Mingalaba Myanmar!

B: Myanmar is a place we had heard about from other travelers as being unique, untouched, and in the midst of a cultural explosion so sensitive it must be seen before it’s too late. Complicated Burmese politics call for a brief history of the country in order to fully understand the land we had decided to visit after Bali. Although crudely paraphrased from online sources, here we go: Burma gained independence from Britain in 1947. A new union of various tribal states sought to form a collective government for autonomous rule, but the utopia was never carried out to fruition due to internal squabbles. In 1962, military leader General Ne Win led a coup d’état, ousting the democratically elected government and installing himself as leader. In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrations were violently silenced and General Saw Maung seized power in another coup, installed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and renamed the country Myanmar. Elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party (National League for Democracy (NLD)) winning a landslide victory (over 80% of the vote), but SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, which she endured on-and-off for 20 years.

The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government, which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but evolved into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in Pakokku. Yangon became the center of these protests, especially around Sule Pagoda. The government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shutting down Internet communications with the rest of the world, leading the USA, Canada, Australia, and the EU to impose additional sanctions. Despite international criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi was back under house arrest after the protests. She was eventually released November 13, 2010 and is currently participating in politics with the prospects for democracy looking hopeful. Since then, tourism restrictions have been relaxed and more Westerners are deciding to visit this ever-evolving society.

Today’s Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has slumped into a depressed state due to widespread corruption. Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in 2010, increased tourism and the promise of elections in 2015 offer hope for a new direction and brighter future for all Burmese.

Although Myanmar has become more accessible for foreigners in the past few years, it still isn’t easy. Guidebooks are perpetually outdated and prices are rising by 25% each year. Our visa had to be arranged prior to arriving, which we did in Australia and were given an estimated time of four weeks. The only flights into the country are from either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. We opted to spend a couple days hanging out, shopping, and eating Pad Thai with my friend Dustin in Bangkok while transiting from Bali to Myanmar. It’s always great to see old friends while travelling—thanks for the hospitality buddy!

Dustin and Blake

G: We landed at the Mandalay International airport in midday and the prickly heat was full blast. At first glance, the concrete building we stood in was looking rather drab and was in definite need of a face lift. Passports stamped, we proceeded to get some cash in hand, as it was recommended with the unknown status and availability of ATMs. (In fact, ATMs are now quite prevalent in major cities, but non-existent just one year ago.) We changed over $1,000 for the next 3 weeks, but their largest bill is the equivalent of $5, so we walked out with quite the stack! We just happened to miss the free Air Asia shuttle into the city and immediately a crowd of young Burmese men with white paste on their face and arms (which we later learned was sunblock) stuck to us like magnets offering taxis. Patience. There was no one else coming out of the airport until the next plane landed, so we finally caved and paid $10 for a private taxi into the city. Immediately, we noticed the driver sitting on the right side of the car, but also driving on the right side of the road! —Another oddity of unstable leadership and a hodgepodge of resources. Why isn’t there just one universal rule for driving?! The picture out the window was one of over-grown, dry and vacant fields with white and gold pagodas scattered in the distance. Once we got closer to the city, the noise of the traffic, the smell of burning garbage and petrol, and the sight of substantial poverty were overwhelming the senses. It felt like a Buddhist India.

We eased into the culture by staying at a fairly new and very comfortable hotel, which also included a tasty western breakfast, for $30 a night. That evening, we jumped on a motorbike taxi and drove to Mandalay Hill for some sightseeing. First, we headed to Maha Atulawaiyan Monastery to see some carvings of Buddha and his disciples that dated back to 1865. Next was Kuthodaw Paya to see world’s largest book of Buddhist teachings, which were carved on slabs of marble set inside what seemed to be an infinite row of white pagodas. Stray dogs and cats lay fast asleep on the steps as we walked around; they must be so enlightened by now. 🙂 As dusk approached, we stubbornly denied an overpriced taxi up to Mandalay Hill and instead hiked up hundreds of steps to watch the anticlimactic sun as it disappeared into the smog before touching the horizon.

That evening, as we attempted to find a taxi back to our hotel, we met Jojo, a 21-year-old local with great English, and negotiated a tour the following day with his friend as our driver. Our grand tour of Mandalay began with an introduction to making gold leaf, a drive down a dusty street of locals carving jade sculptures, and an impressive woodcarving workshop. Then we visited Maha Muni Paya to slap some gold leaf on the famously amorphous Buddha figure.

Before lunch, we visited a Buddhist Monastery to see how the monks live and receive their alms. Women in tattered clothing sat with their naked children and begged for anything. The monks, without hesitation, shared from their bowl. In the afternoon, we took a horse cart ride around Innwa to see villages and more pagodas, then walked up Sagaing Hill for views of the city and the Irrawaddy River. Afterwards, we visited the famous U Bien Bridge for sunset. As we walked the world’s longest teak wood bridge (1.2 km) we noticed other tourists talking to monks. I turned to Blake and asked, ‘Why haven’t we talked to a monk yet?’ Within minutes we met eyes with an older monk and he beckoned us over. How’s that for manifesting?! 😉

B: This man was very well-spoken and genuinely interested in a conversation without a motive (quite rare in Asia). He was rather candid with his thoughts on the recent political turmoil and future prospects of a country led by Aung San Suu Kyi, something I read to shy away from in conversations. Oddly enough, he’s only been a monk for the last eight years. He has a wife and kids at home and used to sell cars for a living! So much for the “pure and enlightened” path. It’s was pretty stunning to learn that one can go in and out of the monastery throughout life and decide to become a devoted monk at any point. Our conversation lasted about 20 minutes, and then it was time to grab a seat and a beer with a view of the sunset dropping behind the bridge.

The next day we walked Mandalay’s inner city, a dusty place with children happily playing in a pile of garbage, locals staring at our pale skin, and baskets of tobacco leaf waiting to be rolled into pouches for men to chew and spit streams of red betel nut juice. On the corner near our place men played an obscure game involving bottle caps and sea shells, vehicles roared past with exposed engines and no filters, deeply resonant bells rang in the distance, and even among the filth and destitution, gold leaf pagodas shined like Hershey kisses in the sun. I stopped off at a local bar for the afternoon special of a glass of draught beer for 500 kyat (50¢)—buy 3, get 1 free, plus snacks! Then we indulged in a heaping portion of local Burmese food across the street for $1. Both of us! For $1! What a strange and interesting place…

*note: Mingalaba means “hello” in Burmese