Category Archives: Myanmar

Mawlamyine, Myanmar: Easy for you to say

Being overzealous often requires flexibility as Diane and I learned once again in Myanmar. Having experienced our first work exchange program in Tasmania, Australia only a few months earlier, you’d think I would have learned my lesson since we left that assignment one week earlier than planned mostly because it was harder than we expected. Well, harder than I expected, anyway. Not really Diane’s idea, the work exchange concept seemed like a decent way to spend some extra time in various nations we wanted to see anyway without incurring huge financial burdens. Although we thoroughly enjoyed the chance to learn about and take part in running a small business, the programs work better for younger generation backpacker types with limited financial means who are willing to work harder than middle class early retirees like us. Always learning the hard way, I went ahead anyway and planned our Myanmar itinerary around a 10 day stay at what appeared to be a reasonably nice lodge right in Kinpun Village, gateway to The Golden Rock, one of the top five attractions in Myanmar. 

imagePlanning on taking the bus back to Yangon before flying up to Kalaw and Inle Lake, plans quickly changed when we arrived and discovered the lodge wasn’t exactly what the proprietor described. Although on a beautiful and large piece of property, the new proprietors (who live offsite in Yangon) either ran low on funds or decided that two stars were enough for a village that serves no real purpose other than a quick stopover for those not keen on 18 hour day trips. Upon arrival, the local manager told us there were no other guests due to low season and showed us to a closet sized room with dirty walls, an air conditioner the size of a hand-held fan, a mattress that wasn’t really suitable for sleeping and absolutely nothing else except a bar of soap and what passed for a shower.

Realizing the accommodation was unacceptable and the daytime heat was scorching, we asked the English-speaking lodge manager what type of work we’d be doing since they already had a staff of eight and she told us “not much”. With little else to do other than visit Golden Rock and mingle with villagers (which turned out to be a highlight of the trip), spending ten days in the blazing heat with regular power outages and a manager unwilling to use the generator unless they had three paying guests didn’t seem like fun so we simply paid a reduced rate for three nights in the “deluxe room”. Naturally, the wifi didn’t work after the first day which made Googling other options difficult. Fortunately, Yangon was only four hours away by bus and the Hotel Accord was comfortable and inexpensive so we spent an extra four days in the big city and Googled away. Located only another 80 kilometers east of Golden Rock, Mawlamyine is Myanmar’s third largest city and not very popular with tourists, especially in the hot season. Once the first capital of British Burma, it’s the setting of George Orwell’s famous 1936 memoir Shooting an Elephant and probably most well-known to Brits by the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay. Not exactly on most tourist’s radar, it seemed perfect.

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Long Train Runnin’

Recently, I commented how Anthony Bourdain’s premier episode of Parts Unknown featuring Myanmar was almost obsolete despite being filmed only three years ago. Luckily (or maybe unluckily depending on your viewpoint), there’s still one thing that not only remains stuck in yesteryear but probably isn’t changing anytime soon. Unlike most Southeast Asian trains, traveling by rail anywhere in Myanmar hasn’t advanced much since prisoners of war built the extensive network way back when. Although not recommended for long distance travel, there’s two great three-hour day trip options giving visitors a sense of the real “developing nation” feel. Commuters, merchants and vendors ride Yangon’s only version of urban rail transport as it meanders its way through rather poor looking subdivisions, garbage strewn decaying brick structures passing as train stations and some agricultural districts lining the area near the airport. Further north, we found mostly backpackers on “The Slow Train from Thazi” which offers a long but scenic option for traveling to the Inle Lake area or simply day tripping from Kalaw like we did. Arriving in Yangon first, we enjoyed the first option as part of our second day’s itinerary.

Ynagon's Central Railway Station

Yangon’s Central Railway Station

Dubbed “The Circular Train“, the 24 mile commuter rail line through Yangon’s suburban districts improved a bit since most guide-book descriptions and now features relatively comfortable trains with fans, (slightly) cushioned seats and fans to ease the heat. Slowly dragging its way from the city’s beautifully classic and antiquated central rail station north to the airport and then back again, it’s an opportunity to see the area, meet some locals and best of all, visit the city’s classic Central Railway Station. Taking a taxi from The Merchant Hotel, our first boutique option that came recommended from the proprietor of a not so luxurious lodge in Kin Pun Village, we paid about 3000 Kyat and arrived at the large dirt parking area that houses the grand colonial Central Railway Station. Like most tourist destinations in Yangon, they charge the taxi a fee to drop off passengers despite the low non-metered fares. Relying on Lonely Planet explanations, we made our way up and over the foot bridge to the ticket counter at platform seven.

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Big City Changes

Revisiting a travelogue featuring the place we’ve just visited is a ritual in our household and any episode of an Anthony Bourdain show takes top priority. Ironically, they shot the premier episode of his highly successful CNN series “Parts Unknown” in Myanmar only three short years ago. Comfortably back in the confines of what now appears to us as our highly developed home territory of Malaysia, we grabbed some tortilla chips and sat down on the couch to see how much we’d recognize. Unlike most other nations, almost every topic mentioned is almost totally obsolete since the original air date. Focusing mainly on the authoritative regime that’s kept the people of Myanmar fearful of speaking with foreigners, the show injects way too many shots of government atrocities, riots in the streets and historic photos of the old Burmese colony under British rule.

Children become new best friends quickly in Myanmar

Children become new best friends quickly in Myanmar

Catching only a few glances of anything recognizable, it seems Yangon singlehandedly transformed itself from a place where locals went from cautiously optimistic to overly enthusiastic. Currently very different from the not so busy looking streets they showed, it’s like they sugar-coated the episode for fear of political repercussion and the vibrancy exhibited today reflects one of the world’s fastest transformations from a repressed fearful society to an open-minded and quickly developing nation. Possibly the strangest sound bite was his testament to the nation’s lack of modern communications:

“Internet? Forget it. Downloading something? Nope. 3G? Not happening.”

The busiest line in the postal building is the telecom company

The busiest line in the postal building is the telecom company

In only three short years, not only did they wire the nation top to bottom but they successfully transformed the citizens into one the world’s highest users of smartphones per capita. With 80 million people, this is no small feat and proves how eager people are to quickly embrace change that represents progress. Seeing monks spend more time texting than meditating is commonplace in many Buddhist nations and the days of wine making are as far removed as the stately colonial buildings now mostly relegated to dilapidated eyesores. Having razed six square blocks of downtown to make way for an enormous office and shopping complex now under construction furthers the argument to visit soon before the great transition wipes away all signs of the past 60 years. Although we didn’t frequent the many tea shops, Bourdain spent time with some journalists reminiscing about jail sentences and harped on the tea shop being the focal point of society where people exchanged ideas and read any available newspapers. Far fetched for a new internet generation, only those older than us read print media and Google maps makes it easy to explore the heart of Yangon.

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Shedding the “Burmese” Legacy

Let’s set the record straight. The people of Myanmar are not “Burmese”. Despite what the current issue of Air Asia’s inflight magazine tells you, the world’s newest democracy goes by the name “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”. Standing out larger than anything, the wonderful people will likely be your fondest memory of your trip. Diane and I discovered the younger generation’s keen sense of nationalism and pride while trekking through the hills of Shan State (Suffering would actually be a better word but we’ll post more about that later). Rather disappointed with our guide’s poor English-speaking skills, we trudged through the mountain terrain passing only the occasional water buffalo and some funny looking humped cows, Searching for some conversation about the environment, local people or anything to make us forget how poorly the company communicated a need for appropriate footwear, we asked a question about Burmese food.

The local well in the village we stayed at on our trek

The local well in the village we stayed at on our trek

Coming to life as if we’d committed the ultimate tourism faux pas, he immediately corrected us in broken English and launched into a tirade about how the term “Burmese” represents colonialism and western colonization. Correcting us quickly but unable to explain why the world still mostly refers to their food and people as “Burmese”, his interpretation clearly illustrates a new nationalism and heartfelt sense of pride that shouts “Myanmar people” although he wasn’t sure how to coin a new phrase for the food (We suggested “Myanmarish” or ‘Myanmarian“). Traveling around the country gave us a renewed appreciation of how privileged most of us are. Taking for granted things like paved roads, blackout free electricity and modernized waste disposal systems, Myanmar is a “developing nation” in the truest sense of the expression and makes Malaysia’s infrastructure look like Utopia. But unlike sub Saharan Africa’s corrupt governments or South America’s never ending citizen uprisings, Myanmar functions beautifully and already jumped the development scale tenfold in the last few years, making it the greatest Southeast Asian destination for those seeking safety, a slightly rugged environment and enough hospitality to make anyone feel welcome.

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Great Tourism; Bad Journalism

As we approach the last night of our three-week stay in beautiful Myanmar, we’d like to offer a heartfelt thank you to the wonderful Myanmar people who graciously made our stay so wonderful . We very much appreciated their  “Warmly Welcome” slogan posted all over the country and the people of Myanmar should be recognized as the industry standard all over Southeast Asia for how to properly treat visitors and foreigners.

imageHaving said that, an interesting thing happened after my last post. In my 18 months of blogging nobody’s ever felt so insulted by my comments to go as far as slandering me in the online media. Acting obnoxiously high and mighty, this person decided how readers should decipher my words in a way similar to many American media outlets that often inject “news stories” with loaded innuendo that tells their audience how to interpret what they hear instead of deciding for themselves. Regular readers know I often inject my stories with personal opinions and occasionally sarcasm which I think sets my blog apart from travel posts  filled with “we did this: we went there”. Sometimes readers agree, sometimes not.

Setting them apart from the professional media, personal blogs are just that; one person’s opinion. Nobody deserves to be singled out and unfairly targeted by someone who disagrees strongly with a post. Taking advantage of their obviously uninteresting job writing stories about Yangon and environs, the article I’ve cited below is a seriously unprofessional attempt to undermine my observations and either bully me into apologizing or make someone feel good about themselves. Even the proprietor of my work exchange encouraged us to “stay away from smelly downtown”. Denying it’s in need of a drastic upgrade and cleanup is simply irresponsible writing but that has nothing to do with the people or my fascination with the vibrant and lively city life.

Interestingly, most people who commented on this person’s attack understood that I very much respected and loved the people of Myanmar for their warmth, graciousness and good-natured personalities. Naturally, the writer conveniently forgot to include all the good things. Because I mentioned the garbage and poverty that’s an unfortunate reality of Myanmar, this person decided to dictate their morality on me by publishing what amounts to a childish flame. Disappointed that they have nothing better to do, I offer no apologies for not sugar-coating a post about a developing nation. Sadly, Myanmar ranks 148 out of 190 on the quality of life scale but as evidenced from my words, it’s easy to forget this thanks to the people. Nowhere did I insult or belittle anyone or “glorify poverty”. In fact , I praised almost everything about the country despite its problems. Descriptions of dilapidated buildings and garbage don’t constitute “egregious insults” as one of this person’s fans gracefully put it.

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Flame wars are not my thing and I’m one person trying to enjoy my early retirement so if you believe slandering someone because you disagree with something they write is acceptable, click the link below and join the party. Or maybe you think the Internet is a big place and if someone doesn’t like the opinions, they can read something else. Ironically, I received triple the hits and a bunch of new followers from this person’s unfair and unprofessional post, proving once again that negativity sells. Just look at the Republican presidential nominee. Either way, we loved our trip and maybe I should feel honored that my writing is so good someone felt compelled to try to ruin my blog’s reputation (as if a small blog with 300 followers carries a reputation worth ruining). Once we return I’ve got lots of great stories and pictures from one of the world’s most fascinating countries so I hope you keep reading and understand that offending people is Trump’s job, not mine.

Here’s the slanderous link if you feel compelled to read it.

http://yangon.coconuts.co/2016/05/04/mostly-horribly-old-and-overcrowded-yangon-travel-blog-pretty-devastating

Cheers from Yangon and thanks to those that appreciate my insights. As I said before, Myanmar is a fascinating contrast of old and new that’s just been handed a golden opportunity for a bright future. Beautiful, interesting and worth your visit, we hope to return again once they’ve had a chance to mature financially and economically.

Comments are always welcome including negative ones but disrespecting my opinion by inciting others to interpret my viewpoints as negative stinks like the Trump campaign so please don’t do it. 

Southeast Asia’s Last End of Innocence

Completing our second of three weeks here in Myanmar, it’s been a fascinating trip so far and tomorrow we head up north to the mountainous Shan State for some scenic beauty. Although the 3G SIM cards available at the airport on arrival offer astoundingly great coverage in places that look like so shabby they make Malaysia look like Paris, the wifi is not very good so I wanted to post some pictures of our first few days in Yangon before heading out. Differentiating Myanmar from other developing nations in Africa, central and South America, it’s people are awesome. Genuinely warm, amazingly generous and extremely proud, there’s no begging despite widespread poverty and a lot of sub standard living conditions. Blessed with beautiful features like long flowing hair, beautifully perfect white teeth, great complexions and smiles that steal you heart, the Burmese deserve better than what they’ve had and hopefully the new democratically elected government will bring the dilapidated infrastructure into the 21st century.

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Unable to support the ridiculously fast growth rate that’s inundated the nation in the last few years, the power grid is a joke and the electricity goes off about every two hours no matter where you are in the country. (As I wrote this post, the power went off. Each time, someone in manually starts the hotel’s generator and this requires 24/7 staff. Don’t take elevators in Myanmar). Supporting the economy with diesel-powered generators, every hotel, gas station, and business has them and people act like it’s totally normal. Neighborhoods in Yangon vary from downright shanty where every structure is one of those weathered filthy looking buildings to moderately upscale but nothing close to other Southeast Asian nations with only a few five star hotels (that’s changing g fast).

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Developing Beauty

Apologizing for the long delay due to limited WiFi, Diane and I have been in Myanmar for a week now. Finding it difficult to put into words, this county is a special place that steals your heart from the minute you walk out of the airport. Having spent a few days in Yangon, travelling out to The Golden Rock area by bus and returning again, we can’t get seem to get enough. Catching us both off guard, let’s clarify something from the beginning. Looking more like a real third world city in sub Saharan Africa similar to what we’ve seen on episodes of The Amazing Race, much of the city’s buildings look dilapidated with that horrible dark gray soot covering every inch of the building.

imageStrolling along the “strand” (waterfront) beckons the days of colonialism as you approach the controlled chaos of the ferry terminal that transports people across the river to an area known as Dala that’s actually considered a slum. Carrying everything from fish to rice in large baskets over their heads, you won’t likely find this much old world charm in the heart of any other major downtown area in Southeast Asia. Unlike Penang, Myanmar is just beginning to enter its foray into vibrant tourism which means construction of modern buildings, hotels and shopping complexes. But most of it just started, leaving the city in a bizarre state where a shanty developing world meets modern storefronts, shopping complexes and new restaurants. Promising to post lots of stories and pictures once we get back, I want to focus on what makes this place so special; its people.

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