Does A New Government Mean It’s Time To Return To Myanmar (Burma)?
My wife and I were in Asia recently, and when we found out that Burma (also known as Myanmar) had openly held democratic elections, we decided to visit the country that has for so long held the West in both marvel and horror. I was a little loathe to visit a country that’s gotten so much bad press recently, but my wife assured me that things have been changing in Burma. Even though she eventually convinced me that we should visit Burma, we were discouraged by nearly everyone else we knew. But since my wife has always loved the idea of one day seeing the 3,000 temples of Pagan by hot air balloon, and because we were reassured by the election of Aung Sung Su Kyi that things are changing for the better in Burma, she got her way, and we visited this beautiful, charming, and absolutely raw country, and I’m here to set the record straight on visiting Burma.
We landed in Yangon, the former southern capital of Burma, and after some struggle with our bags and porters (one grabbed our bag in the apparent hope of carrying it for us and being paid) we made it to a cab and headed to our hotel, the Central Hotel Yangon. Fortunately both the cab driver and most of the hotel staff that we interacted with spoke English, a trend that we found wherever we went in Burma.
English is in fact one of the national languages of Burma, and many people in the service industry speak it, which makes travelling here much easier than it would be otherwise. Our hotel in Yangon had actual western-style beds, but later in Pagan, we slept on the floor, which I would say should probably not surprise tourists. We didn’t stay in Yangon more than two days, but I found the mix of 19th Century British colonial architecture and Burmese pagodas both unique and charming. While in Yangon we did of course visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, the supposed 1,000 year old tomb of the Bhudda. It was gorgeous, with intricate Burmese woodcarvings and countless golden spires.
After we left Yangon we took the train to Pagan (which is also known as Bagan) another ancient relic of a Bhuddist past – a ruined city that was sacked by the Mongols. We did in fact see the city in the morning from an air balloon and my wife was thrilled. The farmers pulling carts with cattle made a strange and eerie juxtaposition with the crumbling spires of the “City of a Million Temples,” and at that moment I was very glad that my wife had convinced me to come to Burma.
To the intrepid, determined, responsible traveller, I would most definitely say go now to Burma, because the rest of the world will be following close behind you. I have traveled quite a little bit in Japan and in other less-developed parts of the world, and I was still delightfully surprised by what I can only call the foreignness of Burma, for lack of a better world – it was much more “foreign” to me than any other country I’ve visited in Asia. There is hardly a country in the world that hasn’t been colonized by mammoth companies such as McDonalds and Starbucks, but Burma is one of them. Still, though, it was interesting to be in a place seemingly untouched by modernity, Burma clearly suffers from a lack of modernization.
And the lack of modernization can cause problems for unprepared tourists that rely on convenience and a credit card. In Burma, you can only use cash –only unwrinkled, pristine American money will be accepted – and there are none of the amenities of which we are accustomed. For instance, most Burmese live without even an oven and use huge amounts of oil to keep their food safe. Many of the people we spoke to urged my wife and I not to go to Burma because much of our money would go to the government. However, my wife pointed out that if we travel there independently, we could directly give our tourist money to the people of Burma who are desperately poor and suffer from sanctions against their government. In order to help them, however, you must be extremely careful with what you buy and who you buy it from. It is possible to travel to Burma and not support the government, but only if your plans are planned carefully and conscientiously. I recommend the Lonely Planet’s Myanmar Travel Tips and Articles Guide to Burma, it was immensely helpful for my wife and I.
The lack of convenience and the complete otherworldliness of Burma will of course make the trip thrilling for some and terrifying for others. Yet with a little planning, Burma seemed very safe to my wife and I – the Burmese people are gentle and very generous. At one point my wife’s purse broke and her money and things spilled across the ground. A nearby woman helped us pick it all up – she didn’t take a thing.
If you go to Burma, talk to the heart-wrenchingly kind Burmese people face to face, see the pagodas and the fisherman and the cattle-drawn carts – and do it with careful consideration and thoughtfulness – I guarantee you’ll never forget this exquisite crossroads between the rising giants of Asia.
About The Author: Bill Weston is an avid adventurist and outdoorsman who loves hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, writing, and good conversation with new and interesting people. Bill blogs on the topics of the RV lifestyle and outdoor recreation for Lakeshore RV, a premier RV dealer.
Photo Credits – Flickr: #1 eGuideTravel, #2 Greg Walters, #3 onourownpath.com, #4 jm hullot #5 eGuide Travel, #6 dany13