24 November 2015
24 November 2015
We loved Myanmar. Or Burma if you prefer.
To be honest, we hadn’t planned on travelling there as part of our Big Trip. We’d heard stories that it was expensive. That travelling around the country meant putting money into the coffers of its corrupt government and the cronies that surrounded it. And that, with the first free elections in over half a century about to take place, there was a chance that violence might erupt at any time.
But, while we’ve been travelling, we’ve also heard stories about the beauty of the place. About how special the people are. And about how things are likely to change when mass tourism really gets a stranglehold.
So, we hastily did our research, booked most of our accommodation in advance, and spent 29 days travelling around the country wondering why on earth we’d hesitated to go there in the first place. Quite simply, it’s a country like no other, and one which we’ll be undoubtedly returning to in the not-too-distant future.
If you haven’t been yet but are wondering if it might be for you, then you can always take a look at our dedicated Myanmar page, which contains all our blog posts and details on all the accommodation we stayed at. But, in the meantime, here are 19 things we learned about Myanmar (Burma) during our time there, which might help you make up your mind…
1. They have the largest Buddha statues in the world
“Jaw-dropping” is a phrase that’s sometimes overused to describe scenes or events which are undoubtedly spectacular, but don’t necessarily cause an involuntary malfunction of the lower jaw. The seated and reclining Buddha statues near to Mawlamyine, in Myanmar’s southern Mon state, however, left us both with mouths open wide.
We visited the seated Buddha first – all 50 metres of it. It’s actually not quite finished yet but the sheer scale of it was just incredible. In fact, at one point as we approached the site on the back of two motorbikes, an optical illusion made it appear that the Buddha’s head was sitting right in the middle of the road.
And if that wasn’t impressive enough, take a look at what was waiting for us just a few miles away…the world’s largest reclining Buddha at 180 metres in length. Just mind-boggling.
Largest in the world…for now
2. They serve you soup with your beer
Ok, not all the time, but they do like to serve a light soup with almost everything. And I had absolutely no idea how to tackle this little conundrum when it was served to me in a beer station in Mandalay.
Note: One of the items in the following photo was left unconsumed…
3. The majority of men still wear longyis
The longyi – a tube of embroidered cloth about two metres in length – is actually the national costume and is worn by both sexes. But the image of Burmese men wearing their longyi, tied together at the waist with a knot, and matched with a western-styled shirt, is one of the first we have when we think of Myanmar (although some of the younger generation appeared to favour jeans). We kind of miss it really. A lot.
4. Women wear thanaka as their cosmetic of choice
Pretty much all women of all ages wear this creamy paste made from tree bark. It’s used to protect against strong sunlight, keep the skin cool and also to keep away mosquitos and other biting insects. To be fair, it’s also used as a fashion statement judging by the range of patterns we saw. Young children and even babies are daubed with the stuff too.
We’re betting that thanaka will become a must-have cosmetic in the west for at least – oh just a few months – after some A-list celebrity appears in a glossy magazine sporting a particularly uber-stenciled (and expensive) version. Or maybe when that third photo gets out…
5. Children become monks so that they can at least get an education
Education in Myanmar is expensive for the majority of the population and so many don’t go to school at all. One way out for a family is to have their sons and daughters train as monks and nuns in monasteries, where education also comes free. As a result, the sight of large numbers of young monks wandering the streets with their alms bowls each morning is a daily occurrence.
6. You get free tea served to you everywhere
Ah, sounds like music to an Englishman’s ears.
But it’s true – whether you’re visiting one of Myanmar’s ubiquitous “tea shops” or are just sitting down for a meal at a cafe or a restaurant, you’ll be provided with a pot or flask of green tea, together with small, handle-less cups. Ok, so it doesn’t actually taste of much – but it does quench your thirst. Particularly when you’ve just stopped for a break on the arduous 12 hour night bus from Yangon to Bagan…
7. Burmese salads are a taste sensation
Not your average salad these. Take the tea leaf salad, for instance. A bitter, sour and spicy creation based on fermented or pickled tea leaves. By the time they’ve added garlic, sesame seeds, peanuts, cabbage, tomatoes and beans and mixed it all together you’re confronted by probably the tastiest salad you’ve had in your life. And there are lots of other varieties too. You can even pick them up from mobile food stalls dedicated to them.
Tea Leaf Salad
8. Burmese curries are not to be underestimated
While we’re on the subject of food, we’ve been known to partake in the odd curry or three on our travels around South East Asia. Normally those with bags of spice and quite possibly a side helping of fresh chilli. Burmese curries present a wholly different challenge altogether.
Most local restaurants will have a display of curries on offer from mid-morning onwards. You decide on which main dish you’d like – we normally chose the mutton (which is actually goat) – and it’s served with up to TEN side dishes, including such delights as fermented fish, pickled mango, fermented shrimp paste, fried bamboo shoots, fried aubergine, crispy chilli condiments and the ubiquitous steamed rice and vegetable soup. It’s not always easy going as hygiene standards can be a little questionable if you’re not careful, particularly at the street-side food stalls. But when it’s done properly it’s fantastic. And be prepared for the full gamut of flavours, from sweet to sour, savoury and spicy.
9. Aung Sang Suu Kyi was always going to win the election
If anything was going to be certain about the historic election on 8 November 2015 it was that Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party were going to get the vast majority of votes. What was less certain was how much the military-backed government would accept the result.
We could taste the excitement surrounding the election everywhere we went. From speaking to guides, guest house owners, restaurant waiters and people in the street, everyone said they were going to vote for their national hero (AKA “The Lady”). Only time will tell if the real change they expect to see will materialise. Fingers crossed.
10. Chewing paan is a national pastime
Chewing paan, typically a combination of betel leaf, areca nut and slaked lime paste, is traditional in a lot of South East Asian countries. But the level to which it’s consumed by men in Myanmar is way beyond what we’ve experienced elsewhere. And it shows.
A by-product of chewing the paan is a vibrant blood red juice which causes the inside of the mouth to glow like something out of a vampire movie – and over a period of time leads to permanent staining/disappearance of the teeth and gums. Not a pretty sight to be fair.
Worse, the constant spitting produces bright red stains which cover the roads and pavements. And there’s lots of it.
11. There are some spectacular Buddhist cave temples
As cave temples go, we’ve not seen any that compare with these. There are plenty of them dotted around the country, such as Pindaya Cave in Shan State, which contains over 8,000 individual Buddha statues. Our favourite though was Saddar Cave, near Hpa-an (see photo below) which you can walk right through and reappear into the daylight via a gorgeous blue/green lagoon, where long boats are waiting to take you on a serene journey back to the cave entrance.
12. It’s probably the only place in the world where you can buy a sewing machine and dried fish from the same shop
Ever found yourself in a shop procrastinating over whether to buy the budget sewing machine that’s on offer or splurge on the new turbo-charged version you’d read about in “Sewing Magazine”? Well if you’re like me you’d probably need to eat a plate of dried fish to help you think straight and come to a speedy decision. And in Myanmar, you can do just that in the same shop. They really do think of everything.
13. The country has a diverse range of ethnic groups
One of the reasons given for calling the country Myanmar rather than Burma is that the latter refers mainly to the Barma ethnic race, which accounts for two-thirds of the population. The rest are made up of other races such as Shan, Mon, and Rakhine who even have their own distinct languages. And beyond that, these ethnic races are broken down into distinct ethnic groups – for instance, there are 23 ethnic groups within the Shan race alone, such as the Pa-O, Palaung, and Wa.
Getting our heads around this helped us to understand just how difficult a task the new government has in bringing the population together as one nation – particularly after the oppression of the past 50 years. However, their presence also helps to make it such a fascinating country to visit for those of us with an interest in discovering new and varied cultures.
14. Many of the old colonial buildings are crumbling
After decades of neglect many of the old (and magnificent) colonial-era buildings are in a state of disrepair, especially around Yangon and Mawlamyine – although many are still lived in. We’re betting that someone, somewhere is going to spend an awful lot of money restoring many of these to their former glory – and making an awful lot more money in the process, too.
15. The place can be breathtakingly beautiful…
A photographer’s dream, the country has so many natural wonders that have not been photographed to death – yet.
Hpa-an, Kayin State
16….But they desperately need some rubbish bins
It’s glaringly obvious to anyone travelling the country, but if the government doesn’t invest something into the rubbish disposal infrastructure then large parts of Myanmar might suffocate under the sheer volume of it. In fact, hardly a rubbish bin in sight during the 29 days we were there. Maybe not the top of the new government’s priority list but I can’t believe it would be that difficult to resolve.
17. It’s not as expensive as we’d been led to believe
We were pleasantly surprised by just how inexpensive it was. OK, pound for pound, the accommodation in Thailand and even Indonesia is of a better quality and value – but we still managed to get decent accommodation for around US$30 per night, including breakfast. The price of transport, food, drink etc was, however, ridiculously cheap. As a result, it has been one of only two countries so far (the other was Sri Lanka) where we’ve come under our daily budget allowance.
18. The country is called “Myanmar” in written language and “Burma” when spoken
This one’s a bit controversial, but we’ve heard it from several sources and it seems plausible.
We’d been agonising over how we should refer to the country. Use the name Myanmar, introduced by the military-led government and recognised by the United Nations, or Burma, the British-colonial name for it. Aung Sang Suu Kyi herself had always referred to it as Burma, and until recently that was good enough for us. But we hear the argument about Myanmar representing the wide variety of ethnic groups and the fact that it was the original name for the country before the British renamed it.
The people we spoke to as we travelled around seemed to be split between the two as well.
19. We’ll be going back
It turns out that four weeks simply isn’t enough to see Myanmar/Burma.
We didn’t venture to the far south where the beaches and islands are said to be as beautiful as anywhere else in the whole of South East Asia – and without the crowds.
We didn’t manage to get over to the west of the country where the ancient Mrauk U rivals Bagan for its temples and where further white sand beaches await.
We didn’t get to the far north either where remote hill tribes still exist, untroubled by mass tourism.
Of course, there are still major problems around, too – not least the ongoing oppression of the Rohingya Muslims in the far west, and the plundering of the country’s natural resources by government cronies and certain neighbouring countries. It’s impossible when considering Myanmar as a travel destination, to ignore these issues but we have to believe that there’s a will from within the new democratically elected government to at least bring the country kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.
The wonderful people who live there certainly deserve it.
What did you think? Have you been to Myanmar? What did you learn about the country while you were there? Or maybe you’re thinking about visiting Myanmar soon? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.