One month in Burma in December 2012 - January 2013 (plus four days in Bangkok as a warm-up). I did not bring a phone, touch the internet or check e-mails during the entire trip. Highly recommendend, but it means being old-school-unreachable and having to delete over a thousand mails after returning home.
Day 1-4: December 18 - December 21 Bangkok
Rediscovering the often-visited city through the eyes of my (then) new Leica D-Lux 6, a nice little compact camera. Obviously I was quite taken by the colour-select mode, which I have hardly used ever since. (PS: That camera has long been outperformed by the iPhone X-series - that´s why I have a Fuji X100F now. Love it.)
I know it´s called Myanmar, but I just love the old name. Also, I was reading George Orwell´s Burmese Days on my trip, and that title wouldn´t work with Myanmar in it, would it?
Why Burma? It was probably the next logical step after Thailand and Indonesia, so I travelled to Yangon for the first time in December 2004. Back then, I immediately fell in love with quaint and quirky Yangon, a beautiful and somewhat smallish city (compared to Bangkok, anyway), not yet overrun with tourists or Western consumerism, still breathing the romantic air of some fictional old days. The other place I visited in 2004 was Bagan, with only a handful of tourists around, so I had that magical place almost for myself. A time to remember. A few days later I was back in familiar Thailand when the tsunami struck … but I was on the other side, on Ko Pha Ngan.
Eight years later, in December 2012, it was time to return. This time I opted for places that were not yet visited by many tourists, who in the meantime have been flocking to the country in increasing numbers. So Inle Lake and Mandalay were out of the question, and so was Bagan: I had already been there, and that blissful solitude of my first visit was certainly not to be repeated again, I didn´t want to spoil my memories. What actually got me going was an entire archipelago in the South of Burma, in the Andaman Sea, that I had found on a map. Undiscovered islands! In South East Asia!
I contacted an old expat, who had been living in Burma for many years and also organized travels from his cranky little Kontor in the old part of Yangon. He immediately crushed my idea of just “floating around the country”, classic backpacker style: that was hardly possible, at least to where I wanted to go, down South along the Andaman coast. I actually had to book domestic flights well in advance, since I would be travelling around Christmas-time. And so I did: book flights. While contemplating whether to fly from Yangon to Kyaing Tong (in the North) on Dec 25 or 26, out of a hunch I chose the latter date - I somehow didn´t want to fly on Christmas. Turned out it was the right choice, because the flight on the 25th actually crashed.
So my itinerary included several small cities along the coast (after my return from the North and New Years Eve in Yangon). And the fabled group of islands I had discovered on that map, and that even Lonely Planet didn´t mention? Well, there wasn´t really much to it, since the islands are simply uninhabited and unaccessible, except for MacLeod Island, with a beautiful beach and a lousy resort.
Travelling around Burma was a beautiful but weird experience. I was on my own, as I have been many times before on my travels, but … usually you meet people: other travellers and, obviously, locals. Not so in Burma. First of all, the destinations I had chosen were so off the beaten track, that I was virtually the only Western person most of the time (except for Yangon and that resort). Also Burmese people do not speak English. They just don´t. Not one single word. The only exceptions were, again, in Yangon (and probably in those touristy places that I didn´t go to), where I had my few conversations with locals. In the entire month, I talked to maybe 20 people - but Burmese people are very sweet, as far as I can tell, it was mostly sign-language and smiles. In addition to that I was travelling without phone or internet-access, had no medium to play music or podcasts with me, and my two books I had finished after three days.
So it was essentially a month-long silent meditation, walking and looking around in a non-verbal bubble.
Upon returning to Berlin it felt as if I had been gone for a half a year. I was completely spaced out.
Oh, did I mention that Burma is beautiful?
Day 5: December 22 Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda
Just like back in 2004 the Shwedagon Pagoda was my first stop in town.
One remarkable thing happened that day, December 22, 2012: A group of vultures sat down on the cupola of the main pagoda, causing a major uproar not only with the local population of crows, but also with the Burmese people watching. They were very concerned, as this had not happened before in living memory (as I was later told), but also seen as a bad omen. The next day it even made the headlines in the local newspapers. Maybe it did have something to do with the Mayan calendar, after all.
Day 6-8: December 23-25 Yangon
The city has changed remarkably little in the eight years since 2004. Still largely untouched by Western commercialism and the destructive force of project developers. But the first shopping malls started popping up …
Day 9: December 26 Flight from Yangon to Kyaing Tong
While booking the flight up North I had to choose between Dec 25 and Dec 26. Turned out I made the right decision …
Day 9-13: December 26-30 Kyaing Tong
Kyaing Tong is a nice little city up North, with a distinctive Northern feel to it. It lay at some altitude, surrounded by hills, and there was a vague Chinese undercurrent.
There was a fair going on, where local tribes from the villages came down to town. The overall atmosphere was not overly cheerful.
Day 12: December 29 Village People
Day 14: December 31 Yangon: New Years Eve
Apparently the first festival in Burma ever, hosting all the countries popular bands and artists (without exception singing in Burmese) and attended by a very young and eager crowd. Very few Westerners were present, but lots of baffled parents in the back - they had never seen anything like it, and many obviously didn´t like what was going on. Funnily everything was over ten minutes after midnight, when all kids rushed home.
Day 15-16: January 1-2 Myeik
Part two of the trip: Going down South, starting with a flight (there was no other way of getting around than domestic flights) to the sea-side town of Myeik. As later in the other cities in southern Burma I was the only tourist. And virtually none of the Burmese spoke any English at all - so it was basically a silence meditation while walking around town, as there was zero communication with anyone. A weird experience.
Day 17: January 3 Down the coast: Taking a boat from Myeik to Kawthaung
To avoid taking yet another flight and to have a glimpse at the mysterious Burmese Andaman Islands during my trip down South, I embarked on an 8-hour boat ride. It turned out to be rather unpleasant: an extremely noisy engine, smelly fumes and difficult to chill on the vibrating hull of the boat. But we did pass through the islands, which were indeed all unpopulated except for some sea-gypsie settlements.
Day 18+28: January 4+14 Kawthaung
The southernmost town on the Burmese Andaman coast, near the Thai border at Ranong. Gateway to the island.
Day 19-26: January 5-12 Myanmar Andaman Resort
MacLeod Island was pretty much the only one accessible to travellers in the Southern Burmese archipelago, at least in January 2013. As a matter of fact, this largely unknown group of islands (even Lonely Planet did not even mention them) was the reason I made the trip down South, where very few tourists went.
Day 27: January 13 The Lonely Beach
The best day in a long time: Kayaking over to a lonely beach, daytripping in bliss and complete solitude. Perfect.
Day 29+30: January 15-16 Dawei
And yet another coastal town in the South, a two-day stopover on my way back to Yangon. Again, no other tourists.
Day 31: January 17 Yangon Railway Station
Back for one last day in Yangon: The old railway station (though I didn´t see any tracks or where they could have been), apparently - hopefully - due for restauration. An architect´s dream. Or nightmare.