Wow! This is why I love travelling around Southeast Asia, and particularly in the more developing countries. I love the culture shock, and Myanmar has more than delivered in that respect! (If you’ve never heard of Myanmar, it’s probably because it used to be called Burma – keep up with the changing times, please).
Setting the Stage
First, a little background info so you have a better idea of what I mean by “developing country”. There are no ATM machines in Myanmar: none, zero, zip, zilch… in the entire country. You need to bring enough cash with you for however much you think you’ll need for the entire trip. Internet is almost non-existent, and in the handful of hotels that have it, it’s horrendously slow, and many sites are filtered/blocked by the government. With no internet infrastructure, credit and debit cards are also not accepted anywhere other than a handful of places. Travellers checks are also not accepted. It literally is an all-cash society. Their money is called the kyat (pronounced like “chat”), but they also take the US dollar… as long as it’s a newer-style US bill (the ones with the “big heads” of the presidents), and the bills must be crisp and new – no worn bills, no bills with any extra ink/writing/graffiti on them, and no bills with creases, folds or tears in them. They have no cell phone roaming agreements with any other country, so no matter what type of cell phone or cell phone provider you have, your phone won’t work in Myanmar. The average annual income for people in Myanmar is US$250…yes, that’s per year.
The travel company had given me a packet of info when I got to Yangon. Among the contents was this gem of a quote: “We do not use Myanma Airways (domestic) flights. If passengers insist on flying Myanma Airways (e.g., no other airline is flying to that destination), passengers will be asked to sign a liability waiver.” I’m guessing the friendly skies of Myanma Airways maybe don’t have a stellar safety record. I was flying between several different cities/towns within the country, and the travel company had me come to their office when I got to Yangon to pick up the tickets. The tickets were all hand-written! I hadn’t seen hand-written (not to mention, with carbon paper!) airline tickets since the first couple of times I travelled within Thailand back in 2000/2001. And that’s a little taste of what a developing country is like.
To Go or Not To Go
When thinking about going to Myanmar, I had to do a fair amount of research and decide whether I really even wanted to go. The government is run by the military, and has a long track record of human rights violations, imprisoning people for speaking out against the government, and even killing many of their own citizens. There is a huge population of Burmese refugees in northern Thailand who have risked their lives to sneak across the border to avoid being killed, as many of their families and relatives have been killed or wounded by the military. Many tour companies and hotels are owned and run by the government and the citizens see little or no money from that. But as tourism slowly increases, there are getting to be more privately-owned companies.
So on one hand, you don’t want to go to Myanmar because you may be essentially supporting an oppressive government. On the other hand, tourism offers the people of Myanmar a glimmer of hope to get out of poverty. The trick is to walk the fine line between the two, by using tour companies and hotels that are owned and run by private individuals. I did plenty of research and found a great private company with individual tour guides in the various towns that I went. While I’m sure some of my money has or will end up in the government hands, I feel pretty good that the vast majority of it went to private individuals. If you’re reading this and you don’t agree with my decision to go to Myanmar and give even a penny to their government, I completely understand and respect that opinion.
My first interesting experience with Myanmar started before I even left Bangkok. I was at the airport and noticed my itinerary said I was to leave Bangkok at 9:15am, arrive in Yangon at 10:05, and that the flight duration was 1hr 20min. Now I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I was pretty darn good at math in school. But this one threw me for a loop trying to figure out how those numbers could possibly work. I finally realized that Myanmar is one of those weird countries whose time difference is 30 minutes instead of an hour multiple. I’ve never been to a country that was a 30 minute time difference, so that in itself was pretty cool. As I’ve said before, sometimes it’s the little things in life that are most intriguing to me…
Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar, with a population of around 5 million. If you’ve never heard of Yangon, it’s probably because it used to be called Rangoon. (And I have no idea why they feel the need to keep changing country and city names). There were two things that immediately jumped out at me after just a few minutes of driving from the airport. First, there are no motorcycles on the road. Coming from Bali and Thailand, where there are more motorcycles than cars on the road, it really was a shock. Apparently the government banned them in Yangon in 1990 due to too many accidents. They are allowed in rest of the country, though, but it was very, very strange to be in an Asian city with no motorcycles whatsoever.
Do you remember back in the 1970’s when Japanese cars first got to be really popular, and among the most popular were the boxy-looking Toyota Corollas? Did you ever wonder where all those 1970s-era Corollas went? Well, I found them, and they’re all in Myanmar! It is the craziest thing. Nearly every car in Yangon is 1970s-era, and about 90% of them are Toyota Corollas (or very similar looking Toyota Coronas, Toyota Giant Mark IIs, or Nissans that look almost identical to Corollas). After a few minutes of driving around, I felt like I was right back in the 1970s (and I was bummed I had just gotten my hair cut in Bangkok before the trip…I could’ve been rockin’ a sweet afro to really get into the 70’s vibe). Apparently it’s not illegal to import newer cars, but the government has put such high tariffs on it that nearly every car is a minimum 20+ years old.
Around Yangon, the building architecture style is what I would call military/utilitarian. It’s mostly square, thick-walled concrete buildings with square windows and absolutely no character or defining characteristics. The buildings all have a very cold, uniform look to them. The military and government buildings, of which there are many, are surrounded by high walls with razor wire around them, and police/military standing about every 25 yards along the sidewalk with machine guns. Welcome to friendly Yangon! It’s illegal to take photos of any military or government building or personnel, or anything that could have military significance like bridges (I’m not sure why, but they specifically call that out as an example). As much as I wanted to get photos of that stuff, I didn’t really want to risk ending up in a Burmese prison, so pictures from Yangon are a little light, I’m sorry to say.
I met up with my driver/guide in the afternoon and he took me to see the reclining Buddha. It’s a huge statue, and although I don’t think it’s as large as the reclining Buddha in Bangkok, it’s still impressive in its size when you’re right up in front of it. I don’t recall the exact measurements, but it’s something like 60 feet tall and 200 feet long. There was also a stone with an inscription that was kind of the “Cliffs Notes” for Buddhism. It seems to summarize it pretty well, as far as I can tell, so I’m including a pic of that so you can get the quick facts on Buddhism if you’re not already familiar with the religion.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s a massive pagoda on a hill in the center of Yangon, and can be seen from all over the city. It is 326 feet high; the “umbrella” looking bronze structure at the top of it has 3154 bells on it and 79,569 diamonds and other precious stones (rubies and jade mostly); in all, the pagoda is covered in over 60 TONS of pure gold. Do the math on that, given today’s gold prices! It is nothing short of awe-inspiring to stand at the base of it and look at that shining gold, especially as the sun is setting and shining on it.
All around the pagoda are dozens of smaller temples with what seemed like a zillion Buddha statues, and the local monks and townspeople giving offerings, lighting incense, chanting, saying prayers and making wishes at the base of the pagoda. We spent several hours there, walking around the complex until after sunset, and then giant lights turn on and light up the pagoda and the complex and it’s even more beautiful at night. It was truly an amazing sight to take in, especially in an otherwise stark and drab city.
Re-Living the Simple Airport Life
The next morning I had a 6:15am flight to go to Bagan. A driver was supposed to pick me up at my hotel at 5am. I waited until 5:15 and then had the hotel get me a taxi because I knew the airport was a fairly long distance away. I got to the airport at 5:55, was checked in by 5:57, through security by 6:01, on a bus with the other passengers to take us out to the plane on the tarmac at 6:07, and we were wheels up and on our way at 6:14. Oh, and all of that was done without a single computer anywhere in the airport. My boarding pass, like my original tickets, was done manually with stamps and hand writing (and actually didn’t even have my name on it). It was an interesting experience to “re-live” how simple and efficient airports used to be before computers and security gummed up the works and slowed everything down…