I don’t think I have ever been as excited to visit anywhere, as I was to visit Burma. As we left Nepal I was giddy with anticipation, spending our stopover in Bangkok immersed in travellers’ tales and fawning over spectacular images of the Bagan temples and golden roofs of glistening pagodas. I also have to admit that in a previous life I was guilty of reading an extraordinary amount of boy’s-own wartime stories of daring and adventure in the dark and steamy depths of Burmese jungles. So this, you understand, was the Burma of my mind; mysterious, beguiling, dazzling and adventurous. Now – I am sure that Burma is all of these things, and more. Unfortunately, just not in the places that I visited.
In all honesty, in the face of such naivety, poor old Burma never really had a chance. I am a well-traveled person, and by now I really should know that relying on a combination of 1940’s adventure tales and heavily filtered Instagram pictures is not a clever way to get an idea of anywhere. However, as much as I know this, it didn’t stop my visit to Burma sliding into a depressing disappointment. I have no problem holding my hands up and saying that I know much of this disappointment was of my own making. I made two big mistakes; the first was obviously that I had seriously over-egged my pudding of expectation; the second was not making a more determined effort to get off the big tourist loop of Yangon, Inle, Mandalay and Bagan.
It’s at this stage that more succinct bloggers than me would crash right into a hard-hitting – ‘Top Ten List of Disappointing Things about Burma’ and be done with it. I am not sure I could even muster a list of ten really disappointing things, which is quite disappointing in itself really. Nothing was terrible enough on it’s own to merit a special mention; everything was just – well – fine. The accommodation was expensive but fine, the food was fine, the sights were fine, pretty much everything was just fine.
And herein lies the problem; with the exception of one place (more about that later), for me, nothing was really that outstanding. I do feel bad about saying that, I have enormous affection for Burma and for the people who I met, but I am being honest when I say that it just didn’t set me on fire, certainly not in the way that its immediate neighbours, India and Thailand, have been able to do.
Yet, I am not downhearted. I remain convinced that the Burma of my imagination is still out there, I just have to make more of an effort to find it. So much of Burma is currently out-of-bounds, or difficult to get to. The downside of this, is that all of the millions of tourists that are now flooding in are all squeezed into just a few places, and those places are certainly finding that what charm they had is now being trampled underfoot. The upside, however, is that if you have the time, money and energy, there are probably some fabulous areas to explore away from the madding crowds. Without time, money and energy, we failed to do that, much to my regret.
So, I will go back to Burma, another day, with bigger kids, ample cash and a much more Thesiger-like attitude. I am certain that we will have a few better stories to tell.
To end on a positive note, here is my…
Really useful list of the finest things that we experienced in Burma
- The staff at Yangon’s Motherland Inn 2. Just the finest, friendliest, most efficient team of people you could have the pleasure of meeting.
- Burmese Tea – not quite builder’s, not quite chai, but occupying a fine spot somewhere in between.
- Catching a city bus to Taukkyan War Cemetery, a fine lesson in the realities of commuter life in Yangon
- Travelling on Burmese VIP night buses – a mighty fine and comfortable way to get from A to B.
- Shan Mama’s restaurant in Mandalay, so fine (and cheap) we went twice.
- Shwe In Bin Kyaung Monastery in Mandalay, the finest sight we came across in Burma. I would even go so far as to call it outstanding.