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Original Burma interview with Sandor from EXO Travel

Burma, or Myanmar, is a unique, little-traveled country. Our partner agency EXO Travel accompanies you on our trips to Burma and shows you the inspiring originality of this beautiful country and its friendly people, who always have an honest smile on their faces. Here you can discover the breathtaking nature and culture of Burma far away from the well-known tourist trails and experience real encounters with the locals - pure adventure! We had the chance to have an exciting interview with manager Sandro from EXO Travel, who has been living in Myanmar for three years and who tells you fascinating places and insider tips.

 

Dear Sandro,
You are the Burma Destination Manager of our partner agency EXO Travel. How would you describe the country and its people?
First of all I would like to thank NEUE WEGE for showing the guests the multifaceted Burma. Lately there have been repeated negative headlines related to the country. However, we must not forget that the vast majority of people only wish the best for everyone, regardless of their origin, religion or skin color. We understand that many tourists no longer want to travel to Burma since then. On the other hand, tourism is an important source of income for the millions of people who live in Burma and who are currently suffering many losses. It is definitely safe to travel through Burma and there are friendly faces everywhere that welcome all visitors. But now back to the question.

You should know that Burmese are actually a combination of many different tribes. Burma is a very large country in terms of area, about twice the size of Germany, with around 53 million people. Including the majority group of the Barma, which can be found in the center of the country, as well as many others, for example the Shan from the highlands, the Pao from the mountains, the Wa from the border regions to Thailand and China, the Chin in the northern mountains who have favourited Moken at the South Islands and many many more.

Once in Myanmar, you will find that everyone has a smile on their faces when you communicate with them. Rest assured, the smile is real - not the way you sometimes see it in other parts of Asia. Maybe that's because the country is still very rarely visited and the Burmese are naturally very curious and love to talk to us, even if they sometimes seem quite shy. Especially in the country you are surrounded by smiling faces, children run after you just to find out more about this "strange visitor" that we are. Probably the most important thing is, whatever you do, take the time to talk to people and smile back!

 

You are originally from the Netherlands. How long have you been living in Burma and why did you choose this country?
I am originally from a small town in the shadow of Amsterdam. I studied at the University for Tourism in the south of Holland and have worked in a dozen countries. I started out as a tour guide in the midst of the turmoil, only to organize trips from my desk at some point. Before I finally landed in Yangon, my desk was in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan. Before that, my wife and I were in Burma once in 2005. We explored the country for a month and realized how different the country and its people were compared to other parts of Southeast Asia. The people, the development at that time, the food and also the light seemed to be different. We had magical experiences as we walk the Irrawaddy River Traveled downstream from the far north towards Mandalay on a slow ferry. It took a total of three days in which we slept on the deck in the middle of locals. This boat was the only connection between the people who lived along the river and the rest of the world. And their world was already small anyway! In 2015, while I was still working in Japan, I saw opportunities to come back here and become a small part of the tourism development history of the rapidly developing country. So I applied for this job and my family and I have always been “Yangonites”.

 

What are your favorite places in Burma?
It's easy to guess. Like everyone else, I am Dutch; we come from a very flat country and therefore love the mountains. There are many mountain regions in Burma. Hardly anyone knows that the far north of Burma is the highest mountain in all of Southeast Asia. It is called Hkakabo Razi, is 5,881 meters high and is still part of the Himalayan mountain range. Like so many mountains in Burma, this one is rarely climbed. It takes three weeks just to get to the base camp. For my part, I prefer to stick to easier challenges. Last autumn I took part in an adventure guide training and we went to the Trekking to the Chin region hazards. It was really the best hike I've ever done. Here you are surrounded by rolling hills, small villages with wooden houses and nature as far as the eye can see. It is also home to the women with the tattooed faces. This tradition quickly became a thing of the past, but we've seen a few more faces like this. In the whole five days of trekking we actually only met other tourists once!

Apart from the mountains, I love to go to Bagan to go. This incredibly wide space is commonly known as that "Field with 4,000 temples". Hence my recommendation, grab an e-bike and explore hidden ruins and small villages, take advantage of the panoramic mountains and enjoy the magical atmosphere that hangs over the entire complex. These lookout mountains were created so that visitors would not climb for the beautiful view of one of the ancient temple buildings. It is the symbol of Burma after all and we are therefore obliged to preserve it.

I still have one favorite place. Only the weekend before last I went far south on an inspection trip, to be more precise in the Mergui region. This area consists of a total of 800 uninhabited tropical islands and has even fewer visitors than the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The Moken nomadic tribe still find their home here today, who live on their fishing boats and live in the flow of the seasons. Tourism is developing very slowly there and I wanted to know whether there are nice spots there that can offer visitors a certain level of comfort. A few resorts have now opened on these islands, including an eco resort. It's just breathtaking, true postcard beauty - your Caribbean dream will come true here! If you are interested, ask Sarah Obels from NEUE WEGE about this hidden place before the rest of the world finds it!

 

Burma's cuisine is not very well known in Europe. What is special about this kitchen and do you have a favorite dish?
Like the people, the food in Burma varies. The different regions each have their own flavors. For example, the freshest tomatoes come from the floating gardens on Inle Lake. The mountain people bring fresh bamboo shoots and ferns with them into the interior. But our curries are probably well known. Located between India and Thailand, there are many similar dishes, including curries. They are not very hot, but they are quite oily. And for a simple reason. In the past there was neither electricity nor a refrigerator. So in order to be able to store the food, the curries were covered with a layer of oil in a large pot. It's still done on the streets today.

Another popular dish is the "Tea leaf salad". This is made from fermented tea leaves and served with peanuts, sesame seeds, garlic, tomatoes and much more. Just thinking about it alone makes me hungry again! We often eat it as a snack and it is usually part of business meetings. “First the tea leaf salad is shared among the participants, then comes the time for business”.

In Burma you are usually not on the street as you know it from Thailand. Most of the time it's not clean enough for that. Therefore there are many small restaurants everywhere, so-called "Teashops". Here the day begins in the morning, takes its course and ends again in the evening. True to the motto: "Sip a sweet and strong tea with milk, enjoy a snack and of course the tea leaf salad."

 

When visiting Burma for the first time, what are the must-see places in your opinion?
You will be very busy on your first trip to Burma. Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Shan Mountains and Mandalay should definitely be on your route. I hope you have a little more time with you, because then we can show you the non-touristy Burma. There is, for example, Pyin Oo Lin with its famous steel railway bridge, Hpa-an in the east with its spectacular karst landscape and the Chin region, where you can explore the landscape with simple treks. Of course there are also beautiful beaches. These are not only the remote islands in the Mergui region, but also beaches with international facilities. Ngapali Beach is one of the best and was even among the Top 10 Best Beaches by CNN Travel in 2016. The white sand and fresh seafood are just amazing!

 

Is there a story or moment in Burma that still makes you laugh today?
I've already told a story or two. Therefore I would like to share my greatest "fear" with you. I live in Yangon, a very busy city with around 5 million people. The traffic is often terrible, seemingly without rules and it takes an incredibly long time to get somewhere. That's why I take the bike to work every day - it's fun, faster and a good workout. By now you're probably thinking that the most scared of my being getting hit by a bus. That's not it. My biggest fear is getting hit by the spit out red liquid of the betel nut! If you google Burma you will see people chewing betel nuts in the first few pictures. Basically it is a leaf that is filled with pieces of betel nut and other ingredients and rolled. It is similar to coffee and cigarettes and has a slightly intoxicating effect. The field workers chew the nut all day long, and so do bus and taxi drivers. It has the effect of producing a lot of saliva, which is as red as blood and is spat out every now and then. And that can happen anywhere. For example, simply out of the bus window, exactly where I am currently riding my bike ...

 

If you decide to travel to Burma, what can I expect from the trip and what should I be prepared for?
You can definitely expect a fantastic trip. The more time you bring with you, the more facets of the country you will get to know and the more spectacular your visit to Burma will be. The Germans are very adventurous on their travels compared to other nations, they sleep in local ones Homestays and enjoy the nature to the fullest. A big highlight is also in the Everyday life of the local population to immerse. For this you should try to adapt to the behavior of the locals. Especially for women, cover your arms and legs with long trousers or a long-sleeved shirt. It also has the advantage of protecting you from the sun. Please always pull yours Shoes when you enter a pagoda or apartment building. We don't wear street shoes in our office either. It is advisable to know something about the Buddhism to know in advance, as it is the main religion of Burma. This will definitely help you understand people better. But the most important thing is: don't worry. Be open to the country and its people during your visit and leave everything else to your German-speaking tour guide. See you soon in Burma!