May 27, 2013

Burma: The Good, The Bad, The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!"

Did you read Tom's thoughts on Burma? No? Well, you should. Check them out here.

And now, our full wrap-up of all the best and worst parts of our time in Burma. We call this, 'The Good, The Bad, The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!" But, like last time, when we reviewed India, we'll start with "The Bad," then move on to "The 'Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!'" and end with "The Good." (We're idealists, remember?)

The Bad

The Tourist Conveyor Belt
I think we mentioned a few times that we sometimes felt like we were on the tourist track while in Burma. Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake are the major stops on this circuit and, while each place provides more than enough reason to visit, it was difficult to carve out a unique experience while visiting. For now, thanks to the recent lift of UN sanctions on Burma, there are only a handful of places with a tourism infrastructure, which means that everyone rides the same busses, stays on the same roads, and visits the same places. Hopefully, as more parts of the country become open to tourists, each location will thin out a bit and it will be easier to find a special place for yourself. 

Burmese Food
We love food. Nearly all food. We love vegetarian food, meat dishes, street food, fried food, fresh vegetables, rice dishes, noodle dishes, etc. You get the picture. We love food and tasting our way through our travels has been one of the highlights of our time. Food was not, however, a highlight of our time in Burma. In fact, it was a low point. Burmese food lacks the spices of other Southeast Asian cooking, and there's not much variety. To top it off, Burmese food is loaded with oil. We were told the oil was used as a preservation technique and to help keep flies out of the food but it just wasn't very appetizing at times. We were usually able to find something tasty enough to eat, but nothing really blew our socks off.
Tiny Yangon Room

The Cost of Lodging
We read somewhere that there were 10 times MORE tourists in Burma this year over last year. Yet there aren't significantly more guesthouses. This, of course, means that lodging, compared with other parts of SE Asia, is expensive. In Yangon, for example, we were in a teeny, tiny room with a shared (scary) bathroom for $18/night. Elsewhere in SE Asia, that same room would have been around $5-6/night.

The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!"

The Vomiting
That might be the best bullet point/paragraph heading I've ever written. One of the things we noticed on our first long bus ride in Burma was that all the locals were puking. All of them. Constantly. For 10  hours. Each bus seat has a little plastic barf bag, and many, MANY people utilized both their's and their neighbor's. I don't know if SE Asians have a different equilibrium or something, but it made for very smelly bus rides filled with unpleasant sounds. This happened on every bus ride we took in Burma. At times, we'd be surrounded by locals (moms, dads, monks, kids) puking their heads off. After we visited other SE Asian countries, we realized this is common in other places as well. But nowhere was it more prevalent than with The Barfing Burmese.

The Former Government
Please click here to get a brief account of recent Burmese history. First, let me say that things are getting better. At least, they appear to be getting better. At this point, it's too early to know if life will really continue to improve for the Burmese. But here are a few things everyone should know:
  • A military junta runs the Burmese government and plunders all of Burma's resources for themselves, leaving the people starving, uneducated, and in poor health.
  • In healthcare, Burma ranks 190 out of 191 countries.
  • Burmese people have to constantly worry about secret police listening to their conversations. If they speak out against their government at all, they could be arrested in the middle of the night and brutally interrogated, tortured, imprisoned, or killed. Their families often never know where they went. This is getting better. Tom saw a noticeable difference in the openness of the people this time around and, these days, it's not longer considered illegal to question your governmen, and people are talking a lot more. But it was illegal only about a year ago. So freedom is a new thing and it could certainly turn the other direction just as quickly.
  • In 2007, Burmese monks, typically apolitical, began a protest later called the Saffron Revolution, in support of their country's people. Despite their peaceful protests, the regime met them with violence, a shocking turn of events for these nonviolent people. 
  • 2008 brought Cyclone Nargis to Burma, killing over 130,000 people and causing nearly 1 million to be homeless. It was the worst natural disaster in Burmese history. The United Nations rose to the occasion, attempting to send food, medical supplies, and money to aid Burma. The government denied these relief efforts for days, saying they didn't need outside help and could take care of their people on their own. They couldn't. Their refusal to accept help ultimately contributed to more deaths, damage, and illness.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi (the Burmese call her "The Lady," at least in part so that they can speak about her freely and not draw attention to their political conversations), the leader of the National League for Democracy, was released from house arrest in 2010. She spent 15 of the last 21 years in house arrest for opposing the current government. She was always a peaceful opposer, never turning to violence or encouraging radical action. She has always condoned peaceful opposition and change through compromise. The government, still so threatened by her power in Burma, kept her locked away and rigged the elections she was in. As of April, 2012, Suu Kyi was elected to the lower house of Burmese Parliament and, in a huge show of improvement, has been allowed to keep her seat. As I said, big changes are happening!
If you want to know more about Burma, we highly recommend you watching the documentary, "Burma VJ." The trailer for the film is below.

We also enjoyed watching "They Call it Myanmar," and I've learned a lot from a few different books, "The Art of Hearing Heartbeats" by Jan-Philipp Sendker, "Perfect Hostage" by Justin Wintle, and "Letters From Burma" by Aung San Suu Kyi. We are very excited and hopeful about the changes in Burma, but we must understand where they have come from so that we can help keep it from happening again.

The Good

That may seem like a generalization, and it's probably not the most exciting thing you've ever read, but it's true. Collectively, Tom and I have been to about 40 countries, and the people in Burma are the kindest we've ever encountered. We were always greeted warmly, met with a smile, asked about our lives, and even welcomed into homes. While it's true that people all around SE Asia have this same warm demeanor, there was something more genuine about our experiences in Burma. Perhaps it's because they aren't quite as jaded by tourism as the rest of the region...yet. Or maybe it's just because they've been through so much and know what a rich resource kindness is. Either way, we were blown away. At two different moments, I actually cried because I was so overwhelmed by the kindness we were shown. Thailand has the nickname as the "Land of 1000 Smiles," but we're convinced that this is only because they beat Burma to the punch. We propose a new tourism slogan. "Burma, Land of A Zillion, Million, Billion Smiles...Times Infinity"

Bus Travel
We mentioned before that the busses and roads are all pretty new in Burma. The busses were some of the nicest we've ever ridden, often staffed with a uniformed attendant. (Tom nearly fell in love with a very smiley bus attendant named Chi Chi.)

Tom and I won't claim to know much about the actual practice of Buddhism, but we can say that it brings a peacefulness to a region and a community that we've never experienced in non-Buddhist areas, and that warmth and calm settles over everyone it encounters like a blanket. One of the best parts about Buddhism in Burma is that the monasteries often take in orphans or very impoverished children. And, while those children lead a strict life of meditation, hard work, and studying, they are given a clean home, an education, and a community to be a part of. It's a wonderful thing.

Seeing Friends
We have been so lucky to see a few friends along the way in our travels. These visits give us the taste of home we need at times and keep us from getting the blues. We were thrilled when it turned out our friends, Dave and Kate, were going to be in Burma in February and that our trips would overlap. We got to hang out with them in Pyin Oo Lwin and also in Bagan.

The Kids
Burmese kids are the cutest kids in the world. Period. End of Story. Don't believe me?
Exhibit A:
If you read this blog regularly, you're tired of seeing this kid in my pictures. I don't care.
He's so cute I could race back to Burma now just to hug him.
Truthfully, we loved almost everywhere we visited in Burma, but these are some standouts:
  • Shwedagon Pagoda: This has to be one of the most beautiful things we've ever seen. The way this temple in Yangon lights up at night is absolutely breathtaking. Watching the devout pray and make offerings is awe-inspiring. You could easily spend 3-4 hours at this beautiful place just enjoying the atmosphere and watching the sun set, casting different glows upon the majestic dome of the pagoda. We couldn't recommend it enough!
  • Kyaukme: We mentioned, above, that Burma could sometimes feel like a tourist conveyor belt, and that's true. In Kyaukme is where we found solitude and some relief from the cookie cutter experience. Read about our time by clicking here. We had a fantastic guide for our 3 day trek and it was in these mountains where we were shown the most kindness. Our hosts and the surrounding villagers spoke no English and we spoke no Shan (with the exception of the obligatory "hello" and "thank you"), but it never mattered. We played with their children, shared meals, and slept on their floors. And we laughed with them. 
  • Bagan
  • Bagan: Don't tell anyone, but I think Bagan is even more breathtaking than Cambodia's Angkor Wat. That, obviously, is saying A LOT, because Angkor is absolutely stunning. In terms of sheer size, Angkor has Bagan beat. When it comes to history, Angkor probably wins again. But there's something other-worldly about the red sandstone of Bagan's temples against the backdrop of bright blue sky that just won my heart. I loved our days of riding around on bicycles (something much more difficult to do at the larger Angkor Wat), stopping for lunch at roadside eateries, and finding remote pagodas to explore. Those days were some of my favorite on the road so far.

Avocados and Tomatoes
We live in California, so we're pretty spoiled when it comes to produce. And, while we weren't impressed with the rest of Burma's food, their avocados and tomatoes were incredible. The avocados were the size of my foot and the tomatoes were sweet and densely flavored. We especially loved the tomatoes grown in the floating gardens at Inle Lake

What else did we do in Burma? We:

As always, you can view all of our pics by clicking here. Follow the below links to see specific photos:


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