Burmese Days / by David Johnstone

Onwards to another adventure 

It’s time to leave Burma today. It’s been a beautiful experience full of wonderful memories, landscapes and, of course, fantastic, warm and kind people. The highlights would include my trip to Mindat and Chin State along with the wonderful Lake Indawgyi in Kachin. But there were lots in between and I met some great people on the way too. It was a super way to spent my 50th birthday! 

Young monk - Mandalay  

Young monk - Mandalay  

Despite the many issues that come with visiting developing countries - poverty, governance, sanitation, unaccounted loss of natural resources and, in Burma’s case, civil insurrection and the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State - the one thing that remains permanent is the goodness of people. Give them a smile, speak a little of the lingo and you get it back in spades. It’s always been the same wherever I travel to and I’ve no doubt the same will apply throughout my journey this year.

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The Esperado Hotel, Yangon. I started and finished my Burmese trip here. Great views!

The Esperado Hotel, Yangon. I started and finished my Burmese trip here. Great views!

GOODBYE BURMA, HELLO BANGLADESH 

The road is a lot less travelled in Bangladesh and I’m not quite sure what to expect. I’ve encountered zero travellers either here or at home who have visited the country so it remains, for now, an enigma. With a land mass roughly the size of England and Wales combined and with a whopping 150m people, many in rural poverty, I’m sure I’ll stick out somewhat! I’m expecting a lot of attention and have a few key phrases in Bengali up my sleeve. Much hilarity will ensue! 

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Bangladesh is as flat as a pancake with it’s highest mountain near the eastern Indian border only 1,400m. It’s surrounded by it’s vast neighbour - besides a small land border with Burma - and is close to the Himalyan regions of Bhutan and Nepal. It’s tentacles stretch into the Bay of Bengal and, as such, suffers greatly from seasonal flooding sometimes on a catastrophic scale. Once described as a ‘basketcase’ by Henry Kissinger (he should know, he was one himself) it’s a much maligned country struggling first with British colonisation then Partition, invasion and war with Pakistan, independence in 1972 and the continuing struggle for democracy. And coupled with the effects of climate change - the country is expected to feel it’s full force - and a poverty rate of 31% of it’s population living on less than $2 a day, the issues are manifold. But there are signs of change and progress. It’s extreme poverty index has dropped significantly, the education rate has sharply increased, there is much more awareness of the environment - there are now established national parks and were the first country to ban plastic bags and diesel and petrol - and it’s democratically more stable.

So, what’s there to see and do in this small, crowded country? Lots in fact. Bangladesh is split into 6 regions; Dhaka (where the capital is), Rajshahi and Khulna to the north and south west respectively, Barisal in the south and Sylhet and Chittagong to the east. One if it’s most famous residents, the man-eating Bengal Tiger, stalks the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans in Khulna and has the highest density of the big cat anywhere in the world. Replete with birds and mammals, rivers and creeks, the Sunderbans is a must see destination. The Otter Fishermen of Narail are also not to be missed.

Despite it being a predominantly Muslim country - it was East Pakistan after the British partitioned India - the Rajshahi region has a load of far-flung ancient Hindu and Buddhist temple complexes. This region is difficult to travel in and sees a tiny amount of foreigners, if any - Indiana Jones country.

Sylhet in the north east has swamp and forest along with tea plantations most notably in Srimingal. Looking forward to a nice cuppa there as the country is dry! And Chittagong to the south east contains remote hill tribes more akin to Indian and Burmese ethnicity, dense forests, large lakes, mountains and the longest beach in the world. Up the coast from the city of Chittagong itself is where you’ll find the ship-breaking yards where men literally by hand take apart the world’s spent vessels down to the very last bolt! 

There is a good train network in Bangladesh, a legacy of the British (they had to get the timber out somehow) but I reckon the rivers are the way to really see the people, the culture and the country. Whether it’s hiring a skipper and his boat to meander down some remote river in Barisal, paddling along on a canoe in the Sunderbans or hopping on board the ‘Rocket’ paddle steamships from town to town, the water is the beating heart, the arteries and the soul of Bangladesh.

Bring it on!