David and Lili's World Tour


October 2014 - Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar or Burma? We say "Myanmar" because that's the original and the official name, but the language is still known as Burmese. Either way, after fifty years of brutal dictatorship, fifty years of paranoia, censorship, and repression, this country is finally opening up, and it's pretty amazing.

We have always wanted to visit this land of golden pagodas, but we didn't come (nor did anyone we know), because we all respected the travel boycott. The Nobel-peace-prize winner and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi asked tourists to stay away because much of the tourism infrastructure was constructed using forced labor, and almost all the profits from tourism directly benefited one of the world's worst regimes. The travel boycott was lifted in 2011 after the military junta made certain key reforms. Our travel-mate Embe (Maui Myke) came here at that time, and he says it was a completely different experience back then. It really seems improbable that so much could change in just 1000 days.

The new Myanmar is most visible in Yangon. Three years ago the city had only ancient beat-up cars, and now they are all new. Yes, by government order, this city of eight-million people swapped out their entire fleet of vehicles! The generals also banned motorcycles in the city, because a guy on a motorcycle assassinated a general, we are told. It seems surreal to be in a grubby Asian city dominated by crumbling colonial buildings surrounded by new cars (and no motorcycles).

Other examples of visible change include: There used to be no Internet, but now smart-phone shops are ubiquitous. There were no ATM machines either, but now international banks are allowed to connect. Many of the major roads have been paved, and many buses have been upgraded, making travel between the main tourist sites far more comfortable. Hotels used to serve brewed coffee for breakfast but now they serve Nescafé. And of course, more people are speaking better English.

Tourists used to have to fly in and out of Yangon, but now some borders are open. Much of this country is still off limits to foreigners however. In the places we are allowed to see, everything seems peaceful and surprisingly prosperous, but we know that elsewhere there is shit going on that the generals don't want us to see: a brutal military willing to kill, torture, and incarcerate innocent citizens, with armed insurrections fighting back.

Western tourists are still relatively rare, but this too is changing fast. Embe says that three years ago, the local people were far more curious, often approaching him just to say hello. That still happens, but less often. Get here before hordes of tourists ruin the vibe (plan your trip now). And bring enough brand-new US dollars to pay for everything (with no imperfections of any kind - the notes cannot even be folded). Seriously. Those new ATM machines are not yet common. Why only absolutely perfect US money? We have two theories: 1) This effectively keeps dollars out of the hands of ordinary people. 2) The generals want crisp spending money for their holidays abroad. 3) We cannot think of a third explanation.

Obama visited last year, and the international sanctions have been lifted. We think this marks a permanent change because in the new Myanmar, the generals are becoming wealthy beyond belief (with increased trade that they and their cronies dominate - still mostly with China). The last time Myanmar had a vote, Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, won by a landslide, and the result was not ignored (as with previous elections). The mood is cautious optimism about the future laced with cynicism, because despite a newly pseudo-democratic parliament, the generals still run the show.

The recent changes are good, but Myanmar still has a long way to go. When we talk to people about politics (never in a public place because "the walls have ears"), they tell us that everyone still despises and fears the military (nobody wants to go to jail, again). There is still censorship (less than before), travel restrictions, citizen spies, and endemic corruption. Political activists are hoping to change the constitution to enable "real democracy" but this will require military support (the generals can legally block change). Sigh.

Enough about politics. Myanmar is an amazing place to visit. Everything here is a little different. Even the local flavor of Buddhism includes pagan spirits called nats (and strangely, most statues of Buddha have been retrofitted with psychedelic electric halos). Also, most men (over the age of 20) wear longyi (skirts) instead of trousers, and most women wear thanaka on their faces (a kind of make-up / sun-screen made from tree bark). But this too is changing fast; most young people now wear Western clothes; they have glimpsed the world beyond their borders, and they want more.

Myanmar's top tourist destinations are: Shwedagon Pagoda, literally a mountain made of gold and jewels, and Bagan, the ancient capital with thousands of temples and pagodas (now with tour-bus traffic jams possible to avoid by bicycle). The "Lonely Planet backpackers" we met all went to Inle Lake too, a place we skipped in order to spend more time away from the tourist trail. Our visit to Myanmar was primarily about culture and people, not following a guide book, and the people were generally fantastic!

We ate a lot of street food (which most Westerners avoid), a grand mixture of strong textures and flavors, sometimes delicious but often very fishy and greasy. We look for places that are clean and popular with locals, and when we find a place that we love, we become regular customers. We also drank a lot of tea in classic tea houses, strongly influenced by both India and China.

We would have stayed in Myanmar longer, but the government only gave us 28-day visas. It would have been possible to buy more visa-days if we were to leave from an airport, but our goal was to get to India without using an airplane, so we took a dodgy bus to the Tamu-Moreh border. Until very recently, this border was closed, impossible for foreigners to cross legally. Almost no information was available about how to pull off this overland route. The border region was off-limits to foreigners so we needed a special permit. Then, upon arrival in the Manipur state of India, all we knew was that this region only just began to allow foreign visitors too. No risk plus no uncertainty equals no adventure. We went for it... Embe made some YouTube videos of the adventure: Myanmar . . . and Cambodia to India overland (via Myanmar). Yes, video!

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