Anyone in tune with events in the world are well versed in Myanmar's repressive military regime recently turned quasi-civilian, their notorious record of political prisoners, the killing of monks and students during the protests of 1988 and 2007, and a whole host of human rights violations such as child labor and lack of free speech. It's only in recent months that it's most famous prisoner and democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, attained membership into parliament, the EU began to lift economic sanctions, and the relaxation of press censorship. But Myanmar or Burma (the name pro-democracy countries and leaders prefer to use since the name was changed by the military backed government and not the will of the people) still has a long way to go to catch up. In addition to its atrocious record on human rights, it has the worst health care in the world according to the World Health Organization and despite having many natural resources such as teak, precious gems, oil and natural gas, it lags behind its Asian neighbors in economic growth.
If you are looking for the open, friendly, Southeast Asian hospitality, you'll be hard pressed to find it here. After years of individuals, friends, friends of friends, and relatives being herded into the prisons for voicing their opinions, the people of Myanmar are much more reserved and rightfully so, paranoid and scared to open up to just anyone. Talk to people in the village and they'll gingerly talk about Myanmar finally opening up. But you won't get any radical viewpoints with locals still in the mindset of knowing that their smiling neighbors sometimes double as government spies and that they can still end up in jail for having opposing views to the government. But most people are happy to see and speak with tourists. For them, it's one of their only links to the outside world. So, sit at a tea house or bar and chat it up with a local. Just let them lead the political discussion! Despite the government not allowing certain news into (and about) the country, there are many independent (and underground) publications as well as BBC and Voice of America broadcasts letting the people know what is going on in the world. They are informed, even if the government forbids it. After realizing that Marc was Belgian, a monk asked us if Belgium finally had a government and since I'm Filipino, many had compared Aung San Suu Kyi to Corazon Aquino knowing that her son was the current president. Talk about keeping up with current events!
Traveling here is also not the bargain you would expect. You won't get value for your money with midrange digs (i.e. Chinese low-rise basic hotels) starting at $60 and up. Also, don't come if you expect western comforts found in Bangkok and Phnom Penh to be in big cities like Yangon or Mandalay. For instance, you'll need to take that torch with you everywhere. Power outages are common, yes, even in Yangon, where most hotels are hooked up to truck-sized generators.
The money situation can be tricky if you don't plan ahead. Put away your ATM and credit card because this is a cash only economy that will honor only greenbacks at hotels/planes and for exchanging into kyats. Make sure you bring only the most perfect bill (and plenty of Benjamin Franklins for the best rate) because anything with a mark, tear, fold or dated before 2006 will be handed right back to you. The best places to exchange were at the official money changers at Bogyoke Market in Yangon and hotels. As of April 2012, the official rate finally matched the rate people were getting (around 800 kyats to $1) versus the former 6 kyats to $1.
Mobile phone service is minimal (read my Can you hear me now? post for more on that one) and even though the sign says Wi-Fi, don't get excited and think you'll be able to Skype friends at home. Even if the wireless router works, often the server is down or the connection is so painstakingly slow, trying to get your current e-mails could take nearly an hour (if you're lucky). Sending out an e-mail is almost futile. Actually, the best Wi-Fi we found was at the expensive resort next door to our cheaper beach hut on Ngapali beach and a small pizza restaurant in Bagan versus our never working internet at big hotels in Yangon and Mandalay.
As far as getting around the country, you'll have to resort to quick, but expensive plane rides, overnight buses, private car and driver (at extortionist rates), and rickety train rides. With limited time, we opted for planes between the big cities, as well as sometimes having no other option but to take the plane such as the trip to Sittwe whereby tourists are forbidden to go by road (since there's a military base en route). We inquired about taking a taxi from Inle Lake (Nyaung Shwe) to Yangon and we were quoted nearly $400 for a 12-14 hour trip! Getting around in the cities were either by trishaw, cute mini Mazda pick-ups, or 1980's Toyota rejects from Japan turned taxis. In Mandalay, rain made nearly every taxi driver return home leaving us to wait 30 minutes for a taxi at an top end hotel, the complete opposite of New York where taxis welcome the rain for guaranteed customers. Renting bicycles are fairly common and make it easier to get around but motor bikes are forbidden to tourists.
Foodwise, Myanmar food is mostly of the rice and curry variety with many (fishy and spicy) side dishes to accompany the main course. Though tasty, much of it is very oily! They also love salads, noodle and tea leaf ones in particular. If you've had enough of that, you'll usually find Chinese, Indian, and Thai restaurants as well. Western style restaurants with pizza and pasta are found in all the tourist spots.
Was it worth all the hassle of going? Certainly! Gems like Mrauk U, Bagan, Ngapali Beach and Inle Lake were definitely well worth it. Seeing men and women still donning longyis (Myanmar sarongs), women covered in thanakar, making contact with tribes that barely see tourists, visiting fields filled with thousands of temples and crumbling teak monasteries, and nearly every man, woman and child in every socio-economic class chewing betel nut and expectorating that disgusting, but characteristic red spit distinguishes Myanmar from it's more western-turned Southeast Asian counterparts that have watered down their traditional customs and culture. It will be interesting to see what the new found openness will bring to Myanmar. Let's just hope it can develop to maintain the environment and not destroy it's beautiful natural resources, create infrastructures such as public transport to eliminate it's already heavily polluted cities, improve its education to provide greater opportunities for its citizens, provide its unique ethnic minorities autonomy as Myanmar citizens, and allow all of its people to have a voice whether or not it agrees with the ruling government. As for tourism, Myanmar could develop like Cambodia with much foreign investment also contributing to the local economy through NGOs and charitable organizations or (hopefully not) like Mozambique or Botswana where they want less volume but more income, cutting out backpackers and midrange travelers but catering to high end package tourists. I'll be keeping an eye on how it all turns out not to wonder whether to go or not but how to see more of this fascinating and evolving country.