The past, the present and the near future
From its origins to its conquerors, Burma, is as diverse of a land as it gets. It is believed that its original settlers migrated from India and Tibet, having later gone through invasions by Thailand and China, adding to the country's cultural mix.
Divided into several different tribes, it was later conquered and colonised by Britain, having been kept under the rule of the “Indian Empire” for over 60 years. Then, Britain was ousted by local rebellions, aided by the Japanese. But that alliance didn't turn out as well as promised, and in the end, through self-elected military dictators and a very bloody history of censorship and violence, the country was renamed Myanmar, having had its windows shut to the outside world.
The history of Nobel Prize winner Aung Sang's house arrest, heavy freedom censorship and rioting monks protesting through the streets would bring Burma's difficult reality to the eyes of the outside world, but for many years, that history of violence kept visitors away from the country, not only for warnings against travelling there but also as a sort of boycott strategy, as many travellers chose not to support the current system ran, enforced and controlled by the government.
Thing started to change in 2010, when civilians nominated a new elected government. Whilst decades of violence and corruption can take a long time to go through a real reform, the move was enough to motivate foreign governments to lift sanctions, and for foreign capital to seize investment opportunities in an emerging nation. New broadcast rules were set. Non-government affiliated newspapers started to emerge, and media venues such as the internet seemed to have finally arrived into a land that spent decades under military control, although still fairly restricted and heavily monitored.
Although all is very recent, the change taking place in Burma has been happening extremely fast, and the tourism industry has been getting stronger by the day. Although it is no longer the SE Asia hidden gem with no ATMs, credit cards or mobile phones, Burma still feels very untouched by massive tourism, and should be an extremely rewarding experience to all of those that rush to get there, before it becomes “another Thailand”.
Yangon – Markets and Pagodas
Getting a Myanmar visa in London was faster and easier than I expected. This was my third attempt to visit the country, following two failed attempts in 2009 and 2012. I was all smiles at Yangon's airport's immigration line – smiles that were quickly substituted by an expression of surprise while noticing the many wall posters of Visa and Mastercard all around the airport. Yep. Burma was changing. The extremely clean airport and ATM machines at the arrival lounge (although not yet in operation) were a true indication of what was to come.
Much to my privilege, I had a local host in Yangon. She wasn't technically local - my friend was an Italian citizen that had been teaching English in Yangon for over a year. She lived near the centre of the city and had a lot to teach me about local customs, on how to behave as a foreigner, where to go to see local life and many other precious tips for which I'll be forever grateful. A very friendly Malay citizen I met at the arrival lounge offered to take me in his taxi to my host's, as he had now been coming to Yangon regularly, in order to open up a restaurant. I reached my host's place very late, but found the taxi driver's way of asking for more money absolutely priceless: Smiling and complaining Burma was a difficult country to reside in. I left the two to argue, smiled broadly and entered my friend's house.
The next morning made me momentarily believe that I was living through a real dream. A beautiful sound woke me up, and as I rushed to the window to see what it was, my friend took notice, smiled at me and said: “They are children monks. They sing in the morning, and locals bring them food”. I was woken up by the sound of singing monks in Burma. Could I ask for more?
Everything in Yangon felt extremely authentic and recently opened for business. It really felt like I was living through social change, experiencing it just as it was happening, and for a traveller that has been around a fair bit and grown somewhat jaded of the usual “touristic things to do”, that was a real gift... From immersing ourselves in remote village markets, taking jam-packed pick up truck rides through the countryside, eating amazing food and visiting some of the most beautiful Pagodas I have ever seen, my first few days in Yangon were a great indication of what my following two weeks in Burma would be like. The Shwedagon Pagoda complex was more beautiful that I could have imagined, and a ride through the local circle train going all around Yangon showed me the real Burma reality I was so eager to see with my own eyes – however heartbreaking it was. Two of the city's highlights for me, without a doubt.
Bagan's back roads and temple rooftops
Although it is Burma's most visited place of interest, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is an obligatory stop for any history buff in South East Asia. It hosts the densest concentration of Budhist temples in the world, dating as far back as the 11th century, and is considered by many to be just as nice if not nicer than Cambodia's highly visited Angkor Wat complex.
Bagan is in fact a concentration of a few villages by the river. Ayeyarwady is one of them, catering for the many travellers coming from all over the world to climb its temples and take pictures of its many stuppas. Although it has remained the most visited part of Burma even when the country wasn’t exactly opened for tourism, the local way of life remained. I was privileged enough to rent an electrical icicle, which allowed me to not only see some amazing temples independently, but also to roam around the back dirt roads of nearby villages, sometimes falling and being helped by locals and taken care of by nurses, or simply being invited for lunch.
One could easily spend weeks in Old Bagan alone, taking pictures and admiring sunsets from the top of many different temples, but I realised I was getting too daring with my electric bike, enjoying myself a bit too much, and after an injured foot, reckoned I better leave town already, and prevent any further damage. Aside from temples, the Bagan area hosts some really amazing crafts workshops, and I remember visiting this family-owned workshop where workers were singing and laughing out loud through their shift... I was really moved, as it is not the reality a visitor usually experiences when visiting this so-called workshops around Asia...
Bagan was just an overnight bus ride away from Yangon, and a truly mesmerising region worthy of every second a traveller has to spare...
Inle Lake and hiking through untouched villages
Beautiful Inle Lake is a classic example of many of the stereotypes Burma carries in the mind of travellers dreaming to pay the country a visit: Lively floating markets, traditional led-paddling fishermen on wooden rafts and stilt-house villages with floating gardens. Once a congregation of sleepy neighbouring villages around the lake, it is now well on Burma's backpacking circuit, and although it is the part of the country where travellers might find the most “tourist traps”, it is still possible to get away from it all and experience amazing local life at its best.
After getting the must-do lake tour out of the way (visiting touristic floating markets, floating pagodas, monasteries and many non authentic “workshops”), I decided to go hiking to nearby local villages, but instead of hiring a bicycle like most people, I decided to do it in a combination of walking and hitch-hiking.
After about an hour away from the main area of the lake hosting most guesthouses, one can start to experience the Burma that stopped in time. Locals are still happy to see foreigners, they are warm and welcoming. Nature is beyond stunning. The further one goes, the more gratifying the experience gets, and much to my privilege, a young boy driving a motorcycle was the first driver to give me a ride, and from the back of his motorcycle I rode through the most amazing lavender and dandelion fields until reaching the villages I was looking to visit. I played with children, had tea with friendly women and observed much of their agriculture, as well as crafstsmanship. Tofu and tomatoes, two of my favorite things on earth, were a major part of their agriculture, and observing them making and drying paper in their backyards was extremely interesting. I hiked around some more, played football with young monks and sang as if nobody was listening. I was really having the time of my life in a current travelling world where everything seems so over-developed for tourism these days, losing its authenticity.
One unforgettable train ride (for all the wrong and right reasons)
When the time to go back came, I was given the best possible ride I could have asked for: The gas truck! On my way back I joined the driver and his two young helpers delivering gas to many villages along the way. This was a rare, blessed opportunity and I knew it. I didn't even attempt to speak English or French with anyone all day long. The language of gestures and smiles had been working wonderfully.
I had met a few other travellers in my guesthouse and ended up deciding on joining a fellow backpacker taking a long train ride back to Yangon, through the mountains via Kalaw to Thazi, as I had read it was one of the most scenic train rides of Asia. It was a long, cold night in third class wooden chairs, on a ride so bumpy that left my entire body full of bruises. I had the most miserable night, I won't lie, and at many times I asked myself why on earth I was putting myself through that, while I could easily afford just any other type of transportation available. I barely slept, and the miserable and cold night ride took over 10 hours.
But when the sun rose, a combination of amazing landscape and incredible social interaction with locals reminded me just why such experiences were often a part of my travels, as uncomfortable as they were. Myself and my unacquainted were the only foreigners in the entire train, and as I was a lot more open and approachable, everyone that was rather curious about us and our reason to be there gathered around me: Families, the train policemen, old ladies... The last five hours of that train ride were some of the most precious hours of my entire trip to Burma, as I shared meals, played cards and did my very best to communicate with some of the most genuine and friendly locals I have ever come across to this day...
The long journey back to reality
Back in Yangon, I had an extra day to unwind, walk around and get ready for a long flight back to London, through Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Abu Dhabi and Amsterdam. I wasn't at all concerned about the long journey – My only concern was my capability of adapting to the reverse-cultural shock that waited for me in London. Could I do it? Should I do it? But why? Those are some of the rules of this globe-trotting game though... Until travelling becomes self-sustainable, one always needs to make their journey back home, whatever home may be, and wait patiently, yearning for the next chapter of the book, for the next opportunity to be carried away by the world of travelling... No place will ever be like Burma though – not even Burma itself. Being there at the time I was there was an enormous privilege, for which I'll be forever grateful.