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Myanmar: Flashback
Mandalay (Myanmar), April 14th 2008

Tomorrow night we will take the night bus back to Yangon, the city where we also started our trip through Myanmar, almost a month ago. So, it’s time to make a flashback of our trip to Myanmar. What is the general impression that Myanmar gave to us and in what way did this trip change the impression we had based on our trip to Myanmar five years ago?

One of the things that most people know about Myanmar is that the country is terrorised by the military junta that rules the country already for many decades. Democratic freedoms are minimised and the human rights are systematically violated. These facts can easily be forgotten when you are travelling through Myanmar. There are few military people in the streets, and Burmese people will not talk to you about politics or the military oppression. There is one simple reason for this. The Burmese people are scared to talk about politics, because they do not know who to trust. The military intelligence is interwoven with society, so everybody can be the enemy. If the critical remarks are heard by the ‘wrong pair of ears’, it can have major consequences for that person in question. Torture, political imprisonment and forced labour are often used by the military junta to punish the people with the “wrong” opinions. Like we said, the oppression by the government is not visible in the streets, but you need to know it, and to take it into consideration when travelling through Myanmar. This means that you should never start a conversation with somebody about politics, unless they start the conversation themselves. This does not often happen, but if it happens, it gives you the chance to see also the ‘real’ Myanmar. Hidden, the people of Myanmar do want a change, but so far they were not able yet, to force it. Even if people have the guts to talk with you about politics, still then you should be careful. Never talk to other people about it, and never disclose names. The military junta is also active in cyberspace. Five years ago, when we were in Myanmar for the first time, there was no internet connection available. Now you can find internet cafes in most cities, but the freedom to browse the internet is limited. Often sites (and web access) are blocked, but most internet cafés have smart “solutions” to get around the firewalls of the government. We still decided not to upload any content to our web site from Myanmar. There is not really a risk for us, the worst thing they can do is kick us out of the country, but we didn’t want to cause potential problems for the owners of the internet cafés.

An open air tea stall in central Yangon

If you read all the things mentioned above, it is possible to forget all the great things that you can see as a visitor to Myanmar. The country is beautiful, with some terrific sights. It is not possible, due to the travel restrictions of the military junta, to travel to all parts of Myanmar, but already within the allowed area there are four great destinations. Yangon and Mandalay are sparkling cities with eye-catching sights. The Inle Lake (see photo-impression about the Inle Lake) is a great place to spend a week and to see the life that is going on, on and around the lake. Bagan however, is in our opinion the most impressive sight in Myanmar (see also the photo-impression about Bagan). The people of Myanmar are the other absolute highlight of the country, and already worth a visit alone. Despite the fact that they can not talk about everything, they are still great people to consort with. By the way, that pleasure is mutual. The majority of the Burmese people like it that you bring them a visit. They like to know that they aren’t forgotten.

The country is huge. The major sights in Myanmar are not that far apart, but the bad condition of the roads makes travelling in Myanmar tiresome. Even for a distance of approximately 200 kilometres, you have to take into account a bus ride of 10 hours. Besides the bad condition of the roads, you also have to deal with the bad conditions of the buses. The seats are often bad, the leg space is minimised, airco is unheard of, and the buses are jam-packed. Besides that, most buses are also used for the transport of cargo. That means for example that the already minimal leg space is further reduced by huge bags of rice or crates of vegetables that are put under the seats and in the isle. We have to say that we only travelled by local (public) buses and not with the more modern buses of the private bus companies that can be booked for the journeys between the major cities. The more luxury buses of the private bus companies are most of the time overnight buses, and as you know, we do not like to travel overnight. However, tomorrow night we have to take an overnight bus, because due to the water festival, this is the only way to travel by bus from Mandalay to Yangon. But if you want to spend a little bit more of money, there are more comfortable ways to travel through Myanmar. You can of course always take internal flights. Myanmar has some reliable private companies that are not too expensive. Another popular option is to hire a car with a chauffeur. It seems to be possible to hire a car with a chauffeur for less than 40 US$ per day (for a minimal amount of 10 days). The last option is to take the train. These are slower and more expensive than buses, but also more comfortable. Disadvantage of the train however, is that you sponsor the military junta, because they are the owners of the railways.

Ivonne with a huge Burmese family (half of the family is still in the truck!)
All the things described above are not really changed since our last visit, five years ago. Of course, internet and mobile phones were unheard of, but the sights and the friendliness of the people did not change. But also in Myanmar, the time didn’t stand still. The number of foreign visitors increased a lot. There is a little downturn at the moment because of the uprising of the monks in September 2007, but the numbers will increase again. Some local people discovered the foreign visitors as a cash cow, which means that you have to be alert once in a while. There are moneychanger that try to rip you off, hotel owners that try to get rid of their worn-out dollar notes at the expense of you, and taxi-drivers that try to convince you that there is no bus (or all buses are full the next couple of days) to your destination, in the hope to sell you an expensive taxi ride. This can be tricky, because the taxi drivers are often hand in glove with the bus companies. We met some travellers that really believed that there were no buses during the water festival (and the taxi was the only option), while we already had a bus ticket in our pocket. They almost agreed to pay an amount of US$ 75,- for a four-hour taxi ride. And finally, also the double prices are a pain in the ass. Many companies handle a double pricing system for local and foreign people. They are definitely encouraged by the government that likes to see as much as possible hard currencies to flow into the country. This makes some sights quite expensive. In some parks in Yangon for example, you have to pay an entrance fee as a foreigner, the take a rest in the shade. These parks were still free to visit five years ago.

So, Myanmar did change is some minor ways, but unfortunately did not change in the way the country is governed. This makes the people still reticent, but that is understandable. But still it is a great place to visit, and the fact that it is not discovered yet by the masses, makes it interesting. Especially when you travel away from the main tourist places you will discover the absolute beauty of this country and you might meet some people that have the guts to tell you more about their real feelings. But even without that, the country has a lot to offer. Not only the terrific sights but also the friendly people. We always think about an old woman that we met in Bagan with only a few teeth left in her mouth. When she saw Ivonne, she ran to her to give her a big kiss on the cheek and to “demand” us to take a picture of her together with Ivonne. She was happy to see that we decided to bring Myanmar a visit, and she was even happier that because of the picture, we will always remember her.

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