Magnificent Myanmar Aug 22-Sept 17, 2008

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Asia » Burma
October 16th 2008
Published: January 4th 2009
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Rested, relaxed, armed and ready to tackle a new country with only a 6.6 KG laptop bag (minus the laptop - I left it at a friend's house in Thailand), I left the lights of north Bangkok behind, jumped on a local bus and for less than a dollar I headed for the Suvarnabhumi (pronounced like Sue-wan-ah-boom, believe it or not) International Airport, traveling partner in tow. With 7 1/2 hours until the early morning flight to Yangon, Myanmar, we busied ourselves by reading waste-of-time trashy gossip magazines at a bookstall, munching on crisp cookies and exploring the nooks and crannies of the 2-year old multistoried airport. With only 1 1/2 hours until I had to walk through passport control and security, I spread out on three hard plastic chairs and caught a little shut-eye, backpack resting on the floor below me, its straps safely tucked under my left arm.

Safety inspectors at a long desk in front of the airport x-ray machines were checking a;; carry-on luggage. Even though I knew the rules, as all airline passengers have had to deal with these since 9/11 (2001), I took a chance with a slightly larger than regulation size bottle of sunscreen, bagged and ready to go and even produced it promptly upon walking up to the desk. The inspector wouldn't let me take it on board. She had absolutely no feeling for my well being and could have cared less if I got skin cancer while traveling in the country next door. She wouldn't let me squeeze any out or put it into a different container (I was traveling lightly and didn't exactly have a different container) or even a plastic bag. She promptly binned it. She didn't check inside my carryon (the only bag I was taking, otherwise I would have checked my sunscreen), so she didn't notice the "far-worse" items I had. I had a full-size bottle of sunscreen with only approximately 1/2 dozen good uses left, nor did she notice my nail clippers, plastic fork and 2 safety pins (one, actually, was holding up my pants!). I felt I could do far more damage with these sharp items than a just over the 100 grams regulation size plastic tube of sunscreen. If she was a real stickler, she could have confiscated my malaria tablets since they were counter out and put in a different container before I got to the airport. In foresight, when I was packing, I took photos of the container, the label and the pills just in case I was stopped at security. Nobody noticed or cared.

The flight was on time and only took one hour to get to our destination. All could see was green, green, green from the air. I knew I was going to like this country. A free 45 minute bus ride into town from the airport (sure beat a $7 taxi trip!), checking into a charming "chalet style" room in a lovely US $5.00/nt guesthouse that included a fabulous breakfast the following morning, some shady dealings with the black market in order to obtain the local currency (spelled kyat and pronounced "chat"), and a walk around the neighborhood occupied the first day.

My first impression of the Myanmar people was a lasting one. By the way, they don't use the term "Burmese" and I never heard anyone say they live in "Burma." Blame the government for the name change and for "keeping" their people in such a regimented and controlling lifestyle. Call it what you will, but I'll stick to it's current name, Myanmar, for continuity sake. My impression? Positive. Smiling, happy, genuine. The vendors were not aggressive or pushy, thankfully. If I didn't want to buy goods, they didn't try to force anything on me I didn't need or want. The locals have amazing senses of humor and are quick with the wit. The kids enjoy getting their photos taken and enjoy even more, seeing themselves and their friends on the 2X2 screen on the backside of the camera. This is truly the land of smiles; real smiles, not full of "I'm smiling cause I want your money" smiles. It's a much easier country to travel in when one doesn't have to constantly be saying "NO" to vendors, avery the eyes so one's not being mindlessly stared at or constantly watching one's own surroundings afraid of a theft, mugging or maybe a gun to the head!

We traveled through small towns and villages and as much as I would have liked to get off the "tourist track," the way Myanmar is set up there are select guesthouses in select towns where foreigners can stay. Foreigners aren't allowed to stay overnight at random locals' houses and not all guesthouses have permits to allow "outsiders" to rent a room. We were really lucky, though, as it was the heart of rainy season but we didn't really encounter that much of the wet stuff. Roads can easily be washed away, rivers can flood towns and villages and many roads can be impassible during this time of year, but we encountered no problems or major hang-ups whatsoever. Oh, except one side trip, by motorbike, which I'll get to in a bit.

My friend and traveling partner and I decided before starting our trip to only take US $300 each for our 27 days in country plus an additional US $10 bill each for exit tax at the airport. Doing the math, this means we spent on average a little over US $10 per day per person. There were a few $7-8 days (the days I didn't take transport) and a few $12-14 days. Food was almost always eaten at local food stalls (and for all you "armchair travelers" afraid to get out there in the real world who may be "grossed out" at the thought of eating from a food cart, I'll have you know they are often tastier and more authentic than at restaurants - and certainly those that cater to tourists! - the food is hot, fresh and prepared right in front of your eyes. And the best thing? It's cheap!). Some meals were costing the equivalent of $1 while other times we were getting the tastiest noodle dishes for 30-50 cents a bowl. Can it get better than that? Egg rolls or spring rolls (the fried kind, and a long-time favorite snack for me) were 10-20 cents a piece -- big, hearty ones, too.

Long distance bus trips cost on average a buck an hour (which didn't mean the distance traveled was very far since the roads are in pretty poor condition). We took a train only once (the money for train travel goes directly to the government and I wanted to give them the very least I possibly could while in the country) and for a scenic 6 hour trip it only cost US $2. This was, of course, on a hard wooden seat, but much of the time we had the seats to ourselves (we sat facing each other) or only sharing with one other person. In India that type of seat would be shared with six other locals, maybe a few goats and chickens and baskets full of fresh market vegetables. Maybe we just lucked out?

We took a long arduous motorbike trip (we chanced upon another traveler at this point so each of us rented our own bikes) up into the mountains to a rather remote mountaintop village town called Namhsan. The distance was only 80 KM (50 miles) but it took us 6 1/2 hours to get there! Yes, the road was that bad! It was potholed, rutted, rocky, gravely, missing in places (!?) and very, very muddy. The mud is what took us the longest to traverse through. We traveled slowly and carefully, guiding with our feet on the rutted muddy areas. I dumped my bike twice, but both times I was at a standstill. Go figure. No damage done to bike or moi, just mud up to mid calf. My chain came off twice on the way back down the mountain but wasn't hard to put back on.

Bagan with its 4000+ pagodas (temples) was quite a sight to behold. We budgeted throughout our trip in order near the end to splurge on a horse cart to take us through the area where many of the pagodas are spread out. I thought continuously of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a beautiful area with lots of old, stone temples, and actually found myself liking this place more! There was something about the lay of the land that was so special, so unique, so alive. I'm not a big temple-lover, but I do love photography, and this place was definitely worth visiting. The horse cart cost under $US 7 for 7 hours and we split the cost. Yes, that was a splurge but well-worth it.

Because I travel on a bare-bones budget I ended up with money leftover. I couldn't spend it all. Imagine! I had about $13 left by the time we got back to Yangon, the day before flying back to Bangkok. I couldn't spend it all. I'm not one to buy trinkets and souvenirs (since I have no place to put them and I sure as heck am not going to be carrying on my back anything more than is needed) and couldn't see the point in paying three or four times the price for a restaurant meal when I could just eat on the street for pennies. I did, however, buy a beer my final night (the third one I had in this country) and we ended up taking a taxi to the airport in the wee hours the following day (and splitting the cost with six Korean travelers with whom we had been on the flight into the country as well!). The "splurge beer" cost me 42 cents and splitting the cost of the taxi, we each paid about a buck, maybe less. I ended up exchanging my leftover kyat for US $ with a nice Thai man who sat next to me on the plane. All is good.............

All in all, I'd say the country is definitely worth a go. It's not a "scary" place; the landscape is varied from mountains in the north to the flat Irrawaddy Valley along the 1300 mile long Irrawaddy River. Some of the beaches and islands are gorgeous, though I didn't get there this trip (I did however see a few brochures depicting long stretches of white, fine sand!). The people are friendly and helpful and many are surprisingly good in English. Basic phrases and words are easy enough to pick up, and as is the case anywhere, the locals love it when you try to communicate in their language. By the time I left the country I could order food (yes, and a beer!), get a room for the night, get to the local market and flag down a bus -- all by communicating in "Myanmar language."

Now, with that said..............don't go.

Shhhhhhh, don't tell anyone. I'm glad I went when I did. It's our little secret. A gem. A "perfect" country to travel in, not overwrought with tourism and focused on tourist dollars to stay alive. They are plugging along, they are surviving, they are doing what they need to do the only way they know how. They'll be okay. Now, if only the military government would let them really LIVE.


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