Thoughts on Myanmar, travel and change

On Sunday, citizens of the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar voted for the first time in 20 years. This week also marks the one-year anniversary of my own visit to Myanmar in 2009. At the surface level, these two events have nothing to do with one another. But as I struggle to make sense of what I saw and learned during my visit inside this cloistered country, I find that today’s historic vote is more meaningful than I expected.

I don’t claim to be an expert in the politics and history of Myanmar. I’m a traveler first and foremost, and the three weeks of my visit was barely enough time to give me a fleeting glimpse of the country’s fascinating history, warm people and awe-inspiring sights, let alone understand its complex political situation. But often travel has a way of forcing you to confront the issues you don’t want to see, and you find yourself drawn into them in ways you wouldn’t expect. In Myanmar, my window was through its people – their stories have stayed with me and touched me in ways I never expected.I remember the two enthusiastic young monks who accompanied me up the thousands of stairs that flank Mandalay Hill. They had left their families behind to take up a life of devotion and study. Then there was “Mikey,” the Burmese man I sat smashed next to in the front seat of a pickup for 10 agonizing hours as we bobbed and weaved along the treacherous dirt roads towards Kalaw. His broken-English banter and jokes sustained me through that exhausting ride. And Nain, who followed me all day across the sweltering, chaotic streets of Yangon, helping me buy train tickets and showing me around. He refused to take any money from me for his help.

There is much that could be said about the state of affairs in Myanmar. The lack of political freedoms and poverty echo the problems seen in developing countries around the world. But what has stuck with me the most from my experience in Myanmar is the stories of these ordinary individuals. These interactions brought the hard realities of life into focus in a place few travelers visit. As I think now about the election, I find myself seeing this event through their eyes and hoping, on their behalf, that some good will come of it.

Will the election create any meaningful change for the people I met in Myanmar? I’m not sure, but it looks doubtful. What about my visit? Did it have any affect on their plight? No, I don’t think so either. But what I believe has changed is my awareness. Myanmar is no longer just another news story for me on the BBC website. It’s a land inhabited by real people I met, affected by real issues. Change is possible. But often that change doesn’t occur in obvious ways like elections. It’s the accumulation of seemingly insignificant interactions, day-by-day and year-by-year that, over time, ultimately add up to something much larger.

South by Southeast: Who goes to Myanmar?

Who does visit Myanmar these days? For Southeast Asia travelers exposed to a daily diet of CNN, Myanmar is literal no-fly zone, a destination with an infamous reputation for unrest, opium and political repression. Even as other “notorious” Asia destinations like Cambodia and Vietnam emerge into adolescence on the global tourist stage, Myanmar remains largely hidden from view – a mysterious actor shrouded in myth and secrecy.

It’s been nearly two years since Gadling’s Leif Pettersen first visited Myanmar, lifting the curtain on a country of sacred Buddhist shrines, Betel chewing and nary a fast food chain in sight. Not surprisingly, in the years since Leif’s visit, not much has changed. As I soon discovered, everything moves more slowly in Myanmar, from the masochistic 15-hour bus rides to the condensed milk that slowly oozes into your cup of Burmese tea. This “slowness” is further exaggerated by Myanmar’s isolation from the international community and the devastating Cyclone Nargis which hammered the country in 2008. The country’s already-meager tourist industry is still reeling from the shock.

But while Myanmar is indeed a tough place to visit, it rewards persistence. For Southeast Asia travelers willing to move beyond the media reports, one of the most incredible destinations on earth awaits your discovery: deserted temple ruins, gorgeous beaches, awe-inspiring festivals and most importantly, some of the friendliest, most welcoming people on earth. And despite what you’ve heard, Myanmar is actually one of the safest places to visit in Southeast Asia. Intrigued? Let’s start with a look at the details (and ethics) of visiting below…

The Boycott
Let me dispense with the “elephant in the room” of Myanmar travel: the travel boycott. In short, the government of Myanmar has a long history of human rights abuses and political repression. This fact has long kept many travelers away, and many governments and organizations continue to urge travelers not to visit.

The pros and cons of visiting Myanmar could make up an article by itself, and there’s no simple answer to this question. Every traveler considering a trip should get the facts on the situation and answer this question for themselves. In writing about the country, my aim is to give potential visitors the information to help make that decision. A great place to start your investigation is over at Lonely Planet, which has a special section devoted to the debate surrounding travel to Myanmar.

Getting In

So what exactly is involved in entering Myanmar? Will you be strip-searched at airport? Taken hostage by balaclava-wearing rebels? Despite my initial misgivings, entering Myanmar was a relatively painless process. All that’s required is 30-day tourist visa available at most Myanmar embassies abroad for around U.S. $24. Any number of travel agencies, particularly those in Bangkok, can also guide you through the process if you’re willing to pay a little extra and/or don’t want to visit the embassy.

Getting Around

Traveling in Myanmar can be (literally) painful. Transportation options are slow, roads are poor and getting anywhere takes time. That said, the main transport options include:

  • Buses – Frequent buses connect the main tourist destinations in Myanmar. Buses are also the option most preferred by independent travelers, due to the fact they are privately (not government) owned.
  • Flights – if you’re not ready to tough it out for 15 hours on a stifling hot bus while your seat mate vomits out the window, flights are a good, if more expensive, alternative. Daily trips on Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways connect Myanmar’s major tourist sights. The state-run airline Myanmar Airways is to be avoided, both for safety and political reasons.
  • Taxis – another potential alternative to bus service hiring a private taxi, which can drive travelers between most destinations in Myanmar.
  • Trains – like much of the country’s infrastructure, Myanmar’s rail system is downright ancient. That said, daily trains are another (potentially) more comfortable alternative to the buses.
  • Boats – the most popular boat service runs between Bagan and Mandalay, with both a “fast” and “slow” boat service. Don’t let the world “fast” fool you: boat trips take anywhere from 9-15 hours.

For a complete rundown of options, refer to Lonely Planet’s excellent transportation overview.

What to See
The vast majority of Myanmar visitors spend their trip at “the big four” – a group that includes Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan. The majority of these attractions, despite their supposed popularity, were relatively empty at the time of our visit. If you’re looking to get off the beaten track however, there’s plenty of small towns beyond these four main sights, begging to be explored. Here’s a quick roundup:

  • Yangon – Myanmar’s capital city until 2006, Yangon (Rangoon) remains the cultural and economic heart of Myanmar. Many visitors spend time getting lost in the city’s chaotic street culture and make a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist shrines.
  • Mandalay – the country’s second largest city, Mandalay is home to an intriguing patchwork of Chinese and Indian immigrants, royal palaces and plenty of good day trips, including the famous U Bein teak bridge in nearby Amarapura.
  • Bagan – if you think Angkor Wat is Southeast Asia’s most impressive temple complex, think again. The temple ruins of ancient Bagan are among the world’s most incredible archaeological sights. Spend your day biking among more than 2,000 deserted ruins, dating back over 800 years.
  • Inle Lake – arguably one of Myanmar’s most popular natural wonders, Inle Lake offers visitors an aquatic wonderland of floating vegetable gardens, jumping cats, and picturesque houses on stilts. A popular way to get around is by hiring your own boat for the day, visiting Buddhist temples and handicraft vendors.
  • Kalaw – the city of Kalaw is a popular starting point for treks, taking visitors past remote hill tribe villages and secluded Buddhist monasteries. Many travelers like to hike the short distance between Kalaw and nearby Inle Lake (around 2-3 days).

Hungry to learn more about Myanmar? Stay tuned…I’ll be sharing impressions and stories from my trip over the coming days.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

A Keyhole into Burma – “Buy the ticket, take the ride”

The local buses in Yangon have to be personally experienced to truly be appreciated. This singular ordeal is a grand departure from the otherwise laidback way the Burmese conduct themselves.

Bus drivers careen around town with one foot on the gas and the other foot, seemingly, on the horn. One gets the sense that these men are drafted directly from the outpatient program at the local suicide prevention center and paid with bags of betel chews.

The driver’s sidekick, an only slightly less sadistic announcer/conductor, hangs out one of the “doors” (frequently the actual door has been detached), screaming the bus line number and direction to the people standing at the bus stops as the bus pulls up. He then hastily pulls people on the bus, while simultaneously shoving others off. Age, gender and physical disabilities have no bearing on how one is treated. Often the bus never actually stops rolling.


The reason behind this crazed, panicky behavior is that Yangon has several independent, competing buses companies working the exact same routes and so, quite simply, the faster they go, the more customers they snatch from the competition. The result is that their precious passengers are crushed, yelled at and manhandled for the pleasure of a death-defying trip across town.

Moreover, violence notwithstanding, actually squeezing into the bus an ironic luxury. Rather less appealing is the alternative of dangling out one of the side or back doors or, at worst, clinging for dear life to the roof or hood. All in a day’s commute.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.

A Keyhole into Burma – Shwedagon Paya, the mother of all payas

While in Burma I would eventually see more payas (temples) in 10 days than most people see in two lifetimes, including most Burmese, but none of them could hold a candle to the monstrous Shwedagon Paya in Yangon.

Aside from the towering main stupa (A.K.A. “pagoda” – a solid dome, often gold, sometimes white washed, that usually tapers into a weathervane-like spire at the top), there are 82 other buildings in the complex, including simple zayats (small rest houses) with a single modest Buddha and numerous pathos (temples) that are exceptional in their own right.

The main stupa is over 1,000 years old according to archeologists, though Burmese will testify that it’s closer to 2,500 years old. With various royalty and Burma’s rich and famous donating their own weight in gold leaf to cover the stupa over the centuries, it was estimated in 1995 that there was 53 metric tons of gold covering the thing with only the security of a bunch of monks watching over it. Very telling of the Buddhist mindset, eh? A similarly rich and unprotected fortune like that wouldn’t last seven seconds in any major city in the US.

We walked around Shwedagon for hours, during which time I rarely shut off my camera. Every structure, every Buddha, every angle was stunning, unique and seemingly going to be the greatest picture ever. One building had a photo exhibit of the paya, including close ups of the staggering amount of gold, silver, jade and jewels hanging off the top of the main stupa (allegedly over 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 other rubies/emeralds).

Wandering the compound, we encountered a ceremony for children being inducted into the monastery. Families offer their children to monasteries at a shockingly young age to begin their Buddhist training. The novice ceremony kicked off with a woman leading a procession, throwing out candy to the children spectators. Then the inductees, kids that appeared to be between the ages of four and eight, paraded by, carried by a parent. Bringing up the rear of the procession, the young, female, virgin escorts (my favorite part).

The kids were dressed in ceremonial robes, orange for the boys and a peach-like color for the girls, and all were wearing decorative hats. Arranged in front of the main stupa, the kids were put through some kind of oath while a team of photographers and videographers documented everything including, at one point, me as I stood to the side taking my own photos.


After the sun goes down, huge spotlights are trained on the main stupa. This is the only time that one can hope to catch a glimpse of the jewels shimmering 321 feet above. My guide tried his very best to position me perfectly, even taking my head in his hands to fine tune my angle, but I was never able to see anything more than a non-descript flicker or two. Though the general sight of this gargantuan illuminated gold spire was enough of an overall thrill for me.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.

A Keyhole into Burma – This ain’t Kansas

My first day in Yangon was draining. Interminable walking in dusty 102 degree heat and humoring enthusiastic English speakers every few minutes can sap the most tolerant of Beckham look-a-likes. By nightfall, I longed for my guesthouse bed and sweet, sweet air-con.

As I made my way to my guesthouse, it became clear that parts of Yangon were suffering from a blackout. Street and traffic lights were out and all buildings were dark. The only light available came from passing cars, candles at food stalls and the occasional generator powered light in front of a shop or home. I was forced to slow my pace so I could cautiously judge whether or not I was about to step in an open ditch or on the tail of a stray animal.

Visibility briefly improved outside an unmarked, walled and barb-wired compound. Strangely, the street lights here were working. I stepped around a huge barrier on the corner of the block and up onto an abnormally pristine sidewalk. I marched along with the whole sidewalk to myself for almost half a block before a woman pleaded for me to step back down into the street. It turned out I was walking past the ministry’s compound and they do not allow people to walk on the sidewalk outside the walls. Yangon’s best maintained sidewalk is off-limits to pedestrians. That’s just so military junta, isn’t it?

A few blocks later I was accosted by a young man with the best English skills I’d heard all day. He invited me for a chat and Chinese tea at his food stall. At one point he went a little overboard extolling how handsome I was. Apparently, Burmese men regularly and honestly lavish other men with compliments about their looks. They’re also unusually same-sex affectionate, putting arms around each other and idly hugging one another.


The young man invited me to attend his English class the following day. The thought of spending a few hours in a room full of Beckham-loving English speakers was not without its appeal, but I’d already committed to a full schedule of touring Yangon’s most gnarly tourist sights with a local guide. The young man was understanding, but asked if I would visit him the following evening for more tea and conversation. I agreed, bid him goodnight, and continued the pitch-black walk to my guesthouse.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.