Boots on the Loose

Myanmar Meander: The Road From Mandalay

We spent three weeks travelling around Myanmar in January, 2014.

Here is our story. Apologies for the length!

Note that it is pretty common to freely interchange the names Burma and Myanmar in the country. At first I was trying to be careful to call it Myanmar thinking I might offend someone if I didn’t, but in the end I don’t think anyone cares too much. Perhaps if you were speaking to someone who wasn’t ethnically “Burmese” they might not like it, but they would probably be too polite to say anything anyway. Like everyone else in the country. As well I think I heard the locals refer to the capital as Rangoon more often than Yangon. Which is good because Rangoon is way more fun to say.

We also had people tell us they hate the government so much that they prefer the old days of being under British rule. Perhaps that is the reason for the free use of the old names.

Preparations

Like most things in our lives, we did very little to prepare.

We eventually decided we were going to fly into Mandalay, the major town in the middle of the country, and then bought a one-way flight online about five days ahead of time. We did this from our beach bungalow on Koh Pha-Ngan, Thailand.

We got “same day” visas in Bangkok the day before our flight left. There are some excellent instructions here on how to do it.

In our case, we showed up at the awesome little photocopy place down the block (mentioned in the link) at 9:15am. This place should be called the “do everything for you to get you into Burma” shop. In fact, Burma should just buy the shop and put it inside the Embassy.

At the shop they took our visa photos, printed our plane tickets (we attached those to our application, but I have a friend who also got a “same day” visa without having a plane ticket), printed our initial hotel reservation in case we needed it for the visa, and gave us the application form to fill out (don’t worry about getting them from the embassy – in fact, the ones at the embassy were missing a page as we found out when we saw two people having to frantically change their applications in the lineup!). We filled the application out at the photocopy shop. The stint at the photocopy shop took 30 mins and cost around 12USD for both of us.

We wandered back to the embassy and got in the fairly long lineup at 9:45am. We got to the front of the line in 45 mins and a lady looked over our applications to make sure we had filled them out correctly, and gave us a number and told us to wait until it was called so we could submit our applications? Our number came up after around 15 mins, we asked for same day visas and paid 40USD each (paid in Thai baht), handed over our passports and applications, and were given a receipt and told to come back between 3:30pm and 4:30pm to pick up the visas. 1 – 3 day visas cost only a little bit less.

Start to finish the whole thing took an hour and a half. Don’t let anyone tell you you need to lineup at 7am, it’s not true! Unless you’re at the front of the line, it seems to take the same amount of time no matter when you show up.

We came back to the embassy at 3:30pm to a huge lineup outside. So we used our common sense, and decided to wait out the line over a beer at a nearby cafe, and Jen went back at 4pm (bless her heart!). It took 10 mins waiting in line for her to get both our passports with visas back.

USD Debunking: We had 100USD each on us that we brought from home for emergencies. That is all we took to Burma, and we were hoping we wouldn’t actually need to use it at all. As it turned out, the reports are true and there was at least one ATM in every town we stayed in, save for our one night while passing through Thazi, but that wasn’t too surprising. The one and only place we did need USD was to pay for the trains we took. As a foreigner you can only buy tickets with USD. So if you are going to Burma and you don’t plan on taking the trains at all, just use the ATMs and you have nothing to worry about!

Arrival to Mandalay

The flight from Bangkok to Mandalay took about an hour. We noticed there was a free shuttle bus into town because we were on Air Asia, so we pushed past the pushy cab drivers to one of the ATMs in the airport, then hopped on the free bus which took us to within a 10 minute walk of our hotel. Don’t make the same mistake we did and take out 30USD worth of local kyats (pronounced “chat”) when you meant to take out 300USD! Note that the largest bill is equivalent to a 5USD bill, so you will feel pretty rich taking out that kind of dosh.

Impressions and Expectations

North of Yangon, everything we saw was very dry, with a near-desert feel to it. As with any desert I’ve been in during the winter, it was very comfortable during the day, but got fairly cool at night – make sure you have at least a sweater to wear if you are planning a trip!

The people of Myanmar are truly some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in the whole world. It was so refreshing after having been in Thailand for a month. Yes, of course many Thai people are nice too, but it is very obvious what a continuous flood of tourists does to the general attitude of the people of a country. Burma was mainly back to the old days of kids running up, waving and saying hi, then running away without wanting anything.

The cities are dusty and chaotic. Mandalay has around a million people, and about half a dozen traffic lights. And stop signs do not exist in the country. Literally, I did not see a single one. It’s staggering to sit on the back of a motorbike and be navigated through a city. Truly.

Hotels are generally way more expensive than you would think. We were often spending around 50USD a night, which to me is absurdly expensive for a country like Myanmar. A couple times we spent as much as 70USD a night, and as little as 25USD if we really dug around. I believe this is a blip in time though. There has been a surge of tourists here, and there aren’t yet enough hotels to accommodate. In fact only some hotels are allowed to have foreigners, so it comes down to a problem with politics. Like many other problems in the country I suppose. In any case, I have no doubt the hotel costs will come down as more competition comes on the market, thus easing the supply and demand problem.

Other than hotels, pretty much everything else was cheap. It was normal to have a meal and two beers for around 5USD.

The food is really quite good. I heard it was bad, but I completely disagree. Especially Tea Leaf Salads. They are the shit.

Burmese music is surprisingly quite good. It is clearly heavily influenced by the British years, as most of it sounds like what you would hear at home. But with Burmese vocals overtop. It is all very guitar based, and a lot of people like to sing, and often. Also, they have Burmese cover versions of every western song ever made. One day our waiter brought us breakfast with his phone playing music in his pocket. Jen said curiously, “Isn’t that ‘Lay Your Hands on Me’ by Bon Jovi!?”. Indeed it was. But sung in Burmese. Crazy. On our final taxi ride to the airport in Yangon, the driver started singing ‘Country Roads’. But of course couldn’t say a word in English other than the lyrics to the song. So we busted out the Reggae version of the song by Toots and the Maytals and had a great little moment with him. A lovely way of saying goodbye to the country!

Almost everyone is clearly quite poor, yet quite happy seeming. No one begs for money really. It’s also very easy to buy things like 200USD bottles of scotch and 500USD per night hotel rooms, so someone definitely has money. We were told that the government here is second only to Somalia with it’s level of corruption.

I heard rumours that I would be too late to the country, as it was already overrun by tourists. In the end I don’t agree. True, places like Bagan and Inle Lake were often thick with tourists (Bagan much more so than Inle), but outside of those major spots, we were still incredibly novel to the locals. Even in those places, I never felt like I couldn’t get away. You just have to do things slightly differently from everyone else and you will quickly find yourself white-people-free, if that’s what you are after.

To summarize the general feel of the country, I would call it the ‘East Africa of Asia’. And I mean that in the most endearing, positive and respectful way possible.

The Trip Through Myanmar


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Mandalay: We spent three nights in Mandalay upon arrival. That is enough time to take it all in. The first highlight was walking up and down Mandalay Hill. Being a Buddhist pilgrimage, no shoes are allowed, so my feet were rather sore by the end of the day.

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Mandalay Hill

A recreation of the old Royal Palace sits within the military base, which is surrounded by an 8km mote, right on the edge of town. Definitely worth checking out, I thought the best part was being able to see what a Burmese military base looked like.

And just generally walking around the chaotic city, seeing some of the temples and pagodas (aka “stupas”), and just taking it all in. You will feel dirty inside and out at the end of the day, but your soul might feel a bit cleaner if you do it right 🙂

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Pyin oo Lwin: About a two hour “shared taxi” ride from Mandalay was this neat old British hill station where we stayed two nights. If you go here, bring jeans. You can see your breath at night. We rented bicycles and rode around town which was a great way to see it. The botanical gardens were really nice, along with the odd old colonial style building you can suss out.

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Botanical Gardens

We took a day trip up to a Shan village with a guide from our hotel. I’m afraid to talk about the experience too much because I want to keep it a secret! But I will divulge a little: they were the nicest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met in my life. We went into three houses to visit, two of them random because we were walking by. They grow pineapple among many other things, and it was one of those cases where they give you tea and food and won’t let you leave until it’s all gone. I bet the four of us consumed three or maybe four pineapples per person – my mouth was bleeding by the end of the day!

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Shan Village

A very peaceful experience indeed, it reminded me of a hobbit village out of Lord of the Rings. Note that nobody wanted anything in return, but our guide gave away a box or two of something edible I wasn’t sure of. I really hope this generosity never changes, but I’m very scared about the inevitable. In fact, I know it will. It must.

Bagan: We took this fantastic ferry down the Aye Yawaddy river from Mandalay to Bagan (which meant spending one last night in Mandalay after Pyin oo Lwin). If you looked at the above google map, note that the route is wrong since it shows the drive down the road instead of the ride down the river. The boat left at 7am sharp, took around 10 hours and cost 40USD. A little pricey but worth it. Due to the river being so low, it normally should only take eight hours. There wasn’t much in the way of breakfast on board other than some biscuits, but lunch was a delicious fried rice or noodles. The staff were superb.

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The Ferry

We spent three nights in Bagan but I probably could have done four nights in the end. There are supposedly over 4000 temples and pagodas/stupas in the area, but we stopped and looked at probably around 20. Which was likely enough I suppose. Again we rented bicycles for 2USD a day each, which is what I would recommend doing to get around. Despite the fact that my chain came off (inside a “protective” metal case) about 10kms from our hotel! Two little boys stopped right away and helped me to get it back on which was notably awesome. But unfortunately two strokes later and it came off again (I didn’t have the heart to tell them!). So something was really wrong. A nice Chinese guy stopped on his motorbike and ended up towing me all(I) the way back. Let’s just say we got to know a lot about each other in that hour or more!

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Broken Bike

There are three towns you can stay in, we happened to stay in Nyaung U, but I don’t think it much mattered since we rented the bikes and went to all of them anyway. I guess our town had some more restaurants than the other towns though at least.

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Pagoda/Stupa

I’m rarely a fan of looking at famous things with sunsets or sunrises behind them. Mostly because I don’t like getting up super early, or doing things that everyone else does and “you are supposed to do”. But I will say this: the sunset from the top of the Buledi temple looking across the western plain was something else to see.

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Sunset

Inle Lake: We were reading horror stories on the internet about how people got from Bagan to Inle Lake. Some made it sound like it wasn’t even possible without flying. In the end either people writing stuff on the internet are crazy (present company included of course), or things have changed dramatically.

We got picked up at our hotel at 7am in Bagan and were taken to the bus station. The bus left 10 mins later at 7:30am, right on schedule. Apparently the bus goes every day, and there is also a night bus if you prefer. Note though that the night bus is said to arrive to Inle lake around 2am, so I’m not sure what you are supposed to do at that point. The nine hour journey cost 11USD each. The bus was reasonably comfortable, air conditioned, and had a nice selection of local music blaring over the PA system most the way. If that’s your kind of thing of course 🙂

We stayed in a pleasant little town on the northern end of the lake called Nyaung Shwe which is definitely the common place to stay. Unless you want to stay right in the middle of the lake which is shockingly possible in one of the fancy resorts we saw out there. You can apparently get a room for as little as 50USD a night at one of them, but I’m not sure I would do it, due to being so isolated.

We were planning on spending three nights but enjoyed it so much we decided to stay a fourth!

There are some great hot-springs on the western edge of the lake, about 10kms from town that we rented bikes and rode out to. 10USD entry fee, so pricey, but again worth it. It’s a dusty ride though and I felt like my day at the spa was ruined by the time we made it back to town! There’s also the option to have a boat take you back to town with your bike, or across to the other side of the lake, but we opted not to since we were going on the lake the next day.

About 4kms from town on the eastern shore is the Red Cedar winery which is also a very nice bike ride to get to. We actually did a 14km marathon ride from the spa to the winery in one go! The winery is very nice, not unlike one you would find anywhere else in the world. I was not expecting to be sipping Shiraz at a winery up on a mountain watching a Myanmar sunset on this trip. But there I was.

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Red Cedar Winery

We hired a boat to take us on a tour of the lake one of the days. This is a must, at the very least to confirm the lake actually exists since it isn’t possible to see from town. We paired up with two German guys from our hotel to split the cost. The cost being 18USD in total for the entire day (divided by four people, that is), so a nice and cheap outing.

We met our driver at 8am and he buzzed us to the southern end of the lake in time to see the morning market (a solid hour or more of me being pretty underdressed for the occasion). The market was half real, half for tourists, and had a neat set of pagodas on top of the hill behind it.

The lake has entire villages propped up on stilts all around it. Sometimes even right in the middle of the lake. And there are defined lanes for boat traffic in the villages, just like streets. It’s really quite something to see. And the other big attraction which might have even made the front cover of the Lying Planet is seeing the local, traditional fishermen. They have this pretty unique style of balancing on the backs of their boats on one foot while managing to hold a paddle, and use it, with their other leg. While operating a fishing night with their hands. Wild.

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Temple on Inle Lake

And the rest of the day on the lake was a bunch of tourist stops to see the traditional ways of making things. My favorite being the weavers. Also the floating gardens were really neat to see – we actually stopped and could get out of the boat and walk on them. One of the German guys very nearly fell in the lake! Oh, and we ended the day at a monastery where supposedly there were some jumping cats. But apparently that’s all the tourists wanted to see so the monks put a stop to the show!

Kalaw: Back towards Bagan is another nice little hill station that we stayed at for two nights. It is a short jaunt to get to on a bus from Nyaung Shwe, perhaps one hour or so, but why do things the easy way when there is a harder way! It is common for people to hike the route over two days, or as in our case, there is a train you can bob back and forth on at a joggable speed for four hours that will get you there. A pretty cool experience I must say, though again very under-dressed that early in the morning (it is not nearly as warm here as you would think), the train cars I’m guessing were from the 1950s, but were in such poor condition that would make you wonder if they were from the 1800s.

There isn’t a lot to see or do in Kalaw other than go on treks in the surrounding hills. So upon arrival we talked to the hotel lady about a guide, and appropriate route for the following day and we were very quickly sorted out. A guide is a must otherwise you will have no idea where you are going. There are plenty of multi day excursions you can go on if you’re into that sort of thing, we were only after a one day outing – eight hours of walking is plenty for me!

A quick plug for our guide because he was possibly my favorite guide of all time: we booked two nights at the Pine Breeze Hotel on Agoda (the Asian version of Expedia) which is where he mainly works out of. The hotel was also fantastic and highly advisable. The guide’s name was Maung Lan. He was incredibly nice, knew pretty much everything there is to know, spoke decent English, and wore an awesome dress shirt on the hike. Which made him cool as shit. Ask for him by name if you are doing a hike, you will love him.

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Our awesome guide in Kalaw

Our guide met us at our hotel at 8:30 a.m. after breakfast. We walked a good two and a half hours to a pretty little village up in the mountains. First through the pine forest near Kalaw (pine trees were imported to Burma by the British for whatever reason), then along a walking path through the mountains where many villagers have their farms setup. A few villagers had motorbikes but almost everyone walks everywhere. Tea, and oranges were definitely the village specialty – pretty amazing that they haul huge baskets filled with oranges to the market in Kalaw on foot.

Once at the village we were invited into one of the houses for you guessed it – tea and oranges. “At least it’s not pineapple” I thought to myself (see the Pyin oo Lwin section if you missed that). The one-roomed building we sat in was home for two entire families! We walked onward for another half hour or so past another village, then stopped for a superb Indian-style lunch at the viewpoint. The heat from the sun finally arrived as well!

We continued along the same road for a while, then ducked into the trees along a tighter path towards Kalaw’s water reservoir. Did you know Myanmar has the most venomous snakes in the world? Sat at a really nice spot on the edge of the reservoir for a snack, then made the hike back to town in time for our nightly sundowner.

The day cost 10USD per person and included the lunch!

We headed out for dinner that night after a good rest and shower, and it was absolutely bloody freezing out. Cold as balls as my friend Matt likes to say. Perhaps three degrees? I wasn’t even going to bring pants on this trip, it was very lucky I did. I didn’t bring a jacket though. But the point of this paragraph is this: after dinner we went to probably the coolest bar in the entire world, called “Hi Bar”. I’ve been in bathrooms that were bigger but there were probably thirty people stuffed in there. We walked in and a local guy was playing an acoustic guitar somewhere in the corner. And for the next two hours we sipped on one dollar rum sours and listened to all thirty people singing along to dozens of Burmese songs I’d obviously never heard before. What a blast.

Thazi: The only reason anyone stays in this town is to do a train switch between the East – West line and the North – South line. Or vice versa. Which was why we stayed there.

But a note on that: just because a place doesn’t have any tourist attractions doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider stopping there! It is true, there is not a lot to see or do in Thazi, but it was interesting catching a glimpse of how some normal people in a normal Burmese town live. It was also the place where we finally used one of the horse and carriages to get somewhere. Which is still a very common form of transportation in Myanmar.

Back in Kalaw, we hopped back on the train we got off of two days prior. Again, it is very easy to take buses wherever you want to go, but it seemed we were on some sort of mission with the train. I don’t know. I feel like there’s something very romantic about sitting on a train. No matter what it’s current condition is.

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Train station in Thazi

The ride from Kalaw to Thazi took around seven hours, again at jogging speed, and if I had to choose between the run from Kalaw to Thazi, or the run from Inle to Kalaw, I think I’d go for the run to Thazi. Jen was a fan of the run from Inle though. Much of the run to Thazi was high up on the mountains, lots of farm fields, villages, jungle, tunnels, bridges. At a couple spots where the train goes down a big hill, it actually stops, someone switches the track and you roll backwards down a different track until you stop again, then someone switches the track again and you continue forward once more. Like a big zigzag down the mountain. Interesting but effective approach.

We pulled into town at around 6:00 p.m., an hour earlier than we were expecting, and few people on the train were moving. So we assumed we weren’t there yet, because we assumed Thazi was the end of the line. You know what happens when you assume, right?

Out of curiosity while we waited, I pulled my phone out to use the GPS and see how much further we had to go. And of course we were sitting there in the Thazi station! Frantically we grabbed everything, and hopped off the train just as the conductor’s whistle blew. That could have made things much more interesting.

Yangon: The express train to Yangon left at 9:06 a.m. sharp the next morning, literally right on schedule. Also very bumpy and rocky, but not nearly as bad as the East – West line, the train zipped along at a much-faster-than-jogging pace. But don’t let it’s mildly smoother ride fool you – it is a doozy! How to get through it? On the eleventh hour (literally), crack open the rum you carry in your day bag, throw on the Talking Heads, and watch everyone sitting in front of you sway back and forth, almost perfectly to the beat of the music you are listening to. It will give you your second wind for the final hour and ensuing battle with Myanmar’s capital city!

We spent our final two nights in the country in Yangon, which was enough time, but also there is certainly enough to see and do there to have spent a third night. I had read a couple times that Yangon isn’t worth bothering with at all, but I don’t think that is fair. As usual it is all a matter of managing expectations.

Compared with everything else we saw in the country, Yangon is very warm and very green. Whereas Mandalay has probably a total of 20 trees, Yangon is pretty much covered in them, assuming you get out of the relatively small, East Central/West Central areas where all the hotels are. Perhaps what most people are noticing are the city’s mostly beat up buildings, which is pretty true, but there are also a lot of really neat old, colonial buildings to be admired. Also, the traffic can be very, very bad. I noticed that there wasn’t a single motorbike to be seen in the city, unlike the rest of the country which is probably around 75% motorbikes. Clearly there is some odd law against them in the capital, and I would imagine that has a lot to do with the traffic problems!

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The Park

On our one day tour of the city, we walked our arses off as usual. We left our hotel in the West Central area and headed north to the “People’s Park and People’s Square” for a wander through. Adjacent to the park is easily the one, must-see attraction: the Shwedagon Pagoda. Free for locals, 8USD for foreigners, it really is quite spectacular. Very beautiful, and very peaceful considering it sits in the middle of the bustling city.

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Shwedagon Pagoda

We walked back south along the Zoological Garden Rd towards Chinatown and the river, as usual, the only people walking, local or foreigner. Grabbed what would be the last Tea Leaf Salad of the trip for lunch – if you are going to Myanmar, try a Tea Leaf Salad early on because it may change your life a little.

We found ourselves at the Sule Pagoda which sits in the middle of a big traffic circle, and then wandered around the adjacent Maha Bandula Park. Also well worth checking out. Back through the chaotic Chinatown, mid-rush hour for some added flair, found ourselves a beer at one of the local bars, then finished the circle back to our hotel and called it a night!

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Square

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