It’s A Jungle Out There

Minglabar from Myanmar!

Formerly called Burma, this country has only recently started opening up to westerners.

Myanmar has had a turbulent history with many countries in the west imposing sanctions due to the human rights violations that have occurred here and these violations were highlighted in 2007 with the Saffron Revolution. This was when Buddhist monks took to the streets to protest for change within their government and made the international news.

Since then, there have been changes. In fact, as recently as 1 April 2012, Myanmar had Parliamentary elections and Aung San Suu Kyi won 50 seats and this Nobel Peace Prize winner was finally released from her house arrest after 15 years. Myanmar is a country trying to modernise and address some of their former issues.

My first impression of Myanmar was that this country with a population of 61 million is hot and muggy but with incredibly friendly people. The airport is located about 25 minutes away the capital, Yangon and there are many tuk tuks, taxis and motorbikes on offer to take you to where you want to go and for a reasonable price.

But travelling around this country there is not just the heat to deal with; there is also the language difficulty. Not a lot of people speak English, but of course with this country undergoing change, this will soon alter dramatically. Annually Thailand, a country that borders Myanmar gets 42 million travelers per year. Myanmar only gets 200,000. There is room for improvement especially as tourism brings in money and currently the GDP of Myanmar is USD $803 per annum per person. This place is right on the cusp of something and how they choose to embrace it, will be interesting to see.

However, although there is a lack of English speakers, the people are very friendly and you can easily wander around the streets visiting some of the many stunning pagodas, talking with locals. Many are willing to practice their English and are willing to listen to my minimalist Burmese.

Right now, Myanmar is slowly opening up and how we act around and towards the local people will impact how this country sees tourists in the future. Hopefully we can take some of the Buddhist philosophies with us along the way; that through real suffering can come happiness.

After a day of wandering round the streets of Yangon and visiting a meditation centre, being invited to a family party that was attended by four generations and us, we left very early in the morning from Yangon, bought our tickets at the airport and flew to Bagan.

This is in the middle of the country and home to over 2000 pagodas. These pagodas date from between the 11th and 13th century and are found within an area of 16 square miles. This destination reminded me of Angkor Wat in Cambodia except without the crowds. In fact due to limited tourism money, if it weren’t for the help from UNESCO, some of these buildings would have completely vanished because of the destruction of the 1975 earthquake in the region.

When you’re in Bagan you can hire a horse and cart to take you between the pagodas (which some are a considerable distance apart from each other) or you could do what we did – hire a bicycle. Rightly or wrongly we decided that since the temperature was only in the 40s (Celsius), cycling would be a lot more fun.

The cycling was lovely and hot and very scenic and hot and we did manage to visit a lot of pagodas in the midday heat. Of course we weren’t always so silly – the advantage of cycling around for four hours around midday meant that we had to stop for lunch. We decided on a lovely very affordable place overlooking the river that offered cool water, delicious food and respite from the sun.

Returning back to the busy streets of Yangon we visited an elephant shelter, the National Museum and an orphanage for boys. Yes this Buddhist nation is something special. It is a place of beautiful friendly people and a place of suffering. Myanmar will test you as a traveler but remember my travel mantra – speak nicely to the locals, try to talk to them in their language, listen to them – have real conversations with them and smile but most of all, just have fun. Apart from the heat, Myanmar is a very cool place to experience.

To find out more about Tucan Travel’s tours to Burma, click here.

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