When we first set out in 2012 Burmese land borders were well and truly closed, so back then our option was shipping from India to SE Asia. In 2014, with a shift in political power, land borders opened up to foreigners. For once our delayed itinerary had gone in our favour and allowed us more country-crossing options.
To drive across Myanmar in your own vehicle requires being escorted by a government-approved guide plus numerous permissions, documentation, fees and taxes. Apparently it is possible to arrange the paperwork and permissions yourself but that would involve flying into the country in advance, costly and definitely stress-inducing. The simplest way is to travel with an agent-organised tour; the more people in your group, the cheaper it works out per person. The agent needs a month to organise your documents so you need to plan way in advance. Being flexible with dates also increases your chance of finding fellow travellers to join your group and reduce costs. We eventually went for a 14 day tour which, once we had joined a French family of four, was not much more expensive than an exhausting 5 day dash or shipping.
Our group comprised of us, the Pleau family (two adventurous French motor-homers and their two young sons) plus a ‘pilot car’ with driver, tour guide and officially appointed government guide. We still don’t know the purpose of our government guy; friendly enough but barely interacted with us other than to take the occasional video and photo reconnaissance records. He certainly had a nice holiday out of us!
Logistically, the Myanmar route is simultaneously relaxing and restricting. It was the first time we have ever had a guide which was wonderful; escorted through borders, explanations of menu items, ordering food, a constant enthusiastic source of local information and a mind of historical and cultural facts. Plus, a genuinely lovely bloke that we can now call our friend. Hotels are all pre-booked so the daily mystery of where to pitch that night is removed, itineraries meticulously scheduled so there’s no scouring the guide book for sights and activities and you follow the pilot car so no maps or GPS required. I have to admit that after the full-on experience of 4.5 months overlanding in India this was a lavish travel hug. It’s like cotton-wool-wrapped touring, 14 consecutive nights of the kind of luxuries we normally only treat ourselves to once a month; A/C, showers, clean linen, Wifi and breakfast buffets. So this is how normal people travel! No wonder other tourists always look and smell better than us.
But your cotton wool is wrapped tight and you lose the flexibility and freedom to stay longer, deviate, take a new route suggested by locals or stop to join in with a spontaneous celebration. Diverting, pausing and ‘getting lost’ is after all a huge part of the overlanding experience. Luxury without liberty. The cost was also eye-watering to us and as much as we enjoyed 2 weeks of increased comfort, we could normally travel for 3 months on what it cost us for 14 days (ouch).
We were certainly not disappointed by Burma as a destination- it is truly an incredible country. From the giant Buddha’s in Monywa, ancient temple plains of Bagan and Royal splendour in Mandalay to Buddhist devotion in the caves of Pindaya, floating culture and traditions of Inle Lake and the city splendour of Yangon with breath-taking Shwedagon Pagoda.
For me, what is seriously missing in this ‘exploration’ of a country is an opportunity to get out into the wilderness and experience the wildlife and natural habitats of Myanmar. The chance to sit by a river for a couple of days and watch birds in the trees and lizards on the rocks. With the countryside often a blur as you dash from town to town this is one area of visiting a new land that is a huge sacrifice through this arrangement.
In addition, there is a moral and ethical quandary of travelling in a country where human rights abuses are very real and being carried out at the hands of the peoples own ‘democratically elected’ government. In Myanmar particularly, where a large part of our travel budget goes directly into the hands of that same government in the form of fees, permits, visa and guides. Without the ability to choose your own hotels, you also risk financially supporting establishments owned by government officials and their families. The only way we could offset this in some way whilst travelling in the country was to eat at smaller restaurants and buy goods from small, independent shops. Travelling in a culturally-conscious way in a country so recently opened up to the potential negative influence of the ‘West’ is also important, with cultural and environmental damage a significant threat in Myanmar (no one, especially the Burmese, want to see arse cheeks hanging out of skimpy shorts rolling across the border from less-conservative neighbouring Thailand).
Quandaries and logistical changes aside, Myanmar is a stunning destination and an extended transit far more enjoyable than the alternative option of shipping. With opening land borders a step in the right direction for overlanders, hopefully one day the country will stabilise and the remaining militant rule diminish, allowing peace for the people and real adventure for travellers.
On the 6th November 2006, the administrative capital of Myanmar (aka Burma) was moved, with minimal explanation by the military government, to an empty-ish plot of land (now named Naypyidaw) 200 miles north of Yangon (aka Rangoon), the previous capital.
Naypyidaw is an eerily desolate modern-day ghost town, not one that has been deserted but one that has never been inhabited. The city has one high school offering basic education, very few shops and virtually no public transport network with the exception of one taxi company which is operated by the military!
This lack of infrastructure makes the city less than desirable. The current population consists mainly of government employees and administrative officials who were forced to move there. Due to the lack of facilities in the city many families were split up when the government forced it’s employees to move.
As utilisation of the vast new city is very low the consequences of such an immense project have been criticised by the outside world. With an estimated cost of $3–4 billion the national economic impact of such a huge construction effort, over a relatively short period, in such a poor country must have been considerable.
Due to the location of the new capital the cost of doing business with government has increased, this is due to the excessive journey time from Yangon, where most business offices are based.
It seems crazy that such money was, and still is, being spent on a huge city that no one wants or uses!
The rationale for moving the city is debateable, some theorists believe that the capital was moved because Than Shwe, the previous head of state, wanted a ‘vanity project’ to compete with those of other authoritarian leaders, especially in Central Asia, who may be seeking to amplify their own personality cults.
It is more likely though that the move was tactical and initiated to secure the capital and relocate it centrally away from the country’s borders: Yangon is a coastal city and vulnerable to a nautical attack. The new central location lends itself to the city becoming a transportation hub adjacent to the volatile states of Shan, Kayah and Kayin. It was felt by governmental and military leaders that a stronger military and governmental presence nearby might provide stability to those chronically turbulent regions.
Sadly the most logical reason for moving the capital is much less interesting; Yangon had simply become too congested with little room for future expansion.
In stark contrast to Istanbul, Tehran or Delhi driving is easy on the empty streets. The massive vacant 20-lane highways were designed to future proof the city for expansion but are also rumoured to be able to accommodate military aircraft landing.
We stopped outside the Parliamentary complex and presidential palace at the site where the Top Gear team had played football on the motorway and drag raced! The architecturally Stalinist buildings are gargantuan and gaudy, the only thing that roots them in local culture are the faux Burmese roofs.
Up until the 2015 landmark elections, the Parliamentary complex and presidential palace actually held little authority. True power was (and possibly still is) located in one of the cities Crystal Maze-esq named zones; the Commercial Zone, International Zone, Residential Zone, the Ministry Zone and Military Zone.
The top ranking military officers and important government personnel live in the secretive military zone, conveniently located 7 miles away. The whole area is shrouded in mystery, is strictly forbidden and apparently consists of a complex network of tunnels and bunkers.
We obviously stayed in the Hotel Zone, in one of the 12 huge, unfinished, Soviet-esq hotels that loom from the wide, empty streets.
The International Zone caters for foreign embassies, so far only Bangladesh has moved in!
The residential zone is one of the most interesting. The apartments are allotted according to rank and marital status. The identical apartment blocks, of which there are 1,200, have colour-coded roofs; the Ministry of Health employees live in buildings with blue roofs, employees from the Ministry of Agriculture live in buildings with green roofs. High-ranking administrative officials live in mansions.
Like Milton Keynes, where Emma grew up, this new city is a ‘masterpiece’ of town planning. Naypyidaw’s genius, unlike Milton Keynes however is not centred around roundabouts but focused on quashing regime change and nullifying dissent through urban design and cartography. Historically the public square has been the epicentre of democratic expression, most revolutions have started from protests in public squares where statues of dictators have toppled. Naypyidaw has no public squares! The wide streets are harder for prospective rioters to barricade and easier for tanks, helicopters and even planes to manoeuvre. The enormity of the city is designed to dwarf the individual and supress active participation within the metropolis; the scale is intended to intimidate the citizens to feel subservient to the power of the state. The presidential palace even has a moat!
In stark contrast to the rest of Myanmar, with its humble, friendly villages, towns and rural roads, Naypyidaw sticks out like an urban sore thumb. A disparity so evident you feel like you have entered some kind of twilight zone, a hollow existence in a void of a city the previous government tried to force on a population where the majority still live modest, subsistent, family-orientated lifestyles. Hopefully the new, recently elected government, spearheaded by Aung San Suu Kyi will make wiser decisions for the future of the country.
Myanmar maybe a little tricky and expensive to drive your car through but it certainly is worth it. We timed our trip well, making sure we were there for the country’s New Year water festival.
Like most of South-east Asia, Myanmar celebrates it’s New-Year in April with a week long festival of water throwing, hosepipe soaking and beer drinking! During the celebrations it is impossible to walk down the street without someone tipping an icy cold bucket of water over you: great in the +40°C heat, not so great if you have your phone in your pocket!
To remedy this we purchased waterproof zip-lock dry-bags for our phones and armed with our waterproof Go-Pro we headed out onto the street! In under a minute we were drenched!
Thingyan, as it is officially known, originates from the Buddhist version of a Hindu myth. As we learnt in India, Hindu mythology has some pretty ‘interesting’ stories. Long story short… The King of Brahmas lost a bet to the King of Devas, Sakra aka Thagya Min, who then decapitated The King of Brahmas but then a head of an elephant was put onto the Brahma's body who then became Ganesha (The elephant god). The Brahma was so powerful that if the head were thrown into the sea it would dry up immediately. If it were thrown onto land it would be scorched. If it were thrown up into the air the sky would burst into flames. Sakra aka Thagya Min therefore ordained that the Brahma's head be carried by one princess Devi after another taking turns for a year each. The new-year henceforth has come to signify the changing of hands of the Brahma's head.
Thingyan truly arrives on the second day of celebrations when the King of Devas, Sakra aka Thagya Min makes his descent from his celestial abode to earth. At a given signal, a cannon is fired and people come out with pots of water and then pour the water onto the ground with a prayer.
A prophecy for the new-year will have been announced by the brahmins and this is based on what animal Sakra aka Thagya Min will be riding on his way down and what he might carry in his hand. Children will be told that if they have been good Thagya Min will take their names down in a golden book but if they have been naughty their names will go into a book made from dog!
Then the water throwing begins! The water festival is now symbolic of cleansing ones sins for the coming year, or an excuse to get drunk and act like a child! Which suits me just fine!
Truckloads of partygoers cruise around fully armed with a trough of icy water and buckets looking for unsuspected dry pedestrians. No one is spared! Many houses, workplaces and hotels, ours included, get into the spirit of things with huge sound-systems blaring the same two songs over and over. A huge water trough was placed outside and we duly took our turn at soaking anyone and everyone who passed: pedestrian, scooter rider and car!
All this merriment is great for the first two days, after that it all gets a bit tiresome. I must have committed a fair few sins last year for the soaking I received! In +40°C heat and with no air-con in Bee-bee we were forced to drive with the windows wound up in fear of 10L buckets of water being launched into our car as we drove past! With temperatures in the car over +50°C we were literally melting inside! From early morning into the darkness of night drunken partygoers are dancing dangerously on the edge of the road! Small kids, often unsupervised, are also throwing themselves, along with a bucket, into the road to try and soak you as you cautiously drive past. We were lucky, most scooter riders normally take a dangerous drenching regardless of sex, speed, age, whether or not they are carrying a small baby whilst sat sidesaddle or already saturated.
The whole fiasco goes on for 7 days, culminating in a huge party on the eve of the 7th day, which actually was a lot of fun! Most big cities organise huge street parties and stages, fully armed with water cannons where thousands of revellers come to enjoy the free show, get soaked and sink a few beers; slightly more fun than a drunken verse of Auld Lang Syne and watching fireworks on the TV.