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The gilded Shwezigon Paya at Bagan.
The gilded Shwezigon Paya at Bagan.

Southeast Asia

The mysteries of Myanmar Add to ...

As my airport taxi - an ancient Toyota on the brink of collapse - rumbles down the road to Mandalay, the sensory feast that is Myanmar reveals itself. Monks smoke cigarettes in the back of a pickup truck. Women in yellow face paint cycle in the ditch, three to a bike, past feeding goats. Weathered billboards advertise four different brands of instant coffee, while the faded girl-next-door face of Canadian actress Elisha Cuthbert adorns an ad for calling cards.

My driver flashes a smile that reveals a set of teeth stained black from chewing betel nut, a mild narcotic whose juices leave blood-like stains on the ground. I nod and look out the window, soaking up the strangeness of it all.

A rush of excitement replaces any anxiety I had about  visiting the country with the world's longest-running military dictatorship.

Burma, Rudyard Kipling once wrote, is "quite unlike any land you know about."

More Myanmar, from city streets to rural life

A century later, Kipling's sentiment continues to ring true. Myanmar, as Burma is now known, is a country of chaotic city streets, playgrounds of centuries-old temples and remote hill villages. There is virtually no Western influence here - no McDonald's, Starbucks or brand-name clothes (real ones, at least). Both men and women wear traditional longyi, the sarong-like garment ubiquitous in the country. It's a devoutly religious land, where monks are revered and the citizenry continues to worship nat, spirits left over from pre-Buddhist times.

Myanmar's isolation is both its charm and tragedy. The country has for almost 50 years been ruled by an intensely xenophobic and corrupt junta that routinely stamps out political opposition.

In Myanmar, the disconnect between people and government is near total. Infrastructure is abysmal. Days are marked by staccato blackouts, and many roads connecting towns and cities are barely passable. Education and health care remain luxuries many Myanmarese cannot afford.

This state of affairs has sparked a debate about the ethics of travel in Myanmar. Some human-rights groups have argued that tourism helps prop up the regime, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader currently under house arrest, has argued for visitors to stay away (although there's some debate about whether she still holds that position).

Travel advocates, on the other hand, believe the benefits of tourism outweigh the negatives. They argue that most tourist dollars, when spent carefully, end up in the pockets of locals and that the cultural exchange of tourism is invaluable in a country that receives very little news from the outside world.

In recent years, Myanmar has been hit by a string of events that has caused tourism numbers to plummet. In 2007, a violent government crackdown on monk-led protests against rising gas and food prices left at least 31 dead (officially; human-rights groups put the number in the hundreds). Cyclone Nargis, the following year, was the worst natural disaster in the history of Myanmar.

Today, most of the roughly 260,000 annual foreign visitors to Myanmar are Asians and Europeans on package tours that often use government-run hotels and services. But the best way to visit - and to ensure most of your money stays away from the generals - is to travel independently.

In fact, independent travellers hoping to escape the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit are coming in growing numbers. They find a fascinating land of endless charm, striking scenery and a people of extraordinary hospitality and friendliness. Myanmar is by far the most off-the-beaten-track country I've visited in Asia, and escaping fellow tourists can be as easy as taking a left instead of a right.

My trip begins in Mandalay, a bustling, if slightly run-down, commercial centre of growing importance thanks to its proximity to China. Downtown streets buzz with life, and outdoor barbecue restaurants play English Premier League soccer, strangely a national obsession in Myanmar.

Mandalay is a young city at 150 years, but the surrounding area was for centuries home to the capitals of Burmese kingdoms. One day, I ride a horse and buggy through the ruins of Inwa, which stood as the capital for 400 years; the next, I swim in the Irrawaddy River at Sagaing, home to about 500 stupas (mounds under which Buddhist relics - and often remains - are buried) and 6,000 monks and nuns.

In late afternoon, I catch the sunset at the stunning U Bein teak bridge and talk politics with a cab driver, something I found many locals surprisingly willing to do.

"Aung Sun Suu Kyi's party is the top party," the 40-year-old father of two tells me. "But if you protest the government, you are arrested, sent very far away. We all want change."

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