Beautiful Burmese girl of Bangladeshi descent
A few months ago I returned to Myanmar (Burma) after a four year sojourn, I expected it to be a similar experience to the first which was beyond my wildest expectations but things had changed! And not necessarily for the good!!
But before we start, don't get me wrong there are still great experiences to be had if you have never visited before..The food is great; a mix of traditional burmese, indian and chinese. Tribals can still be seen in the mountains of Shan state, Kachin, Chin, Kayah and others. And in most places people are very friendly and accommodating to any who takes the time and trouble to get there.
Yangon Street Scene
Since 2008 the last time I had visited though many things had changed but a lot of old burma can still be seen, the religious traditions still prevail with buddhist monks begging for alms, vibrant markets selling all kinds of goods, cheroot smoking locals and commodities being transported in all manner of contraptions. Primitive methods and ways of doing things have no choice but to continue in what is, to all intents and purposes a penniless state to the many normal folk and small businesses.
Shouldering banana plant stems through the streets of Yangon!
Traditional printing press
The things that had changed and the things that I noticed to be changing fast are the culture. There seems to be a rapid decline in respect from the younger generation who are quick to embrace all things western be them good or bad! It is the same old story being re-told, that which has happened in many other s.e.asian countries in the past.
The old burma was more traditional, humble, friendly before the tourist hordes started to arrive and the dictatorship started to change the rules to the extent it's happening on a daily basis for the locals, hence attitudes are changing and changing fast...Life is a constant struggle still for most burmese.
Burmese child covered in thanaka a natural cosmetic
Gone are the old classic cars of the past which were a collectors dream, traditional architecture is being torn down to make way for new concrete edifices, the traffic has become atrocious with so many cars and scooters plying the routes chugging out huge quantities of pollution, less people are wearing traditional dress and the mobile phone has hit town! But at a price.
If you take your mobile phone into the country and wish to use a burmese sim card the going rate is around 250 US$ for the sim, of course there is a method to the madness, at this price how can the majority of normal impoverished people afford to use a mobile to keep in touch with the outside world! Nevertheless you will still see plenty of smiles as you go.
Burmese kids make merry on the streets of Yangon
The government or junta now allows the changing of a small number of currencies in the national banks such as Singapore Dollars, US$, Euro and Pound Sterling and at the same rate for Kyat (the local currency pronounced Chat) as you would find on the street, this used to be a complete no no as the bank rate was so bad but now the junta realises with the increase in tourism it is another good way to extract hard currency from the millions of foreign visitors to fund their lavish lifestyle. For example the junta's old military vehicles for personal use have been replaced with modern and extremely expensive SUV's...
A Burmese man smiles for the camera
The military junta have come up with a number of ways since my last visit to extract hard currency from foreign visitors which it seems is impossible to avoid. That was left in the past to tour groups who would pay US$ for everything all which went directly into the pockets of the authorities, the independant traveller on the other hand could put money directly into the pockets of the locals and small businesses, not now though!
Carrying shopping on the head in Yangon
Take for instance accommodation, foreign visitors can only stay in hotels or guesthouses which have a licence from the junta. These places cost a great deal more to stay in than local places and the government gets a cut, not only that the police often (as I had been told) visit and intimidate the manager and ask questions about the visitors who have stayed there!
These hotels and guesthouses also require being paid in US$ cash (still crisp clean bills as before, if not they will not be accepted) if you wish to pay in Kyat the rate per dollar is ridiculously low to prevent you from handing over what is a worthless currency to the authorities! unlike in the past when either was accepted at the normal rate of exchange.
Security wiles away the hours
Public transport costs have also become inflated for foreign visitors at least with what is known as a two tier pricing system. This is the latest wrangle to extract those lovely dollars. Long distance coach trips and even shorter distanced trips cost more for foreigners than for locals and there is no way of escaping it. The mentally of drivers has now ventured into the realms of 'every foreigner must be a millionaire and I'm having some of that'! and if you refuse to pay they would rather not take you. This happened to me in a number of shared taxi journeys where I found myself in a predicament where I had to pay twice as much as the locals I was travelling with, quite high price even for myanmar standards it turns out for the distance travelled! The only other choice was to walk!
Another annoyance especially when the temperatures are soaring in the hot season and daytime temps are varying between 45 and 50 degrees centrigrade is constant power cuts in the big cities. When I was there this became unbearable, what is the point of having a room with air conditioning when there is no electric to power it? God only knows how the locals put up with this but again they don't have much choice! There were huge demonstrations in Mandalay and Yangon which had little effect on the junta's policy. One local told me they were blaming the militants in Kachin state for blowing up the power stations but he put this down to propaganda having little belief in it himself. He thought it was nothing more than a lame excuse whilst the authorities continue to power up there vast residencies and avoid experiencing such troublesome times...
Begging on the streets of Yangon
Buddhism still plays a huge role in burmese society and all around the streets and temples from cities to small villages you will see young and old buddhist monks requesting alms, it would be strange if you didn't, that's something that hasn't changed yet. And nowhere more so than in the world renowned temple of Shwedagon in central Yangon.
Buddhist monks at Shwedagon Temple enter the digital age
The request for alms
Buddhist Monk on the streets
Now we have the new Myanmar and modernisation emerging, maybe this will appeal to a lot of people, so for those who have never visited before don't let my bias for the old days put you off, just go see for yourself and hopefully you will have a good time, either way i'm sure it will be an experience you will never forget!
As a Footnote, militant activity was an ongoing concern in the summer of 2012 for none other than the Miltary Junta! Sporadic in northern Sagaing state and the worst was centred in the northermost state of Kachin.
I wanted to venture upto to Katha which was the setting for George Orwell's novel 'Burmese Days' but sadly the idylic way to travel up the Ayerwaddy river by boat (over a day and half of travel) was not permitted and public transport such as coach and train travel was similarly banned due to disturbances in the region eg.bombings etc.
The only other way was to travel by air to Myitkyina (pronounced Mitchina) and back track to Bhamo and Katha. One thing I should mention is the price of domestic flights has risen considerably compared to a few years ago.