Our trip to Myanmar was very eye-opening for us. This was the last country for us to visit in SE Asia. I turned out to be by far the most unique countries we visited.
As in all new countries we visit, there are good points and bad points, but Myanmar also had endearing points.
The good things we found in Myanmar centered on its rich heritage that still lingers here.
The country is by far the most undeveloped of the ones we visited in SE Asia.
The endearing part was the warmth and humor of the people of Myanmar.
Myanmar: The Good
Underdeveloped may give many people a bad impression. That is far from the truth when discussing Myanmar. For us, it meant seeing a country as close to it's pure or true past as possible. Cell phones did not even exist in the country until around 2014 but the coverage is very good now. Many locals that work as guides and drivers carry as many as three to four cell phones. Each one from different carriers to ensure they will have a network when needed.
Underdeveloped can also mean that there is a lack of imported goods in the country. While it is true, that leads the people here to depend on themselves and their own efforts. They have a good base for food supply and water supply.
We saw no people that were living on the streets, everyone seems to have food and housing. Not the best by western standards, but what you should expect in this country. The food shortages, problematic in many underdeveloped countries are not a problem here. Fresh meat and produce, including tea, all produced within the country.
Underdeveloped can mean low wages and a lack of jobs, but that was not evident. The hour's people work are very long, and the wages are very low. In a country where a meal for a family costs less than $1, it is hard to determine what effect that has on the population.
Underdeveloped can mean a lack of transportation. Not true in Myanmar with both good flight and bus options. There are trains, albeit slow and very old. The bus system does provide low-cost effective transportation everywhere in the country.
Our costs for all travel inside the country? Including two trips to Bagan, Plyn Oo Lwin, Hsipaw, Mandalay and Yangon was $135 for two people. That was over our 25-day visit.
Underdeveloped, for us, also meant “unchanged”. There were very few people, transportation, guides, food, and housing. We did visit during the hot, “low season” for tourism. We found only a few tourists in Bagan, a site that more than compares with the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Touring some of the 4200 temples and pagodas in Bagan we would see less than 100 visiting tourists. This as compared to tens of thousands in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Laos was the only country close to Myanmar but there were still many more people visiting in Laos.
Myanmar: The Bad
The Lack of a well-maintained Infrastructure would have to top the list. This includes roads, bridges, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, phones, and the internet.
Roads: There is a major, well maintained, 4-lane road from Mandalay to Yangon (Rangoon). That is the only real quality road we traveled on. We traveled this highway in buses and have seen little other traffic other than a few autos. No trucks nor motorcycles. There were plenty of toll booths.
Most of the secondary roadways are narrow 2 lane roads. They are in rough condition, with potholes, and steep drop-off shoulders.
Road construction with only manual labor. We saw road gangs of women with wicker baskets that would go to a pile of dirt or gravel. They get loaded up and then walk down the road with the basket on their heads. They dump their loads and spread the material by foot.
One of the ‘Must See' items in Myanmar is the Goteik Trestle. This is the longest and tallest railway bridge in SE Asia. The structure, completed in 1900, and since then it has not gotten any maintenance work done on it. It is an aging piece of history. Otherwise, the bridges along the roads are very narrow. The traffic has to stop on one side to let the other cars through.
Even on the third floor in a hotel, when the powers go out, the sewer smells permeate the rooms. Some of it has received no work since the end of British colonial rule. “There are plans to build a new sewage treatment plant in Yangon, but that will take a few years.”
Sitting in the hotel room writing this article, the power has gone out a few times. The power was back on in less than 10 minutes each time. Once the rain started in earnest, the power went out for 45 to 60 minutes covering a large area of the city.
If you remember, Myanmar is coming out of 60 years of isolation and economic stagnation. The powers that be, believe that the power grid that is in use now does not even cover 1/3 of Myanmar's 51 million people. The wiring is at least 70 years old and it will be hard to upgrade it.
Phones and The Internet:
Myanmar's telecommunications systems are old and access is ‘iffy'. The internet is slow and often goes out. The country is far behind the times. In fact, they trail behind their neighbors in SE Asia. Landlines, the internet, and mobile phone coverage are low. However, in this area, the infrastructure is improving month by month.
Up-dating Myanmar's infrastructure is a top priority by the government. They are aware of its shortcomings and are working toward bringing Myanmar up to ‘code'.
Myanmar: The Endearing
This part was easy, it's the people of Myanmar. Generally, we have great receptions in every SE Asia Country we have visited. We never felt uncomfortable and were able to interact with most of the people in each country. We have never been treated so well as in Myanmar. It was here that the locals came up to us and started the conversations. They are eager to communicate, usually with at least one person acting as an interpreter. Even at restaurants, the staff members would join in the conversations. (only when there were no other customers). They are eager for information and knowledge from outside their own country.
Families would ask questions about where we were from. If this was our first time here and then they would welcome us to their country. If we were taking pictures, the families would ask if we would join their family for a picture with them. We were in a park taking some rest and watching people. While resting on a bench a father and very young daughter walked up and she shared some cherries they had with us.
On a trek in Hsipaw, our guide who was a character was also very proud of his Shan Heritage. Sai took us to a Shan Pineapple Plantation where the owner had prepared fresh tea for us and we all visited for a while. He also took us to a wedding reception and told us it would be alright to take pictures. Some of the guests and members of the family welcomed us into the festivities and invited us for dinner. The bride and groom posed for pictures. We later learned a surprise guest is a good luck omen and we were the top order of good luck.
The ‘good' of Myanmar is that it has not yet become overwhelmed with tourists. They have not changed their way of life as much as their surrounding neighbors have. The ‘bad' is the lack of up-to-date infrastructure and services that are in place at the moment.
They are now coming-of-age as a country who has great potential. But, the openness and warmth of the people of Myanmar are priceless. This is definitely a country you need to put on your list. A little inconvenience is easy to forget when you immerse yourself in their culture. The People of Myanmar will warm your heart and put a lasting smile on your face.
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