...apart from that, nothing changed.
Myanmar was the first country in which to travel made us ... concerned with our security, when we planned the trip. Information is scarce, as are it's connections to the outside world. In the last few years the situation has been changing in between NO ENTRY and DIFFICULT (including a 200$ entrance fee, ah no, forced exchange) swinging towards MORE EASY recently.
The military have been in charge for close to 50 years. 20 years ago, there was an election, in which the NLD (National League for Democracy) the party of Aung San Suu Kyi won by a landslide. The governments reaction was to detain, kill or exile most of NLD's leaders.
For many years political activists (including San Suu Kyi) have urged travellers to boycott Myanmar (or Burma, as many still call it). But in recent years the repressions on its people have lessened. In november 2010 general elections where held. The government in power is still military controlled, but little (very little) steps are being made towards more freedom:
- Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest has been lifted. She now travels the country and holds speeches in front of small groups of supporters. Even if her NLD is still illegal, she now asks foreigners to come and talk to the locals
- According to a local we talked to, new elections are to be held next year, hopefully with participation of NLD
- Foreigners are able to move more freely (but still there are many regions that are off limit, officially for security reasons...)
Bearing all this in mind we did decide to go. Even if we where a bit nervous from the start.
The preparations went well. We heard, that getting a visa would be hard and where prepared for a lengthy process. You can imagine our surprise, when after spending less than an hour at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok we where told to return in the afternoon, to pick up our visas! First step: easy!
The second item on our list was getting cash. In Myanmar there are no ATM's. Credit cards are only accepted in a few luxury hotels (we didnt plan to go there), so you have to carry US$ in cash (Euros are also accepted in some places...). And only new, crisp and clean notes are accepted. We had heard of this, but where not prepared for the extend to which this "obsession" with clean money goes. If your dollar bill has a small spot or ball pen mark or is slightly crumpled, nobody will accept it. In the guesthouse we stayed in Yangon we met a few Americans who had learned that the hard way. The money they brought was worthless. In the end they had to go to a hotel, where you could get a cash advance on your creditcard for a small (about 10%) fee.
In Myanmar some things (e.g. overnight at guest houses) are payed in US$, but most things are payed in Kyat. As the officiall exchange rate is about 6.4 kyat to the dollar, one has to do the exchange on the black market, which yields a more realistic 750 kyat... In the beginning we would only accept clean(ish) notes, but later we realized that kyat in any state are ok. Some notes are so old and frayed that they come in a plastic cover, to keep them from falling apart...
A 200 kyat note, worth about 0.20€, next to a once folded 20$ note, worth nothing. We received and used kyat notes in a state of repair like the one in the picture regularly...
There is many other fun (?) facts about Myanmar. For example, that the military junta changed the road rules to from (British) left- to right-hand traffic in 1970. As most vehicles in Burma are either older than that or imported from Japan, they have the steering wheel on the wrong side. All overland buses have a spare, sitting on the passenger side, to tell the driver when it's safe to overtake.
Or the official english name of the country has been changed from Burma to Myanmar, the former capital Rangoon was renamed to Yangon, etc. As normal with these name changes, some people adapt to the new names faster than others. The terms Burma and Rangoon are still widely used in Myanmar.
When we arrived in Yangon, we where a bit shocked by the apparent poverty of the country. Streets are in bad shape, even for an Asian country, the stalls selling street food are dirty looking. Everything seems to be lacking of colour.
And then, in contrast to this poverty there are the golden Pagodas. Amazing buildings, litterally covered in gold. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is beautiful, shining in the evening light.
Sule Pagoda marks the center of the city, standing in the middle of a busy roundabout.
A nice experience in Yangon was going to the movies. We watched HP 7.2 (finally done with the series...) in english together with a smattering of local youths. As in India, before the move starts, the national anthem is played. In India everyone stands for the anthem, so we got up when it started. Here we wittnessed our first hint of "opposition": Most locals stayed in their seats, the few who stood up with us, soon sat down again.
In the movies you can see differences between Asia and Europe: there is a lot of chatter going on, people answering their mobile phones (yes, mobiles have reached Myanmar!) and the constant crickcrack of sunflower seeds. We couldn't believe it, PIPAS!! (the floor was a mess afterwards...). But same as in Europe, Good conquered Evil in the end and Lord Voldemort was killed!
After a few days we moved on to the city of Mandalay. On the overnight bus ride the bumpy road left us sleepless. At Mandalay bus station we where picked up by two guys on motos. Each carrying one of our backpacks in front of them and us on the back seats. We would travel like this several times through our stay in Myanmar.
Mandalays offered little charms, but in the surroundings several ancient capitals can be found. We visited one, Mingun, on a boat trip.
We then spent an evening at beautiful wooden U Bain Bridge.
From Mandalay we took a bus to Bagan. The bus was supposed to ba A/C, but instead was infected with Mosquitoes. We killed maybe 20-30 on the 6h trip. Mosquitoes where a major concern throughout our trip. In Myanmar Malaria is an issue. Anopheles (as some other blood suckers) is mainly active from dusk 'til dawn, we tried not to be bitten throughout the day as well...
In Bagan Myriam fell ill. After a night with high fever and shivering we took a taxi (well, a horse carriage, actually. The only transport available there) to the doctor the next day. He assured us that it only was the flu and sent us home.
Checking the internet, the symptoms fitted Malaria to close for our comfort. In addition to that we had been in (and been bitten at) the Golden Triangle of Thailand ten days before, which is the typical incubation time. As we had only started to take Malaria prophylaxis when entering Myanmar, this added to our anxiety.
In the second night, Myriams fever was even higher. Fearing the worst we planned to fly to Yangon and maybe Bangkok the next day, the closest places with anything like a decent hospital. As the morning came, we decided to visit the doctor first. He sent us to the local laboratory, to take an instant Malaria test. The lab turned out to be a small shed, open to the dusty road. The horse that had pulled our carriage there watched as one of the technicians (who didn't speak a word of english) stopped watching a soap opera to take Myriams blood. Five minutes later we got the negative result. Man, where we happy...
It took Myri another three days to recover. In these days the owners of our guest house went over themselves to look after us. They kept bringing rice and chicken soup, ginger tea, hot water with lemon..., asking time and again if we needed anything. Whenever we left the room they jumped in to change the wet bed sheets and let us use their own driver and carriage to get to doc and lab. All of this, as a matter of course, without expecting payment. These moments (and others, when we could experience how selflessly helpfull and friendly the locals are), will allways be the most cherished memories of Myanmar. Only a few professionals in tourist centres tried to rip us off, everybody else was genuinely friendly and interested in us.
As we felt better we took a dayride around Bagans Temples. In an area of about 40km² there are more than 2000 Pagodas. All these Pagodas where built within a less than 300 years between the 11th and 13th century. After this building rush the city was abandoned and/or sacked by the Mongols (historians do disagree...).
Here are some of the temples:
On one of the smaller temples we met a local with an amazing t-shirt:
Knowing how tight the grip of the junta over the country is, we stopped to stay and chat. The stories, this young man told us, where full of hope that real change might be at hand. He considered himself a freedom fighter and had been in prison several times. But now, he said, the mood was changing. He is the one, who told us about Aung San Suu Kyi's regained freedom of movement, the elections that are to be expected and his freedom and pride to wear a t-shirt demanding "FREE MYANMAR". So maybe change is coming...
The next lap took us to Nyanghshwe at beautiful Inle Lake. Here we spent several days exploring the surroundings and enjoying the serenity of the lake.
Our last stop was at Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock. Held in equilibrium by nothing but a hair of the Buddha, it is balanced on the top of a mountain, only reached by a long and hard pilgrimmage.
On the way back to Yangoon, we had the chance to experience a 4 hour train ride. On bumpy tracks and hard wooden seats it again gave a wonderful insight to Myanmar everyday live.
Here ended our adventures in mystic Burma. Apart from a few hickups, it was a great experience and a country which we'll love to visit again, hopefully by then, a few steps closer to democracy. FREE Myanmar! FREE Tibet! FREE drinks for everyone!