Sunday, December 23

The Golden Land - Myanmar highlights

A few years ago the big question about Burma was should you go at all? A repressive military government crushed any protests and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (aka The Lady) was under house arrest in spite of winning an election. Some countries imposed economic sanctions on Burma and opponents of the regime wanted tourists to stay away because too much of their money went into government coffers.
Things have changed. The military junta was dissolved in 2011 following a general election in 2010 and a nominally civilian government installed, though the military is still influential. Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of parliament and an ever-increasing trickle of tourists is set to become a flood in the very near future.
The question now is should I call it Burma or Myanmar?
Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 but the name wasn’t changed until 1989. The BBC calls it Burma, as does The Lady. Barack Obama used both names on his recent trip there. Pandaw, the riverboat cruise company, call it Burma.  I think more people (of my age anyway) have heard of Burma than Myanmar even though not many know exactly where it is.
In speech I tend to call it Burma, in writing Myanmar.
Our boat, the RV Katha Pandaw, sailed on the Irrawaddy River. The Burmese name for this is the Ayeyarwady but the colonial British misheard this hence the Irrawaddy. I’m totally in sympathy with that. Much easier to pronounce.
Regardless of what you call it, Myanmar is a fascinating country.
The Irrawaddy is wide and muddy and winds through fertile plains and low hills. Many of the villages we visited were remote and would have been difficult to get to other than by boat. There the pace of life is slow but in the areas where tourism is taking off it’s all changing. This is especially true at Bagan, famous for the three thousand pagodas and stupas that dot the plain, and U Bein’s bridge, the world’s longest teak span and one of Myanmar’s most photographed sights.
This video shows some of the highlights of our 10 day journey and some of the delightful people we met.
Incidentally, Barack Obama and entourage came to Myanmar just before we were due to return to Yangon and stayed at our hotel. They took over the entire hotel; the management cancelled the bookings of everyone else and that didn’t please tour companies who had to scramble to find accommodation at short notice. And it was all for less than six hours!