Just a little background
We’ve been planning for an overseas trip together to celebrate the end of our full-time NS liability (we ORD-ed a day apart from each other) since nearly 2 years back. Unfortunately, every single plan we had in mind fell through either due to schedule clashes or budget issues. The long summer break that came at the end of the first academic year of university therefore presented a ripe opportunity for the three of us to embark on the much delayed ORD trip.
Being the poor university students that we were (and still are), we obviously couldn’t afford a luxurious holiday. Time wasn’t on our side either, whatnot with our commitments to various camps (school and army ones). The aforementioned limitations therefore restricted our options to only a one-week long trip to a country within Southeast Asia. We wanted a value-for-money destination and Myanmar seemed like the most viable choice. Not only was it kind to the wallet, the fact that the country had only just opened up appealed to us because that meant that the local tourism industry was only in its infancy. After a couple of planning sessions, the dates were finally settled and all that was left to do was to wait.
Thoughts on Myanmar
We visited a total of 3 states in a span of 6 days in the middle of May (which was the low-season travel period, given the heat). We spent 3 days in Yangon, 2 days in Mandalay and 1 day in Bagan. One of the things that were immediately apparent to me was the lack of development in Myanmar. Out of all the states we visited, Yangon was, unsurprisingly, the most developed, followed by Mandalay, which according to Deyi, was the state’s former capital. The fact that labour was hardly mechanized was very telling of the level of industrialization in the country. Construction projects were usually supported with wooden stilts/beams, cement was mixed manually and the locals who worked at such sites hardly donned on any safety apparel/equipments. The effects of having had a closed economy for the past few decades were also evident in the lack of penetration of foreign companies (especially Western ones) in the local market. Most foreign goods, I observed, had Asian origins. Sundries, ranging from snacks to toiletries, were largely imported from neighbouring Thailand. The most popular handphone brand was China’s Huawei. While there were no Western fast food establishments, Malaysia’s Marrybrown (The one we visited in Yangon, which I believe is the first store, had just opened up) and Singapore’s Ya Kun Kaya Toast were present. American and European clothing and designer brands were also absent. In their place however, were Asian retailers like Hong Kong’s Giordano, which judging by their location and store setup, were considered as luxurious by local standards. Many electronics on sale were also outdated (I even saw a banner promoting a shop selling PlayStations 2 and 3). A local guide added that it was only up until recent times that Coca Cola had became readily available throughout Myanmar. Even so, the extent of the reach of such Western companies is largely limited to beverages. In general, I felt that the absence of brands/items that I was used to back home was rather refreshing and added to the charm and allure of Myanmar (I don’t want to sound like an ass but it did make the whole ‘third-world’ experience a lot more authentic).
The previously closed economy not only affected the availability of goods and services domestically but also shaped the outlook of the locals towards tourists. The Burmese were understandably intrigued by the visitors to their country, seeing as to how most of them grew up unaccustomed to the presence of foreigners. This curiosity manifested itself in the form of stares that we got as we made our way around the three states (very few locals asked where we were from though). I think it was more confusing for the locals that the 3 of us were of different ethnic backgrounds because it made it harder for them to locate our nationality. Service-wise, the Burmese were extremely hospitable. Despite the language barrier, they tried their best to help us out whenever we had any questions or problems. Of course the fact that money was involved (in some cases) meant that we were treated really nicely (I believe we were charged ‘tourist prices’ for some of our taxi rides but it did not matter because they were cheap regardless). Every time we alighted a bus, taxi drivers would swarm us (I guess I got a taste of what celebrities feel like whenever they are being stalked by the paparazzi!). I was shocked when it happened the first time round but I got used to it by the end of the trip. These taxi drivers would even carry our bags just so that we would be more inclined to take them up on their offer. Many locals also regarded tourists as learning opportunities, in that they viewed the foreigners as presenting a chance for them to practice their English. At Mandalay Hill, many monks and villagers would guide tourists to the peak for sunset and at the same time, attempt to engage in a conversation with them (They mainly flocked to the Caucasians and even asked for pictures to be taken together). For the three of us, our opportunity to ‘teach’ English came while we were awaiting the start of a marionette show. Students of the marionette theatre who were seated outside approached us and asked if they could talk to us. The girl I spoke to told me that she picked up the language because she wanted to set up a school to teach English to the rest of her village. I have to admit though that, at times, it was a struggle trying to understand them. Nonetheless, my interactions with the Burmese proved to be a humbling experience.
My experience in Myanmar
There were many things that I found interesting in Myanmar. Traffic, for example, could be best described as an organized mess. Although the local drivers made turns whenever they desired and sounded their horns liberally, there was nothing reckless about their driving behaviour. Honking was done out of courtesy and served to inform oncoming vehicles of the driver’s intention to make a turn. Unlike Singapore, cyclists were also considered as legit road users (we had no problems cycling on major roads in Mandalay and Bagan!). I was also surprised by the religious and cultural diversity in Myanmar, especially with regards to presence of Muslims. We saw a number of mosques in Yangon and Mandalay and it wasn’t uncommon to see women clad in their hijabs walking on the streets. We also had quite an adventure with food. There were many a time that we couldn’t find our intended food destinations (e.g., Golden Lion!) and had to settle for rather obscure ones, which surprisingly sold food that were both cheap and delicious. For example, when we lost our way trying to find our dinner venue on the first night in Yangon, we stumbled upon a hidden gem: a Muslim restaurant where we bought chicken rice from. One of my favourite meals was at a vegetarian restaurant in Bagan which served the most refreshing smoothies in the 43 degree heat. The Burmese take on salads was equally delicious too. We tried 3 different ones in Bagan for dinner. Costing the 3 of us a total of S$7, it was the cheapest (and one of the tastiest) meals we had throughout the trip. We also had a decent meal at Crystal Jade on one of the nights, which, proved to be cheap as well. The only disappointing culinary experience we had was at Green Elephant. The food did not live up to its hype (based on whatever we read online) and was really expensive. On our last night in Myanmar, we splurged a little and had an international buffet dinner at Shangri La’s Café Sule. That meal did not disappoint at all!
There were many things to see and do in Myanmar. I witnessed one of the best sunsets at the U Bein Bridge in Mandalay and the most amazing sunrise atop the Shwesandaw pagoda in Bagan. We visited many beautiful pagodas in Yangon and Bagan and popped by the sprawling compounds of the Mandalay Palace as well. We trekked down to the beautiful Anisakan Falls and cycled our way around Mandalay and Bagan. The 6 days, which passed by really quickly, were obviously not enough for us to fully explore the states we visited. There were a number of attractions that we had to forgo due to time constraints. Despite that, I had a great time in Myanmar and I’m sure I will be back in the future! :)
P.S.: The video is unfortunately kinda short because I did not have much content to work with (I had not intended on making a video at the start but did so eventually out of boredom).