot of “Adidas” caps in Vietnam, all fake (of course!) for the students of a school he’d set up. Spring is a relatively wealthy man in Myanmar terms and yet had only been able to travel as a result of his linguistic abilities. 

We got on famously with Htwe, our guide on Inle Lake. Htwe is a keen trekker and was telling us how the villagers in the Shan Mountains are incredibly poor and have just a few blankets for one large family. He takes up a couple of blankets each time he goes trekking in the area. As per our other guides, Htwe has never left Myanmar. When asked if he’d like to visit London, he said that he definitely would and “never say never” (believing that London is the greatest city in the world, we were gutted to find out that Singapore is his preferred destination). What absolutely killed us though was that his vocal enthusiasm was equally matched by a deep sadness in his eyes: Htwe is in his forties and knows that it is highly unlikely he will ever be able to visit London. This is a man who abandoned his own education as a teenager and has been working to support his family ever since. 

We discovered very quickly that our guidebook, although recently published, was already out of date. For example, money can now be changed at the airports (something which all guidebooks advise against) for a better rate than on the black market. Things are moving quickly in Myanmar. 

You’ll see from our blog posts that we loved it here. It’s a country which makes your blood stir and you can sense that the people are desperate to reach out and grab the rest of the world with both hands. We came here not knowing what to expect: we left having fallen in love with the country and its people.

*We use Burma and Myanmar interchangeably. The British Government does not recognise the change in name. However, the people we have met all refer to themselves as Myanmar people (which is more inclusive as it covers the numerous ethnic tribes as well as Bamar) and their country as Myanmar. 
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