– Only one? asks the young guy in Mandalay as I follow him across the street. (I’ve figured out the best way to cross a street in a Burmese city is to attach yourself to a local person and follow them through the traffic).
I make up a story about friends that are waiting back at the guesthouse, because although Burma feels to me the safest country I’ve ever travelled in, I am still a lone blond female and he is a young man. I am conditioned by years of travel in countries where situations like this can go badly wrong. Of course this is Burma and it does not go badly wrong: the guy walks me across the street and I say thanks and goodbye.
“Only one?” is a question you’ll hear a lot if you are a woman travelling on your own in Burma (Myanmar)*. People want to know if you’re actually travelling all alone, and I’m sure they do not mean to pass judgements: they are simply curious and making conversation. Still, when they ask “only one?” they do have a look of concern and (what I interpret as) slight sadness in their eyes. Really? Only one? Alone? Do you not have any friends? Where is your husband? You’re 38 and you don’t have kids?
Ok : I might be reading a little too much into it. But you may want to prepare yourself for hearing that a lot if you travel to Burma.
Solo Female Travel in Burma
For a solo female traveller, Burma is a fantastic travel destination. It is safe, travelling is pretty easy and in the three weeks I spent there I did not experience any sexual harassment at all. Mandalay was the only place in Burma where I ever faced any “hassle” and even there it was very, very low-key: just a few “hello baby” comments from a passing car, and lots of enthusiastic taxi drivers, but let’s face it: it’s about 5% of the hassle travelling women experience in India so it’s not really a big deal.
The people are beautiful, intelligent, friendly, hospitable and polite. One of my most favourite things to do in Burma was sitting at a tea stall and talking to people. Having lived in India for years and having experienced very few possibilities for men and women to talk freely with each other, and never being able to sit down near a group of men without receiving disapproving looks or being sexually harassed, the cosy and relaxed Burmese tea shops became my favourite places to spend time.
Tea shops are where people gather to hang out, to drink tea or coffee and eat pastries (deep-fried dough – but strangely addictive), to chat and to spend time like we do in coffee shops in the West. I would sit in a tea shop in Yangon (Rangoon) and end up having a fascinating conversation with a well-educated, well-travelled Burmese man who spoke excellent English and was keen to know what I thought about his country. A tea shop was where women who spoke little English would bring me cakes and put flowers in my hair.
It’s a Lot Like India… But Without the Hassle
It may seem stupid to compare Burma to India, but there were so many times I looked at the architecture or the landscape and thought it reminded me of places in India years ago. So many times I thought Burma is a lot like India but without the hassle. Unlike in India, there are no “ladies’ seats” in buses in Burma and there are no ladies’ waiting rooms at bus stations – you don’t need them. You can sit next to a man on an overnight bus and he’s not going to grope you. This, for me, is a novel concept after 3,5 years in India. I felt 100% safe in Burma walking around on my own any time of the day or going for a sugar cane juice at the local market late in the evening; something I would not do in India.
I have written more about Burma travel on my South-East Asia travel blog. If you are planning to travel to Burma, check out Satu in South-East Asia for travel tips and photos.
*Why do I write about Burma travel and not Myanmar travel? Because Aung San Suu Kyi prefers “Burma”. Read Lonely Planet’s interview with Aung San Suu Kyi and read also the National League for Democracy 2011 statement on tourism in Burma, published on the Burma Campaign UK website.
Read More About Burma:
The National League for Democracy (official website)
Burma Campaign UK: an organisation campaigning for human rights, democracy & development in Burma
Travelling responsibly in Burma by Lonely Planet Magazine on BBC Travel.