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