I’ve just got home from my first ever adventure in Burma / Myanmar, a place I’d long wanted to visit but which has been closed off to the outside world for so long. It is cliche to see new places and tell everyone what a contradiction of old and new they were, of rich and poor etc. And so yes, those cliches exist in Burma, but it was a long list of other factors that made this place so incessantly interesting.
If for no other reason than the countries Burma borders, this would be a country that would intrigue keen travellers: Thailand, Laos, China, Bangladesh and India. The influences of all those places are felt to varying degrees with Thai and Indian being especially noticeable. As for the specifics unique to Burma?
Yangon is a city where motorbikes are banned (allegedly due to a murky incident involving a motorbike gang a few years ago), where jungle grows out of beautiful but crumbling British colonial architecture, where many multi-storeyed buildings don’t have lifts and so pulleys are used to sell products and exchange money.
Across the country you have religious buildings frequently older than 1000 years (Bagan is particularly striking), Inle Lake boasts floating 5-star hotels as well floating villages, markets and factories. There are almost European-looking highland towns where the UN has transformed previously malnourished communities and helped implement successful, sustained agricultural practices.
There are the tacky modern additions to some temples in the form of flashing lights not out of place in night-markets as well as the alarming decision 40 years ago to change the side of the road the cars drive on with no intention of changing the fleet. To this day the overwhelming majority of vehicles still have their steering-wheels on the right and with cars driving on the right it makes overtaking a life-risking national hobby. Never fear though, nicer buses come with a co-pilot to warn the driver of on-coming traffic.
Everywhere we went we saw even the middle-classes still wearing traditional dress and women and children using a tree-bark paste as a sunscreen and moisturizer. People in Mandalay are chubbier than those in Yangon because the custom of always bringing sweets and cakes to the homes of friends and family when you visit is more entrenched.
Burma / Myanmar is rapidly opening up to tourism as a result of tentative but arguably quite remarkable steps towards democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi is South East Asia’s Nelson Mandela and posters of her hang in small village living rooms next to images of the kids on graduation day and David Beckham. Truly one of the most remarkable places I’ve been and if you are interested in reading more about the country, I have an upcoming trio of articles about my 15 day Intrepid tour soon to be published in the New Zealand Herald.