I have just returned from a 5 day tour of Myanmar, during which we visited Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay and Bagan (Pagan). It was a sightseeing tour, and the sights were worth it. Some of the temples are, in their own way, as impressive as St Peter's in Rome. The roads and hotels are excellent; the people are friendly; street crime is virtually unknown; and the towns, villages and markets are free of rubbish. The vendors do not try to cheat foreigners. We did not see any armed military or police personnel anywhere.
The extent of poverty is high. On our flight back to Malaysia, the plane was filled with young men and women coming to Malaysia to work. They were shabbily dressed, did not know how to use the toilets, and had not bathed for several days. Curiously, on our way there, the plane had been full of returning workers but we had hardly noticed them. They had obviously been changed by their stay in Malaysia.
Horticulturally, the country is still in the 1950s. Almost all the garden plants are old varieties from the colonial period and the diversity is small. For example the most common variety of hibiscus is the variety that Malaysia chose as its national flower in 1957. This variety is now uncommon in Malaysia because of replacement by new imported hybrids. Still, it was nice to see some old garden plants that I have not seen for years.
The countryside in Pagon is semi-arid savannah, with trees spaced out instead of forming a closed forest. Here most of the trees belong to just a few species, notably neem, tamarind, Acacia leucophloea and Borassus flabellifer (commonly known in Thailand and Malaysia as 'sea coconut' though it has nothing to do with the sea and is not a coconut). In Myanmar, the fan-shaped leaves of Borassus are used as thatch for roofing, the inflorescences are tapped for its sugary juice to make a fermented drink, and the fruits are harvested for food. In olden times, Myanmar was part of the 'palm culture' of South and Southeast Asia, in which written records were made on the leaves of Borassus cut into strips and inscribed using a sharp stylus. The strips were sewn into books for safe keeping.
The women in the villages and countryside are in the habit of painting their faces with a yellowish powder made by grinding the bark of Limonia accidissima on a stone surface.
Those wishing to visit Myanmar should be aware that credit cards are useless because of the US and European trade embargo. You need to carry cash in US dollars. One USD can be changed in hotels for 1000 Kyats (pronouced 'Jets' because K is silent and y is pronounced as j). The banks offer only 450 Kyats for 1 USD. Only clean USD notes are accepted. Soiled or torn or faded notes are not accepted.