quarta-feira, 23 de maio de 2012

What do you know about Myanmar? 1st stop: Yangon


Finally I went to my last trip in Southeast Asia. This time, me and Bart took one of the big Cambodian annual holidays and went to maybe the most remote, but widely spoken nowadays, Myanmar. Maybe the first thing to comment would be an explanation about its name: many people and many countries still call it Burma, but since 1989 the government changed the name to Myanmar but that change was not widely recognized both internally and internationally leading to some confusion.

Myanmar's Map: Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake draw a triangle route
Source: Lonely Planet
Myanmar's history has been troubled in the past 50 years since the country was invaded by the Japanese during WWII, turned independent from England, went through a coup d'Etat and since then controlled by a military junta. In the past one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia and now clearly among the poorest. That became clear when we saw the local infra-structure, the cities conditions, the buildings aspect and the habitations.

A lot has been spoken about Myanmar by the midia lately, either Asian or Western, due to the political reforms going on.  Aung San Suu Kyi, Peace Nobel em 1991, came up in the news headlines after being trapped for 20 years at her house for her active protest against the military government. She has also been elected in 2012 to be part of the parlament.

Last week, under the pretext of "giving a bonus" to the democratization the US lifted the investment embargo against Myanmar. Wider analysis however point to a much more sophisticated game: the US attemptive to block Chinese influence growth over Southeast Asia countries at the same time that creates an environment for business to American companies (clearly GE as stated in Bangkok Post recently) and it also benefits the Myanmar government making it less vulnerable to the Chinese influence.

All this story before we talk about the trip to illustrate how interesting it was to see with our own eyes some sorte of ex-North Korea country in process of opening its doors to the world. Is still possible to travel around the country without seeing any foreigner, or to see people on their daily lifes, untouched. Obviously this conext attracts alternative travellers (we were outliers) and we heard stories much different than the average. Thus, Myanmar it's a different place and shall not be faced as a new part to the 'budget' trio Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The itinerary

We had exactly 6.5 days to visit Myanmar. That's too short for a country in which the distances among the top touristic places is huge and the roads are very bad in average. Taking that into account we planned:

12/05 - Phnom Penh-Yangon flight departing at 6 pm
13/05 - Early domestic flight to Bagan. Tour in Bagan
14/05 - Tour in Bagan
15/05 - Early domestic flight to Inle Lake. Tour in Inle Lake
16/05 - Tour in Inle Lake
17/05 - Tour in Inle Lake and afternoon/night bus to Yangon
18/05 - Tour in Yangon
19/05 - Tour in Yangon and returning flight to Phnom Penh in the afternoon

For those who already researched about Myanmar you can notice that is missing a common destination, Mandalay. It's the 2nd largest city but we thought it was not so relevant for a short stay. Later we confirmed that thought with people that went there and were frustrated about what they (didn't) see.

To make this itinerary possible it was essential: a direct flight from Phnom Penh and Yangon and domestic flights. I say that because obviously you could make this trip cheaper through Bangkok or by bus, but not within this schedule.

The return ticket Phnom Penh-Yangon cost US$ 270/person through MAI - Myanmar Airways International. The visa can be issued on arrival but we chose to do it here in Phnom Penh in advance. It takes 10 days, costs US$ 30, you should present a signed and stamped letter of your company stating your occupation, 2 3x4 pictures and some other forms. We flew the domestic flights with Air Mandalay, very good, between Yangon and Bagan (US$ 104) and between Bagan and Inle Lake (US$ 74).

No trying to boost any self-proud but, for time restricted travellers, this itinerary it's very well designed. In each place we stayed we had the sensation to be spending the exact amount of time to cover the essential things without wasting time with silly stuff.


First Impressions

Following the rational of our itinerary you will notice that we just spent the night in Yangon when we arrived and went out to explore the cities only in the last 2 days. So that this post can keep easy to understand I will not follow the itinerary order and I will put Yangon first.

Leaving the plane in Yangon it's an experience itself since for 1/2 h you will think you are arriving in Singapore. The airport will really give you mixed impressions about the country. After this short 'wondering' until you get out of the airport the reality will quickly catch up.

Our guesthouse pick-up was waiting for us and then took us to his car. Yes, then we knew, 'you just arrived in Myanmar'. The parking place, of dirty land, with extremely old cars. We went in a van wich the door had to be kept tied and the windows couldn't be closed.

The way from the airport to the downtown area reveals some interesting things. There are many avenues, big crossings, and trees in the city. There are buses. Also big buildings, although not many, more than in Phnom Penh for example.

Our guesthouse was called Myanmar Motherland Inn 2. The basic w/ fan and shared bathroom double room was US$ 23/night - expensive for Southeast Asia standards. The staff was really friendly, they made all the dometic flights reservation for us, the room was good and clean and the breakfast excellent - actually that was an item that we always got more than we expected in every place we stayed. We spent another night there before leaving.

When we got back to Yangon again we arrived at 5 am very sleepy. The bus trip took 12h and there were many stops although it lasted for less than the expected 14h and the bus was clean, there were pillows, water bottles, etc. The cost was K 18,000/person (1 US$ ~ K 820).

Extremely important: USD bills have to be clean, crispy, not folded, not even a scratch, anything. It must look like new. Otherwise your bills will be rejected as it happened to one of my $100 bills that had a very tiny fold mark.

Second Impressions

Among the element that compose Yangon's scenery there are walking places, rare to be seen in this part of the world, and many buildings in English architecture - many, abandoned or very badly maintained. 

Yangon's downtown looks like a chess board with long blocks for free flow avenues and the other side of it being very narrow. This side caught my attention, a mess of cars, people, markets, signs, wires, etc. Everything.

The public transportation have a larger importance than many other Asian cities. There are not that many motorbikes neither so many cars and the buses are very crowded for the most part of the time.

Sule Pagoda

In one of the most important roundabouts of Yagon is located the Sule Pagoda (US$ 2/person). According to the legend this temple was built for more than 2,500 years, at the time of Buddha. You must remove your shoes and walk on bare feet inside. In the entrance they will offer you a place to keep it. Not without getting something in return, the women that take care of it are going to be very, very, inconvenient requiring a donation from you.

Bogyoke Market

Não muito longe da Sule Pagoda está o Bogyoke Market também conhecido por Scott's Market. Se você seguir pela 'avenida' principal vai ser abordado por todos os vendedores possíveis de todas as coisas possíveis. Porém é o jeito pra você não se perder nos labirintos de lojinhas. É possível comprar camisetas, artigos em ouro, prata, jade, rubi e laca.

Not that far from the Sule Pagoda there's the Bogyoke Market also known as Scott's Market. If you want to go through the 'main road' you gonna be an easy target to all sort of sellers walking nearby. However that's the best way to go to avoid getting lost in the maze of small shops. It's possible to buy T-shirts, gold, silver, jade, ruby and lacquerware.

At some place - you need to look around to find and it's not in an obvious place - there's a small food court with many family run kitchens. It's really worthy to taste their chicken curry - which shows the Indian influence in Myanmar's culture.


We ended up at the zoo accidently, we're looking for a famous part in the downtown area but found the zoo on the way and decided to get in. The cost was just K 2,000/person.

This would be one of those normal tours if we haven't seen one thing. This zoo it's the paradise for the kids and the hell for the animals. Indifferent monkey? Sleepy elephant? Not there. All the animals were looking forward for interaction and due to a basic thing, it was possible to buy and give food directly to them. However, I'd say the zoo manager might have gone a little further letting the feeding task to the guests. Thus, the animals looked like desperate to get some food with any visitor they could notice.

There was a competition among the elephants to see which one of
them could take the sugar cane  pieces bught
 in a nearby stall and given to them directly.
Shwedagon Pagoda

Yes, finally we arrived at the misterious, central and cinematographic monument of Myanmar. Shwedagon Pagoda it's Myanmar's most sacred place and all Myanmarese people should visit it at least for one time during their lifetime. The legend says that this place was built more than 2,500 years ago to keep 8 of Buddha's hairs, however archeologists calculate something between the 6th and 10th centuries which still is quite impressive. It costs US$ 5 very well paid to get in and you have to leave your shoes in the entrance or take them with you in a bag. We entered through the South gate (there are other three - North, East and West).

When you go up to reach the platform you will notice the structure's magnificence. A long stairway with many pillars and details made of wood.

When you get to the platform there's an impression of going to the past when monks and pilgrims walk around (in clockwise way) around the imprssive Shwedagon Pagoda. Unfortunately I think that the pictures cannot capture this sensation but I really felt a different atmosphere.

This official website has very good information to understand the design and Shwedagon Pagoda's structure. There are 4 cardinal temples (North, South, East and West) and 64 smallers ones performing a circle around the main temple.

Now, finally, the structure that obviously wouldn't go unnoticed. 99 metres tall, 21,841 gold bars, 5,448 diamonds, 2,317 items of ruby, saphire and other gems, 1,065 gold bells and a 76-carat diamond in the top.

We had a very interesting experience here. We were sit waiting for the sunset when a monk came to us, asked where we were from and started a conversation with us. Then another monk came and then others. Following the monks some people started to arrive (wo where friends of the monks). Soon we were surrounded of 10-12 Myanmarese people asking us every sort of things. 

The first monks that came close
We then went to walk around with some of them and we've discovered the reason of so many people. The English teachers advise their students to go at least 1 time per week to some touristic place in Yangon so they can meet foreigners and practice English. We got closer of two of them, just graduated from oil and electrical engineering, and wanted to practice with us. In the end I kept reading a book with many phrases and words written in English and then correcting their pronounciation.

There was another very interesting aspect. Maybe due to the fact that they come from a quite closed society the uncontrolled consumption behavior hasn't arrived yet and one of them told me 'in Myanmar one cannot be judged by its belongings or clothes but of what it really is'. That seriously caught my attention and made me wonder how the 'least advanced' country in Southeast Asia (still) keeps these noble values.

If during the day it was impressive, at night, the lights combined with the golden brightness in the walls and the dark blue in the skies created an even more magic feeling.

After that show of lights we decided to leave to our hotel. Something impossible in many places of the world walked 6 km at night with bags and my camera within some very dark and empty steets, to our 'guesthouse'. Another relevant aspect of Myanmar: safety. During our stay we never felt threat by any kind. It's something different. When we were still talking to the Myanmarese I asked them about the possibility of going on foot to our hotel. They were always too concerned about the distance saying that it was too far but when I asked about the safety they answered saying that we shouldn't be worried about.

After this 'trekking' we had dinner and a Dagon Beer, local beer with 8% of alcohol. There other strong taste brands, Mandalay Beer is 7%.

Kandawgy Lake

We were in debt to pay a visit to the Kandawgy Lake located in the middle of Yangon. In the next day we woke up early, had an awesome breakfast in our guesthouse, checked-out and then went on foot for more 5-6 km until getting to the lake. A nice view of the Shwedagon Pagoda on the way.

View from the South in the Shwedagon Pagoda Road
It costs K 2,000/person to get in. The park has most of its walking paths like a platform over the water, an unusual but very nice idea.

We saw many many couples around the park, almost impossible to find an empty bench to sit. It was funny to notice that the couples there have more freedom than in Cambodia, which I would expect to be different.

Other interesting thing in the park is that you can see the Shwedagon Pagoda from a distance. However, this day was cloudly so maybe we didn't have the best opportunity for pictures. At night the view should be amazing.

Lake and Shwedagon Pagoda in the back
Other interesting element is this gigantic restaurant built in a traditional Myanmarese boat style.

After that we looked for a restaurant in the region. We found a Food Centre which had English menu but nobody could speak any English so we had to point things. Besides the fact that they made some confusion about or dishes and tried to overcharge us everything was fine and the food was very good.

From here we took the cab to the airport (K 5,000) and finished our adventure in Yangon. In the next post I will talk about Bagan, a serious competitor to Angkor Wat. More than 2,000 temples (or 4,000 if you take into account the ancient ruins) spread in a very dry plain in the heart of Myanmar. Coming soon! :)

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