The second largest country in Southeast Asia, surrounded by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, Thailand and stunning coasts along the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar - or Burma - is another one of the region's few fairly undisturbed destinations. Cut off, as it were, from the rest of the world by the military junta that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011 and the seemingly endless civil unrest that has plagued it since independence in 1948, Burma hasn't attracted quite the visiting hordes that the rest of the region has in recent decades. Tourism is developing, albeit very slowly. While the country - with its ancient culture steeped in tradition - has tremendous visitor potential, enjoying it can be tricky thanks to an endemic lack of infrastructure. In addition, visitors were forbidden from entering most parts of the country or fraternizing too much with the locals during the military rule, and it is currently unclear whether this is still the case given the recent political changes. Despite boasting significant natural resources, Burma is still a highly undeveloped country, with a reputation for very poor health care, little to no economic growth, excessive child labour and heavy human rights violations. As a result, there exists an impasse between those who believe going to Burma is a mistake because it sends the message that the government's treatment of its people is 'ok', and those who think that going to Burma and throwing around a bit of your hard earned 'kyat' benefits the locals more than anything else could. Should you decide to go, however, be cautious and keep an eye on the news; with the latest political changes and others that are sure to come, these are most certainly interesting times in Burma and getting caught up in the middle could result in a trip that is highly memorable for all the wrong reasons. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara
Since coming to South Korea I’ve developed a strong interest in North Korean affairs. Consequently, and perhaps strangely, I’d now love to go to Pyongyang, for the uniqueness of it if for nothing else. There is no other city like it on the planet. Or so I thought. Now, I realize that such a visit would be entirely unethical and I’ve also seen enough documentaries on the place to kind of feel like I’ve been there. Throw in the extortionate cost of a visit, having to bite my tongue for the entire stay and enduring the ridiculous, absurd and monstrous propaganda of the regime and, frankly, the whole thing puts me off, to be honest. Not to mention that food would probably be in short supply so I’d have to make do with yet more kimchi and rice, which would make me very fortunate by North Korean standards, but given the fill I've had living here in the South, it's just one more reason why a trip to Pyongyang is off the cards, for now at least. But imagine my surprise when I learned a similar kind of city exists in Burma.
Most long, arduous bus rides begin with an inexplicably early start, this was no different! We awoke at the crack of 4:15 and had our pre-booked a taxi take us to the street-side bus station/pickup. Plenty of people - even small children - were getting about at this hour under the yellowish light which illuminates the pre-dawn streets in Myanmar.
Our bus pulled up briefly and then departed, although no-one seemed concerned. A local bloke I had been talking with told me there was something wrong underneath the bus and it was making a horrible noise – oh good! We filled the next 45 minutes chatting while we waited for the return of the bus. This guy I met had pretty good English and explained that he was a merchant seaman and worked two years on, ten weeks off. His vessel, a container ship, made its way around the world and he had visited many places. Vastly different from the majority of his countrymen.
Our bus eventually returned - with no apparent changes - and we crammed on and found our allotted seats. It was immediately apparent how uncomfortable this trip would be. It was only a half-size bus and the seats were only big enough for two long distance runners from Kenya! They were also so closely packed that I couldn’t put my knees straight out in front of me. So my wife Shazz got in first and I (with one bum cheek on the seat) got in next to her. Across from us, it was almost comical to see two fairly plump young Canadian girls side-by-side; the only way they could manage was to put a stool between our 2 seats and get a bum cheek on that. It worked for a while, but the bus stopped everywhere for anyone who needed a ride. This meant that soon enough, the aisle was full of locals on stools taking up any remaining space within the bus and a tiny, unfortunate little boy stuck on the stool between the girls and I...talk about being 'up close and personal'! As we traversed each bump in the road, he either had one of the girls, or myself, sitting in his lap and apologizing.