I’m writing this from a swanky airport lounge in Doha; somehow Tania’s misadventures at the beginning of the holiday turning into an unexpected boon as we wile away 6 hours in relative comfort (or at least, with free food and unlimited Nespresso!) It’s a welcome place to reflect on what’s been a great break, and one that’s come to an end far too quickly. Don’t they always, though?
Our last few nights in Burma were spent in Ngwe Saung, a sleepy but beautiful beachside resort for wealthy Yangonites (and the site of the sailing event at the much-advertised SEA games later this month). We arrived to the most perfect sunset yet, and raced to the sea to take photos before our bags had even been unloaded from the car. There are some moments you just can’t miss.
We had chosen Ngwe Saung after some last minute trouble near Ngapali Beach put us off, but it is a laborious 6 hour drive from Yangon. Still, the sea was blissfully warm, the seafood fresh and delicious, and we wished we had more than just two nights.
Myanmar, Burma, has been a dream. It’s a world away still from Western life – no McDonalds or Starbucks, no sign of Western celebrity culture (except for one young girl in Bagan who was singing Justin Bieber – there is no escape!), men eschewing trousers for longyis, women painting their faces in pale patterns of thanaka and – probably most striking of all – everywhere pockets of monks going about their daily business… Some collecting alms, yes, but some playing on their iPads, straddling motorbikes through town or sitting in teashops. It’s hard to think of another place in the world where men and women of faith are so ubiquitous – except for at the Vatican, I’ve rarely seen a Catholic priest or nun mingling casually with the public.
Yet unlike in other places of extreme culture shock (in Dehli or Nairobi), I never felt uncomfortable in Burma, and rarely hassled. As always, making an effort to fit in with local customs helped, but the people were so friendly despite any fumbles we might have made along the way.
If I had basic tips to offer for travel in Burma, it’s:
1) Bring toilet paper and hand sanitiser with you everywhere, but if there’s a basket for the paper, use it!
2) Try local style of dress (longyis for men and women) at least once – they’re lightweight and comfortable and it’s much easier to chat with locals that way!
3) Follow all the trusted advice, but know that Burma is a country that is rapidly changing – they exchanged a rumpled and folded up US note of Lofty’s without question, ATMs were everywhere and basically all the Lonely Planet’s advice was out of date… But still worth bringing for the history.
4) Try to go with at least some idea of the context of the country’s history and people. The events are so recent – in the last 20 years and still ongoing, especially if you listen to the Moustache Brothers – and the scars are fresh just beneath the surface.
5) Don’t be put off by said aforementioned events – go! And independent travel is possible and even easy in most places.
Normal life and the run up to Christmas awaits… But what a journey it’s been. Goodbye Burma! I wonder what changes will have been wrought, next time I see you…