Our trip to Myanmar was very eye-opening for us. This was the last country for us to visit in SE Asia and it turned out to be by far the most unique of all of the countries we visited.
As in all new countries we visit, there is 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 all 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 but 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 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 solely 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 has food and housing, maybe not the best by western standards, but what is expected in this country. The food shortages that are problematic in many underdeveloped locations are not a problem here, with fresh meat and produce, including tea, all being raised within the country locally.
Underdeveloped can mean low wages and a lack of jobs, but that was not evident. The hour’s people work are very long, it seems and the wages are very low, but in a country where a meal for a family can be cooked for less than $1 it is hard to determine what effect that has on the population.
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4 Days In Bagan, Myanmar
Underdeveloped can mean a lack of transportation but in Myanmar, there are flights inside the country. There are trains, albeit slow and very old, and the bus system does provide low-cost effective transportation everywhere in the country. Our costs for all travel inside the country which included two trips to Bagan, Plyn Oo Lwin, Hsipaw, Mandalay and Yangon only cost a total of $135 for two people over our 25-day visit.
Underdeveloped, for us, also meant “unchanged”. There were only a few people competing for your attention for transportation, guides, food, and housing. We did, however, visit during the hot, “low season” for tourism. We found only a few tourist in Bagan, a site that more than compares with the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia. When touring some of the 4200 temples and pagodas in Bagan we would normally see less than 100 visiting tourists 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.
Myanmar: The Bad
The Lack of a well-maintained Infrastructure would have to top the list because it encompasses so much: 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 goes through major cities. We have traveled this highway in buses and have seen little other traffic other than a few autos. No trucks nor motorcycles. There were, however, plenty of toll booths.
Most of the secondary roadways were either narrow 2 lane roads, in rough condition, with many potholes, and had jagged and steep drop-off shoulders or they were packed dirt.
Road construction is done by manual labor. We saw road gangs of women with wicker baskets that would go to a pile of dirt or gravel, get loaded up and then would walk down the road with the basket on their heads and dump their loads and spread the material by foot.
• Bridges: One of the ‘Must See’ items in Myanmar is the Goteik Trestle, longest and tallest railway bridge in SE Asia. The structure was finished in 1900 and since then it has barely gotten any maintenance work done on it. It is literally 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.
• Sewers: Even on the third floor in a hotel, when the powers go out, the sewer smells permeate the rooms. The BBC put out this article in March 2016: Exploring Myanmar’s aging sewers “When the new government takes over in Myanmar this week, one of its priorities will be repairing and replacing infrastructure. Some of it has not been touched 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.
• Electrical Grids: While sitting in the hotel room writing this article, the power has gone out a few times, thankfully less than 10 minutes each time. However, 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, and the wiring is at least 70 years old.
• Phones & Internet: Myanmar’s telecommunications systems are antiquated and access is ‘iffy’, slow and often goes out. They are way behind most developed countries, in fact, they also trail behind their neighbors in SE Asia. Landlines, the internet, and mobile phone coverage are low. However, in this area, the infrastructure is gradually improving month by month.
Up-dating Myanmar’s infrastructure is considered top priority by the government. They are painfully aware of its shortcomings and are working toward bringing Myanmar up to ‘code’ as soon as possible.
Myanmar: The Endearing
This part was easy, it’s the people of Myanmar. Generally, we have been accepted 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, but never so well as in Myanmar. It was here that the locals came up to us and started the conversations, usually with at least one person acting as an interpreter. Even at restaurants, when we would visit with the wait staff, other staff members would join in the conversations. (only when there were no other customers)
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. In a park, we were resting on a shaded bench when 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. 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 to sit with them for dinner. The bride and groom posed for pictures.
While the ‘good’ of Myanmar is that it has not yet become overwhelmed with tourists and therefore, they have not changed their way of life as much as their surrounding neighbors have. It only follows that the ‘bad’ is the lack of up-to-date infrastructure and services that are in place at the moment. They are just now coming-of-age as a country who has great potential in the near future. 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 totally forgotten when you immerse yourself in their culture. The People of Myanmar will warm your heart and put a lasting smile on your face.