Myanmar/Burma – on a road less travelled
The European Council on Tourism and Trade have voted it the “World’s Best Tourist Destination Award for 2014”. But for many years only a few adventurous backpackers would cross into this mystique part of South-East Asia. This week I look back at a time when it was considered unethical to travel into Myanmar/Burma.
It’s 2006, after much deliberation and three suggestive attempts I am on a flight from Bangkok to Yangon. My decision to travel to Myanmar lies with relatives who are living and working within the confines of this repressive country.
The adventurer in me is excited about the aura of mystery that this country offers but my enthusiasm is overshadowed by my ethical values. Under the brutality of its ruling militant junta, international sanctions have been placed on this country and is advised that individuals avoid travelling here. I am curious about what the Burmese civilians think about these restrictions and how is it affecting them.
Eight years ago the logistics of organising a trip to this cornered part of the world was challenging. The first advice I am given is taht I will have to book a highlight tour package through a local agency, probably with government connections. The the cost is exuberant. Fortunately, albeit a little vague, Lonely Planet has a resourceful travel guide that suggests a few non-government accommodation and tourism operators. Inevitably I am not naïve and despite my best efforts I know some of my money such as airport taxes will end up in the hands of those I am trying to avoid. My struggle with the inevitable is the reason it takes me two years to travel there.
I visit four major places mostly on the traditional route but I swap the popular Inle Lake for the country’s northeast.
In Yangon the skyline shimmers under the luminosity of gold and jewels. The golden peak of the Shwedagon Pagoda is nearly 100 metres high and surrounds itself with hundreds of colourful temples, stupas and statues.
This sacred Buddhist site is a place of worship and relaxation that offers an escape from the dusty affliction of the outside world where for just a small fee young children covered in dirt offer you the chance to set swallows free. A barricaded street marks the spot where human rights and political activist Aung San Suu Kyi is serving time during her third house arrest. It is a reminder of how I am free to walk around this city but there is no freedom for those that live here.
An old bumpy sleeper train connects me to the commercial hub of Mandalay. I am conscious of the watchful eyes, scrutinising every move I make as I clumsily spend most of the night bouncing mid air. Uncurling my spine I head another two hundred kilometres northeast to the town of Hsipaw (pronounced Thibaw) here I am hoping to explore a less trodden path and hopefully find the heart and soul of this country.
The dramatic train ride snakes through the mountainous jungle and out towards the incredible Gokteik viaduct I nervously hold on tight as the front carriage curves onto the famous bridge that was built by Americans in 1901. Back then it had the highest span of any bridge in the British Empire. As the train slowly chugs over the lush valley an official warns us against photographic flashes of the wild jungle below due to military activity. Sneaking in a couple of shots I am horrified and fearful when my flash goes off. Fortunately I walk away with just a warning.
Disembarking in Hsipaw I am glad I have ventured off the track. Before me is a picturesque town in the Shan State where the people are extremely happy to see our train arrive. Dotted with little restaurants serving up local dishes the main street plays host to a few relaxed backpackers. During the afternoon there is a tropical downpour and although it’s a little unusual to see, geese frolic along the main street in newly formed puddles.
I head to the travellers haven, the personable run guesthouse ‘Mr Charles’. They offer countryside treks. During my one-day walk through villages and rice paddies I observe the daily workings of the locals. The people here are a lot more outspoken about their country’s political situation. My guide talks about how the Government changed the type of rice that was grown and now they can’t sell it, how the currency changed without warning and towns would move overnight. Despite my fear of being out in a rice paddy having such discussions I will be forever grateful for his insightful stories.
It’s out here in the rural countryside that I feel like I am experiencing the real Myanmar and it’s with regret that I have to leave. This time I take a taxi back to Mandalay. I am surprised by the fuss and time it takes to organise this. The taxi driver wants to fill the taxi because he believes it’s too expensive for two people to pay thirty dollars. Negotiations out of the way, we stop at a quaint little town called Pyin Oo Lwin. The colonial buildings serve as the perfect backdrop for the miniature stagecoaches that are used as taxis.
From the city of Mandalay, I board a boat along the Ayeyarwady (Irawaddy) River, or as the British dubbed it the old “Road to Mandalay”. The relaxing and pleasurable cruise lasts about nine hours and at the time cost around $20. I spend the best part of the day lazing on the back deck lapping up the sunshine and indulging in the cultural river life. We pass through small villages where locals wade in the water trading goods such as fruit. I don’t recall seeing any other Westerners on board.
The boat pulls up at Bagan, a religious city that is divided into ‘old’ and ‘new’. The old grounds are home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world. Although it displays an incredible history of architecture from the 10th and 11th century most of the pagodas and temples have undergone restorations following a massive earthquake in 1975.
I don’t know why after all the stories I have heard but I am surprised to learn that the government forcibly moved residents out of what is now known as the ‘old Bagan’ to the ‘new Bagan’.
Unlike its other counterparts in South East Asia here it is quiet with barely a tourist. As I pay my money to a local driver of a horse-cart I know the money is going directly to him. Shaking and bumping its still a peaceful ride through the pagodas until we encounter a jeep carrying army officials directing guns in our direction. I hold my breath until they pass. Although I have felt a fair sense of freedom I am on edge and a little unsure about my presence.
It’s ironic in a Buddhist country where relics date so far back in history that inhumanity is what divides this country. My trip ends back in Yangon. Stepping onto the plane I am relieved to be leaving. Although I felt safe at all times I also felt I had to be careful.
I felt the intense debate that surrounded this visit was warranted but if I hadn’t of taken the leap then I would have missed out on a seeing such a rich part of South East Asia.
Am I glad I went? The answer to this question is yes. I believe the Burmese people were too. Their kindness shone through and many of the people that I spoke to believed that because of the sanctions on tourism their businesses were suffering, educationally they were falling behind and more importantly there was no way of letting the rest of the world know what was happening to them.
The good news is Myanmar is finally free to tourism but get in quick before it loses it’s simple charm.