We all know there's so much to do in Thailand, but another thing that Thailand offers is a good jumping off point to visit other countries in Southeast Asia. I've had the opportunity to visit all the countries but one that suprisingly stands out is Myanmar (Burma). While many people are against visiting this country due to it's current government, I choose to in order to learn more about it and see just how jacked up it really is. Note: for those of you wanting to "party" there, I can't offer any info on that subject but from what I understand, there isn't much there anyway.
It's merely an hour away, flying time, from Bangkok to Yangoon. Overall, it's a beautiful country. Very clean probably since there hasn't been any investment per se for decades. Your first impression upon arriving at the airport is somewhat strange. The first thing you have to do is exchange $200 per/person worth of your money into FEC (Myanmar coupons). This is to ensure that you at least bring some foreign currency into the country. You can get away with exchanging less by simply bribing the exchange people which is pretty much expected. Another word of advise here. Bring lots of US money and ensure that it is in perfect condition. For some reason people are afraid to accept money that has the slightest tear in it.
Outside the airport is just like any other 4th world country. Hoards of taxis waiting to take you away. It only costs $2 for the 30 min ride into the city but to see a little action between the drivers I only offered $1 and they literally fought amongst each other for the fare. Once you get in the taxi you'll get a non-stop pitch from them to get you to hire them for guides, taxi hires etc. Their English is somewhat limited but they are generally pretty nice to you.
Yangoon itself, and the people there are straight out of an episode of some sci-fi movie. They won't look you in the face, won't talk to you on the street, and are extremely conservative. The buildings and transportation haven't been upgraded since the 1950's. Unless you get a real first class hotel, they are pretty cheap in price and looks. In fact, everything in Myanmar is dirt cheap! Back to the people, I took my Thai wife and for some reason, history no doubt, Thais are scared to death of the Burmese! My wife couldn't wait to get out of the country and was afraid the Burmese would find out she was Thai and kill her. I told her to just say she was from the Philippines to quell her psychotic episodes. The people of Yangoon are a mix from everywhere. There are lots of Indians, Bangladeshis, Arabs and other unusual-looking races there. Virtually the entire population of women wear a yellow chalk on their face and probably 60% of the population chew bettlenut. Unless they work in the tourist industry they won't talk to you and getting a taxi on the street is impossible. They are basically told not to talk to foreigners, according to a couple of guides I hired. Speaking of which, guides can be hired to show you the sites just like in Cambodia for virtually nothing. Another note here, women never wear shorts, or pants and all men wear the Longie, a long type of dress. I ended up wearing one just so I wouldn't stick out so much. We went to the main temple, and got our first experience with the military (totalitarian) government. One of the main three General's wives was there and everyone had to make way for her and her numerous military escorts. Thinking of going up to get a picture of the scene, my guide in a fit of fear, pleaded with me to move on so he wouldn't get in trouble. Always wanting to speak my mind and inform people in governments like this the way things are on the outside, I tried to ask some politically incorrect questions and attempt to get him to open up. Basically he tried to deflect my questions or change the subject but eventually he acknowledged the situation in his country and was very interested in the outside world. There are a lot of temples and good shopping to be had but if you really want to see Myanmar the best place is called Pagan.
Pagan is about an hour flight north and used to be the old capitol. This place, in my opinion is just as good, if not better than Angkor Wat. Literally, thousands of small temples dot the city. Pagan in fact was visited by Marco Polo and ransacked by Genghis Khan. Just a fantastic place. Staying on the banks of the Irrawady River, it truly is breathtaking and totally unpolluted. I hired a guide for two days and after a while he eventually began to talk to me and agreed his country sucked but the people were just too scared to do anything about it. I saw again, how the Burmese military basically did whatever they wanted. During dinner one night, the daughter of the doctor to one of the Generals was eating at our hotel and had about 30 people in her group who basically waited on her hand and foot and treated the hotel staff as mere serfs. If a military vehicle was on the road, you had to pull of to the side. You can actually sense the fear in people when the military is around. After a couple of days, we flew out and this same person was on our plane. Even though there were plenty of empty seats on the plane, she wanted to sit where my wife and I were sitting. The stewardess asked me to choose another seat, which I refused. I ended up having to move because her military escorts made it quite clear she was going to sit there. The only thing that made it funny was trying to explain to my wife that they weren't going to shoot us, although maybe they could if they wanted to. Hey, I'm no ugly American but I wanted to make the point that I wasn't going to be intimidated like the rest of their countrymen.
I wish we could have visited more places there, but by this time my wife was in a constant state of fear and I reluctantly agreed to cut the trip short. Myanmar is a great country to visit and is extremely cheap with lots to see. One can only hope one day, the current government will fall and it will open up so everyone can enjoy it.
I'd love to visit Myanmar, but it will have to wait for a while…