Of all the countries we have visited, I was probably the most excited and intrigued about Myanmar (or Burma, if you prefer). A relatively recent addition to the Southeast Asia tourist trail, the people we met who had visited all had the same reaction – a little smile and a far away gaze as they privately relived their visit for a moment or two. “Ah yes, Myanmar, it’s magical/wonderful” they’d sigh happily, but without offering much more detail.
Consequentially, I didn’t have that many expectations for our two weeks in Myanmar, other than that it would be quite different to any other country we’d been to.
I was right on that part; Myanmar is quite unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. On the other hand, things are changing fast, and it offers a blend of old and new that is quite bewitching. Men in longhis sit chewing betel nut – hocking up blood-red spittle onto the pavement for you to dodge – in front of mobile phone shops which are starting to spring up now the cost of a SIM card has dropped from a previous high of $1,500. Young men in skinny jeans hang out in groups at the entrances to stunning ancient pagodas. The contrasts make for an entrancing, endlessly photogenic country and I had a whale of a time trying to capture everything we experienced. If you are planning to visit Myanmar, or just want to see some truly inspiring photography, I highly recommend checking out the blog by Kristian Leven – an incredibly talented street photographer who visited shortly before we did.
As stunning as Myanmar’s two biggest draws – Bagan and Inle Lake – are, I found the moments and places where we found ourselves that little bit further off the beaten track to be the most rewarding. At busier spots, we could see the impact tourism was starting to have – the appearance of a crowd of waiting tuk tuk drivers at the door of a bus, the kid selling postcards at the temples of Bagan are all marks of a population wising up to the cash that visitors bring in. We felt a responsibility – more so than anywhere else – to tread lightly and I hope we managed that.
Despite the rapid growth of the tourism industry, we didn’t have any negative experiences and – even on the rare occasions where we were being hustled for a dollar – were utterly charmed. For us, Myanmar’s biggest asset is the people living there. Everywhere we went folks were unfailingly kind, accommodating and welcoming. In Hsipaw I remember particularly, a lovely old man came up to us on the street and clasped our hands. “Welcome” he beamed at us “welcome”. It was all he could say in English (far better than our Burmese though!) but that one word went a long way, and pretty much sums up how I felt about our trip looking back on it now.
Another pleasant surprise for Myanmar was the cost. We’d set a budget of £22 (about $35) per person per day which I thought might be a little ambitious, but we came in bang on target. There is a myth that Myanmar is expensive, and whilst it certainly doesn’t offer the same value for money accommodation-wise as say, Thailand, it is entirely possible to explore the country comfortably on a relatively small budget.
There is, of course, a darker side to Myanmar which stems from the government. After a generation of an oppressive and brutal regime, mismanagement and nepotism, there seemed to be an element of optimism for the future as sanctions are eased and borders are cautiously opened. A taxi driver spoke excitedly about the forthcoming election in November; the idea that Aung San Suu Kyi would be blocked from taking her expected seat again seemed unthinkable to him. You didn’t have to look far to find the Lady (as she is known) – photographs of her looked down from most guesthouses and restaurants; we even stumbled across a branch of the NLD (National League for Democracy) in Hsipaw. I wish them the best of luck, and I hope before long Myanmar get the government they deserve, rather than the government they have.
Whenever I look back on a country the acid test for me is “would I come back here?” and “would I recommend it to anyone else?”. The answer for Myanmar is absolutely – I would come back, and I’d recommend it to people who want a journey exploring a fascinating and welcoming but subtle, complex country. Myanmar isn’t in your face but I loved the fact it quietly revealed itself the more you explored. I hope I get an opportunity to visit again – I’d love to visit the southern beaches and remote north – and I hope I don’t have to wait for long to realise that ambition.