Contrary to popular -and professional- belief, it was very easy to withdraw local currency at ATMs and navigate the country. No military agent followed us, nor was it necessary for us to have unfolded dollar bills to pay for our room.
The political landscape remains foggy at best, despite Aung San Suu Kyi getting back into power -having been imprisoned for 20 years by the Junta and freed in 2010. Nobel peace prize laureate, heiress of her father’s ideology who fought for the independence of the country, the legislative elections (November 2015) asserting her popularity happened after our trip. (May 2015).
"Elected, hope was very alive, but what of it today?"
In any case, we had a contact in the country, relieving us from some of the pressure. That is how we knew we didn’t need to get in the country with dollar bills ready.
Eunyoung, our Korean friend working in Yangon (otherwise known as Rangoon) was kind enough to welcome us in her home.
She recalls her arrival in 2010, a time when SIM cards used to cost 500$ and were traded secretly. Today, the price is 3$. There is 3G everywhere, along with Wi-Fi. Things are moving fast.
In 10 years the capital city has traded her bicycles for insane traffic jams. Same goes for the city of Mandalay.
A taxi with TV on board.
The district where Eunyoung lived was more remote, allowing us to discover the night markets.
The neighbors are welcoming and easily talkative.
A peaceful silence follow. We enjoy the moment.
In the bus heading for Yangoon, a young man walks up to us and of out the blue asks:
Him: - May I ask you a question, please ?
Us: - Yes, sure !
Him: - Are you happy ?
Us, feeling a bit sheepish: - "Eeeeh...yes, yes!"
Him, relieved and grateful: - Ah good ! Very good, then I’m happy too !
For the record, we were treated as guests in that small bus. They didn’t accept our money and handed it back to us...twice!
What a departure from adjacent countries, tirelessly harassing tourists. I don’t know if Burma will remain that way, or for how long, but we were very grateful for the kindness.
Signs of the dictatorship may be visible still, but the Burmese people have other priorities. Life and knowledge.
To summarize roughly, young Burmese boys have 3 choices in life:
Take up the family business, that may very well end up being commandeered by the Junta.
Enlist in the Junta, and maybe end up in conflict with your close ones.
Become a Buddhist monk, devoting your entire life to learning and teaching. (93% of the country know how to read)
As stated above, the monk’s calling becomes a refuge for a lot of men. It’s not even by spiritual choice, it’s just been and still is a peaceful social status in the Burmese society.
For example, this young man, speaking impeccable English and used to be a tourist guide.
A lot of Burmese have access to the English language.
Their favorite author is George Orwell (who traveled in Burma), who wrote the highly politicized book 1984, known for introducing the concept of "Big Brother". It was a bit surreal to find this book, highly critical of dictatorship, being sold in the streets, perhaps hinting at changes to come.
Similarly, this local music band has been rocking it since 1991: meet Iron Cross. Iron Cross.
However shy and underlying it may be, the political message of the band can be heard everywhere, from buses to restaurants. Yes, in Burma, Buddhist monks listen to metal!
Driving to Bagan, our bus driver helped us avoid the tourist visa tax (20$/person) to visit the city. He somewhat forced his way through the roadblock! Incredible!
The driver yelled "No tourists here!" through the window and drove on, leaving the junta soldiers -standing guard under a 50°C heat- dumbfounded, coughing from the thick cloud of dust left in our wake.
A weird sensation of heroic defiance followed us for the rest of the- albeit short-trip. I was relieved, I had been trying for a week to avoid that damn visa tax.
There was a simple solution: ramming our way through!
Bagan, temple city rich with 2000 monuments and stupas, erected between the 11th and 14th centuries, remains the main tourist attraction of the country.
50°C is no joke though, so you might want to start visiting as early as 6 am and spend the rest of the day in your hotel room, lazying. (Or working as was the case for Delphine)
Heroics asides, we got to travel in brand new Scania luxury buses, enjoying their cozy tiltable seats.
The ticket comes with free cookies, a bottle of water and a toothbrush. They lend you a warm jacket (the AC being of polar proportions). And no, this is not a bus for tourists. We only met locals there. Who pays for what, and how to remain ethical for the environment are questions we had no answer for.
Nonetheless, the immersion with the locals was an authentic experience.
Motorway services are no exception to the free tea rule. Everywhere, from small stalls on the side of the road to famous places, tea is waiting for you in its thermos.
When the waitresses don’t understand what we’re asking for, they kindly laugh with their colleagues. We’re being made fun of, yes, but with that child candor, we’ve been witnessing since our arrival. They were still trying to understand us in the end.
The main course often comes with a free plate of raw vegetables.
For us vegans, the main course is often a superb soup, pasta or fried rice, with a pickled tea salad.
Excellent dishes overall, these are seen as side dishes by the Burmese. For once this turns into a win, we get twice more of everything!
The placid welcoming happens everywhere. Only natural when considering the History of the country. Not that long ago, tourists would have been followed by military personnel for the duration of the entire trip, to avoid bribery.
We thoroughly enjoyed our train trip from Pyin-Oo-Lwin to Mandalay. Or well close to Mandalay actually. The rest of the trip ended up happening in the back of a pick-up truck, packed with 15 other people and thrown around for 1 hour.
The complete opposite of our train experience.
In the old original British trains, the first class gives access to very wide tiltable seats, fixated on an axis, allowing them to rotate at your leisure.
The lower class only has wooden benches.
The trip was worth it. Speechless, we witness the train taking flight (or the next best thing) when it reaches the highlight of the journey, a metallic aqueduct.
Windows wide open, no safety bar anywhere, we truly felt like flying while gazing at the seemingly endless valley below.
Tripadvisor lists the Yangon train as a must in the tourist attraction of the city.
It simply loops around the city, letting the tourists watch the local life unfold in front of them. It may be closer to a tram ancestor. Chicken vendors, literature professors, and Buddhist monks all walk side by side.
Men are wearing skirts and women trousers !
More seriously, both men and women use the sarong, a tubular, very wide piece of clothing. Women use it when they work, men because it’s practical.
Highly adaptable, it rolls up into a short when Chinlon is being played. (Chinlon is a type of Asian football, using a braided rattan ball)
It widens when needed, when cycling (motor or bi), or simply when crouching...
...or tied up into a swim suit.
The British heritage is on display everywhere.
With inspired and uncommon contemporary buildings.
And "refined rustic" if you will.
Burma is filled with treasures...