Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Since arriving in Southeast Asia in October, 2012, I’ve been intrigued by Myanmar (Burma).  It isn’t so much talked about, and it is only in the recent years that it has even been readily possible to travel it. So earlier this year I decided it was time to go in and find out what it was all about.  Darunee and I decided, due to our limited time we had, to follow the classic tourist route, but venture off here and there.

We flew into Yangon (former capital city of Myanmar) from Bangkok in the evening, took a taxi over the paved, bumpy roads that had more potholes in them there I’ve ever seen (which caused lots of traffic jams) into the city.  We had a couple places on our list of possible accomodation, so we taxied to the general area, and then walked around.  When we found our #1 choice, we went into it and the guy quoted $20/night, which was very expensive (the most expensive place I’d ever been quoted in SEA).  I figured since this is Myanmar (one of the poorest places in SEA), things would be even cheaper.  I was wrong – Myanmar was the most expensive place I’ve traveled in SEA (more on this later).

After being turned down by the prices there, we walked around more, but after an hour we couldn’t find anything we liked, so we went back to the same place, and they said it was full.  However, some guy out front had an accommodation opening nearby, so he walked us to another place that was quite nice, but was $25/night for the 2 of us.  It was late, and we decided the money spent on the room was worth it considering we wouldn’t lose anymore of our night.  The place was basically on the top floor of a nasty looking building, but the top floor was reinnovated into like 5-10 bedrooms, which some guy rented out as accommodation to the tourists.  It was quite nice and modern, and was comfortable. After checking in, we unpacked, then headed out to grab some food.  The guy at the front desk recommended a place down the street.

We walked down the street to a place that seemed very upscale. There were no prices on the menus, the place was very clean, and everyone in there was wearing a suite except us.  We ordered a few different dishes since we were hungry, neglecting the price (a good meal is worth it, right?).  I remember vividly ordering a small rice dish, and changed it to a large.  That dish came out first, and it ended up being a good kilogram of fried rice with chicken in it – which was delicious, but very filling (note: Myanmarese people consume more rice per capita than any other country in the world – 180+ kg/year.  The average American eats 7kg/rice per year).

No shame. Foreigners always pay more.

No shame. Foreigners always pay more.

The next day we woke, checked out, moved to a new place (a sketchy place, but a 3rd of the price – hey, it’s the experience that counts!).  Then caught a taxi to the Shwedagon Pagoda. We spent the day exploring it (cost $5 entry for “foreigners”, while locals get in free).  Around lunch time we walked around the pagoda, grabbed some food on the side of the street, and got swarmed by local children asking for money.  The entire time we were at the pagoda we didn’t see more than 3 or 4 other white people, out of the 1000+ people we saw. After spending a good portion of the day there (it was pouring rain a lot of it), we took a taxi back toward our hostel.  Once there, we walked to a travel agent and booked a bus ticket north.  A Pakistani guy booked us a ticket to Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Myanmar.  In the evening we walked around more of Yangon, and ate dinner at a open restaurant on the side of a street.  I ate a massive bowl of fried rice with some fried chicken (which later came back to get me). The bus left the next morning at 9am, but we had to catch a 1.5hr taxi to the bus station.  We arrived into Nay Pyi Taw in the late afternoon and got swarmed by locals wanting to give us a ride (ie. get as much money off us as possible). We asked around for help as to where to stay, etc. but no one spoke English.  We ended up picking a guy who asked for $10 to take us to a hotel.  He drove about 15 minutes to hotel, which wanted $45/night.  The woman there spoke English, and we asked of a cheaper place, which we pointed to down the road.  The driver took us there, and they wanted like $50/night, so we said, take us back to the other place, we’ll stay there.  So we went in and ended up negotiating and getting down to $35/night.

The place was very nice, equivalent to a 4-star hotel in the western world.  The interesting thing about Nay Pyi Taw was that it was very modern, and very developing.  There were brand new, massive hotels being built everywhere, the roads were very wide and new, the trees were new, and most of the buildings were new.  But it was quite empty.  A very strange feeling there.  Not only that, there was literally no way of getting around.  We had to ask the hotel reception to call for a taxi, which the driver ends up charging $15+ to get anywhere – which by SEA standards is very expensive.  That’s equvialent to paying $50+ in the west for a taxi.

Gem Museum in May Pyi Taw, Myanmar

Gem Museum in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar

That evening we relaxed at the hotel, and ate an excellent dinner there. It was a nice relaxing night after spending a few days in a very undeveloped place like Yangon.  The next day we went to the gem museum – which was one of the only attractions in Nay Pyi Taw. It is a very new museum which displays a lot of Myanmar’s precious metals and gems.  Myanmar has a huge amount of natural resources, mostly owned by the government (I was told that if someone finds any kind of valuable metal or gem, the government automatically owns 40% of it).  In the gem museum, they probably had close to $750 million worth of gems and metals, including a 13kg bar of gold, a 50 million Euro block of jade, the worlds largest pearl, and countless rubies and sapphires.  We got a free guided tour of almost all of the displays, and it was quite impressive to see.  After spending a few hours there, we walked out of the museum to get a ride back to our hotel.  No one was there.  We waited, and about 10 minutes later the “security” came up to us and we said we needed to get back to our hotel.  So they called up a taxi.  About 30 minutes of waiting in the pouring rain, a taxi showed up and charged us $10 to get back to our hotel, about 12 minutes away.  From there, we checked out of the hotel and caught a taxi to the bus station, where we would eventually head up further north to Inle Lake.

View from our hotel in Nyuang Shwe.

View from our hotel in Nyuang Shwe.

The taxi driver ended up taking us to a different station than we came in on, but it worked nonetheless.  He said the next bus would be at 5pm.  So we basically had 4-5 hours to kill at or near the bus station.  There were some markets nearby, but my stomach was acting us so I just sat under the cover near the train station for a few hours.  When our bus arrived, we met a Canadian woman who was also going to Inle Lake, so we got on together and stayed in touch.  After a bus change and a few delays, we arrived into Inle Lake in the early morning, around 3 or 4am.  A couple taxi drivers tried charging us $20, but we negotiated down to $10 or $12.  He took us into the “lake area”, where we had to pay $20 entrance (because we were white, no joke).  Once through there, we got dropped off at a hotel in Nyaung Shwe – the port town for pretty much anyone traveling to Inle Lake.  It had decent rooms, wifi, free breakfast, and was centrally located.  The guy at reception said the first night would be free (since we arrived at 4am).  Other nights were $20 if I remember correctly, which was expensive, but seemed to be the going rate in Myanmar. The next day we rented bicycles are rode all over Nyaung Shwe, talked to a few locals, ate good local food, and setup some tours for the coming days.  We watched people move concrete to the top of a structure by the pan (see picture), and also explored a few local pagodas. We spent the evening eating at a real nice restaurant (almost out of place) right along the canal near where the boat tours start. We had some wine, smoothies, and excellent Burmese food.  In the morning, we woke around 7am, ate breakfast, and by 7:45am we were ready to go on a trek to the mountains.  The previous day we asked a local if he could guide us, and he said yes. The guide said he could do it, but throughout the day it was clear he had never done it.  Nonetheless, we had a good hike into the mountains and back, as the guide and his brother showed us around, and took us into many villages in the mountains.  We ate lunch in one of the villages, which was pretty cool.  We ate in a house on the upper floor – the entire building made out of woven bamboo.  On the way back, the guides ended up getting us lost – so we hiked through a sugar cane field to get back to the lake, where we then had to pay $5 to rent a boat back to Nyaung Shwee.  The day trip ended up costing us $25, which was far more expensive than agreed upon but we wanted to support the locals so we paid it. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were quite tired, so we relaxed at our hotel and ate food at a nearby pizzeria (which was excellent, run by a Burmese man who used to live in Italy).

Moving concrete to the top of a structure, by the pan full.

Moving concrete to the top of a structure, by the pan full.

The next day we woke early again, and planned to do the infamous Inle Lake boat tour, which is a full day out on the lake, going around to various villages.  We agreed to rent the boat and guide for $12, originally for me and Darunee.  When we woke, a few others were at our hotel waiting, and we asked if 2 others wanted to join (4 people can fit into a boat).  We met 2 girls from Austin, Texas who were interested, so the 4 of us went on the trip.  I confirmed the price at the beginning of the day, but the guide tried to charge $12 each.  I simply told him that we agreed on $12 for the boat, and he quickly said okay.

Side note: The thing to keep in mind about people in southeast Asia (SEA) is that they are salesmen, and they always try to get as much money as possible out of you.  The hard part to understand is that they don’t know it is “bad”.  That may not be the right word, but in the western world, prices are typically displayed so everyone pays the same amount or at least knows what they should pay up front.  In SEA, almost no prices are displayed, so they sell for as much as they can.  If you don’t negotiate, you will end up paying 2-5x more than others who do negotiate.  The locals just know white people have money, so they try to get it.  They don’t see it as ripping off, they just see it as life.  From a western standpoint, it is unfair to be charged 2 different prices, but here they don’t understand that because they don’t know any different.  So just keep in mind, negotiate everything. You want to spend as little as possible, they want to make as much as possible.  Also note, it is the principle that matters, not so much the money. Being “ripped off $1” is just as bad as $5 in my opinion. They need the money as much as you want the trip, don’t settle on the original offered price.

Trekking into the mountains near Inle Lake.

Trekking into the mountains near Inle Lake.

The first stop on the boat tour was a market area where the “locals” sold every kind of good you can imagine – from necklaces, to knifes, to wooden souvenirs, to clocks, to food.  It was a very crowded area, and it was clear the tour guides took all the tourists here to bring money to their friends villages.  I’m sure during high season they make lots of money, whether they look like it or not.  The second stop was a weaving building, where the guides suggested the locals make their clothing.  The handmade sewing machines were quite neat, but the store they had which sold “handmade clothes” I thought was a joke.  All the clothes clearly looked made by machine, and were being sold as handmade even though I’m quite sure it was a tourist gimmick.  Nonetheless, cool little stop.  After that, the guides got back on the boat and took us to lunch at a nearby restaurant.  All the buildings on the lake at on bamboo pillars, well above the water (sine the water level rises during rainy season).  To go between buildings, you take a boat.  The restaurant we went to was very modern, had really nice and clean bathrooms, and was very reasonably priced considering it was a tourist area.  It was a nice relaxing lunch.  After lunch, we went to a cigar-making shop, where I bought some nice Burmese cigars for my friends. One of the locals there showed us how they make and package cigars, and told us the history which was cool. Shortly after touring the cigar shop, we went to a monastery. It was a massive one, on the shore of Inle Lake.  We went inside and walked around, and there were some markets out front to buy cold water and food.  Inside the monastery, there was a sign in Burmese that said “no women allowed”. The sign was near a platform where a large gold object stood.  The Buddhists buy gold leaves from the monastery, then place the leaves on the object – but only men can do it. It is a sad fact that women are not allowed to do it, and one reason why I really dislike Buddhism.  Read up on Laos Buddhism if you really want to see even further human inequality.  Side note: I think Buddhism is one major reason why women are at a lower social class than men in SEA. I’ll save the rant for another day.

Houses on Inle Lake

Houses on Inle Lake

After the monastery, we took a boat to a blacksmith shop where they sold a bunch of jewelry, and then to a place which had the women with the rings on their necks.  Again, a total tourist gimmick.  Apparently there is some tribe nearby where the women wear rings on their neck as a sign of beauty, and they come to this area everyday for tourists to see.  It was pretty cool to see, but knowing it was just a tourist thing made it very unnatural.  That wrapped up the tour, and then we took another 30 minutes or so to get back to Nyuang Shwe.  It was about 4pm by this point.  You can also take a boat out during sunset, but we didn’t end up doing that. I offered to take the guide out for a beer and dinner, and he joined.  After a couple drinks, he left and we waited for our bus. We decided to catch a bus up north to Mandalay overnight since we were running out of time (Darunee had the work on Monday) and figured it would be better to bus overnight than waste the next day traveling.  We waited for a good hour or two, and during that time the slightly drunken guide came and thanked us a lot for paying him for the tours and for the beer.  He genuinely did seem thankful, which was great.

Those rings can't be good for your back.

Those rings can’t be good for your back.

That evening we got on the rocky bus north to Mandalay (second largest city in Myanmar).  Transport in Burma is a work of art.  The roads are often only wide enough for 1 vehicle, so they average 30-40 miles per hour.  At some points the road would be so narrow that the bus would stop, as would the oncoming traffic, so they could slowly go around each other without hitting each other.  It was crazy, and I had never seen anything like it.  Nonetheless, we arrived into Mandalay around 3am, and a taxi driver drove us around to 3 different places we could potentially stay.  The first 2 places were bad, or too expensive, but the 3rd choice was decent enough, and reasonable enough – it was called ET Hotel.  We slept until the early morning, then walked around the city the entire day. I walked around the main central square , which ended up being a good 10 mile or so walk.  There is a canal that runs along the outside of the Mandalay Palace, which makes us the square.  It is in the heart of the city.  It was very hot out.  I stopped into 1 place for a cold drink, and ended up buying a cold beer.  The people there brought me soup and nuts for free.  The total bill: $1, which included a nice large bottle of water.  After walking a few more miles, I saw a place that said “Ice Cream – Beer – Coffee”, so I stopped in.  It was a nice little cafe/restaurant that had a bar.  I ordered a beer and ice cream.  I then pulled out a crumbled receipt and started writing down some thoughts, and after ordering another beer, the waiter brought out a clean sheet of paper.  It was very kind and unexpected.  This cafe was very relaxing.  Along the walls it had US license plates, including a Colorado one.  Pretty cool place. After relaxing there, I walked another hour back to the hotel, and watch the sunset from the top of the hotel.  I ended up meeting another guy from the eastern part of the US and had some great conversations with him about SEA.

Canal along Mandalay Palace

Canal along Mandalay Palace

In the evening we ate dinner at a proper Burmese place.  We ate on the top floor.  I heard a rumor that power goes in and out in Burma.  Sure enough, right when we were eating, all the power went out.  It was pitch black. Within a minute, you hear the staff firing up a generator, and shortly after we have power.  I found it funny how accustom they were to it going out – they clearly were used to kicking on the generator.  Nonetheless, the food was excellent.  Afterward, we headed back to the hotel to sleep.  The next morning we headed to the airport and flew back to Bangkok.

Last sunset in Myanmar.

Last sunset in Myanmar, from the top of our hotel.

Overall, yet another excellent trip.  It was quick, but packed full of adventure and experience.  I learned a lot, and certainly got a new perspective of the world.  Myanmar is very oppressed, similar to a lot of countries in SEA.  The government is rich, yet the people are poor.  I met a guy a few days later in Luang Prubang, Laos who traveled Burma around the same time, but hit all the rural areas.  He saw lots of other crazy stuff, like burning monasteries and officials dressed as fake monks beating up other monks. Lots of bizarre stuff that is hard to imagine.

As for the route we took: we considered spending less time in Inle Lake, or skipping Nay Pyi Taw like most tourists do and going to Bagan, but looking back, it was a good trip and good route considering our time limit.  The classic tourist route is Yangon > Inle Lake > Bagan > Mandalay.  We skipped substituted Bagan for Nay Pyi Taw, which was a tough choice, but considering the poor bus routes, our timing, and our lack of interest in temples these days, it was fine that we skipped Bagan.  Maybe someday I’ll explore it.

Side note: we paid roughly 950 “chat” to $1.  We exchanged at the airport for that rate, which was the best rate we had seen.  We had heard the currency fluctuates a lot.  We also heard government-run places would offer worse exchange rates than on the street (random people selling money).  Whatever the case, the airport was a safe bet and worked well for us.  Also note that they only except crisp bills.  The bigger the bill, the better the exchange rate.  I had a couple $100 bills turned down because they had a small crease.  Again, crazy that a place like Burma is like this, especially considering the money they give us in return is about as beat up as it can get.

Another side note: I read a lot of ATMs not being available in Burma.  While they are more scarce than most places, I probably saw 5+ ATMs in each place we went.  With that said, many of them could have been out of service or a setup.  Nonetheless, it is probably best to bring as much money as you plan to spend with you.  You can exchange USD for “chat” at many places, so don’t worry too much about exchanging it all up front.