17th – 20th November
Deciding to go
Exploring the mystical ‘Golden Land’ or simply lining the pockets of one of the world’s most oppressive and tenacious military regimes?
It’s a question that polarises most travellers; many choose not to go to Myanmar on principle, choosing to honour Aung San Suu Ki’s unofficial ‘boycott on tourism’ until a new, more humane and less totalitarian government is in place.
We decided to go and see for ourselves, to try to learn a bit about this country, to see its undoubtedly extraordinary culture and to try to understand a little from the locals as to what its actually like to like in this country, the poorest and most underdeveloped in southeast Asia.
Despite all our efforts, after several visits to the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok it soon became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to drive into Myanmar. The government wants tourists – they are a vital source of foreign revenue – but only on its own terms, and having foreigners enter the country, totally independently and in their own vehicle, is simply beyond feasible in their eyes – you are too hard to keep track on, too difficult to pin down, too expensive to follow.
So we flew in, like everyone else has to, leaving our car in Bangkok. We still aimed to travel independently, thus ensuring our money went to the right people, i.e. local private businesses, and not the government (although they still take 12% of everything you spend, no matter how conscientious you are).
Southeast Asia – 50 years ago
This is a popular rough description of modern day Myanmar; certainly, that’s pretty much the feeling we get as we walk out of Yangon’s snazzy new airport and catch a taxi into the centre of Myanmar’s erstwhile capital city.
The roads are bumpy, the taxis and cars are exceptionally old (we were taken into Yangon in a 30 year old Toyota minibus) and the buildings, with the exception of the ubiquitous payas (pagodas), the new Chinese apartment blocks and a handful of colonial buildings that are now in the hands of the government are in varying states of decay: once white concrete walls stanied black by decades of monsoons and not a kyat (Burmese currency, pronounced ‘chat’) of maintenance.
Our plane arrives at 8:30pm, it’s nearly 10pm before we reach our hotel, rather hungry and in need of a drink. The nationwide shortage of electricity affects even the biggest city, and in most areas the lights have gone off by 9pm, meaning that late night eating options are few and far between.
An introduction to Burmese cuisine
We find an open air street restaurant at the end of our block (Yangon is built on a grid system).
It consists of one serving table covered with small bowls containing a variety of cold an oily Burmese curries, a tin kettle over a charcoal fire pail and half a dozen of so minute sets of plastic tables and chairs, once brightly coloured, now faded and covered in grime.
It is staffed by a middle aged woman and a handful of 10 – 12 year old boys, who cheerfully wipe down a table for us with a flourish, bring our rice and curries over and even fetch us a bottle of Myanmar beer from a local shop.
We are tired and hungry, so eat our curries gratefully, but – like nearly all Burmese food, it is cold and filthy. Power shortages mean there is no refrigeration here (apart from at the smarter establishments with their own generators) so all the local food is drenched with oil and garlic to preserve it, whilst all fish (including shellfish) are generally dried or fermented to increase their longevity: both methods are effective but the outcomes are disgusting.
Furthermore, poverty in the rural areas is so acute that there are frequent salt, sugar and oil shortages (goitre is still a common problem here) – so the presentation of oily curries to paying customers should be taken as a compliment…
We only have 14 days to try to get a feel for this country – a feeble amount of time given its size, lack of transport infrastructure and its complex and turbulent history.
We spend our first full day here walking the streets of Yangon – renamed from Rangoon in 1990 by the military junta as part of a systematic renaming exercise designed to eradicate every trace of colonial and other undesirable or ‘destabilising’history from the map.
The government are formidable invisible controllers. Aside from the more obvious name changes (Burma – Myanmar, Rangoon – Yangon etc) they are adept at removing undesirable characters from the history books, silently ‘vanishing’ potential trouble makers and enemies of the state and maintaining an iron grip on the country’s newspapers and education system.
The result is to effectively leave the majority of the population ignorant of any popular non-conformist views, any foreign (and hence undesirable) opinions and nearly all official references to Aung San Suu Ki, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who has been under house arrest in Yangon for most of the past 15 years.
Yet they achieve all this almost invisibly – Orwellian references to ‘1984’ are commonplace here. It would be perfectly feasible to spend two weeks in this country, touring the principle sights and staying at western standard hotels, and never actually realise anything was amiss.
Yangon by day
Yangon was the capital until 2005 when the junta upped sticks and moved their headquarters to a brand new purpose built city in the centre of a near-uninhabited plain in the middle of country.
To all intents and purposes though, it is still the capital – a bustling, sprawling and polluted city of some 5 million people. Despite its grid system, it is still chaotic – the dead straight roads downtown simply cut paths through dusty pavements littered with endless open air tea shops, pungent restaurants and cavernous person-sized holes into which unsuspecting passers by can easily fall into the sewage filled channels beneath.
Refreshed by a good night’s sleep, we wander through this maze of decaying commotion, blinking occasionally and wondering how such a place can only be an hours flight from the highly developed and comparative sterility of Bangkok.
The only non-religious buildings of note that we see are the old colonial mansions and administrative buildings, once grand red brick affairs decorated with yellow Doric columns and balustrades, dating from the early 20th century: nostalgic oases of architectural imagination.
The money changers
One of our first jobs here is to change some money. There are no ATM’s in Myanmar, and it is impossible to obtain kyat outside the country. So everyone must enter the country armed with fistfuls of (pristine) dollars and get them changed into bricks of the local currency.
This is a mission in itself, since the official and black market rates are so monstrously different. A bank will offer you around 640 kyat to the dollar, whilst the black market (and hence real) rate is around 1000 kyat to the dollar.
Hotels and some smarter restaurants prefer dollars, as do train and long distance bus companies. So we only need day to day spending money, for lunches, suppers, the odd tea shop here and there, and taxis. Given the average salary here is around $30 per month, away from expensive government-run enterprises your money goes a long way…
We venture into one of Yangon’s larger markets: there are no money changer’s stalls, you simply wander round for long enough and they’ll find you. The rate is unbelievably volatile: on the night we arrive, the best rate is around 930 kyat to the dollar; by the next day, we agree on 980 kyat / dollar with one of the more reputable looking gentlemen who approach us.
Just counting the stuff out is arduous – the highest denomination note is a 1000 kyat note, so we leave the market with our pockets stuffed with 196 1,000 kyat notes.
More gold than the Bank of England
Later in the afternoon, we visit one of Myanmar’s most famous ‘must see’ attractions, the Shwedagon Paya. It is the most important religious monument in Myanmar and one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world – an enormous, bell shaped, glittering golden mass rising nearly 100 metres in height from its base on a great mound to the north of the city.
It dominates the skyline in Yangon, a vast, curvaceous stupa that historically is said to be covered in more gold than that which lies in the vaults of the Bank of England. There’s no doubting the verity of this legend since Mr Brown sold it all off, but before 1999 this would have represented a serious boast.
The Shwedagon is re-gilted every year, and is said to be covered in a layer of gold six inches thick. It’s hard to believe, but looking at it, even if it was solid gold it couldn’t gleam any more.
The slow train to Mandalay
We’re not used to living by public transport, and certainly not in a country where it is so interminably slow and every departure occurs in the bleary eyed pre-dawn darkness.
We have booked tickets to Mandalay, which despite being only 400 miles from Yangon is still a 16 ½ hour train journey. The train departs at 5am; the ticket master informs us we need to be present at least half an hour before departure. We have no idea why, but when ‘foreigner’ tickets for the journey are $30 each ($4.50 for locals) we decide it’s best not to chance it.
Like most infrastructure in Myanmar, the British built the railway line, ostensibly to help civilize the country but in reality to facilitate the passage of teak and precious stones from the north of the country, ready for shipping around the world. It would appear that neither the rolling stock nor the lines have changed at all since the Brits departed in 1948.
It is the oldest, slowest, bumpiest train either of us has ever been on. Indian and Bangladeshi affairs are modern and decidedly luxurious by comparison. We could almost have cycled to Mandalay quicker, and our spines would certainly have been in better shape at the end of the journey.
For the duration of the journey, the carriages resonate vertically, then horizontally, then diagonally. It’s a miracle last night’s food stays down.
Periodically, swarms of indefatigable hawkers pass through the carriages, yelling out their offerings of mainly indescribable looking and smelling, supposedly edible fancies. We settle for a few freshly steamed corn cobs, some fish crackers and a couple of supposedly freshly made ‘oilnuts’ (you couldn’t really call them doughnuts).
The sun rises, bathes picturesque paddy fields and bamboo and palm-thatched villages in light, and sets. We arrive in Mandalay in the dark, shaken, rocked, rattled and hungry.
More than all the cities in Asia, Mandalay conjures up evocative images of a romantic, mysterious oriental city. Kipling immortalised the place, but never actually set foot here. Countless other artists, from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to The Beatles and Robbie Williams have all referred to the city, yet none have visited.
Amongst contemporary writers of any kind, only George Orwell spent any degree of time here, and he described Mandalay as ‘hot, dusty place’. He was spot on. We suspect little has changed here, except for the enourmous influx of Chinese into the city over the past 20 years, who now make up nearly 40% of the one million or so population.
Like Yangon, it is built on a grid system, has frequent power blackouts, filthy food (and even fewer smarter Western friendly options) and few original cultural highlights. Sounds awful? To a degree, but it is still a fascinating place to wander around, and here, amongst the anonymous bustle of the stinking markets and the peace and quiet of the numerous monasteries, more people seem prepared to stop to talk to us.