Magical Myanmar - We're Tourists and It's Great
I am pretty well-traveled but nothing prepared me for how I would feel about Myanmar. I didn't just coast around for a few days looking at temples and eating some cool food, Myanmar grabbed me by my collar and demanded I take notice. It was an assault on the senses and an eye-opening trip that made me remember why I love traveling so much.
Let me start by saying we are full-time travelers but we are not very good tourists. I hate the whole "I'm a traveler not a tourist" snobbery that gets bandied around but there is a difference between living a nomadic life and being a tourist. We live a normal life as we travel (chores, cooking, shopping, exercising), we just don't do it in one spot. We relocate every week, month or few months. But being a tourist is a bit different.You typically visit somewhere for a short period to see the sights, or lie on the beach and take a vacation. Faced with a few weeks to spare between our month long stays in Hua Hin and Chiang Mai in Thailand we decided to go on vacation.
When researching where to go we looked at other parts of Thailand and also considered Cambodia or Vietnam. But something kept bringing us back to Myanmar. I had read wonderful reports from other bloggers who visited but was put off a little because it was low season; very hot and the beginning of the rainy season. But what made it a good choice was the fact that Myanmar is still in the early days of opening up to tourists and it seemed we would never get another chance to see the country at its current state. We decided the weather could be tolerated and, on the plus side, the hotels would be cheaper and the tourists less numerous. Our decision was made.
I've visited over 30 countries but haven't added a new one to the list for a while. It had been couple of years since visiting our last new country, Panama in 2014 so I was looking forward to somewhere new. My expectations were high but tempered by the tendency for travel bloggers to make every place they visit sound wonderful. I'll follow up with a few posts, and some pictures about the three places we visited; Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon. But let me take this post to talk about what made Myanmar so special.
All visitors to Myanmar comment on the people, but it really is true. Everywhere we went, most especially in Mandalay where tourists at this time of year are few and far between, we were met with cheerful waves and the traditional greeting - Mingalabar. Children and adults alike had broad smiles and helped us whenever we needed it. The staff at hotels and restaurants couldn't do enough for us. The warmth of the population is palpable.
Everyone asks where you are from. If you say America, they always respond "Obama". If you say England they usually say "Manchester United". We didn't test out what they say if you say you are from another country.
The current state of progress in Myanmar is interesting. A new democratic government has been in place for just a few months. From the few people we talked to there seems to be optimism tinged with some realism about how difficult the task is to unite this troubled country.
Yes I said it! We have quite a low tolerance for temples and churches. After the third or fourth one we usually start to lose interest. But here the locations and sheer scale made the difference. Bagan is truly amazing. It's one of the most impressive places I've ever been and the Mandalay area has some truly incredible sights. We were a bit temple-tired by the time we reached Yangon but the Shwedagon Pagoda must surely be a contender for a wonder of the world. We finished with the best and decided we would enter a period of temple abstinence after that high-point.
Lack of Commercial Influence
This surely will change but we barely saw any global brands. Coca-cola is advertised but we rarely saw it being sold. KFC just opened a location in Yangon. The only other global brands we really saw were the ubiquitous Samsung smartphones everyone is carrying and imported used Toyotas. No Starbucks or McDonalds, no snack or food brands we recognized, no clothing stores or sports brands.
This is the undefinable quality that we struggled to put our finger on that made Myanmar so special. The energy, the feeling that things are changing, the vibrancy of Yangon, some of the unusual things we saw, the rough (and sometimes very rough) edges; all of it is hard to define. While in Yangon Iain and I both commented that walking down 19th street in downtown felt like being on a film set. The hustle and bustle, the sweltering, steamy weather, the lively atmosphere at the street cafes all felt too perfect, almost too contrived to be real.
I am so glad that we got to experience the country right now. I fell a little in love and now I will be watching nervously from the sidelines to see how this wonderful country fares when faced with the onslaught of the commercial interests of the world, and its still very tenuous democracy. I wish it well, and I hope we come back some day to see the progress.