It was in a large room of a guest house in Yangon that I had my first night stay in Myanmar. The alarm went horribly wrong and a flight which I had struggled to find a seat in was in jeopardy of being lost. I rushed to the airport in a cab and as soon I reached the check-in counter and apologized for being late, they just smiled and said, “we have a delay, fog”. I realized it later that delays are not only due to fog but just a way how flights operate internally in Myanmar. I guess It was when the staff started calling out the flight that I actually woke up from a stretched position on a wooden bench. The Airport felt like a bus station in India but it did not look like one. It was spotlessly clean!
On getting down at the Heho airport in the center of Myanmar, I hired a taxi which later I learned was a 5th – 6th hand model of a Japanese Toyota. With an unpaved road ahead and a really old car, I was in for a very bumpy ride. But all this did not matter to me, coz by this time, and within 24 hours of my arrival in India’s unknown neighbor, I had already fallen in love with Myanmar.
The Inle Lake at just under 3000 ft above sea level was the reason why I had flown to Heho. The tickets back then and I guess still couldn’t be bought online. In fact, back in 2013, most of the modern world things did not work. Credit cards, cell phones, internet, nothing! Traveling in Myanmar by road is still not an option, back then it was more complicated. So, flying on small flights was the only way of going from one part of the country to another. The tour groups were there, they were mostly Europeans, looking at Myanmar as the next thing to do in South East Asia. I was there to see if I could have my own group tour to Myanmar. It was the first time I realized that simply liking a country’s feel is not enough, to start working with it. Big brother, US had its sanctions imposed, and any trade with Myanmar was very very difficult unless done from Singapore. Well, let the logistics be, this blog is about the land of Myanmar and its people.
On my second night in Myanmar, I stayed in a guest house in Nyuang Shwe on the banks of the Inle lake. The town felt like the ones from old Indian movies, the people felt like the ones from a different world. A world, where helping is just second nature and smiling is as natural as breathing. The country is not rich but the poor can feed themselves. Back in the time socialism was still very alive, if not kicking. The military was in all high offices and even though the gradual shifting to civilians holding posts in key positions in the government was happening, they were mostly relatives or close friends of the army personnel.
Staying in a hotel run by the government or flying Myanma Airlines, the national carrier, was and perhaps still, considered a no. The lady Aung San Su Kyi back in the days had appealed to all the tourists visiting Myanmar not to help the government with money. Now, as she heads the government, I don’t know what is the new norm.
It was 6 pm and the lights in the town of NyuangShwe went off. The restaurant which I was seated in, immediately came up with candles on each of the tables. As I finished my meal and head out, I realized that in this dark, candlelit town (no generators), the evening makes one travel back in time more than it ever does, and in Myanmar, one is always traveling back in time. In our tour to Myanmar, I hear senior citizens often mentioning, back in the days, this is how it was and when they say it the expression on their face is priceless. A couple came back from a tour and in their description of Myanmar to their friends, they said, “we could show you the pictures of the places we have been to, but how can we tell you about how we felt there”.
This is Myanmar, I guess. An experience to be felt rather than a place to be seen.