As the gateway from India and Bangladesh to South East Asia, Myanmar (also known as Burma) carries influences from both sides as well as from the big neighbour China in the North which makes it culture a unique mix. The ethnically diverse country, plagued by civil wars and an extremely restrictive military regime, was for a long time very isolated from the rest of the world until the military junta came to an end in 2011. For us, travelling in Myanmar was an incredible experience, even though Couchsurfing was hard due to its illegality here. We met the maybe most lovely people on our journey so far, learned to play the national sport Chinlone and met up with feminists in its metropolis Yangon.
Initially, Myanmar was supposed to be our first country in South East Asia. Unfortunately, the landborder crossings from any other country than Thailand are extremely hard to get visas for, so that we in the end decided to fly into Thailand and enter from there. Now it was finally time and we had close to no idea what to expect yet. After a beautiful hitchhiking journey from Bangkok to the border at Mae Sot, we finally stood in front of the Thai-Burmese border. Our first impression of Myanmar was a very laid-back one, as we first needed to search for the person that could stamp our passports who decided to take a little break in a neighbouring office.
After achieving our aim for the day (crossing the border), we tried to hitchhike out of town to find a place to camp for the night. Instead of that happening, the first driver stopping for us, after a long difficult gesture conversation saved us from the pouring rain and gave us a shelter at the home of his wife’s parents. Our first evening in Myanmar we spent with Burmese cigars, sharing beers and trying to communicate without any shared languages.
From the border, we hitchhiked past dozens of Myanmar’s golden pagodas to Hpa-An, a calm town situated in between of watered rice fields and the Saluen river. In the next days, we did a lot of work, discovered the stunning surroundings including some bat caves, and got to know the Burmese cuisine on the local night market.
Our next destination was Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and the former capital of the country. Here, we would have our only Couchsurfing host with Han from the Phillipines during our time in Myanmar. Together, we went for an open mic night in a Jamaican pub visited by expats and locals from everywhere. After getting entertained with beatboxing and Han’s Hip Hop medley, we stayed for some more drinks in the bar after it closed and came home after a very long and enjoyable night out.
Apart from partying, Yangon also is the center for almost all of Myanmar’s NGOs. During our time there, we spoke with Aye Thada from the Gender Equality Network (GEN), an organisation trying to network between NGOs engaging themselves for women empowerment and against gender roles. We got to know that especially in the rural regions, women have very narrow gender roles that they have to fit in and that prosecution of gender-based violence is often non-existant.
We also visited the Yangon bakehouse, a project started to empower young women from poor and problematic regions by taking them into their apprentice program and later giving them a place to work. In their apprentice program, they aim on helping the women to be economically empowered, educated and active in society. And just before we left the city, we had a short interview with the women from WON (Women’s Organizations Network). Similarly to GEN, they network between many different smaller organisations in order to pursue gender equality. These encounters showed us a very modern, progressive side of Myanmar and made it visible that the country clearly is undergoing huge changes since its democratic progression.
It was time to head North now, to one of the major tourist destinations in Myanmar, Inle lake. The second biggest lake of the country is the central point and provider of more than 70.000 people living in partly floating villages around the lake. Transportation between the villages traditionally happens by boat, and many fishermen use the unique and picturesque ‘one-leg’ technique to row in order to have their hands free.
In our time in Inle, we became felt family with the staff of two restaurants which happened more than once in Myanmar – people often were just incredibly welcoming and open to us. While we were eating, we received dishes that we didn’t even order but that the family would share with us as they were eating as well. While walking around, we discovered that we would need to get a special permit in order to travel on the land to the Northern border crossing as still today, there are fights between Shan rebels and government forces. This meant that we later on would need to leave the country at the same border crossing that we entered it.
In the end of our stay at Inle, we took one of the popular boat rides on the lake. We got to see the infamous floating gardens, smoked sweetened Burmese cigars, and visited a weaving and a jewellery workshop. At one point during this tour, we were also presented two women from the Padaung tribe, often also called as ‘long-neck women’. These women are basically displayed for tourists like an interesting piece of art and it was quite a weird feeling to be dropped there. (To read more on the exploitation of the Padaung women, have a look at our Facebook page)
Our next and most northern stop on our route should be Mandalay, the second biggest city in Myanmar. In a day-filling hitchhiking trip our second ride went on for 7 hours with an absolutely lovely trucker couple. Hitchhiking foreigners are still quite a rare thing to see in Myanmar, so everywhere we stopped we caused major excitement. Whenever we stopped at a guest station, we got lots of friendly cheers together with plenty of water bottles and coffee – at the end of the ride we collected close to 20 water bottles. And when we stopped at a restaurant, the owners didn’t let us pay for the food and declared that they were most happy that we liked it. As nice of a gesture as this was, I couldn’t help but feel bad not having to pay, coming from a rich western country.
In Mandalay, we met up again with James, a friendly American we had randomly met earlier in Hpa-An and who told as many things about the country and especially about its national sport Chinlone, or caneball in English. James himself had gotten addicted to the sport on an earlier visit to the country and was now in Mandalay to play on the big Waso Chinlone festival in Mandalay with players from all over the country and even from other countries including Japan, France and the US.
Chinlone exists already for about 1500 years in Myanmar and is closely connected to Buddhist martial arts and dance. The sport is played with a Chinlone, a hard ball made from woven rattan. The concept of Chinlone is an interesting one, as it’s not about competition as many western sports, but rather about togetherness and aesthetics. It is very similar to hacky-sack, as the players try to keep the ball up without using their hands while standing in a circle. In Chinlone however, the players are constantly walking in the circle with one changing player in the middle. The aim of the sport is to pass the ball to each other in the most creative and artistic ways.
On the festival, we were amazed by the speed and skills displayed. But most importantly was the extremely positive atmosphere, as everybody was cheering up the players together. Every trick was cheered on and when the ball dropped, people would suffer with the players. We got so inspired that we bought our own caneball and started practising right there and then. On the next day, we could even attend a proper training session with James and his Japanese coach. At the end of the training, we were drenched in sweat and our feet hurt, but we had taken one of the best experiences from Myanmar with us.
Even though we felt we could spend much more time in Myanmar, the time had come to finally go South again towards the Thai border. In a long night bus we went back to Hpa-An. For one day, we went around on a scooter and Yannic hiked up the stunning Mt Zwegabin. On the next day, we hitchhiked to the border and said goodbye to Myanmar with a last delicious tealeaf salad.
Looking back, travelling in Myanmar has been uniquely different to the other countries we’ve travelled in so far. On one hand, it was the first country where we were generally not able to find couchsurfers, on the other hand though we experienced warmth and hospitality in almost no country as much as we did in Myanmar. Locals, especially in the countryside, were so positively curious and friendly to us that we often more felt like being in a family than in a restaurant when we went out to eat. And after a shaky start, the food really convinced us and I will really miss its salads and fried noodles.
On our journey, we didn’t feel anything from the country’s still ongoing conflicts and civil wars, except when we couldn’t enter Thailand through the Northern border crossing and once when we hitchhiked with a British peace worker specialized on conflict resolution in civil wars. In Yangon, we got a glimpse of a very active and quickly changing society. The amazing NGOs we met inspired us and taught us that Myanmar once had a matriarchal system where women were the privileged and dominant gender. Still today, many women we met seemed extremely self-confident and strong.
We will surely miss Myanmar with its beautiful landscape and golden pagodas and it’s a country which earned a special place in my heart in an incredibly short time. I will keep an eye out for this country which will probably go through a lot of change during the next decade. Cè-zù tin-ba-deh for everything, Myanmar!