Finding a safe place to sleep is one of our key priorities every day. It’s right up there with drinking potable water, eating enough calories and stretching our bodies during mid-day breaks.
The sleeping thing has proven to be harder than expected in Burma. It has turned into its own stressful job at the end of the day when we are exhausted from walking an average of 25-30 kilometers (about 15-18 miles) in +40-degree heat (about 110 in Fahrenheit).
Generally, the country is gearing up for “normal” tourism, but it is far from ready for visitors like us (few places are/will be ready for walkers like us).
Free camping is not allowed. Staying overnight in people’s homes is prohibited. In both cases, locals can get in trouble – we’ve heard that, until recently, they could be arrested – for allowing visitors to stay overnight or pitch a tent on their property. Monks can turn us away from their temples because we don’t have a police permit. Guesthouses licensed to rent rooms to tourists charge two to three times more than higher-quality, budget-freindly rooms we found in Thailand and backpacker crash pads in competing neighbor countries of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Often, we have to negotiate hard for fairer prices for tiny, super basic, fan-only, bathroom-outside rooms reserved for locals, and accept the fact (without any apology or extra customer service or an additional rate reduction) that the government will cut electricity randomly during the day; the promise of “free wi-fi” (which arrived in Burma only about three ago) will be painstakingly slow or not work at all; a shower may mean throwing buckets of water over your head, and bathroom tasks will involve squatting over a ceramic covered hole in the ground. Guesthouse owners complain that government taxes them heavily and that’s why the rooms cost much more for foreigners.
These are all throwbacks to a system and rules created when the country was closed to outsiders and under the military’s jurisdiction.
But, we’ve heard stories from other travelers–and have first-hand experience–that go the other way, too. These tales stem from kind and generous people who follow their inherent cultural tradition of hospitality and offer people passing through food, water and a comfy spot to rest.
In reality, it’s a mixed bag, and we have had mixed luck in how we settle down for the night (read Tribal Council: Can We Sleep Here or Not? about the surprise we encountered one evening).
Locals and people working in the tourism industry are convinced the newly installed government will make necessary changes to these out-of-date norms. And, obviously, the increasing numbers of tourists, backpackers and opportunists who want to cash in on the come-to-Burma trend will compel a more thoughtful review of how the country welcomes and accommodates travelers and how it encourages repeat visits. Unfortunately, this will come long after we’re gone.
So where are we sleeping? Everywhere, anywhere and wherever we can.
A Glimpse Into Our Day
Since crossing over from Thailand in mid-February, we have been adapting to a new daily routine. Increasingly hot weather and the challenge of finding a sleeping spot has forced us to change when and how we walk.
We still get up at 4 a.m., break down the tent and pack up our stuff in the dark.
We’re out walking by 5 a.m., and here in Burma, the sun comes up about 6 a.m. By 9 a.m., the temperature typically hits the high-30s (Celsius), and by 11 a.m. we are melting as we close in on our 15-20 kilometer mile-marker. From about 11 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m., we come to a complete stand still almost every day. We have no choice. We have to hide from the +40 heat and lounge in a restaurant for hours, sit under a tree or find a shady shelter on farmland where we can take a long nap.
When the sun starts falling and the temperature drops to the “cooler” side of the mid-30s, we creep back out into the daylight and walk another 10-15 kilometers.
In Thailand, most days we reached our daily walking goal by early afternoon; we were able to find a place to stay (guesthouse or temple) fairly easily and relax. Here, we have to walk until after sundown, which is about 6:15 p.m.
We learned that if we stopped too early, the sleeping thing becomes more problematic. People work the fields until sunset, and two backerpackers sitting somewhere waiting for dark near the fields off the road draws too much attention. If we reach a small town near dusk, we have to keep going because most towns don’t have a guesthouse. If we are in the middle of nowhere, we debate whether to stop at a temple and the likelihood of monks taking us in or turning us away. If we have to camp, we must scurry to a distant tree line and quickly fall out of view. Locals who see us crossing wide open fields or setting up our mosquito net in bone-dry rice paddies, under betel nut palm trees, along cow trails, or in abandoned or half-constructed houses will stop and question what we’re doing.
Frequently, people will call the police us if they catch a glimpse of our tent. If that happens, we’ll have to spend the better part of an hour or two telling the cops our story, hope they see as harmless and give us the okay to stay. Conversations with police and locals are never confrontational or aggressive. They seem to want to help us. But the system they operate under doesn’t favor us; if we’re caught, we have a 50-50 chance that we will be allowed to stay wherever we are for the night or that we’ll be told to leave and go to the next town with a designated guesthouse licensed for foreign use.
It’s a constant toss-up and a hassle to deal with every single day.
We try to time our walking week so that we arrive in cities and big towns on our 6th, 7th or 8th walking day. These towns usually have more than one guesthouse, and/or we can usually negotiate a cheaper room, especially now in low season when normal travelers skip the extreme heat and the possibility of a guesthouse being full is slim.
Guesthouse stays usually, but not always, coincide with our planned rest day. Having a bed once in a while, as lumpy as it may be, is a small luxury we appreciate immensely and re-energizes our bodies for the next week.
Most of the rooms we find ourselves in have just enough space to squeeze a bed between four walls. Some rooms are cleaner or brighter than others, and most feel like ovens in the middle of the day and are only slightly cooler during the night.
Here are few guesthouses we stayed in. The one in Yangoon, a recently opened establishment, was one of my favorites in Burma, and the guys running it let us wash a load of laundry in their super-duper washing machine for free (hand-washing in a sink or on the floor is our norm)…they even let us use their dryer, a treat I haven’t experience in a long time (we don’t even have a dryer a home in Barcelona, where we line dry our clothes)!
Asking Buddha for Help
We’ve had some luck staying in temples, but also have been turned away an equal amount of times.
One of our best nights in a temple was thanks to two classy, middle-aged monks who carried themselves with grace and elegance. They were funny, kind, compassionate, and just really nice people. The image of one of them putting together a broom made of twigs is forever embedded in my memory, and there it will stay as neither of us have a picture of them.
Other temple nights involved hanging out with the locals who congregate around temples. They fed us homemade chicken curry, vegetables and soup, gave us water, laughed with us and even taught me how to shower Burmese style.
Scroll to the next post in the blog roll to read about one of the unexpected disappointments we encountered at another temple/monastery.
Many nights, we had to invent a campsite. We pitched our mosquito net and unpacked our gear in near or total darkness, keeping our head lamps off to avoid unwanted attention. Sometimes we were in rice paddies riddled with holes of cracked earth, or in a grassy knoll not far from the main road. Some nights we slept under a sky filled with stars, off a cow path and protected by a circle of trees. Once, we got the okay to sleep in a classroom. Sometimes, we found an abandoned or half-built house to sleep in or had To stretch out on on uncomfortable bamboo poles or concrete floors.
Wherever we slept, we always sent heart-filled waves of gratitude to the owners of the property who knowingly or unknowingly gave us safe refuge. We sent them and their families blessings of good health as we walked away and welcomed dawn.