Asia | South East Asia | Burma (Myanmar) – The Myanmar Circuit
It has been an amazing past 25 days with many spectacular experiences. Myanmar (Burma) is truly a land of wondrous beauty, friendly people who are so eager please and Orwellian signs and posters (such as- Only when Tatmadaw is safe will the people be free).
We (friend and myself) arrived in Yangon at 10.00am Myanmar time, fourteen hours after leaving Sydney. Once we had disembarked the plane we where shuffled through to immigration and then onto the FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificates) counter were you are supposed to exchange USD$200 per person into 200 FEC (1 US dollar always equals 1 FEC- thought this is not the case when you are converting FECs into Kyats, where you get a lower rate than for US dollars) which are not reconvert able. The FEC system is in place to make sure that each foreigner spends at least USD$200. It also allows the Burmese government to acquire US dollars, as the Kyat (pronounced chat) is practically worthless and not convertible outside of Myanmar. So we were required to change USD$400 between us. Though in order to avoid changing this much I gave a present (bribe) of $5.00 to the attended, which allowed us to change only $200 between us. It is best to try and minimise the amount of FEC you have to buy as the exchange rate is not as high as what you would receive for US dollars. After giving the present to the FEC attendant, we collected our bags and proceeded to clear customs. Once you step outside of the terminal building you are confronted by an army of taxi drivers fighting to take you to your hotel.
After negotiating a fare (USD$2,00) we travelled the 20km into the centre of Yangon. Our taxi driver tried to sell Alice and myself a trip around Myanmar at a hefty US$500.00 which of course Alice and I said no to. The journey to our hotel was enlightening as we past through four different areas of Yangon. The first area we past was a wealthy settlement built around a lake, in this area lives Ne Win (the former head of the military Junta) as well as Aung Sang Su Chi (the unrecognised democratically elected leader of Myanmar and daughter of the famous Aung San). Then you pass through what looks to be like shanty towns, with garbage accumaliting everywhere, then passing by Swedagon the most famous and beautiful paya in Myanmar and finally into the commercial district.
Whilst in Yangon Alice and I stayed at the Sofitel Plaza (formerly the Hotel Equatorial), which is a swanky 4 and a 1/2 star hotel. After checking in and resting for a while, we went out to explore Yangon. Our first stop was the Sule Paya (Paya means temple in Burmese) which is situated in the heart of Yangon. Just as we arrived at the Paya it started to rain, not light rain but heavy monsoonal rain which feels like it’s boring holes into you. Whilst waiting for the rain to stop (which it never did) Alice and I were approached by a monk and his friend (I can’t remember their names). They asked us whether we would be interested in going to their English language class, after debating amongst ourselves Alice and I decided that we would go.
The monk and his friend directed us through the back alleys of a very wet Yangon (it was still raining) to their classroom which was situated in the back of an old church. Once inside the classroom I was directed to the stage to answer questions and talk about Australia. Each student asked me five questions, unfortunately they where all the same questions, Whats your name? How old are you? Where do you come from? Is this your first time in Myanmar? and Do you have a girlfriend? Constantly being asked the same questions and giving the same answers is a real bore especially when you know that your answers are not being understood. During the class I got the impression that whilst the students could ask questions they didn’t know what the questions meant. After answering questions for what felt like hours Alice, myself and our new friends (the monk and his friend) left and they took us to Swedagon Paya.
It costs five dollars or FECs for foreigners to enter Swedagon, and it is worth the cost. Swedagon Paya is the most dazzling and inspiring places of worship one could possibly imagine. It dominates much of the Yangon skyline with its golden spires that glisten in the sun. It is not possible to do justice to Swedagon by words or photos it is truly a site that has to experienced in the flesh.
The next day we left Yangon buy bus bound for Pyay. Pyay is a uninteresting town with nothing to do, so after about a hour in Pyay Alice and I went looking for a way to leave town. Unfortunantly there was no busses departing for Bagan until the the following night. Alice and I decided that we did not wish to stay in Pyay this long so we hired two tri-shore drivers and went looking for a different way of getting to Bagan. After being taken to many different places by our tri-shore drivers we finnaly found someone that was willing to drive us to Bagan. So we jumped in the back of his ute and made our way back to where we had left our bags. After we loaded our bags into the ute Alice and I went to get dinner before leaving, this was the start of a potentionaly catastrophic situation. Whilst Alice and I were getting dinner our driver had driven off with our bags (it was stupid to leave them unattended). By the time we had come back from dinner we had no bags or way of getting to Bagan. After hoping for an hour that the driver would come back and pick us up my tri-shore driver and I left Alice at a guest house and went looking for the driver. We eventually ended up at his house where I waited for him to show up. What I assume to be his wife and his son where at home and tried to reassure me that he was coming back, and that he had only gone to get a drink. At this stage it was really pouring with rain and our drivers house was flooding, but drenched I continued to wait for him to turn up. Eventually his son directed me to his car, as we drove off looking for him he came up the street with Alice sitting in the back. I jumped in a little shaken by our stupidity and we were on our way to Bagan. The trip would take 14 hours over flooded and pot holed roads. I found it difficult to sleep at first, constantly thinking about the situation Alice and I had gotten ourselves into, here we were in the back of a ute with a person we don’t know in a foreign land; we had really put ourselves into the lap of the gods. But after driving for an hour or two my nerves began to settle. We stopped a number of times through out the night with flat tyres and broken car bits. At one stop we got our tyre fixed, it was done just like a bike tyre. After a long restless night in the back of the ute we had made it to Bagan, where we unpacked our stuff and went exploring the ruins.
Bagan is a truly amazing place, in many ways it is similar to the Ankor region in Cambodia. But unlike Ankor where the ruins are spread out over many kilometres, the ruins of Bagan are all within walking distance of each other, and all still mostly intact. Unfortunantly unlike Ankor you are not allowed to climb most of the Paya’s, there are signs everywhere that explain that this is to keep the temples preserved for generations to come. Bagan is a place that should not be missed, never have I seen anything that has been built on such a large scale, it amazing to think that all the temples where built without modern building techniques. Alice and I spent three days in Bagan and could have spent at least another three more (there is over two thousand ancient structures built in the region).
We left Bagan at 4.30am for our long winding bus trip to Inle Lake. This trip was an uncomfortable 400km eleven hour bus trip. The bus had to stop every two hours to allow the engine to cool down, at every stop you would see the driver pouring water on the engine to keep it cool. But eventually we made it, and not a moment to soon any longer on that bus I would have been sick. We were taken to a guest house called the ‘Little In’, which had clean but basic rooms for $6.00 a night (now I’m sounding like the lonely planet guide). The next day Alice and I took a boat trip around the lake. The trip took us through floating villages and markets as well as a monastery which is situated in the middle of the lake. The Jumping cat monostary is named after the cats that have been taught by obviously bored monks to jump through hoops. After watching this spec tical for a while we made our way back to the Little Inn.
After three days at Inle Lake we flew to Mandalay (couldn’t handle another 10 hour bus trip) the once capital of British Burma. Mandalay is a hot dusty city with a huge citadel (otherwise known as Mandalay fort and palace) located in its centre. You are only allowed to see a small pamueseamhis citadel as what is not a meuseam is being used as a military base. The citadel reminds me of the forbidden city in China but on a smaller scale. AfMandalayiting the citadel we went up Mandaly hill and temple to see the view off the city and the surrounding area. Later that evening Alice and I went to see a local Pwe (dance performance and variety show). There are many performance companies in Mandalay but Alice and I went to the famous Moustache Brothers troupe. Two of the companies performers have been jailed (seven years) for making jokes at the expense of the ruling military junta. The Moustache Brothers troupe have made many political enemy’s (mainly Par Par Lay who is mentioned in the movie About a Boy) in the current government as they are constantly performing for Aung San Sui Chi, even during her period of house arrest.
The next evening we caught the overnight train from Mandalay to Bago. This journey took fourteen hours to cover only 450km. Bago is famous for its reclining Buddha which is 16 meters longer than the one in Bangkok. The image is also famous for being the most similar to Gautama (the first Buddha) in appearance. Whilst in Bago we also made a trip to Mt Kyatikyo where we saw the golden rock which looks like it could have been out of a Road Runner cartoon. The next day we left Bago for Yangon.
After arriving in Yangon after a three hour train trip from Bago we checked in to the Sofitel Hotel. Our trip to Myanmar was at an end.