Like Laos, Myanmar (AKA Burma) was another country we hadn’t planned to visit on our trip. But we’re in the area so we thought why not. Also, we thought it would be interesting to see a country that was at the very start of the inevitable journey that always ends in some form of Benidorm-ness 🙂 After all, Myanmar only opened it’s doors to tourists in 2012 so it should be very different to the rest of Asia!
Myanmar is sandwiched between China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India. So before we got here we had no idea what people would look like, or how they would receive us. Whilst the people of Thailand and Laos are super friendly, we’ve had mixed experiences from those in China and India.
Fortunately, everyone we’ve come across so far has been really nice and our hotel staff treated us like royalty! Being out and about over the last couple of days we’ve noticed that we do get stared at a bit, and like China and India we’ve had a few occasions where people take selfies with us in the background. That doesn’t bother us though, there’s very few Western people here so it’s understandable that they’re curious.
In terms of what the people of Myanmar look like, I’d say their more likened to the Thai and Laos people. However, we are nearer to those borders here in Yangon so maybe as we move further North they’ll be more of an Indian or Chinese influence.
In terms of how they dress though, it’s much more like India and Sri Lanka than other Asian countries. Men generally wear long wrap around skirts and women dress in brightly coloured saree’s or modest dresses. The Burmese share another trait with those in India and chew and spit that horrible red tobacco everywhere, many of them have red stained rotten teeth. The picture below is of a stall owner rolling tobacco into leaves.
This is a country where only 25% of people have electricity, yet slap bang in the middle of Yangon is a KFC! This was the biggest, cleanest and most modern looking KFC I’d ever seen, it must have been brand new and just shows the way this city is heading. I doubt it will be long until the golden arches arrive and restaurants stop focusing on local cuisine and instead opt for burgers, chips and pizzas.
Whilst the older generation in Yangon dressed traditionally and blended in, many of the younger kids could have passed as American. Baseball caps, sunglasses, headphones and an edgy haircut usually complete their look. This has crept in everywhere in Asia though and I’m sure we’ll all look like clones one day.
We spent a whole 30 minutes walking through streets of markets and not a single person hassled us to buy something. They barely acknowledged us, just carried on with their business and left us to it. Why can’t everywhere be like this? To be fair the majority of market stalls are geared towards locals, there wasn’t much of the usual tourist targeted tack you find in most places. Give it 10 years though and I’m sure they’ll be less fruit and locksmith stalls and more ‘I Love Myanmar’ T-shirts.
You don’t have to go far to find the usual global brands. Supermarkets sell everything from Dairy Milk chocolate to Pantene shampoo. However, there is still more of a market style atmosphere and local produce still appears to be largely traded. The mobile phone market stalls made us smile, why don’t the UK ones have this kind of nostalgia 🙂
The streets of Yangon
Although Wikipedia will tell you Myanmar is one of the most corrupt places on earth, the streets of Yangon (the biggest city) felt very safe. It’s a built up area with lots of apartment blocks and a few modern looking hotels and offices that have been built more recently. Apartment blocks are dirty and obviously not maintained, they look a lot like those in parts of Hong Kong. However, the streets aren’t too bad and are generally clean (apart from the red tobacco spit stains!).
The atmosphere is strange, it doesn’t feel typically like other countries in SE Asia? It’s a real blend. If someone dropped me here and I didn’t know where I was, I would probably guess Sri Lanka. The way people dress and some of the smells you get from the food vendors also makes it feel like India, but it’s far less populated and cleaner. The old buildings look more European (It was British owned until 1948) and unlike other Asian countries colourful temples are harder to find, instead it’s easier to find a church in Yangon, yet over 80% of people are Buddhist.
Things to do
It’s obvious that the government have started to invest in tourism, however it’s also obvious that Myanmar is still in it’s infancy when it comes to tourism.
As soon as we entered our hotel we were given the standard little tourist book detailing the top 10 things to see in Yangon. It was interesting to have a read through as most of the recommended sights were old buildings, lakes or parks. It was strange not seeing the typical money making tourist trap sites like waterfalls, tiger ‘sanctuaries’, floating markets and trips out to see remote village tribes and rice fields.
I haven’t seen a single travel agent on the streets or any adverts for tours which is extremely rare. Is it a case that Myanmar doesn’t have these things? I’m sure it does, or at least it will. But for now I guess there isn’t the footfall of tourists to justify the investment into such sites and services. It’ll be interesting to see how the country develops over the next decade, as more and more tourists enter I’m sure it’ll gradually become more like it’s neighbouring countries. Watch this space!