APPROVAL TO OVERLAND
Myanmar is not the easiest country to overland in terms of access… but we made the effort and were rewarded by a very interesting place. To cross Myanmar in your own vehicle it is compulsory to have a ministry approved itinerary and entourage including: 1) government officer from the ministry; 2) approved guide registered with the ministry; and 3) driver. In our case we also had: 4) tour company representative; and the most important person of all 5) Mum. Overlanding tourism is only three years old in Myanmar… our itinerary was fixed and tightly controlled (see permitted areas). Ultimately we just had to rock up… follow… no thinking required… we were model tourists.
We had a standardised 12 day tour to cross Myanmar from Mae Sot (Thailand) to Moreh (India). 12 days is no time to see a country, especially when covering distance… but our tour company, Burma Senses, have a great overland package that squeezes in a lot.
It’s usually easier to exit a country than enter one… but the Bangkok bomber was still at large and the description was that of a non-national. Six police checked and rechecked our chassis and engine numbers… photos were taken… extra forms were filled… stern looks were made and lots of seriousness demonstrated in general. We were given permission to exit and waved on… and then stopped and sent back. Finally we were waved on for realsies… and crossed the bridge over the Thaunggin River into Myanmar with a truck lining us up.
In Myanmar, unlike any of its neighbours, you drive on the right-hand side of the road. “No worries,” you think to yourself… but then you realise the vehicles are mostly right-hand drive. We didn’t immediately have an appreciation for the repercussions of this oddity… but it didn’t take long. I screamed into my helmet as I watched Mum’s van go for overtake around a truck into a certain head-on with a bus… but the van withdrew at the last moment and the head-on was narrowly avoided. We then realised what was actually happening… Mum’s driver wasn’t going for overtake… the poor bugger has to put most of his van into oncoming traffic just to get a glance around the truck in front of him. On narrow roads drivers judge the gap between vehicles from opposite sides of the vehicles. I remember approaching a stopping school bus for the first time… the school kids piled out into traffic… not onto the kerb.
This traffic management oddity was enforced in 1970 by General Ne Win (head of state from 1962 to 1981). One theory for the change is that his wife’s astrologer said that the country would be better off driving on the other side of the road. Regardless, we were riding in bewilderment and our first impression was quite simple: if the road rules have been managed like this… how have all the other rules been managed?
Before we ramble on about our experience… some Myanmar background in <1,000 words:
The Anglo-Burmese Wars are three wars that took place between the British East India Company and Burma in the 19th century. The end of the third war in 1886 saw the total annexation of Burma and the country became a British colony. British rule brought significant change to the country and Burmese resentment was strong. The British administration collapsed in 1942 during the Burma Campaign of World War 2… Japanese rule ended in 1945 and Allied Forces returned.
General Aung San, a revolutionary and national hero, then negotiated with ethnic leaders to guarantee the independence of Burma. The Union of Burma, an independent republic, was formed in 1948… with General Aung San assassinated by political rivals six months prior. To this day General Aung San is considered Father of the Nation… his daughter is modern day hero, Aung San Suu Kyi – opposition politician and chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Officially there are eight ‘major national ethnic races’ in Myanmar, which is a simplification of the complex reality that is 135 distinct indigenous ethnic groups recognized in the 2014 Census… population is 52 million… >80% embrace Theravada Buddhism. The major ethnic groups are: Bamar (Burman), Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.
LONGEST CIVIL WAR IN THE WORLD
Myanmar has been plagued by civil war since political reordering post British colonial rule in 1948… accommodating the demands of the many minority groups as well as those of the majority Bamar people didn’t eventuate. Tensions were mostly fueled by policies of centralization and attempts to make Buddhism the state religion. By 1958 it was apparent to ethnic minorities that they were locked in to the Union of Burma and would never be granted autonomous rights… so they took up arms and waged insurgencies against the government.
In response to this the military (aka Tatmadaw) successfully launched a coup in 1962 and administered martial law for the next 12 years… this period saw the military take over all critical aspects of the country. In 1974 the country became the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma… then in 1989 the Union of Myanmar. Free elections were held in 1990 and the NLD won 392 out of 492 seats… but the military refused to give up power.
ETHNIC ARMED GROUPS
There are dozens of ethnic insurgent groups in Myanmar. ConflictMap.org list the current most active ethnic armed groups as:
- Arakan (aka Rahkine) State: Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) and the Arakan Army (AA)
- Additionally, the Rohingya National Army (RNA) is fighting for recognition of the Rohingya people as an ethnic group
- Chin State: Chin National Army (CNA)
- Kachin State: Kachin Independence Army (KIA)
- Shan State: Kachin Independence Army (KIA), United Wa State Army (UWSA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA Mongla), Shan State Army – South (SSA – S), Shan State Army – North (SSA – N), Wa National Army (WNA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Lahu Democratic Front (LDF), Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), and the Pa’O Peoples Liberation Army (PPLA)
- Karenni (aka Kayah) State: Karenni Army (KnA) and the Kayan New Land Party (KNLP)
- Karen (aka Kayin) State: Karen National Defense Organization/Karen National Liberation Army (KNDO/KNLA) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)
- Mon State: Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA)
It would be fair to call this longest running civil war a ‘multi-layered conflict’. There are still hopes of national reconciliation… however, ongoing fighting in Kachin State and the spread of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims pose serious threats to a peace process. Many question whether a true democratic government would have the ability to control the civil war situation, which is precisely why the Tatmadaw have the public support that they have do… they are perceived as the ‘iron fist’ required to keep a lid on things.
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES
Myanmar’s armed forces are known as Tatmadaw and number in the vicinity of half a million personnel. Over time the Tatmadaw have employed a ‘four cuts‘ counterinsurgency tactic, which attempts to deny the ethnic insurgents access to food, funding, information, and recruits. This tactic has also been accompanied by horrifying human rights abuse tactics, including ‘slow genocide’ and the ‘Burmanisation’ of ethnic minority regions.
The military government held a constitutional referendum in 2008 to ensure the creation of a ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’… and the name of the country was finally changed to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Fraudulent elections were held in 2010 under the new constitution and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) declared victory. The military junta dissolved in 2011.
It is claimed that Myanmar is transitioning to a liberal democracy… it’s not. To say that the military junta dissolved in 2011 isn’t entirely correct either… the claimed dissolution merely marked the completion of a long-term restructuring process. The military junta have slowly but surely inserted their own players into key roles of government to ensure their economic interests are protected. There is no disputing that Myanmar has undergone key reforms since 2011… but examples of Myanmar moving toward a liberal democracy are examples that don’t significantly impact the military junta’s economic interests.
A perfect example of an economic interest is the jade trade, which ABC News recently labelled as the ‘biggest natural resource heist’ in modern history. Global Witness valued the trade at $43 billion for 2014 alone… although this is a very conservative estimate… Global Witness have multiple industry sources who claim that at least half of the jade is smuggled directly to the China border bypassing official sales.
- 25% of all parliamentary seats (56 of 224 in the National Assembly and 110 of 440 in the People’s Assembly) are reserved for military officers nominated by the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services
- Coincidentally, a vote of more than 75% of parliamentarians is required to amend the constitution
- The Commander-in-Chief also appoints the Ministers of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs
Ultimately Myanmar was under direct military rule from 1962 to 2011 and will be under indirect or quasi-military rule for the foreseeable future. Upcoming elections in November 2015 will be very interesting and a real test for the country.
We should have paid more attention to our pre-approved itinerary… a cultural tour means temples… continuously. If there’s one thing that the Ministry of Hotels & Tourism love to see in your itinerary it’s shitloads of temples… these are the PRIDE of the nation. Shown below is the Pindaya Caves, which is a pilgrimage site on a limestone ridge. Legend has it that a prince saved seven hot princesses… the princesses had been bathing in a lake and then got captured by a giant spider… but then the prince aimed his bow and arrow at the spider… and the spider died. We couldn’t get clarification on whether the Prince got one or all seven princesses… or even at least two… but he definitely got one. Psilocybe Cubensis mushroom grows freely in Myanmar.
The reasoning behind the MASSIVE support for the pagoda/temple trusts in Myanmar is a warped interpretation of the Buddhist belief system. If you do good things then those deeds will pay off in this life and the next… which is pretty cool… but their belief system has been extended to throwing large sums of cash at the pagoda trusts. Migrant workers throw big portions of their earnings in… and the rich gain symbolic and social capital by donating their wealth.
Paying ultimate respect to Buddha in Myanmar is all about (in order of priority):
- How much gold? Coating a roof with ~30 tonnes of gold plate is right up there.
- How much precious material? Use of diamonds and rubies is highly regarded.
- How unique? 600 tonne one-piece marble is very unique.
- How big? As in colossal high-rise statues.
- How many? Default option for poorer regions… just make heaps of little ones.
An ENORMOUS amount of wealth pour into the pagoda/temple trusts. You wonder how such a resource rich country can have so much of it’s population on their knees… well, after the military pillage their lion-share and the pagoda trusts squander their bit… there isn’t much left. A perfect example of squandered resources is the colossal Hiaungdawmu Buddha statues: Standing Buddha, a colossal 26-story high-rise, has no lift or interior; and Sitting Buddha is a high-rise frame… they ran out of money.
I’m being negative… just to clarify, we did enjoy the spectacular nature of the temples, the history behind them and the nuts battles.
Myanmar has two distinct seasons – dry and wet… the wet season runs from May/June to early October. We were on the back end of the wet and hoping for some reprieve… denied. We spent the first few days saturated and were intermittently wet thereafter… fortunately it’s not cold so no big deal.
Myawaddy – Hpaan – Golden Rock – Yangon – Inle Lake – Pindaya Caves – Mandalay – Mount Popa – Bagan – Monywa – Kalaymyo – Tamu
HPAAN – KAWGUN CAVES
KYAIKHTIYO – GOLDEN ROCK
Yet another traffic management oddity… the murky prohibition of motorbikes in Yangon, which was enforced in 2003 for unknown reasons. One rumour is that a general’s son was killed riding a motorbike… another is that a person on a motorbike made a threatening gesture to a general… another is that motorbike riders distributed pro-democracy leaflets. Regardless, it’s a thing… we left our bikes at a cop shop on the outskirts and boarded the van. Imagine a SE Asian city (population 5 million) where motorbikes are prohibited and people are forced to drive cars… traffic is extra not cool.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar. It’s a dome-shaped shrine rising high above the Yangon metropolis… coated in ~30 tonnes of gold plate and a stupa encrusted with thousands of rubies and diamonds… the ultimate tribute to Buddha.
The administrative capital of the country was officially moved here in 2005… sheezus we thought Canberra was weird. Lots of rumour and speculation as to what the rationale was for moving the capital from Yangon to Naypyitaw… main one is that the general’s astrologer was at it again. To be fair, there are other probable reasons:
- Naypyitaw is a more central location to better react to turbulent regions
- Naypyitaw has potential as a transportation hub between Yangon and Mandalay
- Yangon is vulnerable to amphibious invasion
- Yangon is too congested and lacks opportunity for expansion
- Vanity project
Whatever the case, Naypyitaw is a white elephant and COST A FORTUNE to develop from greenfield status. It truly is an oddball place… the cityscape is carefully zoned… the residential zone with it’s own zones… apartments and houses allotted according to rank and status… rooves colour-coded in accordance with the resident’s jobs… green for agriculture, blue for health, etc.
I think the spending on this ‘new administrative capital’ project is best reflected by the 16 lane highway… that’s right, 16 lanes. I don’t know who did the traffic flow calcs… and I don’t want to be critical… I’m just saying there were probably some cost savings not realised.
Inle Lake is 116km2 with many villages along the shores and on the lake itself. Villages tend to specialise in the hand-making of specific goods like silk, silversmith and blacksmith products. These hand-made goods are the main source of commerce… though tourism and it’s cold hard cash is no doubt changing things. The lake has seen rapid growth in population, agriculture and tourism… in particular, major tourism development is ongoing. Apparently the place is suffering from the associated environmental effects.
We had no idea that food was going to be such a special thing in Myanmar… the FOOD IS AMAZING… and there was never and complaining about portion sizing either.
Saw the Pindaya Caves Temple, which was ok. What’s most beautiful about this region is it’s surrounding farmland… fields as far as the eye can see pulled entirely by ox… it actually reminded us of the Darling Downs back home. Plus we got to see more hand-made goods being hand-made.
This place is renowned as one of the most prestigious and strict monasteries in Myanmar. Day-to-day for these guys goes something like:
- 4am Rise then go acquiring food from the population outside of the monastery
- 7am Brekky then into classes
- 11am Queue for lunch for the tourists… this is the last meal for the day… then back to classes
- 5pm Maybe an hour of own time then back to classes
- 9pm Knock off
… every day… no days off… no holidays… no seeing your family… no sport… little kid’s face says it all. It often works that kids get dropped off here from far away… get higher level after many, many years of hard work and dedication… then return to their home area to teach scripture. Don’t talk to these guys about sacrifice.
Bagan was the capital of The Kingdom of Pagan (849 – 1297), which was the first kingdom to unify Myanmar as we know it today. Over 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries were built in this time… >2,000 still survive.
Monywa represented good-bye to Mum. Burma Senses lined up a very nice hotel (by our standards) for the last night… so we bailed on whatever temple and hung out round the pool… and had drink with many rum. It doesn’t matter where we are, a place feels like home with Mum or Dad around.
KALAYMYO – TAMU BORDER
The biggest challenge overlanding Myanmar is being allowed to ride freely… as in not get bogged in traffic following the van… or have to eat truck and bus exhaust following the van… or be stuck in 1st – 2nd gears winding up through EPIC mountain following the van. It all comes down to the trust your government officer and guide have in you. We got the opportunity to ride freely under special conditions… not always but sometimes. You have best chances of riding freely if you:
- Get the tour company to have SIM cards with credit ready to go at entry. Get the mobile phone numbers of your entourage: officer, guide and driver. Now you’ve got ‘lost or separated’ sorted
- Have GPS loaded with maps mounted to handlebars. We use garmin.openstreetmap.nl
- Raise your plan to ride freely with your tour company beforehand
Riders are known to just take off on their own accord, which isn’t cool for the entourage… and embarrassing for their officer if they rock up somewhere where they’re supposed to be accompanied. If your government officer and guide trust you… before each leg they will show you where you can ride to and where to wait for them… and then everyone is happy 🙂