It’s funny think that if I hadn’t walked through a glass door and ended up in hospital I might never have made it to Burma. But doing just that put paid to my plans to spend some time diving on the Andaman Coast, and finally made my mind up to book a flight to Yangon.
It’s probably worth saying straight off that for a long time I had been a supporter of the tourism boycott (that interestingly seems to have a far higher profile in the UK than in many other countries), but in the last year I’ve had numerous conversations with other travellers that had started me questioning my stance – and finally this year a friend of mine from back home who knows far more about Burma than anyone else I know talked me into it.
Ultimately the thing that swayed me was the argument that the boycott is damaging the people far more than it is the government (who don’t suffer that much at all thanks to being propped up with cash from lots of Asian governments like China). Sanctions mean that Burma gets way less development aid (about a quarter of the amount per capita) than near neighbours such as Bangladesh, Laos & Cambodia. Visiting as an independent tourist offers a way to give money directly to people running private businesses (incidentally the Lonely Planet is pretty helpful at advising you on how to minimise the amount of cash you spend that goes to the government), and we made a real effort to spread our cash around rather than spend it all in the same place. Furthermore, it was interesting to see quite how much people were willing to open up when talking one to one, about their views of the government – and it seems that the vast majority want tourists to come and see for themselves how the junta keeps the people poor and repressed.
I’m so glad I did make the decision to go, as the country was one of the highlights of the whole year of travelling. It was certainly the most intense experience of the whole year, with some amazing highs interspersed with some of the more challenging bits of the whole trip – most notably the rather terrible bus journeys and food that was often even worse (and had us leaping for joy at the sight of this restaurant in Nyaungshwe, by Inle Lake):
There were times too when the poverty became hard to bear – between the five of us, we tried to spread our money round as much as possible to help as many people as possible – but you have to acknowledge you can’t help everyone – which led to a sadly farcical situation in Inwa, where we decided we’d rather sight-see on foot, and spent the afternoon being followed around by a horse and cart driver desperately trying to persuade us to use his services (and being told repeatedly no). We ended up trying to escape him by taking short cuts across fields, but every time we thought we’d got away he’d turn up again.
Luckily though the highs easily outweighed the lows. I’ve already written about how Yangon is one of my favourite cities in Asia, on how Bagan really deserves to rival Angkor Wat in terms of global fame, and on the wonders of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake.
But there were plenty of other highlights too. Inle Lake itself is absolutely stunning. It’s edges dissolve into a series of floating vegetable gardens and houses on stilts, so it’s hard to see where land ends and lake begins. Even better is taking a boat out early in the morning to explore the area – at that time of day on a clear day even the sky and the lake seem to blur into one.
Meanwhile around Mandalay it’s easy to spend a day stopping off at the former capitals of Inwa (with its rather amazing leaning tower), Sagaing (and its many temples on a hill overlooking the mighty River Irrawaddy) & Amarapura (with the rather incredible U Bein’s Bridge, at 1.2km long, the longest teak bridge in the world).
In terms of natural beauty and historic interest, the places I visited in Burma rival anything else I saw in Asia, and all with way fewer tourists than in most neighbouring countries (and all still pretty cheap too). Even better is the fact that in many ways its traditional culture is better preserved than many countries in the region. For a start, it’s the only Asian country I’ve been to where people still stick to traditional dress, with the clear majority of men & women preferring the skirt-like longyi over trousers. Equally distinctive is the use of thanaka, a creamy paste derived from a sandalwood-like tree, and which most women and children use on their faces and arms as a natural sunblock.
Best of all though, yet again were the people. From the moment we arrived at Yangon airport to the moment we left, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people we met everywhere. Everyone says mingala ba (hello) in the street, people regularly stop just to have a chat, and people go out of their way to be helpful, and even when times got a little bit stressful people were always there to help cheer us up. People constantly surprised us with their reactions, like the woman from Inle Pancake kingdom who chased us down the road to try to return the money we’d left as a tip (she thought we’d accidentally overpaid). It’s a great tribute to the people that they manage to remain so friendly and upbeat despite the best efforts of the government, and I hope one day soon that they get to escape from military rule.
You can see all of my photos of Buma here.
Next (and final) stop: Cambodia