7 Reasons Why Burma Wasn’t Perfect

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I bloody loved my month in Burma. It stole my heart and broke it at the same time, but I am aware that I could be in danger of falling into the trap that many other bloggers do – making out that my time in a country that I loved was all skippy-in-the-daisy-fields, oh-so perfect.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. The idea of sentimentality attaching meaning to objects, places, and people is natural for us humans when we want to escape into a time when we were feeling them good feelings.

I definitely did adore Burma and I crave to go back more than I want ‘Dubstep’ to become extinct. But for a new angle, instead of doing the usual; “Ten totally, super-awesome things to do in Burma,” I’m opting to highlight the things that I didn’t love about the place that has earnt a special place in my heart.

Anyone in a Uniform

burma-military

I found the Burmese people extremely welcoming, which felt a little odd for me as I was reading; ‘The River of Lost Footsteps,’ a book that explains how the British really did a number on the country and contributed to its modern-day mess. I was never without a conversation as I travelled the country, as the Burmese are absolutely crazy about the English football league and I was constantly shocked by their impressive knowledge about it.

Because Burma has suffered indoctrination for quite some time and has been majorly cut off from the outside world – the Burmese people have an unquenchable curiosity and an adorable (really trying not to sound condescending here) portrayal of naivety in their questions. My personal favourite being when I met a monk at sunset at ‘U Bein Bridge’ – we went for a cup of tea together after. ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ played on TV while we chatted about our football teams. The monk paused and stared at Julia Robert’s on the screen and pronounced; “Wow, she’s beautiful, who is she….is she from Newcastle?”

U Bein Bridge Sunrise

So yeah, the general rule of thumb in Burma is the people are really lovely – unless they’re in uniform of some sort – because those guys are usually complete dicks.

Whilst travelling on a train from Yangon to Mandalay, one soldier found it funny to point a loaded rifle at me – just for a laugh. When I got the boat from Mandalay to Began, men in uniform demanded (with heavy handed tactics) families with children, pregnant ladies and elderly relatives to move from their seat and onto the floor for the 15 hour journey, because us richer folk from the west were to have priority.

It really put a damper on my journey and I tried to talk sense into the men that it was cool for me to be on the floor, but they were having none of it and even got shitty with me when I tried to sit on the floor instead.

So there I sat, as a mother breastfeeding her child on the hard wooden floor, with older generations of her family looking miserable, as I sat on a seat that was once hers. We made eye contact and she still managed to give me a big, beautiful, Burmese smile. The gesture was magnificent, but not enough to overcome the cruel reality of the moment.

Unavoidable Corruption

Want to take a trip to Burma, but don’t want any of your hard earned cash to go to the regime that pisses on their very own people? Yeah, good luck with that. Of course there are things you can do to make sure a huge chunk of your money doesn’t go to the naughty men such as not taking a group tour, or not staying in a hotel that is advertised online (government establishment) and other things.

But I’m afraid that there is only one way to not allow any of your money go to the regime – and that is by not going to Burma. I wouldn’t choose that option and a complete boycott does the people more harm than good, in my opinion.

Food

I’ve seen a few travel articles since my return glorifying the culinary “delights” of Burmese food and it always amazes me. I found Burmese food greasy, oily, bland and downright disgusting. Every meal that I ate was a challenge to finish and my usually strong stomach felt really bloated and sick afterwards.

Most people’s horrified argument/response to me not liking Burmese food is Shan noodles. I don’t see how that is a valid argument. The supposed blockbuster Burmese meal is just noodles in a different shape to normal noodles. Why is that so wonderful, please?

A Lot Of The Country is Cornered Off

Burma is a misunderstood mistress and a lot of it will remain that way until more parts of the country are opened up. I wanted to visit Shan State, right up north (obviously not for the noodles) and the lady who was trying to sell me the package told me I would have to wait 16 days for permission and that it wouldn’t be 100% – but she was more than willing to take my money regardless.

I declined and followed the path that is mostly tread and kept myself out of trouble. Shan state could still have been possible, but it was complicated with my time left and there are countless of other examples of cornered off cities in Burma. What a shame to have limited options when visiting such a mysterious country. (This isn’t in reference to the places that are simply too dangerous for tourists to visit).

28 Days

You can only visit Burma for 28 days at a time and you have to fly in. No exceptions. I guess it’s better than not at all like before though.

The Spitting of Red Phlegm

Picture the scene: You’re walking down the street and you happen to make piercing eye contact with a gorgeous Burmese lady. You smile at her and she smiles back. This is one of life’s simple, but beautiful gifts and you’re completely swept away by the magic of the moment.

And then, she clears the back of her throat and spits out a red discharge from her mouth. She carries on smiling like nothing ever happened, whilst you’re paralysed by horror.

That red discharge that you see men and (unfortunately) pretty women spew out on the floor on a regular basis is a betel nut. It’s as common in Burma as drinking tea in England, or someone chewing gum.

The Fact That a Bell Isn’t a Bear

For those of you who do not know the difference between a bear and a bell; the following picture is of a bear…

A creature native to the Northern Hemisphere. A big, scary, powerful apex predator beast who eats a lot of other animals and could crush a man with its bare hands in seconds.

And the following picture is of a bell…

bell

 

Invented roughly 2000 BC, a percussion instrument which is usually made from a strong metal and makes a big noise, especially in places of worship.

Thanks, glad we’ve got that one covered up. I fell victim to not knowing that a bell is indeed not a bear when Burmese folk kept informing me passionately that when I get to Mandalay, on the outskirts of the city; lived the world’s 2nd biggest bear.

“Oh Mr, make sure you see the bear.”

“It’s a very big bear, the 2nd biggest bear in the world.”

“Please don’t miss out on the bear, sir. The bear is HUGE!”

How excited I was! Being a fan of nature and particularly animals – I became obsessed about seeing the 2nd biggest bear in the world, and so I made it my number one priority to find this place so I could have the pictures and the bragging rights of being close to such a beast of an animal.

Unfortunately, this is what I found:

A fucking big bell.
A fucking big bell.

That’s right. A BELL – the second biggest bell in the world (second to a very big bell in Russia, for anyone who actually gives a sh*t). East Asians tend to have trouble pronouncing the letter “L” and it sounds more like an “R” and what happened was a hilarious case of lost in translation. In all fairness to the Burmese and due respect – the bell was very big. It just wasn’t a bear. And that just sucks.

Have you ever travelled to a country that you fell instantly in love with, but still find things that you really hate about the place?



Join the Conversation

33 comments

  1. Yvonne Reply

    great post! sums up perfectly how I felt about Burma! And I had a good laugh because of the bear! We didn’t make it to Mandalay, but I guess I would have felt the same! AND I HATED THE FOOD! And about the betel nut: I was all like: WTF IS THIS BLOOD DOING ALL OVER THE STREET???
    That said, I really wish I spent more time in Burma and also see some of the non touristic places!

    1. Anthony Reply

      Hey Yvonne,

      Cheers 🙂

      Hahaha to you freaking out thinking it was blood 😛

  2. Cate Brubaker Reply

    No bear? I could have looked past the other unsavory issues you brought up, but since there’s no giant bear, I’m not going to Burma.

    1. Anthony Reply

      I absolutely support your lack of bear boycott, Cate!

  3. Vicky Reply

    Hah we were just there in February and experiences some of these frustrations (though we didn;t have any unpleasant run-ins with uniformed officials. The food really isn’t that good and the betel nut spitting everywhere is seriously unpleasant!

    1. Anthony Reply

      Yaaaay – another Burmese food hater to back me up 🙂

  4. Lauren, ephemerratic Reply

    Burma’s on my list of places I’d like to visit, but the more I read about it, the more I waffle.

    p.s. Does Burma have waffles? I’m thinking of the sweet bean filled waffles I enjoyed in Laos and Thailand. That was some good food.

    1. Anthony Reply

      Lauren,

      Waffle on and go to Burma! I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I didn’t see a waffle in sight :'(

  5. Ian Ord - Where Sidewalks End Reply

    I like your take on this, Anthony! It’s very true that most trips have just as many downs as they have “skippy-in-the-daisy-fields” ups! Those are our learning experiences of the diversity of this crazy world and what makes it so interesting!

    The beetlenut you’ll find through most of India, Nepal and even getting into Pakistan as well as the more rural areas of northern Thailand. It’s a stimulant, much like coffee – and especially amongst the older generations, the red nut actually dyes the teeth black… and that is considered a high form of beauty! Nothing beats a stained black toothy smile, after all 🙂

    Love the big bear story! I bet it was rearry big!

    1. Anthony Reply

      Hahaha rearry rearry big, Ian!

  6. Ash Clark Reply

    Man, I remember the betel nut when I was in the Solomon Islands a few years back, wasnt expecting it to way over in Burma.

    Great post, I love how honest the people are right now in Burma. While seeing some pretty incredible sights there, the locals genuine curiosity of their visitors and where they’re from was a massive relief to me. It was nice to be spoken to and not sold something at the end of the convo!

    1. Anthony Reply

      Hey Ash,

      I’m a fan of the honesty also and it’s great to be able to share wisdom to the Burmese folk, huh?

  7. Tom @ Waegook Tom Reply

    OK so first, the bell-bear thing is hilarious. Like, amazing. And that is a very big bell.

    Second, I am outraged reading this. Burmese food is just based on the concocting and contorting of one type of noodles? I find this sick, wrong and highly disturbing.

    Third….I’m still too appalled by the noodles thing to write anything.

    1. Anthony Reply

      Tom – Haha I can laugh now, looking back. Although it was heartbreaking at the time :'(

      The Burmese food debate is still going strong – it’s pretty obvious where I stand though!

    2. Scott Reply

      Great article I wonder about the food thing though.. Maybe you just didnt find one U like? Wouldnt know for sure but I saw they have a LOT of different food there. DId they give you the spice and bear free version cause they thought U were nt up for it? lol

      1. Anthony Middleton Reply

        Haha I tried everything mate – it just wasn’t for me. Sorry!

  8. Jonathan Look, Jr. Reply

    All this and STILL I can’t wait to go. Anyone expecting perfection anywhere will be disappointed but, there is still magic out there!

    1. Anthony Reply

      Jonathan – too true! When are you going? 🙂

  9. Michael Reply

    Funny article, can completely relate.

  10. Neet Reply

    This is such a fun article and a fantastic series about Burma. I love your candid, brutal honest, “say what’s on the mind” approach to writing. Much needed in this world. And Thanks for the brilliant laugh about the “Bear” err I mean Bell or is it the Bear? 🙂 haha

    I plan to be in Burma in a few weeks and will have between 3-5 days (haven’t finalized yet), all I have is a departing date, haven’t even booked a ticket flying in yet (another story). I’m curious what itinerary you’d suggest for 3-4 days knowing I’m flying in and out of Yangon. I loved what you had to say about Inle lake and Mandalay having its own good things, can’t figure out how I should plan my trip for those few days.

    Thoughts brother? Thanks again.

    1. Anthony Reply

      Hey Neet,

      I’m glad you enjoy my style of writing – as that’s how I speak too 😛 Sorry I have only just seen this 🙁 Have you left yet? Get in touch and sorry once again for the delay!

  11. Miner Reply

    Don’t forget the mines. The rubies seems to be plentiful.

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  13. The Skywalker Reply

    Bear vs Bell.
    Funniest blog I have read in ages!
    Great story man.
    Luke

  14. Andy Mack Reply

    I was planning to visit but then read ‘The Perfect Hostage’ by Justin Wintle and now think I’d enjoy it more in a few years time when it will hopefully open up a bit more…
    Your blog has confirmed my feelings. Thanks

  15. Jenifer Joan Htoo Thu Reply

    You simply don't like the food because it is so different from yours. I live in U.S. And I don't usually eat American food because I don't really like 'em. But I've never talked bad about the food because foods are precious to the natives and whoever treasures them. You don't have to go to Burma but we'll always welcome you!

  16. Jenifer Joan Htoo Thu Reply

    You simply don't like the food because it is so different from yours. I live in U.S. And I don't usually eat American food because I don't really like 'em. But I've never talked bad about the food because foods are precious to the natives and whoever treasures them. You don't have to go to Burma but we'll always welcome you!

  17. Yan Yan Reply

    About the bell and bear:One thing you should know about Burmese people is that they do not have the kind of education that other countries have. Also almost to all of them are not good at speaking English or even know how to speak English.

    1. Anthony Middleton Reply

      Hey Yan Yan,

      Sure, I know that. I certainly wasn’t laughing AT them, I was just laughing at the situation and how I was expecting a huge bear instead. I would NEVER laugh at someone who is making an attempt at speaking my language. I’m learning Spanish now and I have a lot of respect for language learners.

  18. Anthony Middleton Reply

    "You simply don't like the food because it is so different from yours." Nope – sorry but that's simply not true. I love Arabic and Thai food – do you think that they are like British food? Hell no, they're different and better!

    I don't see why I have to be like every other travel blog and say everything is amazing when I don't think it is. I absolutely loved your country, I just didn't like the food and I think it should be fine to say that. Thanks for welcoming me back, I plan to. Lovely, friendly people is more important to me than liking the food 🙂

  19. Man Vs Clock Reply

    Jennifer – Sorry I accidentally replied with my personal profile. I'm Anthony, the author of this article. Cheers!

  20. Man Vs Clock Reply

    Jennifer – Sorry I accidentally replied with my personal profile. I'm Anthony, the author of this article. Cheers!

  21. Man Vs Clock Reply

    Hey Yan Yan,

    Sure, I know that. I certainly wasn’t laughing AT them, I was just laughing at the situation and how I was expecting a huge bear instead. I would NEVER laugh at someone who is making an attempt at speaking my language. I’m learning Spanish now and I have a lot of respect for language learners.