Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How to lose 12 days in Burma/Myanmar

Lake Inle
 It’s been almost three months since I touched down in Burma. The stories regaled to me from all of friends who’d gone and fallen under its spell were enough to propel me into buying a ticket. I had only heard wonderful things about the country and I wanted to see it for myself. The trip was also special because it was one I had planned with my former housemate Karen, and it was kind of our last hurrah together in Asia. The thing that got me through the subsequent weeks following her departure.
Lake Inle

I was incredibly excited to get there and experience everything I had heard from my trusted peer travelers, and before delving into details, I will attest to everything I’d heard being 100% true. it's a wonderful country, and with only 300,000 visitors a year (as opposed to the 14 million Thailand sees) is still relatively unspoiled by the perils of being a tourist trap. Walking around it's almost a rarity to see another white face, unless it was a famous landmark or a guest house, in which case we’d see one or two other tourists. I liked that feeling. I am always a bit disappointed when I travel somewhere and it is so overrun with tourists that I don’t see any local people aside from those who are working. (As much as I adore Hoi An, the downtown area is like that now)

 I also fell in love with the people, which everyone says but I concur completely. I never quite understood what people could mean when they came back and said, “The people are just…phenomenal.” I find people incredible everywhere so was curious who this could be different, yet somehow it was. The people are, in my opinion, what make the country. They enchant. They are the epitome of warmth and graciousness and have a genuine desire to engage with foreigners, not seeing us as walking ATMS, but as a gem, a piece of the outside world that they are so shut away from. There are, of course, people who try and sell things, or vendors that overcharge, but this is few and far between, and the sellers are often very respectful when you say no. The people are (seemingly) positive and happy despite being under such an allegedly oppressive regime. My favorite moments in the country were not when I was scaling a magnificent temple in Bagan, or drinking in the sights of Inle, but were the times with the people, sitting with them, interacting with them, having them ask for me to take their picture just so they could see what it looks like, sharing meals and cultural tidbits, their intrigue and curiosity radiating from them, It’s impossible to not feel a connection, for their joy and delight to not spill over into our demeanor. They are a testament to strength, to faith and to what is good about the human race.

My Itinerary:

May 5-6: Yangon
Customs/passport control relatively easy. There is one bureau de change place in the airport so it's super crowded, don't go there, as it also has poor exchange rates. You can take a taxi to the city and pay USD. Should be about $10. We stayed a hostel (Golden Smiles Inn) we heard about from Lonely Planet. It was cheap, safe, ok. Nothing special. Only accepted dollars. had street food for dinner (Indian) and went to Chinatown for drinks. The next day, we got our palms read which was interesting and enlightening, we went to Sule Paya and got overnight bus tickets for Bagan, which is a 10 hour bus ride. Yangon doesn’t have motorbikes.

May 7-9: Bagan 
We arrived in Bagan around 4am, exhausted from the frigid, music pumping bus journey we’d been on. We found a horse cart driver who took us to a guest house and on the way there I was struck by us driving down a deserted road, lit only by the full moon and stars, and no sounds other than the clip clop of the horse against the road. The romantic in me imagined myself in Victorian England, relishing in the moment. We got to our hotel and crashed immediately, to get a few hours before exploring temples. The temples were great, and we had a nice driver. We watched the sunset and I bought artwork. That night we went to a small café which resulted in my getting terrible food poisoning, leaving me completely incapacitated the next day and a few days after. Some people rode bikes, frankly I think it’s too hot and I like the horse cart approach, it’s traditional and also bolstering their economy. We left first thing on the 9th taking a local bus to Mandalay (8 hours)

May 9-11: Mandalay. 
Mandalay is not the highlight of Burma and the city itself is definitely not a "must see" by any means. Though if you go, which you probably will if you are doing the usual circuit,  get out of the city and go to Anamapura (You can make this a half day excursion, it's only like a 25min drive) and walk across the bridge and just wander around the river bank and meet all the people. They're lovely and it was one of my favorite days there. So you walk through the 'town" and you can either turn left onto the bridge or right down what seems to be an empty road. the right will lead you to all the villages, and it's really something. Children and people everywhere, it’s a true peek into authentic village life, and those who you come across will welcome your presence with open arms. There is real joy and love and contentment in this place. One striking moment was when we stopped to watch a game the local children were playing: the children stood in a big circle, one in the middle, and each had placed a shoe in the middle. The child in the middle served as a “guard” to protect the shoes, while the children in the circle had to try and get their shoe back. This game was reminiscent of childhood when we’d play outside, creating our own forms of entertainment. Not relying on video games or tablets or computers, but good old fashioned fun and imagination. We claim to be so advanced and innovative in our thinking, yet our children rarely leave the house and when faced with making their own fun, are at a loss. When did that happen? We can learn something from these children on the side of the river. That we don’t need an ipad to have fun with our friends, just a pair of shoes.  We left on the evening of the 11th via nightbus bus to Kalaw (10 hours)


May 12-13: Kalaw 
About an hour or so away from Lake Inle is the mountainous town of Kalaw which is pretty much the trekking capital of Myanmar. We went to a guesthouse and got the trek from there (listed in LP). You can either do 3 days 2 nights to Inle or 2 days 1 just around Kalaw. we did the latter. We had a wonderful guide who was very nice and helpful though irritated me because he kept asking if I was alright, and when I told him I was he’d say, “REALLY?” incredulously. The truth was, that I was fine, however, genius that I was, I didn’t pack sneakers, only flip flops and ballet flats so had to hike in my flip flops…. Not impossible but it took me a little bit longer than everyone else. By the end, my feet were raw and blistery but I was NOT going to stop or complain, didn’t want to prove the man right. The trek itself was, for the most part, manageable, but had a few heavy breathing moments but many breathtaking views. Our overnight part consisted of sleeping in a homestay…three of us to a small room. No electricity so we read by candlelight. The toilet was in an outhouse next to the pigs and the shower was a bucket next to the barn (we had an audience when we bathed, so had to keep our clothes on) but it was incredible. The food was out of this world, the best we’d had so far and the experience was fantastic.  Highly recommended.

May 13-15: Lake Inle (most touristy part but beautiful)
Lake Inle
After our trek, we, still smelly and dirty, hitched a ride on the back of a pick up and went to Inle. We stayed in the town, which was quite bustling but you can stay in hotels on the Lake Inle, which are nicer but more expensive but can make you feel a bit isolated. Still worth looking into. Did the  day boat tour, which is nice and stunning but each "village" is a tourist trap, though still recommend you doing it. Our second day we rode bicycles and made our way to natural hot springs that were turned into a spa type thing. For $6 we were in an essentially private pool area complete with lounge chairs and stunning scenery. It was beautiful and relaxing. Lake Inle is by far the most touristy part of Burma that we experienced.  It is where we saw the most other foreigners and also dealt the most with people trying to hustle us. It also failed to have a sugarcane juice stand anywhere. Took the night bus back to Yangon on the 15th (14 hours)
Lake Inle

May 16: Yangon
Arrived first thing in the morning and went straight to our guesthouse to sleep for a few hours. Spent some of the morning in a wifi cafeCame back for one last night. Did some shopping and saw the most Shwedagon Pagoda..

May 17-flew back first thing in the morning. Had a lunch and tea in Bangkok, was in Hanoi for dinner.

I wish I had more time there, I would’ve gone to the Bay of Bengal. Maybe next time. If you are interested in visiting this precious country with beautiful people, I say go. Go now. Go while it’s still relatively untouched. Go before tourism destroys it. Experience it for everything it has to offer. Meet the people. Let it change you.

      1. VISA:  If you’re coming from Vietnam or any country that makes it remotely difficult for you to obtain a visa, save yourself the trouble and get it in Bangkok. Not only are AirAsia flights from Bangkok to Yangon very reasonable ($70 each way) but the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok has it down to a science (you can even get same day for an additional fee!) You should arrive at the Embassy (an easy BTS ride) a good hour before it opens. You should see, about 50 m away, a sign for a photocopy shop,(you have to make a right down a small street)…go there and they will sort you out with everything you need: passport photocopies, application form, and everything organized properly. It’s ridiculously inexpensive and hassle free. Then cue up at the Embassy and go on in. You have to wait in line with your application form, turn it in, and then sit down. Then you wait about 15-45 minutes, and they call you back and you give them your passport and payment (must be in Thai Baht) and they give you a receipt. You return in the afternoon. Pick up begins at 4pm (I think, maybe it’s 3), but there is a LONG line. Huge. Get there an hour early. Trust me on this. I am not a punctual person. I show up at the airport 45 minutes before my international flight. This isn’t a joke. Also, these rumors that you need a full itinerary, not true. We needed our flight itinerary but only because we wanted same day service. 

2. MONEY: If you’re traveling to Burma you’ve heard that you have to carry flat and perfect USD in 100s. What I didn’t know was: a) They also prefer the money to be made after 2006, which is surprisingly not easy to find on a whim. And B) certain serial numbers (AB being one of them) are deemed unlucky, so they will reject your notes with those serial numbers. Just carry an extra $200 just in case.

What I didn't know is that you need to pay $10 USD to leave, so make sure to have that. Also, some hotels only accept dollars, and places like Inle it's cheaper to pay by USD than khet. So i'd bring about $50-60 in smaller bills.

Change money at the bank. The rate is better. Don’t change on the street. You can also change dollars back at the bank. Bring your passport.

3.     GUIDANCE. I don't normally like Lonely Planet but it's actually pretty useful in Burma, in regards to finding hostels and hotels and stuff. The prices will probably be off and some places may not exist but it's a good source of where to stay. Though beware that it’s very backpackery and you’ll see the same people over and over again. Book is not good for finding shops. I drove around for almost two hours looking for a specific shop. 

      4.BUDGET: Like a lot of places, there is a range of what you can spend on a holiday in Burma, it is entirely possible to survive on a shoestring budget of $35 per day. However, to have a better time, I'd budget $50-70 a day, unless you want luxury, which you can also do in some places. 

     5.     TRANSPORT. Getting from city to city is done either by bus, plane, or private car. We took buses everywhere, which was ok but they take a long time. They're either really local or very modern. The latter requires a sweater and socks for the freezing air con. None of the buses have reading lights. 

6.     FOOD: Burma is not known for its cuisine and there is a reason for that. The Indian food is decent but everything else failed to impress. Stick to the basics. Avoid smoothies and fruit juices. One thing to definitely try: the hot milky tea: it’s deliciously addictive.

7.     ATTIRE: This is a conservative country, so be mindful and respectful of that. Women should keep their shoulders covered, and showing too much leg is probably not wise. It’s not illegal, but just frowned upon. You will attract more attention than you should if you’re scantily clad.

8.     COMMUNICATION: Getting a SIM card is expensive (like $70 when we went) and internet cafes are available but the connection is spotty at best and can get expensive. Your best bet is the five star hotels or wifi cafes in Yangon. Also we found a place in Lake Inle (Inle Pancake Kingdom) that had wifi. It’s probably best that you tell your friends and family that you’ll be off the grid for a while…and relish in the feeling of truly being on vacation!

9.     DISCRETION: It’s better to not discuss hot button topics openly, and especially not with locals. Also, if traveling as a couple, keep your PDA action to a minimum. That kind of thing just isn’t done in Myanmar. Be discreet in your behavior and conversations. My advice to those who have an issue with political situations: if it bothers you that much, don’t go to the country. By visiting Myanmar, you’re supporting the regime and the people, so don’t waste your time trying to make a statement once you’re there.

10.  ECONOMY: be mindful of the fact that you’re in a third world country with a shaky economy. A lot of the people you come across live hand to mouth, and are truly decent people not trying to rip you off, but merely trying to make a living and provide for their family. Unless something is outrageously high, it is better to graciously accept the price. Believe me, I’ve lived in Asia for almost three years and I am all about bargaining, but in Myanmar to do so in an intense degree is missing the point of the country and depriving yourself and the people. What is a dollar to you is a meal for their whole family. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Its been a pleasant journey. Your experience will guide us whenever we will plan for Myanmar Travel. Thank you Alice.