Burma

17 01 2013

Going to Burma was on my mind since the early stage of planning, but with what you read about the problems of traveling in the country, the trouble of budgeting because one isn’t able to withdraw money except for one ATM and one hotel in the whole country, and the concerns about the government it took me until my last days in Vietnam before I finally decided to go and booked the tickets.

It were the stories from fellow travelers and their urge that I have to go if I only have the slightest chance! They told me about mystical places, breathtaking landscapes, and the most friendly people in the world… Nothing about taking care of where and whom to take a photo of, nothing about travel restrictions (at least not for the main attractions), and nothing about the government issue… I should avoid overnight journeys by bus (I thought because of the state of the road but I had to learn by hard that this was the slightest problem) and should book in advance for a couple of regions (which I didn’t… I went nearly unprepared to Burma).

Yangon street food.

Yangon street food.

That I didn’t book anything in advance was curse and blessing at the same time! I had only two weeks to explore the country. If you go through a book with the world’s best attractions you will be surprised how often you’ll find the name Burma/Myanmar although you might have never heard of the country before, so I knew the two weeks will be packed and that there will be no chance to avoid the one or the other overnight bus ride. And planning the whole trip without buying a package tour of one of the government-related travel agencies is almost impossible. Booking sites cover only the top end of accommodation options and there is no way to book transport in advance except for flight tickets.

Sule paya in the middle of one of Yangon busiest streets.

Sule paya in the middle of one of Yangon busiest streets.

My Burmese journey began even before I set foot in the country: I had to apply for the visa and get the newest and crispest US$ bills in Bangkok. The visa application surprised me in several ways: the first thing I saw was an immense queue in front of the embassy. I feared a ominous application process after what I read on the Internet about it. It turned out that the most ominous was that you first had to queue up to get a number and then were able to pass in the documents and fees at another counter. The first counter was only responsible for issuing the numbers and telling you when to collect your visa and passport again. If you are able to read one of the several signs, then to figure out what you are applying for (express or standard) and finally to add 0 or two days to the actual date, then you would have been glad to if the first counter would be processing applications as well! The rest of the process was straight forward and they even let unemployed former students into the country 🙂 Money is best changed on Khao San road in Bangkok. The KCB (or whatever the name of the blue bank is) seems to specialize in providing bills that look like fresh from the printer in the back of the office and even if they are it doesn’t matter because the Burmese love these bills. Get a little bit of small change for the taxi and sometimes hotels only accept US$ as well. But not too much because 50 & 100$ bills have a slightly better exchange rate. Since April 2012 the exchange rates are fixed by the government so you can change at the airport you arrive at in Burma and there is no need to change at the black-market and get tricked! Since christmas 2012 one is able to withdraw money with Visa or Mastercard at certain ATMs at least in Yangon. I heard that even EC cards work with some ATMs.

Railway station in Yangon. One can feel the century before last there!

Railway station in Yangon. One can feel the century before last there!

My first destination in Burma was Yangon. While going by taxi from the airport to the city centre I was surprised how (for Southeast Asian standards) modern and clean Yangon was. I expected something else than fridges, washing machines, and computers being sold on almost every corner and to see a lot of people wandering around with smart phones clung to their ears! It’s a lot more modern as one expects when following the international news about the country!

The breathtaking Shwe Dagon paya in the afternoon sun.

The breathtaking Shwe Dagon paya in the afternoon sun.

Yangon also hosts (beside many other) the most spectacular pagoda of Southeast Asia (if not the world): the Shwe Dagon Paya! It’s size is already breathtaking… And additionally the whole thing is covered in gold! It’s impossible not to be starring at the building with your mouth wide open when it seems to glow during sunset…

The Shwe Dagon Paya is not the only sight Yangon has to offer: the Sule Paya in the middle of the city, surrounded by busy streets is a small version of the Shwe Dagon Paya, again fully covered with gold… I really kept asking myself why the poorest countries in Southeast Asia are these with the most temples covered in gold and everything else that is precious.

Colonial architecture.

Colonial architecture.

Another distinctive feature of Yangon are the colonial-style buildings that are sprinkled throughout the city center. Almost none of it is in a good shape, most of them decaying between the newer concrete blocks of residential buildings, but somehow the bad state adds to the charm of Yangons center.

Be prepared to pay a fortune (for Southeast Asian standards) for accommodation (around 25-30$US for a simple double room) and if possible book in advance! Unfortunately only a few budget and mid-range options can be booked via the big booking sites. I ended up sharing a room with a retired teacher from Sydney not just to save some money but, even more important, not to have the trouble to search for another hotel.

More street food.

More street food.

The food on the street is reasonable priced and covers (sweet) snacks, soups and rice, and a lot of small tea/coffee stalls selling tea with condensed milk that is unbearable sweet! The influence from India on Burmas cuisine is huge and you’ll find a lot of Indian restaurants, often selling Byriani dishes. But most of them so oily that you start to wonder why you don’t see a Burmese collapsing every couple of minutes due to a heart attack!

Local bus when it was still empty. Sad you can't see the full extend of the "legroom" :-)

Local bus when it was still empty. Sad you can’t see the full extend of the „legroom“ 🙂

If you are an adventurous character you have to give the local transport a try. In a guide book I read about a circle train line used by Yangons commuters. Unfortunately I didn’t had the chance to go by train in Burma 😦 those I met who used the train anywhere in the country told me about bumpy tracks and amazingly slow speed! It seems you can’t miss a train in Burma if you are not in need of a wheel chair or walking frame 🙂 I took a bus once just to get out of the city to see how life was there. The first problem was to catch the right bus: almost nobody speaks English and to make things more complicated Burma has it’s own scripture that makes it impossible to decipher the destination or even the bus number. Somehow, with a little patience and the help of many people that added little pieces to the puzzle, I made it to the correct village and back again 🙂

The people in Burma are extraordinary friendly and helpful, even more than the already very friendly Thais… If you just wander around the streets, looking the slightest bit lost, chances are that a Burmese capable of speaking English comes out of nowhere to help you with your problem whatever it is. I once searches for a specific travel agency that was recommended by a local woman but she only gave me the name of the company in English and the name of the street. After three minutes on the street and the first consulting of the map, a Burmese man on his way to the office came out of his home and when he saw me, the tourist with a map in the hand, he was curious and asked where I am from and where I wanted to go. Another three minutes later he found the agency for me and acted as translator because the staff spoke only little English. He even wanted to show me the bus station afterwards, which was 1.5km away, and it was hard to convince him that I would find it by myself 🙂 another traveler told me that he couldn’t find a specific hotel in Yangon when a man on a motorbike stopped next to him and asked if he could help. Unfortunately his English wasn’t enough to explain the route properly and he disappeared only to come back 5 minutes later with a hand-drawn map that was more detailed than the tourist maps! Most of the travelers I met had a similar story to share.

"Boarding" procedure for the trucks going to the Golden Rock.

„Boarding“ procedure for the trucks going to the Golden Rock.

After Yangon I wanted to go to the „Golden Rock“ at Mt. Kyianto. The tour wouldn’t be easy as there is only a bus leaving Yangon in the evening and arriving at the so called base-camp, the village of Kinpun, in the middle of the night. I expected to meet many foreign travelers on the way to this stunning sight but soon realized that I was the only foreigner on the bus. Somehow it seemed I was the only one speaking another language than Burmese. When we arrived at the little village that acted as base-camp for the Golden Rock, I was immediately brought to a restaurant where I was offered one of the most basic and shabby rooms I’ve ever seen… Basically it was a wooden crate with something they called a mattress… And by far it wasn’t the cheapest! At least they offered me, the only foreigner on the bus and most probably the only tourist (not Buddhist pilgrim), a separate room for myself. The rest got a little space on a concrete floor, like many families did, shared a room the same size as mine with at least 8-12 people.

Pilgrims sticking gold leafes to the Golden Rock.

Pilgrims sticking gold leafes to the Golden Rock.

I arrived at 2AM but was leaving this place at 5.30AM already to go to the Golden Rock, which lies on top of a hill. I knew from the guide book that trucks are going up there and that it won’t be one of the more comfortable rides. My expectations were low but when I finally made my way to the platform of the truck, having to fight against old grandma’s as the most ruthless queue jumpers, I found myself tightly packed between some 60-70 pilgrims on the little platform (when I say truck, I mean these little ones that won’t be enough to move a little apartment). There was nothing to grab a hold, except for the ones in the first row and the ones at the sides but anyway, the people were cramped so tightly that there was no chance to move at all. If you are taller than 1.60m your knees will do the job of keeping you off the person in front of you while the truck is going down the hill or brakes by being jammed under the bench of the next row. If it goes up the hill or accelerates the only chance is to grab hold on the person in front of you… I wandered why the journey would take an hour just to realize that the trucks stop in the middle of nowhere to collect the money from the passengers (so that nobody even thinks of the crazy idea not to pay for this completely overpriced journey). After everyone has paid the drives take their time to have an extensive breakfast while everybody on the platform sooner (taller persons like me) or later (the smaller Burmese) gets cramps. Have I mentioned that the drivers drive recklessly as hell and you should consider having your kneecaps replaced after this ride? Even before I reached the top I was looking forward to the journey back to the base-camp!

When you reach the top you immediately begin to realize that buddhism is not just religion… A big part of it seems to be plain business as well! There are so many stalls offering any kind of goods or services one can think of: food and drinks, carriers if you are to lazy to carry you bags on your own, flowers, any kind of donations for the monks, gold leafs, and many more „religious“ and normal souvenirs! First I wondered why so many people were carrying bag as if they would move to the top of the hill. Later I realized that most of them were there for business and selling all the stuff up there and only a few were having picnic or staying over night.

On the way to the Golden Rock are a few other religious sites, such as another balancing rock which is smaller and not covered with gold, some bells and a gong, and most probably many other things I didn’t recognize! When I finally saw the rock for the first time, I was really amazed and a little bit perplexed: not only about this shiny huge piece of rock but also of it’s place on the edge of the mountain. I’d really like to know how they placed the rock there in the first place whenever this was (a loooong time ago)! How did it stay in this position over the centuries with the weather and everything surely not adding to the stability… And even then there are probably a hundred of people pressing gold leafs on the rock all the time! And how the hell did they manage to cover the whole thing in gold… Less than half of it is accessible!

Pilgrim from Berlin sticking a gold leaf on the Golden Rock. (Identity unknown)

Pilgrim from Berlin sticking a gold leaf on the Golden Rock. (Identity unknown)

When I stopped wondering I went to one of the more official looking stalls and bought a package with 5 pieces of golf leafs for 10$ and made my way to the rock. You have to cross a little bridge to get close to it and neither bags (not even the shoes you might carry around) nor women are allowed over there… With all the pilgrims pressing their gold leafs on the rock and praying it was almost impossible to get close enough to put a gold leave yourself without kicking somebody away or going to the less crowded areas near to the edges and risk falling down the gorge… Fortunately the most Burmese are so small that it was no problem to put my gold leaf just above their heads 🙂 I stayed a little longer on a platform with good views of the rock and observed the masses that were on the little space next to the rock… It’s a miracle that there aren’t slipping people down the gorge every day! After I watched the scene long enough I went back to the area with the trucks and tried to get on one of them… Again, the most challenging competitors where the old ladies but with a little luck I managed to get a seat in the first row AND at the side… So the way back was almost comfortable in comparison to the first ride 🙂

I stayed over night at the base camp but after I took a stroll through the village (that only consists of restaurants, guest houses, and souvenir shops) I realized that I could have taken the bus back to Yangon the same day… There’s nothing else to do!

I returned to Yangon the next day just to buy another bus ticket, this time to Bagan. I thought a lot about to which place I should go next, Inle lake or Bagan. I heard that Inle Lake is often fully booked and there was not only New Years Eve coming but also the Myanmar independence day, a puublic holiday, so I expected the worst for this place. A couple of minutes after I bought the ticket to Bagan I spoke to a couple which was coming from there… They had to leave earlier than they intended because they couldn’t find an affordable room in the whole area between New Bagan and Nyaung U, which is the transport hub of the area. I knew I would arrive there in the middle of the night and prepared for a lot of fun finding accommodation.

Plain of Bagan laced with pagodas and temples.

Plain of Bagan laced with pagodas and temples.

One thing about the buses and public transport in general in Burma: it sucks! And it isn’t the state of the roads. I don’t know when the schedules for the departure time were made, but it must have been years ago and done by an idiot who’s not reliant on public transport at all… Most of the buses leave in the late afternoon just to arrive at the main stop in the middle of the night. On the main routes they have A/C buses but not the slightest idea of how to use it. It is pretty weird and might indicate some problem or failure if the local people of a country were the average temperature of most regions is above 25 degrees dress up like Eskimos before they get on a bus! Another feature of the bus rides in this country is the entertainment program which is the worst you can get (Asian stand-up comedy [which in my opinion seem to lack of comedy but it who knows, it might be funny what they telling you in this strange language] or music videos of Asian love songs [sometimes these seem to tell the heartbreaking story of a life time and last almost as long]) and, for your pleasure, at a deafening volume. The bus drivers love to switch it off during the early night, giving you the chance of dozing a little bit, just to turn it on again the second before you fall asleep. On a night bus in Burma you’ll get everything… except sleep!

After another of these fun rides I arrived in Nyaung U at 4AM. All the buses arrive around the same time but don’t expect any hotel to be open. A taxi driver approached me and when I told him that I had no booking he went away for 5 minutes to happily announce that there are no vacancies in the whole city. I waited for 1 1/2 hours in a coffee shop watching some weird Burmese movie and then searched for open hotels. I found one place were the friendly manager allowed me to sleep on the couch until the morning and he assured me that I would at least have a place to stay in his dorm room, maybe even a room for myself if somebody checks out. At 7AM I met other travelers searching for a room and we left to search a triple room which we could share… Another 1 1/2 hours and 20 guest houses later I could proudly present that I had found a place for the three of us. What a nice morning!

Sun set over the plain of Bagan.

Sun set over the plain of Bagan.

Because we had to wait until the check-out time to move into our room we decided to rent bikes and explore the plain of Bagan which hosts 3100 pagodas and temples, a lot of them very impressive. Most of them aren’t in their best state with the stucco-work washed away by the weather and showing the red bricks they are build from. In my opinion this only added to the atmosphere and looked better than the renovated temples. We found a lonely temple complex and started to explore it. After a while we found a local guy selling sand paintings but when he realized that we weren’t in the mood to buy he just showed us around and explained the surroundings… This is what I really liked about Burma and especially Bagan. The people are new in the tourism business and especially at the sights were less tourists show up, they are not obtrusive at all sometimes even forgetting that they want to sell you something 🙂 on my second day I watched the sun set from the top of the more favorite temples and one of the locals offered me his sand paintings. After only 1 minute we were talking about the Burmese lottery, the chances of winning, and that he needs to get the jackpot soon because every young man gets a big celebration at a certain age and it was about time for his oldest son.

Development aid for Burma: Myanmar beer ads photo shoot :-)

Development aid for Burma: Myanmar beer ads photo shoot 🙂

Despite the many tourists that come to Bagan, the villages around this area still are still very relaxed and the people (even the staff of most guest houses) are very friendly. On New Years Eve our hotel manager invited all guests to a little party and we were surprised with many bottles of Mandalay rum, Cola, and food. Somebody produced a guitar and one of the staff members began to play and sing traditional Burmese songs. Unfortunately I wasn’t fit that day and I excused myself to bed after two glasses of „Burma Libre“ (Mandalay rum, Star cola, and lime) but set the alarm for 11.30PM. I didn’t want to miss the new year! Meanwhile my room mates were invited to sing karaoke at the local radio station but I’m not sure whether this was just a party or actually on-air 🙂 30 minutes before midnight I got up to go with my room mates to the only New Years party in our part of the town. It was the local Indian restaurant and when we arrived the owner of the place and his staff/family were already dancing around the bonfire… completely drunk 🙂 it was a nice party but with shit US charts music (about 3-4 different songs on repeat) that reminded me more of a beach party in Thailand…

Local water works, public transport, and Kindergarden :-)

Local water works, public transport, and Kindergarden 🙂

The main mode of transport in Bagan is the bike. You can rent one in almost every guest house or shop. The problem is that they seem to never change and always repair the tube, so you end up having a flat tire at least once a day. As soon as you get off one of the two main roads between Nyaung Shwe and New Bagan your will most probably be alone or able to watch the local life in the smaller villages. Here I saw the life I expected for Burma which is so different from the life in Yangon and the other touristic places. Traders are carrying their shop on their heads, the water supply is done by little hand carts, and monks were strolling around everywhere. If you think you’ve seen all of the temples after 1-2 days (after a while one just looks like the other, at least the smaller ones) just take a detour through the small villages of the area! If you are not short on money and have some more days you could also go to a monastery on top of a hill on the other side of the Irrawaddy river. You’ll need to hire a taxi driver for the day and take a boat to the other side of the river. If money doesn’t matter at all you can also take a balloon tour for sun rise (around 250$ p.P.)!

Sun rise over Bagan seen from  Dhammayan-gyi.

Sun rise over Bagan seen from Dhammayan-gyi.

Cheaper options to spend your time around sun rise and sun set is to find a temple with good views over the plain. The bigger ones, especially Dhammayan-gyi, are very good spots but get really crowded at these times. One morning I met Philip, who I met before at the elephant training in Chiang Mai, on this temple, looking as perplexed as I was 🙂 the world is too small.

After three nights in this lovely area it was time to move on and, of course, for another fun overnight bus ride… Which was as lovely as the ones before! This time I went to Inle Lake, a very picturesque lake surrounded by hills and laid-back, traditional villages sprinkled around the shore. I guess it is the one place not a single tourist is missing. When I talked to other travelers who already had been to Burma they were always raving about this place: picturesque (as I mentioned before), relaxing, diverse, and whatsoever… I went there with really high expectations…

Foogy canal in Nyaung Shwe in the morning. Suprisingly fresh!

Foogy canal in Nyaung Shwe in the morning. Suprisingly fresh!

As always the bus was arriving in the middle of the night. The main hub of the area in Nyaung Shwe with most of the accommodation and starting point for boat tours on the lake. Don’t mix it up with Shwe Nyaung where the train station is 🙂 the Burmese always have at least two cities with similar names in each region… There was no chance of waking up the owner of the place where I managed to reserve a room the day before. So Philip and I ended up in the place next door, the Queen Inn. They offered us to wait/sit/sleep/whatever at their communal area and even provided blankets and hot tea… Did I mention that it get’s really cold in this area during winter? The staff of the Queen Inn are amongst the most friendly I ever met… Unfortunately the place is fully booked most of the time. Otherwise I would have cancelled the other room and just stayed in the Queen Inn!

The guest houses in this area are a short stroll from the city center and located on the shore of the canal that leads to the lake. They are a good option if you want to escape the crowds. The downside that comes with the views of the canal is the noise of all the boats in the morning…

Monks love a little bit of fun as well... at least the young ones :-)

Monks love a little bit of fun as well… at least the young ones 🙂

After finally checking-in at 8AM and sleeping until noon, we rented bikes and explored the area around Nyaung Shwe. As soon as you leave the city center (which rarely any tourist seem to do) you’ll find yourself in the middle of very basic and traditional houses and will be able to observe the lives of the locals. We saw two little girls chewing bamboo (local sweets? They didn’t want to share with us 😄), cows being led into a pond for a nice bath, were cheering at a football game of young monks, and finally ended up in a house were local rice snacks were produced and packed.

Burmese "Pringles"factory ;-)

Burmese „Pringles“factory 😉

The next day we did the obligatory boat trip. The cheapest tours are available for around 12000 to 15000 kyats. If you want to go to a pagoda on the southern end of the lake (which I would highly recommend, only a few other tourists there. Many tour operators seem to keep quite about this option) one has to pay 5000 kyats on top. Try to get a guide/boat man who is able to speak English even if it’ll cost you another 5000 kyats! It is the price of the whole boat for the full day and can be shared by up to 5 people.

"Fake" fisherman posing for a photo.

„Fake“ fisherman posing for a photo.

Basically the tour will bring you to the 5-days-market which is located in 5 different villages and rotates on a daily basis. After that you’ll be taken to traditional villages, each village producing a particular range of goods. There are villages for hand-woven products, cigars, silver and gold-ware, and many more.

One of the crowded and already very tourity 5-days market.

One of the crowded and already very tourity 5-days market.

Your guide will bring you to a particular shop in several of these villages, most likely the one he favors (commission I suppose). Depending on his language skills you can choose which kind of villages you want to visit but unfortunately most truly local and traditional shops have been replaced by big tourist businesses 😞 sometimes I felt more like on one of these shopping tout-tours in a rickshaw in India than on a lake in a rural area of Burma…

Traditional hand-weaving at lake Inle.

Traditional hand-weaving at lake Inle.

Nevertheless, the lake also has some quieter areas were the locals live and which are really nice to see. Again, it depends on your guide whether he’s taking you there or you can point him to this direction. Two other attractions despite the shopping villages are a village with long-neck people from the Karen tribe and the so called „jumping cat monastery“. We skipped the Karen village because we read that these people were relocated by the government from their former territories of the northern mountains to the Inle lake as a tourist attraction. Instead we went to the monastery to learn that there are no jumping cats anymore. They have been trained by and old monk, which either passed or moved away, and the younger monks don’t train the cats. I was sad to see that the monastery was transformed to just another of these souvenir markets… Even the gong was almost inaccessible due to all the stalls 😦

Traditional form of leg-paddeling at lake Inle.

Traditional form of leg-paddeling at lake Inle.

Enjoying the quieter and peaceful areas of lake Inle.

Enjoying the quieter and peaceful areas of lake Inle.

If you want you can stay on the lake until sun set for some great photo opportunities. Then you’ll most probably be able to see the impact all the tourism has on the environment: a big cloud of smog forms over the lake every evening. The locals should start to change things soon. If the several hundreds of boats, which are catering only up to 5 people each and are powered by the most inefficient diesel engines, keep on going to the lake every day, the place will be destroyed within the next 5 years… Burma has only started the tourism business and if more people are coming to Inle lake it’s not going to work the way they do it now!

Sun set on the lake!

Sun set on the lake!

The next days we were on our bikes again. Our original idea was to go to a village called Intheim (or something similar. But it was to far for several people of our group, which had to catch a bus in the evening. So we went to a village right after the hot springs and took a boot to cross the lake with our bikes. There seem to be at least two operators, one really old guy and, at the beginning of the village, another, younger guy, both fighting for your attention. Both will do the crossing for 6000 kyats, again, for the whole boat. This boat man was actually really good. He spoke English and, although we didn’t requested it, he brought us to a friend of him, a guy that was a „real“ fishermen and not just like many other on the lake posing for photos and asking for money. He also went to a house in the middle of the lake where we could have a swim. Great and refreshing experience! After that we continued to the other side and got on our bikes again, making our way back to Nyaung Swhe.

Best way to refresh.

Best way to refresh.

Another nice and quite surprising thing to do around Nyaung Shwe is a winery on the hillside next to the city. I didn’t expect a winery in Burma at all! They offer a wine tasting of 4 different wines for 2000 kyats and it’s actually quite good stuff. They also have a variety of snacks and meals. You might not exactly get the food you had in mind while reading the menu but everything tastes really good. Only the plate of cheese is not the best value 🙂 the winery is also the perfect spot for sun set, providing good views over the valley and the lake… The best is that you can enjoy these views with a glass of wine!

Watching sun set and tasting wine. A perfect combination at Red Mountain winery near Inle lake!

Watching sun set and tasting wine. A perfect combination at Red Mountain winery near Inle lake!

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