Burma: A land of simple pleasures
You won’t find malls or web cafés in this Southeast Asian gem but you will find interested locals and welcoming smiles
I’D only been in Burma for an hour, but was dehydrated and hungry — and having serious doubts about my ability to backpack on my own for two weeks through one of the least tourist-exploited countries in the world.
I first saw Burma from an aeroplane, as I headed from Johannesburg to Bangkok to teach English. Jet lagged and nervous, I stared out over the most majestic scenery I had ever seen — rivers converging into the sea, surrounded by what looked like untouched rainforest.
Unfettered imagery of wild adventure took hold of my sleep-deprived mind. Was this Thailand? No, the airplane navigation system soon told me, it is Burma, the Ayeyarwady Delta to be precise.
It was another two years before I finally set foot on this mystical landscape.
Khaki pants packed and an unbounded imagination in tow, I landed in what can only be described as a shed, which turned out to be Yangon International Airport.
I knew almost nothing about the country, partly due to the fact that Burma had been closed off from the rest of the world due to sanctions since 1988, which were tightened in 1997, and also due to the fact that there was only one travel guide available about the country.
As I was about to discover, words such as “shopping mall”, “cellphone”, “ATM” and “reliable power supply” might as well have been conjured up from a science-fiction novel, as they are virtually unknown in Burma.
Western fashion is also rarely seen, as most men and women wear traditional longyis — long colourful skirts — and slaughter chickens in the street on demand as the erratic electricity supply means that freezers and fridges are not to be trusted.
The capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon) feels like a time warp. Near Embassy Row, filled with colonial buildings, where George Orwell used to indulge in rum as a British police officer, women sit in small wooden booths and type on typewriters and every few minutes you can hear the frantic crumpling of paper as mistakes need to be corrected.
Teahouses provide comic relief and refreshment in the sweltering heat as all patrons sit on the sidewalk on toddler-sized plastic chairs, while the unique driving situation in Burma flashes by: right-hand-drive cars on the right side of the road.
And so, after refusing to pay R20 for a small bottle of water on the plane from Bangkok, I found myself in a worn-out taxi watching through one of numerous holes in the floor as Yangon passed by underneath my feet. Paying my taxi driver/tour guide in dollars for the ride to my hotel — the misleadingly named Beauty Land 2 — I was greeted by an entourage of teenage boys eagerly checking me in and carrying my bag up the five flights of stairs.
Elevators are a rare luxury and even where they were available I chose the stairs due to the unpredictable power supply.
I found myself in a mouldy, green, oppressive bank office waiting for the power to come on to turn my dollars into kyat. At an exchange rate of 821 kyat to the dollar, I would at least be rich.
Should I have listened to my mother? Did Livingstone ever feel like this? All these questions raced through my mind as a German girl, who had been on my plane, came in.
“Do you have food or water?”
A blank stare and desperate laugh confirmed her worst fears: we were both in the same situation. Well, two dehydrated idiots are better than one.
After an hour, cash in hand and hydrated, red betel-nut smiles greeted us down the streets, shouting from all angles “Hello, where you come from?” Apparently only a handful of South Africans have ever graced Burma’s soil.
“We never met anyone from there! Why are you white?” Which would normally be followed by an enthusiastic rendition of Waka-Waka, dance moves mandatory, and once even a quote from Nelson Mandela.
This “white African” walking with a blonde German girl attracted quite a bit of attention. This was especially evident on a trip to the most holy of holy pagodas, Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, where young monks were more interested in taking photos of us than the shrine.
Even after I parted ways with my German tourist attraction, I still managed to draw a lot of attention. On the world’s longest teak footbridge in Mandalay, local tourists and monks, about 20 or more, gathered round for photos.
Whether travelling by train to the small, beautiful hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin, enjoying a simple beef curry consisting of no fewer than 17 plates for R24, or cruising on placid Inle Lake, I was astounded at the value the Burmese place on speaking English and interacting with foreigners, and how much a simple gift of a foreign book or conversation can achieve.
Tourists are valued commodities in this part of the world and the Burmese will go out of their way to ensure you have a safe and memorable trip.
Near the end of my travels, on a train back to Yangon, an elderly woman, who spoke no English, bought me a Red Bull and some fruit — I was sick and looked a bit rough and it reminded me of what a wise traveller once said: “The less people have, the more they give.”
Burma is a country where you realise how little you need to get by and that there is actually life beyond the cyber realm.
And even though I’m back home now and have resumed the ways of the 21st century, smartphone in hand to call a flatmate in the kitchen for some tea, shopping in air-conditioned malls and Googling everything rather than asking a living person, I wonder how long it will take before time catches up with Burma and it becomes just as commercialised and monotonous as the rest of the world.