My budget dictated my trip this time. I took out $500 dollars and I told myself I’d travel until I had $20 left, which would leave $10 for a taxi to the airport and the $10 exit fee. I put the plane tickets on credit card. (I would later learn that Myanmar, as recently as January 2013, introduced Visa and Mastercard into the country. The fact that the country was hosting the South East Asian Games in December 2013 might have had something to do with it.)
In any event, I knew a little about the troubles the country was facing lately, especially with their the controlling military regime. One of the most notable problems with the regime is its ongoing feud with Aung San Suu Kyi, an outspoken opposition leader, whom they placed under house arrest for 14 years. Like most folks, I read the travel guide’s version of events so I had at least a cursory knowledge of the problems facing the country.
The country used to be one of the wealthiest in the region partly because the British took it over and made it a province of India. The country abounds in arable land for farming, teak wood, metals and precious stones such as jade. Tourism, however, is an open-field in the country because it was only recently that the military regime open up its gates to the booming industry. It’s not hard to acquire a visa, I applied for mine in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with a couple of passport photos, 110 RM and an application form. I picked it up the following afternoon. It was on the way to the KL airport that I would find out through an English teacher that many of his friends who had been living in Thailand were now making their way over to Myanmar to teach.
In regard to the name, Myanmar or Burma, which is it? “Burma” was the name of the country for years before the military regime took over and refers to the people, that is, the Bamar people. “Myanmar”, however, is a generic name picked by the military regime in 1988 without any input from the people of Burma. To be sure, most of the people in the country are Burmese, but there are plenty of other ethnic groups presented.
The largest concern with the military regime, as with most regimes around the world, is its multiple human rights violations. However, the sanctions imposed on the country seem to be lifting since the US President Obama visited the country. The country is slowly opening up though who knows what’s happening with the human rights violations. Military regime aside, the Burmese monks are constantly scrapping with Muslims. Some of the country is also closed off and requires permits for various reasons which makes it very difficult to traverse the whole country, which is what I originally wanted to do. I did hear of some folks completing bicycle journeys through the country, but they did so with an escort most times.
I would later see a video consisting of several high-profile celebrities giving voice to their support for the country and their plight against the oppressive regime. That would occur in Mandalay, at the end of my trip, and by a rather famous comedy troupe known as a the Moustache Brothers. But I’ll get to that later.
For all the news you hear about Myanmar, both positive and negative, politically and travel-wise, the country is rather normal by most measures. The biggest contention about the country, as I could figure out, is its multiple human rights violations. I’m not sweeping those aside, but in every other way, Myanmar is very similar to other countries that most tourists go to. WIFI? Got it. It may not be available all the time or the fastest, but it’s there. Cheap food? Yep. Hot weather? Lots, especially in March, April, May. Green scenery? Yep. Shitty buses? Yep. Backpacker centres? A few. Ah, but natural coffee was hard to come by since most places served the fake instant mix stuff.
That being the case, I took off through Myanmar for two weeks of exploring the well-trodden backpacker path.