I remember not enjoying Myanmar much while I was there, but only a couple of weeks after leaving I can’t really remember why.
Oh, wait, yes I can. It was a combination of worrying about running out of money, bad food, polluted and dirty cities, the heat, the cold, slow and sometimes broken internet, too many religious sites, pestering souvenir sellers, buses that arrived at stupid hours of the morning and a general difficulty in doing anything easily.
But now looking back the hassles don’t seem so significant. Even losing about $200 to some street moneychangers doesn’t sting so bad anymore.
The things that do stand out in my memory are the country’s quirky little idiosyncrasies.
In the tea houses men wearing sarong-like wraps called longyi sit on tiny kindergarten stools sipping and chatting and making kissing noises to get the boy servers’ attention (not in a sexy way – it’s just like saying “hey”).
On the roads right-hand drive cars and buses drive on the right *- getting their passengers to look out for oncoming traffic while overtaking – and trishaw cyclists pedal their trade offering two passenger seats – one facing forward and other back.
Everywhere women and children smear their faces with chalky thanaka, a paste made out of ground bark used as a cosmetic and sunscreen.
In Yangon’s betel nut spittle stained streets, where derelict but still beautiful colonial buildings sit next to grimy old Chinese terraces and bland high-rises, sugar cane is crushed in old clothes mangles to make delicious sweet icy cold drinks while nearby samosas bubble away in oil-filled woks suspended over buckets of hot coals. And everywhere there are mandarins and watermelons.
South of Yangon thousands pilgrimage to the top of Mt Kyaiktiyo to plaster gold leaf on a huge precariously-positioned rock said to be balanced on a strand of the Buddha’s hair.
On Inle Lake the boatmen use one leg to help row while keeping their hands free to fish, the kids get to school via canals and farmers grow tomatoes and beans on floating rows of trellises.
In the middle of the lake the devout pay homage at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda to five small statues covered in so much gold leaf they now look like lumpy nuggets.
In Mandalay it’s all about the monks, especially for the for the tourists who gather in their hundreds at Mahagandayone Monastery to watch the them eat lunch.
And there’s also a temple guarded by two huge, grossly fat and lethargic pythons who curl up by a Buddha statue between meals.
Mid-way through the trip I decided to leave early because of my cash situation. I really was glad to get back to Thailand with its amazing food and fast internet.
I’d still go back to Myanmar though. I think the main reason I didn’t enjoy my time there as much as I could have is that I only hit the main tourist hot spots.
I didn’t get to visit Myanmar’s version of Canberra, Naypyidaw, which the military government decreed should replace Yangon as the capital in 2005, much to everyone’s surprise as the entire city was built in secret. Apparently the place has a surreally artificial atmosphere with street upon street of characterless colour-coded government buildings, vast highways (with little or no traffic) and huge nationalistic edifices but few of the amenities expected in a big city that are actually needed by humans. So yeah, a bit like Canberra.
I also didn’t get to Marak U where villagers live and farm amongst the ruins of an old religious centre comparable to Bagan, Sagaing where the warrior, Naga people who only recently gave up headhunting, wear headdresses decorated with boar tusks or any of the other wild and weird places in the huge country.
I may not enjoy myself again but the inconveniences would be worth the amazing memories. It’s only the good ones that count anyway.
* As a former British colony Myanmar used to drive on the left like all the surrounding countries. That was until 1970 when General Ne Wen is rumoured to have had a revelatory dream (or received some advice from his wife’s astrologer) and decreed the country should make the switch.
Are there any places did you not enjoy but still want to revisit? Why?