Myanmar: The Good, The Bad & The Paradoxical

Horse-drawn carriages in Bagan, Myanmar

“How was Myanmar?”


Awkward pause.

Four years on and I’m still not sure how to answer that question. The country? Beautiful. The locals? Welcoming. But the trip itself…

Sometimes the stars align and you take a vacation where everything comes together seamlessly.

Other times, you’re cursed and there’s nothing in your power that can possibly get your plans back on track.

My trip to Myanmar was something in between — a string of opposite experiences that left me baffled on the outbound flight, struggling to define those three weeks.

I’ll have to go with paradoxical as my adjective of choice, a reply perfect for killing conversations.

While planning, I’d taken for granted that my time in Myanmar would be as smooth as the previous six months of backpacking through Nepal and South East Asia, trips I can label using upbeat, mainstream adjectives.

However, within the first week I’d been swindled out of $150 — a tough pill to swallow in a country with no ATMs — faced a second attempted robbery and fallen paralyzingly ill. I’d had three different roommates, none of whom I’d categorize as dependable.

On the other hand, a woman ran down the street after me to return the $600 camera I’d left in her shop; multiple drivers were always ready to give me a lift when hitchhiking; and I hit the jackpot with the fourth roommate.

The backdrop for my visit was hardly normal and a hint of the unpredictability to come. I’d arrived in the middle of their 2012 by-election and the country was buzzing, while the government was trembling.

Upon landing at the airport in Yangon I nabbed a taxi to a low-budget guesthouse with a couple of other travelers. Once they caught sight of the building they locked eyes, waved me off and headed to one of the city’s more up-scale options.

I felt particularly alone waiting in the dilapidated “lobby” for a sign of life from a hotel employee, but then another traveler showed up: John, an Australian dredgeman, about 60 years old, or a very weathered 50. After five minutes of smalltalk we were roommates, opting to share a double to cut costs. $8.50 each.

Our room was 12×8 feet and didn’t have curtains because it didn’t have windows. Tiles covered the walls and the floor as if it had been converted from a basement bathroom.

Once we were shown to our cell, John sat on the bed, took some swigs from a bottle of duty-free Jim Beam and popped three Vicodin, then we went to dinner. We talked about his family a bit and laughed a lot. Afterwards I, the fit, 24-year-old, went to bed and John, the dredging grandfather, stayed out until 3am.

What an odd first night.

The next day I’d be swindled out of that $150 by a group of locals, police included, and thwart a robbery attempt. I’d commiserate with a dozen other travelers who were in the same predicament, angry and a little poorer on the first day of their big Burmese adventure.

For the sake of staying in a good mood long enough to complete this post, I’ll save those stories for another time.

Myanmar is changing rapidly, so much of what I experienced no longer holds true. In 2012 cellphones were a rarity, ATMs hadn’t yet arrived, currency exchanges were still mostly done on the street and men wore longyis, a type of ankle-length “skirt.”

No ATMs meant that the cash you flew in with had to last, and only crisp 100-dollar bills were accepted. (One of mine was rejected because of a crease in the corner.)

Eager to get out of Yangon, I headed south to visit the “world’s biggest reclining buddha.” Isn’t that on everyone’s bucket list?

While hitchiking back to town we were passed by a car carrying a couple and their family. The driver smiled apologetically, but returned five minutes later to pick us up with his vehicle now mysteriously empty.

The next day was April 1st, election day, and as the hours passed, it became more and more clear that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition party, would come out victorious despite the government’s shady interferences.

The NLD’s local headquarters were packed, full of excited and relieved locals ready to turn over a new leaf. The atmosphere took me down memory lane to the US on January 20, 2009.

Everyone wore Suu Kyi t-shirts. A procession of cars flying Burmese flags and NLD symbols blared their horns and paraded through the city for hours. “I’ve waited twenty years for this,” one man told me emotionally.

(I would later learn that at this moment, five hours north, John was being driven in a taxi to all of Yangon’s polling stations while wearing an NLD t-shirt and yelling “military aggression!” through the open window. Keep in mind that foreigners were told to keep a low profile during elections.)

After the reclining buddha I decided to continue south with a fellow backpacker. We’d discussed everything and planned out the logistics. The only problem was that when I woke up the next morning, he was gone.

Confused, I headed north instead to meet up with Chris, a sharp and witty BBC producer from London whom I’d met earlier in the trip and who would become a great friend.

At this point I started to see planning as a fruitless endeavor.

A few days later we took a bus to Hsipaw, our starting point for a trek to Inle Lake and met an 18-year-old Frenchmen on the bus ride who planned to join us, and I’m sure he would have if he hadn’t hung out in the lobby drinking vodka with three Russians all night. We woke up to a horrible stench and our charming roommate sound asleep with a pool of puke surrounding his bed.

Without missing a beat, we cut our losses and left for the trek, bright eyed and bushy tailed, and we never saw him again.

Not only were the elections happening during my April visit, but so was Thingyan, the Burmese New Year Water Festival where everyone heads to the streets for a day of parades, dancing and water fights. Two minutes of walking outside in any town and you’re drenched (along with your cellphone).

Because of the festival, an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything, our bus ride back to Yangon turned into a 30-hour train ride. Sleep was impossible due to the cockroaches being sucked in through the open windows and smacking us in the face. If that didn’t wake us, there tiny legs struggling to untangle themselves from our hair did the trick. It was funny in its absurdity, though the laughing stopped when one hit me in the tooth.

These are the memories that come to mind when I reminisce on Myanmar, and I have to smile. It was terrific and frustrating, exceptional and unplanned.

When trying to summarize my time there, none of the labels hit the mark, as is usually the case with labels. I guess, like any country, it’s too three dimensional to just be rosy or gray. Bad things happened. Good things happened. There were laughs, tears and puke, but no regrets.

Perhaps what sums up the paradox best is a quote from my journal on my last day in Myanmar: “Im pretty sure a buddhist monk hit on me at the pagoda today.”

The trip may have been a disaster or a grand adventure. I can’t be sure and who cares?

Click for photos of Myanmar: Faces & Places, but Mostly Faces

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