The road network remains in terrible condition, but marginally less so than four years ago. Most road transport is by motorbike, which leads to some ‘exciting’ scenarios. Motorbike helmets now seem to be more common but it is still not unusual to see a motorbike loaded with an impossible number of passengers or astonishing loads of ‘stuff’. Many trucks, particularly in the rural areas, are powered by an extraordinarily basic, exposed motor that requires a crank to start, emits great clouds of fumes, is incredibly noisy and appears unable to propel the vehicle at more than a slow, trotting pace. These trucks are often festooned with passengers, including roof-riders; health and safety – what’s that? One notable improvement is that traffic lights now seem to have some meaning, although the same cannot be said of pedestrian crossings. The railways are ancient and have not been improved in decades. It is recommended that foreign visitors don’t drink the water, the power grid is unreliable and mains sewerage remains a distant hope for much of the country.
Now all of this may sound like an advertisement for all the reasons not to visit Myanmar – but don’t be misled. It is a delightful place. The citizens are happy and extremely welcoming, and the popular tourist sites are truly remarkable – Bagan and Inle Lake being two examples. The Irrawaddy still carries vast amounts of produce and is one of the world’s great rivers.
The wider world is now visible to the residents. Despite the extreme poverty, mobile phones and satellite dishes are everywhere. The internet speed in most places seems to be pretty good but its availability and reliability needs improvement. English language appears on signage throughout the country and some splendid hotels have opened and more are planned. The level of service would shame many western establishments.
Importantly, since the election of the new government, schooling has been made compulsory. Adequate education is always the key to unlocking a country’s potential. The workforce has embraced their relatively recent freedom and flexibility with alacrity. They are hard workers and natural traders and given half a chance will help Myanmar climb out of the poverty trap. It is unfortunate that the regular headlines relating to the ethnic issues have deterred many tourists as the impression given is that the country is unsafe. This is far from the case. Although some very small areas are not recommended for tourists, the bulk of the country is perfectly safe for western travellers.
It is very easy to have a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating time in Myanmar. It has a rich history that rewards discovery. Don’t be deterred by the “scare” headlines.