Magnificent Myanmar

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD POST 5: 7th October 2016, Bago, Myanmar.  

We are now six weeks into our travel adventure. So what have been our greatest challenges so far? Firstly, trying to avoid losing any more stuff. Our latest loss was our guidebook which was not ideal given there is barely enough internet to find anything online but luckily we got hold of Le Routard instead. Whilst it’s a bit of a pain being the only who can translate it, the French are arguably the superior nation in terms of pickiness over cuisine, so it has been a nice change to frequent restaurants recommended by them and not to be surrounded by the usual Lonely-Planet crew.

 
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Photo caption: sitting Buddha (top left); one of the large temple compounds (top right); an Indian Jones-style complex (bottom left); reclining Buddha (bottom right)

Secondly, I've been desperately trying to instill a sense of hygiene (or rather a fear of lack of hygiene) into the children which is an issue when most restaurants don't offer anywhere to wash your hands, let alone soap. I therefore carry around with me at all times a portable mini pharmacy, oodles of sanitising gel, a soap and antiseptic wipes. Despite my remonstrations, they still love to put their hands in their mouth at any occasion and I have caught them rubbing their mouths and even licking surfaces that are at the right height. Another stumbling block has been the hole-in-the-ground loos. These have taken the kids a while to get used to as they are often very slippy (which means keeping your balance is even harder) and 'flushing' them by hand with a one-handled bucket is an art. Thankfully, they are actually less of a potential germ trap than ‘foreigner loos’ because the kids are less likely to touch things during their visit.

This is all outweighed by the pleasure of being back in South-East Asia: the noises (scooters with up to 6 people riding on one tiny seat, cackling diesel tractor engines tacked onto tuk tuks belching out black fumes); the unusual spice combinations; Asian vegetables; the constant heat; the rainbow-coloured tropical fruits; the elegant traditional costume; the east-meets-west housing;  the lush vegetation; the street markets; the ubiquitous stray and domestic animals (pigs, horses, goats, cows, hens and cats) living cheek by jowl with their human neighbours; the crazy traffic; the bustling markets selling everything from ironmongery to clothes, to dried and (still live) fish to jewellery (the smell of a market is quite something) and the tiny shops found every 5 metres selling strings of individual sachets of creams and shampoos, one plaster and one battery – just enough to supply a micro economy.

 
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Photo caption: street food and street markets

The only thing that bothers me is the apparent lack of respect for the environment. If it seemed bad on Ikaria, here it is colossal. Not one second is wasted on pondering what to do with an empty bottle of water, it is merely thrown out of a window into the roadside vegetation or dropped onto the pavement; villagers think nothing of living right by (and sometimes literally on top of) pools or mounds of rotting debris dotted with hungry pigs and dogs; there are heaps of non-biodegradable plastics clogging up streams, and even markets selling fresh meat, fruit and fish are located right next door to these putrid piles of waste (indeed it is probably created by its stall-keepers). Sadly, I’m not sure it will ever change – there are too many other bigger issues to tackle first (poverty, the rich/poor divide, opium production – Myanmar is the second highest global producer – and lack of family planning, to name but a few) so you just have to accept it as part of life and make sure you at least do your bit.

 
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Photo caption: rotting waste (top left); tuk tuk (top right); wearing the ubiquitous, unisex, Burmese sunscreen which is also make-up (bottom left); a Burmese feast (bottom right)

Despite this, what has struck me the most since arriving is not how different we are, but how similar. The kids here all love eating sweets, playing tag and watching TV, the men talk about football and the women sit and gossip together and all are exasperated after having had their kids forced on them for the school holidays. Which makes me so pleased we didn’t pre-arrange our visit with a tour company out of a fear of the unknown because travelling couldn't have been easier! We have been going where we fancy when we fancy and relying on the expertise of our hotel reception to book transport to our next destination. Taxis or motorbike-powered tuktuks are used to visit local sights and we are doing without guides (and more recently guidebooks), preferring instead to drink in the energy and feel of a place rather than take loads of facts on board during the visit only for them to evaporate a couple of hours later. Apparently it's also the correct thing to do, as it means our relative wealth is distributed more evenly on the ground rather funnelled into just a handful of (mainly western) companies.

 
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Photo caption: a street carnival (top left); street scene with temples and monks (top right); novice monks posing for a photo (bottom left); domestic animals wandering the streets for food (bottom right)

Budget-wise, we are on track so far which is a bonus given how relatively expensive Myanmar is. Hotel rooms are around 40US$ each, which is much more than you would pay in a neighbouring country for the same quality, and there are entrance fees for tourists to all the major religious sites. Food however is very good-value (our average spend for one meal is about £7) and it really is delicious! That said, it has been hard to find outlets that serve proper Burmese fare as opposed to Chinese dishes. This is apparently because the former requires the use of a lot of different spices and takes a long time to prepare.

As a result, we have only eaten truly authentically twice – once in a restaurant picked by our driver in Yangon for the day, and once in the home of the founder of the orphanage we visited in Bago. Highlights are: a fermented bean, pomelo, fish sauce, peanut and chilli pickle; another pickle of sour, fermented green tea leaves; smashed butter beans topped with crispy fried onion; sweetcorn puree; a delicate herb soup which is taken alongside a meal; a caramel-flavoured fudge made from the sap of a palm tree and eggplant curry (made with tomato, garlic, ginger and marsala). What is unusual for Asia, is that there is no soy sauce. Instead you get fish sauce with raw garlic and hot green chilli marinating in it. There is also only a sparse use of coconut milk here. This is reserved for the dried-fish-based curry only, which is their national breakfast dish. Despite my love of Asia, I have not yet felt local enough to try first thing in the morning.

 
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Photo caption: playing with the locals in the park (top left); our home from home in Yangon (top right); street scenes in the capital (bottom)

Are we missing home at all after six weeks on the road? Yes, a little. I miss quiet, undisturbed time to myself; not living out of a backpack; eating the food I really want to eat when I fancy it; immersing myself in nature and my yoga practise. I’ve even thought wistfully about wearing skinny jeans and boots...

Hopefully we will get some more ‘me-time’ and the children will enjoy more of a regular structure to their days when we are able to enroll them in school. Because it feels like we all need a bit of a break. Staying three nights somewhere and packing each of the days in between with sightseeing feels too fast. Five nights is more manageable. But travelling for a year means that our accommodation is in the budget category and this makes chilling out so much harder with no private outdoor space available or pool. So our next destination needs to be a beach one. It's time for some rest and recuperation (and a bit of homeschooling of course)...

 
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Photo caption: another street, another golden temple (top left); sarong stall (top right); praying with the locals in the most auspicious spot of the temple (bottom left); what is left of a colonial past (bottom right)

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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