The Republic of the Union of Myanmar or Burma, as it’s called by the states that do not accept the legitimacy of its government is a country that just recently opened to the West a bit more.
The BBC website describes it as what used to be “a pariah state, isolated from the rest of the world with an appalling human right record” and mentions how oppositions groups consider the first general election in 20 years (held in 2010) as a fraud. The British Government travel advice website mentions restrictions on freedom of movement and speech, suggests not taking pictures of the military and remind the visitor of the high treat of terrorism. In any case the final statement is: “most visits are trouble-free”. And they are, especially because many areas are restricted to tourism.
Provided these rules are followed, the most dangerous situation a traveler is likely to find him/herself in is surviving a cramped 24 hours bus journey on unpaved road and old wooden bridges surrounded by the most heartwarming people ever met.
Here the everyday westernisation of other Southeast Asian cities is not yet a reality. While the city itself has some incredible sights, it‘s the streets, the centre of everyday life, that is a constant source of fascination. Just as the rest of Burma it is an incredible mix of Southeast Asia and India, and probably the closest thing to a step into the past.
It is not clear how many people actually live in Yangon. According to the latest census the figure could be anything between 3 and 6 million inhabitants and growing. As it often happens the urban sprawls is made of townships, bamboo villages lacking any basics services.
Can I go there?
“Hi, we want to buy a flight to Sittwe to make it to Mrauk U but I heard the road between Mrauk U and Bagan is closed to tourists. Is it true?”
“mmmmh, maybe you can. I make a call… Yes you can.”
“Are you sure?”
“I make another call… No you can’t”
“But maybe you can ask someone to drive you there by car. I make another call… Yes you can.”
“Ok, let’s go. Is it legal?”
Whatever the guide tells you it’s basically false. Areas are constantly being opened or closed (but mainly opened) to foreign visitors.
And roads are being built (by hand)
Given the lack of infrastructure and the small number of paved roads covering rural areas, the country is making efforts to provide new means of communications to facilitate both the movements of locals and the growing tourist industry. This task is usually carried by hands by large number of people breaking rocks one by one on the side of the roads and preparing them for the roller.
Tourism is a relatively new thing here. While accessing the country has never been easy, the intrepid types used to come here for the adventure. Now, mass tourism is (not so) slowly making its appearance in some of the most important areas of the country, specifically Bagan and the Inle lake.
While there is often a moral debate between going to visit this country or avoiding to make the military richer in any indirect way, it is true that many areas of the country are de facto close to foreigners.
If you read a 3 years old guide you will learn that there are no mobile telephones in Burma or , at least, that a sim card could cost you the equivalent of 1000 USD. While this is not true anymore (sim cards can be purchased for about 50$ now), mobile phones are still a status symbol.
People keep relying on pay phones that, given the state of the infrastructure do not always work.
The only word you are likely to learn
You will find yourself saying “mingalabar” (hello or actually may you be auspicious) about a hundred times a day to pretty much every single living being you meet on the street. When it comes to children, the possibility of not being greeted and asked to take a picture of them them is almost impossible. A smile, a “mingalabar” and life goes on.
Kids usually go on their first monastic retreat at the age of 10. They usually go back as adults for a longer period of time. However, even in the most remote places kids are still just kids and, regardless of meditation and religion, they seem to be more knowledgeable about english Premier League football than the average Londoner.