Burma – Get Rid of Your Preconceptions

25 09 2010

(In case you’re wondering where my “Thailand” post is – it will come later, as I am still travelling through it!)

The media is an interesting beast. I had never really heard anything positive about Burma (Myanmar) during the last few years; what little I did hear usually involved something about military dictatorship, repression of Aung San Suu Kyi, Cyclone Nargis, or public uprisings being quashed. Needless to say, I didn’t immediately factor the country into my travel plans. Basically I thought it was a slightly scaled down version of North Korea and wasn’t really sure if it was even possible to get in, and then, if I got in, what exactly I would do. However, I had left it as an option to investigate, as my goal in this trip is to gain a cursory overview of as many parts of Asia as possible, and, after talking to a few travellers about it and doing some research, I discovered it was indeed possible – and common – for people to travel to Burma. However, to see the majority of the country, one needed to obtain a visa and fly into the country, rather than cross overland, though one overland border crossing with Mae Sai, in Northern Thailand, was indeed open to foreigners, with access being granted openly to the border city of Tachileik and further access granted to two inland cities (Kyiang Tong and Mong La) provided one was accompanied by a paid guide. Intrigued, I decided to swing up to Mae Sai and see if I could take a look around at these places. While I was already a bit unnerved, it was made worse by looking at my government’s travel advisories page, where they had given all Burmese border areas their highest danger rating of “Avoid All Travel” (on par with Afghanistan and Iraq) due to ‘banditry, violence’ etc. So I arrived in Mae Sai a little bit on edge, needless to say, though I’m happy to report that not only was their nothing for me to worry about, but there was also plenty for me to get excited about!

I knew from the start that the government warning was basically meaningless for this area, as the border was incredibly busy with rich Thais going back and forth on shopping and golf trips, and my mind was further put at ease when I arrived at Burmese passport control and discovered friendly, English-speaking men who talked me through the details, set me up with my mandatory guide, and even booked us bus tickets! At the border I met another young foreigner from New Zealand – Cam – who had the same travel ideas as me, so him and his guide and me and my guide all travelled together (and then toured together) from the border town of Tachileik to Kyiang Tong City, 4ish hours into Eastern Shan State. Perhaps other foreigners were scared away by the travel warnings, because I saw no other foreigners in my 4 days in Burma other than Cam and a group of package tour Italians who had flown to Shan State from Yangon (and thus didn’t officially need a guide or other such things). This was, needless to say, a very refreshing change from places like Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is basically Europe in terms of prevalence of white people and English signage.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, our guides were two friendly young guys who certainly were not there to tow the government line. They spoke English quite well and slowly revealed to us their dislike of the Burmese government and their lack of freedoms, though no one seems to think that the November elections will cause any changes to the way things run. Either the government made a bad hiring choice in these guys or they legitimately want foreigners to meet a real Burmese person who will actually guide them to interesting places and not just feed them propaganda!

So we went, the four of us, past copious numbers of military checkpoints (which ensure you don’t go anywhere you’re not supposed to and which restricted us to the city except when we got special permission to go trekking/etc.) to Kyiang Tong City, along a mountain road with some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen thus far. The city itself was supposedly around 200,000, but was incredibly sleepy and peaceful. In my 4 days / 3 nights spent in this city, the four of us:

– wandered all over the town, meeting lots of friendly and curious locals (foreigners are pretty rare – probably fewer than 100 per month),

– took a full day trek outside of the city on bumpy dirt roads in an incredibly rickety and painful tuk-tuk that brought us to a rice whisky factory, a fruit grove with a man who kept a large gun “in case of tigers”, and a couple remote hill-tribe villages at the tops of viciously steep hills (far more authentic than anything Thailand can throw at you) where the diversity is so great that two villages separated by just one small valley (we walked down and up in like 10 minutes) have separate religions and languages!,

– went to a Burmese nightclub (a bizarre experience – due, I guess, to modesty standards, everyone simply danced in place around their tables with their friends rather than congregating on a dance floor / dancing with each other! They got a kick out of my cheezy North American dance moves :P),

– ate a tonne of Burmese food, which included quite possibly some of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever eaten, and

– got lost and muddy in a huge rice paddy field, amongst other things!

The guides and Cam were great companions and it was my guide’s first time touring someone too – luckily Cam and his experienced guide were there to make it a good experience for all! While it was expensive (1000 baht per day plus their meals {accomodation for them was free because we stayed at the recommended guest house), I have absolutely zero regrets!

While there’s no denying the military’s power (it seemed like every third person was in fatigues) and tyranny, I still heartily recommend this country for travel. Whether you go to just the small overland corner like I did or get access to much more of the country with a flight to Yangon, you will find an intact culture of simple, diverse peoples who embody that classic “Southeast Asia” ideal to me more than anywhere else I’ve visited thus far.

Check out the pics!




One response

29 09 2010

The government’s warnings were well-founded. In fact, immediately upon arrival, you were seized by thugs and given a powerful hallucinogen, then robbed. You’re just remembering the crazy drug trip you had.

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