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Published: March 21st 2012
A few weeks before I left on my trip, the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with Myanmar
. Before then all I knew about Myanmar was that it used to be called Burma. I had seen "Beyond Rangoon" about 13 years ago, but I never kept up with the politics. I recognized the face of Aung San Suu Kyi
, but didn't know her story. After talking to a few people who had been there I decided to get the visa and see what all the hype was about. Myanmar hasn’t quite been commercialized like the rest of SE Asia. The generals who control the country are starting to implement reforms. Getting to Myanmar involves a bit of planning. You need a visa, which I was able to pick up in Bangkok. Most importantly, you need crisp US dollars. There are no ATMs that interact with foreign banks either and credit cards are rarely accepted. With even a crease you can find your ‘newer’ hundred-dollar bill not being worth much more than toilet paper. The Burmese are convinced that bills with certain serial numbers (i.e. those starting with CB) are counterfeit. Bills also cannot have marks on them; even the counterfeit pen marks we use to make sure the bill
AREN’T counterfeit. Lastly, you need to fly into Yangon’s international airport. Land entry is only limited to a day and they hold your visa. I’ve read you can get in by land for longer, but I didn’t want to take the chance. It’s a little different to say the least. I spent my last two days in Thailand ironing my money
and trying to convince moneychangers to give me crisp USD. In the end I was able to get enough crisp USD to feel comfortable for a week. Yangon (Rangoon)
– My AirAsia flight got me into Yangon just at sunset. I met a guy from Japan and we shared a cab to downtown. Yangon isn’t like most other cities I’ve been too. I notice little things when I travel. We take so much for granted in the US. In Asia, most people will advertise that they have WIFI. In Myanmar, they advertise that they have electricity. I noticed that there weren’t many streetlights illuminating at night, and that most of the light came from cars, especially in the back streets. Also, it was hard to find any fancy restaurants or convenience stores. Most of the food was made on the street.
Every kid's favorite!
I walked around that night until I found a restaurant. The chicken and rice I had was probably the best I have had in Asia so far! Since Yangon is now opening up, there aren’t a lot of hotels. I was lucky to get a tip in Kuala Lumpur from David to book my hotels ahead of time. I’m glad I did this, as I saw a few backpackers looking for a room late at night.
The first thing I did the next morning was to book my flight and hotels for Bagan. After that it was off to the main pagoda in Myanmar – Shwedagon Paya
. This has to be the most impressive Buddhist shrine I have seen so far. There was so much gold. I would say it probably came close to the impressiveness of the Royal Palace in Thailand. After that it was off to the National Museum. It was a bit of a walk between the two spots, but it gave me the opportunity to see a bit of the city. I passed a place called ‘Happy World’. Not sure how happy it was with the characters it obviously borrowed from Disney and Avatar. They looked
like scary versions actually. The park looked like something out of the movie ‘IT
’, but I’m sure the kids love it. I finally made it to the National Museum. They wanted me to pay in USD, so I had to go to the guest shop and have them exchange money for me. My $5 got inspected and then I was given a ticket. The museum was nice. Most of the exhibits had signs in English. It was 3 floors, though it would have been nice to have some lights on. After the museum I made my way back towards my hotel to get some lunch and to relax in my air-conditioned room – the temperature that day was 100 degrees. Bagan
– I had heard a lot about how amazing Bagan was from a few friends who had been there. I’m quite sure it was the inspiration for Zelda and the Adventures of Link for Nintendo. With over 4400 temples, it’s quite simply the Manhattan of temples. The taller temples give some amazing views, since the temples sit mostly on a plain. Though Angkor Wat is amazing for its sheer size, Bagan is all about quantity. The land is
just dotted with temples everywhere.
I got to Bagan on Saturday morning and checked into my hotel. Bagan is a little deceiving at first. The map in my Lonely Planet book made it look like the towns surrounding the temples were well developed. In fact, most of the roads were dirt roads. I stayed in a section called New Bagan. I couldn’t even imagine what the conditions would be like in Old Bagan, but they were about the same. The hotel arranged a driver for me to take me to the main temple sites. For the first 5 hours I basically would be dropped off at a temple, take my sandals off, walk around, and meet my driver for the next temple, which would be 3 minutes down the road. I probably did this 20 times before lunch. After lunch we checked out a few places. It was getting pretty hot by then. Traveling around in a 1993 Toyota with limited A/C can wear on you. By this point all of the temples were looking the same. I had my driver take me back to my hotel so I could take a nap. He met me again at 4:00
and we continued the tour. The last stop was at the temple that was the tallest you could climb. Everyone seems to make it his or her last stop to check out the sunset. It truly was an amazing site. The sun was breaking through the haze and casted an amazing glow on the temples.
While I was climbing up the temple I noticed that the girl behind me was also the same girl I had seen at my hotel. We started talking and it turned out she was from San Francisco and was traveling with her dad. Marisa had been living in Beijing and needed to renew here visa and had come to Myanmar to do that. Her dad met her up and they were doing a tour before heading back to Beijing. I met them for drinks that night and we had dinner. It turned out that she had left her job too and was doing something similar to me. Her dad said he was concerned at first, but now supported it whole-heartedly. I didn’t realize that the hotel required you to order dinner in the morning so they could go to the market to get the
food. Luckily, the hotel had messed up Marisa and Otis’ dinner request and offered to make them something, so I was able to tack on a dish. The next day they let me tag along with them. We all rented bicycles and toured around the three small town that make up Bagan. We ate lunch at the Black Bamboo restaurant. By then we were all starving, so it was nice to have a decent meal. Since it gets so hot in the afternoon we decided to head back to the hotel to take a break. Later, Marisa and I attempted to get a foot massage, but weren’t able to find the location. We settled for drinks by the river. Given the dinner situation the night before, we all decided to pre-order the next night’s dinner. We ordered a traditional Burmese dinner. There was a potato and chicken stew, some sort of salad, and eggplant. For desert we had fried bananas. Definitely the best dinner I had in Myanmar!
The next day Marisa and Otis headed up the river for Mandalay and I had to figure out what to do for another day in Bagan. I felt pretty templed out
at this point. I decided to rent a bike again and to check out some of the temples to the south and east of my hotel. These were less frequented temples, but still very impressive. All of the temples have Buddha statues in them. Some are as big as the rooms themselves. After the afternoon break I headed to the museum, only to find out it was closed on Mondays. I made my way back to the sunset temple and bought some sunglasses to replace the “premium” Ray Bans that broke the day before for no apparent reason. No worries – they had a sale at the local licensed dealer. Replacements will run you about two dollars. I went back to the sunset temple and noticed this guy, Brandon, who I had met in Yangon at the temple and who I had asked to take a picture of me. He had just come from Mandalay. We talked for a bit and mentioned that his Apple charger wasn’t working. We decided to have dinner and that he could use my charger while we ate. Such a small world. So far I’ve run into six people randomly that I had met at
different points in my travels.
The next day I flew back to Yangon. I walked around the city up to one of the lakes. I had an early flight the next day so I went to bed early. The next morning I got up early for my flight and was hoping to get online before I left. The lady at the desk said the wifi was out because they turn it off in the evening. Apparently the router that gets a signal from the roof gets really hot during the day and they let it cool off all night. "Wifi no 'On' - too hot day, need cool at night, 24-hr wifi no." I got my cab to the airport and spent my last kyat no a cup of tea.
Next stop - The Philippines!
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