Myanmar, a land between Southeast Asia and the subcontinent of India, can we expect a fusion of the culinary delights of India with the ease of budget travel and accommodation of Thailand? Or will we end up with the packet cuisine of Laos and frustrations of underfunded infrastructure amid a backdrop of litter strewn streets, time to find out…320 days in.
Border crossings can be a sign of what to expect; bustling with touts offering money exchanges and ‘help’ to fill out the immigration forms, or deserted places with a lone moto driver and nothing else for miles, either way, a sting is often in the tail. But our entry into Myanmar was a straight forward affair, modestly official offices with computers where we posed for a photo, registered our entry (foreigners 9 and 10 of the day, I don’t think the chap is rushed off his feet), and in under 15 minutes we were breathing in Burmese air legally!
However, Myanmar is a country with a bit of civil unrest around its edges and a government that has only recently begun to issue licences to allow non state funded newspapers to go into circulation; though putting control of the press into the hands of one or two businessman doesn’t always result in a balanced tone of course, no matter where you live. So perhaps it should have been no surprise that the seven of us in the five seater Toyota Probox, TV in the boot and bicycle on the roof, attracted the attention of the traffic cops, but the number of times we had to stop and show our passports to uniformed young men was becoming comical. “Tourist, tourist” one shouted as they spotted Helen (I handed myself in voluntarily as they hadn’t seen me squeezed in the back). Quite how they imagined we’d managed to get so far into the country untraced, I mean, did they think we may have parachuted in and avoided immigration such was our desire to travel through the country unbridled from bureaucracy? I guess the answer is they are just doing what they’ve been told to do, and as it turns out, we are not on their most wanted list, so our passage was only temporarily haulted, well, until the next one, oh, and then the stop to wash down the car and cool the engine with a few buckets of water. If nothing else, at least we got to stretch our legs often.
Hpa-An was our base for the first two nights in Myanmar. We had read up and were prepared for two annoyances that the everyday traveller would experience whilst journeying here; accommodation is expensive and must be booked well in advance. Normally $25 per night would mean a flat screen TV, drencher shower head and towels shaped like swans on the bed, in fact we’ve had all of that for much less! Still, a wobbly toilet basin was a unique feature that we’ve only encountered a handful of times.
The draw of Hpa-An is it’s karst mountains (where have I used that phrase before? Oh right, everywhere!). That said, these ones were pretty spectacular, and they come with a few previously unseen add-ons; Buddha filled caves, the worlds smallest bat and impossibly balanced stupas perched on their tops. We roamed between sites once more on a trusty scooter, that was until it became less trustworthy and refused to restart just after we’d left relative civilisation to admire the view. Fortunately my pathetic initial attempts to kick start the bike were witnessed by a passing local who stepped in to demonstrate how it should be done.
We had been told by many travellers that the people of Myanmar make it unique amongst it’s Asian neighbours who have all grown up with tourism and are mostly ambivalent to the backpacker. This is not a criticism of Thailand and others, guest houses still give warm welcomes, but by and large you can make your way through town without so much as a glance, and when you’ve arrived from India, that’s just the tonic! But true to form on my first evening jog I found the Burmese seem like a smiley lot. As I made my four laps around Kan Thar Yar lake I received smiles, waves, cheers and even one man counting my circuits (he was playing the long game as it took me almost 15 minutes to get around just once!).
The bright lights of the big city has been the lure of country folk for the last few centuries and we followed suit on our way to Yangon, the former capital back in the British empire days. Often this means colonial buildings, a large park and big old fashioned train station, with modern commercial buildings rising high above gobbling up all the surrounding land; but Yangon seems different. As I scan the vast horizon from the 14th floor terrace garden of the Asia Plaza Hotel whilst sipping my 58 pence coffee, two things leap out me; the absolutely giant golden beacon that is Shwedagon Paya and the hundreds of crummy moss-ridden mini tower blocks that sprawl away in every direction housing every business and everybody. Yangon is a mess of a city, even by Indian standards. Kathmandu probably beats it for dust levels, only just, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many mouldy buildings.
Helen was the first to succumb to stomach issues, and six floors is a long way to dash in a hurry, so I set off on a few solo meanderings of the town. On one such outing a shaven headed nun stopped me and struck up a conversation, exclaiming she was Aung San Suu Kyi’s sister (I may have lost something in translation as a Google search revels Kyi has no sisters, so perhaps she meant in the ecclesiastical sense). She apologised for not being able to speak for long and gave me a cloth garment with Buddhist inscriptions on it as she dashed off to the convent! The following day I saw the Sunday fixture, Shen Utd vs Magwa along with a fellow Brit (he was scouting for Bristol Rovers) and around 400 locals, two of whom were actually moved to shout (advice/abuse?) at the players whilst muffled cheers were all the rest could offer as the visitors won one nil, though that rather summed up the performance.
Just before our departure Helen managed to rouse herself off the foam mattress and we headed out to the main attraction, the Shwedagon temple. The locals will have you believe that there are more riches covering the 100 metre paya than all the wealth of the eight richest men combined. It’s easy to see why though, with 5500 diamonds (the largest being 76 carat) and 60 tons of gold (Myanmar’s national reserve is a mere 7.5 tons in comparison) and not forgetting the eight strands of Buddha’s hair (priceless), then who indeed could afford it? Certainly not any of the worshippers, who after some bowing and splashing of water go back to their $1800 a year jobs, filthy run-down houses, free education that ends at 10 years old and no provision for medical expenses. Does all that glitz and gold really give hope to the masses, or would a poor temple, run by poor monks who understand the needs of poor people work better?
With around 700 kilometres of country devoid of any positive comments in the guidebook or online, a night bus was the recommendation to continue the journey northward, so must be time for me to get diarrhoea, lol! Oh no…honestly? Not again…