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Passing through... We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves--Pico Iyer---Passing through from Europe to Africa to Asia to Oceania etc.& back again! 9 mos. of dreaming and exploring!


MYANMAR | Tuesday, 23 April 2013 | Views [318]

First impressions:

The drive from the airport was a small representation of the whole country—barren landscapes, scattered pagodas and people, underdeveloped, and HOT! The drive from Mandalay airport to the city was about 45km so to be fair it was a rural landscape we were driving through most of the way. However, my first impression of the actual city was a mix of India and Africa—quite underdeveloped, dusty, and everything surrounds the roads—food stalls everywhere! It was incredibly underdeveloped compared to Bangkok, and yet vaguely familiar to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania or even Chennai, India (same level of development). Mandalay is in no way a pretty city, but the many gold pagodas and random monks walking the streets give it a unique charm and beauty. The people generally add to that beauty—everyone is helpful, and always smiling at you. The kids are adorable as usual!

Before I jump into talking about Burma/Myanmar, I think a bit of a history/cultural lesson is in order—not because I feel like I know a lot, but precisely because I don’t. I have been slowly researching and learning about this mysterious land and the more I have read over that past few weeks/months has convinced us more and more to see it before it might change forever. Most of us (including Tom and I) know very little about this place and I think it is important to share a few fun facts. For those who have no idea where Mandalay is or what it is, it is the 2nd biggest city in Burma (now officially known as Myanmar)  after the ‘capital city’ Yangon (formerly known as/AKA Rangoon). Yangon is not actually officially the capital city anymore, but that is a long drawn out story that I will omit for now. The reason we decided to come to Mandalay was due to a few reasons: it was closer than Yangon to a lot of the places we wanted to specifically see in Myanmar/ it was more off the beaten track than Yangon/and it was close to a Vipassana meditation center in case we possibly wanted to do a refresher course after India (eventually this idea was thwarted because we decided spending more time seeing the country was more important in the short time frame we had).

If people know anything about Burma/Myanmar*, it usually involves things they have seen in the news over the last 5-10 years—riots and protests and violence in connection with a tyrannical, albeit evil government (AKA dictatorship) that has been running this country for many years now. Lots of not so nice things have happened to the people of this country. The most recent and vivid image people may remember involved Buddhist monks protesting in the streets of Yangon some years ago and actually getting killed by government forces after they instituted martial law and banned any public protests or negative talk about the government. They cracked down (and still crack down) on anyone who speaks badly of the regime. The people here are not free, and are poor because only the select few in the government reap monetary benefits from industry here (however, only to a certain extent reap the benefits of tourism-will explain later). An intelligent excerpt I recently read involves George Orwell and his book titled ‘Burmese days’. I am a fan of Orwell but I had no idea he had close ties (in a literary sense) to Burma/Myanmar. I am sure that, just like me, you are however familiar with his classics ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ (if you are not then get on it people!!! You should have been at least forced to read them in high school!). Both of the latter books are based on political oppression/Marxism and Russian tyranny/dictatorships/etc. etc…… Anyways, the ‘joke’ in Burma is that Orwell actually wrote 3 books about Burma: ‘Burmese Days’, ‘Animal Farm’, and ‘1984’ ---get it? The Burmese are indirectly comparing themselves to the political oppression and troubles of the other novels, which, sadly to say, fit their strife quite perfectly. For a long time now, the Burmese have not known real freedom, and struggle to survive with such a power hungry, brutal government regime that stifles them. Recent developments in the last few years have shone some light on the situation, but it is still not a good situation. A long time activist for the Burmese people was (and still is) under house arrest but has achieved more influence now than ever before. Tourism recently became more open, and it is now easier to get a tourist or business visa for this country. This has significantly increased tourism over the years which has really strained the economy to find room for all of these people! In case you were wondering, there is a lot of appeal to this place. Essentially, this is a unique Southeast Asian country, and stepping into Myanmar  is like stepping back in time about 30-40 years behind the rest of Asia. You see how this area of the world used to look, before tourism and the business sector took over. Can you imagine Thailand in the 1960s or 1970s? Come to Myanmar! This country is littered with gold temples and pagodas, and monks! Big and small, the monk population here makes up a hefty piece of the whole population! You don’t see drones of monks wondering the streets so freely in too many places, and you definitely don’t see monks treated as absolute rock stars as you do in Burma. The monks speak for the people and protest/fight for the people’s rights. That is why the people of Myanmar love them and that is why the government kills them in cold blood during protests or times of unrest—they know that the Buddhist monks are the real leaders of this land! The country itself is beautiful and some of the sights here easily rival the Angkor Wat’s of the world! There are still so many unspoiled temples here, and these temples are in every day use! This is one place in the world where Buddhist traditions and sacred places are still in their true form and have not been tainted by western influence. It is the non-touristy land, the true essence of a place that people yearn to see. Sadly, the more that come, and the more that come irresponsibly, the more it will get tainted over time (some argue that it is already moving that way).  That is why we really strive to be responsible while we are here, and give back as much money to the people of Myanmar rather than the government. We want to see what this true, pristine place is all about!

This more lenient approach by the government to allow more foreigners into the country is obviously a ploy to make more money, however, there are ways around this ploy and you can manage to help common citizens. The ploy goes like this: you need to get a visa to enter the country and pay for the visa (we went to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok to do this—‘funny’ stories to follow about this later) which the government profits from; the only online accommodations for Myanmar (there are few) involved only government run hotels, so if you want to book accommodations in advance you are basically funding the government further; most tourist offices and modes of transportation  in the country are government run so again, they profit from your visit further; if you plan to do business in Myanmar, it is very hard to do it (if not impossible) without government involvement. So, many people argue why go at all? Well, we thought about this ourselves, but we did read on many forums that there are ways around this situation. Here is how our Myanmar travel plans go (in all possible ways to avoid giving any money to the corrupt government):

  1. Unfortunately, we cannot control the visa and flying part. We had to obtain the visa from the Myanmar embassy and that $30/person goes to the government. We flew to Mandalay via Air Asia so I’m hoping that government didn’t take too much of that. We at least made sure not to fly with a Myanmar based airline, which is fully owned and operated by the government.
  2. We didn’t pre-book any accommodations. We read in our Lonely Planet book, that anything you can book online is definitely run by the government, and that any family owned guesthouses cannot be reached by email or booked online. Therefore, you book as you go from place to place (can be a little stressful sometimes). Luckily, Lonely Planet has plenty of recommendations about places to stay and makes sure to only include these family run/non-government owned guesthouses in their book. We are winging it the whole time we are here.
  3. The same rule applies to travel agencies and booking trips. You should avoid official looking travel agencies and watch out for certain logos. For instance, if a travel agency books flights through Myanmar airlines, you know they are affiliated with the government. In contrast, a family owned and operated establishment will usually give you less options (especially with flights and trains because that is all owned by the government) but better rates. You ask your family owned guesthouse about travel agency options, or they can usually book for you directly, and then you know they aren’t putting business into government enterprises (because they hate the government and would never do that).
  4. As for daily stuff, if you are renting a bicycle, or taking a taxi or rickshaw, you are putting money into a citizen’s pocket (for the most part). Same goes for most restaurants (we only ate at ones that Lonely Planet recommended). Day to day life is usually free from government influence.

Those are some of the ways we hope to avoid funding the corrupt influences in this country. Although it’s not a perfect strategy, we still hope our visit can be a positive influence on us and on the Burmese people. The people are generally VERY welcoming of tourists, knowing that tourism can help them financially (if you are a responsible tourist that is) and because they are generally intrigued by us—remember, this is not a population that leaves its borders often! All we get is smiles our way, waves, sincere help on every corner, and genuine hospitality--- a world difference from the usual scams you encounter on most vacations you take! It is amazing to see how intelligent, witty, resilient and friendly these people are!

So now that I have explained a bit of our reasons to come here, why we came to Mandalay, and how we hope to be responsible tourists, I can write a bit about our first day in Mandalay. We took a shared taxi (basically a minibus) from the airport for about $5 for a 45km journey. Tom had a guesthouse mapped out in the book and asked the driver to take us there. It was right in the center of town. Unfortunately, they are considered the most popular guesthouse in town so all that was left for us was a single room to share for $14/night. We were tired so we took it because we didn’t feel like searching around. It would be fine for 1 night. We then asked about getting to Inle Lake or Bagan from Mandalay and booked a 7 hr bus ride to Bagan for the next day for $12. I will explain Bagan when we are there (as with the other sites) but for a quick heads up Bagan is bigger and arguably better than Angkor Wat in Cambodia! I will let you know in the next few weeks as we will see Bagan just before Angkor Wat ;)

After we were settled in our cramped single room the size of a closet and no A/C in 40 degree Celsius weather (!) we opted for lunch and a COLD beverage down the street. The north of Myanmar has a larger concentration of Shan people than other parts of the country, and in general they are a minority (the Bamar peoples, AKA the Burmese people—the British messed up the pronunciation hence how it came to be known as Burma lol), but they are well represented here in the north. I do not know the histories of these different groups, still need to read up on it—generally there is Indian, Thai, and Chinese influence in this country. We went to a local Shan food spot, a buffet style place popular with the locals. Lots of stir fry choices, meat and vegetarian, a bit greasy, but overall a good meal and filling! The best comparison I can think of is a mix of Malaysian and Indian but with less variety and with less spice! But this was a typical Shan spot, so we haven’t tried any local Burmese food yet….which I heard is a mix of Thai and Vietnamese (?Cambodian like)….anyways I will let you know when I do (obviously!!)

We took a break after the food. Once it got a bit cooler outside we rented some bicycles to go to the ‘must see’ spot in Mandalay itself (most of the sights to see are actually outside the city)—Mahamuni Paya, the nation’s most famous Buddha image/statue. Monks (and males only!) put gold leaves on the Buddha every day and wash the Buddha every morning. Because of all the added gold leaves, the image itself has started to lose shape.. …People were sitting praying and we sat there for a little while watching the scenes of life go by…

Tom got a flat tire on his bicycle (ofcourse, we are the champions of flat tires, even on non-motorized vehicles!) and it made getting around a bit harder. Before heading back towards the guesthouse, we wanted to check out a monastery on the water as the sun set. It was a beautiful wooden building, with intricate designs, a working monastery that starts its day at 4am each day (Vipassana reminder!!!!). It is a serene, quiet place and we enjoyed walking around the complex just as the sun set. After that we drove back to our neck of the woods and had some refreshments and durian ice cream near our guesthouse (the durian ice cream is quite ok---much more tolerable than durian itself!). Now I am sitting in my closet room resting and blogging………J

Tomorrow our bus leaves to Bagan at 830 in the AM. Can’t wait!

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