Burmese days or Myanmar nights?

Trip Start Jul 2003
Trip End May 2005

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Sunday, October 24, 2004

Number 25 (23rd October 2004 - 16th November 2004): Burmese days or Myanmar nights?

Leaving northern Thailand and crossing into Burma at Mae Sai was a simple affair, as large groups of beach-dressed westerners were doing the same thing. Unfortunately they were only after 'start again' Thai visas and immediately left, leaving us all alone in the 'Government tourist office'. After stoutly refusing their flights and hotels we dictated our 'Itinerary' on to an old manual typewriter and left with the phrase, 'See you tomorrow' echoingsomewhere. And early next morning, after watching a man talking to a puddle,back we went having found it impossible to leave the town without 'government assistance'. This basically involved a five hour 'taxi' through a deforested and supposedly bandit country part of the Shan State to Kyaingtong. There's a general law in Asia that durian fruit isn't allowed on public transport on account of its smell of a warm, sweet, fungal foot infection. This law doesn't appear to apply to government taxis.

So is it Burma or Myanmar? It greatly depends on who you speak to. Most Indians, left behind from the colonial days, will say Burma, and if a local from the countryside says Burma by accident he's fairly quick to correct himself. The Shan State comprises about a quarter of the 'Union of Myanmar', and with its own army and huge personal income from opium fields and Chinese imports it makes its own decisions, doesn't appear to have any independence desires and would rather be called Shan than anything else. The name Burma was originally coined by the British, and really only refers to the Bamar people (about 65% of the population). The military government recently renamed the country Myanmar, but seeing as the adjective 'Myanmarese' is a bit tricky, the word 'Burmese' is usually re-used instead. The only condition of our entry into the country was that we sign, and carry with us at all times, a piece of paper stating that, 'During our stay in Myanmar, we will not involve in the matters of politics and religion'. What a shame, our two favourite pub topics.

Even after traveling through northern India, Sri Lanka and Tibet, we've never been this immersed in Buddhism. Every male spends two periods of time as a monk, first as a novice, and again at an older age; it appears to create a population with hardly a bad thought in them. The amount of smiling, waving and general good naturedness is almost too much to take. Easy pickings for any oppressive government, perhaps. And whilst the military government appears to be a complete mystery to most people, they're all pretty afraid of it. In some areas very large, hi-tech looking complexes of buildings go under names such as 'Defence Services Administration School', in other words, military cadet college. Billboards command all to 'oppose those relying on external elements' (e.g. international human rights organisations and the UN), but it's all so hidden from the tourist eye that nothing initially appears to be amiss. After a few generations of it all most locals assume it to be normal. The first warning bells are the lack of mobile 'phone coverage and very little public internet (with many popular sites, such as Hotmail, banned). On one hand the government bows down to a powerful people like the Shan, whilst on the other it openly refuses to recognise the citizenship of some of the more remote ethnic groups. For families to escape over the border to seek refuge in a country as poor and venal as Bangladesh, there's clearly a serious threat at home.

Kyaingtong, in the depths of the Shan State, is a very pleasant town, but with recent wealth from illicit trades over the border with China many of the older buildings have come down to be replaced with fairly unpleasant 'concrete and shiny stuff' new ones. And when we attempted to take the bus west through the poppy fields to the next town we were very politely, but firmly, stopped. Our only option was to look at this as a little side excursion, a holiday if you will, from our traversing the globe by boat, bus and train. Then we stomped across the dirt and tarmac to our awaiting propellored plane. With no time to put seatbelts on we were coming down again with not a flower visible in the mountains, just the gold and jewels from a thousand stupas sparkling in the jungle far below.

Inle Lake really is beautiful. In a vast shallow hollow in the hills, sky and water become one huge reflection. Villages rise out of the haze on stilts and fishermen row with one leg wrapped around an oar (were they born with it?). And with the Buddhist Light Festival and New Year we were spoiled with huge floating processions at sunrise every morning.

Still riddled with guilt following our compulsory flight, we attempted to make up for it by walking to the next town, the former colonial hill station of Kalaw. Two very pleasant locals and a network of paths took us over and through jungled hills and down dales of patchwork farmland. Fantastic meals were prepared, and piles of blankets were laid out for us in old monasteries. We were awoken at 5am by pattering feet, shortly followed by eerie chanting from the novices. Then it was tea and soft biscuits with the Abbott, who sat huddled in his robes, grinning and gargling into a brass spittoon balanced on mountains of offerings of cigars, oranges, toothpaste etc.

On buses in Myanmar, women aren't allowed on the roof as this would result in their feet offending those beneath them. Will was therefore treated to terrifying/exhilarating views down winding mountain 'roads', near misses with low tree branches and waving locals as the bus descended from the hills to the dry, hot plains of the Mandalay Division. Emma, however, was treated to regular head butts from half nodding-off female sardines, whilst trying to avoid eye contact with the continual vomiting into small, blue nappy sacks. We hitched our way via happy trucks, and horse and cart, to Meiktila before arriving at the sacred desert of Bagan a couple of days later. The usual rumbling bullock/buffalo cart scenery was even more stunning than usual, and the 90% of Bagan tourists who arrive by 'plane must miss out on so much. Renting bikes, the outskirts of old Bagan seemed pretty much like the rest of Myanmar, with its relentless landscape of gold stupas, but as we cycled away in the soaring temperatures we really began to feel the magical beauty of the place. With construction starting around a thousand years ago a very dry, flat desert with an even scattering of trees, spiky bushes and snakes is littered with thousands of payas and stupas. Ranging from bare brick or crumbling white to glaring gold, and in every conceivable size from tiny to cathedral-like, the views from some are breathtaking. And while tourist bus after bus rumbles past heading for the main ones, thousands are left to be 'discovered' alone.

Sunsets over the gold temple and buffalo cart lined Ayeyarwady River are as good as they sound. Tourism is heavily controlled in Myanmar, the advantage being that if you keep away from the shepherded tour parties you are very much alone. The packed tourist boats are designed to run from Mandalay to Bagan, so taking it in the reverse direction means very few passengers. Departing at 4am also meant we were rewarded with, over ancient gold stupas, perhaps the finest starburst of a sunrise we'd yet witnessed; and arriving in Mandalay at 6pm meant we were treated to a perfect glowing sunset as we cruised past hillsides packed with colonial buildings, temples and monasteries.

You have to look hard to find some charm in Mandalay. It's not an ancient city and during WWII many buildings, including the palace, came in between Anglo Burmese and Japanese troops and were subsequently destroyed. Old Land Rovers bounce down run-down streets and it's said that the red, green and white trades (rubies, jade and heroin) feed the new economy. The result is further destruction and rebuilding in the unfortunate modern Chinese style. Government imposed US$ prices make the few attractions expensive, but as few tourists stop in the city a very warm reception is guaranteed everywhere you stray (except from the nervous guards at the Gate of Ill Omen - 'No Foreigners Allowed'). The city's food took some tracking down but, being supplied in great quality and quantity by the surrounding hills was possibly the best yet (only rivaled by Bangladesh). And always being supplied with serious bargain jugs of draught beer and local cigars helped sway our judgment.

Possibly the world's slowest train took us up into the hills, ascending with a kind of seesawing action (first reversing, second reversing etc) and off northeast over the mighty Gokteik Gorge to Hsipaw. The 19th century tender for the viaduct was won by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, making it the only American bridge in British India (as it was then). Whilst spectacular with waterfalls plunging into the jungle below, no photography is allowed from any 'structural engineering' (unfortunately enforced by army officers on the train).

Hsipaw is a pleasant place. With little tourism, candle, popcorn (fire + pressure cooker = big explosion), longyi and rum 'factories' were found with difficulty. Pyin Oo Lwin, city of flowers, is a small town on the return road to Mandalay, and possibly the richest in colonial architecture; transport is by peculiar mini western/Pickwickian stagecoach. Although the Botanical Gardens were first class, a predominantly Islamic population combined with Ramadan meant little daytime food and very little cold beer.

There is currently much discussion as to whether foreigners should visit a country with an oppressive, non-democratic, militant regime. There is no doubt, however, that with no free press, the international visitor can help to educate the world as to what's going on. The key thing is not to buy any sort of tourpackage, however non-government owned it appears to be. With such pleasant people it's easy to simply arrive and independently travel around, choosing and making decisions as to who gains from your Kyat as you go. Ordinary Burmese citizens can now directly benefit from visitors as the government relaxes its grip on the tourist industry: you are no longer enforced to swap your dollar for the Foreign Exchange Certificates on arrival.

Finding our way back to Mandalay via pick-up and pineapple bus, we took the only option remaining to us by returning the way we had arrived in order to get back into northern Thailand at Mae Sai. Our side excursion to the Golden Land was over, but with probably the finest scenery and food and the friendliest people yet, we'll be back.

Jaded Eyes and Ruby Nose

All food very, very good. Myanmar is one of those places which grows everything, with a huge range of regional specialities. Oil is very popular. Pork or tofu with bean paste and sun-dried chillies was probably the best in the Shan State, whilst fresh lemons, oranges and bunches of lemon leaves were found with the curries in the flat, hot and dry Mandalay Division. Dried, pickled cabbage soup (with tiny, shockingly powerful green chillies) was regularly dished up in draught beer pubs, as was plates of whole, crunchy, deep fried chicks (ooh).
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