Burma By Any Other Name

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

You can learn a lot about present-day Myanmar standing on the corner of Pansodan Road and Maha Bandula Road in downtown Yangon. A rigid, Manhattan-style grid system creates an organized flow in the city center and a smattering of new malls and smartly appointed restaurants have sprung up, but sidewalk second-hand book shops, street markets crammed into old warehouses, and the ubiquitous food vendors still dominate the streetscape.

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A cellphone store occupies the small retail space in the ground floor of an enormous, colonial-era government building with stately columns and vaulted ceilings. A sign above the door reads “Government Telegraph Office.”

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Every developing country has these kinds of anachronisms alongside its more modern fixtures, but the bustling, fully operational telegraph office directly adjacent to a cellphone store sums up the oft-confusing, always entertaining dichotomy that is Myanmar today.

Though I don’t want to turn this into a lecture, a bit of history on Myanmar might be of use. To put it mildly, this is not a place that has had a good run of luck with its government recently. Several hundred years ago, the area that came to be known as Burma was briefly the largest empire in Southeast Asia, but like much of Asia, Myanmar fell under British control from the mid 19th century until 1948. Partially occupied by the Japanese and tepidly supporting the British during World War II, the country was devastated by the end of the conflict, though they were able to negotiate their independence after the war.

A lack of a stability meant the newly independent government was susceptible to a coup and that’s exactly what happened. General Ne Win, one of recent history’s most notorious lunatics, took over the country in 1962 and controlled a government that modeled Soviet centralization. Win died in 2002 after effectively running Myanmar into the ground and different military factions have controlled the government ever since, with vague nods toward democratic reform every now and then. In the last five years or so, the government has made some strides toward forming a more liberal, free-market economy with more extensive personal freedoms, but widespread poverty, government corruption, and several different civil wars that have been going nonstop for nearly 70 years all, shockingly, make progress quite difficult. A highly anticipated national election next month will undoubtedly shape the country’s immediate future.

There are countless things Win did that are horrible, but one of his almost comical, more benign policies has to do with driving. As Myanmar was a British colony until the mid 20th century, the cars were right-hand drive and everyone drove on the left, as you would in the U.K. When Win came to power, he decided that wouldn’t do. There are slightly differing theories as to the exact reason this happened, but general consensus says that Win’s trusted astrologer (hello, Ronald Reagan) told him that in order to, metaphorically speaking, move Myanmar in another direction, he should take a more literal, immediate approach. Essentially overnight, traffic moved to the right side of the road and today, almost everyone still drives a right-hand drive car.

My reaction to this was, so what? But, of course, there’s a reason why things are the way they are. This situation presents a real problem when you want to overtake someone on a single-lane highway. If the driver is not on the side of the car on the inside of the road, i.e. closest to oncoming traffic, it’s almost impossible to pass someone, as you can only see incoming traffic once most of your car is in the other lane.

While the Burmese have made this wacked out system work surprisingly well, holdovers from the days of left-side driving prevail. You’ll occasionally see signs on the road facing the other direction, directing cars that haven’t been coming that way in years, and buses are a unique disaster. About half the city buses still have the door for passengers on the left side of the bus, meaning people board and get off in the middle of oncoming traffic.

As for the name, it is technically called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, and the Burma/Myanmar issue is complicated both by colonial politics and widespread objection to the autocratic Burmese government that made the name change to “Myanmar” in 1989. While certain factions in the country refuse to call it Myanmar as a form of protest against the government, most locals refer to their country as such. Confusingly, “Burmese” is still the preferred adjective and demonym, as “Myanma” is almost never used.

So, welcome to Myanmar! Though I didn’t set it up particularly well, this is a truly fantastic country and the best advice I can give is come now, as it’s already quickly heading down the same path as its tourism-ruined neighbor, Thailand.

Myanmar is not a place without serious issues, but so many of the things most Western people would worry about are not issues here. At least not yet, and I’m sure that as it becomes more developed, this will sadly change. When I asked my guide if it was okay to walk around near my hotel alone at night in Yangon, here is the response I got: “Oh no, the sidewalks are not good, it’s hard to see at night.” She’s right—the sidewalks are a situation—but this was hardly what I was concerned about and she seemed almost confused that I had any concern for my safety beyond falling on my face.

Flying within Myanmar is an experience. I never once showed an I.D. anywhere in the airport and security is essentially nonexistent. Many of the planes, not for the faint of heart, seem to be whatever aircraft (usually turboprops) the airline could get its hands on. On one flight, all the signage on the emergency door was in Italian, whose expertise in many things doesn’t historically extend to engineering (see: Alfa Romeo).

Myanmar is roughly the size of France, with a geographically diverse landscape ranging from the Himalayas in the north to enormous beaches in the south. I divided my time among three of the country’s most famous locales.

Yangon

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What a trip this place is. Known under the British as Rangoon, the former capital was abandoned as the political center of the country in 2005 when the government decided to move north to Naypyidaw, a city built from the ground up to house Myanmar’s political center. Sprawling 20-lane highways and a developed city center in Naypyidaw still sit almost entirely empty because no one wants to move to the freakishly uninhabited city (this is seriously worth the Google search, the photos are beyond bizarre). Despite the government move, foreign embassies are in no rush to leave Yangon, so the expat community still clusters in this southern metropolis.

As it was the capital under British control, Yangon bears the signs of its former colonizer the most, with an eclectic mix of buildings that feel strangely Spanish in style; rather than ordered symmetry and the usual markings of the Greco-Roman style favored by the British, many of the city’s former colonial buildings are closer in style to Spanish missions and Italian palazzi, two countries which had a presence in Myanmar during the colonial era, but not a significant influence.

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Yangon is still slowly working its way into the 21st century, as the fully operational telegraph office proves. Cranes all over the city are hauling up new high-rises and condo buildings, but on street level, there hasn’t been much activity since the British left, it seems.

The 100-year-old colonial buildings in Yangon haven’t exactly been maintained, so trees haphazardly grow through second-story windows, while shrubs and moss cling to shutters that were opened several generations ago and haven’t been closed since. Despite the lack of upkeep, these buildings are very much in use even if there is an enormous tree branch coming through someone’s living room window.

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This photo is not from Yangon, but you get the idea
This photo is not from Yangon, but you get the idea

So many of the buildings in Yangon are what I imagine Havana looks like, though having never been, this based entirely on conjecture. The trapped-in-time, faded grandeur of colorful palatial homes is what I imagine you’d find a lot of in Cuba, another place to visit immediately before Starbucks and Hilton turn it into another cookie-cutter Caribbean cruise port.

Myanmar is a hugely Buddhist country, so you can’t turn around without bumping into a Buddhist pagoda. Each one has its own signature: a piece of the Buddha’s hair, a Buddha carved from an enormous piece of marble, a reclining Buddha, lots of stupas. I have every intention of being respectful, but it’s impossible not to have a bit of a smirk on your face when you see this.

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The story of the Chauk Htat Gyi Reclining Buddha is a little bizarre. Originally constructed in 1907, it fell into disrepair and was subsequently rebuilt in 1966. Ten years later, the locals decided they didn’t really like it, at which point they tore it down and built this. The feminine makeup is meant to make the male Buddha more aesthetically pleasing, but the pink fingernails are kind of hilarious.

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Shwedagon Pagoda is the star of the show in Yangon and it is really quite beautiful despite suffering from Westminster Abbey syndrome. Westminster Abbey is great but after it was built, it’s like the people running it got so excited about its popularity that they buried any and everyone there. The result is that there are a lot of famous dead people there, but the inside of the abbey is completely cluttered with graves.

The same kind of thing happened to Shewdagon. People loved the beautiful pagoda so much everyone wanted to donate a stupa and now it looks like the handiwork of a stupa hoarder.

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Though somewhat lacking in subtlety, Shwedagon has maintained its beauty and the sight of hundreds of gold stupas glittering in the sunset convinces you that in this rare instance, perhaps more is more.

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All its wonderful quirks aside, Yangon is still very much in the developing stage. The quality of most housing is abysmal and I spotted several communities of people essentially living in tents in the middle of the city. Trash collection in much of the developing world is not great, but seemed particularly bad in Myanmar. The lack of infrastructure upkeep makes for an interesting cityscape to look at, but one that is not well-suited to the needs of its citizens and unfortunately, I get the impression that most of the new condo buildings in Yangon house almost exclusively expats and the (often nefariously) wealthy Burmese.

Circumnavigating the city is an ancient train line and like with the airlines, the cars appear to be a collection of whatever was given to the Burmese. I rode on a JR train, the same cars used by the Tokyo subway system, which gave me a lot more confidence in the train’s stability than the creaky Italian prop jet.

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Neither fast, nor furious
Neither fast, nor furious
A particularly well-named station
A particularly well-named station

The train goes hilariously slow; truthfully, a quick jog could keep pace, but a ride is a must in Yangon to experience what typical transportation in Myanmar looks like and to see what really goes on in the city. There is absolutely no barrier between the tracks and the back of people’s houses. This seems like a dangerous situation, but considering you practically need a calendar to measure the time it takes the train to travel between stations, it’s almost impossible to imagine how any living thing could be so stupid and/or unlucky to actually get hit.

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Though it bears the strongest marks of its British history, Yangon also felt to me like the place in Myanmar with the most Burmese personality. The convergence of the old, the new, and the utterly absurd made it such a delightful place to be thanks to its wackiness.

Some of Yangon's usual quirks. This lady is preparing a traditional Burmese
Some of Yangon’s usual quirks. This lady is preparing a traditional Burmese “soft drink”
...and here is the result. When I asked my guide for further explanation, thinking
…and here is the result. When I asked my guide for further explanation, thinking “soft drink” clearly had a different meaning, she said that the Burmese would call this a soft drink, as well as a bottle of Coke. This is not quite as horrifying as it looks. Basically everything is made from coconut in various forms–shredded, in gelatin, cooked–but there are also tapioca balls, some carrot, and a piece of white bread, all topped off with condensed milk. Yeah

For the sake of its citizens, Yangon is a place that needs an overhaul, and hopefully the people in charge of bringing the city into the 21st century will do it in a way that keeps this sense of history alive. Realistically, you can’t have a tree growing halfway through a building, but the fantastic (annoyingly) British built buildings underneath the rampant vegetation are absolutely worth keeping around. For developers and the Burmese government, it would be so tempting to level the place and start over. Hopefully they have the good sense not to.

Inle Lake

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If you look into the recent history of the Shan State in Myanmar, you’re not likely to find many positive things. The area in the eastern part of the country has been known for its copious amounts of opium and its unrelenting civil war between the central military government and tribal warlords, many of whom are responsible for the exportation of opium. The northern part of the state that borders Thailand, China, and Laos is still sealed behind a strict military border, but in the south near Heho, you’d never know the region immediately to its north has a long history of violence.

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The traditional way of paddling boats here is with the leg, not the arms
The traditional way of paddling boats here is with the leg, not the arms

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Yangon feels on the precipice of modernity; Heho, not so much. Driving into town from the airport, we passed an area where a set of train tracks was the only thing spanning a valley between two large mountains. Obviously looking to avoid the long walk down into the valley and back up again, locals simply used the tracks as a convenient sidewalk between the two areas.

A few miles later, we passed the point at which the tracks crossed the road. The means of traffic control was a guy with a giant board painted red, who would run out into traffic when a train came to (hopefully) stop the front car before it crossed onto the tracks.

You come to this area for Inle Lake, the 45-square-mile expanse of fresh water on top of which dozens of small villages hover on bamboo stilts. There’s all kinds of industry in this area; agriculture, weaving, paper production, silversmithing, cigarette rolling, and small-scale boatyards.

The first is the most impressive. To grow produce on top of a lake, the Shan people use weeds that naturally grow in the lake as a base, on top of which they stack soil and plant various crops (tomatoes and rice seem to be the most popular). To keep the whole thing from drifting away when blustering boats go past, farmers anchor their crops with bamboo sticks, and they harvest everything from onboard a very narrow canoe they paddle between rows of plants.

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Women rolling cigarettes
Women rolling cigarettes
Woman weaving a shawl
Woman weaving a shawl
Spinning thread
Spinning thread

I happened to be in Heho during a religious holiday known as a pagoda festival, during which people come from all over the Shan to visit various temples in the area. Capitalizing on the influx of people, local merchants flock to the area and the streets around the pagodas turn into impromptu carnivals, with everything from pancakes to pirated CD’s for sale.

Woman making traditional Burmese pancake, more or less the same as a Western pancake, with peanuts and coconut
She’s making a traditional Burmese pancake, more or less the same as a Western pancake, with peanuts and coconut
It was damn good
It was damn good
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People bring all kinds of food to the temple as an offering to the Buddha. The men here are placing sheets of gold leaf on small Buddha images as a means of good luck. This is such a popular thing to do that the Buddha just looks like a giant gold blob thanks to hundreds of layers of gold leaf.

Shwe Inn Dein Pagoda takes after Shwedagon. Just when they thought they had enough stupas, they added 20 more. Half are still in their original state, artfully crumbling into the grass, while half have been restored and varnished with the favored metallic gold paint you’ll find everywhere in Myanmar. The combination of different styles makes the current temple interesting in its own right because of its mix-and-match aesthetic, but the “renovation” of Burmese temples (i.e. slathering them in gaudy paint) is ruining Myanmar’s precious buildings all over the country.

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So. Much. Gold.
So. Much. Gold.

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This “renovation” is actually a big problem in Myanmar. Not only does it ruin historic buildings, but lack of authenticity keeps many of the sights off things like the UNESCO World Heritage List (this is a particularly big problem in Bagan). The somewhat arbitrary, entirely political dealings of the UNESCO list are far from perfect, but the Burmese have now found themselves in this three-pronged catch-22; they can’t be on the UNESCO list because of modern modifications, making it more difficult to protect historic monuments. As such, they have to generate revenue for preservation… by renovating and somewhat ruining centuries-old temples and pagodas.

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The villages on Inle Lake don’t exactly looked poised for modernization any time soon, but the creeping tendrils of the tourism industry are definitely beginning to suffocate the area’s previously untainted way of life. For now, it’s still very much a window into the past and a great place to see some of the traditional cultures and industries in Myanmar, but if you want to see it, don’t dawdle. Five years from now, you’ll still be able to see the elevated bamboo houses clustered above the lake’s surface. The difference is they’ll have wifi and air conditioning and every other amenity tailored for tourists.

Bagan

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Bagan is where the magic happens in Myanmar; it’s also kind of a nightmare.

The good: Bagan was the capital of the Burmese empire during the Kingdon of Pagan period between the ninth and 13th centuries, and construction projects under several different kings left the land brimming with religious structures. More than 2,000 temples, stupas, and pagodas cover the small area along the banks of the Irrawaddy River, a place that is usually brown, dusty, and barren, but is still lush and green at the moment immediately following the rainy season.

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A trip to Bagan will include so many temple visits that it’s impossible to keep them straight. The newer, “renovated” temples grow a bit repetitive after a while, thanks to their literally white- and gold-washed sameness.

Shwezigon Pagoda. They just can't help themselves with the gold.
Shwezigon Pagoda. They just can’t help themselves with the gold.

Luckily, the gold-happy painters haven’t managed to get their hands on most of the area, so plenty of the structures still stand in their original forms. Earthquakes over the last several hundred years have necessitated restorations, but in the more traditional sense, so even the less-than-original bits replicate the original as closely as possible.

Ananda Temple
Ananda Temple

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Though slightly weather-beaten, the ruddy (usually) brick temples, pagodas, and stupas are in remarkably good condition, their carvings dulled, but still very much in tact. Brilliantly colored murals inside have lost their luster, but look pretty good for being several hundred years old. Htilominlo Temple was the most impressive I think, which was shockingly devoid of tourists despite being the most beautiful.

Htilominlo Temple
Htilominlo Temple
Htilominlo Temple
Htilominlo Temple

Which brings me to the bad: so, so, so many tourists. American tourists. They’re here in droves, cruising recklessly on rented electric scooters, shuffling on and off enormous tourist buses, and rabidly taking photos. As far as Southeast Asia goes, I had thought of Myanmar as its most remote corner only recently opened to tourists and though I hardly expected to be the only Westerner, I thought the lumbering presence of my fellow Americans would be a rare sight.

Well, apparently several million of my compatriots thought the same thing. With the exception of northern Thailand, I saw more Americans in five days in Myanmar than I have in two and a half months in all of Asia. The influx of tourism is incredible and sadly, I have no faith in the Burmese government to handle it in a responsible way.

You can’t get much further removed from the world than in Inle Lake, but the area is already packed with diesel-belching long boats zipping across the water. For now, the demand for accommodations far outweighs the supply, which helps limit numbers, and the area is big enough that it can absorb a fair amount of people. Pollution hasn’t taken its toll yet, but you can see the etchings of smog on the horizon. An enormous swath of cleared land on a hillside on the edge of the lake is in the early development stages for a mega-hotel, funded by the government.

Just a few boats waiting for the touristas
Just a few boats waiting for the touristas

Nothing about the treatment of this area leads me to believe Burmese officials are the slightest bit concerned with human or environmental preservation. I hope to be proven wrong, but I don’t think it’s long before you’ll see 200-person boats chugging across the lake into villages that are already becoming a bit crammed. It would be a tremendous loss for the Burmese people and for the world.

Anyway, to return to Bagan, for as crapped up as it’s quickly becoming, its breathtaking spectacle is undeniable. Mountains surround the flat plains of Bagan on three sides, making sunrises and sunsets stunning. The rust-colored buildings turn to a fiery red in the setting sun and even the gauche gold spires prove not totally worthless, brilliantly sparkling in the fading light.

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At sunrise, you’ll get much the same effect, and you haven’t properly seen Bagan if not from the basket of a hot air balloon in the early morning hours.

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Don’t think I can successfully follow that with anything insightful.

So when is the best time to visit Myanmar? Probably three years ago. That is undoubtedly its biggest drawback, and I obviously misjudged the country’s popularity in the West. Weirdly, domestic tourism still seems to be lagging, and taking a flight between Heho and Bagan with an almost entirely British and American crowd is just bizarre.

All that aside, this is a place anyone coming to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, can’t afford to miss. Myanmar is a country that’s been thrown around by colonialism and stagnated by its own government, but it keeps getting back up again. Fittingly, Myanma literally means  “fast and strong people.” They have a tremendous amount of natural resources, so they’re much better poised to enter the global economy successfully than a lot of the developing world. On paper, Myanmar shares a lot of characteristics with Thailand and its other Asian neighbors, but you wouldn’t for a moment confuse it with anywhere else while you’re there. The Burmese culture is both very welcoming and enigmatic, the people are fantastic, and the landscape they call home is utterly enchanting.

Inle Lake
Inle Lake

I fully realize how ridiculous this next statement will sound, but this week is my vacation. Planning almost every day from scratch is kind of tiring, so I’m heading to Bali to do a whole lot of nothing and sit on the beach. I’ll still be posting photos on Instagram, but won’t return here until I get to my next stop, one of the countries I’m most excited about on this whole trip: Vietnam. Until then.

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