I didn’t want to like Myanmar, especially not after a nice trip to the beach, where the thought of a visit to Asia’s least developed country loomed over us like the thought of a dose of nasty medicine after a delicious cake.
My reasons for this were myriad. Firstly, it was incredibly hard to get information about the place. Did it accept bank cards? Would we have to pay for everything in pristine dollars? Did it have any wifi/3g you could rely on? For a jobbing journalist with a few deadlines to meet, these are serious considerations, and the more I read, the more confused I became.
Then there were the unavoidable realities. It’s less comfortable than its Asian neighbours, and we felt less comfortable about it too. It’s still only borderline acceptable to visit Myanmar after years of sanctions, and there we were planning to take the kids. Hotels are expensive, and much less comfortable than elsewhere, and the food – from those guidebooks we did find – didn’t promise much.
So why had we planned to go? Mainly it was fascination, I think. It isn’t often you get to visit a country that has so recently opened to foreigners – particularly one that used to be a British colony (yes, I’ve read Burmese Days). Also the feeling that if we didn’t see it right now (two weeks before an election) we’d be missing out. And it was only an hour flight from Bangkok.
So I was grumpy about the whole thing (are you sensing a theme here?) up until the moment we arrived – though briefly cheered by the large American tour group on the plane (if they were going, it couldn’t be that difficult, right?). And in the end arrival went surprisingly smoothly, from the plane to finding a working ATM, to finding a phone shop in the airport that kitted me out with a 3G signal for a few US dollars.
Surreal as it is to see a Coca Cola Welcomes You to Myanmar sign when you arrive, it set the scene for a country that (at least in Yangon) is changing faster than you would believe.
Because it is so hard to get information – and because we can’t be the only people who are confused, here are some of my (currently up to date) observations about travelling in Myanmar, particularly relevant for families.
1) Everybody is so lovely
I know everyone says it, but it’s true. From our taxi driver, who told us he had cried every evening because he was homesick while working in Singapore, so he had to come back, to the staff of our budget hotel who arranged themselves into a welcoming committee every time we came back from the corner shop, we were universally looked after. No-one pushed or shoved, and everyone took care of the children – cooking them special meals and showering them with smiles and food.
2) The internet works
Not always, but it does. 3G is better than wifi, and not expensive. Telenor works in most spots, including Yangon, Bagan, Kalaw and Inle. It only costs a couple of dollars to stick a SIM in, and gave me the peace of mind that I could get my work done if everything else failed.
3) The breakfasts are.. bizarre
Everything is fried and beige. Eat the eggs. The eggs are your friend. The butter substitute is not your friend, and the non-dairy creamer to put in your tea might be better employed as an exfoliant to scrub the bathroom floor clean. Or eat noodles, like the locals do. For some reason my body rebels at breakfast – so I didn’t, and nor would the girls. Pity.
4) Everyone wears skirts, even the boys
This is of course funny when you are six and eight – though Daisy would now point out to you with a weary sigh that ‘actually they are longhi’. It will however, be very funny to see Daddy wearing one because he’s been caught in a storm while trekking and has no dry trousers.
Everyone wears Thanaka too – which is a type of sunscreen/moisturiser/makeup made from a tree. Spot the Thanaka professionals wearing stars, swirls and leaves. But won’t they have tan lines? Bizarre – but beautiful – and uniquely Myanmar. Looks odd on westerners though – rather like the aforementioned longyi.
5) Your children will be celebrities
Want to watch sunset over Bagan while your children draw some temples? Fine. But what does the average Burmese tourist want to do? Stand on top of a temple at sunset and take pictures of small Western children, it appears. Preferably they would like to be in the pictures with the children too. Mount Popa is even worse than Bagan for this – and the steps are covered in monkey poo and the monkeys steal food from your hand (sorry Clover). On the plus side though, it’s really surreal and I’ve never felt so far from Forest Hill.
6) You can buy really great firecrackers
I know, I know… health and safety. But they are really good ones. We all spent a lot of time pretending to be Harry Potter. Shouting ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ and then throwing a firecracker to produce a gratifying small explosion is what passes for nightlife in the hill station of Kalaw, I promise you.
7) Everyone will go to the pagoda, all of the time
If South East Asia is Buddhist, Myanmar is like, really, really Buddhist. Also we were there at a particularly holy time (Thandigut, the light festival – see firecrackers above). Everyone was always at the pagoda, giving fruit and flowers, feeding the monks or hanging about with Thanaka on their faces, looking like a photo opportunity. Obviously they’d rather take photos of our children (see above) but the locals were considerably more picturesque.
Schwedagon, in Yangon, is a must, but there are monasteries everywhere.
The beautiful wooden ones are now being pulled down and replaced with ugly concrete ones – so see them while you can. But don’t stay too near to one, unless you like chanting at 3am. They do have clean loos though – so are good when the children are desperate.
I also particularly loved the fact that our marvellous trekking guide, Maung Lan, shouted ‘Oh my Buddha’ in alarm when we were nearly gored by a herd of cows in the rain on a trek from Kalaw to Lake Inle. To be fair, I was alarmed too, and did worse than slightly blaspheme.
8) It’s not just Buddha either
When you’re not busy venerating Buddha, you’re propitiating the ‘nats’ – the animal spirits that predate Buddha by some hundreds of years. Don’t urinate near the banyan tree, as the nats will get angry. Nats really like bananas, and flowers, and money. They don’t appear to have led particularly virtuous lives (one is known as the ‘Drunken Nat’ for obvious reasons) so I’ve no idea why they’ve become so powerful. But don’t mess. Or urinate. Nats don’t like it.
9) People can get very personal
There’s no pussyfooting around in Myanmar. As if I didn’t know already, I now know that I’m “quite wrinkly” (but the Thanaka will improve it, apparently), and that I seem charming but should reduce the size of my body. Reader, my self-esteem barely escaped with its life.
10) Bagan is brilliant
Like Angkor Wat, but with a hundredth of the tourists. Climb a big temple for sunrise and sunset (but not both on the same day or your children and your sanity won’t thank you) and don’t expect the children to do much more than that. Two thousand temples is a lot for anyone to take in – a big overview will do just fine. They’re all full of buddhas, if you want a general explanation. How long before it gets overrun? At the moment it is mainly full of sleepy horses drawing carriages, a few tourists on e-bikes, and some bizarre hotels. Our hotel appeared to be a deliberately designed ruin – a folly, perhaps. With terrible breakfasts, but I’ve already pointed that out. Nice pool though – otherwise I think the children would have rebelled.
11) Don’t mess with The Lady
Two weeks before the General Election, so perhaps no wonder the populace had gone Suu Khi mad. At seventy, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has achieved extraordinary status amongst the average Burmese village dweller. There’s a calendar in every home with her face on it. Even the girls can recognise the National League for Democracy poster. We can only hope the elections go well, since I can’t imagine anyone else managing to hold the country together. On the other hand, there were still plenty of people, our various taxidrivers assured us, willing to demonstrate for the ruling party in return for a small payment. Twas ever thus. Go ASSK, as they also call her – making her sound a little like an icecream cone.
12) Take your raincoats when you trek
We didn’t. Kalaw to Inle is amazing (a two night trek) but the heavens opened on us and, together with the bullock carts, the small boys riding buffalo and the returning cows, we struggled to make our way to the village we stayed in for the night. It was a medieval scene (and somewhat nightmarish). Sadly too wet for Paul to have taken any pictures. Don’t expect to sleep on the trek either, since the family we stayed with started to get up at 4am (well, they had to go to the pagoda, you see).
13) Inle is a bit in your face
Too many fume-belching noisy boats, and too many tourists. Inle was a bit of a shock when coming down from the mountains. Lovely floating tomato gardens, but I preferred Kalaw. Nyaung Shwe has some excellent restaurants though. One Owl Grill does the best food I’ve had in weeks (not that this is saying a great deal – see Myanmar breakfasts above) but it is genuinely recommended.
14) The toilets are squatty
Least said about that the better I think – but the children are getting better at them. I’m still not a fan though apparently if you’ve used them all your life certain muscles in your legs don’t atrophy. Poor creaky-legged westerners like us just have to cope. No doubt this will change.
15) Ngapali beach is a world apart
A handful of resorts along a gorgeous coastline, Ngapali is easy, but expensive even for Myanmar. Worth it for two days to recover though – fab waves, fantastic cheap seafood and still lovely, lovely people. Suspect it is only a matter of years before it is over developed though.
16) You will have culture shock like you won’t believe
Bullock carts as the main means of transport? Scarcely a car in rural areas? No electricity in the villages (where the houses are made of woven bamboo and not much else?) and Yangon Airport’s solitary and practically sedentary escalator seem normal very quickly. Until you fly straight to Kuala Lumpur, that is, and start wandering around like a small child in a sweet shop. More on KL to follow, but my goodness, what a change.
Finally, here’s a link to the article I wrote for the Telegraph about the rather fabulous Myanmar Girl Guides – starting up again after 50 years.
It doesn’t contain the pictures of the girls in their brownie uniforms receiving Myanmar guide badges,or the mountain of extra sweeties bought by the chief commissioner.
Myanmar. Go now, before it becomes just the same as everywhere else.