I wanted to write a blog about Myanmar, but wasn’t sure what specifically to focus on. So after I checked into the Little Hpa-An Hostel, I was inspired. Furthermore, this blog was the first of its kind for me, I did a brief interview, but compiled the answers into paragraph form. Read on.
You may have seen me use both Myanmar and Burma when referring to the southeast Asian country that borders Thailand and Laos to its east, Bangladesh and India to the west and China in the north. Myanmar also has a very long and beautiful coastline, 1,200 miles of beaches that face the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The largest city is Yangon, but the capital is Naypyidaw. The majority ethnic group are the Bamar, or as called by the British, Burmese. In the 19th century, after three Anglo-Burmese wars, the British took over and Burma became a British colony. They were granted independence in 1948 and were a democratic nation, but shortly after in 1962, there was a coup d’etat. A military dictatorship ruled the country until 2011. When the junta dissolved, a lot changed, including the country’s name. Under the junta, Burma was closed off to the outside world. The press was censored, and many political, governmental, and other key figures were jailed. Now people are adjusting to a democratic society, news papers, and of course the new world of social media to include Facebook and Instagram. SIM cards are readily available, data is cheap, and everyone, every where, has a cell phone. You can see cell towers all over and coverage across the country is much better than I expected. So back to wording, yes, Myanmar is the official name, but Myanma is actually the demonym! It sounds awkward to me, so I use Burmese instead. I don’t think it’s an issue as a lot of locals use it as well. As far as the rest of the history, not really my forte, but hit up google for more!
I recently stayed at a hostel in Hpa-An, a city about 100 miles from Yangon. It’s not too far from the coast and the countryside is dotted with karst mountains that shoot up from the plains around them. According to one website, Hpa-An has a “backpacker feel to it,” but the reality is, few tourists come here, and as of three days ago, there was no hostel to be found in this capital of the Karen State. Meet Dennis (his “western” name), one of three brothers whose idea it was to open the area’s first backpacker friendly accommodation. The 24 year old resident of Yangon saw an opportunity for growth away from the more frequented Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake, and the unique setting would provide travelers with a new view of Myanmar. The Karen people here are “different,” the area is good for climbing, there are loads of natural caves to explore, tons of pagodas to visit, and there is a Thai border crossing 60 miles to the east. Now with the ease of entering Myanmar with an eVisa, more and more travelers can arrive overland from Thailand.
The Burmese brothers had a vision and a plan. They put their educational backgrounds, construction, business, and design, together to create an innovative and unique hostel in the heart of the city. The interior design itself was influenced by Jack White, the lead singer of the White Stripes, an American rock duo from Detroit, Michigan, a world away from Myanmar. The yellow, red, black, and white colors along with some animal figures set the theme for the newly constructed hostel. I honestly can’t tell you more beyond that because I don’t know much about the White Stripes except for their single “Seven Nation Army.” But ok, it provides for some interesting decor nonetheless and Dennis hopes some day Jack White himself will visit the hostel he so influenced!
The people of Myanmar have yet to be accustomed to the notion of travelers and adventurers visiting their country. I’ve been told Myanmar is like Thailand was 30 or 50 years ago. The people are incredibly friendly, they smile, and while some give an inquisitive stare, upon greeting them with the local “Mingala Ba,” they show their maroon betel nut stained teeth and flash a bright red smile. People wave and yell hello from wherever they may be, be it from the inside of a car, on a motorbike, or even in a shop or home. Children run up to you and shake hands and people are all around friendly and kind. They don’t bother or pester you to buy stuff, they don’t ask you for money, and they don’t expect handouts of any kind from anyone. When I asked Dennis if he thought any of this would change, he said it’s inevitable. With tourism comes money, and eventually, people want it. So with that said, I asked why he’d want to “entice” tourists by catering to them with his shiny new hostel. But his hope is that people will leave Myanmar with an experience. That they will take away something greater than a trinket or an Instagram worthy photo… That they will come here and see this “precious” country for all it has to offer: kind people, beautiful beaches, pristine nature, tasty food, and a unique and varying culture. He said Myanmar isn’t a place for one to come and party, like so many areas of Thailand where people don’t respect the local customs and culture. So often, tourists don’t fully appreciate the country they visit, and he feels he doesn’t want this place to “turn into Bangkok,” or be viewed as just a place to visit because it’s cheap. Come to Myanmar, come to Hpa-An and stay in the Little Hpa-An Hostel, see a confluence of culture of sorts, with it’s White Stripes influenced decor while enjoying a local style breakfast. But leave Myanmar with an experience, meet the people, respect and preserve the country.
On day three of it’s opening, the Little Hpa-An Hostel is nearly fully booked, and this is considered to be the off season! When I asked Dennis if he felt this was a success, he said no. He said it’s a hostel and of course budget travelers would come, it’s better than a hotel and it’s the only one around! But he said they need to put some hard work into the place, because if there’s “No struggle, there’s no story to tell.” He asked for feedback, a trip advisor rating is so important to so many business owners and getting the word out is key for business. What improvements can be made? How can the hostel be unique and innovative while meeting the goal of preserving and promoting the culture of the area?
The Little Hpa-An Hostel will strive to be different from the hotel culture that currently predominates the accommodation scene in Myanmar. Guests can meet and mingle with locals and other travelers alike, they can enjoy a local style breakfast with a fresh brewed cup of coffee, not a “3 in 1” blend, and at the end of the day, the weary traveler can take a hot shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. So new in fact, some mattresses still have the plastic wrapping on them!
Myanmar is a beautiful country with friendly people and amazing places to explore. If you’re in town, check in to the Little Hpa-An Hostel. Be prepared for some breath taking views and lots of step climbing during the day, and at night, rest in the most comfortable bed in the area. Tell them I sent you! ☺️