Just starting to emerge as a destination on the South East Asia backpacker trail, but still largely unspoilt, Myanmar is one of the most colourful, intriguing and intoxicating countries I’ve ever visited.
It’s only really been accessible to mainstream tourists for the past three or four years, before which it was the subject of a repressive military regime and a number of subsequent popular uprisings, the most widely publicized of which -in 1988 – resulted in the deaths of hundreds of citizens. All that is changing though: in March 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took their seats in government and now the country is looking to embrace a new, brighter future. The atmosphere in Myanmar is uplifting – the gentle Burmese temperament is infused with a joyful optimism and visitors are greeted with a warm, welcoming smile (albeit the cracked, red and black smile that comes from chewing too much betel nut).
Before the photographs, let’s get the technicalities out of the way: is it Myanmar or Burma? Well, both really. Both names have the same meaning, “Burma” is a local derivative of “Myanmar” and is the name by which the country was generally known until the military rulers changed it in 1989. These days, the United Kingdom still refers to it as Burma whereas the UN recognises the name Myanmar. However, I only heard the locals calling it Myanmar – the local beer even carries the brand name “Myanmar” which is good enough for me.
Myanmar is, in many ways, the closest you can come to time travel. Setting foot in places like Bagan or Inle Lake is like stepping into a bygone age…the locals are largely uninfluenced by the Western habits exported to so many Asian countries, most of them still wear the traditional colourful longyi and smear their face with thanaka paste to counter the heat. Transport is chaotic and noisy and sometimes involves an ox, Buddhism prevails, and eating is a communal affair. One of the most common pastimes of the backpacking community is the In Five Years Time game: “In 5 years time I bet it will have changed.” It’s hard to see how it won’t, after all this emerging democracy needs to boost its economy somehow and tourism is there for the taking. However, it’s sad to imagine tour buses parked up all over Bagan, resorts and golf courses around Yangon and the inevitable party boat cruise on Inle Lake. I can only feel equal measures of pleasure and gratitude that I had the privilege of exploring this wonderful destination before it joins Thailand as the archetypal holidaymakers’ paradise.