Sunday, September 22, 2013

Myanmar/Burma: Where's that?!

Want to go somewhere unique and developing, yet functional and relatively safe? Check out this magical Southeast-Asian nation. Despite lots of growing pains and a still shady government, adventurist tourists have discovered Burma at an exciting juncture in its history. So, if you’re looking for a challenge, beautiful sights and friendly people, come check out this emerging country. Gays are flocking here too! Being LGBT might always be difficult in a relatively conservative society, yet the predominant religion (Buddism) remains relatively ambivalent and you’re likely to find friendly eyes just like everywhere else in the world.

What’s in a name?
So what should you call it? Burma or Myanmar – the regime officially changed the name to Myanmar, but in the local language the words are the same. Refusing Myanmar might be a political attempt to dis the ruling junta, but for your purposes as a tourist, it really won’t matter. The people don’t care either way – some will tell you that people prefer Myanmar. After all, Burma was just the English “translation” of the word; this BBC article breaks down all the details, if you're concerned.

To gain access to the country, I used a (questionable) Internet site that actually worked out: Becoming  part of a “tour group” visiting the country, my visa request was taken care of before I arrived. At the airport, officials stapled the visa to a passport page (I'm planning to remove it, when I need more space - which will be happening soon!). It only cost me about $70USD; the visa is $30, the extra ~ $40 saved me a day of going to the embassy since I was in Thailand (definitely worth the cost in time and frustration unavoidable when traversing Bangkok).

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My stapled Visa into Myanmar!
My first day I set out in the capital, Yangon (or Rangoon), a hot-bed of frenetic activity – everyone on the street attempts to sell something, though mostly the same products. It’s difficult to imagine how people can make a living – but they sure are trying. Food is also right there on the street – but the hockers have to keep moving, swatting the flies and shouting out about their products. With the locals (and foreigners alike) wearing traditional longyi, faces smeared with allegedly antioxidant Thanaka paste and teeth & mouths gleaming red from chewing betel nuts it can feel quite alien, yet everyone's always smiling (especially at foreigners).
Cold dishes & a beer to wash it down!

I tested the local food – eating a few times at some recommended eateries. I didn’t get sick – though based on the surroundings sometimes, I definitely prepared to. The dishes came out of a number of pans inside a glass enclosed buffet – you couldn’t really tell if its purpose was to keep the food hot or cold – and the duration these dishes languished under the glass was also suspect. Still – I tried it and mostly I enjoyed the varied cuisine.

Beyond Yangon

You have several choices of destinations within Burma for touring the country. Bagan has the most human-made sights with thousands of temples across a barren, but beautiful landscape. Lake Inle provides a picturesque setting for hiking, hot-springs or a boat tripMandalay is the second biggest city has has the typical set of religious, government sites, & one gay refuge. You also may go to the coast at Ngapali Beach - but I determined Bagan would be the best option for my short stay.
Boarding my flight to Bagan

Unless you work with a tour operator, you won't be able to book internal travel or make plans until you arrive in country. Thankfully prices are still inexpensive but flying remains the only viable option to get around. Boarding prop planes can always feel scary – and the Yangon Airways logo doesn't help:  “You’re Safe With Us” – an airline that feels the need to reassure passengers they will survive! Like Angkor Wat, I visited Bagan during the hottest time of year, but it was still worth seeing thousands of ancient temples across the orange landscape. However do to my timing I missed out on the hot air ballon rides - the best time for Bagan is between November and February.
At least the airline has food!

Temples of Bagan

Upon arriving in Bagan, I planned to go direct to Mt. Poopa, a local temple on a peak located relatively close to the airport; I hoped to get my touring started quickly and get this site under my belt; I only had two nights. However, I lingered at the airport taking pictures and pausing to avoid paying the $15 "Bagan Archeological Zone" ticket (just another government bribe, like those in Nepal) – simply by walking out a different door from internal part of the airport (and taking advantage of the crowds arriving at that moment).  Yet, the taxi driver slotted to take me had only a big van.  He planed to go home and trade it for his smaller car….

View of Mt. Poopa from the approach
"How long was that going to take," I asked? “Oh very close, 5 minutes,” said the big friendly, but bro-ish local.

About 15 minutes later, at his home, he called to a woman inside – there was no car. His brother had taken it - so now we had to hunt him down. We drove, and drove more, stopping by his workplace and then further. Eventually, I saw a temple and asked to be let out – come back for me soon, I plead with him, trying not to be furious. I walked to the temple – where, of course, I dutifully removed my shoes & socks. It wasn’t incredibly impressive – there were literally thousands of these things. But, I took a few pictures of the landscape from the top – lingered a bit since I didn’t hear him coming back :/ and walked back to the road to wait.

Finally, about an hour after I had landed, we were on our way to Mt. Poopa. Meeting fierce monkeys (they steal food & drinks right out of your hand) and friendly monks, I took pictures with lots of new friends who maybe couldn’t talk to me – but their eyes showed excitement and interest in meeting a foreigner. Probably Mt. Poopa is not worth the special trip (or the half-day it took me!) – but it’s another site in the area if you have time.
The Gayographer overlooking thousands of temples in Bagan

Back in town, I settled into the Oasis Hotel (not bad with operable Wi-Fi, AC, and decent breakfast) and had to negotiate a price for a horse-cart around the temples for the next day. I likely over-paid for all these things – but in the end it I felt happy to support the local economy. What angered me was how my friendly tour guide still attempted to shorten his work-day. “Oh, sorry, the horse needs water, we must go back – no more temples now.”  Or right after our break, “be sure to hurry back the horse is tired and needs food." He tried to take advantage of my empathy for animals - but I took advantage of my time anyway, and enjoyed meeting new friends on the temples as well as exchanging cameras for pictures across the red, dry, temple-dotted landscape.

My driver & his wife in the horse-cart where I rode to view
many of the thousands of temples in Bagan
While my driver infuriated me with this manipulating attempts to get out of work, he made up for it with charm and ridiculous behavior, such as inviting his wife along with us. He laughed that that he was the skinny one and she was fat – typical, for Burmese women.  I enjoyed my time – and eventually I had climbed enough temples. Over and over you have the same young kids selling sand paintings and trinkets – they are not too insistent, but you eventually feel bad.  This looses its luster - plus walking around on rough sandstone pays a price on your bare feet!

Gay Burmese in Bagan - Notice the "Same-Same" t-shirt!
Still, always be ready to talk to the locals and also make new friends – who knows who you might meet. I enjoyed a nice dinner with a friendly Indian guy whom I met traipsing around the temples. Afterwards, returning back to the hotel on my (very old) rental bike, I passed a group of boisterous Burmese guys hanging out in the street who called out to me. At first I thought it was cute – but maybe I should keep on going – yet they seemed friendly, and potentially even gay! I turned around, and sure enough, they were – a hairdresser, some hotel workers and local, small-town-Burma gays who had created their own little community hangout spot along the dirt road.

I spent the next hour or 2 (attempting) to talk with them. No, only one had a Facebook profile – but didn’t know when he’d be able to connect. No phones either – I thought, well, I’ll never see these guys again! They told me to go to "Channel V" in Yangon – so at least they had been outside their town. They had hopes for moving to Yangon, just like any small-town gay guys – but still they loved life, seemed very happy and were excited to meet me.

Clubbing Back in Yangon

Days later, my American friend and I set out to find the gays again out on the town. The main center of clubbing nightlife in Yangon is confined to a square with opposing clubs and bars on either side in tall buildings. One huge building – with elevators to take you you to the different clubs - included Channel V - as well as the 9th Floor Disco, the "gay club" yet it seems most of the places are mixed. Before we entered, however, dozens of guys dressed almost in uniform style of slacks and button down shirts attempted to convince you to come to their club – or they could also help you find whatever item or person you wanted for entertainment…

We made it to Channel V – and found gays enjoying – the security guards were strangely omnipresent – constantly wandering and looking swooping in if it appeared someone was out of control. At first, it was difficult to tell absolutely that it was gay – but there were few women and lots of crazy dancing with groups of guys – not unusual for most many cultures in this part of the world. Yet, by the smiling, winking faces it quickly became clear that these boys liked men. Thus, I made fast friends with some college-aged guys – while my friend looked on, dubiously.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

From wandering around the Shwedagon Pagoda to the food and the friendly people, Burma quickly became my favorite uncharted territory to visit. While not exactly open to LGBT life – certainly not closed either. If you want somewhere not totally destroyed by tourism (like Thailand) this is it. Burma has incredible potential with its beautiful temples and serene mostly un-(if now getting more)-touched landscapes, while the power doesn’t always work and it can get quite hot – you can always survive when friendly, well-meaning people are taking care of you.

Temples of Bagan


  1. This is good story. I'm Thai but never been Myanmar/Burma. Which close Thailand. However This Blog made me knew and understand about Burma
    Thank you owner blog