The Sunday Leader

The Real Burma

How easy it is to develop clichés about places and people! You can be educated, have read up about the country you are planning to visit, have mapped out your trip to the millisecond, but nothing can prepare you for the real thing.

Even though I absolutely adore the idea of landing in a new place and having to switch to survival instincts, after a long trip to Paris, Holland and the US in 2011, I doubt I will ever again attempt one; after a certain age nodding off to sleep in an airport terminal while munching on crisps become less exciting.

Hence my decision to visit Myanmar in 2013; a childhood buddy from France had decided over a decade ago to make Burma her home, and in true tourist style, I Googled everything I could about the place before visiting.

If you read the testimonials of travelers published on the net, you would think that there is nothing cheaper than holidaying in Myanmar. I am sure I am not the only one who imagined that land to be semi-magical, with  ladies walking around in colorful lungis, flowers in their hair and sandalwood rubbed onto their cheeks to protect them from the sun!But it is far from inexpensive.

Some guide books and what content you access online may give the impression that 600 dollars is enough to survive a week, inclusive of travel; that figure should be doubled! Most decent hotels have hit three digits in dollars, and it is fundamental you get the latest update on prices before you plan your vacation.

Negotiate your rates with taxi drivers before getting in – if not you may be in for a rude shock and painful experience, leading to an unpleasant situation – because English language skills in that country are limited.

One of the biggest surprises was Yangon itself. I had imagined lovely large streets with a few cars whizzing by, maybe some tuk-tuks loaded with little school kids…but I found the streets filled with cars – and pretty fancy ones at that! A new chain of luxury supermarkets stacked with gluten free products, gorgeous fresh vegetables, fruits and food from all over the world, luxurious hair salons, fabulous restaurants and book shops – everything you need in one place.

After visiting everything I could in the city, such as the Mingalar Market, the National Museum, the Gem Museum, the Schwedagon Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, General Aung’s residence – now a museum –  and the Chinese Temple I decided it was time to step out and see the real Burma, minus the supermarkets and hair salons.

My traveling partner and I decided to take a train to Bagan and spend two days in the city of thousands of Pagodas – one of the richest archaeological sites in Asia. Unfortunately the 12 hour train ride became 20, and it was a good thing we had filled up on biscuits, crisps and water beforehand because there was no restaurant on the train – nor was there a bathroom!

Bagan is breathtakingly beautiful -I remember thinking I was experiencing true beauty while walking through history. Call me blasé but I rarely feel that way about anything or anybody, so to actually have that feeling , that what you are seeing is too beautiful to be real is amazing!.
One commutes from one pagoda to another either via horseback or cycle which keeps the pollution levels to a minimum and noise levels very low – a refreshing change from the tooting horns of noisy cities .There are very few hangers-on coming and trying to get money out of you which is very pleasant and one thing I noticed is that a lot of business whether it is with your taxi driver or horse-cart handler, is done on trust.

Having undergone that painful 20 hour trip into Bagan, we decided to fly back to Yangon which was an incredibly pleasant and well organised experience. In less than two hours we were back at the Alamanda Inn, enjoying yet another “crepe” and a glass of Myanmar beer.

I reflected that despite being far from politically stable, Burma was a country in progress where everyone had the opportunity to make it if they were smart and enterprising enough. For those who are planning to travel to Burma, or anywhere else as a matter of fact, make sure you know exactly what your budget is without relying on guide books and internet articles. Traveling is not for each and everyone that is for sure but it is such a wonderful eye opener for those with closed up minds and hearts.

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