The Many Hitches of Myanmar

There is pleasure to be seized in experiencing a country on the cusp of change — not quite open yet, as the world demands in this globalized era, but getting there — and the urgency with which you want to catch this unspoilt moment in your hands before the truckloads, busloads and fuckloads of tourists ruin whatever simple magic and quaintness it once held, like colonial architecture, or shitty internet.

Everyone who’s been gladly watching Myanmar open up like a shy flower wants a taste of this nectar, too, which is to the detriment of myself and anyone else who’s tried to negotiate room and board there in these tourist-friendly times — a task that usually ends with expletives and comparisons to heavily pregnant Mother Mary when she failed to book ahead in Bethlehem.

Gems like this await in Bagan. While my hopes are high that it will be a pastoral paradise, I’m imagining about 20,000 other people kind of swarming like ants on the site. Photo from the government.

I am at this point struggling with the grim reality that I will be sleeping with the goats in Yangon, and possibly Bagan (if I manage to get a flight, overnight bus or even cramped train there), contemplating the legality of taking my daily baths in the Mekong River.

All of the budget and three-star accommodations are full, unresponsive to queries or currently overpriced. There had been a standard room available at the Thamada about four days ago when I checked, and silly me for faltering just a second at the cost of 80 US dollars per day because by the time I finally resolved to take whatever I could get — a shed, a couch at a B&B, hey, even a life raft on the Irawaddy, but not anything beyond 100 US a day — those rooms were long gone.

I’m sure many a Yangon tourist looks at this and asks, Is this Photoshop? Photo: ibid

With the sheer hubris with which I usually approach such travels, I thought I could arrange everything on my own through the unstoppable powers of the internet and a relatively healthy line of credit.

While many hotels, guest houses, airlines and tour agencies are up and running online, it takes some navigating through explosions of Comic Sans and cartoonish GIFs (the internet infrastructure must only support third-grade-level HTML websites, the kinds you used to have to build when the scrolling marquee was still popular in the 1990s) and those frustrating broken codes to understand that behind this online facade lies employees who still depend on pen-and-paper transactions and are scrambling in the face of a deluge of online requests that has probably set off alarm bells at the nation’s two ISPs.

Add to the chaos is an intermittent internet connection, confirmed by my apologetic tour agency contact  and the dude who just confirmed I could get a room in Bagan but only if I call them two days before my expected arrival (at which point I would be in Yangon, homeless).

Virtually none of them deal in credit cards.

Photo from The Irawaddy Magazine.

One failed transaction I found charming was trying to book with Air Bagan. Google it, and you will find that seven out of the first 10 searches are about plane crashes (pictured above), one of which occurred just last month on Christmas Day.

Comforted by this information, I pressed on and happily found those flight-booking boxes. I entered the information required and, voila, an e-mail has been sent me saying that my reservation has been registered on their database, and that they would contact me in a few days if I could have the privilege of dying on their aircraft.

I have so far reserved four seats across various airlines and none of them have responded.

I know. I had the same look on my not-as-beautiful face when I was met with the blank wall of silence. Photo: Justees

But therein lies my prejudice and my hypocrisy. Many a tourist before me has done the exact same thing — my best friend Dave Watnick and three of my newspaper colleagues included — and yet has managed to enter its borders (even when the junta was in full force, may I add), enjoy the hotel towels and even make short trips from city to city via the existing transport mechanisms.

Me and the other frustrated tourists who are trying to out-click each other and out-type each other through this maze that is Myanmar Travel may be asking too much of a tentatively democratic nation. We assume that just because there is a palpable tourism boom right now, that the Myanmese service sector that we entitled travelers expect to be at our beck and call will be ready for our onslaught.

We want the specifically named Ministry of Hotels and Tourism (in that order of priority) to somehow make online booking more convenient because we do want to wash the capital with hard currency, thinking it will somehow make life better for the people.

And yet concurrently, we Myanmar-bound tourists want everything pristine and untouched (forgetting that bad internet and a nascent hospitality industry is part of that scheme, and so is religious conflict in Rakhine state, a persecuted group called the Rohingya that even Suu Kyi has scratched her head at) by the time we get there. We only want change when it suits us.

We want everything “unspoiled” but we are probably contributing to the sweeping change that might lead to “Girls Gone Wild: Myanmar” and McDonald’s and, sure, better internet.

This is not to say we should desire to experience Myanmar any less. I’m just saying we should treat it with a gentle hand instead of an iron fist it knows too well.

A version of this article appeared on Rappler


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