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The question of Myanmar (Burma)
Rating: ( 4.8 ) ( 45 votes )

Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
Dec 17, 2003 10:00

Pros : Friendly people, rock music, nice and decent place
Cons : electricity keeps going out

As Sarah and I travelled more and more throughout SE Asia the question of whether to visit Myanmar started coming up, even more so once we decided we were not going to be travelling through Laos. Our first source of information was, of course our guidebooks, but even those were not up to date with the current situation in Myanmar. We found out from other travellers as well as online sources that being able to visit Myanmar without contributing to the Myanmar government was getting easier.

Among the reasons not to go we read about in our guidebook were that international tourism can be seen to give a stamp of approval to the SPDC (State Peace & Development Council - the ruling military party in Myanmar), that forced labour has been used to construct some of the country's tourism infrastructure, and that it is difficult to avoid some government-owned businesses, tourism sites and transport, and impossible to avoid the mandatory purchase of US$200 worth of FECs (funny money that puts hard cash directly into the government's dirty wallet). In actuality, the mandatory purchase of US$200 was no longer enforced as of 3 months ago, there are almost no government run hotels and there are many independent bus companies now. We still had to avoid taking the train and flew in on Biman Air (to avoid Myanmar air, a government owned airline). Our goal was to not use any government facilities and to not endanger any of the Myanmar people by openly discussing politics with then unless they initiated it. As we travelled we received a sheet from another traveller that was distributed by political dissenters about things travellers could do, most of which we were already doing. One of the best things we could contribute was to talk to as many people as possible to try and help others learn some English - a powerful tool in Myanmar as English language newspapers and magazines can be found while all Burmese-language news is under strict control of the government. The Internet is another tool now opening up to Myanmar, however that is also under the government's watchful eye and is not something we looked into when we were there. This travelogue is actually being written in Kolkata (Calcutta) India, but for Travelpod readers wanting to learn about Myanmar I put it in the heading as Myanmar. Aparently (we did not try this) you can email but not through pulic services such as hotmail, netscape, etc. and all emails are monitored. The situation is definitely repressive for the Myanmar people but we heard of no travelers fearing their safety (we nevered felt threatened), only the Myanmar people. In the end it was still a hard decision that could be seen either way and I would suggest to anyone thinking of going to check on the latest information available before going.

So after that long discussion of why we thought we would be doing more good than harm in Myanmar I must say it was also a unique country to visit. We arrived in Yangon (Rangoon) and found what looked like a decent place to stay at the White House Hotel, which has somehow, after four months of travel, attained the inauspicious title of the "worst night of sleep" for Sarah and I, hopefully never to be topped. That night we found out about the electricity situation in Yangon, which can only be described as sketchy at best. Power goes out often, but most businesses have generators that automatically turn on after a few moments.

Walking down the streets in daytime you can tell when the power goes out when all those generators kick on. Unbeknownst to us, this also affects water pressure - not fun when you're in mid-shower all lathered on the 5'th floor of a building! Still, I really ended up liking Yangon (after we changed hotels). After sorting out our money situation which included getting an incredibly bad rate on some travelers checks (due to US sanctions) and then feeling out the black market rate for US dolars we finally got to enjoy Yangon. The most known sight there is of the Schwedegon Pagoda, which can be seen from miles away, and is pretty incredible (pictures coming soon). We walked to Schwedegon and on the way were already being approached by people wanting to practice their English. At first we were a little shocked, usually if someone approached us in SE Asia it was to sell us something, but here people said hello just to say it. There was one more plus to travelling in Myanmar - the food. If you eat at local restaurants in Myanmar they have a custom that I just love - eat until you're full. In other words if you order something and finish it, it's free refils until you're stuffed!

From Yangon we decided to head north to Bagan, an area which contains thousands of ruins from the 9'th to 12'th century. We booked an overnight bus but getting there turned out to be a little bit more of an adventure. Around midnight our bus broke down, we were probably halfway there. As no one else on the bus seemed bothered and kept sleeping we followed along with them. In the morning we were told by one local who spoke some English that we were waiting for another bus to come and pick us up. Looking out from the bus we were still on the main "highway" - a one lane country road and the main traffic going by was a few heavy truks and lots of ox-pulled carts. People on the bus were so nice, they offered us their food for breakfast and to show Sarah a toilet. After a few hours of enjoying the scenery around and getting stared at by ox-cart drivers (no looks from the oxen) the bus driver arrived on a huge truck to take everyone on the bus to the nearest town to get some lunch. With more waiting and staring in town another bus arrived and we managed to reach Bagan after 31 hours (it was supposed to take 14!).

Bagan was great, with incredible vistas of a dusty "African plains-looking" landscape dotted with thousands of temple ruins. We rented some pretty cool 1950's looking bicycles (single speed) to explore. The last time I was on a bike it was a 27 speed Klein, now I was reduced to a bike that's weight was closing in on my own. It turned out to be great fun and after a few days of exploring the ruins and soaking in the atmosphere we were off again to Inle Lake.

Like many people visiting the lake we opted for a boat tour of the many cottage industries on the lake; we got to see how everything from cigars to knives were made, how the people fished, and ended at a monastery which seemed to be overrun with cats. Although it was a Bhuddist monastery it had the title "jumping cat monastery" because the monks, in their spare time, teach the cats to leap through hoops for treats. I tried to get a picture but after mistiming the photo a monk took my camera and got a great shot. I asked him the obvious questions: "Why so many cats?" "Too many mice." Being a monastery we were obligated to take our shoes off when we entered, I did not think much of it as we are used to it, but another person in our tour realized one of the pitfalls of doing that. When he went to put his sandals on he found a wet spot in his sandal - something to beware of when you on a stilt house full of cats on a lake.

During our two weeks in Myanmar there was one more constant that made me like the country and the people even more, it's the first country we've been to in SE Asia where one of the styles of popular music is hard rock. Whether it was some unknown-to-us Myanmar band blaring in our bus to Bagan, old school Metallica translated into Burmese just JAMMING in the streets of Yangon (it sounds pretty cool translated too), or the kid in from of us as we left Inle Lake singing Nirvana to the rest of the bus as he listened on his headphones, I give a thumbs up to the musical tastes found in Myanmar (later that kid proclaimed to me he was "Nirvana-crazy").

From Inle Lake it was back to Yangon and on to Bangkok and from Bangkok on to Kolkata (Calcutta) but that'll have to be next travelogue.

There seems to be an endless amount of information on the situation in Myanmar, I hope anyone interested will take the time to do some reading and find out what they can do to help.