Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been an mixture of amazing friendliness, fascinating monuments, significant poverty and a feeling that interactions with the locals don't go beyond the surface after decades of being ruled by a military junta. However, it is refreshing in that it is like travelling in Asia 20 years ago.
We entered the country across one of its four land borders which were opened only last year. The journey to our initial destination, Mawlaminye, took 9 hours. It's only possible to travel this road on alternate days. The road is narrow and in such bad condition that the vehicles (of which there are huge numbers, all in equally bad shape) can only go in one direction each day. Thankfully we shared a suspension-less taxi with a Malaysian cycle tourist rather than having to squeeze into a truck like many of the locals; and the three military checkpoints en route didn't do more than extend the journey time. Just to add to the challenge, in 1961 the country changed overnight from driving on the left to driving on the right as part of marking the end of its colonial era. This wouldn't now be an issue, except that the cheapest/oldest vehicles are right-hand drives! So almost all buses have an overtaking assistant, while cars, taxis and vans just hedge their bets! Passengers also disembark buses in the middle of the road.
Mawlaminye is a medium-sized town with an extensive market, an interesting but somewhat unloved museum on the local Mon people, and a great island nearby whose livelihood is based on lots of different cottage industries. We took a tour and saw them making slates for schools (still used by rural school children during their first 3 years), weaving 'longyis' (the sarong type garments still worn by the vast majority of men and women across Myanmar), rubber bands and rubber soles for flipflops and various wooden items. But Myanmar is changing fast following its opening up in 2011 that many of these crafts will probably become uneconomic.
From here we travelled north to the important, and hence very touristed, religious site of Mt Kyaiktiyo aka the Golden Rock. This is home to a precariously perched boulder covered in gold leaf under which lies one of the Buddha's hairs. The only way up is to cram into the back of a truck. We would think four people across each bench would be tight but they managed to get six, even with our Western-sized butts. The journey took 45 minutes each way and felt like being on a roller coaster ride for the most part up impossibly steep hills.
A further 5 hour bus ride brought us to Yangon (formerly Rangoon). This was the capital until one day in 2005 when the government announced it was moving the capital to a new city in the middle of the country; and started the move the following day with imprisonment being the only choice for any government official that didn't want to move! Yangon is an incredibly busy place. In downtown where we were staying the street life was amazing. We'd never seen so many little food, clothes and betelnut stalls. We have been told to be wary when walking alongside buses that we don't get an earful of spit from the bus occupants who religiously chew betel nut and spit out the window. Many of the streets still have huge colonial buildings which were state of the art at the time they were built. Now most have fallen on hard times but even the saddest of them were still inhabited.
We had a lovely evening with some of Andy's World Vision colleagues and went on a great mountain bike ride north of Yangon run by an Australian expat. Fran really went for it and ended up coming a cropper on sand with some cuts and bruises to show for it. Unsurprisingly Yangon is changing fastest of all. The 'longyi' definitely has competition from trousers and shorts and the number of cars has rocketed in the last two years. Thankfully scooters aren't allowed in central Yangon which is certainly a saving grace for pedestrians.