Up the Ayerwaddy without an ATM


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Asia » Burma
July 28th 2013
Published: August 4th 2013
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Rudyard Kipling wrote many years ago, “This is Burma, It is quite unlike any place you know about”. With the lack of accurate information available today, we wished that he had of been a little less vague. Myanmar is changing rapidly and nearly anything you read may no longer be accurate. Usually reliable Lonely Planet was last updated in 2011 and is hopelessly outdated. Prices seem to have doubled and many restaurants are no longer open. Making independent travel even more difficult is lack of access to the internet once you arrive in the country. Most all hotels have Wi-Fi access, but the speeds, which often reminded us of the dial-up days, are uniformly so slow that making reservations on airlines, future hotels or any transportation virtually useless.

We spent four days in Bangkok planning our trip. We were exhausted from 5 months in the heat of Asia and in some ways would have liked to visit Myanmar at some other time. After changing hotels throughout Indonesia, Northern Thailand and Laos every few days for the last couple of months, just hanging out in the hotel in Thailand was a welcome change of pace. We spent our days planning the trip as best we could and unfortunately catching a cold. We were told that what ATM machines were available in Myanmar rarely worked and we made daily trips to the ATM in Bangkok to withdraw our 400 dollar limit. We weren’t sure how long we would be in the country and we would only be able to withdraw 1600 dollars and didn’t know how long that would last.

We planned to move into a hostel on the last day in Bangkok that offered bag storage. We had decided to travel with fewer things than normal (60 pound bags each plus cameras and computers). We arrived at the hostel only to be told that they didn’t accept anyone older than 49 years old. Maybe Nanci could have faked it but after 5 months on the road, I looked and felt older than I am. They also offered washing machines and we had been saving dirty clothes for a week. Seemed we were going to Myanmar fully loaded and with a pile of dirty clothes.

We left early from our hotel to head to the Don Maung airport in Bangkok. The driver said he knew a shortcut to avoid the tolls on the freeway. Seemed like a good idea and after about 40 minutes of back streets we started seeing signs to the airport. Unfortunately the signs were for BKK, the huge international airport in Bangkok and not the one we wanted to go to. We were farther from the correct airport than when we started from our hotel. Luckily we had plenty of time to catch our flight. This journey already seemed to be cursed and we hadn’t even left yet.

Our AirAsia flight to Yangon took just a little more than an hour. We love AirAsia. They are cheap and the service is great. We had not been able to make reservations for a hotel prior to arrival, so we headed toward our best choice from our outdated Lonely Planet. No luck, they were fully booked. Our cab driver, who spoke perfect English, recommended a nearby hotel. We decided to try it. It was now dark and we needed to get something quick. The new hotel had a couple of rooms left, so we got one without much inspection. It was OK, but doubly expensive by SE Asia standards. The funny part was the ceiling in the room was barely 5 ½ feet tall and even less in the bathrooms. Not good if your 6’ 4”. We arranged with our cab driver to take us on a tour of the city the next day. He had some good plans for us and not having access to buses made having an English speaking driver for the day sound wonderful. Monsoon season was in full force in Yangon and riding all day in a cab sounded like the best plan.

We spent the next day touring Yangon visiting the colonial downtown, multiple Buddhist temples containing Buddha relics (hair, teeth), giant reclining Buddhas, White Elephants and Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s house on Inya Lake. The highlight of the day was Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous site in all of Myanmar. We have seen hundreds of temples in our travels of SE Asia and to be honest have become a little jaded. We didn’t think we could be amazed anymore but Shwedagon proved to be far beyond our imagination. It was absolutely stunning and one of the highlights of our entire trip so far. It is located on top of a hill in the center of town with wonderful views of the entire city. Overall an exhausting, but wonderful tour and enjoyable day.

We spent the next morning walking through downtown Yangon. I love classic old hotels and could hardly wait until a decent hour (it must be noon somewhere!) so I could get a beer in the famous Strand Hotel which is located on the waterfront. It felt like stepping back in time as we ordered our drinks from the stoic Indian bartender. Downtown Yangon really shows the effects of 50 years of neglect by the military government that has been in power for so long.

We wanted to visit Golden Rock which is located near Kindun about a 6 hour bus ride southeast of Yangon. With no access to internet we had trouble getting info about schedules. We found that every hotel in Myanmar can make flight or bus arrangements much easier than we could independently. There is usually a small service charge which was well worth the lack of aggravation. We got our bus tickets from the attendant at the front desk who also arranged for a taxi. The ticket was totally in Burmese and we were glad that the cab driver helped so much getting us to the correct bus. Yangon’s bus station is the most unorganized place we have ever travelled. There must be 100 bus companies all located in small sheds around a multi-acre gravel lot. No signs in English and not much to assist in getting on the correct bus. We were booked for a 9 AM bus but ended up leaving on a 7:30 bus that was late leaving the terminal. The buses were cramped and while air conditioned the drivers did not seem to want to turn it on. All the drivers chewed betel and preferred to leave the doors and windows open so they could continually spit the red juice while driving.

We got dropped off from the bus on the main road and needed to catch a small truck to the town of Kindun. It was nice to be off the uncomfortable bus and we enjoyed talking to a young couple from France who were going to Golden Rock also. They planned to make their way up the hill to the rock and return to Yangon on the same day. Must be nice to be young.

We got up early the next day to catch the truck up the hill to Golden Rock. It is about a 45 minute ride in the back of a 5 ton dump truck completely loaded with pilgrims. The trucks don’t leave until they are completely packed to the brim with about 45 people sitting on narrow padded boards arranged uncomfortably in the back. After getting all the people loaded it took another 10 minutes to load vegetables, meat and assorted other smelly items into any spot that was available. There is a small town located near the top and everything needs to be trucked in. Half way up one of the vendor ladies dropped her hat and we had to wait about 15 minutes while the lady made her way back to pick it up. The driver decided to have a bowl of soup in one of the roadside stands further slowing our ride.

We arrived at the top and were surprised that it was quite the amusement park setting with many hotels, restaurants, temples and other services located near the rock. The weather was extremely foggy at the top and to be honest the rock was a little underwhelming as far as famous tourist sites go.

I started feeling incredibly sick while walking through the maze of buildings. I have struggled with a recurring sickness since we were in Mexico 2 years ago. I have had 3 episodes where I get extremely tired and have chills, fever, joint and muscle aches which completely make travel very uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it is caused by Malaria, Dengue or just some kind of food poisoning. Anyway, it hit like a ton of bricks and we only stayed for about an hour before heading back down the hill to the hotel. I basically hit the bed by noon and slept until the next morning.

We got up the next morning needing a good hotel to rest in for a couple of days while I recovered. We had to go back towards Yangon and we weren’t sure what to do after getting off the bus. It was my hardest day of travel ever repeating our crappy ride on the un-air conditioned bus back to Yangon. We didn’t want to sit in Yangon for more days and decided to catch a cab from the bus station to the Yangon airport. We didn’t have a reservation but found a quick flight on Air Bagan to Mandalay. An hour later we were in Mandalay and heading toward an expensive hotel right on the Ayerwaddy River. It was 100 dollars a night but it was new and had an excellent bed and a nice restaurant so Nanci could get meals without much effort. We made arrangements for 3 days and I did nothing much but sleep.

We were able to get out one afternoon for an uncomfortable tour to the famous U Bein Bridge which is supposedly the world’s longest teak bridge at 1 ½ kilometers. We walked across the bridge and took a small boat back to take pictures of the bridge. We were also short of money having not been able to find a working ATM since we had been in the country. We paid a cab driver to take us to several and on the 3rd try we found one to replenish our money supply.

I have always wanted to take a riverboat down the Ayerwaddy from Mandalay to Bagan. We asked about the ride and we could only get on the government boat which doesn’t have very good accommodations and while scheduled for 10 hours could take much longer. I really was still feeling weak from being sick and basically not eating for 3 days. I just didn’t think I could do it and opted for a quick 45 minute flight. Disappointing but probably the right decision.

We arrived in Bagan and checked into an expensive but beautiful resort hotel located just outside the gates to the walled city of Old Bagan where most of the famous temples are located. The hotel was well above our budget but we needed something to improve our luck. We took a short walking tour of the temples visiting the nicest of the 3000 temples located on the plain and also one of the only ones that are climbable so we could get an elevated view of the entire area.

We arranged a half day tour the next morning which took us to the Nyaung U local market as well as several beautiful temples out of walking distance from our hotel. One of the best things we did was take a break in one of the coffee shops frequented by locals. It gave us a good chance to discuss the military ruled past of Myanmar as well as what people thought the future would be like. We were pleased that people see improvements but are still cautiously aware that things could go backwards at any time. There is still a noticeable wariness about discussing politics with strangers.

We had one more place to visit and were glad we had saved it for last as it was the highlight of our trip to Myanmar. We booked plane tickets through our hotel to Inle Lake for the next morning and after a quick flight back through Mandalay arrived in our last stop. We stayed in the small town of Nyuang Shwe on the north end of the lake.

Inle Lake is full of very nice guesthouses and we had a beautiful cabin-like hotel room with a lovely wooden porch. The air was cool and good restaurants were easy to find. The next morning we booked a full day tour of the lake. We were surprised to find that the waiter from our hotel was also our boat driver for the day. Many locals have switched from being farmers and boatmen to the more lucrative tourist trade.

We loved being on the water and the overcast skies kept it very cool all day. We enjoyed seeing the hydroponic farms on the lake, the houses on stilts, the leg rowing fisherman and the cat filled monastery. It was by far the best day we had in Myanmar and should not be missed by anyone visiting the country.

We were able to easily book flights from Inle back to Yangon but found it impossible to get from Yangon back to Bangkok without buying tickets at the airport. We were lucky that we only had to wait about 2 hours for a flight. By early evening we were back in Bangkok after 13 days in Myanmar.

I was glad to have had the opportunity to visit Myanmar. The people are unique and unbelievably friendly. The country is surely difficult to travel in and twice as expensive as other destinations in Southeast Asia. I think the country is changing rapidly and I hope people find the changes they certainly deserve. Even though this was the most uncomfortable part of our visit to Asia, mostly because of being sick, I enjoyed our chance to see the country before it changes too much. I will never forget the painted faces of the people, the long skirts worn by both men and women and the upbeat attitude that the people of Myanmar have despite years of repression.

We are headed back to the US to rest up for a couple of weeks before continuing our journey. We have been on the road non-stop for over two years and have discovered that moving too quickly is not for us. The heat has been oppressive and excessive walking has taken a toll on us. We both started with new shoes for our six month journey in SE Asia and have both worn holes in the bottoms of our shoes. It’s time to kick back and get a little bit of regular life mixed in with our travels. We are looking forward to getting back in a car and having a few meals that aren’t in restaurants. We really need some time to reflect on our recent journeys and have confidence that with time the good times will far outweigh the struggles of this portion of our trip.


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5th August 2013

Burma
Sorry to hear of your illness. Our last trips was tough as we both experienced food poisoning and Dave fell and hurt his back. It is tough traveling when you are not feeling well. Glad you are doing better. We loved our time in Burma. Bagan and Inle Lake were our favorites. We experienced 3 earthquakes in Mandalay.
6th August 2013

After your month in Bangkok...
you abandoned your longer stay practice. I recommended that you spend at least a month in Chiang Mai or Dalat or anywhere you were enjoying, but you wanted to see all of SE Asia like backpackers. Is there any chance that you will go back and do it the right way? Sorry about your illness...did you ever figure it out?
6th August 2013

Transportation changed everything
Hi Bob, Thanks for all the advice on the trip. Transportation was the issue we never figured out. To keep to our original idea of long stays we really needed something besides feet for transportation. With our limited travel area we found we had to stay shorter times in each place. Bangkok's easy transportation made that the only place we could move easily. We did end up pretty much doing a backpacker trip instead of our original plan. No telling when we will be back. SE Asia is an exotic and interesting area of the world for sure. We're leaving in a few days to our next adventure (not as exotic). I think we have other places to go before we return there probably. Thanks for being a loyal reader and for all the advice along the way!
6th August 2013

You made it!
Traveling sick is horrible. I remember having pneumonia in India once. It'll reduce the most die hard traveler to tears! I thoroughly enjoyed this blog (as always) and it makes me want to see Myanmar even more. In other photos I've seen of women there, they have that white-ish patch on their cheeks. What is that?
6th August 2013

Thanakha
is the name of the makeup they wear. It is made from sandalwood-like wood that is ground into a paste. It is used as a sunscreen and moisturizer mostly. Most of the women and children wear it always but many men also. It is kind of odd at first, but after a while you oddly find it quite attractive. Many people apply it in unique patterns and it is quite a fashion statement. I just started feeling better yesterday finally. We have been very lucky with health on our trip so far so I guess we were due to get sick. Too bad it was in such a lovely country!
7th August 2013

That explains everything...
I guess you learn as you go along. I'm looking forward to your next destination. If it's the US, and you happen by Colorado, and specifically Woodland Park (although I'm willing to go wherever you are nearby), please stop by for a visit.

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