Burma (Myanmar) Part One (March 20, 2010)

Note: We found during our time in Burma we had A LOT to comment about.  Below is our first installment, focusing on being a foreigner and getting around the country:

Being a foreigner in Burma

            The Burmese government seems to not quite know what to do with foreigners.  On the one hand it is economically beneficial to have a large amount of tourism.  On they other hand, they like to keep things under wraps.  Therefore, they seem to have looked for a middle ground.  They make the process of obtaining a visa difficult enough to cause several headaches, but not too difficult as to keep us out.  Once in the country, they allow us to visit certain places but not others.  At times, this distinction seems very arbitrary— we were walking in the center on Yangon and came across this sign:  

  The following day, we walked out to the river where several small boats were ferrying locals across the river.  Jed asked if we could go for a ride on the boat, only to be told “no foreigners allowed on the boat.”  They also seem to have decided not to be the least bit embarrassed about exploiting us for our money.  Most sites are free for Burmese citizens but foreigners are charged.  While we have found this to be the case at major attractions in other countries, here they advertise it loudly: 

  Interesting enough, many of the locals we encountered seemed very upset by this (as the money goes directly to the government) and on more than one occasion either helped us find an alternative entrance to a site (avoiding the fee) or recommended we skip a site where a fee was charged and instead visit a different one.



Upon walking out of the airport, it might seem perfectly normal. When we got in the cab, it seemed the same since we’d just come from Thailand and Burma had been a British colony. That is, the cab was a right hand drive vehicle. This is often one of the first things we notice when we arrive in a country: which side of the road they drive on. Often we figure this out by necessity- as trying to get into the driver’s seat usually seems a little odd to the cab driver. It is also a matter particularly of personal safety since you need to know which way to look when crossing the street (though Meg did manage to make it safely through all of India looking the wrong way at every crosswalk).

 So when we got into the cab at the Yangon airport, Jed noted aloud that the steering wheel was on the righthand side of the cab. Meg replied that she thought that Myanmar was actually a left hand drive country. It turns out that we were both correct: many of the cars have the steering wheel on the right but  the rules of the road are lefthand drive (just like the US). Apparently, one of the members of the military Junta that rules the country (which is officially called the “  “) decided one day that the country should change to driving on the other side of the road.  While Burmese drivers seem to be doing fine (we haven’t witnessed any accidents on the road) it has led to a peculiar mix of vehicles. About half of the cars have the steering wheel on the right and the other half on the left. This makes matters confusing when, for example, trying to negotiate a fare with a prospective cab driver- you never know which side of the cab to walk to in  order to speak to the driver. Combine this confusion with a government that has limited trade relations and the country’s car fleet looks the result of a bizarre classified ad: “Vehicles wanted: any make, model, or type of car purchased without regard to condition or driving standard(?)”  


Taking the bus from Mandalay to Inle Lake (which for reference is taking the bus from the 2nd biggest city in the country to probably the biggest single tourist attraction in the country) was quite an experience. Forget the usual bus breakdown stuff which often happens (and happened twice on this trip but they were only short breakdowns, so no big deal), the road was unique in the annals of terribleness. Essentially, it was a bumpy, one lane, dirt, logging road. Even if the road was vacant the maximum speed a bus could travel on it wasn’t more than 25 miles per hour without rattling to pieces (perhaps related to the bus breaking down twice?). But add in hundreds of buses and trucks, traveling in opposite directions, and the bus never got up to more than about 15 miles per hour before it had to pull over into the woods to let an oncoming vehicle pass.

We were trying to figure out why this road was so bad, given that it was clearly a major route and that some the other roads we had been on in Myanmar weren’t nearly as bad. The only good hypothesis we could come up with was that the government had created a school project. Perhaps the “design and build a road” classroom contest was meant to reach some sort of educational goal but perhaps there are better methods of road construction than “ok kids, you have 2 months and all the relevant heavy equipment, good luck with that highway”. And the fact that the contest was seemingly won by a 6th grade class might be an explanation for the very unfortunate experience that was our bus ride. In sum, it probably isn’t a surprise that this 200 mile journey took nearly 14 hours. 


After our bus experience, we decided that it might be a good idea to a different tack on the next leg of our journey. So first, we decided to try flying as that would surely be speedy. After learning that there were daily flights from Inle Lake to Bagan, we thought that this would be a fairly simple trip to book for the coming Thursday. Unfortunately, as multiple travel agents told us (a travel agent, you say? Why yes, no online booking around here) while there is a flight scheduled for Thursday there isn’t actually any flight leaving on Thursday. Hmmmm…. Well on to plan B, how about if we rent some motorcycles to drive north to the next town instead of going to Bagan? This seemed like it would be fine since one tour operator was advertising motos for rent. So we asked him if we could rent the motos to drive to this town. Unfortunately, no, he said, we couldn’t take the motorcycle to that town it was too dangerous. “Too dangerous,” we asked “why?” “Well,” he replied “not too dangerous for you, too dangerous for me, the government does not permit tourists to ride motorcycles to the north of here and if they find out that I rented you bikes then big trouble for me”. Well, I guess we’ll just take the local pick up truck to the town instead, it is only 60 kilometers so that shouldn’t take long…. 

When we finally succeeded in getting on a domestic flight (that was both scheduled to leave and was actually leaving), we had to fly out of the way back to Mandalay first to get to Yangon (turns out that a 14 hour bus ride is a 45-minute flight, even on a Yangon Airways prop plane).  Aside from arriving in Yangon much later than we thought (we should have suspected that flight arrival times were fluid when everyone we asked hazarded a different guess as to what time the flight arrived in Yangon), the trip was smooth. Then we got off the plane and went to claim our baggage.  The first thing we noticed was the stark contrast between the international terminal (comparable to those of many capital cities we have been in) and the domestic terminal (a very run down small single room that served as the gate for all arrivals and departures, transportation, greetings, etc.)  We looked around for the baggage claim but soon realized that the process consisted of walking out onto the runway, retrieving your bag from the cart near the plane, and walking back (or you could, of course, pay one of the many willing young porters to do it for you.)  It was like no other baggage claim we have ever seen.

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