Months ago when I was home planning for this trip, I had visions of heading deep in to the jungles of Southeast Asia and really spending time in places not many people visit. I knew that I would be walking a well worn path through some of these areas, but I was thinking Burma would be the place that I could get off the beaten track.
As the trip got closer, I began to have mixed feelings about whether or not to go since Burma has been under the oppressive control of a military-led government since 1992, Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy activist, has been under house arrest since 2003 and recently a number of pro-democracy protesters have been given long (65 years) prison sentences. There has been a lot of controversy over the last decade about whether or not tourists show go to Burma, with some saying that international tourists can be seen as a stamp of approval for the Myanmar government and others saying human-rights violations are less likely to occur in areas where international visitors are present and the majority (possibly over 80%) of a careful independent traveler’s expenses goes to the private sector and tourism remains one of the few industries accessible by ordinary locals that offers an income and communication with the outside world.
When I got to Thailand, I still hadn’t made up my mind about going, but immediately I started meeting people who had gone and everyone recommended it to me. Even our guide, Simon, said that it was one of the favorite places he had even been. The biggest hurdle I was told, was getting the visa. Once I got the visa in Hanoi, I decided to check it out. Because it would be the last stop on my trip, I could only squeeze in a few days. Just long enough to dip my toes in the water and decide if I wanted to jump in later.
While diving in Koh Phi Phi I met Sundie, a young woman born in Yangon and raised in California since she was ten. After scolding me for only spending a few days in Burma, she told me that she was headed there herself in a few days and would be happy to set me up with her cousin who would act as a driver and guide while I was in Yangon. It was an incredibly generous gesture and one that I couldn’t pass up.
When I landed in Yangon, I met Ko outside the airport and we headed off to find a hotel since I hadn’t been able to book anything ahead of time.
Along the way, we got stuck in traffic and I noticed a roadblock and a few soldiers. I asked about them and Ko told me that we were passing Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and that simply “the government is afraid of her”.
After dropping off my bags at the Central Hotel, we walked down the road to the Bogyoke Aung San Market – Yangon’s central market. We walked around for a bit and looked for a money changer. There are no cash machines in Burma and no way to exchange money outside the country. Also, the official government rate for the kyat is 6 for $1, but the black market rate is about 1250 kyat for $1. Why, I was never able to find out, but when in Rome. The last thing i found out is that there is no bill larger than a 1000 note, so when I changed $100USD, I was left with a huge wad of money.
So, driver set, hotel set, money set, let’s check out Yangon. Immediately, it’s obvious that Burma is different. Almost all the men wear skirt-like longyi:
almost all the women are smothered in thanaka (traditional make-up)
and many people chew betel which leave them with blood red juices dripping from their mouths and stained teeth.
Over the next few days, Ko and I hit most of the major sights in town;
While I found the temples and sights impressive, especially Shwedagon, what I enjoyed the most was the Nagar Glass Factory. When I read about it I was expecting a traditional factory. What I found was a simple family run operation in the woods, a lot of which was destroyed by cyclone nargis. The factory has been family run since the 50’s and I got to meet 5 of the 9 siblings while I was there. The Nagar factory exemplified what is best about Burma. The family was incredibly nice, welcoming and laughed a lot even in the face of trouble. The cyclone felled half of their building and the rising price of natural gas has had the kilns closed for a year.
I stayed for quite a while chatting with the family and walking around learning about their history and how they operate. It was truly a wonderful experience and I can’t wait to go back and visit them again.
While I only scratched the surface, Burma turned out to be my favorite place I traveled in Southeast Asia and will be the first place on my list when I return. I only met a few other Westerners while I was there (mostly in the airport while leaving) all spoke of beautiful places they visited; the Temples at Bagan, Madalay and Inle Lake. I can’t wait to return.
So this will be my last post as I’m writing this from home. It was a very long couple of flights to get back home and I’m still somewhat jet lagged. It’s very cold here and it’s snowing, so I’m already dreaming about heading back. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along as I’ve enjoyed writing about my adventures. Take care and I’ll see ya when I see ya.