I am a tourist. Not a traveller. A tourist. I am not too keen on those who pride themselves on being travellers rather than tourists. In the same way that I am not too keen on battery acid enemas. Of course they are tourists. They are just more supercilious. And often have terrible, culturally-appropriated white-boy/girl dreadlocks. And no sense of humour. However, having said that, and bored shitless of the ‘have you been to…’ game that they all play (see the wonderful Julian Rhind-Tutt as Jason Hamilton the travel writer in Black Books for illumination), I travel a lot and I do like to see different places. I see myself as an early-adopter tourist. And sometimes, that just sucks. Easter 2012 was one of those times.
I have no idea what Burma is like now – I suspected at the time that its west coast beaches (didn’t visit – don’t like beaches) would soon be massively spoiled by slicks of entitled, over-earnest western teenagers in tie-dye Bob Marley t-shirts who have all figured out the meaning of life. But in 2012, the country had just opened up after decades of oppressive military rule. The perfect chance to see it before it followed Thailand down the gap-year shitter. There was, however, a massive down-side to this. And I’m not talking about the three day wait in Bangkok for the flights and visa to be sorted. Though that was pretty shitty.
I do still have a sort of soft spot for Bangkok. It was, after all, the reason I resumed my travels after a 10 year hiatus back in 2004. Back then I had never been anywhere particularly exotic (though I had seen most of Western Europe and even lived in Austin, Texas for a time) and, as a love-sick young pup one one year into his thirties, had followed a woman there for a summer. Back then I was blown away – the Khao San Road was the most impossibly exotic place I could have imagined. I loved it. Eight years later, it just seemed tawdry; the stamping ground of tired stag and hen (that is bachelor and bachelorettes for my American friends!) parties and drunken Brits in football shirts. Though still with too many fucking ‘travellers’. I am not sure how much Banglamphu had actually changed in those intervening years – not much I suspect. I, however, had changed a lot. That is the downside of frequent travel (and the only downside, as far as I can see, perpetually empty bank account aside) – you get jaded. There are very few places (Kathmandu and Tokyo being the only two that immediately spring to mind) that really feel magical on first acquaintance. Generally, although arriving somewhere new is still a great feeling, it just feels nowhere near as special as it used to.
Burma in 2012 had just emerged from nearly 50 years of massively repressive military rule; half a century that had seen the country ostracised internationally. Travel to and round the country had been incredibly difficult, if not impossible. By 2012, though, things were changing. Elections in 2010, though eventually decried as fraudulent, followed by progressively more movement toward proper democracy had seen borders open up and tourism, still a trickle then, begin to provide the promise of an national income. The problem (the big problem to which I alluded earlier) was that there was still virtually no tourist infrastructure. And whilst ‘travellers’ might thrive on such conditions, I (as I believe I may already have pointed out) am a tourist.
When I was a small child, my parents, my sister and I would regularly drive across Europe. We visited family in Greece, took camping tours of France. I am certain that this is from where my love of travel stems. (My father, Jos Simon, is indeed a travel writer). Travel across Europe in the late 70s and early 80s was a very different beast than it is today. No internet, no ATMs, no satnav or Google Translate. No Euros – a trip to Greece might involve five or six different currencies. We relied on arriving at places early enough to visit banks at a time when banks closed at 3pm. We relied on road atlases, phrase books and crossed fingers that campsites would have spare pitches when we arrived. We were plagued by unreliable transport – at one point our tiny Fiat caravanette proved to be so underpowered that we had to traverse an Alpine pass in reverse. And have you ever tried getting a complete exhaust section for a 1973 Vauxhall Victor in a largely inaccessible (the terribly rocky path there creating the need for a new exhaust in the first place) village on the border of Greece and Albania? My parents have. And they did it with two small, and largely fractious, children in tow. They would (and no doubt will) scoff at what I considered to be difficulties in travelling round Burma. But difficulties, nevertheless, they were. Such as trusting a shadowy, online ‘tourist agency’ to arrange a visa. Such as the fact that there was not a single internationally connected ATM in the whole country and nowhere took credit cards. And the lack of options when booking hotels online. Not to mention the complete impossibility of booking and paying for internal flights without actually being at the airport. And a different airport from the one at which I would arrive. But my parents should be proud: I endured. I transcended. I overcame, goddamit. I overcame.
I arrived in early April, 2012, for a visit that was limited (by the length of school holidays) to a mere 7 days. In by-elections a week before, Aung San Suu Kyi’s previously outlawed National League for Democracy had won 43 of the 45 available seats. On top of that, Burma was also celebrating Thingyan (also known as Songkran in Thailand), a five day water festival leading up to Buddhist New Year. As I understand it, people actively travel to Thailand to experience Songkran. But then, as I understand it, people actively throw themselves out of planes with parachutes and off bridges attached to an elastic band. People actively mutilate their own genitals to derive sexual pleasure. People actively listen to Radio One. There are a lot of fucking weird people out there. Songkran/Thingyan is five days of people shooting each other with water pistols and thinking it is the funniest thing in the world. Let me run that by you again. Five days. Of shooting people with water pistols. Five days. Even as a child, water pistols ceased to be even mildly diverting after five minutes. So Thingyan? I fucking hated it. And not because I am a miserable introvert. Because it was shit. It was impossible to walk anywhere without getting soaked and it wasn’t warm enough yet for the water to evaporate. Without taking undue care, you’d end up prune-fingered and shivering for nearly a week. Like being in Manchester in the summer. Only without being able to understand a word people say. OK, exactly like being in Manchester in the summer then.
Yangon International Airport was surprisingly modern. There was a short queue for the visa stamp – not many people requiring visas were visiting Burma at that point. The couple ahead of me were asked to pay for their visa and protested that they had already paid a tourist company. The impressively-military-peak-capped border guard didn’t care. In the end they had to pay. Again. I hadn’t paid, but had arranged to meet the Burmese man who had ostensibly invited me to stay, and to whom I would pay the requisite fee in cash. Of course now I was worried that I would have to pay the border guard as well. And then I might not have enough cash. Cash, you see, was something of a problem back then in Burma. There were, as already noted, no international ATMs. The Burmese Kyat was not available outside the country. So the only possible way to do business was with the mighty US Dollar. Which meant I needed to work out how much money I would need for the whole holiday and have it in dollars. If I ran out of money, I would have no food, no shelter. No booze. Unthinkable. Obviously, I had erred on the side of caution and taken many more dollars than I thought I would need. But there was still the fear of robbery. Or of having to pay twice for the not-inexpensive visa. Like I say, I’m a tourist, not a traveller. I really, really do not want adventures. I want holidays. But the letter I provided for the border guard proved sufficient, and I received my visa. At the other side of the border control, I met my ostensible inviter, and, carefully removed his dollars from my bag. I say carefully, as, by another quirk, not only would the Burmese only accept US Dollars, they would only accept pristine US Dollars. Any fold, crease or tear? No longer legal tender. So I had had to take my stack of US Dollars, wrap them in bubble-wrap (and I mean literally – actual bubble wrap) and place them in a sturdy cardboard box that I surrounded by soft and shock-resistant clothing in my rucksack. I’m not kidding.
First order of business was to pay for my internal flight tickets. Air Mandalay had a deal for a four ticket round trip (Rangoon to Inle to Mandalay to Bagan to Rangoon) that seemed eminently reasonable. And while I could read about it on their website, and book the tickets via email, I couldn’t pay for them unless I turned up at the airport with cash. Perfectly preserved cash. And I could easily be bumped from the flights if I didn’t pay as soon as possible. And as this was a major national holiday season, the flights were filling up. Fast. So I had to get to the domestic airport. Which luckily was right next door to the international terminal at which I had arrived. About a 15 minute walk with ridiculously long airport driveways taken into account. So walk I did. The domestic terminal was everything the international terminal was not – run down, chaotic, dirty, crazy. Worse even that Kathmandu’s infamous domestic terminal. Like many repressive regimes, a lot of money had been pumped into the parts of the country that foreign journalists might see, but the parts that they would not told the true story. I found the Air Mandalay stand – and it was a stand: one of the small metal lecterns from behind which airport staff issue your boarding pass – and paid a very friendly and very accommodating Air Mandalay employee. As I was to find out the width and length of Burma, the lack of facilities for tourists certainly did nothing to damp their hospitality. In return for my meticulously ironed and bubble-wrapped dollar bills I received…a ticket! A real, old-school (for those of you old enough to remember) carbon-papered, booklet-style airline ticket, which she filled in by hand. It had been something like two decades since I had seen a proper, old-fashioned airline ticket. It really made me smile. (And I’m a miserable introvert etc. etc.).
Armed with my charming airline round trip ticket, I made my way back to the shining international terminal and got a cab to my hotel. The East Hotel was one of the few, then, to jump on the new Burmese tourist wagon. It was advertised online as a boutique hotel (and in 2012 that classification was only just beginning to become tiresome) and one of the few hotels in the area with an online presence. It was…interesting. Definitely not a bad hotel at all, it was a strange amalgam of a standard, pre-cast concrete, five-floor tower as seen all across South East Asia, and a second-hand description of what a boutique hotel should be. Hence the immense pride in the key-card system. The forty-year old dented-door elevator up to the rooms. The random collection of objects in the (nevertheless very pleasant) room itself – a bead curtain made out of leather gourds? Well why the hell not?
I had two days in Rangoon, most of which I spent dodging fucking water pistols. But it was here that the lack of tourist infrastructure (along with the fact that I was visiting on a major religious holiday) started to let me down. Across the road from the East Hotel was a large and ramshackle hotel that bore the name of a famous Western chain. It is not there anymore. However, it was the only place I could go locally to change my dollars into kyat. I handed over two $100 bills in the gloomily mahoganied lobby and received a wad of bills as thick as my forearm in return. OK, I don’t work out so my forearm isn’t all it could be, but nevertheless…
Again, avoiding the omnipresent water pistols, I headed down the road from the money changer to the next tourist point: the much touted Bogyoke Market, where I was assured I would be able to try authentic street food and observe the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the Burmese capital. As it was Thingyan, I got soaked on the way. And as it was Thingyan the market was closed. Fuck. With very little else to do, and with most shops and restaurants being shut, I started to freak out a little. Even my first trip to Vietnam some years previously, where (at that time) the lack of the ubiquitous Thai 7-11 shops meant I didn’t know where the hell I could even get a bag of crisps was not this otherworldly. I was hungry. But there was nowhere to buy food. Especially for a miserable introvert. Eventually, I found my way through dark and sodden streets to what was either a mall or an indoor market which had an insane department store attached. I managed to collate enough random foodstuffs that I had a pretty good chance of having a passable bedroom-picnic by the time I finally got back to the hotel.
The next day was my full day in Rangoon. Dominated, naturally, by wanting to visit the nearby Sule Pagoda and the world famous Shwedagon Pagoda. There are some tourist attractions that, though internationally famous, it is easy to discount. The ‘meh’ factor. (Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid is, well, little. Trafalgar Square: really – why? Perhaps you like bird shit and psittacosis?) Shwedagon was not one of them. It was, as it turned out, a blazingly hot day and the only time I would have welcomed a dousing. But it is a religious site, so no. There are four approaches to the pagoda, each involving many steps, some covered, some not, and an awful lot of tourist shops selling Buddhist tat. Having said that Burma’s tourist infrastructure was new and undeveloped, clearly that was not the case for internal tourism. On a hot day, Shwedagon can be painful for western feet – it is not permitted to wear shoes in the compound and the ground heats up pretty fast. Even in changeable April, that day involved an awful lot of walking quickly. But it is SERIOUSLY worth seeing. Nobody seems quite sure when the famous stupa was actually built – anywhere between 1,000 and 2,600 years ago. The previous month had seen the first permitted celebration of the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival in nearly quarter of a century. The place was happy. And busy. One of the most amazing facts – the pagoda is covered in gold. Real gold. At the top, it is encrusted with diamonds and rubies. And even after half a century of oppressive military rule, it is perfectly intact.
Next stop – Inle Lake. An hour’s taxi ride from the delightfully named Heho airport lies Nyuang Shwe – Inle Lake’s main town. I had booked two nights at the Princess Garden Hotel (highly recommended – very peaceful, on the edge of town) so only had one day where the boat tour of the lake (the reason for being there) was possible. I ate at the (also highly recommended) Green Chilli restaurant and went to bed early, full of hope that the weather the following day would be good enough for the trip to go ahead.
I woke to a fine hotel breakfast of fruit (which I ate, even though I don’t usually trust food with vitamins in it), coffee and pancakes. And beautiful, clear skies. The boat trip round the lake is the reason people visit the area. It is very much a tourist trap, though as I am a tourist I have no problem with that. One of the things that had been continually impressed upon me about visiting Burma was the need to spend money in places where it would go to the people rather than the government. And even though the various workshops that the tour stops off at sell goods often at double the price of elsewhere, the cost was still negligible and the money would go directly to the people. There is, after all, a clear line between getting ripped off and just being mean. The tour, in an incredibly noisy diesel-engined long boat, is worth it. Naturally, this being a Burmese national holiday, the lake was thronged with other tour boats, and a convivial atmosphere of tour groups calling and waving to one another ensued. Even I waved. Once.
The trip covered all the sights I had been told (by the internet – you don’t think I’d actually ask someone, do you?) to see – the iconic Inle Lake fishermen balanced on one leg on their narrow boats, a cigar factory and a blacksmith (both of which sold the goods made right there so no importing cheap Chinese rubbish), a Paduang (long-necked) weaver and a small village for lunch. We ended up at the Nga Hpe monastery, a wooden building on stilts (like most of the Inle Lake buildings) where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops. Well I guess you have to have something to do with all that time saved by not drinking or having sex. Again, a big tourist draw, the jumping cat monastery was…OK. The monks all seemed spectacularly stern and grumpy. “Hey,” I wanted to say, “I’m a western liberal. I supported you in your struggle against military oppression. I liked your Facebook page. You could at least crack a fucking smile.” I didn’t though. I don’t talk to strangers.
The next day was Buddhist new year. Which was very nice and all, but it was a fucker to get a taxi to the airport. Culturally sensitive to the nth degree, me. I had decided to give the planned night in Mandalay a miss (not much to see there, I had been told. And I only wanted to go so I could make lame Nellie the Elephant jokes on Facebook anyway) so didn’t get off the plane there, staying on to Bagan instead, where I would spend the extra night.
Bagan is an incredible area. On the banks of the Irewaddy river, in the 11th and 12th Centuries, some 13,000 Buddhist temples were built in an area the slightly larger than Camden in London. 13,000! There are around 2,200 still remaining, a site seen as the less-famous but otherwise-equal Burmese equivalent of Angkor in Cambodia. I arranged a day tour of some of the bigger and better preserved temples and stupas for the following day, and set out through the dirt streets of New Bagan, the area’s main town, to look for something to eat. Just around the orner from the hotel, I discovered what is still one of my favourite restaurants.
The San Carlo Italian and Chinese Restaurant. It doesn’t look like much – a concrete shell with no walls and mismatched tables and chairs. And, to be honest, the food was good but not brilliant. But it was cheap, and the beer was cold. And, best of all, when the waiter brought the starter and then the main course I had ordered, he arrived from two different directions. It seems that the restaurant is a neighbourhood enterprise and the different dishes are cooked in the different kitchens of all the local residents. How’s that for putting money in the pockets if the people? I liked it so much, I went back the following two evenings.
The tour the next day was fascinating. Having endured a two week tour of Rajasthan some years previously, I was aware how quickly AFTS (another fucking temple syndrome) can set in. But the six or seven temples we visited were just enough, and just different enough to remain interesting to the last. The bigger temples are still going concerns (though one suspects the tourists outnumber pious locals by something in the region of 100 to 1) and it is possible to enter, photograph, light incense, all the usual stuff. There are also hundreds (thousands in fact) of small, usually crumbling bricks stupas that make for good photography.
After Bagan, I had one last night in Rangoon before flying back to Bangkok. Wherever possible, when travelling for anything more than a few days, I try and stay in the best (and ideally Grand Old) hotel I can afford on my last night – a bit of 5 star luxury after the deprivations of mere 2 and 3 star travel. I have stayed in many wonderful hotels in this fashion – the Manilla Hotel in, well, Manilla, The Galle Face Hotel in Colombo and the Shanker Hotel in Kathmandu all spring to mind.
The Strand Hotel in Rangoon, however, put them all to shame. Celebrating its 111th birthday that year, Somerset Maugham, Pierre Cardin, Mick Jagger and Rudyard Kipling are among the many luminaries who have enjoyed its hospitality. I didn’t much care about that though. What I cared about was the fact that I had my own butler. Really. And that the hotel bar was a haven of wood-panelled, Imperial splendour. So impressive was the hotel bar that I started to get depressed that I didn’t have a linen suit and a panama hat with me and that I don’t smoke cigars. Seriously, it is the sort of place where one needs a linen suit, a panama hat and to smoke cigars. The hotel was completely restored in 1993, and unlike many similar hotels in that part of the world, the developers resisted the idea to over-modernise – there is no new wing; the fixtures, fittings, bath, taps, doors and floors are all original. It is not a cheap hotel by any stretch of the imagination. It is however a fantastic hotel. If you are in Rangoon and can afford it, stay there.
The following day I returned to Bangkok where I had an overnight stay before my flight home. It is a mark of how difficult I found travel in Burma that I was relieved to be back on the Khao San Road. Obviously, it was just as tawdry as ever. But it was easy. That night I ate at McDonalds, bought a couple of bottles from a 7-11, and all was well in my world.
They say that the definition of an adventure is that it is no fun at the time, but a lot of fun in retrospect. I am not an even remotely adventurous man (as well you might have guessed) so I didn’t really enjoy visiting Burma. But I loved having visited it. If you see what I mean.
A note on nomenclature – I am aware that Burma is now Myanmar and Rangoon is Yangon, but at the time I visited, the BBC advice was that Burma and Rangoon were the names preferred by the pro-democracy campaigners as the the change to Myanmar and Yangon was brought about by the ruling military junta. Even if that has changed in the ensuing years, I have stuck to the original names a) to provide continuity with the time I visited and b) because I think they sound cooler.