Tag Archives: Mawlamyine

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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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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