Southeast Asia's final frontier

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March 25th 2013
Published: March 25th 2013
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I determined early in the trip that I would enter Myanmar with an open mind, in fact it was almost blank. Er, perhaps that should read ... a blank canvas! I didn't want excessive research to impede a voyage of discovery to this unique travel destination in South East Asia. Of course I'm aware of Myanmar's recent history, as the country has just awakened from forty years of almost total isolation. Nowadays countries like Myanmar are becoming rare as we live in such an interconnected world, so I got to thinking it's time to experience Burmese culture before the country is completely overrun by tourists, as in neighbouring Thailand. An Aussie guy in the Bangkok hostel was stunned to hear I had no Lonely Planet, was completely oblivious to the absence of ATMs, and had not cashed up with beaucoup US dollars. I'll have to admit the conversation did give me a bit of a hurry up, so I scrambled for the internet to get the good oil. Fortunately visa ATMs have recently been installed in December 2012, so armed to the teeth with mountains of knowledge I was able to slump back into an intellectual torpor!

Anyways, here I am in Yangon, dear reader, and delighted to commence a fortnight of exploration after an uneventful flight out of Bangkok. My only drama was sleeping through the alarm after a big night out in the Thai capital. I don't think I've ever been in such a travel panic, as I was convinced Bangkok's notorious traffic would have me miss the flight. I'd like to say thanks to my cabbie from an out of shape, but extremely grateful customer. After getting in his cab I must have accidentally pressed the button to activate my electric tooth brush, and was oblivious to the cause of the buzzing until the exasperated driver finally put his hand to his ear and then pointed at my bag. Oops, hello sailor ... I can barely recall the last time I was such a shambles! After arriving in Yangon one realises it's seriously hot, and the cars drive on the right side of the road as in Europe and North America. However, and somewhat bizarrely, over 70% of vehicles have the steering wheels on the right, and are set up for driving on the left such as in Japan, the UK etc. It feels awkward as a passenger, but I guess the drivers can't argue with cheap Toyota hand me downs from Japan. The cabbie was nice, friendly, and welcoming; and I arrived at the MGM Hotel after 45 minutes. The driver said that in the last year alone traffic has doubled on the streets of Yangon on his estimation.

The check in at the hotel was a little awkward and time consuming, but since my arrival I've been impressed by the welcoming nature of the Burmese. It's intriguing to arrive in a country that's still unused to tourists, and the lack of familiarity manifests itself in most daily interactions between a dumb tourist and an unfamiliar local. However, I find these types of scenarios a fascinating part of travel, and you always get there in the end; providing the situation is handled with a patient smile. I have no complaints about the quality of the room; which features air-conditioning, an ensuite and even hot water. Also, I can't think of a single instance when the power has gone down during my stay, unlike my recent experience travelling in Nepal.

There's a great restaurant connected to the MGM, and I've enjoyed a variety of tasty and unusual dishes since arriving in the city. I've also discovered plenty of activities to keep my occupied during the day, and the city centre is only two kilometres from the hotel. I got amongst it in buzzing Chinatown, and strolled around with the busy sellers at the vegetable markets. Of course there are plenty of pagodas to see in Myanmar's traditional capital, and a morning trip to the world famous Shwedagon Pagoda is a great experience. The complex features a mighty pagoda and stupa set amidst impressive architecture, and bizarrely I just saw TV footage of Hillary Clinton strolling around the pagoda while I was in Bangkok. As such I had a sense of deja vu during my visit, while following in the footsteps of the rich and famous. During my visit I was sporting shorts, so a local got me sorted in the traditional longyi in no time to make me respectable. Unfortunately it was not tied securely, and the locals had a good old laugh as I scampered back to the entrance while holding up the longyi with one hand.

After three nights in Yangon I boarded a one way flight to Mandalay at a competitive fare. I arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and was told at check in the flight was delayed for 90 minutes. A three hour wait had the passengers somewhat miffed, but the airline provided us with a free sandwich and coffee as we killed time at the terminal. It's a ninety minute flight with Air Bagan, and as soon as the plane touched down and the doors opened, kapow! It was amazing as we were hit with an overwhelming wave of hot air. It was 2:30pm in the afternoon and the temperature was 39 degrees. Thank goodness it's a dry heat here, as there's little respite for the locals from the punishing temperatures. I checked into the excellent Royal Guest House, and was lucky to score a room with aircon and an ensuite for 17 dollars.

There are a fair number of foreigners still in Mandalay, although the hottest part of the year is approaching. Apparently during the peak season from December to February Myanmar is close to bursting point, as they welcome a flood of foreign visitors. There's a desperate shortage of accommodation, but from year to year tourist numbers are surging. The Burmese are scrambling to meet the needs of visitors in this wildly popular travel destination, so I'm happy my visit has coincided with the end of peak season, otherwise I may have struggled to find a room!

I booked a driver for the next day to show me the religious sites of the city. A motorbike with driver is another option for around half the price, but I'm glad I chose a car as each opportunity to get out of the sun proved to be a blessing. I arranged an 8:00am pick up, in order to minimise the effects of the seasonal heat, and had an excellent day of sightseeing. We visited several pagodas and monasteries, and went to the street dedicated to marble sculptures. The day concluded with a walk up covered stairs before arriving at the summit of Mandalay Hill, a must see on any traveller's agenda in Mandalay. The summit provides excellent panoramic views of the city and comes highly recommended. I thanked my driver for an enjoyable tour of this intriguing Burmese city, and am looking forward to a bit of downtime as the city begins to cool off at sunset.

I've enjoyed my visit to Myanmar so far, and there's still so much more to see and do before the trip concludes. It feels different from almost every country I've visited, and the isolation from outside influence only adds to the mystique and charm of this fascinating country. Come and visit frontier Myanmar, basically all of you should be here now!

My top priority is for people to understand that they have the power to change things themselves." Aung San Suu Kyi

As I continue my travels, until next time it's signing off for now


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26th March 2013

Myanmar Independent Travel
Hi tom Just read your latest blog and was interested in your comments regarding accommodation. My husband and I have travelled fairly extensively in S.E Asia and are heading to Myanmar in October 2013 with another couple, less well travelled than us. We love landing in a country with little organised, apart from maybe the first night's accommodation. The sense of adventure and meeting the locals is what it's all about. However all the travel reports seem to indicate the problems in travelling in Myanmar in this way. What is your opinion? I think it's still feasible to land in Myanmar and organise our destinations/plans once there but our friends are wanting us to commit to a pre-arranged tour. At great expense and little independence. Is a party of 4 going to hit problems arranging travel plans/accommodation once in Myanmar? I would be grateful for your opinion as you are travelling there now, albeit less people involved? Many thanks and enjoy your travels. I will enjoy reading about them and salivating for the time I'm back on that road again. Many thanks, and regards Kim
26th March 2013

Independent travel
Hi Kim Thanks for the message. As long as you do not come between December and February, finding accommodation on arrival should not be a problem. All the issues you raise are the same problems you will find anywhere, and unfortunately organising pre-paid tours is both expensive and inflexible. I hope you enjoy your upcoming trip, and Myanmar is wonderful whichever way you decide. All the best Tom
26th March 2013

final frontier?
I think i just threw up in my mouth a little bit!
26th March 2013

Hand it to you
Hey Tom, You seem to be having a good time. I think you may have made a glitch... In the US and Europe they drive on the RH side of the road... See you soon-ish... Gav has headed off to Chiang Mai today for about five days. Renmeister
27th March 2013

Left hand from the right
Thanks Ren, the schoolboy error in the blog has been corrected. See you soon.
6th April 2013

A blank canvass
Sometimes it is much better going in with few expectations. Hilarious story about waking up late. Sorry you had to endure that trauma but it was pretty funny.

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