Burma with eyes and heart wide open - part 1

A first-time visit to a longtime dream destination by an Audley Travel employee

When I was travelling “proper” – “proper” denoting anything OVER a year (IMHCO - In My Humble But Correct Opinion) – my travelling partner and I quickly tired of the ubiquitous, quickly dated and frankly restricting travel guides and ditched them in favour of good old fashioned conversation with travellers. A Vietnam veteran based on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand did however recommend a guide written in the nineties for the entire region of mainland south east Asia that was very concise, mainly pictorial (in the form of hand-written maps) and not obsessed with backpackers’ property du jour. It was in this book that I read my first comparison of the countries of the region, describing Burma as being the most “exotic”. The imagination ran wild. Tigers! Elephants! Jungle guerilla warfare! DANGER!

I suspect this reaction is not uncommon. Burma is only starting to be covered in modern popular culture (The Glass Palace, The Lady… er, Rambo 4) and not a lot is generally known about it apart from the fact that it has a dreadful human rights record. Personally, I’m not so good at reading newspapers or the study of geo-political history, I have to be able to relate the details to human experience – basically I have to go to these places and talk to people. Previously as a backpacker, I had only made it as far as Victoria Point right in the south, for a visa run from Ranong, Thailand – and the Burma I saw there was certainly different, poorer, the Buddha images less defined (think early as opposed to late Simpsons), similar to Laos.

Although Burma was top of our list, we got the impression it wasn't a good time to visit. Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady, had just been released and the border was apparently up and down like a yo-yo. After returning to the UK I started exploring the possibilities of using my travelling experience in a professional capacity and did a Google search on keywords such as ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘tourism’. I came across Audley and made a speculative application and a few weeks later found myself being interviewed in their idyllically located offices just outside Witney. Without any ulterior motive I found myself talking about Burma as that mystical destination I had never made it to and was desperate to explore. Somewhat unbelievably a month later I found I had got the job and was being sent to Burma to learn about Audley’s operations there. Many of my friends thought I must be the luckiest person alive.

The compound of the Shwedagon Paya, Rangoon - somwhere every Burmese person must visit at least once

I was very excited about going travelling again, but very conscious of the fact that I was going to be representing Audley. I couldn’t believe that these seemingly delightful people who hardly knew me were paying for me to go so very far away - and on top of that giving me a company credit card (for emergencies only, of course). Expecting brilliance is a management style that I have come to respect a great deal and I very much wanted to live up to the faith placed in me.

Where China Meets India

A week before I went to Burma (or Myanmar as the country was officially re-named by the government in 1989, along with former capitals Rangoon-Yangon and Pagan-Bagan) I attended a presentation by author Thant Myint U about his new book “Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia - Where China Meets India”. He told the audience that the two great powers of China and India have always been geographically separated by the insurmountable barrier of the Himalayas - and the jungles of Burma. Despite this, China has continued attempting to expand its influence through and beyond its south westerly provinces, for reasons of trade and the pursuit of knowledge. He told a story of a Chinese ruler organising a westward expedition in the second century, passing north of the Himalayas, only to reach modern day Afghanistan to find that Chinese merchants had already made it via a southern route. Burma, a once powerful nation with not insignificant natural resources even to this day provides a through-path for China to reach the Bay of Bengal, not only important for trade but also for natural gas. I began to understand how the smaller power has been courted through history by somewhat frighteningly huge China.
Arriving in style

In true Audley style I was met at the airport by my guide and driver. There’s a certain amount of security and relief associated with being met in a foreign country, all concerns wash away. I was taken to change my American dollars into Burmese Kyat (pronounced "chat") and then to the Savoy, a lovely colonial-style hotel that reminded me of India. I had a swim under the moonlight. I felt like the luckiest person alive. I went for a curry and a couple of beers in the restaurant opposite. I watched out for holes in the pavement, as I had been warned - street lighting is fairly non-existent in Burma. In the restaurant I listened to a group of young Americans and Europeans talking about living and working in Burma and didn’t feel particularly inclined to talk to them. I came here to talk to Burmese people.

There are three main ethnic strands which split up into seven states and around 150 tribes. Tibeto-Burman, Mon and Shan. The Shan migrated from northern China. The word "Shan" has the same derivation as Siam (Thailand), Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Assam (India) - people in these places share the same origin. The Mon came from the then home of Buddhism, Sri Lanka.

Mother and son in Pagan, faces protected from the sun by thanaka, a scented paste made from a tree

In Burma, you often see Indian in the faces of people, particularly in the cities. You often see dark skin. The country was ruled by the British as a colonial outpost of India and there were huge incursions of Indians into the country over the years - as well as expulsions.


The food is generally less spicy than that of its neighbours, but there are influences from all around. Strong fish paste is used a lot. Curries tend to be quite oily. Soya, bean curd and chickpea are popular - and there are many vegetables that I do not know the names of. I'd say the cuisine isn't as developed as Indian or Thai, but there are certainly many dishes and regional specialities to try - and I've only scratched the surface. Like in India, Betel wraps are often chewed after meals.

A chewy peanut delicacy in Bago

A market seller in Pagan

First impressions

I have to say I found the whole place generally un-militarised, particularly compared to some parts of Thailand or Laos that I’ve been in. I don’t mean that these countries are dangerous - I simply mean that uniforms and guns are sometimes readily on display. The only time I saw soldiers in Burma was in the backs of trucks near some of the training camps in the hill stations of Kalaw and Maymyo. They were friendly and smiling. I never saw police. Everyone was very happy with the release of over a hundred prisoners which occurred while I was in the country. It seemed like a huge, positive step. One of the released prisoners had been a very popular comedian – he had been sentenced to something like 60 years in prison for his satire. Another big step in recent times was the suspension of a Chinese-funded hydro-electric dam project at the source of the Irrawaddy River. It was said that 90% of the electricity produced would go to China. Burma called a halt to the project, on the face of it because of the ecological ramifications of damming Burma’s lifeblood. Brave move.

Pictures of a young Aung San, liberator of the country and father of Aung San Suu Kyi

Many people wonder what it’s like to visit Burma. Are there ATMs? No. Are there western fast food chains? No – although I did see a Korean Fried Chicken in Mandalay. Can one get properly looked after if one falls sick or has an accident? Depends where you are, but probably yes. Will the food kill you? Well, probably not, but maybe watch out for washed goods like salad. Can you buy a coke? We have just heard in fact that Coca Cola are resuming business in Burma after a 60 year absence.

The roads in Burma are pretty bad. I travelled overland between Pagan and Mandalay and we spent most of our time on single track roads. I mean if someone was coming the other way, the other person had to move off the road. Apparently some new, better roads have recently opened. But certainly, the quickest way to get around is by taking the short, timewarp-like domestic flights that proudly play 80s pop without any sense of nostalgia. Some of the airports are so pretty as well, small pagoda-like buildings surrounded by palm trees and one generally gets through the airport formalities terribly quickly. This is an area where one can be conscious. One of the domestic airlines, Air Bagan, is owned by a crony of the regime. Mr Tay Za also owns hotels and a viewing platform at Pagan.

To go or not to go

One of the main concerns when travelling to Burma is where your money goes. Sanctions have relaxed now, meaning that companies like us are allowed to use hotel properties that we weren't previously. Does that mean we should? We're still working that out, on a case by case basis, but one thing I have learnt since I was in Burma is that nothing is as clear as it may seem initially. The history and politics of Burma are very deep and very complicated. Certainly the military junta that ruled Burma (perhaps now in a more clandestine fashion), for over 50 years, did some very bad things. The country is now run by a quasi-civilian government (ok, made up in the large majority of ex-military) and Daw Suu Kyi now has a voice.

But this is a country with a huge number of tribes, far more than I saw in other parts of the world on my travels. In Kenya, they told us there were something like 46 indigenous tribes. In Mexico, 65. But 150 in Burma? Ethnic tensions have existed for a very long time in some parts of the country, as we have just seen dramatised by the coverage of the troubles in Rakhine state in the west. How will the removal of a military dictatorship affect tribal relations in a country moving towards democratic representation where everyone wants a voice?

When I first thought of visiting Burma, everyone was very conscious that their money should not go to support “bad” people. One of the ways people achieved this was by avoiding businesses and hotels that appeared on a list published by the EU, indicating ownership associated with the generals. Audley Travel always tried to be conscious of such considerations whilst operating in Burma over sixteen years – even when most of the world had decided it was a bad place to go to. I, like Audley, decided that people should go. There are people in these countries who could really do with your money. Go and see for yourself, try and be conscious while you are there. Sustainable tourism is potentially far more helpful than charity - the African countries that receive the most charity have by far the slowest rate of growth. If developing countries were generally seen as viable tourist destinations instead of dirty and a bit scary.... you get the idea.


  1. Interesting stuff - and great photos too. H.

  2. Great stuff, big man. You are the luckiest man I know.