Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

 press/awards earned a few nice mentions in the press, including's vote as best travel blog on the Web. Read about it on the Press/Awards page.

Magnificent, Troubled Myanmar (Burma)

Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is a beautiful, tragic, natural, and chaotic place. One of the poorest countries in the world, Myanmar's situation had been made steadily worse over the past forty years by political corruption and ineptitude. In 1962 a military dictatorship took control of the government and the economy. The government came under international scrutiny after public uprisings in 1988 and their refusal to relinquish power after elected out of office in 1990. Myanmar's struggle for democracy continues to this day. Recent talks with the UN have yielded less than optimistic results.

Worries at the Airport
I didn't know what to expect when I arrived at Yangon international airport. I'd heard a series of mixed reports, scanned through various travel advisories, and read "Letters From Burma" by Aung San Suu Kyi (an important Myanmar activist, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize). But none of this information seemed to depict what was happening right now.

I expected a search of my baggage at customs; I had all my explanations prepared. I am a student. I am definitely not a journalist. The big video camera is for shooting scenery. The laptop is just a device to store pictures. Suu Kyi's book? A gift from a friend. Don't send me back to Thailand; don't confiscate my stuff.

But there was no check at the airport; the indifferent guards waved me through. "Just change your dollars into government-controlled 'Foreign Exchange Certificates', give us a bribe, and be quiet," their eyes seemed to say.

Shady Black Market Exchange
Yangon seemed similar to Bangkok – bustling, noisy, crowded, friendly. If I didn't have to change money in a slightly-shady black market exchange, it would have felt like an arrival in any other city.

Men in Skirts
It's worth noting that virtually every man in Myanmar wears a longyi, which looks like a sarong and is worn like a skirt. I started rocking the longyi on my first day in Myanmar and, although it took a bit of getting used to, the longyi brought me immediate attention and popularity with the locals.

"Hello, My Friend!"
From the start, Myanmar people proved to be outrageously friendly and kind. My smiles returned to me in quadruple in every village, town, and city I visited. Most people in Myanmar study English at one point or another in their schooling, and they're happy to strike up a conversation. My attempts at the Burmese language – "Min-ga-laba" (hello), "Je-zu-beh" (thanks) – were met with delight.

And I Thought Thailand Was Inexpensive
Myanmar's largest banknote is equivalent to $1; the smallest note is worth $.001. On average, I paid $4 per night at hotels. Nice dinners usually ran $2, including beers; simple meals could be had for less than $.50.

Is Anything Really Wrong?
My first week in Myanmar was so pleasant, warm, and full that it seemed there was no "situation" at all - no oppression, no legacy of violence, no unlawful imprisonment, no human rights violations. But cracks soon started to appear in the façade. Conversations would stop short at the mention of the government or politics. "We don't discuss that," was most people's reply.

Fear, Poverty, Corruption
After a few weeks in Myanmar, it became apparent that many things are wrong.

Everyone lives in fear of the government. Consorting openly with foreigners is a sure way to get questioned by officials. Speaking out against the government or campaigning for democracy is a sure ticket to prison.

Wages in Myanmar are criminally low – less than $.50 a day for many people. At the same time, the price of everyday goods like rice has recently doubled. Most people just barely scrape by.

Corruption among civil servants and government officials is an unfortunate fact of daily life for Myanmar people. Ordinary tasks such as having a phone hooked up or keeping your power supply consistent can seldom be accomplished without greasing the wheels. You can't really blame the corrupt workers either: criminally low salaries force them to become "resourceful".

Warmth and Optimism in Spite of it All
In spite of all the troubles, the warmth and genuineness of the people shines through.

I keep picturing all the smiles returning to me, the tea and cakes I was treated to, games of ball and badminton in the street, industrious fishermen with traditional wooden nets, magnificent stupas and holy sites, quiet religious devotion, spicy and flavorful meals, riotous markets, women and children in traditional face paint, sturdy trishaws pedaled over atrocious roads, water buffalos wandering city streets, betel nut splotches in the dirt, the safety I perceived when wandering at any hour… But mostly, as I think about it now, it's the smiles that return to me.


Posted on November 21, 2002 09:46 AM


Comments (post your own below)

Mike this is National Geographic material, they better watch out Mr. Pugh is coming. It is truly amazing to see all these things through your eyes. It makes me want to run out and join the Peace Corp to do the stint in Africa I have always dreamed of. Continued Safe and Happy Travels.

Posted by: Lisa Collings on November 22, 2002 10:26 AM

Mike, looking at your most recent photos of Myanmar, I am in complete awe of what you must be experiencing; I envy you. The floating stupa and the spectacular sunrise are downright stunning. Thank you for sharing a slice of your world with us. Peace be with you.

"The only gift is a portion of thyself." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Posted by: Caroline on November 22, 2002 06:12 PM

Absolutely brilliantly done. I have a long association with Burmese refugees in both Australia and Thailand and the sensitivity that you have shown to depict the people and their plight is outstanding. Congratulations !

Posted by: Mark on November 22, 2002 11:40 PM

Mike when are you going to Ankgor Wat? Did you ever get my email on where to stay, transport, etc. I really wish you could have made a stop over in the philippines, I am having such a great time. Safety here is fine, i feel more at ease here than in Chicago. My tip to you, don't go to any full moon parties in southeast asia and you should be o.k.

Posted by: Karl Doreza on November 23, 2002 02:29 AM


Hope you are doing well. Seems like it. Your work reflects an enormous amount of passion. Let me know if I can do anything to help you. I can be your PR front man, or Sara (she's prettier).

Thanks for allowing such a great vehicle for us to live through you vicariously.

PS. If you get to any place where people are fly fishing on a river, let me know. I will have to come join you!

Posted by: Reese on November 24, 2002 09:24 AM


Your stories are great. It's a lot of fun to read about your adventures and try to picture the many wonderful sites you must be seeing.

Thanks for sharing the world with us.

Posted by: Kevin Wojdak on November 25, 2002 12:28 PM

First look at your sight back in koh san Road and i must say, your a clever chap eh what! Very envious of this site, it allows you to tell your story and that of your destinations in such an accesible way. Was going to stick my only vagabonding sticker on a prominent bankok lampost but it will have to go on my car window instead. Enjoy the onward slog mate.

Posted by: Andrew Di Donna on November 27, 2002 09:03 AM

Michael, yes, I believe I can almost top your story of the worst bus ride ever. Mine was in Turkey, from Istanbul to Imir, a 9 hour ride. Everyone said fly, but I said that I wanted to see the countryside. Little did I know that the bus left at midnight. Like you I had the back seat over the wheel and was so sure I would be carsick I asked for a bag in advance. Much to my surprise, the bus had a steward who passed out hot washcloths and then served us cake and tea. Well, at night I saw nothing of the countryside but woke up at 4am in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Turkey at a truck stop where everyone left the bus and went inside to eat dinner at 4:00 a.m. I was so sleepy that I went immediately back to the bus for fear I would fall asleep at the truck stop and be left by my bus. Izmir was beautiful as was Esphesus, but I still never saw the countryside. The return trip was the same. Left at midnight. Hope you are ok. Michael is very excited about joining you. Take care. Love aunt judy

Posted by: aunt judy on November 30, 2002 01:47 PM

Hi Michael,

You site has become amazing!! I think I visited your site for the last time in January, what a great pictures you have taken ever since!

Congratulations with your climbing victory in the Anapuranas. Mar and I did that in 2000 and are planning to do the circuit again in 2004.

We are involved in our daily lives here back in Holland. We miss the spritit and kindness of Myanmar people enormously and I can't imagine that it was only a few months ago since we and david were watching the sunrise in Bagan. Already planning our next trip. We are still improving in Thai-cuisine and have tried many dishes. You can always call me for an update when you are back at home.

Take care, enjoy & keep the good work going!!!!

your Dutch friends Paul & Marjolein

Posted by: Paul & Mar on May 23, 2003 10:47 AM

Mike- My names's Pete Shakman, and I'll be heading off to SE Asia for 4-6 weeks (considering an extension)in 10 days. My flexible itinerary includes Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Bagan in Myanmar;Krabi, Thailand;Angkor, Battambang, and Phnom Penh in Cambodia;perhaps Hue/Hoi An area in Vietnam. Any recommendations? I'm a passionate and fairly experienced traveler looking to dip my feet in the pool of travel journalism. Any insight you might provide would be greatly appreciated. I enjoyed your respectable yet unpretentious depiction of the underbelly of Phnom Penh. Pete

Posted by: Peter Shakman on January 24, 2004 12:15 PM

mike - i was thinking of going to myanmar in the latter part of 2004...i would love to get in contact with you - phone , e-mail or both if that would be cool with you as i would like to hear more about your experiences there and advice on safety and matters like that. not urgent, but e-mail when you have a little time on your hands. thanks so much in advance.

Posted by: kevin on February 11, 2004 10:15 AM

Comments closed.


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