compass Time Warp - Myanmar Part 1 compass

Yangon from above

Shwedagon pagoda

Typical Yangon Apartments

Friendly sidewalk cock fight

May 6

Nervously we departed the plane and with shiny new VISA stamps in our passports we quickly passed through immigration, grabbed our baggage and officially entered Myanmar. YEAH! Our hotel offered free pickups and we looked for our name on a sign. Isn’t that a nice way to arrive in a strange country? Our guy told us it’d be a “few” minutes wait so we grabbed a seat. Like a lot of free pickups though they try to do as few as possible and we actually were waiting for the KL flight to arrive which ended up being just over an hour. We were both very tired and hadn’t eaten or drank anything in about 6 hours; partly the stubbornness at not wanting to pay Air Asia $4 for Ramon noodles and because we didn’t have any Myanmar Kyat to buy anything at the airport. The wait was worth it when a naked little kid nursing on his moms lap behind us started to pee in a huge arch that reached all our bags. James hollered out and I grabbed our bags but the guy standing a few feet away didn’t have a chance and both his day pack and big bag got peed all over. He just laughed saying that after the last few weeks it probable cleaned his bags a bit. As it turned out we ended up making friends with the girl on the KL flight we were waiting for.

Our free pick up was in a bus older than me, maybe older than Gramps if he was still alive. We shook, rattled and rolled through the busy streets of Yangon. It got dark as we drove the 45 minutes and we passed temples all lit up and that got me even more excited. We were finally in Myanmar!

At the hotel we checked in and headed to the attached restaurant for a bite to eat and met a couple from the states. During dinner we experienced our first power outage, and second, and third. We had read they had power issues but I didn’t think it was quite that bad. They only seemed to last a few minutes before the hotel generator kicked on, I think getting a hotel or guesthouse that advertises 24 hour power might have been a good thing. 24 hour power I think means that the power will still flicker but then their generator will kick in after a few minutes (1-15) if the power stays out.

After dinner the four of us went for a walk to see what was in the area. Our hotel was quite a ways from the main road so there wasn’t much, I think we were in the Yangon suburbs. We got a bit lost which was really no big deal, the people were very friendly and the streets very safe…it was just the power outages that were a bit nerve racking. The streets were filled with potholes that had ewwy black gooey mystery sludge in them, the sidewalks only partially there and had huge holes that dropped a few feet into a sewer type drain and there were random piles of garbage on both. When the lights went out it was pitch black! So walking to avoid potholes, holes in the sidewalks and the garbage piles became difficult. We all had an interesting walk and made it back without being lost to the sidewalk holes.

That night we had quick showers and fell exhausted into bed. I got bit a few times throughout the night by what I thought were just mosquitoes but later found out differently.

May 7

Over dinner the night before we had found a group that had similar plans as us. Taxi to the market to exchange money and then do a walk of the city. So after breakfast we shared cabs. On the way it started to rain a bit so James and I decided to look around a bit to see if it would stop. The others went on their way. James wanted to pick up a longyi, the Myanmar men’s traditional skirt, in case he needed to be more covered when entering temples, I always carry a sarong for that purpose. It actually became a crazy downpour and we finally got shopped out and decided to head to a café for a beer. While there a few we shared a cab with walked by, stopped and joined us. I love traveling!

Once it stopped we ventured out for that city walk. We all had the same guide book so were pretty much going the same way. The first stop was to a tower that was supposed to have a great view. The view was pretty amazing but the book left out that the viewing floor was actually a fancy restaurant. They were very friendly and invited us in for a look. So five slightly rained on, slightly sweaty backpackers traipsed through the place while clean, well dressed diners ate. Hmmm.

We stopped at a place for a meal of samosas and chapatti for lunch and after eating until stuffed we had only spent about 50 cents each. Nice! Next on the list was a temple that we opted to view from the outside. Most temples in Yangon were $2 USD each to enter. After a day of visiting that would add up, not to mention we were going to have more than enough temples in the upcoming days. Anyways, most interesting were the people and architecture. The people were so friendly, an 81 year old lady stopped us on the street to chat, ask where we were from and of course try to sell us bus tickets. But she was so friendly it was enjoyable. The architecture was old, crumbling, and decrepit and had a distinctive English feel to it. Adding the tall glass modern looking office towers and glittery gold-topped stupas and you ended up with the untidy and very busy city of Yangon. For a big city the fashion sense, or lack of, surprised me. Flip flops and traditional floral long skirts for the women and flip flops and longyi for men were pretty much it, not much different from the country side. Yangon has only been the capital city of Myanmar since 1885 when the British completed its conquest of northern Myanmar and moved the capital from Mandalay.

We wandered to the ferry terminal where a pack of kids selling post cards took us through a back door and we got to have a great view of the busy port. Next we took a look at another temple that had a market like feel around it. Locals were busy coming and going and there was even a truck full of men playing and singing (screeching?) as they drove down the street. It was a very busy city.

The heat was getting to us all so we headed back to our guesthouse for a break before trying to find dinner. Our third floor fan room was not much cooler than outside so we sat on the patio, had a few cold beers and chatted the afternoon way.

Once dark we had decided it really wasn’t getting much cooler (day time temperature was about 42, night time temperatures were about 41) so we headed out to a local place for food. Back in the hotel I showered first and laid in bed reading with the light on while James showered. I got bit! By a black bug. I took a look down and there were about 15 little black bugs in our bed. Ewwww! I killed them all and went on bug watch. Were they just a freak bunch that had gotten in when the door was open? Nope! They came back and I killed them all again. By this time James had come back and I made him go on bug watch too. That morning at breakfast another guy had complained about being bit, he thought it was bed bugs and crawled into his silk sleep sack. Wonder if he had the same? James, exhausted and not getting bit (which kinda pisses me off that he hardly ever gets bit so I look like a bug freak because everything within a 2 mile radius will find me and bite me and I have to prove I am being bit by showing him the welt) fell asleep. About 15 minutes later though he was woken up to me freaking out. They were back, about 15 more! So I killed them all in a Kleenex and headed down to the front desk. They night guy was not impressed and kept saying “They are not bed bugs”. I kept repeating they are bugs, IN my bed. He finally admitted they were insects and asked if I would like to change rooms. Ahhh! Yeah! So at 11:45 pm we were on the move. I did a thorough inspection and stayed on bug watch with the light on for about 30 minutes….we seemed to be safe. James was asleep before his head hit the pillow. I was also trying not to think that I had slept through them the night before. Blah!

May 8

We had read and been told that the Shwedagon Pagoda was best seen at sunrise so our friends from the day before met us in the lobby at 5:15 to share a cab. On the way it started to rain and at $5 each entrance and the fact that we would have a few more mornings at some point in Yangon we shared a cab back to the guest house and went back to bed. We were all back in bed by 6:05.

We slept in, had breakfast and repacked our bags. Our guesthouse had free storage so instead of lugging the dive equipment for the next two and a half weeks we got to leave it behind. Lets hope the bugs don’t get it. Lol

Yangon bus station

The cab to the bus station took almost an hour. Why is it that bus stations and airports are sooooo far from city centres? I can understand with airports with the noise and space needed but bus stations? It is always so expensive to get there and the hour or so ride seems painful knowing you have about an hour wait until you load for an 8, 10, 12 hour…or longer ride. Pulling into the enormous bus station (it really was quite large) we passed newer busses, okay looking busses, old busses and “oh my god please not our bus” busses. There are horror stories about bus travel in Myanmar. All long haul busses, except the Mandalay to Yangon (which is only an 8 hour local day bus) are overnight, leaving rather early and getting in at crazy times like 4 am, if they are even close to on time. Getting a bus is like a crap shoot and you can get a decent air conditioned bus or a crappy local bus. We had at least three overnights to do while in Myanmar and we were not looking forward to them.

Our cabbie dropped us off at our waiting room (I’ve attached a picture) and we went to check in, fingers crossed. Right in front was a beaten up bus, full of primer and fill and chocking up black exhaust. The lady checked our ticket and said “Bus 2”. Bus 2 turned out to be the one behind. The one with air, reclining seats, cute foot rests, leg room for James, a treat bag with water, toothbrush, tooth paste and a fresh face CLOTH. Once on the bus (and after idling for about an hour) they turned on the big screen tv (did I mention it had a big flat screen tv?) and we got to watch Rush Hour 2 (in English) and Burmese soap operas (in Burmese). I did a little happy dance in my seat and being the optimist I am didn’t give any thought to the next three.

Ride into Inle

May 9

Our bus got in at 6:30 am (our 13 hour bus that left at 3 pm got in at 6:30 am…I am beginning to think they have a different way of counting time in SEA) and a cab was about $9 so we opted to wait for the tuk-tuk. It was a very interesting junction (as the locals call it) with a very local market on the corner. We sat for almost 2 hours and it was like sitting through a good movie, glad we saved the cash.

By the time we showed up at our guest house we had missed breakfast so they brought us fresh fruit and green tea, how sweet.

We both had power naps and decided the best thing to do after a 16.5 hour overnight bus ride where neither of us slept much is to do a hike in the sweltering noon day sun.

So off we went...along the hot dusty road as the sun beat down so bad I had to use an umbrella for fear the sun was actually setting my skin on fire, where I think the bottom of my sandals were melting, where the rocks hitting me off passing trucks were leaving little burn marks that sizzled. Did I mention it is hot in Myanmar? Giggle Giggle

Hiking through villages

The hike was actually very interesting. We had been seeing tiny villages up on the hill sides (oh yeah just what I love, hikes that go up!) from the bus windows and now we got to wander through a few. One of the things we noticed that was very different from Lao and Vietnam is that not all the houses are right along the road but tucked back and partially hidden by trees. The villages seemed to be further away and connected to each other by small dirt roads not always directly to the main road.

We were following the map the guest house gave us and were supposed to be doing a loop. The first thing we were supposed (yes this ended up being the “supposed to” hike) come across was a big cave but instead we ended up at a small one. A very friendly monk invited us into his mediation cave and had us sit down. He gave us fans and put snacks in front of us then offered us Sprite right off the offering table. We both quickly said “no thank you”, not sure what sort of bad karma that could or would get you into but I wasn’t testing it. As usual after exhausting his little bit of English it became a bit awkward. There was thunder rumbling in the background and we were only 1/3 into our loop so we politely asked where the big cave was.

The big cave was another temple cave with Buddhas and different chambers in it, and it was pretty big.

We continued on our loop up, up, up into the mountains (well only about 15 minutes but it was really really really hot) until the dirt road turned into a very thin foot path. I think our lack of sleep, the heat and the not one but 2 storms coming in from 2 different mountain ranges and the fact that all we’d had all day was fruit and tea and we were starving had us turning around and heading home.

We stopped for oven baked pizza then the market for fresh fruit and veggies.

Once back at the guest house they offered us bananas in syrup and green tea. Again, how sweet. We are paying $10 CAD for a double, fan, shared bathroom room and get free breakfast, 2 bottles of drinking water AND afternoon fruit & tea? It also has a very comfy veranda shaded by plants where I am typing this. Thanks Lonely Planet! About 10 minutes after being home the sky opened up and dumped, poured, heaped (not sure how to accurately describe how hard it was raining) rain on us. Luckily we were safely tucked in under the veranda. James commented that seeing how it was the beginning of rainy season here we had been very lucky with the rain. Buuuuhhhhaaaaaa, did I just hear a jinx?

After fruit & tea I headed to bed to “read”, I think I was asleep by 7:30.

Visit to a local market

May 10

After my almost 12 hours of sleep we had a delicious breakfast and got picked up by our boat guy. The night before we had met a Korean girl who was looking to share a boat tour. You pay per boat and we didn’t figure we could find anyone on such short notice so it was nice she found us. So off we went!

The boat was a traditional wooden long boat with the noisy engine but instead of sitting on the floor we had wooden lounge chairs with cushions. I felt very spoiled. We putted down a small stream toward Lake Inle passing a few other tourists but mostly locals transporting goods or just commuting. Once out in the lake I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real. Now I’m not going to lie or exaggerate and try to make Myanmar out like some totally off the grid never been visited cut my own trail place but honestly tourism hasn’t seemed to spoil it yet. Or at least Lake Inle. I might be falling in love with Myanmar.

Fishermen dotted the lake, green mountains pretty much surrounded it and shiny golden stuppas clung precariously to the mountain sides. A sight I’ll never forget.

Slowly we past the fishermen and got to see close up their famous “leg rowing” that they did while fishing which is pretty impressive but for someone with absolutely no coordination, I was truly impressed. After about an hour of stunning scenery and James and the Korean girl snapping photo after photo (I can always tell how much James is enjoying a place by the number of photos he takes) we arrived at a local market. And by local I mean honest to goodness local market. There was one small table of cheap plastic souvenirs so I assume they get a few tourists. They have markets similar to Korea, where each area will have theirs on a different day. You could clearly see that market day was very sociable with groups of ladies sitting around chatting, other groups hanging out at food stalls and a rowdy group of men in the bushes doing I’m not quite sure what.

James got two short clips of the leg rowing. (Click on picture for link to video)

Back into our boat and another leisurely ride took us to the floating gardens. How amazing. Rows and rows and rows (about 1 km by 3km ) of garden; in the lake. How very efficient. Like an early model of hydroponics. Why take the water to the plants if you can float them in it. They collected seaweed from other areas of the lake and built up rows, added a bit of dirt then planted. It seemed to be tomato season and I can still close my eyes and smell them.

Next stop was a weaving shop. I’ve never seen lotus flower being weaved into scarves, wraps, shirts etc. and it looks like a painful job. They slice in half about 2 inches of a lotus flower stem, pull it apart about 3 inches and pull out the fibres. Talk about laborious. They had a store full of beautiful handmade items and well worth the price tag but a tiny bit out of my budget.

Here is a clip of us just passing through a village on the lake. (Click on picture for link to video)

On to a cigar rolling factory where I got to try to make one. The tour did have quite a few stops at shops where they we making handmade goods out of Myanmar products (the cigar leaves were picked in the mountains, the lotus stems right in the lake, the Tabaco from Mandalay) but it was interesting, all done painfully the way it was done 3 generations ago and there was no pressure to buy anything.

Fancy Pagoda

Susan at jumping cat

Our next stop was a pagoda. It was pretty fancy seeing as though it was on a lake. Monks and male visitors were applying gold leaf to a kinda bulbous shaped thing on a platform in the middle of the room (kinda like paper mache) but I couldn’t because there were no females allowed on the platform. Hmmmmm

We then visited a silversmith who made fun jumping and swimming fish. Again, likely worth the price considering the amount of time that goes into each but I think I’ll have to settle for a fake in the market in town. What was cool was they showed us the process of taking silver from stone to a nugget to pounding and stretching it to twisting it into a ring. Very cool.

Last on the tour was Jumping Cat Monastery. I giggle thinking about it. The monastery itself was very impressive. 170 years old, all teak and beautifully carved and full of art. The jumping cats – not so impressive. James was down front camera ready, I was perched close behind not wanting to miss anything. And….jump. The cat jumped about a half foot off the ground through a hoop. Did it once more…got a bit bored I think and went looking for food. Then everyone drank green tea. Did we miss something?

Luckily James got it on video. (sarcasm) (Click on picture for link to video)

The Karin tribe - indigenous to S.E. Asia souvenir shops

On the way back you could see a huge cloud of rain. Not the normal in the sky kind, but the can’t see through it on the ground kind. I was hopeful it would rain itself out before we got to it. Nope, not even close. It rained so hard on us it came through the seams in my umbrella at force, hitting me in the face. A thirty five minute boat ride in a torrential down pour. It would come straight down the all of a sudden shift and come down at an angle, then shift the other way resulting in us all being soaked by the end. And the end being after the 10 minutes’ walk home in it and ankle deep streets. So mom, does this mean the shorts I was wearing are cleaner and I can wear them again or dirtier and shouldn’t?

Once in dry clothes we were served tea & fruit. I love this place!

On the veranda with another oven baked pizza and some beer, James and I lounged the night away. While sitting and typing I noticed the chair beside me had two pieces of gecko poo on it. Was I just lucky or did a few also land on me? In my hair? Now I love those cute little guys, even think their tiny squawking is cute but the poo falling from the ceiling I could live without.

Lake Residents

Young Girl Gardening

Welcoming Rain Cloud

May 11

After a breakfast of Spanish omelette, fresh fruit, coffee and toast we walked next door to rent some bikes. We were going to do a giant loop through the country side today.

Apparently to fix a bike tire in Myanmar takes several more people than a typical Formula 1 pit crew

I got my first flat tire just far enough away from town that if we walked back it would mean we couldn’t do the planned route. So we asked the first person we saw walking by about fixing our flat. Surprising with his no English and our no Burmese we got the point across and had it fixed in no time at all. It was an interesting repair. The old guy who led us about 20 feet to a house yelled and a few more people wandered down. One with a bag of tools, one with a pump, one with a bucket….and of course one guy to stand and watch. A few kids even came out for a game of hide and seek with us. I’d forgotten how nice it was to be the kinda scary foreigner to kids and not the person with money who buys stuff.

Once fixed we slowly made our way down bumpy, dusty roads with amazing views of the mountains, farm fields and small glimpse of Lake Inle. We stopped to climb a small hill to a stupa and were rewarded with views of the whole valley. A few minutes later we grabbed a wooden long boat ferry that left from a monastery. While we waited cute young monks shyly smiled at us.

Across the lake we peddled on for a few minutes…until I got my second flat tire. We stopped at a drink stand and another old guy took my bike off down a side road, this time without a word said. So we followed. A few minutes later we were on our way.

And me without a straw

Our last stop of the day was a treat for me. Red Mountain Vineyard Winery! Yup, I got to do a Myanmar wine tasting. After I got to drink some wine and James icy cold water and a snack they even took us on a tour of the winery. Of course I had to buy a bottle!

Back at our bikes we found my tire flat again. We were pretty much done our touring and didn’t have far to town so we slowly cruised back. Flat tires and all it was a pretty amazing day.

Reluctantly we hopped into our tuk-tuk pick-up, the Aquarius Guest House has been a nice treat, to the “junction” to catch our overnight bus to Mandalay.

We got dropped off and sat for about an hour watching the comings and goings. What an interesting country.

I was curious what our bus would be like. Had we lucked out on the first and wondered if this would be our turn to get a hot, smelly, cramped local type bus everyone complained about in Myanmar? Nope, we got my favourite yet! In our goodie bag we got water, toothbrush, wet facecloth (not napkin) an orange cakie thing and what tasted like shampoo (it was in a plain white package and after much discussing I decided it was icing for the orange cakie thing and using my teeth to open it got a mouth full, yummy!). Once we got going a laser light show started complete with music videos on the big screen tv. Cool! After the rest stop they put on a crappy movie (Night & Day) which put me to sleep quite nicely. If only all night busses were like this.

James videoed the awesome laser light show. (Click on picture for link to video)

I’d like to add a Myanmar disclaimer. James and I are on a fairly tight budget and we also aren’t in a huge hurry so we usually opt for the cheapest form of transportation and budget accommodations. But being the tourist that I am I always take a look around a place and Myanmar like everywhere else has a more comfortable side. You can fly for about $75 total per person per flight to all the main cities (there are 4) and Air Myanmar even has an air pass that does all for about $250-$300 (although the boat from Madalay to Bagan is supposed to be amazing so you’d only need 3 flights). There are some pretty nice hotels with air conditioning, satellite tv, pools; the works. There are also cabs, decent restaurants and tours so you don’t have to figure it out on your own.

Keeping in mind Myanmar was a country we did research before coming to, as do others, in regards to the “Should we even go” question. Myanmar is ruled by an oppressive military regime and some refugee and human-rights group’s urge people not to visit. They believe that tourism legitimises the government and contributes to its coffers. Myanmar Airways, tons of fancy hotels, trains, and some ferries and tour companies are all government owned and pass little if any of the money back to the people.

Others feel differently. Human-rights abuses are less likely to occur in areas where the international community is present. Tourism is one of the few ways to which locals have direct access to income and communication. And – the vast majority of locals seem to want the tourism.

Recently the huge bucks the government has been making off natural resources (like natural gas to Thailand and timber to India) has made the tourism dollars seem more like loose change which means even more of the tourism money can end up where it should be – locals pockets.

That being said we’ve been careful to stay in family-run guest houses, not government run, book our tickets & tours from them, shop in local markets and from the actual artist and even eat in locally owned restaurants. I’d encourage others to do the same.

There is so little “travel talk” about Myanmar I’d really hate to scare anyone away from such a beautiful country with our budget trip.

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