As we leave Myanmar, we tried to gather our thoughts about how we felt about this country. We are very glad we visited and experienced Myanmar. There are quite a few amazing things about this country. But it is also a hard country to wrap our heads around. The country is changing so fast that information is constantly out of date – one guide told us the Lonely Planet published just a few months ago is hopelessly out of date already. We also heard (and believe) that “Myanmar is changing faster than the internet.” This resulted in several poor decisions on our part (e.g., booking hotels in advance because everyone said we had to do so, bringing a ton of crisp US bills when there were ATMs everywhere and nearly everyone took local currency). Another poor decision was not hiring more guides. Our trip really could have been improved if we had done so. We have so many questions about this country, and so few answers. While we feel we saw quite a bit, I’m not sure we always understood what we saw. And I think the upshot is that while we liked the country, we didn’t love it, and we can’t even put our fingers on why we liked it. Would we come back? If the opportunity presented itself, but not at the expense of seeing another country.
So, in no particular order, here are a few completely random thoughts about our time in Myanmar:
- The people of Myanmar are beyond friendly. Everyone says hello and they smiled every time we tried to say “thank you” in Burmese as if they were thrilled that we were even trying. And watch out if you say the food is good – the smiles get even bigger. We hope the influx of tourists doesn’t change that.
- We have never had our photos taken as frequently as in Myanmar. I’m not talking about someone offering to take a photo for us with our camera – I’m talking about people using their own cameras to take a picture of us. Not sure why people wanted to take our photos, but they did.
- Myanmar has a huge trash problem. There is trash everywhere. In an ironic twist, we came across a field strewn with plastic bags and a sign saying “Plastic Bag Free Zone.” Yeah, right. Nowhere in Myanmar is a plastic bag free zone. And the trash problem is particularly peculiar given how fastidious most of the people are. Everyone (except laborers) is clean and shopkeepers are constantly sweeping the area in front of their shop (even if that area is nothing but dirt). And even though the family cleaning up the vegetables on the train thought nothing of throwing trash out the train window, they carefully cleaned all the vegetable debris up from the train floor before getting off (of course, they just pushed it out of the train door….).
- They also have a dog problem. There are dogs everywhere. Not sure if these are pets or strays or guard dogs by night or what they are (most likely some combination of the three). Most (but not all) look reasonably well fed, but we never saw anyone giving any affection to a dog.
- The constant spitting got to be a bit much. Many people here chew betel. It stains their teeth red and they spit the red juice everywhere. We could deal with the red spit stains everywhere, but they don’t spit quietly….not sure why you have to sound like you are hacking up a lung every time you spit…
- Speaking of sounds, I don’t think we will ever get used to the kissing noise made to attract the attention of a waiter. Robert actually tried it once, but it is so strange to be having a nice dinner and to constantly hear kissing noises.
- They have a thing for toothbrushes here – or they think tourists do. We got free toothbrushes/toothpaste at each hotel and even on a bus. Weird.
- The women carry everything on their heads. Watermelons, trays of eggs, freshly washed towels, jars of liquids, etc. The men? Not so much.
- Initially, we thought the food of Myanmar was nothing to get too excited about. The roasted peanuts and the coconut rice are to die for, but most everything else was just ok. But then we got to Yangon where the food was delicious. Interestingly, we found that the quality of the food was inversely proportional to the price of the food. The only exceptions to that were a pricy (for Myanmar) pizza at a restaurant in Bagan that served nothing but pizza and the BBQ in Yangon. Also, food safety is a real problem here. We both fought stomach problems off and on during the trip and we were extremely careful with what and where we ate. Unlikely in nearly every other country, we really didn’t eat street food other than when we had a guide who could tell us which places were safe – it just takes one time seeing people pick up and put their hands all over something on a vendor’s cart and then put it back for the next unsuspecting customer or to see a vendor do a farmer blow, wipe his hands on his shirt, and then go back to cooking, to swear off the street food.
- We were shocked at how safe everything is. Bikes can be parked anywhere and don’t get stolen. In fact, we never even saw a locked bike. People walk down the street carrying huge wads of cash. Bags are left sitting around until the owner is ready to come back for them. Again, we hope the influx of tourists doesn’t change that. (Unlikely, as on our second to last night the couple sitting next to us had just been pick pocketed….and we are left wondering why there is barbed wire everywhere.)
- We took the bus between Bagan and Yagon. The whole trip took 8.5 hours. We stopped for a bathroom break for the driver (i.e., at the side of the road), a bathroom break for the back-up driver, a lunch break, another bathroom break for the back-up driver, a bathroom break for the passengers (at a rest stop) and yet another bathroom break for the passengers. It just might be impossible for a bus to go more than 2 hours without a break. And the drivers have no worries about squatting down in plain view of the bus and doing their business. (Men squat here because they wear long skirt-like things).
- The people of Myanmar have a different way of viewing public and private space. So much of life is lived out doors. In Bagan, each night we walked by a house that had the entire front of the house open. The people that lived there were lounging on the floor, watching tv doing homework, etc., in plain view of everyone who walked down the street.
- We read that the country has one of the highest income inequality rates and it shows. There are beautiful houses in the cities, but then you see the shacks that people live in out in the country – made of woven palm leaves, look like they would blow away in the next thunderstorm and with no running water.
- We were taken aback a bit at how many people speak English. And how many signs and billboards are in English. Nearly everyone seemed to speak a bit of basic English.
- We were somewhat surprised at how different each of the three cities seemed when compared to one another. We knew Bagan would be different, but even Yangon and Mandalay were completely different than one another.
- The temples are beautiful from afar. But then you get up close and see they really are quite dirty, and some have been renovated with corrugated steel. And we really don’t understand why they have added disco lights to the Buddhas.
- The hotel prices need to come down or the quality needs to improve. Hotels are downright expensive here and they caused our daily spend to sky rocket. A hotel in Yangon comparable to a our hotel in Chiang Rai cost $50 more per night.