First Impressions…

Of all the countries that I’ve been to so far on my trip, Burma is the one I had the least preconceptions about. Despite everything I’ve read about the place and writing a fair bit about it for work last year, I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

All I’d heard from other travellers was that the locals were lovely and visiting the country was like stepping back in time. Which is exactly what it felt like when we stepped out of Yangon Airport. My hostel had sent an old school bus to pick up its guests and as we boarded the beaten up vehicle it felt like we’d arrived.

We drove through the dark streets, with a constant draft blowing in from the door which wouldn’t close properly and the broken windows, with our noses pressed to the windows like little kids, trying to take everything in at once. There were the men wearing their long skirt-like longyis; there were the typical Asian pick-up truck ‘buses’, but filled with more people than I’ve ever seen before in my life and there were the thousands and thousands of Burmese residents going about their daily lives: shopping, talking, driving like crazy people and laughing with their neighbours. Because, no matter what’s happening in the political world, life goes on.

The next morningĀ  I began my visit to Burma with a 4.30am trip to the famous Shwedagon Paya to watch sunrise. What I was expecting to find was a quiet, old-fashioned temple, in keeping with the ‘stepping back in time’ image everyone kept telling me about. What I was not expecting was the Disneyland-esque flashing lights set up behind every single Buddha in the place – and believe me, there are a lot of Buddhas. Still, it was the perfect introduction to the country, as the crazy disco lights contrasted with the monks chanting; locals singing as they made offerings of food to Buddha and the deafening cawing of the crows which were oblivious to the fact that the feast wasn’t for them.

Welcome to Burma!

And that seems to be Burma – a place of constant contrasts. Where everywhere you look construction is taking place but all of the buildings standing presently are falling apart. Where even the country’s capital city suffers from frequent power cuts and flooding (honestly, the old ladies who call up local papers to complain about lose paving stones would have a field day here). Where a tiny minority drive about in 4x4s, talking on their mobile phones, while the vast majority earn just $2 a day.

But it’s also a place that you instantly fall in love with – before you’ve even seen the sights – and that’s for the simple reason of the people. The sweet, kind, lovely people who run after you to give you the change you left as a tip at a restaurant and buy food for you on the long and bumpy bus journeys. The people who stop and stare at you in the street and shout constantly “hello, hello, where are you from?” before giving you a huge grin with their red bettle-nut stained teeth – a substance they constantly chew and spit out in the street. I think it may have helped it I knew a bit more about English football through as they are crazy about it here but once I’ve got past the initial nodding and smiling as they name their favourite teams I don’t really have anything else to add to the conversation and I think they’re beginning to doubt my English credentials. And finally, there’s the teashops, ah the teashops. But that’s a whole other post in itself…

A teashop on every corner – I’m in heaven!