The thorny questions about visiting Myanmar

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Throughout the various blog posts on the trip through the country, they have focused on the tourism angle and the sights a visitor can experience when going.  Of course, given the history of the country over the last 25 years, it’s not as simple as that, and for the final post on that particular visit, this will address it.

It is the easiest thing in the world to be oblivious to the reality of the country, to operate in the tourist bubble of nice hotels, good food and enjoying what it has to offer.  I cannot bring myself to criticise that approach, for visitors should never feel guilty for having more than in the place they choose to visit, and a country like this desperately needs the foreign revenue that is brought in through tourism anyway, but it is also true that many who do go will have a sense of discomfort and one of moral outrage about what has gone on there.

On my visit, I seemed to be followed around (the opposite is clearly the case!) by National League for Democracy supporters, culminating in the genuinely amazing experience of seeing Aung San Suu Kyi arrive into Thandwe airport to an extraordinary reception.  A local tried to explain to me who she was and why there was such excitement, only for me to stop him and say I knew exactly who this genuinely world famous person was and that I was as excited as anyone else – the huge disbelieving grin in response is a memory to treasure.

The elections are approaching rapidly, and the clear feeling of hope everywhere I went was more than apparent, but the attitudes to that are extremely parochial with limited awareness of the wider context – a direct result of the modern history of the country.  And that’s something that is apparent throughout a visit there.

Insisting on talking politics with people is pretty impolite in any case, and there’s always the concern that doing so could get someone into trouble, so treading carefully is the only option, but there is fascination there about the wider world and most conversations that did veer in this direction came about through them asking me about the United Kingdom rather than anything else.  But there were two occasions when asked a question where I paused, and suggested that it might be better to talk about that in private rather than in public.   I don’t want to give the impression that a visitor is constantly looking over his or her shoulder about this, because that isn’t the case, but there is an awareness that this is no democracy.

There’s no question it’s a freer country than it was, the rise of the smartphone – to the minority who can afford one – has massively improved the availability of information, while censorship is less harsh than it was.  This isn’t exactly difficult, and it’s to be hoped that in the months to come, that the elections are at least reasonably free and fair, and most importantly that the result is respected.  It’s going to be a long haul to address the fundamental imbalances and problems of the country no matter what the outcome, but an expression of democracy is something so many of us take for granted, so to see it in its rawest form is both humbling and leads to something of a sense of shame about our complacency concerning it.

The penurious nature of the country is perhaps more likely to strike the visitor, along with the striking contrast that the opulence of some of the landmarks provides.  When moving out of the most obvious tourist areas, where running water and electricity simply don’t exist, the gap is even more marked, as it is immediately beyond the limits of the main cities.  Equally, the chronic lack of education will tend to appall a visitor, given that the natural resources available mean this should never be as bad as it is in reality.  For that reason, many visitors will want to help out where they can, and this is more than possible.  There are endless local projects such as building libraries or supporting initiatives, and given the tourist guides are amongst the better paid and educated people, they will often be central to that and can assist if that’s what a visitor wishes to do.  But it must be emphasised that careful spending of the tourist dollars in themselves help – although that does require some degree of checking concerning choice of hotel or restaurant.

None of this is in any way essential, a visit there can be enjoyed on its own merits irrespective of anything else, but for me I wanted to ensure that the money I was spending did make the smallest of differences.  A little care and this can be achieved.  The one thing that doesn’t help anyone is to boycott the place, for that impoverishes people who often have little other means of income or opportunity.  Tourism can be a wonderful catalyst for improving the conditions in which the population live, it’s neither perfect nor is it unquestionably a good thing in all areas, but it can be, and the visitor can help purely by being careful about where their money goes.

There aren’t right or wrong answers in any of this, it’s a personal matter for anyone who goes.  But anyone who thinks a little more deeply can still find ways and means of attempting to make a small difference without directly interfering or protesting about injustice.  I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or to fully understand all the issues.  I just wanted to ensure I could look myself in the mirror in the morning.

Please go.  Please visit.  It’s an astonishing country, and you can help just by going.

Going to Myanmar? A few tips

I’ve now returned home, so I thought I’d put up a few hints and tips if visiting the country.

Given the nature of development there, it’s worth taking basic medical needs with you. Depending on where you are, it’s not always straightforward to go out and get a supply of headache tablets or the like, so bring them with you. Likewise any plasters (band aids for our transatlantic cousins!) if you get a cut. The same applies to things like anti-mosquito spray. Given the amount of walking when visiting the sights, any bites can quickly become extremely irritating. This becomes especially true if they target the feet, and shoes then need to be comfortable as those bites can quickly become sores.

Of course, when going to temples or pagodas, they are visited barefoot, and especially in the wet season, the last thing you want is for any open wounds to become infected. So an anti-septic is not a bad idea either. Even if that isn’t needed, a supply of baby wipes for the feet is a definite must take. Any good ground handler such as ICS Travel Group is going to supply them for you anyway, but having an additional number is a good idea as one or two wipes may not fully do the job.

When the day involves lots of temple visits, such as when travelling to Bagan, make sure you go out in flip flops or similar. There is nothing that will get you down quite as quickly as continually taking off and putting on shoes and socks, and especially so if you have grimy feet when putting them back on. Flip flops are easier and far more convenient.

The standard advice is to take US dollars for the duration of your stay. In truth, the number of ATMs available now is adequate in most of the cities and tourist areas, and the hotels will usually offer money changing facilities. But it remains better to have more dollars than you need and face the miserable buy back rate from the bank on your return than to run out. The more likely scenario is not that you won’t be able to find a cash machine, it’s more that the link might go down and it doesn’t work when you need it.

And on the question of the dollars (or Euros if you must – though note the exchange rate for those will be 1:1 so Euros is the more expensive option) ensure the notes are crisp, unfolded and preferably new. It’s not an unreasoning desire for new notes, when the locals exchange currency, they will be offered a worse rate of exchange if the notes are damaged or tired – that’s why they will often reject them as payment unless they are in excellent condition.

As far as getting kyats (local currency) is concerned, getting them from the hotel, money changer, or withdrawing them from the ATM is reasonably straightforward. You won’t need that much; food, drink and incidentals are all pretty cheap, a decent meal in a local restaurant can be as little as £3. Even in the hotels where you would expect to pay far more, budget £10 for a two course meal and a beer – unless staying in one of the more exclusive properties.

The question of going to local restaurants is one to be a little bit careful about. Although it’s very much part of a trip to want to eat where the locals do, some care is needed, and an understanding of why there’s a concerned look on your guide’s face. Local eating places tend to cook the food in the morning and leave it to stand for the day, re-heating it when it is ordered. Standards of hygiene are not necessarily up to the standards expected, and of course the food may be washed in local water (where there is running water) which it isn’t recommended to drink. Chances are you’ll be fine, but the possibility of getting a stomach bug is there, and it’s risking losing a couple of days of the trip to a miserable experience in the hotel bathroom, plus the issue about limited pharmacies in any given area applies. It’s best avoided and not worth the risk.

Your guide will tend to choose a place that isn’t quite where the locals go, unless they’re a touch more affluent but absolutely will give you a flavour of the local cuisine, and is clean and still extremely inexpensive. As a compromise, take the guide’s advice, they know the clean places that offer decent food, and remember that getting good quality produce, especially meats, is going to cost them a bit more. They aren’t out to gouge you, it’s not expensive, and they don’t tend to be tourist restaurants in the way you imagine.

Tipping is the bane of any traveller, especially the British who are unaccustomed to doing it and get into a panic about what is appropriate to give. The Myanmar people don’t routinely expect tips, so anything you do give will be received with gratitude, but it won’t be expected. If you ask the guide what to do, you’ll receive the answer that it’s up to you, and they aren’t being difficult about this, it really is.

Guides and drivers will be around $10 and $5 per day respectively, but it’s still not an expectation. In my own case I was more interested in tipping when it went to local people. Your guide will freely answer the question when you ask if anything you leave will go directly to whoever has served you, as is usually the case. And knowing how little they earn (these are anything but a wealthy people) will tend to make you want to contribute a little anyway.

As mentioned on a previous post, please remember that the monks are not there as a tourist attraction and behave accordingly. The working monasteries are not there for you to walk around uninvited – I actually witnessed someone doing this – and for the love of (your) God don’t pat them on the head or touch their robes, let alone try and get them to pose for a selfie. This should be common sense, but having witnessed them running the gauntlet of the paparazzi (tourists) when receiving their daily alms, don’t be one of those who made me ashamed to be a fellow national/region/culture of them.

Indeed, the people generally are the friendliest, loveliest, most delightful you can find anywhere, something that most visitors to the country tend to note. But be polite, they are not there for your benefit – if you want to take a photo, ask them. Gesturing with the camera is clear enough in any language.

In temples and pagodas, remember that they are there for the local people first and foremost and don’t get in their way or distract them. You’re a guest, behave like one.

It’s worth noting that the many stalls and shops immediately outside the temples are also there for the local people rather than the tourists – that doesn’t affect anything, but it’s easy to see things as a tourist trap when they aren’t.

It may be that in some of the more rural areas you are lucky enough to visit a local family. You will find them incredibly welcoming, offering you tea and a snack of some form (bean cake for example). Although this is clearly a real honour, it can be that you feel a bit awkward, receiving hospitality from those who don’t have much. Try and relax and enjoy it and a small gift of something useful would be gratefully received. That’s not payment, because they won’t want payment. But thanks are always appreciated. Again, talk to your guide, he or she will help you feel at ease. Many of the guides do local work for the people anyway, as they tend to be amongst the better educated and better off.

When paying for something or passing something to someone, use your right hand rather than your left. For most people this isn’t even an issue as they’re right handed. As a leftie, it’s something I had to continually remind myself about. It not the end of the world, but try to remember to do it, especially if you are left handed. Consider it yet another burden that we have to carry in life, and we’re well used to that.

Greeting people is through saying “Mingelaba” and thanking them by saying “Jezube”. After repeating it in your head a few times, you’ll get it.

English is not spoken that widely, nor to the degree of fluency you might hope for. It will take a couple of days to tune in to the accent with which it is spoken, but then they have the same issue with us if we happen to have a Scottish, Geordie or Alabama accent too.   Your guide should speak good English if you’ve chosen a decent ground handler.

And on the question of guides themselves, do ensure you get one, in all places except the beach resorts. You’ll miss out on so much if you don’t, and the trip will be nothing but frustrating. Some countries it isn’t necessary, here it is.

Is it Myanmar or Burma? Using them interchangeably is not going to give offence, but remember that the Burmese (Bamar) people are just one ethnic group among many in the country. They are the dominant one in terms of the proportion, comprising two thirds of the population. But it could be viewed as akin to referring to the Netherlands as Holland or the United Kingdom as England.

And finally enjoy it. It’s a road less travelled but there are no dragons here. The hints and tips are mostly common sense with a few that may not have been considered as immediately obvious. This is a supremely welcoming, friendly country.   You’ll have the time of your life. And let me know if these little suggestions prove useful.

Aung San Suu Kyi – An Unexpected Encounter

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If there was one thing I could have wished for on this trip, but which was never remotely likely to happen, it was this.

Sat waiting for my flight at Thandwe airport, there were considerable numbers of photographers waiting. I should have guessed something was up from the sheer number of National League for Democracy supporters waiting outside, but perhaps a part of me didn’t think it possible.

But sure enough, walking across the tarmac to the terminal was Aung San Suu Kyi.

What an honour. How to top off a trip in a way totally unexpected. The roar from outside as she exited the terminal was something else.

Hope is a wonderful thing. And I share it.

Last Night in Myanmar

And so the trip comes to a close. It’s been hectic, it’s been busy, but it’s also been amazing.  Tonight is my last night in the country, tomorrow it’s heading back to Bangkok before the long journey home to a UK heading into winter.

At the start of this trip I commented that visiting a new country involves going with an open mind, and I have learnt a lot, seen much and enjoyed everything.

Myanmar is a country that defies categorisation. It’s far from perfect, and in the days ahead I shall reflect on my wider thoughts and considerations about my visit. But I can say that although I’ve travelled widely, there are few destinations that have worked their way into my soul as this one has.

Travel is and always has been a bug. The ability to see somewhere new, talk to people from different cultures and background, and marvel at what they see on a day to day basis is a privilege and an honour.

I’ve already been asked what my favourite part of this trip has been, and that question prompted a degree of pondering. I’m not sure, and I need some time to think about that. The easiest and most obvious answer would be the astonishing sights and sounds of Bagan, yet each destination and location had a special attraction and significance to it. The colonial history and astounding pagoda of Yangon, the rich tapestry of Mandalay, the rural beauty of Pindaya and Lake Inle, or the perfect unspoilt beaches of Ngapali.

Myanmar is a country that demands to be visited, it insists on being seen. After 10 days, I have thoroughly fallen in love with it.

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Ngapali – Myanmar beaches

There are two things about a visit here that are immediately worthy of note. First is that pronouncing it in the way of the Italian city is not only about right, but it’s actually quite possible that’s where the name comes from – presumably a homesick Italian with poor eyesight given that similarities between the two are not exactly obvious.

But the second thing is the ‎more important, and may well come as a surprise to the uninitiated.   Myanmar is generally thought of as a place to tour, the sights to be seen, the excursions to be experienced. And so it is too, the musings of the last week have shown that quite clearly. And yet the traditional beach holiday is not only possible here, the beach itself is as marvellous as you could hope to find anywhere.

There’s always been an  desire for finding a beach holiday in a far flung land, that is quiet, but with sufficient facilities to ensure that it can be enjoyed properly. That was the case 40 years ago with the rise of the Spanish Costas as much as it was 20 years ago when the beaches of Thailand held sufficient allure for huge numbers of tourists to descend on them. In both cases they are now established holiday destinations with the infrastructure expected of such volumes fully in place.

Of course, that can be both good and bad, with the increasing numbers comes development, ‎and that’s not always either in keeping with a destination and can at worst specifically damage it, both environmentally and even in terms of wrecking what made it an attractive destination in the first place (hello Dubai).

In the case of Ngapali, it is in that sweet spot where there are sufficient hotels and restaurants of good quality to make it a deeply attractive destination ‎when added to the gorgeous beach, warm and calm sea and delightful people, without over-development rearing its ugly head.  If you want nightclubs and drinking till 4am, this really isn’t the place to come to.

Whether that remains the case in the next decade or two is something unknown, so it’s perhaps advisable to come sooner rather than later while it is as magical as it is at present.   Certainly those who visited Thailand’s islands and beaches 10 or more years ago will fully recognise the kind of destination this is, a mix of tourism based on independent small restaurants mixed in with local life where you can see the fisherman just off the beach collecting their catch for your meal that evening.

Accommodation is of a good standard, yet inexpensive, and meals and drinks are downright cheap, while the people have that unaffected air of friendliness that mass tourism has yet to breach. Indeed, it is so delightful, so quiet yet joyous, that a part of me was reluctant to write as much for fear of those reading this descending on the place en masse and changing it for the worse.

A beach holiday in Myanmar is one that few have considered, the more established destinations having a profile infinitely higher to the point many won’t even be aware it’s a possibility. Yet whether coming here purely for the sun, sea and sand, or as a means of finishing off a trip to the country for some R & R following sightseeing and experiential travel, Ngapali is a place people will fall in love with.

Just don’t tell anyone else, OK?

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Lake Inle, food and some cats

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It probably says more about me than anything else that a Burmese cat sanctuary ‎elicited the biggest reaction (mostly “Awwww how cute” and “I want one”) on the whole trip. Ok, let’s just pretend that didn’t happen and move on.

‎First things first, Lake Inle is huge. Getting around is by snake boat (and what a superb name that is), and traversing the length of the lake can take the best part of an hour. Many of them are motorised, but that doesn’t apply to the farming carried out locally, whether the copious tomato plantations, the seaweed harvesting or the fishing. And the technique for propelling the boats forward is striking – involving wrapping a leg around the oar and pushing back. The technique evolved due to the level of reeds within the lake, forcing the boatmen to stand up to be sure of being able to see adequately.

The farmers and fishermen live on the lake, and literally so, their houses being built on stilts driven into the lake bed. There are a large number of places that claim to offer floating fishing villages, but few equal the authenticity of this one.

Lake Inle is also rightly renowned for its extraordinary scenery, the lake framed ‎by mountains which provide the kind of backdrop to take the breath away.

One thing not mentioned so far on this trip has been the food. The foods of Myanmar aren’t particularly well known outside the country, certainly in comparison to those of India, China or Thailand, which all border the country.  ‎ Yet there is a distinctive style to the food, whether that be Burmese dishes or those of some of the other regions. Shan cuisine is a personal favourite at this point, though the English description of “steamed spring onion with condiments” needs a little work. Not many would guess it was quite so delicious as it is.

Pindaya, and the pleasures of the low season

One of the questions often asked about travelling to a destination is what is the time to go. With most places, it’s easy to point to the best weather during the year and simply give that as the answer, and clearly if the intention is to have a beach holiday, that’s always going to be the answer.

But when visiting a country with the intention of visiting the sights and immersion in the culture, it’s not quite as simple as that. For example, this trip to Myanmar is during the low season, at the tail end of the Monsoon rains, a month before what is generally considered peak season begins. What that means is that the risk of rain, and sometimes heavy rain, is very much a present, but does this always matter? For example, today’s itinerary included a visit to the Pindaya Caves, esconced ‎in a limestone Ridge overlooking the lake. The caves are notable for containing around 10,000 Buddha images forming a labyrinth within.

It’s high on anyone’s list to visit when coming here, and to that end it gets extremely busy in peak season. The passages within the caves are quite narrow and sometimes in two directions. That it can be a less than spiritual experience in such circumstances shouldn’t be surprising. And yet here’s the thing, I’m out of season, it’s during the Monsoon which only means that there is some rain on some days, whilst others are hot and sunny, and yet when visiting the caves today, they were empty. And I mean empty.   I had the entire place more or less  to myself, meeting only three people on the walk around, and when seeing sights like this, that’s far preferable to worrying about the weather.

So when planning a trip, it’s not always the “best” time of year that can work out to be the ideal option, especially when costs like accommodation are so much cheaper in the low season.

Worth thinking about.