Country #75. At the risk of sounding clichéd, the most striking element of Myanmar is its people. They are the friendliest I have ever come across, and seem genuinely delighted to see visitors in their country after nearly 70 years of geopolitical isolation. Smiles greet you wherever you go. This painful isolation, lasting until 2010, means Myanmar has yet to be westernised like other countries in the region. Men wear long skirts. Most women wear golden yellow face paint. Most TV and music harks back to a bygone era. Go to Myanmar soon before all of this starts to change, if it has not already.
Yangon (no longer the capital since the government moved it to a comparatively charmless planned city in the centre of the country, Naypyidaw, in 2016) is the main draw for those interested in architecture. Crumbling relics from the British era are dotted around town. Large churches, railway stations, and government buildings are being gradually enveloped by vegetation. They sit inconspicuously against the backdrop of hundreds of golden pagodas dotting the relatively low-rise skyline. The blend of red deserts in the north of the country, lush rainforests, and tranquil lakes make Myanmar one of the most varied countries in South East Asia. Myanmar has a unique identity. Hopefully some of it remains as the country gets gradually pulled into the modern world.
I arrived in Yangon after a punishing 24-hour journey via Dubai and Bangkok. Jetlagged and groggy, I settled in at the Scott @31 St Hostel. I was instantly at one with the Burmese people. Sharing stories. Breaking bread with the locals. Having in-depth conversations about the country’s gradual move towards quasi-democratic practices after decades of military junta rule.
None of this happened. What did happen was that I met some French people who liked wine. While I was compelled to constantly stress that “I still feel European, regardless of Brexit,” I’m not sure they appeared to care nearly as much as me. They mainly liked talking about wine and football. I also tried to distance myself from the “Brits abroad” stereotype. Said abroad, drinking, and slurring my words after too many beers and not enough sleep, the irony was clearly lost on me, even if it was not on them.
“I’m on a big holiday and the only thing I need to do is pursue fun,” was not my immediate thought waking up with a throbbing head in a boiling 10-man dorm room. Nevertheless, I rallied for a walk around Yangon. It is a beguiling place. Western fashion has not arrived here. Some of the British colonial architecture remains from its near 100-year rule of Burma, crumbling alongside overgrown trees and bustling street vendors. Another architectural highlight was the Shewadagon Pagoda (pictured). It’s one of the largest religious buildings in the world, made using 27 tonnes of gold. The result is a giant bell-shaped structure that looks magnificent, and is visible shining above the tree line from almost everywhere in Yangon.
It’s hard to adapt to how friendly people are here. In London, anyone trying to engage in even the most polite of small talk with strangers is ignored, and perceived to be dangerous. It took time to get used to waves and smiles greeting me as I walked through town. I figured these friendly greetings could be the result of two possible factors:
a) Myanmar was a hermit kingdom where almost no foreigners entered for decades, so many locals have simply not seen that many westerners.
b) I was blazing a trail in the fashion stakes.
A close call. But probably ‘a’. I remembered I was wearing a tatty t-shirt and a clumpy Salomon backpack, with hundreds of what I can only presume to be decorative straps, clips, and zips (no person needs that many).
Most people here support Manchester United. So it was a delight being able to share my story about how I came to support them. I recalled tales about my tough upbringing in the post-industrial Manchester suburb of Salford. In those tough times, “Old Trafford, the Stretford End, felt like my real home,” I said. I reasoned that they wouldn’t have heard of ‘London’, so I felt no need to tell them that I actually grew up in South West London. Or that I had season tickets at Fulham FC for 13 years, which were swiftly deposed of once ‘we’ were relegated from the Premier League.
The Jet Black Waters Of Inle Lake
Inle Lake is 400 miles north of Yangon. The lake is absolutely stunning. Jet black like ink. Its horizons are hard to distinguish from the reeds and marshes that surround it. A poorly planned and much longer bike ride than I had anticipated around its periphery was breathtaking. Friendly locals drift around the lake on incredibly low-lying long boats. One of them took me and my bike across the lake for around 2000 Kyat (roughly £1). The boat driver was wearing Chelsea socks, an Arsenal shirt, and a Man United cap. He didn’t speak any English. So I didn’t bother explaining that such attire would upset many (deluded) people back in England. Many individuals feel quite passionate about ‘supporting’ a given collection of millionaires who are good at kicking a sphere through some sticks.
The boat trip was fascinating. There are whole villages raised on stilts in the middle of the lake. Kids take the boat to their floating schools. Farmers pick tomatoes, which sit on islands of floating turf, held in place with spears. Welders and mechanics go about their business on floating rafts.
It looks beautiful. But one question dogged me throughout the trip: Why not do all of these activities… on land? When thinking of practical, logistical, and probably financial considerations, building things on water overwhelmingly loses to land. Of which there is plenty right next to the lake. Whatever the reason, it looks completely unique. So perhaps it is worth it.
Local Beer Review: ‘Myanmar Beer’
Positives: It’s a beer. It tastes like most beers. Which is good.
Negatives: The name. It’s just the name of the country, and could have been more inventive. I’m not sure how many people would drink ‘Chad’ or ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, so I think this issue does apply to all beer names.
Slipping Back Into My 18-Year-Old Self
Slowly, but surely, I am morphing back into a parody of a gap year ‘traveller’. Fake Havanas, tatty shorts, and a tank top. Simple? Yes. Comfortable? Yes. Inappropriate for a 27-year old with grey hairs in his beard? Quite possibly. I rented a moped in Bagan. All that was seemingly left for me to do was to take up those fire hoop things that backpackers – mainly annoying ones – do in Thailand. Part of me still feels like the fresh-faced 18-year-old who set off on my first gap year nine years ago. The ‘fresh-faced’ comment is a lie. I still looked old, even back then. I took a ten-hour bus to the Bagan Temples from Inle Lake. A few points on buses here:
- They play unreasonably loud karaoke for the duration of most trips.
- They are comfier than most other buses in SE Asia.
- Increased comfort does not make them any less terrifying to travel in.
The government changed Myanmar from left- to right-hand drive overnight a few years ago. But most of the cars still have the steering wheel on the wrong side. Good for long journeys through mountains with huge sheer drops off hairpin bends. Think death road in Bolivia, and this sort of paints the picture.
The Bagan temples are absolutely breathtaking. Figuratively and literally, as some of the temples are tiring to climb. Deep red deserts are punctuated by over 4,000 temples, made in an even deeper shade of red. They poke above the skyline like anthills which extend endlessly towards the horizon. Sunsets are spectacular. Arriving at my hostel, there was a man wearing a ‘Chang Beer’ tank top, with an alice band, playing a ukulele. “Must try harder,” I thought.
The back tyre of my scooter exploded one day, while I was driving. I managed not to fall, but momentarily felt certain death (or grazes) awaited me. I had to wait for three hours for the bike to be repaired. Surprisingly, this minor setback paled into insignificance to the irritation caused by ‘Jay Jay’, a man who asked to “tag along” on my bike tour of the temples this morning. I should have seen the warning signs.
“I asked to go with a group of guys from the bus I was on, but they seemed a bit cliquey” (aka said no). Clearly they were more perceptive than me. Also they weren’t British. So they could say no to something they didn’t want to do, even if it meant a brief moment of awkwardness. Jay Jay spent most of the day complaining about how they didn’t sell the brand of contact lens fluid in Myanmar that he liked, that it was “too dusty” on the bikes, and he preferred Thailand. It got boring after a while.
For the sake of storytelling, I am grossly exaggerating the negative qualities of Jay Jay. He was perfectly nice and friendly, if a little boring. The point here was to highlight one of the biggest parts of travelling solo. You meet some great people and some not so great people. But you usually have to hang out with them regardless, even if for a brief period. Jay Jay aside, the ride around the temples was incredible. Bagan is a must for anyone who travels to Myanmar.
Despite this, the highlight of today was a two-hour meditation lesson I did with a Buddhist monk. I starting using an app called ‘Headspace’ a while ago. It offers a really simple insight into meditation. Without going into too much detail, I think it really does work. It’s relaxing and helps you to focus. The monk taught me a few breathing techniques and how he became a monk. He also made me wear a white button-up shirt and local skirt, I swear it was not my choice.
I’d like to say with my newly shaved head that I fitted the bill. I did not. Mainly I sweated lots, and the tight top button made my massive head look like a lollipop. I did leave feeling relaxed. Having mentioned earlier that I was close to being a parody of a traveller, I am well aware that dressing like, and attempting to befriend, monks probably takes the biscuit. I have no real defence here.
Popping Over To Mt Popa
I had a much better experience with fellow ‘travellers’ from San Francisco, where nearly all American travellers appear to come from. I used inverted commas over ‘travellers’ to make two main points: a) To give the image of someone ironically gesturing with two fingers in both hands while saying the word. b) Travellers are really just tourists, who perhaps spend longer overseas. The term traveller conjures an image of someone hiking through remote rainforests, alone, armed with only a machete. The reality is more a sunburnt Irish man in his mid-30s, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and trilby hat, stumbling around drunk on a beach in Thailand.
We hiked (walked slowly) to the top of a 1200m dormant volcano, called Mt Popa. The scenery on the mountain was completely different to the surrounding red desert, made up of lush rainforests. These gave way to even cooler plains at the top. At the peak: a golden Buddhist Pagoda. We had heard rumours the view from the peak was spectacular. Unfortunately, we could not confirm or deny these. It had been raining constantly during the walk and visibility was only a few metres.
Back at the hostel, we all had drinks and dried off. The Americans talked about how much they hated Trump, and loved Obama. I agreed wholeheartedly, and if anything held their views more strongly/in a better way than they did. The one (and only) upside of a Trump presidency: having a president named after a fart.
Myanmar: Early Steps On The Road To Development
A long bus ride back to Yangon filled my final day in the country. The red deserts of Bagan gave way to seemingly endless rice paddy fields. The clear water in the fields reflected the clouds like a mirror. Reaching the outskirts of Yangon, I saw the first real instances of extreme poverty I had seen on my trip. Tiny corrugated iron shacks built on stilts were crammed in by major roads, and lay next to the airport. While the amenities and general cleanliness of the slums bettered those in Mumbai or New Delhi, it was only marginal. A sobering reminder that a place so early into even notional democracy has a long way to go to catch up with regional peers in developmental terms.