Myanmar is a booming tourist destination. But the infrastructure isn’t here to deal with the crowds of backpackers, especially in the busy months of November to March. As an independent traveler who is used to booking hotels on short notice, finding a place to sleep in the price range I am used to can be difficult. The places listed in Lonely Planet are all booked out, and the popular booking sites, like Hostelworld, have zero listings for the country. Agoda.com is the only booking site with listings, but all the cheap ones are gone quickly. It is easy to find hotels in the $60+ range and above though, but I never pay that much. Rather than traveling day to day, construct an itinerary, and book your hotels as early as you can. From early November on, try to reserve hotel rooms as soon as you can and during festivals, rooms book out especially early. Myanmar is hosting the 27th SEA (South East Asia) Games in December, 2013, and difficulties are expected to increase. Everything is changing fast as this country opens up and proceeds with its experiment in democracy.
Concerning money, forget most things you have read. In Yangon, ATMs are everywhere and are becoming more common elsewhere. I bought US cash and have not availed myself of ATMs, so do not know about their reliability. On the street I was able to exchange 1000 kyat to the $US, money changers and banks gave 965 and hotels slightly less. I was able to get the same rate for all denominations. The black market for money should be avoided as it is cumbersome and one is more likely to be taken advantage of. It is OK for the bill to have folds but other defects will make them not exchangeable. Policies will vary with every institution and will be changing with time. I saw some people virtually examining the bills with a magnifying glass as their hotel had very rigid policies. Obviously torn bills should not be accepted but I never saw any and businesses were not examining bills carefully. You end up with an incredible wad of money, expecially if the notes are 1000 denominations. You still get a wad if they are 5000 denominations, think paying for everything with $5 bills. One ends up carrying around a lot of cash. Hotels, airlines, and train tickets must be paid in dollars but kyat are used everywhere else. Prices listed in Lonely Planet are hopelessly out of date. Expect to pay 3-4 times that amount. Hotels in Myanmar are more expensive than hostels in SE Asia, but everything else, especially food and taxis are very cheap. Credit cards are charged 7% extra.
I arranged my visa in Bangkok. It is easy and well organized. Two small busnesses near the Myanmar Embassy offer the forms and some advice for minimal costs. Stop there, get the form and a photocopy of your passport, and supply 2 passport photos. The embassy is open for accepting the application from 9-12, and for pickup of the completed visa from 3:30 to 4:30. Lines stretch down the block for each time, but they moved surprisingly fast. Same day processing costs ~$40 (1,335 Baht) and must be accompanied with your flights. Later processing does not need flights. Next day costs ~$30 (1,015 Baht) and two days costs ~$26 (810 Baht), but because of the pickup time, you would still need to be staying in Bangkok that night unless you have a late flight. I booked my return flight with one days notice on Bangkok Air for $537. I met several much more organized travelers who had bought their tickets 1-2 months previously on Air Asia for $80! I have a hard time being that organized but they are paying the price of not having flexible travel schedules. There are no shuttles or buses from the airport, but taxis are very cheap (about 8000 kyat for the one hour trip).
To get a picture of Yangon (formerly Rangoon. it is no longer the capital but is the major economic hub of Myanmar. Population 7 million), think India with Oriental looking people and no horn blaring, cows, or dogs. Motorcycles and bicycles are against the law, but only in Yangon. Trishaws (bicycles with a sidecar that can carry two people) are common. Downtown streets are busy and the sidewalks are full of vendors selling everything but mostly food. English is generally poor except in the hotels. Most everyone wears a longhi. The women’s faces are smeared with yellow opaque cream, used as a sunscreen as it is best not to be tanned. I wandered around downtown and visited several “sites”. The Moseah Yeshua Synagogue, built in 1890, is open from 9:30 to 12:00 except Sundays, and has a lovingly maintained interior for the city’s now tiny congregation of 25 Jews. The large mosque just down the street is interesting. Sule Paya is a 2,000 year old Buddhist temple occupying the largest traffic circle in the city – the ‘gold’ stupa is a landmark in downtown Yangon. The Myanmar style of Buddhist architecture (like most country’s) is unique with plain interiors and a heavy emphasis on gilding. All the Buddha’s heads are surrounded by flashing neon. Mahabandoola Garden is a pleasant oasis of grass and trees and contains the Independence Monument. Across the street is a Baptist Church, refreshing in its simplicity. Old British colonial buildings are common in this part of the city. The east part of the riverside is industrial with warehouses and cranes, and the Strand is a busy, exhaust filled street. Koeng Hock Keong is Yongon’s largest Chinese Temple. I talked to an older man with wonderful English here. He was schooled In English schools prior to independence and worked in the tourist industry all his life. These older guys seem to have only the best English.
Shwedagon Paya is the city’s defining image and has been a symbol of Burmese identity for 2,500 years. The compound with its main zedi (stupa) and 82 other buildings is astounding any time of the day, but evening and sunrise, when the light hits the gilding are the best times to visit. Paya means ‘Holy one” or religious monument. Shwedagon is said to be built on a hill where Buddha relics have been enshrined, including eight hairs of Buddha. The zedi is 98m tall and over the years has supposedly accumulated 53 metric tons of gold leaf. The top of the spire is encrusted with over 5000 diamonds and 2000 other stones. We went in the evening by taxi for 2000 kyat. Though there are elevators, I would encourage you to walk up one of the huge, graceful stairways (one for each direction). The stupa is surrounded by eight ‘corners’, one for each day of the week plus one extra. Using the day of the week on which they were born, one pours cups of holy water over a Buddha image, one for each year of their age plus one extra. One could spend 3 hours exploring all the temples, large bells, several gigantic bodhi trees, jade Buddha, or simply sitting around soaking in the ambiance.
The next day we crossed the Yangon River on a ferry to go to Dela. We were hustled by a young man offering to take us on a half hour tour of Dela for 3500 kyat on a trishaw. The tour soon morphed into almost 2 hours as you explore a stupa, village and large Buddha didicated to General Aung Seng, the “father” of the country. He then inflated the time to 2 1/2 hours and wanted 17,500 kyat, a weeks wages at the minimum wage. I gave some extra, but my Danish friend foolishly paid the rest.
I then caught an overnite bus to Inle Lake. Somehow I went to the incorrect bus depot, the huge Aung Mingalar bus station with 150 bus companies, through very slow traffic. When I announced that I needed the bus to Taungii, all the girls behind the counter could do was giggle. The manager loaded me into a big flatbed truck, snaked through the snarled traffic, and passed the 6PM departure time. We finally stopped on the side of a highway in the country and waited for 45 minutes. A bus pulled up and I got the only available seat, drenched in sweat from all the running around. This was the most deluxe bus I have ever used – 3 wide seats per row, full reclining seats with a foot rest, a host who looked after our every whim, and an airplane like TV on the back of the seat with all the features – luxery. One pays for a ticket to Taungii, but you disembark 19kms before at Shwenyaung and take a share taxi to Nyaungshwe, the town at the east end of the lake.
Hotel rooms in Inle are at a premium all the time but especially this week when the famous Taungii Balloon Festival is on. They are also more expensive (I shared a double roon for $36). I took a bicycle around the south side of the lake to a winery (some Americans loved the wine but the others thought it mediocre, but the views were great. Continuin around the lake for another half an hour, I caught a boat back to Nyaungshwe. That evening I went with 5 others to the opening night of the Balloon Festival. As we approached the festival the traffic ground to a halt, we walked and saw a great fireworks show that started at 6PM. Hundreds of candle powered lanterns were released. The highlight are several large balloons released at 45 minute intervals. About 6m tall, the balloons are decorated in designs composed of lit candles on the outside of the balloon. Long draperies of candles hang from the bottom. After 4 of these, the fireworks balloons started. A 5 foot cube, with about 15 rows of fireworks is suspended below the balloon. The balloon is inflated with 5 big torches, a second column of fire is inserted in the balloon, and at the last minute the fuses for the fireworks are lit. Fireworks spray the crowd, but it soon gains elevation. The first balloon worked flawlessly and fireworks were visible for the entire flight. With the second balloon, the fireworks exploded with a huge ball of flame about 100m off the ground. The third balloon reached about 200m before it too exploded over several houses. All very dangerous.
At least a hundred thousand people were scattered all over the grounds eating and socializing on the grounds. Many vendors, restaurants, and beer garderns provided the food. The midway rides consisted of blow-up play areas and hand powered merry-go-rounds for the little kids, a big motor powered “ship” that moved back and forth and two 20m tall ferris wheels, powered by 6 kids who clamber to the the top and get it rotating. Moving very fast, they then grab onto the bottom of a chair and are swung into the air in an unbelievably risky move. I went on a ride on the dodgy operation. Sideshow games of skill/chance competed with tents of photographic dressup studies (most seemed to in wedding gowns and suits), and two small carnival “zoo” tents. While a guy played a childrens drum and cimbal, two monkeys covered in sores did tricks, and a guy walked around prodding several animals in tiny wire cages to provoke them into fighting. Besides an eagle, hawk, pheasant, and hamsters, the provokable animals included a porcupine, a small alligator, a tiny wild cat, a vicious wolverine-like animal and a mongoose. It was incredibly inhumane. At least ten tattoo parlours were busy with teenagers, most with small bottles of whisky for the pain. Skin was ‘sterilized’ with roll-on deordorant, needles were not changed between customers and some did not wear gloves. Despite nice colored tattoo samples covering the back walls, most were ugly black creations. There are few rules and regulations in this country. We all had a blast and got back to Nyaungshwe at midnite. About a hundred guys were watching Manchester United vs Arsenal football in the bar across the street.
Inle Lake is huge with flooded lowlands surrounding it all directions and ringed with low hills. Channels are cut to provide access to the many stilt villages and posh resorts (far from Nyangshwe, one would be quite isolated out here) lining the lake. The rattan houses have electricity, potted plants on the decks, and pigs and chickens in pens on stilts.People are doing laundry, washing dishes and bathing in the polluted water. Each village has schools, a post office, a stupa, and restaurants. Locals travel by shallow, graceful, minimal draught dugout canoes. The lake is explored in 50 x 4 foot long tail boats with inboard motors and a propeller on the end of long shaft that produces a high plume of water. The front 25% of the boat rises out out of the water. Boats ferry all the freight, carry 20-25 locals sitting in the bottom, or up to 5 tourists sitting in deck chairs. It is a lovely way to travel.
Fishermen stand on the bow, balancing on one leg and oaring with the other leg while they drag in the 100m long fine fishing nets, coiling the net on one arm. Other boats dredge up seaweed to be used as fertilizer in the floating gardens. At the far end of the lake, we visited a huge market with endless vegetables, fruit, chicken, fish, and handicrafts. The pressue to buy the nice handicrafts was endless. A cheroot factory (anise flavoured), cotton, silk, and lotus weaving “factories, and a hand powered sawmill are visited.
The big Manhangar Pagoda was originally built in 1313. Five sacred mounds of accumulated gold leaf cover hidden ancient Buddha images are worshipped. As in all Buddhist shrines in Myanmar, women are not allowed up on the altars. We took a long, narrow river trip at the end of the lake to Shive Inn Dain Pagoda. Walking along a river with a big weir, you end up climbing up a big covered stair to the top with a large temple surrounded, at last count, 1,054 stupas. The original stupa built in 270 BC is encased in the present pagoda. The oldest stupas are crumbling brick but many are modern and all sizes.
On the way back to Nyaungshwe, we stopped at a floating garden. Suspended in 6m of water, two rows of tomatoes on trellises were separated by channels. The gardens line large areas of the lake. Long tail boats loaded with cucumber, cauliflower, melons, and tomatoes carry the produce to Nyaungshwe. The cost for five of us for the ten hour day was 15,000 kyat ($15)! The boatmen are behind the times in their charging. We gladly gave him 25,000.
On the way to Mandalay (pop 2.5 million). The 7PM bus was a big difference from my first bus experience – a blaring TV, narrow seats with no leg room, no service, and no air conditioning. Luckily the last 5 rows of seats were empty. I put up the jump seat in the aisle and spread out full length across all the seats for a great sleep. We arrived at 1:30 AM. I had not been able to book a room but was taken to the popular AD.1 hostel. I got a room but was told that all were booked the next day and I would have to vacate it at 7. The lobby was packed at 6, I got my pack, but was fortunately offered the pagoda room on the roof. A small cube surrounded by the restaurant, it had windows on three sides, a mattress on the floor, and a wall of Buddhist statues, all for $8. The only problem was the share bathroom (squat toilet and a water cauldron and bowl for bathing) was on the first floor. I had two lovely sleeps in the airy room. A market is just north. It was bustling at 5:30 AM as locals buy all their produce for the day.
With a young Dutch fellow, I walked out to the massive Mandalay Palace and Fort. Sixteen blocks square, the Palace occupies a small area in the center surrounded by an army base. A 50m wide moat surrounds the high crenalated brick walls. Pagoda like guard towers and entrances are on each side. During WWII, fires burned the original to the ground, but the reconstruction with 40 timbered buildings and seven tiered central pagoda is impressive. The solid gold objects that surrounded the kings throne (betal holders and spitoons, arm and chin rests, candle holders etc) were in the large audience halls and living quarters.The museum is interesting with recreations of all the ministers of government. I’m not sure it was the long walk and $10 entrance fee. An intricately carved wood monastery, all that remains of the orininal Mandalay Palace, was moved outside the palace. A huge sign on the outside of the fort walls stated “THE TATMADAW SHALL NEVER BETRAY THE NATIONAL CAUSE”. Tatmadaw is the army. One of the more humerous signs I saw on a busy street was “Bicycle Lane”, now rusted and bent. It would be impossible to have a specific lane with all the double parked vehicles and motorcycles parked everywhere.
Just north of the Palace is the 230m tall Mandalay Hill with commanding views. Buddha apparently climbed Mandalay Hill and prophesized that in the 2400th year of his faith (1857), a great city would be founded at the base of the hill, and indeed that was when the king moved the capital from Amarapura to Mandalay. A large standing Buddha points down at Mandalay.
I hired a motorcycle and driver to explore around Mandalay for the day. I have never driven a motorcycle and learning in this huge, bustling city seemed a mistake. The driver also knows where he is going. The common day trips around Mandalay are exploring the 3 ancient cities of In-wa, Sagaing, and Amarapura, and a second day at Mingun. As I had a flight on day 2, I did it differently. Mahamuni Paya is a temple with a 4m-tall Buddha image seized from Rakhine State in 1784. Cast as early as the first century, it’s story of transportation by boat and land is told by wonderful paintings in one of the rooms. It is so venerated that it is washed and its teeth brushed every morning at 4AM by a team of monks. It is now covered by 15cm of gold leaf, applied by hundreds every day. The upper part of the statue can’t be reached to apply gold but the arms have disappeared under the gold. Women are not allowed on the platform. In the NW corner of the compound is a room holding several large bronze statues originally from Anghor Wat in Cambodia, taken as booty from a war with Thailand, lost and then recaptured again in 1599. One is a three headed elephant, there are two 8 foot tall warriors, and two lions. Legend has it that touching parts of the statues that you may be having health problems with, will cure you. As a result the patina is well worn and holes have formed in noses and other parts.
We continued on to visit some stone Buddha carving factories and a wood carving and marionette workshop. It was then a long drive south on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River. The wide flood plain is now covered with crops. We crossed the only bridge over the river and continued north on the other side to Sagaing, the ancient capital of the Sagaing Dynasty (1315-1364). There are 500 stupas and monasteries covering the hilltops above the river. After a 30 minute climb up stairs, I reached the top of Sagaing hill and the monastery with outstanding views of Mandalay, the river and all the surroundings. Gold stupas poke above the trees everywhere.
Normally a full day trip from Mandalay by crossing the river by boat at 9AM and returning at 1PM, Mingun is home to a trio of unique pagodas. We reached it north of Sagaing in a half hour. The Mingun Paya is the remains of a planned 150m tall stupa, surely a candidate for the world’s largest pile of bricks (thought to be a billion as the huge structure is entirely brick with no earth fill. Prior to an earthquare on 11/11/2011, it was possible to climb to the top. The Mingun Bell holds the record for the worlds largest uncracked bell (one third the size of a bell in Moscow and 14x the size of the bell in St Pauls Cathedral). Cast in 1865, it weighs 90 tons, and is 16.3 feet wide at the bottom and 12 feet high. 200m north is the white, wavy terraced Hsinbyume Paya.
On the way home, we stopped at Amarapura, the ancient capital of the Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885). The main attraction is the U Pein Bridge crossing a large lake, supposedly the longest wood bridge in the world at 1.2kms. Built of teak logs pounded into the lake bed 2 centuries ago, it is a favorite photographic site at sunset. With an uneven 2×4 walking deck, there are few railings. Tourists are rowed around the lake and bridge on double prowed boats. It was a long day on the back of the bike.
As Inwa is close to the airport, I saved it for the next day. Inwa, founded in 1354, was the historical capital for four centuries. Most visitors here rent a horse and cart to make the three hour tour of all the ruins. Several small stupas dot he roadsides; one has a old Buddha image. The finest site an enormous 1834 teak monastery.
The airport is a 45 minute drive from city limits and is reached by a 6 lane highway. There is vitually no traffic on the best road in Myanmar. Motorcycles are not allowed on this road, so we took a dirt road and visited the Three Temples, rarely seen by any tourists. The site consists of three similar 40 meter square solid brick structures built in the 13th century, each with four arched entrances leading to a room with large sitting Buddha images. The images are unusual in that they have closed eyes and downcast heads. Some faint remnants of murals remain and the images have original paint. The most northerly two temples are in significant disrepair, but the other has been restored. Passageways connect the four rooms and stairways lead to the roof overgrown with trees.
The new Mandalay Airport is primarily domestic with few international flights. Along with the road leading to it, it has a lot of wasted space. Despite having great difficulty getting seats for this flight, there were 9 empty ones on this 44 passenger jet. I sat next to a 17 year old girl returning home to Bhamo after receiving chemotherapy for leukemia. The farthest north town on the Ayeyarwady River is Myitkyina, accessed only by rail. It is possible to go, but the surrounding area with tribal villages, and the river down to Bhamo is closed because of civil strife. It is also impossible to go outside a 5km radius from Bhamo for the same reason. We landed at the small airport and took a shared jeep the 2 km into town and the Friendship Hotel. It is large and nicely appointed. The front desk arranged our tickets on the government ferry for the next morning. I missed out on obtaining a cabin for the two day/one night journey down the Ayeyarwady down to Mandalay (which turned out to be a lucky break). With two young Germans, we walked around town to see the usual stupa, and the Thousand Monks, a single file line of monk statues, each slightly shorter and with differnet features than the one before, following a large Buddha image. The breakfast put on by the hotel the next morning was over the top – imagine a breakfast buffet in a large hotel for hundreds(there were only 8 of us). Speedboats also make this river trip but since an accident last year, foreigners are not allowed.
We departed at 6:25, each with a shopping bag of food supplied by the hotel for the boat trip. Loaded mostly with locals, we departed at 7 in the relatively narrow river. Because it was low water, the ferry needed to follow channels and make big loops back and forth across the river. Barges carrying freight and small fishing boats were the other main traffic. Two hours down, we entered the second 7.5km long defile of the river famous for its natural beauty. Nat’s Face Mountain is a 985 foot cliff where the river is at its narrowest. The Parrots Beak is a small rock jutting out from the cliff face in the shape of and painted like a parrot. The local people regard it as a water level marker. When the water level reaches the beak, it is usually not possible for boats to go upriver because of the very strong current. The depth of water in the rainy season here is 180 feet. The river is dotted with small villages and rattan houses. After the second defile, a famous golden pagoda is on an island in the middle of the river. After this the river widens out with low banks and flat land extending to some low hills to the west. The ferry stops at two towns where we were able to buy food (the food on the ferry is not great). The ferry has 3 levels with an open air deck on top. There were no chairs and we sat on the deck in the hot sun. The second level has the cabins and an a big open space mapped out in numbered rectangles assigned like seats in a bus. This area was full of locals settled in for the long jouney. A raised wooden platform at one end is reserved for foreigners without cabins to sleep on.
Rather than continuing all the way to Mandalay, I got off the ferry with the two Germans at Katha, about 9 hours downriver. The views had been boring and I did not relish sleeping on the hard platform with no mat. It would have also been nice to have a covered area with chairs to lounge on to watch the scenery pass by. I was also looking forward to the train ride from Katha down to Mandalay. George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ was based in Katha when he was stationed here in 1926-27. I caught a rickety taxi for the one hour drive to Naba over one of the most horrendous roads ever traveled – confluent potholes, rocks and stream crossings. After buying my ticket, I wandered around enjoying all the street food snsacks at the railway station. The station was crowded with bodies sitting and laying all over the platform.
Myanmar’s railways were inherited from British times and haven’t been upgraded since, resulting in an uneven bed and warped rails. Sleeper cars aren’t available on this line and foreigners must buy upper class tickets in $US at 10 times the prices for locals. It is impossible to describe the 11 hour ride. It was like a midway ride – at times the cars swayed a few feet side to side, and each time the car passed over a joint, the car lurches like it hit a pot hole. At top speed (rarely above 40kms/hour), I counted 100 lurches. On some particularly bad stretches, you almost leave your seat with each one. And it was non stop for the entire time; no piece of track was minimaly smooth until we approached Mandalay.Every passenger had their luggage in front of them taking up most of the leg room. I had great difficulty talking the teenage monk across from me to move his bag taking up most of my leg room. With non reclining seats and insufficient leg room to stretch out, I did not sleep a wink. Amazingly, most of the locals seemed to have no problem as their head bobbed up and down several feet each time. The lights were also on full for the entire night. It was so hellish that it almost became humerous. Pairs of seats face each other and I had a good time with the other 7 passengers and two babies in our ‘group’. I was the only foreigner on the train as the Germans stayed in Katha overnite. Certainly it was a journey I will never forget and part of the Myanmar experience – easily the worst quality rail service in the world. Exhausted on arrival in Mandalay at 6AM, I went to my hotel and hit the sack.
Many foreigners take the 9 hour boat down the Ayerarwady to Bagan. I took the bus for the five hour ride. The Bagan Archaeological Zone stretches for 41 sq. km. Despite centuries of looting, neglect, erosion, earthquakes and dodgy restoration, the temple studded plain remains impressive. In a 230 year building frenzy ending in 1287 and the Mongol invasions, Bagan’s kings commissioned over 4000 Buddhist temples.
The strength of the Myanmar people must be admired. They have put up with an incredibly repressive regime that has stifled their economy and lives. At one time at the top of all countries in SE Asia, now it is at the bottom of the economic heap. Prior to two years ago it was extremely dangerous to say anything negative about the government. It is estimated that 1/10 of citizens was a paid informant of the army, and even negative thoughts were risky. I have had a few conversations now with locals about the time and now talk freely about the regime in private. They are placing tremendous hope in Aung San Suu Kyi, now leader of the National League for Democracy. After 15 years of the last 24 years in house arrest, she was released in 2010. The October, 2010 election wa