Travelling in Southeast Asia's "Next Big Thing"
Originally publishing in the Jakarta Globe, 01/02/12
The battered white taxi bounces over the potholes, and shadowy figures on old-fashioned bicycles loom out of the darkness. The headlights play for a moment on the golden dome of a Buddhist pagoda, and away to the east the first light of the coming day is showing behind the ridges.
The driver’s name is The Ha U, and he speaks unexpectedly fluent English.
“I’m actually an engineering lecturer at a local university,” he says, “but salaries are very low here in Burma, so I have to work as a taxi driver in the mornings.”
The Ha U is taking me down the bumpy road to the little town of Nyaungshwe at the head of Inle Lake.
“And the good thing is that there are many more tourists now, so I am making more money,” he says. He’s right – when we reach Nyaungshwe it turns out that most of the hotels are full…
Things are changing in Burma, Southeast Asia’s original pariah state. In 2010 democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from years of house arrest, a nominally civilian government took power, media restrictions were loosened, and some of the country’s thousands of political prisoners were set free. High profile diplomatic visits have followed, with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague coming to call in recent months.
And the steady drip-feed of positive news has had an unexpected side-effect. In 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy dropped their long-standing demand for a tourism boycott. Tourism numbers surged by more than 20% last year, to 360,000. Burma, it seems, is set to become Southeast Asia’s hot new travel destination, and I am here to see what the country has to offer.
Inle Lake is Burma’s answer to Sumatra’s Danau Toba – a long lozenge of water hemmed in by the high hills of the Shan State. Stilt villages stand over the shallows, and the local Intha people grow tomatoes on beds of floating reeds.
I am certainly not alone here, however – in the lakeside village of Ywama there are dozens of other tourists, clicking away with cameras as local women in orange head scarfs hawk muddy catfish, fresh from the lake.
Robert, a German tourist I meet here, says he is surprised by how “touristy” he has found Burma to be.
“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 really is,” he says.
From Inle I head north into the hills, travelling along a rickety railway laid in the 19th century when Burma was part of the British Empire. I disembark from the train in the little upland town of Hsipaw. This was once the capital of an independent Shan kingdom; today it is a sleepy backwater where monks in maroon robes wander in the market between women with turmeric-daubed faces. Hsipaw is also experiencing its own miniature tourism boom.
In a peaceful garden on the outskirts I chat to Khin Myint Htay, a local widow who decided to take advantage of her school-learnt English by opening a café for foreigners late last year.
“I learnt to make good coffee from a German tourist, and I always try to get more suggestions from all my visitors,” she says.
From Hsipaw I head back west to Mandalay. Burma may be beginning to open up, but it has a long way to go in terms of development. There is no street-lighting here, except where locals tie a lamp to a tree, and the roads are riddled with potholes. But there is plenty of commerce in everything from secondhand books to Chinese toys. I wander between Buddhist monasteries and teahouses where old men huddle over cups of tea sweetened with condensed milk. Around 90% of Burma’s population follow Theravada Buddhism, and most local men spend at least a few years of their life as a monk.
After a few days in Mandalay I continue my journey to Bagan, where Burma’s Buddhist heritage reaches its most spectacular manifestation. The dusty plain here is dotted with some 4000 pagodas, built between the 11th and 13th centuries. There are souvenir hawkers around the biggest temples, but I hire a rickety bicycle and head out along the sandy paths between scrubby fields and clumps of purple bougainvillea. Tourism here may be booming – and guesthouses in the nearby town of Nyaung U fully booked – but the unbeaten track is never far away in Burma.
The train is creeping over the fertile flatlands that flank the Andaman Sea. The breeze comes through the open windows in hot gusts, and bow-legged hawkers come shuffling down the aisle to sell hardboiled quails’ eggs and sweet coffee. On the seats opposite me a party of Buddhist nuns in pink robes sit smoking aniseed-scented cheroots.
I have headed south from the heartlands and am now approaching the sleepy town of Mawlamyine, the original capital of British Burma, a place where old churches still stand beneath the palm trees. The town lies off the main tourist routes through Burma, but even here the recent uptick has had an impact.
In a riverfront guesthouse which once belonged to a British teak trader, the owner, a middle-aged man named Ivan, tells me that the past year has been the busiest since he gained his license to accept foreigners in 1997.
“Last year we had more than 1100 foreign guests; just yesterday there were 17 staying. I don’t really know why this is happening, but probably because the country is becoming more open and the situation is improving,” he says.
My time in Burma is almost over, and from Mawlamyine I head back to Yangon. This is the country’s biggest city and home to its only significant international airport, but it is still a far cry from the glass-and-concrete megalopolises of other Asian nations. Downtown is a place dominated by tall British-built houses with stucco balconies. Ramshackle buses ply the streets and monks wander the cracked pavements looking for alms.
It is hard to tell how sincere and how far reaching recent reforms in Burma will prove to be in the long run, but something has certainly changed. As I wander Yangon on my final morning I spot vendors openly selling laminated portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi. Just a few years ago they would likely have suffered harassment from the authorities; now they are doing a roaring trade.
Local guesthouse owner Aung Bo gives me a lift to the airport. He is a portly, middle-aged man dressed in a longyi, a Burma-style sarong. As we rattle along the crowded streets, he tells me that the tourist trade is flourishing.
“Right now there is not enough accommodation in Yangon. Every place licensed for foreigners is full,” he says; “The biggest reason for this is that Burma has become more open, so foreigners are happier to come here.”
The imposing gold outline of Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda looms to the right, and Aung Bo smiles at me in the rearview mirror.
“You know, people should forget about ideas like socialism, capitalism and communism. There are really only two kinds of government in the world – difficult and easy!” he says.
Burma has certainly long labored under the former. As we pass the first advertising hoardings and tower blocks – modest by Indonesian standards – and the airport comes into view, I am not sure whether it will be enjoying the latter in years to come. But while the door is open, I’m sure that this is a country worth visiting.
© Tim Hannigan 2012