Burma is a gem! I can’t recommend it - as a travel destination - any more enthusiastically. What a treat to see it before it sprouts a tourism infrastructure.
I arrived in Yangon expecting to witness extreme oppression; a military state in a time capsule, replete with forced labor, poverty, shackled minds and cultural quarantine. I knew that the junta had banned the use of the Internet, international travel, chatting with tourists about Burmese affairs, and any other means of cultural and/or political perspective… So I wasn’t expecting the TV in my hotel room.
[And I DEFINITELY wasn’t expecting to see Jon Bon Jovi looking back at me, in a Mitsubishi Motors ad on MTV, when I turned it on.]
It also had CNBC.
Television access in hotels, it seems, is one of the ways the government of Myanmar is attempting to encourage tourism. Another is large signs near monuments, written in Burmese and English, proclaiming "Assist foreign visitors in any way possible."
Big brother can be found all over the place in Myanmar; from the $200 in “foreign exchange certificates” (FEC’s) ALL tourists must buy (presumably to subsidize the military-government using hard US currency, regardless of the tourists’ country of origin), to the “People’s Desire,” a collection of cold-war-era-USSR-esque tenets [see below] found on billboards around Yangon and Mandalay and on all government publications (like the The New Light of Myanmar, the major Burmese newspaper [which conspicuously failed to mention the War in Afghanistan while I was in Burma]):
People’s Desire (excerpt):
"The initiative to shape the national economy must be kept in the hands of the State and the national peoples.”
Add to this US, Australian, and British embassies surrounded by barbed-wire, armed soldiers, and cement barricades, and you’ve got an unlikely back-drop for a country that’s very comfortable for travelers, and which is populated by warm, open people.
(I’m trying hard not to believe that they were being warm because I had hundreds of dollars worth of FEC’s burning a hole in my pocket and/or big brother told them to!)
Our tour through Myanmar included Yangon (formerly "Rangoon"), Mandalay, and Bagan. Yangon, the capital, and by far the largest city in Myanmar, looks a lot like a South Indian city (down to the men-in-lungis [the Burmese call them “longees”]), with the 2 obvious differences (if you can believe that the following conditions can co-exist):
1) The Burmese chew and spit MUCH, MUCH more paan (betel nut and lyme wrapped in betel leaves) than Indians, and,
2) Burma is much cleaner than India.
I mean WAY cleaner (I don’t recall seeing a single piece of trash outside of Yangon).
(Again, I can’t help but think that the dudes with guns running the place, and the forced labor, have something [everything] to do with that)
I could never exaggerate the amount of betel-nut paan
chewed in Myanmar. As it is for the hill tribesmen of
northern Thailand, betel-darkened teeth MUST be a sign of masculine beauty for the Burmese (as it seemed that no self-respecting, rural Burmese man would DREAM of having white teeth).
Like in India, you can expect to be stared at constantly in Myanmar, but Burmese stare feels different than the Indian stare. In India, people seem to stare just because others are staring. In Myanmar, people stare ‘with a what-the-hell-are-YOU’ expression that isn’t as aggressive as it is inquisitive and/or startled.
When the “fat blokes on tour” (me [6’5”, 230lbs], Butlah! [6’2”, 200lbs], and Fat Bloke Rowan [6’3”, at LEAST 220lbs.]) rolled-through a fish market in Yangon, fish hit the floor, little kids cried for their mommies, and fishermen in longies with purple teeth stuck their arms out at their sides, puffed out their little bellies, and mocked us while their beautiful wives laughed.
Speaking of which…Burmese women, who draw their genes from Indian, Chinese, and Thai currents, are unforgettably beautiful. In addition to their graceful movement, perpetual smiles, long, beautiful hair (it is not uncommon for Burmese women to wear their hair to knees-length), and elegant dress, all Burmese women (and some men) put a mixture of ground tree-bark, herbs and water on their faces (called “thanaka”) which acts as a mild astringent, moisturizer, and powerful sun-screen. Thanaka, a yellowish paste, is worn daily from birth until about age 60 (as far as I could tell).
The crimson-clayed, sweet-smelling, rolling-hilled Burmese countryside is rich with Buddhist pagodas (inverted-conical red brick structures that house Buddha statues and other relics). In the World Heritage listed valley surrounding Bagan (in th Irrawaddy River Valley of central Myanmar) 2,800 of these things make for magical vistas in all directions. Larger pagodas, such as the 2,500 year old, 350 foot tall Shwedagon Pagoda are said to house relics of extreme importance to the Theraveda Buddhist. The legend of the Shwedagon tells of two merchant brothers meeting the Buddha, who gave them eight strands of His hair. With the help of a number of “celestial beings,” the brothers and the king at the time discovered the hill where the relics of the previous Buddhas had been enshrined. The strands of the Buddha’s hair were then placed, together with the relics of the preceding Buddhas, in a golden relics chamber, topped by a golden pagoda. Over this a silver pagoda was built, then a tin pagoda, a copper pagoda, a lead pagoda, a marble pagoda and finally an iron brick pagoda (which is covered in $90,000,000 worth of gold leafing).
Burmese cuisine (not what you’d get at a “Burmese restaurant” outside of Burma, but what was actually served at the wooden, low-stooled roadside restaurants of Myanmar) consists, as far as I can tell, of 4 basic dishes: pork curry, chicken curry, beef curry, and fish curry. The meats are served cold, in small portions, and come with 10-15 other little dishes (along with pickled vegetables, dried fish parts, beans, etc.) in a presentation not unlike Korean cuisine.
It was delicious!
At about 20 cents a bottle, beer flowed liberally at lunch and dinner time (what would you expect for the “fat blokes on tour”?). This may have had something to do with the lack of (food) sickness, and definitely had something to do with it tasting soooo good.
A funny story about food in Myanmar…Butlah!, Dav and I roll into a roadside restaurant, order, and decide to send our chicken back (and eat somewhere else) because the bird, which hit our table milliseconds after we ordered it, was room temperature at best, and had been sitting out with the flies just waiting to be snapped up (when we left Thailand, we had decided to switch our clean-food-vigilance to India-levels).
Later that night, after asking at our guesthouse for a recommendation on a “place to get real Burmese food,” we found ourselves at the same restaurant!
Turns out Burmese food is served like that everywhere (while the local cuisine was, indeed, good stuff, this fact made the food pendulum swing from Burmese to Chinese more than a few times, I must admit).
In addition to betel nut and lukewarm meats, the Burmese love their smoke. Instead of wimpy western cigarettes, though, men in Myanmar smoke cigar-sized “charoots” (unlike Bill, they actually inhale). Older Burmese women in the countryside, not to be outdone, smoke cornhusk cigars that are about 8 inches long and 5 inches around.
Another unexpected experience (like the Bon Jovi spotting) was had by all at a hotel called “Asia Plaza” in Yangon. At the cab-driver’s recommendation (this shoulda tipped us off), we rolled into its dark lounge filled with big leather couches and BAM!, 10-15 beautiful little, way-too-young girls flocked to the fat blokes a level of enthusiasm that Wilt Chamberlin rarely saw. They grabbed us by the arms, sat us on the couches, and with a girl each to wipe the sweat from our brows, we had 2 others to massage our necks and shoulders, and 2 more still to hold our hands and whisper incomprehensible sweet nothings into our ears.
I really, really felt like a pro basketball player as I looked over at the other 2 tall [and fat] blokes who shared my big, comfy leather couch, with hip-hop pumping in the background and 5 girls hanging on us, treating us like stars.
Then “Mamasan” showed up.
“You take 2 girl, and go to sleep.”
(smiling) “I could get arrested for that in my
(not amused) “OK, you just take 1 girl. Go to sleep.”
(blushing) “They are too young…”
A couple quick words in Burmese and BAM!, just as quickly as they’d jocked us, the little cuties disappeared.
As interesting as the tour was, I should mention the 2 things that complicate any walkabout in Burma: The currency situation, and intercity travel. After exchanging US dollars for FEC’s, you can go to a bank and change them for Kyats, the local currency (pronounced “chats”), at 6 kyats to the dollar (official government exchange rate) OR you can unload them on the black market at 500 to 650 kyats to the dollar! It’s not as menacing as it sounds; you take 2 steps out of your guest house, and 3 guys approach you asking if you’d like to change money. If you are changing hard currency (USD only), you can expect 600 to 700 kyats per dollar depending on the city (upper end of the range in Yangon, lower end of the range up in Mandalay [Burmese merchants, in fact, make periodic trips to Yangon to make money on the spread]).
You do need to have Kyats, as many Burmese (e.g., taxi drivers) have never even seen FECs (which really, really look like Monopoly money).
In addition to the variable rate of exchange on a black-market-based currency, there is ABSOLUTELY no way to get cash advances in Burma (in FECs, kyats, USD, or any other currency) with the unfortunate
exception of one dude’s living room in Mandalay (he makes it look like a credit card purchase, and charges a 25% fee).
(no, it wasn’t just me getting get a classic south-east-Asian screwing…he was known from Yangon to Bagan!)
Seriously. No ATMs, no debit cards, no changing of travelers checks, no NUTHIN’!
Add to this the fact that interior flights cost twice as much if you use your credit card as if you use cash, and you DO want to take interior flights (which brings up the next issue)…
Many people warned me about the “tedious,” “uncomfortable,” and “difficult” bus and rail situation that I’d encounter in India. These people haven’t been to Myanmar…a country whose roads make India’s seem autobahn-like.
The scenario: Single-lane, dirt roads connecting major cities, buses that must pull-over and stop whenever a large enough vehicle approaches from the other direction, flooded and heavily eroded roadways, single roads connecting many cities, requiring a series of vectors that the crow would never dream of following.
The upshot: Bagan to Yangon - A mere 600 kilometers - 17 HOURS by bus!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
As you might imagine, my moving-vehicle-yoga skills are now world class! I’ve got the best downward-facing-doze going! (In fact, at the end ofthe 17 hour trip, I was twisted into a pretzel-like shape, and when Butlah! nudged me I responded with an “I’m only moving if we’re already there…there’s NO WAY I’ll ever be able to get back into this position.”)
While we had flown from Yangon to Mandalay (1 hour, 15 minutes), and from Mandalay to Bagan (45 minutes), we were forced to bus the final leg down to Yangon because of the no-cash-advance situation (we had just enough hard currency to get down to Yangon and out of the country!).
Lack of currency did have it’s upside, though…like our heavy patronage of The Strand Hotel in Yangon; a 5-star masterpiece that 1) has a gorgeous bar, 2) offers free billiards, 3) pours delicious cocktails @ $2.50/each during happy hour, 4) serves free hors d’oeuvres, and (most importantly, given the circumstances) 5) accepts Visa.
My fresh-squeezed lime, papaya, cane sugar, and Meyers Rum concoction of choice was called, ironically, “Stranded in Paradise.”
While Yangon turned out to be quite the happening town, Mandalay and Bagan become ghost towns after about 20:00. This made for an experience that only my video footage can properly relate…looking for something – ANYTHING - to do in Bagan one night, we remembered that we had heard karaoke wafting from what looked like a bar near our guesthouse (we heard a Burmese version of “High Enough” by the Damn Yankees, to be exact).
After some searching, we found a little wooden structure, dense with beer posters outside, filled with 5-6 young Burmese passing the mic. Sooooo, we walked in, sat down, looked around and smiled as we were met by the kind of looks known previously by Hernan Cortes only…
Turns out it was someone’s HOUSE!
No worries, though…they put on the only song they had with English lyrics (some N’Sync rip-off [if you can believe it!] called “Breakin’ My Heart”), and we did our best to kill it.
You see, none of us had ever heard the song before.
P.S. While the Burmese has banned the use of the internet proper, citizens of Myanmar can send e-mail…it costs USD$150 to set up an account, $150 a year in fees, and $1 a kilobyte per message (!!!!).
This message, then, would have cost you $620 to receive in Burma.