Friday, November 23, 2012

Burmese days

When I wrote about my visa run across Myanmar's southernmost border with Thailand, I half-heartedly expressed a desire to see more of this country than just a harbour, but I didn't expect to be back so soon. But when flights to Nepal and Indonesia turned out to be slightly more expensive than I'd budgeted for two people, it seemed an obvious choice to explore further afield in this strange nation before my girlfriend started work and I'd be out on my own again.

Travelling in Myanmar was very different from more mainstream Asian destinations, but in other ways it wasn't as much of a leap or challenge as I'd been led to believe. While I can criticise some overly demanding tourists for their expectations from a country that's had its development severely stilted, there are some things that probably matter to me more than most travellers, like the terrible internet access that made it frustrating to get my work done during these two weeks.

Due to this dodgy/non-existent internet access, I made the unprecedented decision not to write any blogs while travelling in Myanmar, instead taking notes and photographs that seemed funny or relevant at the time and trusting that I'd be able to make some kind of sense out of all this when I got back to my Thailand apartment, loaded up on snacks and ready meals from 7-Eleven and locked myself in with the router for a week.

We'll see how I get on when I write about my trips to Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan separately, but first here are some chaotic, general notes about Burmese idiosyncrasies that didn't fit anywhere else, and will hopefully set the right tone. I mostly had a good time.

Internet access

I appreciate that 4G connectivity is low on the agenda when you're dealing with things like widespread corruption, ongoing civil war and genocide, but intermittent Wi-Fi managed to annoy me most days regardless. Looking back over a post I wrote when experiencing more or less the same situation in Sri Lanka served to comfort me, reassure me of my convictions and make we wonder if I'm really learning anything out here when I make the same mistakes over and over.


Hotels are more expensive here than in the rest of South East Asia (Singapore excluded), but I managed an average of $25 per night for a double en suite room, which varied dramatically in quality as my accommodation is want to do. More annoying are the government restrictions on hotels in cities like Yangon, which means you really have to book ahead if you don't want to end up in a suspiciously vacant hotel where the idea of a VIP penthouse room is a concrete box with no hot water and no glass in the window.

A singular quirk of Myanmar hotels is that rooms unfailingly feature a hulking Yellow Pages for the local area, on the off chance you need to hire an electrician. It's nice to see a secular alternative to the Gideons Bible at least, even if a takeaway menu would have been more readable. I just noticed that one in the photo's two years out of date too - that's VIP for you.


The government-controlled trains are apparently ludicrously expensive, but as in any other country you can avoid this by taking night buses, which are faster and don't subject you to a constant din of Vietnamese soft rock classics like in some other countries I won't mention. Damn, I just did.


The most annoying thing about travelling in Myanmar is that there are no international ATMs, not even in the airport, and I wasn't exactly comfortable arriving in Yangon with around 1,000 US dollars in my bag. Needless to say, this bag and money went everywhere with me for the next 10 days (I spent about half of it), and I never felt in any danger of getting it pinched.

It's easy to find good rates on currency exchange pretty much everywhere, and even hotels won't rip you off too much like hotels in a country I won't name and shame but begins with a C and ends in Ambodia (it's Cambodia).


I didn't feel I was being scammed anywhere really, especially after the constant hassle of Vietnam, and taxi drivers and craft sellers really haven't learned the art of relentless sales pitches outside of the very heart of the tourism maelstrom. As this country opens up more, quality of life improves and tourism infrastructure develops, this is going to get a lot worse very quickly.


Myanmar Pizza. 'Pizza' is Burmese for 'omelette'

I expected curry and I wasn't disappointed in this regard, though I was in pretty much every other. If you're hoping for the cosmopolitan smorgasbord of backpacker friendly destinations like Bangkok, Hanoi and Ubud, lower your expectations to a choice between curry, fried rice or, if you're lucky, fried noodles and you'll always find something to satisfy.

I'm being overly cynical, I enjoyed plenty of mutton (a rare treat in South East Asia) and had my first samosa in more than two years, followed closely by my second, third and tenth. They're up there with spring rolls and chocolate chip cookies as some of the all-time best sustenance. I got diarrhoea about three times, no big deal.


Every time I saw that label, I got excited at the prospect of Scrabble

I hardly drink at all any more (despite arguably being a better person when under the influence, but that's for another post if I feel blue enough), but I tried the compulsory national brands in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar on my recent trips and I have to say... my beer palate really isn't refined enough to taste the difference. No one really drinks beer for the taste, right?

Another ubiquitous local brand is Star Cola, which can be found almost everywhere at a much lower price than the exotic delicacies of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. I'm pleased to report that the system I developed through research in my teens stands up internationally, and any cola brand featuring one or more of the words 'star,' 'American' or 'pop' in its name is guaranteed to be a stinker. My cola palate is much more refined.

One personal, petty annoyance was that nowhere sells green tea here, which I've really developed a taste for since being in Asia. Ichitan or Oishi, I'm not fussy - anything that stops me lapsing back into my Coke addiction of 20 years should be enthusiastically embraced. In this former colony, tea is universally hot and potted.


I won't be doing that in a hurry

Learn basic greetings and numbers. As long as you haven't lost too many of your fingers in a threshing machine accident, you can get by when buying things. Most of the amusing bad-English shop signs unfortunately passed too quickly for me to get a photo, but honourable mention has to go to an unspecified business premises in Yangon calling itself 'The The & The The.' I feel I know less about that company than I did before.


Yeah, like taking underhanded sneaky photos is any more polite

There aren't that many white people here any more, so I had to put up with more staring than usual. In Yangon Zoo, a father asked me to pose for a photo with his two kids I'd never met and didn't have anything to do with. We were in the middle of the monkey village, with howling gibbons and luminous red-arsed macaques just out of frame, but apparently I was the most intriguing sight.

My girlfriend got the brunt of the stares, despite not looking so different and being mistaken for Burmese most of the time. Maybe they were just wondering what I was doing with one of theirs. Evidently, this is another country where parents don't teach their kids manners. Which brings me to...


Pavements in Myanmar (in the few places they exist) aren't plagued by the problem of careless chewing gum deposits. Instead, most people here enjoy chewing traditional home-made betel nut and tobacco concoctions and painting the town red. This can be a pretty disgusting sight when you see someone crank open the window on a public bus and p'tooie a long, vermilion arc into the middle of the road. I finally understand those persistent 'No Betel' signs on Singapore public transport, which previously seemed weirdly specific but now make a lot of sense.

So is it Myanmar or Burma already?

It's Myanmar. Don't get sulky just because you don't own it any more.

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