Until a few months ago, Myanmar seemed out of bounds to me. I’ve seen a lot of Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, in fact – but visit the country formerly known as Burma? Too unethical, when the generals were in charge. To much hassle, when obtaining a visa was a nightmare. And from the horror stories I’d heard, the domestic internet made European dial-up at the turn of the millennium seem positively speedy in comparison.
But with a rare gap in my schedule opening up in October, I decided I’d pay a visit to my girlfriend, Ta, who’s Thai. I wanted to take her somewhere special for a couple of weeks and, on a whim, looked again at whether a Burmese holiday was practical. Turns out it is, very much so.
Since the country’s democratisation under Aung San Suu Kyi, obtaining a tourist e-visa is a cinch. TripSavvy explains it better than I can, but the potted version runs like this: you fill out an online form, pay $50 and if there’s nothing the government objects to, they email you a pdf in less than 24 hours. Arriving at the airport or border crossing, you present this letter to immigration. Beyond that, treasures await.
I loved Burma, I have to say. If I knew a way to invest in Burmese tourism, I would, because I can see it taking off in the next decade. The Buddhist sites I visited – and most of what I saw fell into the ‘temple’ or ‘monastery’ category – were more often than not breathtaking and unique. The people were warm and wonderful, too, and hugely welcoming of tourists. At times, whole families wanted to pose for photos with me, one by one. “Superstar,” Ta called me.
Flying there from Bangkok was straightforward and cheap for the pair of us. In one way, Ta even had it easier than me, as being from an ASEAN member state, she didn’t need a visa.
We started in Mandalay, in the north. Kipling, of course, wrote a jingoistic poem, The Road to Mandalay, having never set foot in the city.
In an ideal world, I’d have visited my hero George Orwell’s old stomping ground in Katha. However, it’s terribly remote and there’s nothing to see, now that doubts have been raised about whether his house from the 1920s is still standing.
From Mandalay Airport, a private company ran a $3-a-head bus service from into town, where it dropped its passengers off at their accommodation: in our case, the very good value Hotel A1. Next day, a taxi drove us all over the city, to pagodas, monasteries and a charming royal palace emblazoned with the slogan: “Tatmadaw and the people, cooperate and crush all those harming the union.”
The day after that, which involved cramming in all the highlights of the surrounding area, was even more memorable.
I’ve hinted that not many Western tourists visit Burma, but it’s actually hard to tell – indeed, the number of amateur photographers at Mahagandayon Monastery’s very public breakfast ritual was quite intimidating.
In some respects, facilities are basic, as you might expect, though the internet in Mandalay isn’t too bad (and is pretty much up to Western European standards in the southern city of Yangon, better known as Rangoon).
What struck me most of all was how many times Ta was reminded of her seventies childhood in Thailand. Her dad used to plough a field with oxen, as farmers in Myanmar still do. Horses and carts are a common mode of transport.
And on that second day out, waiting for a ferry from Inwa (where there’s a splendid abandoned monastery), we saw a woman with two pails across her back, fetching water from the river. It left Ta quite nostalgic. If Burma can catch up in relatively short order, I think its future will be very bright indeed.