Yangon was Burma’s capital during the British occupation, and remains one of its main business centres. The city is booming so fast that it feels a bit like a teenager that’s quickly outgrowing its clothes. We had a little taste of the “expat life” for a weekend, guided by Mr & Mrs J. He’s actually becoming so local he’s now rocking the longyi style! Next thing you know, he’ll be chewing on betel… https://instagram.com/p/xMUPV0SnTo/ I’m not sure why but the French must love Myanmar, as the authorities count as many as 600 foreign nationals living in the Country (growing up to 90% per year). The same goes for tourists apparently, as French tourists are the most numerous to visit. Generally speaking the growing number of European and other western expats living in Yangon reflects the fact that the Country is at a turning point: the “big question mark” as Professor Robert H. Liebermandescribes it. Indeed, daily conversation topics range from “what will the 2015 election mean for the Country and its legal framework” to “when is the next visa run to Bangkok?”, and of course to “where can I find some baking chocolate?”.
Many expats, all with different stories but common complaints: difficulties to find a suitable accommodation in a growing city where housing is actually not that cheap; impossibility to get a long-term visa (for now at least); lack of places to find fresh salads and western healthy food…so many obstacles that could turn into great business ideas? Yes, but not always. Foreigners are officially allowed to own no more than 49% of properties & companies, making Myanmar investors open to partnership a hot commodity! I’m glad I saw Mr & Mrs J (loving that new nickname) well settled in a cosy apartment and with a few business ideas up their sleeves!! As for us, for a weekend only, we marvelled at British car models with their steering wheels on the left driving on the right side of the road while stuck in traffic; bought Myanmar-baked croissants; crossed streets featuring a Buddhist temple, a Christian church and a mosque; had cocktails the colonial way; marvelled at the giant reclining Buddha. In term of tourism we very much enjoyed the free walking tour run by Gino. Thanks again, we had a great time listening your tales of Yangon, but also exchanging views with the group and …playing chilone!!
And obviously, we had to go and see the Shwedagon Pagoda, featuring one of the biggest stupa in the world and containing relics of the four Buddhas. It’s a puzzling sight at first, very crowded with tourists, prayers and monks; or sometimes all in one really, as we were welcomed by monks taking selfies on their ipads (really!?)…the temple is overlooking the city and stretches over a large area, with dozens of shrines and stupas. Legends and stories are, in my opinion, the most exciting part of such a site. I found the legend of the Pagoda on this page, I found it very interesting but poorly translated, so if anyone has a better version of it please let me know!
Rangoon Hail, Mother! Do they call me rich in trade? Little care I, but hear the shorn priest drone, And watch my silk-clad lovers, man by maid, Laugh ‘neath my Shwe Dagon.
According to the UNESCO, Bagan is the capital city of the first Myanma Kingdom, the site measures 13 by 8 km and contains over 2,500 mostly Buddhist monuments (temples, stupas, monasteries, etc) built from the 10th to the 14th centuries AD. Several of these monuments are still highly venerated by the population, and attract numerous pilgrims and devotees from all over the country, particularly at festival times and on Saturdays. It was fun to see mini-buses full of Myanmar people, wearing tour-operator hats actually, but at times quite busy!
The UNESCO never gave the site the status of “World heritage” but regularly helps the restoration, in particular of mural paintings as they constitute a unique corpus of paintings of that time in southeast Asia and have been the most reliable source for the history of the Kingdom.
And it does feel like a sacred and privileged place. Especially at sunset where it turns to a truly magical spectacle, as dusk casts a golden spell on the brick ruins, highlighting the shadows of the countless temples…
Bagan can be reached easily from the Nyaung U Airport in 10min. We stayed at the Blue Bird, a recent boutique hotel in New Bagan, which was a real treat, modern and with a walk-in shower that I soooo wanted to take home. Well, the fact is that showering had become quite an obsession after long days spent mostly barefoot in temples or wandering in the dust in flip flops!
Renting bikes or electric bikes makes all the difference at the site is quite vast, once again I was glad to have a flash light, as it gets completely dark about 20min after sunset. Despite that, we ditched the idea of getting a driver (useless) and spent 3 days loosing ourselves in a maze of temples and soaking the atmosphere, where I was pretending to be a repentant Queen about to build my own pagoda.
Indeed, the alleged 2,500 temples carry much legends and folklore. I loved the Dhammayangyi Temple, that was built by King Narathu to repent for murdering his father, brother and a wife (charming compensation!). The legend is that Narathu’s wickedness was so perpetual that he chopped off the hands of temple masons for faulty workmanship. ahh!!! I’ll tell that to the builders next time…
My Christmas present was a balloon ride over the site and I enjoyed every minute of the unique bird-eye view. Getting up at 4am was well worth it, those guys didn’t make it to the Lonely Planet cover for no reason! Even without going on a balloon, getting up before sunrise is strongly recommended, the haze dissipating and temples bathed in an early morning light make for a great spectacle.
And finally we spared a morning to pay our respect on the Mount Popa. I think the Lonely Planet had a great recommendation: going without a guide is a little bit like watching a foreign movie without subtitles. We couldn’t find one unfortunately, so we started by reading a few stories that I found on different blogs and website, and ended up chatting people and creating legends of our own…there’s a certain story about losing a ring on the way out and finding it several hours, plus all the stones, one by one, on the road. If that was not a miracle, I’m not sure what else it was!?
An absolutely wonderful country, we had a fantastic time discovering a diverse and rich culture. Myanmar is attractive in many aspects and tourism is starting to develop. I felt like before posting photos and also to avoid novel-long posts, I should maybe start with a little introduction.
One thing is sure, you will be welcome, the government has actually sprinkled large signs displaying a “warmly welcome and take care of tourists” message all across the country. But Myanmar is not Thailand, if it’s amazing resort, beaches and nightlife that you are after, the quality for money may be better in the neighbouring country. For us at least, it was a cultural, quite active trip where we mostly rose up early and went to bed a couple of hours after sunset. Depending on your city / country balance it may change but even on the beach side, night life is down to a chilled cocktail and a good book.
Some of our friends organised their trip with a specialised travel agency that booked plane tickets, hotel and visas for them, it’s an option that I decided to skip. One because most of local travel agencies belong to the government, as well as airlines though, but also because planning is half the fun and I thoroughly enjoyed reading books, blogs, articles, asking expats and friends about their experiences.
Here are the bits and pieces of fact-finding and recommendations I collected, hope it can be useful.
How to travel responsibly?
“We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral – everything.” U Win Tin , NLD leader, 2010
In a country that was opened to tourism only a couple of years ago, and where democracy is still a challenge, it’s a tough question to tourists. It’s almost impossible to know if and how to choose and agency, which hotel to book, and if to buy jade earrings or not. I am no expert and I probably did some things wrong, but that doesn’t mean there is no point trying. On top of that, it is difficult to turn a blind eye to sustainability issues: how to accommodate thousands of foreigners flocking a country that has (extremely) limited rubbish collection system, dubious water sewage etc…how to find a hotel that doesn’t recycle the chlore’d water from their swimming pool directly into the Inle lake?
When to go?
It is generally held that in Burma we do not have four seasons, we have only three, the hot season, the rainy season and the cold season. Spring is largely unknown although in the cooler border regions there is a stretch of pleasant, spring-like weather that we refer to as summer. (Letters from Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi)
A friend of us could only take time off work in August and still says that it was well worth the trip, adding a few light weight waterproof layers and heavier footwear. From what the locals told us, it seems that the rain season isn’t as heavy as in, say India for example, and especially in the north. Yet some attractions such as ballooning may not be available.
Proper summer starts in January until March and the touristy season starts before that. November was a great choice, not overly hot yet, the nature was really lush while we enjoyed a clear blue sky everywhere we went.
Administrative & other concerns
Visa: the embassy now offers an online service for $50 where one has to send their passport and gets their visas back by the post. I didn’t like the idea of mailing my passport and made a quick trip to the embassy, chit chatted with other travellers in the waiting room for 25min where we exchanged useful travelling info and only paid £14. It’s takes about a week to get the visa and they will keep your passport for that time. In theory you will need to have your flight booked already when requesting for a visa, but mine weren’t and I just left it blank…worked either way.
Money: I have seen a couple of ATMs, one of which at the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon actually, but by far the easiest is to bring brand new $100 notes with you and change them at the Yangon airport (we tried a few others downtown but this is where we got the best rate). Most change agents will only take crisp new notes and you will get a better change rate with $100 notes.
How much do you need? We have been counting at large to make sure we wouldn’t end up blocked, roughly airport transfers are the equivalent of $5 to 10, even treating ourselves we ate really well for less (sometimes way less) than $50 a day for 2 including a couple of local beers. I had pre-booked some of the hotels before leaving, you can get a good idea of how much you should budget for hotel spending using the Lonely Planet as a guide, and same for the main activities (hot air balloon needs to be pre-booked and paid online, things like trekking can go up to $50 a day for 2, renting bikes is normally only a couple of $. And we spent really little more than that, a few souvenirs, bike rentals (no more than a couple of $ if not free in some hotels), horse carts ride in Bagan ($7) or the odd boat rental in Inle ($15-20), and a few taxis especially in cities like Yangon or Mandalay.
* I opted for a 55L front opening zipper bagpack with a 10L extension that proved a great companion. I followed other bloggers recommendations and loaded it with around 12kg, and left space for souvenirs and other little Christmas presents.
Also having a rucksack fitting in the overhead locker was hugely helpful for the local flights. Never mind the liquid limitations, there just isn’t any.
We have been recommended the packing cubes method as well for the ones who take a longer break especially, and I still am in love with the vacuum bag method.
* A large scarf, mine is a very large silk scarf. Silk is magic, keeps warm in the cold but is breathing in the heat. Take it long enough that is can turn to a skirt / cover your legs.
* A pair of flip flops is absolutely necessary to visit temples (and there are many, many of them), some light shoes (trainers, sandals) and a pair of heavier duty trainers or walking shoes especially if you want to trek but I will come back to this later (see Kalaw to Inle).
* A couple of jumpers, the forecast may tell you it’s 33 degrees in Yangon, but the planes and buses are freezing, and nights get chilli.
* And one for girls, try and keep the hemline relatively low, light trousers may be more useful than shorts, comfortable and modest wear will be the choice. Most locals wear a longy, a sort of ankle long skirt that is held by a knot at the wait, in colourful fabrics for women and brick or bottle green checks patterns for men. We found it easier to adopt for women clearly 🙂
* A little torch lamp. I was a bit sceptical about that one but listen to friends recommendations and appreciated it. Most roads don’t have any lighting and for those who want to go trekking it will prove even more important.
* And the usual basic essentials: mosquito repellent and calming spray, sun cream, wet wipes, dry wash, a basic emergency kit (plasters, disinfectant, etc)…
Before leaving …to read and watch
Myanmar is a country with a complex history, and I feel like going without any research would be a real waste.
Once there I also felt my knowledge about Buddhism was not good enough to appreciate and fully grasp the importance of some temple and traditions and bought the “Buddhism, A very short introduction” by Damien Keown. And by the way, if anyone has better recommendations, please share!
The glass palace – Amitav Ghosh
Starting in the 19th century in Mandalay, with the intertwined stories of the royal family send to exile in India and the one of Rajkumar, an Indian boy emigrated to Burma, it is a great way to understand history with an entertaining story.
Under the dragon – Rory Maclean
A BBC British journalist who travelled to Burma, in the early 90’s.
He goes around the country to seek a bamboo basket seen in a photo taken by a fellow traveler in the late 19th century and stored in the British museum archives. Many encounters with peculiar characters will result in an interesting collection of stories, each describing aspect of the country.
Letters from Burma and Freedom from fear – Aung San Suu Kyi
The lady – Luc Besson Filmed before Aung San Suu Kyi was released from imprisonment, the story is based on family, friends, colleagues, and international associations’ testimonials.
Un indovino mi disse – Tiziano Terzani (translated to English to A Fortune Teller Told Me)
The true story of a (superstitioous) Italian journalist who was told by a fortune teller that a great mortal danger would come “from the sky” in 1993. He took it seriously and subsequently carried on his travelling accross South East Asia solely using ground transportation that year…
Burmese Days – George Orwell
Chroniques Birmanes (translated to Burmese Chronicles) -Guy Delisle comic book, in French, writen by Canadian Guy Delisle, father of a young boy and whose wife is an MSF doctor (Medecins Sans Frontiere) and therefore has a light and fun insight on a few countries like Myanmar. A refreshing, yet well informed view.
“I tried to make a movie that was not political,” said Mr. Lieberman, “but of course, that was impossible in the end.” Shot clandestinely over a 2-year period, this documentary provides a rare look at the second-most isolated country on the planet. It lifts the curtain to expose the everyday life in a country that has been held in the iron grip of a brutal military regime for 48 years.
** 7 days example (done by an agency): a super-packed itinerary, quite high-end
Day #1: arrive in Yangon. Kandawgyi Palace Hotel for check-in and overnight.
Day #2: transfer to Bagan and see the main temples. Overnight at Tharabar Gate Hotel.
Day #3: drive to Nyaung Oo.
Day #4: Morning flight to Mandalay, the city of the last Myanmar Kings. Upon arrival drive to Amarapura the “City of Immortals” and visit the 150 year old Mahagandayon monastery, and famous Buddhist learning centre.
Day #5: Morning flight to Heho in Shan State to see the Inle Lake. Overnight at Myanmar Treasure Inle Resort.
Day #6 and #7: transfer to Thandwe to spend the weekend on Ngapali beach. Overnight at the Sandoway
**11 days itinerary (also done by an agency) in the rainy season, August
Day #1 and #2: Arrival Yangon. Overnight at the Kandawgyi palace hotel
Day #3 and #4: transfer to Bagan and sightseeing. Overnight at the Thiripyit Saya Sanctuary resort
Day #5: Bagan – visit Mount Popa
Day #6: transfer to Heho by flight and visit Pindaya cave
Day #7: Nyaung shwe and boat excursion in Inle Lake. Overnight at the May Guest House
Day #8: Inle lake – Inn Thein market boat excursion
Day #9: Heho to Mandalay by flight and visit Sagaing – Ava- Amarapura. Overnight at the Mandalay Hill resort
Day #10: Mandalay – Mingun by boat and Mandalay city tour.
Day #11: Mandalay – Visit Pyin Oo Lwin
** Other interesting:
– trekking around the Inle Lake, starting from Kalaw
– take a cruise from Mandalay to Bagan along the Ayeyarwady river
– with more time, go and explore the Myeik Islands
From the very start when I started preparing the trip and seeing Charlotte’s and other friends photos, I knew I was quite curious about going trekking, meeting people outside of the beaten path. And I am immensely glad we did it as it was a major highlight of our 2 weeks trip in the country.
It is an, albeit touristy, it remains an authentic experience. It’s not that hundreds of travellers suddenly decided to go all trekking on the same path but rather that it’s the only route where the government doesn’t have any (lengthy) pre-authorisations process. We started from Kalaw where our guide John Sylvester, got us to fill a simple form with our names and passport numbers that he then dropped at the police stations, a 5min business. In comparison, fellow travellers who wanted to explore the southern region, border of Thailand, had to wait for over 2 weeks, ask for local help, and a pinch of luck to get their permits to go exploring the band of shore land on a bike. Amazing adventure that I hope they will relate soon on their blog 😉
I have to make one big acknowledgement there, John totally made the trip worth it. He started as a young boy as a porter in the family business and learnt English by having tourists in his environment from then. Passionate about his region, trekking and the world in general, John has been running his own trek company for 15 years and knows his job well. He also speaks a very good English which makes the whole difference between seeing the region and experiencing it. I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent in villages, sharing freshly cut tea and discussing about the recent changes in the country.
We started in the afternoon and spent the night with the Nepalese family who runs the little shelter at the view point, after having enjoyed a magnificent sunset. And finally, shared the evening activities with them, steaming the fresh tea leaves and preparing the dinner mostly.
The next day was longer, we probably covered about 35/40km, stopping in different villages and …sharing more tea. The tribes we met with are organised in different ways, have different traditions. And as we advanced, the landscape also changed much. From tea leaves, to tobacco fields, rice terraces quite labour intensive and helped by ox carts, gingers and chilly fields, sesame, Our little company was pretty tired and didn’t last much after night fall. Some houses will have a little solar panel but must don’t have electricity at all and “pitch black” takes a whole new dimension. How shinny the stars are in the middle of the mountains…
On a house-keeping note, for those interested by the trek, it’s a good idea to carry the following:
– A 20L day pack
– Comfortable walking shoes, we went at a sustained pace (about 35km a day) and I’m sure that John is more than happy to take it a little slower but in any case, sports shoes are a good idea
– A little torch lamp
– Light sleeping bags – most families will provide you with blankets but I felt more comfortable having my own
– Sun cream and mosquito spray
– A good jumper for the evening and the early morning
– A camelback type of water supply or a water bottle
– Leggings or cropped pants instead of shorts, especially for girls. I started in shorts and quickly changed into running trousers with a longer hem line.
– Wet wipes / hands dry wash and a small Eco toilet paper roll (and their little zip bag to bring the rubbish back with you)
And our full itinerary and packing list can be found here