Burma is the birthplace of my Paternal Grandfather. Three generations of my ancestors lived and worked in Burma during the Empire reign. Simply put, I wanted to visit the place where my Grandfather came from. But the more long winded reasoning for my trip to Burma I shall elaborate below.
Leaving…on a jet plane…
In 2008 I packed up my life, quit my steady job, lost of steady income and handed in notice on my Southeast London flat. I packed everything I owned into big brown boxes and stashed them in various locations around the country. I had suffered a series of weird events that year that gave me the big kick up the arse to quit everything and use my meagre savings to travel to Southeast Asia with little more than a couple of pairs of underwear and Lonely Planet in a rucksack. I boarded a plane on a wet and miserable November morning and waved goodbye to safety, familiarity and good bacon. I landed the next day in a stinking hot Bangkok slap bang in the middle of political unrest and violence (and somehow I have timed every subsequent visit with political unrest ever since). I experienced jet-lag for the first time that day sleeping all day and waking completely bewildered. The next day culture shock hit me like boulder falling off a cliff. And the following day I got the hell out of there and headed to Phi Phi to lie on a beach for 5 days to ‘acclimatise’.
For the following few months I travelled Thailand and Laos, and even accidentally ended up at my Uncle’s in Australia which is not just round the corner like it had appeared on the map. By the time I reached my friend in Singapore I knew that I needed to get to Burma. I was starting to run low on cash (damn global financial crash and weakened pound sterling!) and was not sure how much longer I could survive in the tropics. I knew that Burma was not the easiest of countries for a traveller to manage in but I knew that if I went home without a visit to Granddad’s birthplace I would forever regret. Besides, a challenge is as good as the rest!
I talked a fellow traveller into to coming with me to Burma. To be totally honest, I was crapping myself about going. This country had one scary old military Government in charge and strict visa conditions and tourist travel restrictions. I did not want to be stranded on my tod. In hindsight, I need not have worried.
Getting to Burma
The Burmese embassy in Bangkok is interesting. It is like a dank grey prison cell with no windows to the outside world and a small collection of old plastic seats. They have the most intimidating immigration officers working there. As I handed in my visa application I was mildly interrogated as to my intentions of travel, my current occupation, who I was visiting, where I was going, how long for and who with. I nervously waited 3 days to find out if I was approved to travel, and thankfully I was.
In January 2009, after some flight delays, I finally took the short flight from Bangkok to Rangoon, the old capital of Burma (the paranoid Government moved all administration to some random city elsewhere).
I passed through immigration as nervous as a really nervous thing. Through my research I had heard that border control can sometime demand bribes, money from tourists if they feel like it. And I was travelling with very little cash.
You see, there are no ATM’s in Burma. Not one. I had to take out all the cash I would require for my trip in US Dollars whilst I was in Bangkok. They had to be perfect notes, rips and creases would not be accepted in Burma. This meant I had my cash and nothing else. It was a scary prospect, which turned out to be well founded as I ran low on money very quickly and was reduced to two meals a day for two weeks.
Luckily, I passed through border control with no issues and as I waited for my luggage to appear on the carousel I was approached by a smiling Burmese guy. He presented me with a small leaflet for a guesthouse in Rangoon. Normally I am a little sceptical of hawkers but as I had not booked any accommodation prior to the trip and he seemed incredibly friendly, we chose to follow him.
This could have gone two ways.
Welcome to Burma
The guesthouse guy, along with a colleague of his, had rounded up a group of ten travellers that had just landed at the airport. They guided us across the main road outside of the airport to a small wooden building which housed a number of plastic chairs and tables. They told us to be seated. I was rather confused. I thought they were giving us free transport to the guesthouse. Oh wait, they’re probably going to get us to buy some food off of their mate, yeah?
They brought out some Burmese tea for us and announced that it was on the house. What a lovely surprise! There was no ulterior motive, they just wanted to welcome us to Burma and have a chat before taking us on the 40 minutes drive into the city. I sipped away at the most delicious hot drink I have ever tried. It was a sweet, very slightly spiced tea (kind of like chai, but not). I enjoyed this lovely moment of chatting to the guesthouse representatives and drinking their delicious tea.
Our attentive representatives answered my various Burma-related questions with a friendly smile, before escorting us to several cars to take us into Rangoon and our guesthouse for the night.
And there begins my travel in Burma.
(I thought I would share my experience of Burma with my readers. As there is a lot of change afoot in Burma at the moment, with the possibility of easier travel opening up the country to more tourists, I thought this might be an interesting time to share with you. I hope you enjoy this new mini blog series and please ask any questions you might have.)