Myanmar (Burma)

Where in the world is Myanmar (Burma)?

Myanmar, I repeated. You know, Burma.

Oh, there, said my friend. But she knew I knew she didn’t have a clue where in the world I was off to. She’s not the only one. The better informed of my friends know Myanmar is somewhere in Asia. Those whose geography is above average said, Oh, that’s somewhere in South East Asia, isn’t it?

Yes, it is.

Myanmar

South East Asia

Some facts and figures about Myanmar:

  • Neighbours: India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand.
  • Population: approximately 51 million, no-one knows for sure.
  • Standard of living: the lowest in South East Asia, and amongst the lowest in the world.
  • Natural resources: gold, jade, oil, teak. Myanmar is resource rich although some say the resources have been stripped away by those in power.
  • Ethnic groups: more than one hundred. Burmese are the most common. There has been a lot of conflict between the ethnic groups, with Myanmar experiencing one of the longest running civil wars (fifty years) in history.
  • Religion: Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Animist.
  • Education: not great. Many children have to leave school early because the family needs the few Kyat they can earn working in tea houses, or selling post cards to tourists.  But let me tell you, this is a nation of readers. Despite censorship, until recently of the most restrictive kind, there is no mistaking the love for the written word here.

Do they allow tourists? someone asked. A good question. And, yes, they do, now.

In fact, after decades of restrictions, imposed both by the military rulers and by the international community but for different reasons, tourism to Myanmar is becoming more popular. This is a country whose people are hungry for contact with the outside world. Those we met were keen to practice their English with us, to learn about life in New Zealand, and to tell us about their  lives.

Myanmar is an ancient country by New Zealand standards, in fact by any standards. The Shwedagon Pagoda was already more than fifteen hundred years old when  Maori set foot in Aotearoa/New Zealand around 1280 AD

Myanmar’s history is long and complicated. Empires have risen and fallen, dynasties established only to collapse, sometimes in the most blood thirsty of conflicts. The borders have shifted a lot over the centuries—something I find fascinating. I come from an island nation— our borders are determined by the ocean. In Myanmar the current borders are those established by the British, who colonised Burma in the mid 1800s. They regarded this part of the world as an extension of India, even a backwater, of India. (Sigh—a very big sigh.)

Following the British withdrawal in 1948, for a brief period things looked hopeful. Democracy might have become well established had things gone slightly differently. Instead, since 1961 the country has been ruled by the military. The control has been Orwellian. There has been no freedom of expression and any protests have been harshly put down for more than fifty years. While a few have become super wealthy the country itself has plunged ever deeper into poverty. (I’ve done a bit of reading while travelling through Myanmar, which I‘ll tell you about later.)

There are signs things might be changing. On the 8th of November, 2015, while we were there, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won the first free election with a landslide victory. More about that later, too.

On our trip we followed the path that tourists commonly explore in Myanmar: Yangon, Inle, Mandalay, Bagan.

Myanmar - our route

This map is indicative only, as we often took the back roads and used alternative forms of transport.

But we did it differently. We used local buses, vans, push bikes, the train, and boats.

Our route:

  • Yangon to Taungoo: local bus, approximately four hours, not counting the time taken to get to the Yangon Bus station. (There’ll be a post about that soon, because getting to the bus station was one thing, finding the terminal was another!)
  • Taungoo to Meiktila: local bus and motorbike, via the capital city Naypyidaw, nine hours.
  • Meiktila to Taunggyi, via Thazi: mini van and motorbike, eight hours plus.
  • Taunggyi to Nyaungshwe: taxi, approximately half an hour
  • Nyaungshwe to Inle Lake: Push bike and boat; half day for the former, all day for the latter.
  • Nyaungshwe to Kalaw, taxi to the junction and then train to Kalaw; approximately four hours in total.
  • Kalaw to Mandalay: mini van, eight hours.
  • Mandalay to Bagan: ferry along the Irawaddy River, ten hours.
  • Bagan to Yangon: local bus, ten hours.

Travel was slow.  We stopped in towns that few tourists visit and we got the chance, language allowing, to talk to the locals.

Things didn’t always go according to the advertised schedule or our plan which meant I had to practice patience and trust. But that’s travel. Sometimes that’s the richest part of it all.

Tell me, what’s your preferred mode of travel?

20 replies »

  1. I love all your travel posts. Somehow I missed this one, but saved it. I confess I am confused by the map of the whole area, because my son lives in Cambodia and it isn’t marked on the map.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. At last I’m able to catch up with you and John. This sounds a fabulous adventure and I’m looking forward to the next posts. Did you do all the planning yourselves on the internet? How long were you in Myanmar?.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Pauline, we were away for just over six weeks, in Myanmar for a totla of four. We did plan it all ourselves. we booked our accommodation a day or two in advance —sometimes we used the Internet and sometimes the recoption staff at the Guest Houses would phone ahead for us. I enjoyed having the flexibility to change things according to energy levels and time available.

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    • It was a very interesting time to be there, Janet. Her supporters are very loyal to her and they were filled with hope that at last they would triumph, which they have. But the true test comes when the generals hand over the power.

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  3. Jill you and John are traveling the best way in my opinion.
    It is not an easy way to travel but it is a real experience.
    There are tourists and there are adventurers.
    Traveling off the beaten track of hotel chains and resorts.
    Thank you for showing life as it is. _/\_
    .

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I shall be interested to follow your journey. The only travelogues I have read about Myanmar are from people who went there on organised tours so cushioned from the challenges of independent travel. How did you arrange accommodation as well as the transport? I hope I will find out… 🙂

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    • Good questions, Jude, worthy of a post full of explanations. But the short answer is that the owners/reception staff at the guest houses where we stayed often made both transport and hotel bookings for us. They also arranged taxis (car or motorbike or pick-up truck, depending on where we were) to get us to the bus station.

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      • Maybe you can include the information in your posts? Did you have a route in mind that you knew you could follow? I’m just curious as it was the sort of thing I did 40 years ago from England to India long before the Internet made travel planning so easy.

        Liked by 1 person

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