Let’s get one thing clear – Myanmar and Burma are the same country. The then-ruling military “changed” from “Burma” to “Myanmar” in 1989 – although it remains contested. I will use Burma because it’s faster to type and “Burmese” works better than “Myanmarian”.
After two-and-a-half months working our way from Istanbul to Rome we jumped in the deep end of South East Asia. Burma is not like Thailand, or Vietnam, or Cambodia. The Burmese themselves say that whilst they may be 30 minutes behind Thailand, in reality, they’re 30 years behind.
Until 2010 Burma was under military rule, which had lasted nearly 50 years. The country was largely closed to outsiders and lags behind its neighbours in all sorts of ways from tourism to foreign investment to infrastructure to public health spending. There is no efficient tax system, and corruption is widespread. Parts of the country are still at war. It remains almost untouched by foreign influence, save the British colonial legacy.
That’s what makes it so fascinating.
Burma doesn’t aspire to be Western – it doesn’t really know what Western is. There’s a KFC at the airport, a few Samsung mobile phones, a couple of Gloria Jean’s… and that’s about it. Brands and corporations aren’t everywhere, and it’s really quite refreshing. There are no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no Zaras, no 7elevens, no anything. Coca Cola only became available around 3 years ago.
Of course they have shops, stores, restaurants – nearly all are local, either independent, or national chains. Leave Yangon and you’ll barely see a recognisable branded outlet, Western or Eastern. Western products have found their way in – Coke, Sprite and Fanta are ubiquitous, along with a few others. But not many. And I understand there are few Chinese products either.
Burma has been, until recently, almost entirely self-contained.
Outside of cities, shops, and brands, life is simple. Few people own land, instead erecting rickety shacks in fields, or alongside roads or rivers. Electricity is scarce, even Yangon only attaining reliable round the clock supply recently. Sanitation is poor (people drink, bathe in, and dispose of rubbish in streams and rivers).
Saying the country is 30 years behind is probably over-egging it.
But this all gives Burma a marvellous authenticity. It’s real, genuine, unique. It’s (nearly) untouched and untainted by tourist tropes, tradition and customs are as strong as ever, people live off the land, religion is a way of life, history and the present day often indistinguishable.
It’s close to but a million miles away from Thailand’s tourist traps.
This will change. SIM cards, a gateway to the outside world, previously cost hundreds of dollars. Even a couple of years ago they were $200. Now, you can purchase for $2. The Internet allows millions of people access to a hitherto unknown world and like many countries before it those influences will eventually pervade, coffee culture will arrive, H&M will hit the high streets, and in the not so distant future Yangon will become Bangkok, Mandalay will be Chiang Mai, Bagan will be Siem Reap.
For now though, Myanmar (Burma) remains truly, authentically Asian. It’s a different reality, another world, an enormous departure from everything we’ve seen and done until now. Outside cities locals gawp at Western faces, telling their neighbours to come and see the aliens in their town.
The past two weeks have been a fantastic and fascinating experience, to be detailed soon…