Category Archives: Myanmar

Burma: then and now

I first went to Burma in March 2010 and it was the first destination I wrote about when I started this blog a short time after. I thought it’d be interesting to make a comparison of how Burma was then and how it is now given the change in political situation.

Having recently just returned from Burma, I can report… that not a whole lot has changed for the casual tourist. Sure, tourist numbers are up, prices are up and people now have smartphones, but things really haven’t changed in as a dramatic a way as some people seem to think.

Same old Burmese trains
Same old Burmese trains

Electricity

One of my lasting memories of Burma was the electricity situation. Every hotel had massive generators out the front because frequent electricity cuts would leave entire cities without power. Of course, air conditioning was on a separate circuit so when the electricity was off and the hotel was running on generator power, air conditioning was useless. In Mandalay, I remember that electricity was off for most of my visit there and the generator was running overtime. That has now changed. I can only think of perhaps one or two minor electricity interruptions in my recent trip meaning that air conditioning is now something worth searching for, particularly in places like Mandalay in the hotter months when temperatures often reach 44C.

Same old Golden Rock
Same old Golden Rock

Tourist numbers

Tourist numbers in 2010 were quite strong. I remember thinking that it was incredible to see far more tourists in Burma than I had seen in Sumatra a few years before. Places like Mandalay, Yangon and Inle Lake regularly had full hotels and it was not uncommon to see tourists when you wandered around town. At Golden Rock, I saw 5 names in the visitors book for the day I visited. This time at Golden Rock there would have been 20. Inle Lake this time was full of tour groups, particularly older types. The same with Bagan which is quickly becoming one of my least favourite places in Asia. Yes, tourist numbers have increased significantly, but it was quite heavily visited in 2010 anyway.

Accommodation costs

The prices of hotel rooms have gone up. They’ve gone up so much that Burma no longer has budget rooms. Just less expensive ones. For a crappy, bed-bug ridden place in Bagan with hot water that is always cold, air conditioning that works more like a ceiling fan and WiFi that only sometimes works, you can expect to pay $25. In 2010 a room like this would have cost $12. Rooms are poor value compared to what you can get elsewhere in Asia. I’d say on average rooms are overpriced by about $5-10. So while it’s no major expense, you can’t help but feel ripped off while you’re there. My cheapest room was $10 in Kalaw and I believe that was good value by Asian standards and great value by Burmese standards.

Same old dudes rowing boats with their legs
Same old dudes rowing boats with their legs

Internet

When I was in Burma in 2010, internet was widely available in internet cafes but had silly blocks on sites such as gmail. The odd hotel had an internet connection, but the infrastructure was fairly dodgy and useful for the odd checking of email. Things have changed to the degree that some hotels now have internet connections fast enough for skype video calls while almost all hotels had a wifi signal of some sort.

Smartphones

I didn’t see anyone with a mobile phone in 2010. In 2014, nearly everyone has a mobile phone. Even people who are doing jobs which you would imagine would render them quite poor have these massive smartphones. I just couldn’t get over how many seemingly poor people had massive smartphones that put my iphone to shame. The most popular brands I saw were Huawei and Samsung. There must be quite a bit of money flowing in Burma at the moment and I don’t think it’s contained to those who are connected to the tourism industry.

Money

In 2010, the only way to operate your finances in Burma was to bring in a stack of USD and change it on the black market. The official rate was 3 to 1 while the blackmarket rate was 1000 to 1. Now the official rate is about 1000 to 1 so you can now change money at official money changers all around the place. Better still, banks can now operate ATMs. Withdrawing money from ATMs tended to be expensive as a $5 charge was added on by the Burmese banks. But ATMs were everywhere and if you withdraw a big enough chunk of cash per transaction, it’s probably better to do that than bring USD which are still required to be in absolutely pristine condition. I only absolutely needed USD once when purchasing a train ticket.

Same old Burmese kid with a duckling in a plastic bag
Same old Burmese kid with a duckling in a plastic bag

Coke

Coke is now everywhere and is expensive. You can still get the local cola for $0.30, but coke usually costs about $0.80. The same with Pepsi and all those other big brands.

Cars

There are lots more cars on the road. Now that trade restrictions have been eased, people are buying cars. Traffic is crazy at times and riding a motorbike up to Hsipaw from Mandalay was at times frightening as big 4WDs barreled down the wrong side of the road seemingly oblivious to global norms which say that you should try to avoid head on collisions. The number of cars is just going to grow and traffic in Mandalay and Yangon is going to get like every other big city in Asia. It’s just a matter of time.

Price of food

Food prices seem to remain unchanged. You can eat soups and noodles for $0.50 anywhere meaning costs can still be kept low.

So while there are some things that have changed, not a lot has for the casual tourist. You can still avoid tourists. You can still visit the country relatively cheaply (although you’ll be staying in shitty accommodation for the price).

So don’t be put off by reports that Burma is no longer an untouched destination due to the tourist influx. It never was untouched. And besides, the people outside the main tourist areas are still friendly, curious and welcoming. Just like anywhere else in Asia.

Myanmar (Burma): The Capital

Naypyidaw. This is the capital city of Myanmar. A city that hardly anybody would be able to rattle off in a game of trivial pursuit. The reason being is that it’s a relatively new capital, the name is hard to spell (many variations) and pronounce and also the fact that there is nothing there except for the military junta’s bureaucracy. Most Embassies and High Commissions don’t even recognise it and have therefore kept their presence in the more suitable city of Yangon.

As I’ve stated more times that I care to remember, Myanmar’s roads are in the main terrible. Goat tracks. But there is one stunning exception to this. The Government has built a road from Yangon to Naypyidaw strectching over 300km – and it’s almost dead straight. They just simply ploughed this road straight North to the captial and spared no expense. It’s massive. It actually makes this part of any bus journey relatively easy. But when you see some of the poverty in the country, the extravagance of this road is bewildering.

Myanmar: Quite Street near Mandalay
Myanmar: Quite Street near Mandalay

If the road is bewildering, the actual capital blows the mind. It is spread over many kilometres, complete with its own Shwedagon Paya replica. Sprawling boulevards capable of handling Los Angeles style traffic volumes, luxurious manicured garden roundabouts protected by armed military personnel, enormous shopping complexes. It is just staggering to see. Especially when it is populated by a reported 20,000 people. The apparent cost of construction of the capital is US$500m. And every citizen that travels from Yangon to Mandalay has to witness this act of sheer lunacy. Everyone cranes their necks to get a better look at the extravagance and mouths hang open.

How can a Government afford such oppulence when the people are so poor? The people aren’t stupid and I think it just heightens their discontent with the current political situation.

Why the Relocation?

No one really knows why the Government moved to Naypyidaw. Rumours abound of the junta’s fear of a sea-bourne invasion of Yangon. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true. But there could be countless reasons for the them to make the move and at the end of the day, no answer will seem rational. One thing we can be sure of is that a large amount of self-interest will be at the heart of the decision as is seemingly always the case with these sorts of things.

Naypyidaw is not a tourist destination. It is a source of deep resentment for the locals, however, and you can expect plenty of discussion around it.

(just quietly, every time I think of Naypyidaw, I can’t help but thinking of Canberra, Washington DC and Ottawa!)

There were plenty of military types with weapons in Naypyidaw and consequently I opted not to take photos. What a wimp! If you’ve been there, let me know what you think!

Myanmar (Burma): Mandalay & Bagan

The Road to Mandalay

Looking at the map, Bagan and Mandalay are fairly close to one another, but the bone-crunching reality is that between these two places the road is like a goat track. One shouldn’t be surprised by this given that most roads in Burma seem to be of the goat-track kind! The journey between the two areas is about 7 hours on a local bus along a largely unpaved, dusty road which travels through endless dry plains and poor villages.

Mandalay

Mandalay is the second city of Burma and sits at the heart of the country. Most tourists will pass through here at least once as it serves as a transport hub for all points in every direction. Many of the people I spoke to before arriving in Mandalay had a generally negative attitude towards the place and I think this mainly evolved from the alleged below-par palace charging unsuspecting tourists US$10 to enter. Again, another Government sting but given that it’s not worth visiting anyway, there’s probably no harm done.

Mandalay is HOT in the dry season and the temperature reaches more than 40C (104F) most days. At night, it is also VERY hot and because the electricity in Burma is very sketchy, there is a better than even chance you will spend some sleepless nights in a lather of sweat. No air-conditioning, no fan. Just heat and humidity.

Myanmar: Wooden Bridge
Myanmar: Wooden Bridge

The food in Manadalay tended to be quite cheap and of a fantastic quality. The best by far was the mutton curry from the Chapati Corner. A small dish of oily mutton curry, a couple of freshly made chapatis and bit of biriyani… One of the best street side meals I have ever had. Another good place was the Nepali Restaurant listed in the Lonely Planet. Good food, good price.

Myanmar: Mandalay Monk
Myanmar: Mandalay Monk

OK, so why travel to Mandalay? Are there any sites? Well, yes. I’d recommend going to see the big wooden bridge at sunset and visiting a bunch of the old royal capitals. None of it was spectacular, but definitely worth a visit and easily enough to occupy a full day of touring. One cool thing to observe were the package tourists at the monastery in Amarapura. OK, it wasn’t cool. It was actually quite shocking. At 11am, the monks from the monastery gather to have a feed and there is a bit of ceremony about it. Well, bus loads of tourists roll up to have a look (us included!). But the manner in which people were interacting with the monks was hideous. Hoards of people sticking their cameras in monks’ faces, yelling and asking them to move or pose in a certain way and generally treating the whole situation like is was some sort of zoo exhibition. If this doesn’t make you cringe, nothing will. But at the same time, it was interesting to observe and gives the opportunity for self-reflection. Are we any better? Probably not.

Bagan

I’ve read many stories comparing Bagan to Angkor. First of all, there is no comparison. Totally different feel. I preferred Angkor much more for the following reasons. Firstly, Bagan is not set in a jungle. When we were there, it was like it was in the middle of the desert complete with searing heat. We got a horse and cart around the sites, although some had suggested a bicycle (like in Angkor!) – needless to say biking was out of the question.

I really wanted Bagan to be magnificent, but the polish was removed when travelling into town on the public bus from Mandalay, all foreigners were ordered to leave the bus 5 miles out of town to pay money at a checkpoint. It felt really uncomfortable to be on a bus packed with locals only to be asked to disembark to pay a fee. And the handful of foreigners on the bus felt similarly uncomfortable – especially when one went to pick up a brochure on Bagan and was asked to pay another US$5! Funny in hindsight, but a symbol of the lunacy of the Burmese Government.

There are plenty of reasonable budget accommodation options in Bagan, but food tended to be on the expensive side and was generally of average quality despite the multitude of options. Perhaps this is due to the predominance of package tourists in this small, rural town.

Myanmar: Bagan Temple
Myanmar: Bagan Temple

OK, so the temples – how were the temples!? To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed. Sure, there were thousands of them. But many of the biggest and best could not be fully accessed due to structural concerns. Ordinarily, this would be reasonable – but given the amount of money being generated down the road at the checkpoint from tourists, surely there is enough to fix some of these temples. Sadly, it seems very little of that money goes back into temple restoration/improvement. Many of the smaller temples lack atmosphere and your entry into them is often interrupted by locals selling paintings. Not vastly different to Angkor, but at least in Angkor you could find solace once past the invisible line which is the entryway. In Bagan, no such line exists.

Whilst I’m generally negative about Bagan, it is worth a visit. As is everywhere in Burma. Just don’t expect to come back gushing. Rather, expect to come back questioning everything about the place, just as you do when leaving places like Yangon, Mandalay and Kalaw/Inle Lake.

What a very interesting place this is.

Myanmar (Burma): Political Situation

What an incredible place.  Myanmar is right at the junction of Bangladesh, India and South East Asia and it shows this geographical uniqueness in its food, culture and people.  I visited there in mid-March for three and a half weeks despite some people deeming travel to this country counter-productive and asserting that it was tantamount to handing foreign money directly to the military junta.  Perhaps so.  But also perhaps not.

Myanmar: Walking Across the Lake
Myanmar: Walking Across the Lake

The Junta

The Military Government in Burma control the state in a much more subtle way than I was expecting before arriving in the country.  There are few uniformed military personnel patrolling the streets, few uniformed police, very little visible Government presence at all.  In fact, if you visited the country without a suspicious eye, you could be fooled into thinking that everything is just fine.  And for the most part, it is.  People have jobs, they work their farms, the markets operate well, most people are well-fed.  But dig beneath the surface and an amazing level of subtle control exists. Informants and spies are apparently everywhere – but you wouldn’t know for sure forcing the populace to be on edge and paranoid.  Everyone fears that everyone else is an informant, so no one is game to organise opposition, agitate or even just chat about events.

There are checkpoints throughout the country where the military check citizens’ ID cards.  They don’t record anything – they just check.  Seemingly there is no other reason than to let the populace know that they are not free to go about their business without big brother watching.

There are sometimes random searches of buses – plain-clothed men rifling through passengers’ luggage whilst timid citizens search for their ID cards hoping they won’t be spoken to.  On a bus I caught, they simply rooted around in a few bits of luggage for 5 minutes in the middle of the night and then left the bus.  Everyone on the bus sat to attention and were visibly uneasy.

Myanmar: Ceremony
Myanmar: Ceremony

The Revolting Burmese

Despite the paranoia of the populace, I felt they were desperate to share their stories with foreigners – this is in stark contrast to what the Lonely Planet guidebook had advised to be the case.  I had gone to the country prepared for no discussion about the Government, but arrived shocked that so many people expressed their absolute discontent with the authorities.  I sincerely felt that below the surface of a happy people there lurked the rumblings of revolution.  In this regard, it is unsurprising that the monks rose up in 2007 and it would be unsurprising if a bigger proportion of the populace revolted in the next few years.

Is the Junta Propped Up?

One of the recurring themes whilst travelling through Burma was that Government officials only benefited to the extent that they do by selling the country’s resources to foreign nations.  The main concern from citizens is over electricity (Burma is in blackout most of the time), mineral resources (oil, gas and gems) and wood.  The accusations are that the major buyers of these resources is China and India.  These two countries together make up over 30% of the world’s population and no other country is going to stand up to them in order to help the Burmese people.  So the people themselves are going to be forced to take matters into their own hands – and this necessarily means much blood.  Further, it means that China and India will have blood on their hands.

So there’s a brief and simplistic tourist view of how things are unfolding in Burma.  The Junta will not give up power whilst they are allowed to rape the country of its wealth and the populace will be forced into violent revolution.  A sorry state of affairs for the lovely Burmese people.

Myanmar (Burma): Kalaw & Inle Lake

Myanmar: Thazi at Dawn
Myanmar: Thazi at Dawn

The journey to Kalaw/Inle Lake by bus is excruciating. From every direction, it requires a bus journey of more than 9 hours.  From Yangon it is in the realms of 12 hours and this may or may not including a change of transport in the small town of Meiktila at around 3:30am! The journey from Meiktila, through Thazi and up the hill is 5 hours of largely unpaved road that in the dry season becomes a dust bowl. And as most buses keep their windows and doors open, the colour of your skin changes to a dark brown and your lungs become clogged with the parched Earth. Yes, it is a hell.  But on the bright side, Kalaw and Inle Lake are an excellent place to spend a week or so just relaxing and catching up with fellow travellers and sharing a yarn – and the trekking is memorable.

Kalaw

Myanmar: Monks in Kalaw
Myanmar: Monks in Kalaw

Kalaw is a nice place to rest for a few days after being completely broken by the state of the road to there. There isn’t much to see or do, except for perhaps the local cave with thousands of Buddhas. This was quite good and receives very little tourist traffic. We got the impression that most people stayed in Kalaw for just one night and started trekking the next day.

Trekking

Most people Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake and this seems to be the most sensible option given that the road from Kalaw to Inle Lake is also treacherous. Most people take the 3 day/2 night trekking option which generally provides for one night’s accommodation in a villager’s house and one night’s accommodation in a monastery.

For most people, the first day of trekking is quite strenuous because it is uphill for almost the whole day. But despite its difficult nature, there are plenty of rest breaks and total trekking time doesn’t exceed 5 hours. At the end of the day, the harshness is quickly forgotten. The second and third days are much easier and probably a little shorter.

Myanmar: Tilling the Fields
Myanmar: Tilling the Fields

Accommodation on the trek is basic, toilet facilities are clean, but very Asian (but better than almost all roadside toilets at home) and washing oneself is simply a scrub of the face and underarms because of the very public nature of the wash facilities. Costs vary from trek to trek, but we can recommend Sam’s Trekking service located at Sam’s Cafe. He’ll almost never have more than 4 in a group (we were 2) unlike some others that were trying to get us onto a group of 7!

Baggage can be sent ahead to your chosen guesthouse at Inle Lake for 3000 kyat, you are not required to carry your own bedding and the food provided on the trip is ample and of a great standard. You must trek!

Inle Lake

Despite the charm of the Lake, the best reason to visit this area is to relax and chat with people about anything and everything. We spent 4 days here just sitting on the balcony of the fantastic Aquarius Inn – one of my favourite guesthouses anywhere.

Myanmar: Inle Lake Canal
Myanmar: Inle Lake Canal

Most people stay in Nyuang Shwe which is a good kilometre from the lake in the dry season and go on adventures from there. One day we cycled to some caves and then a winery (!), the other days we read endlessly and chatted about travel, sports and the meaning of life.  Some people insist on seeing the sites of the lake, but almost universally they report that apart from the lake itself, the other activities are not good (such as the jumping cats).

So Inle Lake is really about relaxation and it is a fantastic place for this.

Despite the relaxed atmosphere of Kalaw and Inle Lake, they really serve as bookends to trekking through remote villages. I would seriously question visiting either of these places if trekking wasn’t part of the itinerary as the logistics of travel may just be too punishing. But then again, what else are you going to do in Myanmar except visit places at the end of treacherous roads?  Does Myanmar sound exciting yet?

Myanmar (Burma): Yangon, Bago & Golden Rock

Most people enter Myanmar (Burma) through the Yangon Airport and proceed to a local guesthouse to settle into the country and find their bearings.  It’s immediately after exiting the Airport that you realise that Myanmar is locked in a different time to the rest of the world and that travel here is going to be more difficult than most SE Asian destinations.

Myanmar: Shwedagon Pagoda
Myanmar: Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon (Rangoon)

The roads of Yangon are rickety, ramshackle affairs giving a feel of neglect and austerity.  But these roads, the poorly constructed buildings and the vast array of businesses plying their trade on the streets give the town a character that I’ve never experienced anywhere else.  There is charm amongst the poverty that makes Yangon not too unpleasant to hang around for a few days.

The main attractions are all listed in the guidebooks, as are the guesthouses and restaurants and these are pretty much on the mark.  We stayed at Motherland Inn 2 and despite its location, we loved our experience there.  Better yet was the fact that they seem to have a free bus from the airport for anyone wishing to inspect their rooms – a saving of $7.

A good place to gain information on buses, trains and other Burma-specific travel information is the MTT counter at the train station. This Government-run service asks for no money and is happy to hand out maps, book tickets and give out free up-to-date information about the country.  We found this service necessary as the first move out of Yangon proved to the most difficult logistically.

Bago

Travel to Bago can be done by Bus or Train.  The train journey is longer than the bus journey, but is an activity in itself.  The journey takes 2 hours and costs $2 for ordinary class tickets.  We booked a day in advance and I would recommend this journey as a great way of seeing the countryside.

Myanmar: Train to Bago
Myanmar: Train to Bago

There are trishaw drivers waiting at Bago train station to take you to all the sites.  We had worried about where we would store our luggage, but the drivers insisted on carrying it with us on the trishaw to all the sites.

The Bago sites generally revolve around the religious and as such you will see a bunch of pagodas and a big snake at a monastery.  The activities can be completed on a day trip and there really is no need to stay for the night.

Golden Rock

The number one question people asked us about Golden Rock is whether it is worth it.  There were rumours swirling all throughout Myanmar that Golden Rock is hopeless and not worth the hassle.  But we only met one other person that had been there and they enjoyed it! We decided to go anyway despite the runaway rumour mill and enjoyed ourselves.

Myanmar: Golden Rock
Myanmar: Golden Rock

The truck ride and trek to the top were fun. The rock itself was Golden… And that’s about it really.  But if you travel to every destination expecting the Grand Canyon, you are always going to be disappointed and we accepted the rock for what it was and got the hell back down the mountain and out of the heat.  All in all, it was worth the effort.

Been to Burma?  Want to go?  I’d love to know your motivation!

Myanmar (Burma): Overview

After recently travelling through Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) with a friend of mine, I felt compelled to write about my experience.  It was one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited and over the coming weeks I’ll be providing more detail about the political situation there, some of the sites and perhaps some photos of this nexus between India and South East Asia.  Truly fascinating.

Lost in Time

When first arriving in Myanmar, the first thing you notice is that there are a lot of old vehicles driving the streets.  Particularly buses.  It’s the first indication you get that this place is stuck in some sort of weird sanction-imposed, poverty-induced time warp!  As you travel further and further into the countryside, you begin to see many more ox and cart arrangements straight from 3000 years ago and comparatively very few horses.  Motorised cultivation seems to be light years away which is astounding because this method of agriculture is widespread even in what many people would class as a poorer nation, Laos.  The number of times you find yourself saying “old school” in Myanmar is amazing.

Myanmar: Old Bus
Myanmar: Old Bus

Transport

Much of the tourist transport in Myanmar is the same method as the locals use.  That is, coaches and mini-buses.  Because the roads in the most part are very poor, it takes a long time to travel from place to place and it means that visiting the main tourist destinations in the country will require at least three overnight coach journeys which can be horrendous.  Worse still, arrival times of coaches after these journeys is quite often between 3am and 5am, so you can arrive at a guesthouse absolutely shattered from a bus journey, but still have to wait for a room to become available. (It’s all part of the oppression)

Cost of Living

Myanmar: Cheap Food
Myanmar: Cheap Food

The local currency in Myanmar is the non-convertible Kyat (pronounced chee-at).  It means that it is almost impossible to buy or sell Kyat outside of Myanmar.  Furthermore, there are no ATMs within Myanmar to access your money from.  So you are forced to carry as much US Dollars as you will need for your entire stay with you at all times and then try and exchange it on the black market.  The black market is in full swing in Myanmar, so guesthouses will routinely exchange money for you at reasonable rates.

Once you have your Kyat, living expenses within the country are generally very low.  Most meals were averaging $1.50-$2 plus drinks.  This average was based on us eating what we wanted and not trying to resort to the cheapest item on the menu.  If you did that, you could get away with less than $1 for every meal.  Also, breakfast is seemingly always included in room prices meaning another saving on meals.  And accommodation costs are ridiculously low for the quality provided!  Most rooms were about $6 per person for the better quality varieties.  Some rooms were as little as $3-$4 per night.

All in all, when including the cost of transport, food, accommodation, some tourist access fees and miscellaneous expenses, I spent about US$20 per day.  CHEAP!

Internet Access

Internet is inexpensive and available fairly widely in Myanmar, but it is apparently heavily monitored by the authorities and many sites are simply blocked.  So there can be some issues accessing email accounts such as hotmail – I wouldn’t go there expecting to be able to email freely.

Myanmar: Tilling the Fields
Myanmar: Tilling the Fields

Climate

Myanmar is a hot place.  I visited in March/April and the temperatures were regularly above 40C (104F) with less humidity in the North than the South.  These temperatures really take their toll on your body when walking around town.  But more importantly, at night some rooms can be unbearably hot!  So air conditioning in some places is a wise investment, even if the electricity supply is erratic.

Myanmar is a tough country.  It wears you down.  Many travellers I met in Myanmar compared it to India, but felt that India was much more in your face whereas Myanmar wore you down more.  Perhaps its the oppressed national psyche which imparts itself on visitors leading to more depressed feelings – a negativity which you can’t put your finger on.  Whatever the case, Myanmar is a country definitely worth visiting as an interesting look at how a country in a unique geographical location copes with the lunacy of a despotic regime.