We’ve always been intrigued by stories of travel to Burma but till now, we’ve dutifully followed our governments recommendations and avoided travel there. But with the changing political climate of the recent past, that trip suddenly became more realistic.
Our visit to Myanmar began in late July and ran through the middle of August 2013. It was part of a 6+ weeks trip in Southeast Asia that also included return visits to Thailand and Lao.
Two in our group of 3 arrived via a non-stop flight on Bangkok Airway from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) and the 3rd arrived on a non-stop JetStar flight from Singapore Changi Airport (SIN). In traveling around the country, we rode planes, trains, mini-vans, cars, horse carts, river ferries and lake boats. If interested there is additional detail on traveling to and within Myanmar on our Myanmar Transportation page.
We spent 3 nights in Yangon, 3 nights in Bagan, 2 nights in Mandalay, 1 night in Thazi (on the way to Inle Lake), 4 nights in Nyaungshwe on Inle Lake and another night in Yangon in order to make a morning flight back to BKK.
In the other pages of our Myanmar section, you can read about incredible sights, the food, hotels, transportation and other aspects of a visit to there. But to us, the best part of our time there was the chance to meet and interact in some small way with the people of Myanmar or Burma as some of them still like to refer to the country.
If you visit there, you will find some persistent vendors at some of the attractions but by far most of the people we encountered were very sweet and overly kind to us going out of their way to make sure we got a good impression.
As gross generalizations, we found the people to be very kind, handsome, reverent, hardworking, proud and hopeful about the future of the country and for themselves. The people we encountered were generally well dressed, had an obvious appreciation of aesthetics and while we encountered some suspect concepts of food hygiene, personal cleanliness is an extremely important priority to the people of Myanmar.
Since we are now experts on all things Myanmar (that’s a joke by the way) we thought we would tackle the first question that we had: “Should it be Myanmar or Burma?” We heard several explanations; some of which made more sense than others.
Upon gaining independence from the British in 1948 a civil war among competing ethnic groups ensued and lasted until the military takeover in 1962. (In fact, fighting between the government forces and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) militia continues to this day in areas of the Kachin State.)
The sometime brutal and always repressive military rule lasted until 2011 when officials elected in a disputed national election in 2010 were installed to office. The current government is officially “civilian” but the military retains enormous influence. In conversations with Myanmar people, we found virtually all were guardedly optimistic about the positive changes that have occurred since 2011 but felt it would take another peaceful election cycle to really understand just how committed the military was in supporting a truly democratic government.
So what’s this got to do with whether we should call the country Myanmar or Burma? One explanation we heard was that when the military took over the country in 1962, there was a feeling that “Burma” was a colonial name used by the British and in order to leave that part of history in the past, a name change to Myanmar was necessary.
Another explanation we heard is that the word “Burma” actually comes from the Bamar ethnic group, which makes up roughly 2/3 of the total population of the country. The people of the Shan State, where the majority of the people are of the Shan ethnic group, have never really considered themselves to be “Burmese”. We found many of the people we talked to in Inle Lake; a part of Shan State, have no problem at all with the name change to Myanmar. We imagined that a similar sentiment would be present among other ethnic groups. There would obviously be a different opinion from Burmese majority and those are the people we found most likely to still refer to the country as “Burma.”
One other explanation we heard is pretty simple: Burma is the English word for Myanmar much like Spain is the English word for the county known in Spanish as Espania. Either is correct but since the local people should be the source for the answer to this question; Myanmar it is, particularly when in the country.