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.