Only in Myanmar! - Martin Mehner - ebook

Only in Myanmar! ebook

Martin Mehner



Embark on a personal adventure with Martin Mehner, as he plunges deep down memory lane, uncovering a wealth of authentic and exciting travelling experiences, accrued from years of living in the beautiful and thrilling country of Myanmar. Find yourself lost in the attractive mystery of the South-East Asian nation, and become astounded by the incredible aspects of culture, diversity and history presented by Martin's tale. This isn't just a recollection; it's a sprawling resource of invaluable insights into the key travel destinations and activities that you will not find in mainstream guidebooks. Envelop yourself, and absorb inspiration for your own travels to this deeply fascinating country.

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About the book

Embark on a personal adventure with Martin Mehner, as he plunges deep down memory lane, uncovering a wealth of authentic and exciting travelling experiences, accrued from years of living in the beautiful and thrilling country of Myanmar. Find yourself lost in the attractive mystery of the South-East Asian nation, and become astounded by the incredible aspects of culture, diversity and history presented by Martin's tale. This isn't just a recollection, it's a sprawling resource of invaluable insights into the key travel destinations and activities that you will not find highlighted in mainstream guidebooks. Envelop yourself and absorb inspiration for your own travels to this deeply fascinating country.

About the author

Martin Mehner is a tried and tested adorer of Myanmar, having spent the majority of a six-year period of his life deeply involved in the country. He first visited Myanmar in 2010 and was immediately taken by the beauty and diversity that the nation offered. By 2013, he’d decided to take up residence in the country, along with his wife – a Myanmar national. As the next three years unraveled, Martin and his wife would come to run a boarding school for underprivileged children in Myitkyina, located within the remote Kachin State. It goes without saying that Martin has explored every corner of this incredible country and has built up an invaluable wealth of experience that he now wishes to share with the world.

Mingala Ba

Table of contents


The Train: An Unforgettable 24-Hour Journey

Eat Fish Soup for Breakfast.

The Waterfall: An Adventure Through Remote Kachin State.

Visit a Myanmar Beer Bar.

The Pagoda: An Arduous Climb

The Teachings of the Sayadaws

Myanmar: The World’s Friendliest People

The Betel Nut.

The Remains of British Colonialism

The Classic Cars of Myanmar

Feel Like Robinson Crusoe.

Myanmar’s Amazing Teashops

Sources for more research

Final words

1. Introduction

Dear reader,

Myanmar is a country that has often been in the news for all the wrong reasons: ethnic tensions, civil wars, natural disasters, poverty, and a military dictatorship. All this is associated with the country itself. And yet, the nation is so much more.

No country I have ever been to, has been as unique and at the same time as friendly and welcoming as Myanmar. Most Myanmar travelers I was allowed to meet, were just as overwhelmed by the experience as me. Many of them make regular returns, coming back year after year to spend more time there.

Although it might not always be comfortable, travelling to Myanmar is an experience you will most certainly never forget. Due to how globalized the world is today, and how every city or country is becoming increasingly more alike, standing out like Myanmar is something truly precious.

In many ways, it’s a journey back in time, to a place that isn’t just an artificially created tourist destination, but something much more authentic and real.

Not only that, Myanmar is incredibly diverse and offers sheer endless opportunities for exploration and discovery. In the south, you can find beautiful, untouched tropical beaches, which you’ll have all to yourself: kilometers of silver sand and turquoise water, without hotels, restaurants or any other infrastructure to taint it. In the north you can go on trekking tours through the virtually uninhabited Himalayan foothills and explore breathtaking, untouched nature. In the cultural and economic capital of Yangon, you can go sightseeing and enjoy the city with the highest density of colonial buildings in all South-East Asia. In Bagan, you can explore over 2200 pagodas dating from the 9th to 13th century. And finally, in Shan State, you can visit Inle Lake, with its swimming gardens, magnificent pagodas and a variety of tribal cultures. No matter what interests you may have, Myanmar has a lot to offer if you are open-minded, and willing to give the country a fair chance.

For me, Myanmar has been an essential part of my life for a while now. It was the final country I visited on my South-East Asian journey in 2010 but impacted me like no other. It was just so different to everything I had previously seen and experienced. I went from being a naive, unsuspecting first-time visitor to an actual Myanmar regular. I got married to my wife that I was so lucky to have met during my first visit, and in 2013 I started to live permanently in the “Golden Country”. Two years later, my son was born in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state and the place I would call home for around three years. It certainly wouldn`t be an exaggeration to say that I am deeply and profoundly connected to Myanmar.

I have undergone a plethora of fantastic experiences during my time in Myanmar, and I’m eager to share some of the best ones with you. You will likely read this book because you are planning your first visit to Myanmar, or maybe you’ve already fallen in love with the country and have decided you want to come back for more. Throughout this book, I will mainly focus on travel-related experiences, in which Myanmar is truly like no other country.

What could be more exciting than highlighting some of the experiences that are especially unique and perhaps only to be found here? I hope you find some of the adventures I describe interesting and maybe even want to try them out for yourself. It would be fantastic for me if some of the chapters of this book can inspire you in your travels. I have personally experienced all the places and activities I write about, and I hope you can feel this authenticity and passion when reading.

I want this book to be a tool that you can use to get the most out of your Myanmar travels. For this reason, I have compiled a collection of some of the best travel-related books and websites. If you find one of the experiences I write about inspiring, you can also use these sources to get some more detailed information and read on.

Please keep in mind that I am not a professional writer; I am not even a native English speaker. This book is not a well-calculated travel book but a project of my heart.

Since I left Myanmar, I’ve often found myself reminiscing about the country and all that belongs to it. That´s the reason why I’ve decided to recapture some of the greatest experiences I had when I lived there. The truth is that writing this book and recollecting my memories was often a more bittersweet experience than I expected it to be. It was a joy to write about something I love and share it with you, but at the same time, it was also sometimes painful. It made me realize just how much I miss being there.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Mehner

2. The Train: An Unforgettable 24-Hour Journey

One of the most memorable experiences I had in Myanmar was taking the long-distance train from Mandalay to Myitkyina.

Train rides can’t be too much of a challenge, right? Think again. To get from Mandalay to Myitkyina you will have to travel 550 km, which doesn’t sound like that much, but due to how slow the train moves, and the constant stops, it takes anywhere from 21 to 25 hours. That’s assuming nothing goes wrong, of course. But what could possibly go wrong? The railway carriage and locomotive are from colonial times, and are far from reliable, or well maintained. The tracks are incredibly rebellious, and from time to time, you will struggle to stay in your seat because of how much the train bucks up and down.

Calling it bumpy is an absolute understatement. It´s often entertaining when the constant shaking finally frees the bags you stored in the overhead compartment, and they come to say hello to your head. Of course, this is also going to happen right after you’ve finally managed to cry yourself to sleep.

Worst of all are the passenger cabins, which you’re not just sharing with other people. No one wants to be alone, so an ever-social selection of bugs, flies, cockroaches and mosquitoes will keep you company during the night.

Air conditioning, western toilets, or cleanliness? Don’t even ask. Sounds like fun, right?

If you happen to take one of the three to four daily trains that run from Mandalay to Myitkyina your journey is going to start in Mandalay´s schizophrenic train station. A huge 7-floor concrete building that serves as one of the main transport hubs, right in the middle of the country. It looks somewhat decent from the outside, yet it only takes a few steps inside of it to realize that it’s not even close to what you might have hoped it would be.

You might have been prepared for the betel nut strains everywhere, you are used to the rubbish, and yes, you know it can be overcrowded, but the thing that is really going to bother you is that even after ten minutes of walking around, you still have no clue where the damn ticket counter for foreign travelers is. It’s okay, just interpret the walk around the train station as a brief sightseeing tour.

Once you’ve found the ticket counter, things are going to be easy, right? Erm… I am sorry, they won’t. It’s Myanmar. Here is what is going to go wrong: the ticket officer is currently drinking tea and watching Myanmar Idol at the local teashop, and no one else has the authority to issue tickets to foreign travelers; the train you want to take is already fully booked; you forgot to bring passport copies; you don’t have the exact amount of US dollars needed to buy the ticket, and the ticket counter has no change. To top it all off, you could get a real Myanmar specialty: one of your bills gets rejected because it’s not crisp enough. Hey, no one said it’s going to be easy.

A couple of days later, you’re finally going to embark on the train journey of your life. I am serious about this: the enjoyable, and the miserable aspects of this train ride are almost certain to make it the most memorable journey you will ever experience.

With a mix of worry about what awaits you and a sense of adventure and curiosity, you return to Mandalay´s central train station, ready to board the train. However, nothing is easy in Myanmar, you already know that. Finding the right platform isn’t hard but when looking at the ticket and wondering which railcar you have to go to, you are going to realize that all the numbers used are in Myanmar. This is when you know you should have learned some Myanmar language before the trip.

It’s too late for that now, but hey, you are going to end up in the right seat eventually, right? In Myanmar, things always have a way of magically working out in the end. The most important thing, as usual, is to not stress out and stay relaxed. Just show one of the guys in uniform where your seat is if you can’t find it alone. The people all over the country are usually incredibly helpful and will try their best to make sure you are okay. It doesn’t matter if it’s the staff of Myanmar Railways or just the regular people you meet in everyday life.

Once the train starts rolling, the only thing left for you to do is to sit down and be patient. Just as I did, you will likely feel a sense of relief when realize you’ve made it to the correct seat in time, with your bag being semi-safely stored and being prepared for the trip ahead. Once you’ve left Mandalay, you will cross the mighty Ayeyarwaddy river via the Inwa bridge and have a great chance to snatch few final glimpses of the beautiful pagoda covered hills of Sagaing. Once these views have passed, little more will stand out. None of the towns you pass on the way are remarkable, be it Shwebo, Zigon or Kawlin. One train station blurs into another, and you zip past endless rice-fields, or a few nondescript hills.

But this is not a train you take for the scenic views. It’s about the experience, and that comes in droves. Once you’ve passed the first few hours, you will realize that the train tracks really are deteriorated everywhere, and it wasn’t just a rough patch you went through. One thing that is truly unique and can be found Only in Myanmar, is that some people there call their trains ‘discos’. And I have to agree: you get to meet a lot of people, and the constant shaking sure makes for an exciting dance. Not even convinced non-dancers like me can resist it. Just a little reminder to make you more enthusiastic about the whole experience: Kantbalu, one of the towns on the way, was the scene of a deadly train accident in 2012. Several wagons carrying diesel and gasoline derailed and burned, and a total of 27 people died, with over 80 people being injured. According to news reports, many of the deaths and injuries were due to people trying to scavenge the spilled gasoline and diesel.

Thanks to the never-ending supply of vendors that pass through the trains, it seems that there is literally nothing you could have forgotten to buy before the trip. Water and all kinds of beverages commonly found in Myanmar? Check. Fruits, fried snacks, noodle dishes, rice and curry? Check. Sanitary items like toilet paper, soap, tissue? Check. Pain killers, nasal inhalers for a running nose, alternative (natural) medicine? Check. Everything is a little more expensive compared to regular shops, and the food is usually not quite as tasty, but there’s a pretty good supply of everything you could possibly need.

But there is also a downside to this steady flow of goods. As you might imagine, there are not enough rubbish bins on the train, and when people eat, some of the food is going to end up on the seats or on the floor of the railcar. The longer the train ride goes, the dirtier it gets. On top of that, the Myanmar railway workers probably don’t do the most thorough cleaning job in the world after the train has come to its final stop in Myitkyina. And who can blame them? It can also be quite a shock for western travelers to see how people throw the remains of their dishes, empty beverage cans, water bottles, tissues, plastic bags etc. out of the window of the train. It’s certainly not a very environmentally friendly way to dispose of trash. Then again, what options are there? Keep the rubbish in the train and waddle through heaps of waste by the end of the ride? Doesn’t sound like a great plan to me. I remain hopeful that, as with everything, this is going to change in the future, and the Myanmar Railway is going to find ways to make sure everything gets cleaned effectively.

No matter how long the train ride might feel, remember that this is a great chance to observe how regular people in Myanmar live. It doesn’t matter if it’s your fellow passengers, the ticket officers, the vendors in the train, the people in the train stations or even the farmers working in the fields you pass through. Many people travel so they can get an authentic experience of what life is like in foreign countries. A train ride through Myanmar is just that. Furthermore, with all the time you have and the lack of useful internet you won’t be too distracted by your phone either. Finally, some time to pay attention to what is going on in the world around you.

Nansiaung is the first town you pass through once you have crossed the inconspicuous border from Sagaing Division into the ominous Kachin state, one of Myanmar’s least travelled regions. It’s the notorious home of not just one but several armed rebel groups who, despite the takeover by Aung San Suu Kyi, remain at war with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar´s armed forces. But don’t worry, Kachin state is a relatively safe place for travelers. All the areas around the main towns are secure, and the government is very cautious not to let any tourists go into more remote areas, which could potentially be home to dangerous battle zones. Neither the rebel forces nor the government authorities pose a threat to you.