Myanmar Juxtaposed

Before I got to Thailand, I had never heard of Myanmar. A country sharing Thailand’s boarder to the West, It just recently opened its boarders to international travelers in 2012. I was intrigued. My summer break began in Bangkok with a 2 week US History teaching gig that inevitably segued into Myanmar.I can’t say that I’ve been to very many developing countries, but I’ve found reason to believe Myanmar to be my first. Parts of it seem to be developing so quickly it can’t keep up with itself at times, the evidence being the crazy juxtapositions experienced over the past few days. I read a lot of Dr. Seuss to my kids in the past couple weeks of school and realized that he would have felt very at home in Myanmar. Allow me to explain…

Yangon has insane traffic, an equally insane mix in variety of cars and an obvious lack of law enforcement. Our tour driver, Mr. OT,  only got in one minor accident, bumping rear-view mirrors in a round about where cars were going every which way imaginable. It’s complete chaos. More visual to keep in mind: many vehicles are pre-war era vans, cars and trucks. The number of little European cars and early Jeeps and humvees zipping around make you feel like you’re watching footage from the History Channel. At this point, these cars are quite decrepit with rusted metal bodies, although they magically still run(their mechanics must be very skilled). Throw into this mix some brand new Hondas and Mercedes Benz, shiny new SUVs(Nissan and Toyota) and luxury buses and things get pretty interesting. There was an influx in the past few years when cars became affordable for the average Burmese and motorbikes were outlawed in Yangon. You can’t talk about Yangon without talking about the traffic.

Picture this: young Monks with shaved heads and dressed in their traditional robes, yet wearing backwards hats, converses in hand and talking on their cell phones. This I witnessed at Shwedagon Pagoda of all places, the over 2,000 year old pagoda that towers over Yangon. Everyone who comes to Yangon ends up there at some point or another. The young Burmese guys also seem to go to great lengths to have punk style haircuts. In Bagan, a village boy trying to sell me postcards had a mohawk with blonde frosted tips. Did I mention the trucks pilled high with equipment and HUGE speakers driving around and blasting music as people are hanging off of it. I will never understand how these things occur.

Most everyone still wears the traditional “long skirts”. It basically looks like patterned fabric tied tightly around the waist. For men, it’s called a longyi which tends to have a small plaid pattern, and for women, a htamein which has flowery or colorful pattern. Most notably, I got a kick out of seeing Burmese businessmen briskly walking to or from work in their nice button downs and still rocking their longyi with a certain swag. Business on top, party on bottom.

Rows and rows of haphazardly placed dilapidated buildings, some colonial era/style, with the occasional luxury hotel thrown into the mix. As we were approaching the looming Shwedagon Pagoda, we passed by a massive fancy condo development with ads boasting about its lineup of foreign investors. The purpose of its being was to have the best view of Yangon and the 2,000 year old pagoda. Go figure.

Prime example of this slew of juxtapositions has to be everything about our night bus from Yangon to Inle Lake…

JJ Express. The “JJ” I found out is for “joyous journey”, and I have to say, I was quite impressed. Myanmar night buses put Thailand night buses to shame.

  • We basically had Lazyboy recliners for seats, complete with pop up leg rests, blankets and flat screen LCD TVs.
  • There were TWO uniformed stewards handing out beverages and mini cakes or whatever they were. Keep in mind is spent $20 for this 12 hour journey.
  • AC! Extremely important for comfort factor seeing as it;’s summer in one of the hottest places I’ve ever been.

Here’s where things get interesting…

A few hours in, Heather gets up to asks the stewardess where she can find the bathroom. A couple minutes later we stop on the side of the road and the stewardess ushers Heather out to go find a nice spot in the woods. Conclusion: this bus has everything but a bathroom! Rationing of water ensues. Later on in this joyous journey, the bus stops in a parking lot in line with a bunch of other buses. A nice man translates that it will be a 30 minute stop. We pass through the row of buses and come to the most happening and inviting rest stop complex I’ve ever seen. NJ Turnpike step yo game up! I use a nice normal toilet and hope that we frequent these types of places along the way. Back on the road soon after, our pace slows and the bus ride gets bumpy and doesn’t stop. Why are we off the freeway? THEY HAVEN’T BUILT IT THIS FAR YET. Were beginning to go through the mountains and take turns around cliffs with no type of guardrail. The bus stops and honks at times to let other big vehicles pass in the other direction, seeing as the roads aren’t wide enough for two-way traffic at the turns. I wake up at one point to the lights coming on and a line of people getting off the bus. Awesome, i think, we’ve come to another fancy rest stop. Wrong. With a giggle, the stewardess motions for me to join the line of women squatting over a ditch on the side of the road. I shoo away a stray dog to take my territory and I’m sliding in the dirt slope as I’m trying to pee and a truck passing by makes me feel like a deer in headlights. As I’m walking back onto the bus while questioning reality, the stewardess is getting up from her squat and straightening her prim and proper uniform. I was in quite a daze from sleep but I realize later that all of this actually happened. Only in Myanmar.

PS Just to clarify, my bus from Bagan had a toilet on it and I still stand by my statement that Myanmar buses top Thailand buses.

There is way more of Myanmar I have to share but I though I would give a sense of what it’s like before I get into some adventures. In the meantime, I’m back in Thailand in Chiang Mai for some Songkran festivities(Songkran is Thailand’s New Year and basically a nation wide water fight). Enjoy and keep posted! Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai and Bali to come as well.

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