As we land in Mandalay international airport, I’m feeling a little restless. I’m still a bit unsure of what to expect of this mystical country. I’ve got one and a half weeks ahead of me in a country which I do not even know what to call it – is it Myanmar or Burma? The country has opened its borders big time during the past few years. When I was doing my exchange in Bangkok in 2009, Myanmar was not a country where you’d typically travel to, the army was still ruling strong, the borders were nearly closed and the country unstable. Now, during the past 2-3 years the country has seen a rapid increase in the number or tourists, in 2012 there were only half a million visitors, whereas in 2015 the numbers are expected to rise up to 5 million. As new border crossings to Thailand emerge and new international flights start operating, the wildest estimates say the number of visitors might reach up to 10 million next year. So the country really is a rising star as a teavel destination. It is exotic, it is unique, it is extremely beautiful.mThere is a lot of cultural and historical sights, and there are some world class paradise like beaches. So the country really has everything it takes to become one of the next top destinations in Asia and compete with Thailand.
Before heading off, I had read tens of different stories about Myanmar. The articles that were dated a couple of years back stated the visa being difficult to get, the ATMs being nonexistent and the infrastructure being horroble. All this turned to be outdated information. I was prepared to face some serious challenges, high level of frustration as well as alot of unorganized behaviour. At the same time I was secretly hoping to experience something authentic, unique and different. I got it all, and even more.
The first impressions of the country were two-fold. The airport was clean and well organized. The free shuttle bus to the city by Air Asia was a huge positive surprise (I mean, seriously, something is offered for free for the passengers of a low-cost airline?!) Even all the people we met were extremely friendly. Before even making it out from the runway I had already seen a number of gold coated pagodas and the scenery was rather exotic. However, at the same time there were vast amounts of poverty around and the street we were dropped off in the city centre resembeled pretty much a slum. We walked a few blocks down the road to our hotel, surrounded by a bunch of street dogs, terrible odors and constant honks from the passing motorbikes and cars. The street is chaotic, to say the least. However, at the same time we see smiling people, happy kids playing on the streets and around the corner some decent looking buildings. Even though this strongly looks like the kind of a street I’d do everything i can to avoid in many places in the world, it is rather comforting to know that here, you really do not need to be afraid. Myanmar is a really safe contry for a tourist as the crime rates are low – thanks to the strongly buddhist people.
The first impressions really leave me with mixed feelings. And the following days only make these feelings stronger. We encounter some devastating poverty, but also see unbelievable amounts of richness in the temples covered with gold. The people are amongst the friendliest ones I’ve ever met. They will do their best to help you and the countelss friendly and warm smiles really makes you love the country and its people. Somehow you even manage to ignore the chaos and poverty and see beyond that and really see the beauty of the country. Still, the countless temples and pagodas with incredible amounts of gold and gems really make you confused. I cannot help but wonder how much better living conditions all these families would have, if the money spent on the temples would be spent on them instead. Temples, gold, glitter. And right behind the gates there is a small kind sleeping on the street. It just seems hard to understand. Yet, at the same time it makes sense when you understand buddhism a bit better. When you look deeper, you see happy people. Even those living in poor conditions often spend their lives donating every possible kyat to the temples or monks. With every donated cent, they become happier, more satisfied with their lifes. Materia is nothing, karma is everything. Making good means making your life better. Somehow, being in the middle of this, it all makes you really think about your own, extremely materia-oriented lifestyle.
As the days pass by, I notice I’m falling hard for this country. It just feels so different, so uniqe, so exotic and so friendly. At the same time I’m growing more concerned about the future, wondering how long will this last? How long before everything falls to pieces. The military is slowly letting go of the power (hopefully for good this time) the same time as the democratic movement is gaining more power. The country is opening up, developing fast and even the tourism is really taking off big time. It is clar that many things will change rapidly over the next few years. You can easily see the first impacts of the rising tourism – the busses carrying big groups block the roads, causing serious jams everywhere, the sacred plases are crowded with people, camera shutters clicking louder than the people pray, many popular attractions are already hundreds of years old and barely can take in the current amount of tourists, so what will happen when the numbers double, triple, or even more? How long will the people smile and watch the ignorant tourists ruining the most important places of their lives, breaking good customs here and there. I cannot help but hope that the country will stay the same, simultaneously fearing that things might end up badly and that the country will face similar future with tourism as Thailand. I’m incredibly happy that I got to visit the country now instead of in a few years, at the same time feeling slightly annoyed that I have not travelled there a few years earlier.
At the moment, after just leaving this wonderful country behind, I really feel like it is hard trying to find the right words to describe the trip. Despite all the contradicitons, Myanmar was amazing, it really was a huge positive surprise. It is hard to understand how many different experiences, amazing places ans lovely encounters the one and a half weeks included. It surely will take time before I find all the righ words, not to mention going through the hundreds of photos from the trip, but I promise you this, you will hear a lot about Myanmar during the next months.