5 words/phrases that describe Myanmar: Happy, welcoming, naturally diverse, exciting, hot and dusty
What seems to make the Myanmar people happy? I’d have to say – life. There were very few occasions I ever caught an Burmese person looking glum or unhappy. They seem to have a natural flow of happiness running through their veins.
What seems to make the Myanmar people unhappy? I imagine the hangover from the Thingyan Water Festival is pretty huge. After four days of partying the idea of not throwing water over everyone and thing would be a real downer!
Did you ever feel out of your comfort zone while in Myanmar? Not in any way. Even when stopping at the border to leave the country, surrounded by armed guards or pulling up to the numerous police posts around the towns there was never an air of fear. It helps when a smile appears as soon as eye contact is made.
What can other countries learn from Myanmar? Retaining the purity of their country is the most important thing they’ve done as their tourism industry expands. A natural greed develops as tourist dollars start to flow into the country resulting in an over-saturation of tacky tourist-based merchandising and tours. Myanmar is a great example of how measured, controlled exposure to the outside world develops a tourism industry that retains its uniqueness – the reason people want to visit in the first place.
Best thing I saw: Sunrise over the temples at Bagan. I’d seen the photos before leaving on our trip and knew it’d be incredible in person. But to climb up high and watch the big orange ball rise over the dusty, smoky plains with the spires of hundreds of pagodas (dating from the 9th century) poking out, was otherworldly.
Best thing I heard: Ridiculously heavy techno music pumping through the streets of the capital during the Water Festival. Seriously? I was expecting slightly more traditional Burmese folk music for four days! To see people of all ages dancing their socks off was mind-blowing.
Best thing I smelt: The clear, cool air of the mountains as we left the country for India. After three months of Asian heat and humidity the temperature slowly dropped as we drove north and gained altitude.
Best thing I did: Went for a long run around the capital Yangon on the morning of the first day of the Water Festival. Looping around Kandawgyi Lake in the centre of the city, I passed hundreds of people setting up stalls, floats and water tanks for a day of saturated carnage! It was a wonderful way to feel the building excitement of the festival before it got going. Exploring the park, lake, colonial buildings and iconic sights with relatively little traffic was amazing!
Best thing I tasted: Myanmar beer. Finally a lager in SE Asia that wasn’t a flavourless, gassy attempt at an alcoholic beverage! Darker in colour, full of flavour and a worthy winner of ‘Ben’s Best Beer So Far Award’.
Best local character I met: Our guide with Burma Senses, Phyo. A wonderful, helpful, intelligent man who made our visit to the country one I’ll never forget. If you’re thinking of your own Myanmar adventure, be sure to ask for him.
Best surprise ‘n’ delight moment: Arriving across the border from Thailand on our first day, our convoy drove up a steep, winding mountain pass into Myanmar. As the traffic ground to a halt locals surrounded the car, dancing their little socks off before thrusting cups of their local (non-alcoholic) drink through our window. I looked at Sophee, she looked at me and I downed it!
5 words/phrases that describe Myanmar: Beautiful, warm (climate and people), devoutly Buddhist, untouched, evolving
What seems to make the Myanmar people happy? They LOVE international visitors. We felt like celebrities. They also find happiness in taking care of others, which probably stems from their Buddhist beliefs and values.
What seems to make the Myanmar people unhappy? For the most part, the Myanmar people seem very happy (like the Thais). While there are many who have very basic living standards, few seem “in need” as the communities support their people. Plus, being predominantly Buddhist, they believe in living simple lives. I think border tensions cause stress at times (e.g. between Myanmar and China).
Did you ever feel out of your comfort zone while in Myanmar? Never. I loved the place. The lack of internet was frustrating at times, but there’s so much to do and enjoy, it wasn’t a big deal.
What can other countries learn from Myanmar? The concept of community. The people of Myanmar actively seek to help someone in their community on a daily basis. It’s a big priority for them. The first time we encountered villagers in Myanmar, they were trying to pass free drinks through our window – just because it was a nice thing to do. In Western cultures, we generally think about ourselves first followed by our loved ones. Very few are community-minded. Myanmar people also place a lot less value on possessions than Westerners do. Their ability to find happiness in simplicity is very inspiring.
Best thing I saw: I loved the village at the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo. Seeing the colossal, gravity defying Golden Rock was just the beginning. There was so much going on, so much to take it. I’m talking: freaky food such as fried snakes, hefty tourists being carried on the backs of able bodied men, devout Buddhists taking their pilgrimage very seriously, locals wearing their finest and brightest sarongs and blouses, money being thrown into the air for good luck. It was mad!
Best thing I heard: The stories of the other travellers in our tour group. It was interesting hearing about the different routes everyone was taking, their best and worst travel experiences to date, their lives back home and their motives for exploring the world indefinitely.
Best thing I smelt: The best thing about Myanmar was that it didn’t smell. In most of the other South East Asian countries, the waft of sewerage is a regular feature. Myanmar must be more advanced with their infrastructure in that department!
Best thing I did: Let my hair down at Thingyan Water Festival. I usually find it hard to let go of my inhibitions unless I’m under the influence of wine. But the festive, free-spirited vibe at Thingyan was truly infectious and I didn’t want to have any regrets. So, I got amongst the action and loved every minute of it.
Best thing I tasted: OMG! Let me tell you about it. On our last day in Myanmar, we passed through a small village before the border post and dropped into a “rustic” restaurant for breakfast. They put what looked like a square lump of beige batter in front of me. But, once I took my first bite, my thoughts changed immediately. It tasted like the best doughnut in the world. They’d sliced some sweet bread (kind of like raisin toast but without the raisins), dunked it in a doughy batter and then fried it. I’m sure it wasn’t good for me but, my God, it was delicious!
Best local character I met: Myanmar’s teen scene absolutely rocked, especially the boys. While the women were quite traditional and elegant in their fashion and slightly timid in nature, the boys were wild. They loved expressing their unique identities through pop-punk fashion, crazy hair cuts and even makeup. When it came to the Thingyan Water Festival, it was the teen boys who were owning the dance floor and pulling others into the action. Their vibrant, free-spirited nature was wonderful to watch.
Best lost in translation moment: Our guide seemed unsure about distances. We’d ask him how far to the next stop. One minute he’d say it was 300 kilometres, the next he’d say it was 300 miles. When we tried to confirm it was 300 kilometres, he’d shake his head (“No”) whilst saying, “Yes, it’s 300 miles.” This happened regularly. While it was funny for us, the guys on motorbikes found it a bit frustrating. The difference between kilometres and miles can be the difference between a good ride and an exhausting one.
Best surprise ‘n’ delight moment: The bus ride to Golden Rock. The Myanmar version of a bus is very different to the ones we complain about in the Western World. Passengers are packed into the back of an open-air truck like cattle. They literally sit knee-to-butt and shoulder-to-shoulder. It was hilarious (and slightly uncomfortable in the 40 degree heat). The journey up to Golden Rock was wild, like the ultimate roller coaster ride. There were hairpin turns, dramatic drop-offs, gear grinding slopes. The whole experience really got my heart racing. The locals seemed to take it in their stride.
To see more photos from our time in Myanmar, visit our Flickr gallery