MYANMAR – First impressions & misconceptions (1 of 2)

(Written by Nick)

Ever since I peered down into the country from the Mizo hills and across the water from a boat in Teknaf, I had dreamt about visiting Myanmar, a country with such poetic and exotic sounding names. The relatively low number of visitors and the fact it was impossible to visit for so long, of course only added to the appeal of exploring a relatively unspoilt land.

Before arriving I tried hard to research what it might be like to travel in this country. I read a lot of newspaper articles, blogs and internet forums and kept an occasional eye on the news coming out of the country.

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Whenever I got excited about the possibilities of exploration, I was brought back down with a jolt by constant reminders about how strict the government were and how difficult it could be to undertake your own self-guided tours. On top of this was the warning that Myanmar was a lot more expensive that its neighbouring countries and that tourists had to pay different rates and even a different currency (US dollars) than the locals. Reports of motorbike tours requiring multiple special permits nd high fees put me off trying to go down that route.

Constant double-page spreads in The Times and The Telegraph advertising luxury tours and other travellers’ calls to “go before it’s too late” made me skeptical about whether it was already too late

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My persistent desire to visit had not exactly been shared by my wife, and now I was doubting whether it was going to live up to my initial high expectations.
It took just the first day for the doubts to be cast aside and to start to fall in love with the country.

-Immigration and customs officials at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border with Thailand were genuinely friendly, helpful and inviting. There was no body search, no searching of bags, no frowning. There wasn’t even a general air of distrust. We were given seats inside the booth while waiting and were allowed to walk to the ATM even before we received our entry stamps. The exchange rate we were offered for Thai Bhat seemed reasonable, as was the taxi they helped us arrange (about 4h to Hpa-An for 10,000 Kyat each (£6.70) for 4 people)
The immigration officers were so friendly to us we were half expecting to receive facebook friend requests from them. Was this really an international border??

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-Food
Stopping for a toilet break on that first taxi ride, I caught sight of the enormous spread of dishes on a family’s table in the roadside restaurant. It didn’t take much to convince our fellow taxi passengers (2 French guys with Poirot-esque mustaches) to stop for a very early breakfast. We ate small bowls of mutton curry, fish curry, soup, bamboo shoots, green veg, chilli salsa, fermented chilli sauce, pickled vegetables, and great mounds of raw snake beans (really long green beans), lettuce, cabbage, lemon leaves and other herbs. We thought we’d just ordered a meat or fish curry each but side dishes kept arriving and filled the table with small bowls.
It was bloody fantastic and ended up being one of the best meals we ate, but we were concerned at how much the bill would come to with all these extras. We needn’t have worried; the bill came to 1000 Kyat each (£0.60)
How is that even possible?! I’ve died and gone to heaven – that’s what I was thinking.

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The freebies: Chilli sauce, snake beans, cucumber, lettuce, watercress, lime leaves etc
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A different meal from above, this was king prawns, fish curry, soup, veg, fermented chilli sauce, rice and herbs. It was still 1000 Kyat each (£0.60)

The standard was set too high we were to find. More often the free vegetables offerings had been sat wilting at the table for too long, cast aside by the previous customers and covered by a fly net if you were lucky. The vegetable dishes were often seasoned with fermented fish, and the meat and fish was served luke warm or cold.
It was hit or miss whether the curry contained liver or intestines.

The food was a lot more varied than that, though. A huge influence from China was appreciated by us as well as samosas, parathas, steamed buns, vermicelli, noodle soups and tons of seafood.

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Shan noodles with fried onion soup
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Prawn salad
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