GUEST ARTICLE: A mixture of feelings both good and bad ran through me when my husband suggested we go on a trip to Burma (formerly Myanmar). Isn’t that country ruled under a strict military regime? To be honest I wasn’t looking forward to going somewhere where I’d have to constantly watch my P’s and Q’s and potentially have to contend with bribes. We were also slated to be there just before their long awaited and controversial government election where former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi could potentially win a seat in their house of parliament. Surely we would be immersing ourselves into a strangled atmosphere. But regardless we knew we had to go and not let our fears run the show.
Booking the trip to Burma wasn’t the easiest but we managed to pull it together and in March we went for an 8-day trip. There were quite a few back and forth emails to travel agencies regarding tour guides and visas (those were both mandatory thanks to the junta). Tourism there was initially not encouraged for many years so as not to support the regime. It has only recently been encouraged mostly by Aung San Suu Kyi in hopes of bringing change to the impoverished country.
Just a tidbit about this extraordinary lady in case you didn’t know – Aung San Suu Kyi is well known for being a ‘freedom fighter’ and has been awarded many humanitarian awards and an honorary Canadian citizenship, only one of five to ever receive one (Yeah!! from a fellow Canuck). She is also known as being one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners having spent 15 out of the 21-year sentence passed down by the junta in a heavily guarded lakeside house in Yangon. She is well educated and is regarded by her people as a shining beacon of hope and change for the very poor and oppressed country. Let’s just say that we can safely assume that the majority of the 54 million Burmese had their fingers crossed.
When we landed at the Yangon airport we firstly had to get our previously organised visas upon arrival – those babies cost us US$170 for two. Yes you read right we had to pay in US dollars. One major unfortunate shortcoming within the country right now is that there are no credit cards or ATMs used in Burma. Only cold hard and most importantly ‘unmarred’ US dollars are accepted.
Once there you can buy some of their local currency (Kyat) which is also a must-have as some places charge in Kyats. They really mean it when they say the US dollar bills must be in mint condition. We had a US$50 bill with a very small black dot on it and they wouldn’t accept it – anywhere!?! (It’s amazing how important VISA and MasterCard is to a country. Not being able to access those systems has really hampered Burma’s tourism market. Hopefully in the near future those restrictions will be lifted.)
Our travel agent Kin was waiting for us past immigration with a big beaming smile and little black briefcase in hand. Instead of paying for our hotels at the actual hotel we had to pay her cash right then and there. We also paid for our airfares to Bagan and Ngapali (the two other places we were headed to after Yangon) and she gave us our tickets. Beforehand we had a few flight cancellations so best to be on top of any flights you may have because they can change on a dime and availability is slim. Dealing directly through their travel agents is a strange system but we were happy it all worked out in the end no probs. We used www.myanmarvisa.com and they were great.
After loading our luggage into our little beat up transfer van we began our 45 minute journey to our hotel located in downtown Yangon (Traders Hotels, Yangon). Burma is a very poor country so most of the vehicles are pretty old and in some unfortunate cases (like ours) are without A/C. It’s something that would’ve been nice at the time since it was sweltering hot outside (being summer) and driving with the windows open meant sucking in dust and car fumes.
The city was bustling as we passed heaps of bedraggled looking little shops and some commercial buildings that have seen better days. There were all kinds of means of transportation but the most popular ones were the dingy looking local minibuses and tuk tuks that were always jam-packed and overflowing out the backend. It looked kinda funny but also very dangerous for the ones out the back who were precariously hanging on.
Our hotel was really nice and only cost us US$95 a night and that was with breakfast and Wi-Fi included, great value! We also liked the location because it wasn’t far from some of the main tourist attractions there. This was a big help especially since the traffic there can get quite congested particularly during rush hours.
During breakfast the next morning we got our first real interaction with the locals. I was impressed with their lovely demeanor and bright smiles. We noticed most of the men wear a traditional garment called a Lungi also known as a sarong. And the ladies have a peculiar type of makeup they wear called Thanaka. It’s a creamy coloured paste made from ground bark. They usually wear it on their cheeks. From afar I thought they were bandages but at close up you can see most take much time and care to apply it finely to their cheeks. We also learned some men and children wear it too to help protect the skin.
After breakfast our pre-arranged guide (John) and driver (Shitu) met us in the lobby. We made sure to give a good description of ourselves, as there were a handful of other tourists also meeting their assigned guides and paying their US dollars. John’s services cost us US$20 for the day and an extra US$60 for the car and driver. The wheels weren’t luxury and had to date back to the 80s with the inside looking like it had been decked out in my granny’s best floral bathmats but hey at least this time it had A/C!
We didn’t drive very far before we were dropped off near the Sule Pagoda and started our journey on foot from there. It was a blistering +38C that day so it was slow going. Thank goodness I thought to bring an umbrella for some shade and a much-needed fan (granny look or not that baby was worth it!). We walked along sidewalks lined with heaps of little vendors selling all types of goods and nick knacks. Little John was short of a pair of sunglasses so we bought him a very cool pair and then chilled out at a sugarcane trolley for a little rest. It was nice sitting there watching the everyday life of the locals.
After that we stopped at a bank to buy some Kyats and exchanged at a rate of 813Kyats for US$1. We actually did an exchange with a little old man sitting on a bench inside the bank who was an independent exchange merchant! That was weird and I can’t believe the bank allowed him to do that?? We only did this after getting the heads up from our guide of course. Oh and another strange rule is that you’re not allowed to take pictures of the banks and most importantly not of any security or military figures…oh the junta…
Our next port of call was the Yangon River. The muddy waters were fast flowing and we saw loads of people commuting back and forth in brightly coloured long boats. We didn’t stay too long because of the heat and ventured on to our next stop to the Chaukhtatgyi Temple to see the ‘The Giant Reclining Buddha.’ This Buddha statue was by far the biggest we have ever seen. It was ginormous and beautifully kept since its construction in 1907. Massive heavily lashed eyes looked down upon worshipers seated on mats at the base of its face. We especially liked the elaborately decorated giant feet with soles of red and covered in 108 golden distinguishing marks.
For lunch we went to the Royal Thazin Restaurant for a traditional Myanmar feast. It was a nice place and most importantly hygienic (you really have to be careful in 3rd world countries or pay the price!). We had an assortment of delectable dishes consisting of pork and chicken curries, soup with lentils and rice noodles, fresh salad and sautéed kale. We really enjoyed each one except for their side staple condiment of pounded dried shrimp (that was a bit too strong on the old nose for me).
Theravada Buddhism is the main religion practiced in Burma resulting in a mass of beautiful ancient pagodas dotted throughout the city. So for our last sightsee we went to see the mother of all pagodas called Shwedagon Pagoda also known as The Golden Pagoda.
Entry cost us US$10 for two and we had to lose our shoes and wear proper attire before entering. The actual date of construction of the pagoda is unknown but according to legend it is said that is was built some 2600 years ago. It stands at an impressive 326ft and is extravagantly decorated with solid gold bars and thousands of gems and at the top of the stupa is a 76-carat diamond! Too far up to see unfortunately.
The pagoda was obviously the dominant focal point but we also found the sprawling grounds amazing. Surrounding the pagoda were heaps of intricately decorated buildings. The marble tiles were beautifully warm against our feet as we wandered amongst the buildings taking in the tranquil atmosphere while breathing in wonderful wafts of incense. The sun was setting at the time and really lit up the Golden Pagoda and its surroundings, I don’t think we could have picked a better time to visit this exquisite site.
We found a few good spots to sit while John gave us a short history lesson about his people and their beliefs, all which we found to be very interesting. During this talk hundreds of monks milled about the place decked out in their usual dark burgundy garb and some wearing a beautiful light pink. We found out there are also about half a million monks currently practicing in Burma.
From all of the people we had interacted with during our time there they all talked freely with us about their thoughts about their government and their love and hopes that Suu Kyi would win. You could tell that change was happening throughout the country with the fact that we were able to talk openly about this subject (something which was strictly taboo only a short while ago). We also were able to visit the NLD (National League for Democracy) headquarters and each bought an Aung San Suu Kyi badge to show our support.
We were ecstatic to hear that just after we left Burma that Aung San Suu Kyi did end up winning a seat in the April election and can now hopefully encourage some change within the government.
Although our trip to Yangon was short we had a great time and it was a great intro to Burma. Our next destination was 500kms north to the ancient city of Bagan.
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking roads less traveled!