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The land of surprises just next door

I have taken four trips to Myanmar in the past 17 years and here is my conclusion: the country is mesmerising for first-time visitors thanks to its rawness, but as time passes unyielding hardships are making it unattractive.

My first trip was 17 years ago, long before the long-delayed reforms took place. I was part of the Foreign Ministry-sponsored kathin merit-making trip. We visited a temple in the suburb of Yangon, then known as Rangoon. What impressed me most was the way they served lunch. It was like a khantoke dinner in Chiang Mai. Bowls of local food were served on a tray resting just above the ground. It was more hygienic than I expected. At that time, few Thais knew about the benefits of serving spoons in each bowl of food. But in the temple, all bowls had serving spoons.

In Thailand, monks ate first. At the Yangon temple, that privilege went to laymen, after which monks took their turn to eat from the same bowls, which were topped up.

It was then I observed that many of the monks and novices were suffering from skin disease. A local explained that they were members of ethnic minorities fleeing from violent conflict on the border. Life must have been hard for them, even as monks.

My second trip was very recent: in 2012 I was invited to join an EU-sponsored conference in Nay Pyi Taw, the newly built capital.

It was impressive. I was booked into a nice resort hotel complete with free wireless Internet. The signal was weak, but it was better than nothing. The hotel served a good breakfast and was quiet and clean.

A bigger surprise came at the Myanmar International Conference Centre. Approaching the gate, I was taken aback at the immense building with international flags flying out front. The interior was more mesmerising. Among the many meeting rooms was the Plenary Hall, which looked much like an international concert venue. In front of a large stage, audience members could take a seat on the lower floor or the upper deck.

Another surprise came when I was taken to the capital's new, replica Shwedagon Pagoda. It looks almost identical to the one in Yangon, before you realise it's not as tall or as freighted with gold. And the paintings inside don't look as old or as sacred. And unlike its older sister, the hilltop Nay Pyi Taw pagoda offers views of the countryside bordering Shan State. But the new Shwedagon is emulating the original by attracting large numbers of worshippers.

Another big surprise came when we descended from the pagoda. In one corner is a structure that looks much like a zoo. It was nearing 6pm and five elephants were being ushered inside a roofed structure. The surprise? All were white - two adults and three babies. Though elephants are a national symbol for Thailand, I had never in all my years seen a white one before.

Our team travelled to Nay Pyi Taw by bus along the six-lane tarmac road from Yangon. It looked better than I expected for a poor country like Myanmar. But throughout the 300km journey, I found it difficult to nap. The driver drove slowly, at 60kph as required by law, but the road was too bumpy to sleep.

After we arrived there was another surprise: there were flights available between Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw. We duly booked seats back to Yangon on a domestic airline. International airlines weren't permitted to operate back in 2012. Pulling up outside the international airport, I was transfixed. The entrance looked barren, with a few trees planted amid arid surroundings. But the building was huge! Inside, it looked no different from an international airport in a developed country.

Waiting for the flight we got another surprise. It was delayed by three hours, stuck in Mandalay by bad weather. We weren't prepared: it was past lunchtime and we had to find something to eat. There was only one shop in domestic departures, selling hot and cold drinks plus snacks. Among them was instant noodles from Thailand - a lifeline. We queued up, but latecomers had to wait more than 10 minutes as the staff boiled more water for the noodles.

Three hours later, the shop was practically sold out of Thai instant noodles and soft drinks. It was better than nothing. Could we expect more in a newly opened country?

The surprises come thick and fast for first-time visitors. But just as locals are feeling frustrated by the long wait for changes, visitors are also complaining of ongoing hardships in Myanmar. Well, that story will follow in my next column.


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