Return Trip from Bike Tour to Myanmar

John H., this post’s author, went on Partners Asia’s donor biking trip in January and February 2013. Once a Seattleite, John has lived and worked in Thailand for the past several years. You can also check out John’s other posts about this trip here and here.

My first journey to Myanmar took place almost exactly two years ago, not too many months before the government began making noises about opening up the country. It was fun to compare the before and after.

Shwedagon photo by John H.

This time we didn’t see any of the harsh propaganda posters that in the past occasionally appeared on billboards. Commercial advertising appeared to have picked up. Traffic has thickened, allowing passengers lots more time to study the roadside ads.

In teashops and other public places we now saw plenty of photos of Aung San Suu Kyi. Two years ago they were only hidden inside people’s homes. Often now she is pictured alongside her father, a hero to the Burmese. He was assassinated when she was a toddler.

In Yangon we heard lots of talk about high prices, especially for lodging. The walls surrounding many private residences had sprouted coils of razor wire since my first visit. The inn where we stayed early in 2011 now goes for three times the price, and has no vacancies until 2014. ATMs are now sprinkled around, more international banks open branches every week, and the ultimate symbol of easy consumerism—the 7-11 store—is due to open several branches very soon. Meanwhile, in many small shops operating out of the front of family homes, shelves are full of goods from Thailand.

Outside the capital, roads were better than I remembered. If anything, the country seemed underpopulated. In areas where I would have expected to see more people—along the seaside, for example—we passed endless agriculture. In one two-hour stretch I don’t think we passed a single tree that wasn’t a rubber tree.

Some things hadn’t changed. The country’s time zone, like India’s, remains a goofy 30 minutes behind Thailand’s. Two-wheeled traffic is still prohibited in the capital. And Shwedagon Pagoda is of course as lovely as ever.