29 December 2011, Yangon - It's 1.30am in the morning. After having to get up at 3.30am the previous day to catch my early flight from Bangkok, I was enjoying a great night's sleep. Getting off the plane, adjusting my clock (for some reason Myanmar is 30 minutes later than Thailand), tracking down the pickup from the guest house, checking in, and a full day of sight seeing in a completely different country... Yes, it was a long day and I was enjoying my sleep after three short nights. And suddenly... by bed is shaking and I wake up immediately to the loudest bang I have ever heard. WTF?? If I needed any more convincing that this wasn't a dream, looking out of my window did the trick: people are gathered in the street and above the crumbling buildings of this not so great neighbourhood of Myanmar's biggest city a great cloud of smoke. Most of the hostel is awake. Walking downstairs I hear various new details, some people saw a huge ball of fire from across the river, confirming it was an explosion and not an earthquake or something else. Given the familiarity of this country with rebel armies, I immediately think of a bomb. 'No, no, no,' one of the guys working at the guest house tells me as we stand on the side walk, looking at the expanding cloud of smoke, 'there was an accident at the gas station. No need to worry, go back to sleep.' Even though I'm a bit worried about it all, my tiredness wins and I go back to sleep. The next morning I ask the reception if they know anything more about the explosion. 'A medical facility,' the woman assures me, 'the chemicals weren't stored properly and caused some sort of reaction.' During the next few days I hear many, many different stories about the event, not just about the origin of it, but also regarding the human toll. Accounts vary between 40 injured and 25 dead to 'no-one was hurt'. The government controlled media doesn't help much (mainly because it is almost exclusively in Burmese). Everybody rules out a bomb though. Maybe it's just my sick mind, but I can't stop thinking about some sort of bombing, after which the official government reaction would probably be something along the lines of 'gas station' or 'medical facility'. I guess I won't find out anytime soon. Welcome to Myanmar!
PS Also see the official story here and here
I will refrain from quoting Kipling, as that seems to happen every time when people are commenting on this isolated country, but it is true: this is a country that is very different from anything I have ever seen. And still most tourists follow a fairly well trodden path: Yangon, Mandalay, the temples at Bagan and the Inle Lake. Although I'm sure all of those places are worth visiting, I wanted something different. For one, I really didn't want to see any more temples. In the past few months I've seen so many temples, waterfalls, tea plantations, coffee plantations, silk plantations etc. that I really couldn't be bothered anymore. So obviously I would still visit the magnificent Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, but I figured I could skip Bagan. So after Yangon I headed north to Mandalay for a few days, where I celebrated new years on the roof of the hotel with a beer in some nice warm weather. There are many nice things to see in the area around Mandalay, but the city itself is not very special. So I decided to head north west into the Shan state, where I wound up spending most of my time in the country. This area was luckily enough far enough off the beaten track so that it wasn't overrun by tourists. A large chunk of the state is off limits to foreigners due to fighting between the Shan army and the national army, and a huge amount of arms and drugs trade along the Chinese border. But at the limit of the permitted area I could still experience the authentic Shan way of life, great food and meet people who would only see a handful of tourists every year. The best part was a three day track from a remote village back to a more 'developed' village through the mountains and local villages, where we ate and slept in monasteries or in the house of the chief of the village. More than in any other country the kids would follow you around, wave, smile and yell at you (surprisingly the word for foreigner seems to be 'foreigner' in the big cities and 'Inglay' or Englishman in the rest of the country, as every foreigner is of course from the former colonial power).
Since I had such a great time in this part of the country I didn't see any need to go anywhere and in the end not just skipped Bagan, but missed the Inle Lake as well. Ah well, I'm sure they are still around later on, and instead I had a great unique experience seeing the less touristic part of the country. On the way back to Yangon I did plan to visit the newly built capital in Nay Pyi Taw, but they have made it not easy to visit the city (not too many buses a day, you have to stay in the special hotel zone, which is expensive and far away from the centre) and I wasn't feeling too well from something I ate, so unfortunately I had to skip that too.
A few more remarks about the country
One of the most striking things getting of the airplane is the dress code. This is basically a skirt without form (a cylinder of cloth) that is tied around the waist by both women (tamein) and men (longyi). The first time I've seen so many men wearing what would be considered in the west women's clothes.
The Myanmar Kyat (pronounced more like 'chet') is, unsurprisingly, not freely traded and unavailable in other countries. Because of the economic sanctions, there are no cash machines and credit cards are worthless (except for the few upscale hotels which allow you to pay for just a 20% commission). So the only way to make you're way around, because compared to the rest of South East Asia it is not cheap, you need to bring in your own supply of dollars or euros. And, even though most of their own bills are falling apart when you look at them, to change the money, they need to be in perfect condition. As was noted in a comment on the previous post, crisp is the word. This means no tears (reasonable), no smudges or writing on it (understandable), no folding (weird) and not certain random serial numbers (plain paranoid). Luckily some money changers in Bangkok know exactly what to do, but it takes some effort to make sure you don't fold your bills which will just be refused by the money changers at the hotel or the bank (until recently banks were only allowed to change at the 'official rate' of around 6 kyat/dollar, but they have finally accepted that no one will change it for less than 800 kyat/dollar).
To say that transportation in this country is medieval is an overstatement, but it would be fair to say that most of the country is stuck in the 1960's or 70's. Almost all the cars and pick-up trucks are in appalling condition and their is no consistent position of the steering wheel. Even though you have to drive on the right (hand) side of the road, about half of the cars have their wheel on the right as well. It is clear that they have to make do with whatever they can get as the number of new cars spotted could be counted on one hand (which must have been owned by military/government officials).
On the other hand, the country does want to look great to foreigners (and especially its main economical and political backer China). So there is a brand new highway between the main cities of Yangon and Mandalay. But more strikingly is Mandalay International Airport. This brand new airport with, apparently, excellent facilities and four baggage belts, only serves the Mandalay - Kunming (in southern China) route. It goes two times a week.
So you can imagine that traveling through the country is not always easy. Getting to Mandalay on the new highway is fine. But every bus arrives at 4am. This seems to be a common theme there, buses always leave or arrive in the dead of night. The bus stations are all far out of town (it took us 1.5 hours to get to the Yangon bus station). The other options are not that much more attractive: trains are ridiculously slow (14 hours on a route where the bus takes 6 hours) and private taxis and airplanes are expensive. My favourite way of traveling was by pick up truck. A small tuk-tuk or van that operates as a bus. One of the cheaper options and it allows you to sit, cross-legged with your bag on your lap, crammed up with the locals who all find it hilarious that a foreigner would travel this way.
When discussing Myanmar, it's impossible not to mention the political situation. The country is still very much isolated and controlled by a military dictatorship, but it looked like things were slowly changing. Talking to locals and tourists who had been there before, there did seem to be some genuine changes. The people seem to speak fairly freely about politics (in private of course) and on the street in Yangon posters and T-shirts with the picture of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are sold openly (who also appears in the newspapers more freely, while this was illegal until recently). Furthermore Suu Kyi's NLD party is contesting some 40-odd parliamentary seats in April's election and campaigning relatively freely to do so. This seems to have generated enough interest from abroad that there has been a flurry of high-profile visitors to the country since Hillary Clinton visited the country two months ago, including billionaire philanthropist George Soros and UK foreign secretary William Hague. It seems everybody wants to get a piece of the country if/when it opens up.
But if you talk to people in smaller villages outside of Yangon and Mandalay, many people are not that optimistic. They admit that there have been some steps towards democracy, but also know that the military will tell them exactly what to vote in the upcoming elections. Many think that the current opening up is just a ruse to impress foreign governments and that the military will remain firmly in control of anything that matters. When I was there on Independence Day in early January, locals pointed out that they shouldn't celebrate the day too much. Obviously the government wanted to celebrate their freedom from colonial rule, but the big hero of that episode, Bogyoke Aung San was not a popular figure for the government anymore ever since his daughter Suu Kyi started entering politics. I guess time will tell.
And then it was time to move onwards again. Since this was already two weeks ago, I am aware that I have to catch up on some writing, which will come in due time. In the meantime, some pictures of Myanmar
Shwedagon Paya in Yangon
Learning to tie my longyi
The door in the taxi
Many monks would come up to us to try to practice their English. This monk was kind enough to show us around his monastery and show us the way back
A local store
Special tourist taxi
Amarapura, a village near Mandalay
Pyin Oo Lwin, a former British outpost
Hsipaw and the trek from Namshan back to it, the area in Shan state where I spent most of my time in Myanmar
Near our hostel in Yangon, not the best part of town