Glenyce Johnson is Managing Director of Peregrine Adventures, and has just returned from 12 days on the Burma Unveiled trip (http://www.peregrineadventures.com/trips/pabu). A passionate traveller, Glenyce has been to over one hundred countries and now counts Burma among her top ten.
It provides a rare opportunity to see something it is rawest form, and something that will probably change.
What’s one of the main differences you noticed between Burma and other countries?
I’ve never felt safer in any country in the world. There’s that feeling that if you left your bag on the sidewalk, someone would run after you and say, “Excuse me is this yours”. You just don’t feel that in many places anymore.
Burma is one of those countries that’s going to gain a lot of momentum very quickly. Some of its appeal is just the natural beauty of a country that’s largely untouched by tourism. And in saying that, there are a couple of pockets where it’s obvious they are getting a reasonable amount of tourism but nothing like the other main Asian destinations.
Tell us the one story you couldn’t wait to share with friends and family
One of the most magical days came when we were visiting a temple. All of a sudden we were surrounded by a group of people, giggling and pointing. Our local leader started interacting with them, and it turns out they had never seen tourists before. They only come down from their hilltop village about twice a year. They asked our leader if they could touch us, and we held out our arms and they ran up to us, laughing at our freckles and patting our skin.
They gave our leader a message to pass on, which was, “May you be healthy, may you be wealthy, may you lead a long life and may you never come into any danger or fear”. That made everyone really emotional. We could just imagine them returning to their village and telling everyone the story. We were with them for about half an hour and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
Did you try all the food?
The food was fantastic. It was wonderful having such a knowledgeable local leader, because he was able to give us advice on the best places to eat.
The cuisine is a great blend of Thai and Indian influences, with a lot of curries so you can have it as spicy as you like. I tried some of the local delicacies. Pig’s ear is sensational, like a crispy piece of pork. It is presented beautifully and definitely doesn’t look like a pig’s ear when it comes out on the plate! Pig’s intestines are magnificent. I didn’t realise what I had ordered, but it was honestly really tasty.
There’s the most incredible Italian restaurant on Inle Lake, where they have parmesan cheese flown in. There’s nothing else you can buy there that they don’t produce themselves, but this place has authentic parmesan cheese! It’s run by an Italian woman, who makes her own pasta and uses a wood-fired oven. The bolognaise pizza was to die for.
And what about drinks?
Draught beer is about 80cents for a pint, and they sell a lot of what I call “tall necks” which are 750ml bottles of beer. These range from about $1.50 upwards. And there’s great local wine, who would’ve thought?! There’s a funny story where I made a booking at a small local restaurant, which only held about 25 people. I dropped in during the day to ask if they had chilled wine, and when we arrived that night, sure enough the white wine was being chilled on the table…along with the red!
And you must try a rum sour. It’s their signature drink with rum, lime juice and locally made honey. It’s to die for.
Which areas did you visit?
We spent three nights in Mandalay, three nights in Pagan and three nights on Inle Lake. The tour started and finished in Rangoon, so we saw a nice mixture of areas.
In Mandalay there are more motorbikes than cars, whereas in Rangoon there’s not a motorbike to be seen. Motorbikes are completely illegal there, because apparently many years ago a rider ran into an army general and he outlawed motorbikes!
We took a wonderful full-day boat trip from Mandalay to Pagan, where all the pagodas are. It was wonderful watching the sunrise and seeing the villages waking up along either side of the river
What are the people like?
The minute you arrive in a place, out come the welcome drinks or a group of people beating drums. It’s very much about being welcoming, with a big focus on hospitality.
Another thing we noticed is that there’s hardly any begging. Even after waiting for an hour at a local train station, nobody came to ask us for money. One day a group of kids tried to sell us drawings, but they didn’t even seem concerned with the money; it was just a fun competition and a way of interacting with us. They all had wonderful smiles on their faces and were so good-natured.
Being a Buddhist country, there are monks everywhere, which is fascinating. They were very friendly and keen to speak English. The people learn English in schools but don’t get much opportunity to practise it, so we spent a lot of time chatting and answering their questions.
Did you have the chance to observe daily life?
Yes. One of the highlights was sitting on a small river boat in Mandalay, watching the sun set across U Bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. We just watched the people coming and going at the end of their working day. There were people walking and riding bikes and there was something quite special about watching everyone going about their business, totally oblivious to us.
When we were trekking up to the Shan Plateau, we came across a small village and had a great interaction with the locals. They live a life like ours in many respects – they love their kids, they cook meals together, and they have access to TV until 8pm every night which many evenings tend to revolve around!
What sort of work did you see happening over there?
We saw a lot of industry, and a lot of it is still manual labour. We saw everything from girls rolling cigars to a lot of beautiful weaving and seeing where they make the gold leaf. There’s a whole lot of industry there waiting, in some ways, to be modernised.
They’re big on lacquerware and we saw some exquisite items being made, from bowls to pot plants to furniture. They do a fantastic job of using their natural resources.
Any tips for potential travellers?
You definitely need a torch; either a head torch or a little one that you put around your wrist, which I found really useful. Like a lot of Asian cities, Burma has pretty uneven footpaths, so you need to watch where you’re going. And your US dollars must be crispy, with no folds or anything. That’s crucial.
A lot of people had done group trips before, and had also travelled independently, but they all said a small group was the way to go when visiting Burma.
One of the biggest challenges is the Internet access. Wireless? Forget it. However it’s actually one of the nicest parts. It’s important that you’re aware of it before you go, so you can tell everyone you’ll be out of communication. It’s wonderful to be able to say “You know what, I can’t do anything about it” and just unplug. There are very few places in the world where you can get that kind of peace.
How is the “feel” over there at the moment?
It’s a very interesting time to visit, with the elections coming up in April. We went to the headquarters, where everyone is making posters, working together and genuinely excited about their opportunities. There’s a real sense of unity; that the people are all working towards something.
Our leader was telling us about the national football team, which made it to the World Cup in 1968, He explained that the country used to be first class in a lot of areas. But it doesn’t seem to have had a negative impact. There’s no “Woe is us” sentiment. It’s more like, “We were great back then and maybe we can be great once again”. They are quite relaxed and proud of their history. There’s a real sense of “It’s nice you’ve come to see us” but without wanting anything in return, which is rare.
I’ve got to say, everything seemed to be exceptional about this destination. There’s only two other countries where I’ve taken more photos, which are Nepal and Antarctica
Is it hard to let go?
When I first got back, I went to my local supermarket and realised I was still smiling and nodding at everyone! It must’ve looked quite strange but that’s just what you do in Burma. It really is the land of smiles.
Some final words?
This is a life-changing destination. It’s one of those places that really gets under your skin. It’s now among my top 10 list of destinations, and keep in mind I’ve travelled to over 100 countries! I got the sense that a lot of places would’ve been like this once and now it’s harder to find.