The International Steam Pages
Keeping Body and Soul Together in Burma
I wrote this in 2006, I have updated it in 2009 to allow for inflation and other changes.
Burma is a 'one off', there is no other place quite like it. The people you meet as you travel, particularly off the over-beaten Lonely Planet track, are probably the most hospitable in the world, everywhere we went we were invited into homes and plied with food and drink. But where else would a higher percentage of GDP apparently be spent building pagodas than on schools and hospitals added together? The Burmese mindlessly collect pagodas like young girls in the west collect 'barbie dolls', rattling begging bowls at passing traffic for funds for even more is a national hobby. Someone once said that the people of a country tend to get the Government they deserve (my country gets Tony Blair, the USA gets George Bush, you get the drift), certainly this country collectively has a very strange set of priorities. And as for organisational ability, forward planning not to mention intellectual curiosity, it is totally devoid of any. If there is a hard way and an easy way to do a simple task, then it will be the hard way every time. Its government stands condemned, not for its human rights abuses which I will leave for others more knowledgeable than I to comment on, but its total failure to deliver to all but a privileged few the kind of improvements in day-to-day living standards experienced by most of the people in other countries in the south-east Asian region. The kind of things which are now taken for granted in countries like Thailand and Indonesia (which were less developed than Burma pre-independence) are usually completely absent here. While Burmese homes and the countryside are as clean and tidy as circumstances allow, public areas in towns are shabby, decrepit and often downright filthy, awash with the remnants of plastic bags and other garbage.
In terms of 'value for money' for normal tourists, Burma ranks well down the list of countries I have been to. The country is intent on trying to charge premium prices for inferior facilities and services, something which is getting worse rather than better (by comparison China which is Burma's best friend is moving rapidly in the opposite direction). I used to love the 'Golden Land' and its peoples, but these days I go back with some reluctance; certainly if there were not a few more rice mills to explore and their steam engines to document, I would bank my happy memories of past visits and look to fulfill my dreams elsewhere.
But, if you too fancy you might just want to see these wonderful relics of the first industrial revolution at first hand, then what will you have to put up with? For a worm's eye view you can read A Day in the Life - for a general summary just read on.
Definitely an unforgettable experience. For a start, remember, that apart from some railway stations and a few road road signs in the cities, there are very few signs NOT in the Burmese language. And all available maps represent total fiction outside the big cities and regular tourist areas. If you are travelling on your own and know where you are going to and roughly how to get there then you can expect people to be as helpful as the system will allow. But to reach the rice mills for the first time you have no choice, you need a guide.
Hire cars are an expensive proposition, not always reliable or even comfortable, but frankly sometimes you have to hang the expense because if you have 30 or more miles to go down potholed or unsealed roads there may literally be no alternative. Expect to pay of the order of U$50-60 a day plus petrol. Motor cycles are appearing, these can be chartered in some places but they are certainly not cheap like the ojeks in Java for instance. Expect to pay about U$2 an hour plus petrol. Of course, if your guide knows how to drive one, it is a great advantage!
And as for petrol, what can you say about a country where no-one buys their fuel at conventional petrol stations but only from roadside stalls and small shops in back streets? The corruption involved must be massive.
The long distance up-country river boats offer the kind of ordeal not to be missed (possibly) or repeated (unless you are properly prepared or have a Ph.D. in masochism ). Read about it. Unfortunately, they are government owned and if you want a very ordinary cabin to reduce the discomfort to a minimum then you can expect to pay an extortionate U$40 or more per person for the privilege. Ferries across rivers are cheap and very useful, if often infrequent. Much more fun (but not so cheap) is to hire smaller boats to visit mills with no road access. Never mind, sometimes a friendly mill owner will send you on to your next port of call in his personal vessel.
Before 2006, I used to enjoy travelling by train, they provided continuous street theatre entertainment which made up for their lack of punctuality and relative expense compared to the buses (they must be paid for in U$, foreigners pay up to 20 times more than the Burmese). By the time I was two weeks into this trip, I hoped that I had ridden my last one. Our first daytime journey from Bago to Mandalay on 11 Up started normally but the lunch break at Toungoo was extended when the locomotive failed to restart. Running repairs were needed on the only substitute available which was a small DF9. So instead of a timetabled 21.00 arrival, anticipated to be an actual 24.00, we finally arrived at 05.00 next day. Next up, the overnight train from Shwebo (originating in Mandalay) was a mere three hours late departing which meant arrival in Naba (for Katha) was actually quite civilised. But the quality of the ride was not merely diabolical, it was positively dangerous. The final straw was to discover that 81 Up from Yangon to Mottama, normally a fairly reliable performer, was running at least 3 hours late; in practice no-one could even say when it would leave Yangon let alone pass through Bago - so we took a bus. And, after a comfortable if boring journey, we had time to unpack and relax in the Breeze Guest House in Moulmein before enjoying a beer or two and watching the sun go down across the Thanlwin/Salween River. Later in the trip we saw a stranded passenger train south of Pyay with its locomotive off the tracks, a situation which would not be resolved quickly in this country. Very sad, as I have had some wonderful experiences on this railway and met some wonderful people; but sometimes in life you just have to move on....
[Since I wrote this in 2006, there has been an influx of equipment (most of it secondhand) from China and India and services on the railway have greatly improved. Please see Rob and Yuehong in the Golden Land 2009 and for a part 2009 rail timetable, see Rob and Yuehong in the Golden Land, Part 2.]
After writing the above assassination of the railway, we were in the delightful Irrawaddy riverside town of Myanaung south of Pyay on the west bank and faced with getting to Hinthada with no buses or pick-ups available. I am pleased to say that the daily Kyangin to Pathein express (maximum speed 20 mph) did the job excellently. Better still, when we baled out at Ingabu on seeing a working rice mill, the following mixed train also proved to be running to time. While we were in Hinthada we also visited the rice mill at Ywatha by train in both directions. Five days later the train proved again to be the best way to move on to Pathein. This section of the railway is an honourable exceptions indeed. But the overall message is still clear; get on a train here at your own risk!
Buses are usually cheaper than the trains as you can pay in Kyat instead of U$, (as for all the other forms of transport except the river boats). They can be invaluable for long distances, but beware of buses on roads in poor condition, they will be old, old second hand rejects from Japan, South Korea etc and the ride may be dreadful and breakdowns a constant threat. They can also get hideously overcrowded and if at all possible you should buy a ticket at least an hour or two before departure to get a seat. In some areas, the only buses are converted trucks, plenty of fresh air and, from the top, you get a brilliant view of the countryside!
This bridge is so weak that all passengers have to dismount and walk across to safety....
Pick ups with bench seats down the sides at the back operate on some bus routes, round towns and also in some areas with no buses. Definitely good only for short distances, they can be crowded and uncomfortable and you may again find yourself sitting on the roof or hanging off the back. A truck may be going your way, we hitched a lift in one near Pathein when a bus conductor tried to apply differential charging for foreigners. I hope he was suitably offended by the internationally recognised sign I made to him.
Horse carts work well on country roads up to about 5 miles, but they are not quick or comfortable. Trishaws are often the only answer around town or even up to a couple of miles in the countryside. In some more touristy areas it is quite easy to borrow/hire a bike but this of little use in getting to rice mills, except where they are close to the town as in Pathein.
Bullock cart, sir? These are everywhere in the countryside and I guess if you asked nicely you could hop aboard. We haven't tried them yet.... Similarly we have yet to fly between major cities because it would involve a serious assault on our wallet.
In theory, visitors must stay in licensed hotels/guest houses and pay in U$. The government of course collects extortionate licence fees which explains why you can expect to pay about three times what the Burmese pay. Compared to other countries in the region, they represent very poor value, they may not be very clean and the intermittent electricity supply means that power hungry facilities like air conditioning and hot water will not work for the most part even if they are installed as the generators cannot support them. Recharging batteries for laptops, digital cameras, videos etc can be a trial as the generators may only be in use in the evenings for a limited period. It's not much fun when the fan/AC is off because you can't open the windows as there are a million mosquitoes out there waiting to devour you.
In practice, guest houses in small towns where there is no licensed accommodation may accept visitors on a case by case basis, having a guide to do the negotiation obviously helps. Success ultimately depends on the attitude of the local police/immigration department , which of course is totally unpredictable in advance. Again expect to pay over the odds, but in Kyat rather than U$.
These days it seems much more difficult to arrange to stay in (cheaper) unlicensed guest houses where there are licensed hotels in the area. No doubt palms are being greased to ensure this continues.
Food and Drink
Breakfast in the guest houses may be included, if so, it will consist of a cold egg, cold toast and a dreadful 'coffee mix'. The Burmese tea houses with their freshly cooked breads, samosas and other snacks are a far better alternative, best thought of as providing the 'all day breakfast'.
The Burmese tend to eat out mainly at lunchtime and the food consists largely of oily curry (cooked early in the morning and stored in metal pans in the open) with a salad of sorts and various other vegetables often accompanied by a soup. Naturally served with rice. Hence in the evenings, the Burmese restaurants close early and the food available will be best described as 'leftovers'.
Not just because I have a Chinese wife, I tend to head for Chinese restaurants. The food will be cooked freshly, even if by regional standards it is uninspired. Some serve Burmese food and this is generally of a higher standard than in Burmese establishments. Yangon and Mandalay have good, cheap, Indian restaurants.
A clean, well kept restaurant of any kind is a rare find. Don't look at the floor or in the kitchen if you do not have a strong stomach.
Drinking on the other hand is no problem. Help yourself to plain tea in the tea shops; bottles of drinking water and sweet soft drinks are available everywhere. Cold beer is widely available, if not very cheap. By and large, the draught beer is better value than bottled. Watch out for over-priced beer in tourist areas.
ATMs? There aren't any. Travellers cheques? Not yet invented here. U$ greenbacks alone will do, not just for many normal tourist transactions but also for buying the local currency, Kyats ('chats') - quite a lot of them, frankly hundreds of thousands. The only problem is that you can't get them at a bank at anything like the free market rate, you have to find someone to do the business for you. It's not difficult in places like Yangon and Mandalay, but we don't go there much and there is the not so minor problem of changing back the excess at the end of the trip. Given that inflation here traditionally runs in 10s of % per annum and the market rate changes constantly, trying to calculate how many Kyats to buy is a 'think of a number' type problem.
So what on earth am I doing visiting this shambles of a country?
Good question. I have done the tourist thing in Burma: Shwedagon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Mount Popa, the Irrawaddy River, a thousand golden pagodas and so on. Very nice too, but when I travel I want more than a few picture postcard experiences, it is part of my continuing education, I look to learn from the things a country does differently and more particularly those such things it does well. Well that's the theory, in practice as I have tried to hint, there is little to learn here except that maybe Buddhism isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Frankly, after 30 years of shoestring travel in Asia, poor living conditions alone are no deterrent to travel. No technology museum however imaginatively presented can begin to convey what it was really like in the 'dark satanic mills' during the first industrial revolution. Visiting the Burmese rice mills on a true voyage of discovery offers such an experience. They are an absolute treasure, every one may bring something totally new and unexpected, they are a worthy successor to the residual steam locomotives on the main line which for me are well past their 'sell by date'. And I mean the total experience, the travel to get to them detailed above, the machinery which is an industrial archaeologist's dream come true and equally the amazingly warm welcome we have had at every single one of the three hundred or so we have turned up at totally unannounced...
And will I be back? Well, when you visit Shwedagon, you need to make a wish....
Consequently, there is a small souvenir that needs collection after it is refurbished:
One of the relics of the British Raj I could do without is dealing with officialdom in this country with its reams of forms to fill in, often almost illegible and printed on recycled cardboard or toilet paper, all of which will be stored in big heaps and never read even once.
My strongest brickbats are reserved for those members of the immigration department of the Myanmar Government who seemingly have never been told that tourists are officially very welcome in their beautiful country. They inhabit even the smallest of towns and take a delight in wasting visitors' time. If ever they are in a position to read these comments, then hopefully they will be out of a job and on the streets with the stray dogs where they belong. To keep matters under control always travel with a plentiful supply of photocopies of your passport and visa details.
These are the individual pages from the 2006 trip:
Read more about our travels in:
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson