After an overnight hotel stop in Doha, courtesy of Qatar Airways, we arrived in Yangon, the capital city of Burma.
Burma (Myanmar) has a troubled recent history, from which it is still recovering. Burma was a British colony from the 19th century, until gaining independence in 1948. However, only 14 years later the military overthrew the government and began running the country in draconian fashion. Supposed free elections took place in 1990, but the military didn’t like the outcome (pro democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party won 80% of the votes) and so ignored the result, placing a puppet civilian government in power. The 2010 elections were similar, with only government approved parties (not NLD) allowed to participate, and the validity of the poll results being questioned by international observers.
The result of this period was the transition of the country from being one of the richest in SE Asia to one of the poorest, through gross economic mismanagement; literacy levels fell significantly, and government spending on healthcare became the lowest in the world (by percentage of GDP). International consensus is that this has been “one of the worlds most repressive and abusive regimes”, and there continue to be extreme human rights violations; genocide of the Rohingya people, systematic extermination of several ethnic groups, the proliferation of child soldiers, and many more.
However, the future looks brighter for Burma and its long suffering people. Although the military still retain a strong influence, significant political reforms have taken place since 2011, and a longstanding request by the NLD for tourists not to visit the country (as a protest against the government) was lifted in 2010. Many political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have been released, the military junta was dissolved and press censorship has been relaxed to an extent. The NLD rejoined the political process, and won 43 of 45 seats in 2012 by-elections. International economic sanctions are slowly being lifted, and visits from Western leaders of state are becoming more frequent.
All of this is important in terms of understanding Burma and its long suffering people, and in our case how to be responsible tourists. The general advice is to avoid using government run companies, such as public buses, trains and government run hotels, wherever possible and instead use private companies and family guest houses, in order to support the local people rather than the authoritarian government.
Due to the tourism boycott, few people visited Burma prior to 2010, and so tourism here is still in its infancy – prices here are several times higher than anywhere else in SE Asia, despite standards being no different. At first this was due to the lack of tourism infrastructure and the increasing demand, however there are now plenty of guest houses and hotels, yet prices continue to rise. The only explanation we have been given is that hotel operators are charging as much as they think they can get away with, though presumably this bubble will burst in the next few years as natural market competition kicks in. The relative lack of tourism development was one of the main reasons we wanted to come to Burma now, before it becomes well trodden and loses some of its charm.
Since arriving here, we have found the Burmese people to be the most friendly and curious of any we have met so far. People will stop in the street just to say hello (to me at least – like many other Asian countries, cultural convention is to speak to the man and ignore the woman), and are surprised and delighted when we reply with a couple of badly pronounced phrases in Burmese. This happens even in the capital city, which is usually the least friendly of places – imagine the response you would get to saying hello to a stranger on a London street! Best of all, there is rarely a sales pitch to follow.
Our highlight in Yangon was visiting the markets and food stalls, to sample the delicious street food. We also took time to visit the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, a huge gold Buddhist stupa. The main spire was surrounded by a hundreds of smaller temples, shrines and several huge bells. However, it was a shame to see such ancient and beautiful monuments so poorly looked after; several of the temples were retrofitted with fluorescent bar lights, and many of the Buddha statues had been installed with neon flashing halos. Nonetheless, the huge central spire was resplendent at sunset, when the gold light shimmered from it.
We left Yangon and travelled by sleeper bus to Bagan. This is a huge plain littered with over four thousand temples and stupas, dating back to the 11th Century. Originally this whole area was a huge capital city, but the wooden buildings from the period have long since gone, and so all that is left is a dreamlike landscape of brick-and-stucco temples. Bagan is best explored by bike (electric / moped if you are feeling lazy), and though a handful of the most famous temples are brimming with tourists, it is very easy to get off the beaten track and find yourself alone in a beautiful, untouched 1000 year old temple. After exploring a few temples, we found that the interiors were generally similar, and it was seeing the temples from the outside which was more impressive. A number of the temples have stairways leading to roof terraces, and from here you are treated to a spectacular view over the plain, particularly at sunrise and sunset.
We left the hot, dusty plains of Bagan and headed north east into the hills, to a small Shan town named Hsipaw. This is a popular base for trekking, but we only had one full day here and so we went on a self guided circuit around the local area, using a hand drawn map the guesthouse had provided – which was of very limited use! The walk was beautiful, and very peaceful. We followed paths through rice paddies, visited a nearby waterfall, dipped our feet in a natural hot spring, and returned in a loop through the rustic outskirts of the town. All day we only saw a couple of other foreigners; luckily we saw far more local villagers who were happy to help us navigate!
The trains in Burma are not renowned for their speed, comfort or punctuality; however we had heard that the rail journey from Hsipaw to the old colonial hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin was one of the best in the country. The train snakes its way through lushly forested hills, before reaching the spectacular Goteik Viaduct. This is a huge steel trestle bridge, constructed in 1899, which passes 100m above a deep gorge. The views crossing the bridge were fantastic, and we had plenty of time to enjoy them as the decrepit train crawled across, rocking from side to side.
After a brief and unmemorable stay in Pyin Oo Lwin we continued to Mandalay, the country’s second largest city and our final stop. Mandalay has a reputation as a dusty, dirty city lacking in character, but we quite enjoyed our time here. We walked around a lot of the city, taking in the atmosphere – around the huge moated royal palace which dominates the city centre, across town to the fish markets by the Ayeyarwaddy river, and up through staircases and temples to the top of Mandalay hill for a splendid view of the city. Walking was also an effective way to burn off some calories – the street food here is tasty but invariably very, very greasy! Our final sightseeing in Burma was a trip to the ruined ancient capital Amarapura, 9km outside Mandalay, to see the famous U Bein Bridge. The bridge was built in around 1850, and with a span of 1.2km is both the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world. We walked the length of the bridge and back, which felt quite flimsy and rickety, with several broken planks to support this view! The much photographed bridge is particularly beautiful as the sun sets behind it, with silhouetted figures crossing.
Aside from sightseeing in Mandalay, we managed to meet up with our Dragoman crew from Mongolia, who have travelled through China and into Burma since we left them. It was great to see them again, and catch up over noodles and a few bottles of Myanmar beer.
So long Burma, it’s been great! On to Bangkok…