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Published: November 18th 2012
This latest entry requires that we first set the scene for you. It is October of 2007 and we are standing in our hotel room in Kuala Lumpur with backpacks all but ready to head downstairs to jump into a cab to take us to the airport. For the past few days there had been unrest and rumblings in Myanmar. Rising petrol prices and general unrest was afoot. The night before on the television we see small riots and police hostility toward the monks on the television. We are keenly interested in the reports the BBC is providing regarding the unrest in a country we are going to visit in a few short hours.
When we awoke that morning, we had an uncertain feeling about flying into Myanmar. And now there we were ……. standing in our hotel room trying to make a decision about whether it is smart to continue on with our plan. After a short discussion we decide to cancel. No sense heading into trouble and uncertainty. Fortunately as it would turn out, we made the correct decision as some three hours later a Japanese photographer was killed and the Internet was shut down by
the ruling junta. Access to this country was severely limited for ten days. We would have gotten to Yangon and been stuck in the middle of riots. Not how you want to spend your holiday dollar.
We vowed to go there and five years later we have finally made it to Myanmar or Burma, whatever you want to call it!
Why have this continuing urge? Before we left on our voyage in 2007, we were fortunate to make the acquaintance of a couple who were on an around the world trip a year earlier. We were following their trip and dreaming of following in their footsteps. We had talked about quitting work to travel for years but needed the extra push. Following them through Travelblog sealed it for us and we sold the house, put things in storage and took off for 10 months. We’ve had no regrets and we thank Cori and Emmanuel as they contributed to us making this fabulous decision!
Check out their Burma blogs if you like. Buddhas, Pagodas and Monks!! Photos of Myanmar
And now for our impressions……….Our friend Michael from Seattle
Michael, Merry & Dave
Fine time touring Burma
decided to join us for this leg of our trip. He has a wicked sense of humor and we are happy to be traveling with him. Actually Michael is a citizen of the world who works to feed his travel habit and lives in Seattle, Paris and Bali part of the year. A fine traveling companion. A bit of banking business
We’d been told to change money in town instead of the airport so we headed off to a bank in Yangon. Dave and Michael disappeared into the bank…… what an experience! The line was long and it was moving slow. It was Saturday and of the six banks exchanging money in this one building, only one was open. Piles of money sat on the counter, both kyat and American dollars strung together. No internal controls were apparent.
At one point two young girls walked out of the bank with a bag of bills so heavy it required both of them to hold one strap of the bag. It was amazing to us that someone would walk around with that kind of cash. Buddhists are honest people so we
assume they were not worried about theft.
A reminder…. Bring cash…crisp, new bills with no markings on them. Larger bills such as $50 and $100 USD bring a little higher exchange rate. We are told there are no ATMs and the only place we have found that will take credit is an occasional jewelry store. We found this out while shopping for Burmese rubies. No, we have not bought any yet. Yet, may be the key word. Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda
If you came to Burma and only saw the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, it would not be a wasted trip! The photos will demonstrate why we feel this way. It is an amazing Pagoda and has so many Buddhas that we started calling it the Buddhapaluzza…
Travel tip: Go to this site in the afternoon so you can see it in daylight but stay long enough to see it at night. Sunset in early November is about 5:45 PM. The entire compound lights up and provides and entirely different ambiance. Well worth the effort.
We had a special treat on the day we
were there. As we were heading over to see it a thunderstorm moved in and they skies opened up with a flood of rain. As we arrived it had stopped raining but the clouds looked ominous and we continued to hear the rumbling of thunder. We were cracking jokes about being safe walking barefoot on wet marble because all the buildings were tall and would act like lightening rods. At one point we felt like we were living in a scene from the movie Ghostbusters where the storm clouds surrounded the temple and the thunder roared. The clouds improved the photos and when the sun came back out we had a small rainbow and the sun glistened on the wet Pagoda. In this case all that glittered was gold. It was an amazing sight. Passing fancies and the smoking battery
One of the interesting things about driving (or in this case, being driven) is that traffic is on the right side of the road. This is truly unique because: a) this is a former British colony where they drive on the left side of the road and b) almost all the cars
Cooling our battery
Believe it or not, this worked
are Japanese, which means that the steering wheel is on the right. Now it appears that the local drivers have adapted well to this. However, this presents some challenges when you are on the highway and want to pass the vehicle in front of you. If you can’t really take the proverbial peek at oncoming traffic, this gives us pause for thought….
On our way to TaungNgu, we stopped to take a few pictures of the locals with their ox carts and the like. Upon stopping, we were confronted with a rather pungent smell, which upon reflection did not smell organic as we originally thought. Our driver Mia Mia did some investigation and determined that the van’s battery was smoking. Not a particularly good scenario. He pulled the battery, filled it with bottled water (good thing we had plenty) and cooled it with some more water. Placed back in its compartment, the van started up on the first crank and off we went. We were only 15 miles or so from our destination, but there was less than an hour’s daylight left. We felt pretty lucky as we checked into Mother’s House Hotel and promptly found some
Fortunately our fears of walking to town…in the dark…did not come true. Yippy.
Before this trip is over we drove miles and miles and miles on Burmese country roads and highways. The majority of Myanmar travelers fly from major city to major city. We had seen the backside of Burma as we have driven through and stopped in many a small village. This gave us a better flavor of the way of life of the Burmese and also bounced us around quite a bit in the van, but well worth the effort. A new capital city
In 2007 the capital city moved from Yangon to Naypytaw. The good news is this required them to build a new highway between the two cities. Not only is this good for government officials but tourist benefit also. It is a very nice road.
From our perspective the problem with the new capital is that is seems very artificial. We are told that only government officials and the military live in this town. It looks as if you have driven into a Florida suburb with new McMansions. The roads
are wide and the roundabouts are decorated with beautiful flowers and statutes. This is not at all reminiscent of how the average citizen of Myanmar lives. A few random thoughts
As you can imagine we have seen a few pagodas and Buddhas. Myanmar has an amazing number of both. They are beautiful and brilliant. We have seen two extremely large reclining Buddha’s that might be as large or larger than the one we saw in Bangkok. We don’t use the term “extremely large” lightly. The Buddhas are more than 70 meters long (over 200 feet). We imagine one could spend a lifetime visiting such shrines in Burma and not see all of them. As you drive the countryside or mountain roads you will see many.
We’ve taken most of our meals in small local restaurants and there are no tourists to be found. The local food is good and very inexpensive. Often a meal for the three of us is under $10. One night we went to a fancy restaurant in Yangon and the meal was under $20. A Myanmar beer cost $2 and is large (550ml) in size.
The countryside is beautiful. The homes are small grass and teak buildings for the most part surrounded by rice fields. Harvest season is upon us so the fields are filled with hard working people armed with sickles bringing in the crop. We stopped to take photos and they were singing as they worked. They stopped smiled and waved. The people of Burma are incredibly kind and friendly.
The mountain roads are a bit wider than in Nepal and in much better condition. Sorry we keep comparing all roads to Nepal but we had never seen highways in such dilapidated and dangerous condition. The mountains here are more like hills in some of the countries we have recently visited. We have actually enjoyed riding on some straight highways.
This is the first time we have had fresh mandarin oranges. We bought several bags of them at the market. What a delight! Burmese Buddhist Festivals
There are many festivals this time of year in Burma. We were able to glimpse a portion of the Nat festival in one of the temples we visited. They had a band playing music
and the local women were dressed in colorful clothing dancing around to chase away the evil spirits according to our guide. It was quite a frenetic sight to behold. Lots of banging on percussion instruments and some locals almost screaming whilst singing. Quite noisy and seemingly out of place as it was held in a temple. It appeared that it drew a fair amount of interest from the locals and was reasonably well attended. Hiking near Kalaw
Outside Kalaw we headed with our guide Htun and a local guide named Uzo to hike to a mountain viewpoint. We were told it was about 2 ½ hours to the viewpoint and just under 3 hours to return to town. It was a lovely and challenging hike through the valley’s and then up the mountains passing fields of fruits and vegetables. We watched the locals in the field harvesting tea and rice. The soil in this area is rich and many things are grown to include bananas, guava, papaya, watermelons, oranges, cotton, rice, tea, and even canola.
We had the pleasure of hiking through two mountain villages. In the first one
we were able to stop and listen to lessons being taught in a local school. The children seem to be mesmerized by their teacher.
Uzo, our guide seemed to know everyone in all of the villages. He passed out candy to the children and took us into a local home to watch them steaming the tealeaves. In the front yard the tea was drying and then it moves into the house to be steamed.
We had tea in the other village with the local who wore interesting clothing and seemed content drinking tea and smoking cigars.
Our climb to the viewpoint was slower than we would have liked but it was an AMAZING view well worth the trek. Lunch was served at the top. As we neared the top of the mountain MJ was experiencing a health problem related to the masala she had eaten the night before. This issue required her to get back to town sooner than later so arrangements were made for motorcycles to pick us up and get us back to the hotel. Our friend Michael continued the hike with our guides and Dave and MJ awaited the arrival
of the motorbikes, and waited and waited.
When they arrived they were covered in mud, which gave one pause but we wanted to get down the hill quicker than the three-hour hike so off we went. What we didn’t know is the road less traveled back to town included several miles of driving through mud, ruts and two to three foot deep ruts. We quickly understood why the motorcycles and drivers were covered in mud. The next section of road was pretty rocky but all and all an uneventful trip down the mountain. Honestly after seeing the trail we were supposed to hike we were a bit content that we rode down rather than walking. Things happen for a reason. Hats off to our motorcycle drivers who were fantastic.
This country is enchanting and our next blog will tell you more. Places we stayed:
The Clover Hotel- Yangon
Mother’s House Hotel- TaungNgu
Dream Villa Hotel- Kalaw
Restaurant- check out the 7 Sisters restaurant = top notch (Kalaw)
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