Travelling in Myanmar
Originally published in Khaleej Times, 10/02/12
The woman has laid out her wares on a sheet of old cardboard on the pavement in downtown Yangon – a series of laminated portraits of the kind that proud patriots like to hang on their walls. A pair of camera-toting European tourists come wending their way through the throng of longyi-clad locals. They stop and stare at the instantly recognizable face, looking back at them from the posters. The woman smiles and nods as they level their cameras: “Aung San Suu Kyi!” she says.Something has changed in Myanmar. A few years ago selling these posters would have invited harassment from the authorities in this, Southeast Asia’s original pariah state. But now the woman is doing a roaring trade. In 2010 the decades of direct military rule came to an end. Aung San Suu Kyi herself, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was freed from house arrest, and a flurry of high profile diplomatic visits followed – US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague have come to call in recent months.
And with Myanmar’s door finally creaking open, there has been another change – the country seems to be on the brink of an unexpected tourism boom. In 2010 the NLD dropped its long-standing call for a tourism boycott. The initial influx was modest – around 300,000 foreign tourists in 2010 (Thailand received fifty times that number in the same year) – but it marked a dramatic 30% increase on the figures for previous years, and since then the upward trend has increased.
I have arrived in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, to see for myself what Asia’s newest travel destination has to offer.
For all the recent reforms, as I wander the city streets, I realize that this is still a land apart. There are none of the hulking high-rises that define the megalopolises elsewhere in the region. Here crumbling apartment buildings from the British colonial era dominate. Women hang washing from the stuccoed balconies, and flocks of pigeons clatter over the rooftops. Outside the old British law courts scholarly middle-aged men sit before battered typewriters, ready to write out petitions for illiterate plaintiffs. But there are plenty of foreign travelers admiring the city’s glittering golden pagodas and colonial relics.
Aung Bo, a local guesthouse owner, confirms that things are busier than ever.
“Right now there is not enough accommodation in Yangon. Every place licensed for foreigners is full,” he says. Aung Bo first started taking in foreign travelers 15 years ago after an inspirational visit to Bangkok’s backpacker ghetto, Khao San Road. But for all his experience, he has been surprised by the speed of the upsurge in recent months.
“Firstly I think it’s been because there were big floods in Thailand last year, so people were looking for an alternative. But the biggest reason is that Myanmar has become more open, so foreigners are more happy to come here,” he says.
The pale morning mist is melting over the steely waters, and the long black line of hills beyond is stark against a pale sky. The boat driver cuts the clattering outboard motor, and we drift in silence between the clumps of water hyacinth.
From Yangon I have travelled north on a new highway to the former royal capital at Mandalay, then branched east to Inle Lake, a long lozenge of water locked in the green hills of Shan State. It is just after dawn, and I have hired a local boat for a tour of the sights. The surface of the lake is studded with men who appear to be walking on water. They are fishermen, paddling their skiffs with the unique local technique of leg-rowing, balancing precariously at the very tip of the skiff, and drawing the single oar through the cool clear waters by hooking their lower leg around its length.
Inle was one of Myanmar’s original tourist destinations. The sleepy township of Nyaungshwe at the head of the lake is speckled with guesthouses, and this year they are busier than ever before. Most visitors I speak to express surprise at how “touristy” they have found Myanmar to be.
“The thing is, there are so many more travelers now, but everyone is still going to the same few places – Yangon, Mandalay, Inle and Bagan. They haven’t really opened up the rest of the country. That probably makes it feel more crowded than it is,” says Robert, a visitor from Germany, who I meet amongst the souvenir stalls at Ywama traditional market on the edge of the lake. Old village women in orange head cloths go about their business – hawking muddy vegetables and sweet rice pancakes cooked over hot charcoal – apparently oblivious to the hordes of camera-carrying trippers.
What is strange is that none of the other tourists I speak to can confirm that recent reforms influenced their decision to visit Myanmar.
“I’d already been to Laos and Cambodia, and Thailand is boring now, so I wanted to try somewhere new,” says Dutch traveler Rutger, who I meet a few days later in Bagan, a stretch of scrubby plain studded with some 4000 12th and 13th century pagodas. Like many other visitors, Rutger has taken advantage of cheap flights from Bangkok to tag a Myanmar onto a longer trip through Southeast Asia. But despite what he says, the shortage of rooms in the nearby town of Nyaung U suggests that the drip feed of positive news from the country in the past year has been having an effect on would-be travelers, even if only subconsciously.
From Myanmar’s central heartland I return to the steamy south, taking a slow-moving train out into the fertile flatlands that flank the Andaman Sea. A party of Buddhist nuns in pink robes sit smoking aniseed-scented cheroots opposite me, and a procession of bow-legged hawkers come clambering down the cluttered aisle to sell hard-boiled quails’ eggs, cold noodles, and sweet coffee. Other passengers talk to me shyly in old-fashioned school-taught English. They are delighted to welcome a foreigner to their country.
The end of the line for tourists is the old port town of Mawlamyine. Much of Myanmar is still closed to outsiders for security reasons. In the north the Kachin Independence Army is still in open conflict with the state, and in the south Karen National Union controls some of the remote border areas.
But I am free to wander the hot, slow-paced streets of Mawlamyine. This was the spot where the British set up their first outpost in 1827, and there are still fine old mansions and churches beneath the palm trees, and the Kyaikthalan Paya, the golden pagoda which inspired Rudyard Kipling to write the poem Mandalay, about a city he had never visited, still stands on the green ridge above the town. Inevitably, there are a fair few tourists about.
Ivan, the owner of a guesthouse that once belonged to a British teak trader on Mawlamyine’s riverfront, tells me that the past year had been the busiest since he gained his license in 1996.
“Last year we had more than 1100 foreign guests; just yesterday there were 17 staying!” he says.
My time in Myanmar is almost over, but before heading back north to Yangon I take a two-hour ride in a rattling bus to the little town of Hpa-An, the only part of restive Kayin State currently open to tourists. It’s a sleepy place where the local pagoda stands cheek-by-jowl with a stucco mosque.
I borrow a bicycle and head out into the countryside. Soon I am rattling along red dirt tracks between great sweeps of ripening rice. Knobby karst outcrops rise from the plains, and villages of neat wooden houses stand beneath the broad-leafed mango trees. This, I decide, is “the real Myanmar” that the increasing numbers of tourists are looking for.
I stop at a little roadside shack to buy water. The owner’s name is Bunny, and like many men from Myanmar he has sought his fortune abroad, working in a luxury resort in Malaysia. Now he is home for his annual visit to his wife and two small children.
“Compared to Malaysia Myanmar is really not developed. You could say this is a very poor country. But when I come home it is good to be here,” he says.
It is dusk by the time I finish chatting with Bunny, and he flags down a passing pickup to take me back to Hpa-An. They sling my bicycle on the roof and I squeeze in amongst the other passengers – old women with bundles of vegetables and trussed chickens. We bounce over the ruts through the lavender-tinted gloaming, and at the next village a young monk clambers aboard and perches himself on the tailboard. He smiles at me, and I catch sight of what he is carrying, wrapped in a clear plastic envelope – a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi…
© Tim Hannigan 2012