Ten Burmese Days

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July 31st 2010
Published: September 26th 2010
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It was time to make another trip out of Thailand to renew our visa and we were intrigued by Myanmar, our neighbor to the just an hours flight from our base in Bangkok. We'd met some friends who've traveled there and highly recommended a visit. It had all the ingredients for a good trip: friendly people, beautiful scenery, multi-ethnic cultures (135 different races) and a wide range of intriguing of cultural and religious sites. We flew Air Asia to Yangon and the new 30 day visa on arrival program worked smoothly, although as of September it is temporarily suspended and must be arranged in advance.

We booked our internal air tickets in advance via e-mail with Good News Travels in Yangon. I'd highly recommend him as he can provide a wide range of planning, not only air tickets. Our plan was to travel by overnight sleeper train from Yangon to Bagan, and the rest of the trip by air from Bagan to Mandalay to Inle Lake and back to Yangon. For our travel style, this was a bit ambitious for 10 days as were prefer not to be on the run an entire trip. However, time was short and we decided to pack it all in just in case.

The money issue: As no credit cards or ATMs are available, cash is king here. The local currency is the Kyat, but US currency is required to pay for some hotels, flights and train tickets. U.S. bills should be in new condition or they might be rejected. When we tried to pay the $30US visa fee on arrival, the immigration officer quickly rejected a few of our $20 US bills. Newly issued uncirculated US $100 bills are best for exchanging to Kyat. The official bank exchange rate is very unfavorable and as a result, most money changing is done on the street. We were offered exchange rates that varied from 900 to 985/1USD depending on what city were were in. The best rate offered was at the Scott market in Yangon for $100 US dollar bills. Hotels will also exchange currency. We also changed money with a travel agent in Mandalay. Do not trade money with any of the Indian money changers in Yangon, as you will be short changed. Oh, and all currency exchanged is in the form of a 1000 kayt note, roughly a dollar bill. Be ready to count and carry that load of singles!

Yangon. The city looks worn yet resilient. Despite the hardships life goes on. Remains of the British colonial period are evident in the buildings in the downtown area. As opposed to Bangkok, we didn't see many westerners here. We spent some time picking up air tickets, changing money, and buying our train tickets. By late afternoon we made our way to see Shwedegon Pagoda and see it's transformation as night falls. We're not disappointed. It's an incredible site that is more than a tourist stop, it's an active, sacred landmark for Buddhists in Myanmar. It's scale is difficult to capture in a few photos. We were entranced by the feel, the sight and the sound of the place. At the entrance we hired a guide for the hour tour to learn more about the site. We enjoyed his company so much we hired him to see some of the sites around town the following day. He came to our hotel prepared with itinerary estimates of taxi charges for each leg of our tour. He is a freelance guide and is available by email, which I can provide. As darkness fell, we met a group of students eager to practice their English with us. We talked for an hour exchanging info about our countries and our language. I asked one women if she knew any English idioms and she promptly shouted out, "I'm on cloud nine"!

Bagan. We wanted to take the train to Bagan for the experience. It leaves about 4pm and arrives the following morning. The first class sleeper was air conditioned, had its own toilet and cost $50 each with four bunks to a compartment. We were told that the usual sleeping car was out of commission and as a result, the substitute car didn't allow passage to other cars on the train. We ordered dinner before our departure and a few hours later the train stopped and our dinners were delivered to us. Our cabin mates were two young guys with MP3 players, cell phones and nice watches. Government employees we guessed. After the first hour they initiated conversation, "How old are you?" one asked Nancy. We had fun exchanging info with them and sharing our headlamp as the light in the bathroom was out. Once in Bagan, we jumped into the pickup truck taxi to take us to Old Bagan. Not knowing whether to stay in New Bagan, Nyaung U or Old Bagan, we're glad we were at Thiri Marlar Hotel. The staff provides four-star service. ($25 per night) We were the only guests for our two nights. Once settled, we found our transport to tour the ruins, temples. With 4000 temples in a 26 sq. mile Archeological Zone we focuses on some of the highlights. A horsecart with a shade covering is the most common way to navigate the sandy paths off the road and into the sites. It's also a lovely way to let the scenery pass you by during the heat of the day. We spend a half day clip-clopping our way around to see some of the amazing temples. We arranged a repeat for 1/2 the following day, but later realized we should have planned a day trip to visit Mt. Popo.. Next trip!

Mandalay. Despite Dennis asking numerous people the question, "Do you know Bob Hope?", no-one, of course had any idea he was being silly. Our initial impression of Mandalay was not favorable. It resembled an industrial Chinese city (yes lots of China investment money is here) lots of non-descript buildings, dusty and chaotic. We had two days to spend here and decided to make the best of it. We made a visit to the well known U-Bein teak bridge built 200 years ago and spanning the Taungthaman Lake which leads into the Irrawady River. We visited a small shop that makes the gold leaf which is sold to worshippers to affix to Buddhist statues. The manual labor required to make the small thin squares of gold leaf was an incredible sight to see. We also met a friend from Bangkok in Mandalay. He took us to his favorite tea shop for dinner: the Shwe Pyi Moe Cafe. He had his own bicycle and quickly found us a trishaw to take us there. This is a bicycle fitted with a front and rear facing seat for two passengers. Pedal power at its' most basic level and a view of the streets on street level! The next day we made the 7 mile boat trip up river to the settlement of Minguin to see the Minguin Paya and the Minguin Bell. Our fellow passengers mostly Europeans. On our friend's recommendation we made time to stop in to visit Nurse Thwe Thwe Aye who runs the Home for the Aged. She supervises the care of 60 men and 22 women with the average age being 84 years old. We'd been told she welcomes donations of medicine so we brought some pills for hyper-tension. She was a bundle of positive, tireless energy who loved to laugh.

Inle Lake: We were met at the Heho airport by a driver and guide Htein Linn of Golden Bowl Tour Services, which we'd pre-arranged by email on a recommendation. He was full of enthusiasm to welcome us to his town and to inform us about this country and culture. The hour's drive from the airport gave us time to chat and to soak in the green scenery and cool climate of the area. Once we drove into the valley and caught sight of the lake in the distance surrounded by low mountains we were so glad to have arrived. We stayed at Aung Mingalar Hotel in Nyaungshwe ($25 per night) with all the comforts, including breakfast. After getting settled, Htein Linn arranged for our horse cart tour of the surrounding area for the afternoon. We slowly made our way around the back roads, passing wats and hearing monks chanting, school kids reciting, an old man on his bicycle, young monks cleaning up the yard of their residence, and for a treat a visit to a local winery for a wine tasting overlooking the dramatic view of a rain shower sweeping over the lake.
Our second day were up early to tour the 14 mile long lake. We arranged our boat driver and guide with Htein Linn. Villages of stilt houses surround the lake, home to many of the tribal people of the area, the Shan, Pa-O, Taung Yo to name a few. Highlights for us were the stilt house villages, life on the lake, the weaving centers with the curious use of the filaments from lotus plants to weave into fabric, market day at Phaung Daw OO Pagoda, and the trip to Shwe In Thein pagoda down a narrow channel to see over 1000 chedis built in the 17th century.
We're so glad to have made the trip. The people we met were happy that we made the trip and took an interest in their country. We continue to read about Burma and will follow the upcoming elections with interest and concern.

Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


28th September 2010

Good memories
Dear Nancy, You brought back many memories for me while reading your blog. Thank you for shearing! Hope to see you soon in the recommended restaurant by you on Thong Lor.
6th November 2010

wow! amazing trip, and beautiful photos.

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