Myanmar - a land that's just opening up to the outside world
It was June of 2012. Myanmar, a country that had been isolated for decades, was just opening up to the outside world. Very few travelers had experienced the sights, interacted with the local people or sampled the Burmese cuisine before. I knew it was only a matter of time before Myanmar would be fully engulfed in tourism and inundated with business people from all over the globe helping them prepare to join the modern world. Outside of what my Lonely Planet book had to say, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that I wanted to go. I had to do it NOW!
I love to go to places where the mainstream traveler doesn’t venture to. Few places in a person’s lifetime transition from being a closed society, where travel is highly restrictive, to one that is open and free flowing. One example, in my lifetime, is Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Having other priorities in my life at that time, I didn’t make it there until after the millennium. I didn’t want to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to peek inside a society that was just waking up to how the outside world exists. A country whose banking infrastructure didn’t connect with the outside world so cash and carry was the law of the land for foreigners. A country whose electrical and communications infrastructure was so antiquated that rolling blackouts were a daily ritual and phone/internet access was basically non-existent. I wanted to get a glimpse of what life was really like without being impacted by the typical tourist traps or falling over other tourists at every corner. But most of all, I was intrigued by the people living there. What were they like? Were they friendly? How would they accept this rush of foreigners coming into their country – their home. Now was the time to go.
I backpacked through Myanmar for 18 days – long enough to scratch the surface about the sites, the people and the culinary delights and confirm to me that I wanted to go back and experience more of this re-emerging country. Overall, I found the country to be more fascinating than I imagined.
My initial thought was to plan the trip by myself (hotels, transportation, etc.). I was winding down my last assignment with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts (helping to open Aulani – a Disney Resort and Spa on the island of Oahu) before retiring. I had no time for planning a six-week trip to Southeast Asia. I had a rough framework where I wanted to go but that was it. I booked my airfare and a hotel in Bangkok for the first few nights. I would figure the rest as I traveled. It was May/June and the start of the rainy season in SE Asia, which extends into October. Being the off-season, locating lodging at the last minute would not be difficult. The dry season starts in November and extends into February. With tourism expanding at a faster clip than room inventory, housing is harder to find during this peak season so reservations must be booked much earlier. March and April is the hot season where temperatures reach 100 degrees F on many days.
Thailand is pretty easy to figure out on your own; however, information about Myanmar was sketchy. What was the best way to deal with all of the infrastructure issues? Which places were off limits to tourists? Booking domestic flights was not an online option.
Shortly after arriving in Bangkok, I visited the Myanmar Embassy, located near the Chao Phraya River, and with relative ease obtained my 28-day tourist visa – the only one that is available and is not extendable. I submitted my application one day and returned the next to pick it up. There is one-day service available; however, you had to show proof that your flight was leaving the next day. That was not my case so a one-day turnaround was fine with me especially since the Embassy is easily accessible to a BTS Skytrain stop. Next, while on the island of Ko Samui, I visited the local Bangkok Air office and booked a round-trip flight from Bangkok to Yangon. Using e-mail, I booked my hotel room in Yangon and Bagan.
About a week before my flight, I started thinking more about my itinerary in Myanmar. How would I get around? What would I do there? I decided to use a Yangon-based travel agent to help me plan the rest of my trip. I found Kyaw (pronounced “Cho”) Khaing of One Stop Travel and Tours through a post on the Trip Advisor travel forum. He and his team were very friendly and extremely helpful in guiding me and managing the itinerary to my budget. In many countries, you can adjust your budget through the use of your credit card. Not so in Myanmar. I came into the country with about 2,400 USD and that’s what my budget was. The amount of cash I had on me dictated the length of the time in Myanmar. In fact, I only had about 1,900 USD while in Thailand so I went to a currency exchange booth in the airport and exchanged Thai Baht (that I had pulled from the ATM) and exchanged it for about 500 more USD. Believe me, this is not the best way to do this; however, due to the non-acceptance of debit and credit cards in Myanmar, I needed a certain amount of cash. I did end up putting my last night’s hotel room on my credit card at Trader’s Hotel in Yangon (a few places that have international operations can process a charge on their network outside of the country – for a fee however).
The first stop on my initial day in Yangon was to visit the offices of One Stop Travel and Tours to finalize my plans. Kyaw, and his team, handled the airline bookings (which are very challenging for the foreign traveler to do in Myanmar), booked the rest of my hotel rooms and provided drivers and tour guides where my budget allowed. My plans consisted of a visit to Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake (the big four as they are known in Myanmar) and Golden Rock, which I asked Kyaw to include since it sounded like an interesting place to visit. Since time was of the essence, Kyaw suggested I take flights from one location to the next. To get to Golden Rock, he would have a driver take me there. As I learned from my trip, most people travel by air or by bus throughout the country. The train is not as widely used because it’s not as dependable. The owner (Kalya) of the inn I stayed at in Yangon told me that the train breaks down periodically, especially during the rainy season, and can take double the 12-hour scheduled trip from Yangon to Mandalay.
Most people seem to travel through Myanmar as independent travelers – either using a travel agent or doing it on their own. I did not come across any organized group tours maybe because it was the off-season.
Here are my overall thoughts about my time in this fascinating country:
Lasting memories –
Visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Built over two thousand years ago, it is one of the truly magnificent religious structures in the world. Covered with hundreds of gold plates and more than 4,000 diamonds, including one that is 72 carats, the stupa can be seen, atop Singuttara Hill, for miles around especially when lit at night. Waiting under a covered platform for an hour-long rainstorm to subside gave time for reflection. As the rain lessened to a drizzle, I walked, umbrella in hand, listening intently to a local monk describe the pagoda, the Buddha and other images throughout for 45 minutes. The monk introduced himself by stating he was an English student and would like to practice his English by guiding me. I am so glad I took him up on his offer. Before departing, I gave him a small tip for his guidance and his company.
The 45-minute ride in the bed of an open truck, packed with locals, from Kinpun Base Camp, up a steep, winding road to the top of the mountain where Golden Rock is located. On the way back down, the truck was packed again; however, this time it was pouring down rain. Umbrellas didn’t help because they wouldn’t stay open due to the wind. My tour guide was thoroughly drenched by the end of the ride. I stayed somewhat dry because I had a poncho on; however, my shoes were soaked. At every turn, the water formed a wave moving from one side of the truck bed to the other covering everything in its path.
The never-ending pagodas and stupas in Bagan. They seemed to be everywhere. I was interested to see how these temples compared to the ones I had seen at Angkor Wat. Bagan has the quantity. Angkor Wat has a little more personality with a number of different designs. The ones in Bagan began to look alike after awhile. I loved climbing the steep stairs to the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda, on two occasions, to watch the sun set. It was relaxing and, at the same time, mesmerizing. Getting a little height allowed me to see the plethora of stupas for miles away. It was amazing.
Feeling immersed in the local life of the Inle Lake region. Whether around the lake areas or trekking through the hills, I found the locals to be extremely friendly and welcoming in this laid-back place. This seems to be the hidden treasure of Myanmar based on a consensus of the other travelers I encountered throughout my time here.
The incredible Golden Rock, one of Myanmar's top pilgrimage sites, dangling by the slimmest of margins on top of another large boulder. Legend states that a hair of the Buddha is holding the giant rock in place.
Visiting the beautiful National Kandawgyi Gardens in Pyin Oo Lwin with its hundreds of species of trees, orchids and several museums. Whether you bring a book to read, spread a blanket on the lawn or just stroll on the meandering pathways, it’s a great place to spend the day unwinding.
Singing, at the top of our lungs, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road” with Htwe (my driver) and Ton (my tour guide) on the drive to Kinpun Base Camp. The song was one of Htwe’s (pronounced “Trey”) favorites.
Visiting the sites in the Mandalay region such as the Mahagandayon Monastery where a thousand monks process through a lunch line in late morning, U Bein Bridge the longest teakwood bridge in the world, a monastery school where tourists interact with the novice monks and nuns attending school there, Sulamani Pagoda one of the top pilgrimage sites in all Myanmar, Umin Thounzeh aka the 30 caves pagoda has Buddha images repeating as far as the eye can see.
The hundreds of temples that I walked through barefoot throughout my trip.
Staying in the Classique Inn, a colonial-style home in a Yangon residential neighborhood. The owner, Kalya, was such a wonderful host always ready to provide assistance whenever requested.
Hiring Min Min and his horse to guide me around the Bagan temples on their horse cart. Bumpy at times, it was interesting to see the off-road stupas and villages while engaged in discussion with my local driver.
Stopping at the one room schoolhouse in the hills above Inle Lake. The teachers were welcoming. The children were both well behaved and intrigued to have a foreigner stop by to see them and their classroom.
The Burmese cuisine. I loved the subtle curry taste. The lentil soup was the best I ever had. The bamboo shoot soup was a first for me. Eating at Feel Restaurant, in Yangon, where the menu is laid out in front of you as each dish is situated on a table in the front of the restaurant. After pointing to your selections (the ordering process), the food is brought to your table by your server.
Pindaya Cave, near Inle Lake, has over 8K Buddha images set deep into the mountain. Leading to its entrance is a rather large image of a man shooting his bow and arrow at another rather large image of a spider depicting a centuries-old legend.
Watching every day life, unfold before me, such as a farmer plowing his field with two oxen and his wooden plow in front of a centuries-old temple in Bagan or locals heading to market in their long boat on Inle Lake.
The people –
When traveling through a foreign country, sometimes it’s hard to interact with the locals. Most of the time, you’re connecting with the tourism-focused people – those in the hotel, restaurant or transportation businesses. That was the case during part of my travels; however, I felt it easy to connect with the locals at times – in the Inle Lake region when traveling through the small villages with my local tour guide Htwe (pronounced “Trey”), at cafes, which I consistently ate at, that catered primarily to the local residents and while out walking through some of the small towns that I stayed in. Kids out playing would ask the typical question – “where you from”. The Myanmar people that I interacted with were friendly and welcoming. For being sheltered from the rest of the world for a long time, they seemed to readily accept tourists – either wanting to chat with them or treating them like another local as they went about their daily life. I wondered if this latter point was because there were not many tourists; hence, the impact to their daily life is minimal. Or, maybe they’re impacted from the recently lifted restrictions of communicating with foreigners.
I enjoyed the drivers and tour guides that I had during my trip. Each one seemed eager to interact with me. Their English was decent. They provided excellent information about the sites we visited. We had some great conversations, on the longer drives, about life in this relatively unknown country. I love to experience the different things about a foreign country. In Myanmar, men wear the longyi – a long skirt-like garment below the waist. Women wear thanaka, a paste made from the bark of a tree, to keep their skin moist during the heat of the day.
As I reflect back, I think what I enjoyed the most about my trip was meeting and interacting with the people. They were probably the most friendly I had ever come across in my travels. It was refreshing. It was welcoming. It made a trip to an unknown part of the world so much easier.
The food and beverage –
I did not come across many large, fancy restaurants in Myanmar. Most are small cafes that cater to both locals and travelers alike. The furniture (plastic chairs and tables) and surroundings (cement floors and metal walls and roofs) are very simple in most cases. It’s easy to find a traditional Myanmar meal. Westernized fast food is almost non-existent. Locals eat with a fork, knife and spoon or just eat with their hands especially their fingers as they pick things up off the plate. They do not use chopsticks. I found the local food very compatible to my taste buds and easy to acquire a taste for. Curry is prevalent in most main dishes; however, it is very mild, tasty and compliments the entree. It is not as spicy as that found in Thai food. Typical dishes include most major meats (beef, chicken, pork, mutton), fish or vegetables served in a curry sauce along with steamed rice. Usually, you can order potatoes cooked in with the main dish and curry. As is typical in most Asian countries, rice is eaten at all meals. Served with the entrees are several types of sauces, including fried fish paste, a fish sauce and fried soy beans, that are set on the table for you to add to your taste desires. I found the add-ons to be fairly salty and took away from the delicious curry flavor that was cooked into the meal. I, also, found the soups to be extraordinary. I loved the lentil and bamboo shoot soups. I found the culinary experiences to be incredibly delicious local food, served in very simple surroundings at a very cheap price. In addition, you can usually find Chinese food (e.g. fried rice) if you are not interested in the Burmese flavor.
To drink I usually had Coca-Cola for lunch (a habit I acquired from my Disney days). They also serve bottled water and hot tea. For dinner, I usually had the local Myanmar Beer, which was reasonably priced at 2,000 to 2,500 kyat (about $2 to $3) for a large bottle. It’s a very good lager type beer. I did not purchase any wine while in the country. The wine bottles that I looked at appeared to be old and unappealing. There are a few wineries that I passed; however, I did not try any of their wines. I remember a guest ordering a bottle of wine at the hotel in Mandalay. After tasting it, they were not satisfied and asked for something different.
There is not much nightlife in Myanmar. For the most part, people are early to bed and early to rise. The day begins early in this country.
Dealing with the infrastructure challenges –
Myanmar has significant challenges with their infrastructure.
The banking system was not connected to the outside world. ATMs exist but are accessible only to the citizens of Myanmar. A foreigner’s ATM (debit) card does not work in these machines. That was the case in June of 2012. In 2013, ATMs started to become accessible to foreigners with Visa and MasterCard debit cards. This is helpful because when I was there, you had to carry all of your currency into the country with you. I carried about 2,400 USD into the country upon my arrival. Some things are paid for in USD (primarily hotel charges and government fees). For the rest, you pay in the local currency (kyat). Since I could not obtain any local currency from the ATMs, I exchanged USD for kyats with both banks and informal exchange locations such as hotels and retail operations. What made it more challenging is that the USD notes had to be “pristine” – no creases, marks, blemishes of any kind. If your note had been folded in your wallet, it would not be accepted for currency exchange. I have come across the “pristine” rule in other countries; however, I have not seen it enforced as strictly as Myanmar did. I understand the “pristine” rule has been relaxed a little; however, not so in some cases. In the case of credit cards, they are literally not accepted anywhere in the country with the exception of a few large establishments (hotels primarily) that will allow you to pay your charges with your credit card for a fee. They can do this because they utilize a credit card network located outside of the country. It is my understanding they are currently adding credit card processing to the international network; however, it will take a long time before credit cards are widely accepted.
The electrical grid is old and outdated. On my trip, rolling blackouts occurred regularly throughout the country. I was fortunate because my air con only went out on a few occasions. It’s pretty hot and humid in Myanmar, throughout the year, so having air conditioning is pretty important.
The communications network is similar to the ATM and credit card issues. There is a cell phone network in the country; however, it’s only accessible by the few locally issued cell phones. Cell phones were very expensive sometimes costing local residents $500 for a SIM card. A foreigner’s cell phone would not work on the Myanmar network. It was possible to rent a cell phone or a SIM card for your phone; however, this was not widely available – primarily at a few of the major airports in the country. The Wi-Fi access is basically non-existent. Throughout my trip, I rarely got a good or steady connection. In Mandalay, the lobby of my hotel had the best connection I experienced during my trip. Even in Yangon, the access was intermittent.
Roads and sidewalks – I have never seen sidewalks in as bad a shape as I saw in Yangon. The biggest issue is there are gaping holes a person could fall into. The sidewalks in some areas were in very good shape. It was a similar situation with the roads. In the city, some of the roads were in good condition; whereas, in the Yangon residential neighborhood that my inn was located, the streets were broken and full of holes. I had a little trouble getting a taxi to return me to my inn on a rainy night because they didn’t want any damage to their taxis. This was actually kind of funny especially when considering the dilapidated condition of some of the taxis.
On the positive side, toilets were never a challenge. I encountered western-style toilets throughout my trip. Go figure. Even some restaurants and sites had both western and squat type toilets.
Did I feel safe?
The bottom line is – yes, I felt very safe the entire time. During my trip, I stayed in the tourist-oriented areas of the country. There are areas (primarily border regions) that are off-limits to foreigners. I was nowhere near any of those areas. In addition, I did not visit the areas in the west, near the Bangladesh border, that were experiencing tensions and violence between the Buddhists and Muslims. Throughout my trip, I felt very safe. Not once did I have any issues or concerns. On two different occasions, I came across single women traveling on their own. I had an extensive conversation with one of the women. I asked her if she felt safe and if she had any issues. She indicated that she felt very safe, had no incidents and the local residents had made her feel welcome on many occasions. When I was in Yangon, I walked extensively throughout the city during the day; however, at night I did not venture out except in the local area traveling to a nearby restaurant. In the smaller towns, I did walk through the local neighborhoods, after dark, while going to/from dinner and felt very comfortable.
What would I like to do on my next visit?
There are a few other areas that I would love to visit next time. There are several beach locations along the western side of the country – bordering the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh. Ngapali Beach, Chaungtha Beach and Ngwe Saung Beach are very popular. These are accessible outside of the rainy season. Another area, near the Bangladesh border, is Mrauk U. There are a number of pagoda ruins in the vicinity. This area has been impacted by the unrest between the Buddhists and the Rohingyas (Muslims). As a result of the unrest, the area has been closed intermittently to foreigners. Situations like this make it helpful to have a Myanmar-based travel agent. They can inform you of the areas that are open and closed.
I would like to take a multi-day trek in the Inle Lake region. Staying overnight in a villager’s home and in a monastery would be fun.
I would love to take a hot air balloon over Bagan. The view of the temples must be incredible during the early morning flight. The balloons only operate from October through March. It is rather expensive at over 300 USD which includes transfer from your hotel and a light champagne breakfast.
Fun facts about Myanmar
The country is one of the few countries in the world where the time zone is noted at the half hour. Most cars have the steering wheel on the right (similar to England) and drive on the right side of the road (similar to the USA). You get the sense that something just doesn’t seem right. The country used to drive on the left; however, in 1970 changed to driving on the right side of the road.
I hope you enjoy the six part series about my Myanmar travel experiences. It was one of the most enjoyable trips I have ever taken. Getting to see this country and meet its residents before tourism really kicks in was truly a once in a lifetime experience. I can’t wait to return.