In theory, I shouldn’t like Burma. It made me ill, at least twice; it’s full of stray dogs and skinny horses; the internet connection is like the one I had at home in 1999, which at the time was amazing but we’d moan about now in England. All the reasons I didn’t like Indonesia exist in Burma. I think there’re two differences this time though.
- I was prepared. I knew it’d be a bit grubby, I knew the internet would be rubbish and I knew travel would be slow and on terrible roads.
- The people are lovely. The local people gave up their seats for me countless times on buses, the hotel and restaurant staff went above and beyond the call of duty so many times and if people want to help you, they’re not after money!
Burma is a really interesting place to visit, and after the indecision to come or not, I’m glad I did. Here are a few things I’ve noticed;
- The lack of internet access and blocking of Facebook, Hotmail, YouTube etc is overhyped. I was never once denied access to any of the above, although I couldn’t load the BBC or any reliable news websites. I think the government is changing, albeit slowly. The speed is sometimes annoying though. The only place I had problems getting on the internet was Bagan – which was only when there were power cuts.
- Incidently, Bagan is the only place I’ve had power cuts – also slightly overhyped – most hotels have generators. The only thing is sometimes the air-con doesn’t run off the generator, presumably because it sucks the power.
- Skype is always loaded on the computers and often advertised on the banners outside the internet cafes…but it rarely works and when it does, it’s only really good enough for audio only. Mandalay is the only place I got it working.
- Betel nut, Betel nut, Betel nut. You’re walking down the street in Burma, someone walks past and smiles baring their horrible, red teeth. You look down in disgust and are met with a sea of red blobs of spit on the pavement (or more often than not, sand) below. Eww. It’s the betel nut stuff that the locals mix with tobacco, paste into a leaf with lime juice, wrap up and chew. When the flavour is gone and they’ve spat out enough phlegm to choke a small child, they pop a new one in. They can get through loads in one day. Personally, I think it’s a disgusting thing, worse than smoking. I would rather breathe in someone’s dirty cigarette smoke than walk through someone’s red betel phlegm. But hey, who am I to judge.
- Through The Wire. Telephones are expensive business in Burma. Mobile phones cost hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds to own and foreign SIM cards are blocked. I was surprised I saw as many mobile phones as I did to be honest. What I was more surprised by was how many of these I saw;
There are so many people who make their living from having an old landline phone or two wired up to the line from the street side! It’s amazing.
- All That Glitters Ain’t Gold. Let me give you a bit of background knowledge first; in 2005, the government changed the capital of the country to a random town with no real historic relevance because their astrologer told them to. Wow. So they neglected poor, old Yangon and headed north with plans for a swanky new capital. On my first of many night buses, we skirted the “new” capital. It’s weird. Loads of big, new-build, empty hotels, glowing, empty shopping malls and vast, empty, smooth tarmacked roads…
- Speaking of buses…if you get a bus in Burma, which is the only form of transport not controlled by the government so it’s recommended; your driver will honk his horn at anything. And it’s a bloody annoying horn. Really loud and honky. And he doesn’t care if it’s 3am and you’re sleep deprived. It doesn’t appear the other passengers care either because no one bats an eyelid.
- Pure, honest kindness. I’ve already gushed over how lovely the people are here – here’s another example. In Bagan, we got horse carts. The next day, I was walking back to my hotel and I’m met with a “Remember me?!” It was our driver! After a quick catch up (didn’t take long, it hadn’t even been 24 hours) he offered me a free ride back to my hotel. When we pulled up and I gave him a dollar, he genuinely didn’t want it. I made him take it. For that I think I’m probably the mean one.
- Despite a bizarre political history, Burma is changing. I’m glad I visited when I did. One of my fondest memories is sitting in my hotel reception in Bagan watching BBC News with the hoteliers and giving them a thumbs up at the political prisoners being released. Since returning home and seeing Myanmar all over the news, I’ve taken a real interest in how well things are going at the moment for the country and can’t wait to see what happens next.
If you come to Burma, which I’d recommend, you need to be prepared to begin or end bus journeys at unsociable hours, sit for longer than you’d want in an internet café and possibly have to go to the doctors! Above all, however, you need to be prepared to be welcomed with open arms, to chat with your new found Burmese friends and to make some long lasting memories.