My final travel journey of 2013 brought me to Southeast Asia’s last “frontier” which recently opened up to the world after multiple sanctions were lifted by members of the international community.
Development – It’s pretty amazing to witness the pace of development in the two largest cities – Yangon(capital) and Mandalay. Just a few years ago, it would cost about US$2000 to get a cellular sim card due to the lack of infrastructure. Today, the people of Maynmar can get access to a sim card for about $2, allowing a “mobile” revolution to slowly creep into the crevices of their society. I noticed that Samsung and Huawei have strong footholds in the smartphone market – very well positioned to benefit from the emerging market boom in Myanmar. From my travels, another lead indicator of development is roads. Compared to the less developed Southeast Asian capital cities such as Phnom Penh and Vientiane, I noticed that the state of development of roads in Yangon was almost a decade ahead. Overall, I was extremely impressed that the military junta years continued to allow significant progress in Myanmar, a stark contrast to the tragic Pol Pot regime that plagued Cambodia.
People – The only terrible experience I had with humans during the 9 days was with a group of foreign tourists who were acting obnoxiously one night in Yangon. The people of Myanmar themselves are generally very welcoming and genuine. They are also inquisitive about travellers and where they come from. For the most part, prices quoted to me were similar to that which a local has to pay – this, is pretty amazing for Southeast Asia where in countries like Vietnam, every item has a “local price” and a “tourist price”. Even children who were trying to sell us postcards at Bagan would walk away smiling when you turn their offers down. Your experience may differ, but I can conclude from my experience that no one in Myanmar is out to cheat you.
Travel Sites – The typical travel route may look like this: Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay-Inle Lake. We decided to swap out Inle Lake with Hsipaw, the gateway into the Shan State area of Northern Myanmar. We accessed Hsipaw from Mandalay via the old Burmese railway built by the British – a beautiful 12-hour train journey across the hills of Northern Myanmar. From Hsipaw, I hiked to the Palaung hill villages and stayed a night in Taung Sant (pop: 250) – the vista along the journey there some describe as the “Switzerland of Southeast Asia”. Along the way, I hitchhiked a 1950s-era-looking lorry and a motorcycle up and down treacherous mountain passes respectively. The people were really nice, and thank God they had great driving skills too.
What I missed – To truly appreciate the entire country of Myanmar would take one about 25-30 days I reckon. There were 3 things I read about which really intrigued me but I couldn’t afford the time to visit; if you ever make it there, do send me pictures!
- Naga people in the far-North: The Naga tribes dwell in the far-North and each year the one that successfully kills a tiger with his bare hands takes on tribe leadership. Democracy anyone?
- Kayan women in the far-East: You’ve probably seen this on the Discovery Channel – women with multiple brass rings around their elongated necks. Anthropologists hypothesized that these women protect the women from being enslaved by making them less attractive to other tribes.
- Chin people in the far-West: The Chin women have intricately tattooed faces which are believed to represent true beauty. With the passage of time, only the older women-folk still continue with this practice and are the very last of their kind to bear these ancient marks on their faces.