In 1996 Aung Sung Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party led a tourism boycott of Myanmar (Burma) in protest of the ruling military government, as a way of depriving the country of much-needed foreign income. The world listened. In 2010 the boycott was lifted and five years later Myanmar officially stepped into the path of democracy. 2015 was also the first time Henning and I stepped on to Burmese soil and we have fond memories of this country.
During that trip we noticed tourism in Myanmar was still reasonably new, especially the presence of westerners, though there were pockets backpackers dotted about. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our hike near Inle Lake spending nights at local’s homes (homestays), enjoying sunsets in the ancient city of Bagan and snorkelling around the Andaman Islands. One thing that frustrated us was our dependency on the chaotic local transport system to get from one place to another. We looked forward to going back there with a little more autonomy one day. That day came in October 2019.
After crossing over to Myanmar from Thailand we were greeted by Nyi, our local guide. It turns out the autonomy we hoped for came with a hefty price tag – when you enter Myanmar in your own vehicle, a local guide is compulsory for the whole duration of your stay. To spread out the cost we joined forces with two other groups, two Czech with their plush 1250cc BMW motorbikes and a German and Aussie couple in their 105cc ‘scooters’. This is the first time, after 15 months on the road, our movements were restricted and had to navigate the dynamics of travelling in a group. We wondered with excitement and apprehension how it would turn out.
We dashed through Southeast Asia’s largest country in gasping speed of seven days and six nights. We also had to follow a pre-agreed itinerary. It would not be fair to say we did not have any freedom, like North Korea, because after all we could choose the speed and route provided, we reached the designated hotel at nightfall. The hotels varied in quality, and since we chose a more budget tour, they were never above 3 stars. It was a perk, nonetheless. Myanmar in October was still very hot and humid, it was reassuring to know there is a shower and air-conditioned room waiting for us at the end of each day. Though, in the comfort of our house-on-wheels, we have little to complain about, especially compared to the four bikers who were drenched in sweat and covered in dust within minutes of heading off.
Having a guide meant we were able to learn and get to know Myanmar ways that were not available to us before. Nyi used to lead a life as a Buddhist monk and his English is pretty good, so we were able to have some interesting discussions of current affairs. He also introduced us to some local delicacies like lahpet thoke (fermented or pickled tea leaf salad), that became one of my favourite dishes. Lahpet thoke’s place in Burmese cuisine cannot be lightly overlooked. It is the national delicacy that is even mentioned in the popular saying: “Of all the fruit, the mango’s the best; of all the meat, the pork’s the best; and of all the leaves, lahpet’s the best”. Eat the best guys. On another occasion, a stopover on some mountain roads, we ate was a simple traditional Burmese meal. It was delicious. It consisted of 5-8 different variation of meat, vegetables and soup in the middle of the table eaten with rice. Perhaps it was because it reminded me of a typical meal I would have with my family in China, that it made it taste that much sweeter.
Henning and I count ourselves fortunate with our lucky draw of travel companions. We enjoyed being on the road with the bikers, with whom we still remain in touch, and ended up meeting Mira and Liam, the ‘scooter’ gang, again in Pakistan. It was a nice change to exchange travel information as well as stories since they have also been on the road for several months. Overlanding on a motorbike is a whole other world, for better and for worse. Bikers get to see a different perspective of each country and due to the nature of their transportation the opportunities for mingling with locals is much greater, whether it be taking refuge together under a bridge during a sudden downpour in Kuala Lumpur or blending in with locals in traffic. These intimate moments are harder to come by under the protection of our metallic fort.
There were downsides, however, to having our freedom of movement restricted. Beyond the obvious lament of having our trip cut short due to cost and having to follow an itinerary that was hitting the main touristy destinations. There was also the choice of restaurants, where a lot of them were geared towards what our guide thought westerners would like, BBQs and fries. It was also an extra effort to insist on local food or recommending interesting flea markets to buy random bits and bobs from. I guess I am just peevish on what a great trip it would have been if we had been allowed to explore on our own terms because the Burmese, still untainted by mass tourism, are one of the most open and friendly people in Southeast Asia. Everywhere you go you will see smiling faces smeared in thanakha paste (grounded bark paste used as a cosmetic and as protection from the sun) dressed in their colour longyi (long piece of cloth wrapped around the waist worn by both men and women) looking at our foreign faces with innocent curiosity. It still feels untouched in comparison to its neighbours and we are sad to not have been able to explore more.
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