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Old Mar 9, 12, 11:16 pm   #1
 
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A Step Back in Time: The Twilight of Burma, a Visit to Myanmar. MI (Y) SIN-RGN

A Step Back in Time: The Twilight of Burma, a Visit to Myanmar. MI (Y) SIN-RGN

Links to my previous trip reports:

Egypt. Travel after the Revolution of January 25, 2011. May 2011

Peru & Chile. A Visit to Macchu Picchu and Valle Nevado. Sept 2011

Introduction:

I had been traveling to Singapore from the West Coast of Canada (Vancouver) ever since my first trip as 6 year old. My grandparents had retired there from Malaysia and my mom, who had been an expat since she was 20, made sure I got to know them. I got to travel to SE Asia quite a bit through the late seventies and eighties. It was an adventure to experience lots of travel before I knew how much it actually cost. Needless these adventures of transiting through Kowloon, Hong Kong looking at Chuck E Cheese Pizza Parlors and massive neon lights sprawling across the streets awed me. Travel at a young age set me up for a lifetime of travel yearnings and exploring.

When we got a bit older, my mom would always try to spice it up a bit for us by booking a “Free and Easy” holiday booked through the Chinatown bucket shops in the People’s Park Complex off New Bridge Road in Chinatown. After having the opportunity growing up traveling to this part of the world, my interests started to get a bit more adventurous than the usual family trips to Malaysia and Thailand.

Last family travels to Singapore in September of 2010 brought me for my cousin’s wedding and I decided that I wanted to get more out of travel. I wanted to go somewhere adventurous. Somewhere off the beaten track. And Yangon, Myanmar was it. The appeal of visiting a country, which was stuck in time enthralled me. I had been told that Myanmar was like Asia was 75 years ago and I was keen to explore and see what it would have been like for my mom to have traveled with me Trans Pacific like she did in 1979.

Through some sharp salesman ship, (and a promised decompression trip afterward to Bali with a private villa) I sold Ms World Traveler 73 on a 4-day trip. She had never traveled to a 2nd world country before and Mexico didn’t really compare to what she would likely be experiencing here. Would we survive? Would we be able to get food? Would we see anything interesting? Would I ever get to do this again?



In search of these answers, I booked a ticket on SQ’s Silk Air MI 518 SIN-RGN, which was served by an Airbus 320. I was Star Alliance Gold at the time and was of course disappointed that there were no lounges or Star Alliance Points to my FFP. This trip was before I found Flyer Talk so I don’t have many Silk Air shots, nor did I bother joining Kris Flyer for this short segment. The food in Y was acceptable and there was free beer. I think I was the only one on the plane indulging.

Upon the landing approach to RGN, the fields surrounding the East of Yangon were so green and free of any of the usual structures that you’d find around agricultural zones. It seemed so remote and we hadn’t even gotten on the ground.



We deplaned into a jet way and walked through the relatively modern and sterile airport. The immigration lines, like most others in the world, was split into residents and visitors. This was the first time ever where I have gotten off the plane and we were the only ones on the flight in the foreigner line, with the other 100 passengers lining up for the other 4 immigration agents.

I had arranged for our Visas directly from the Myanmar Embassy in Ottawa Canada, which was an easy process. There were reports that there was Visa on Arrival services but they had cancelled this program by the time I arrived. SQ (or SATS) ground staff didn’t really check over our passports too much in SIN when we checked in.

I booked our hotel “The Governor’s Residence” directly via their website. I made the decision early on that if I were ever to get to travel to another, err less than 1st world country; I’d better make sure that the missus was comfortable. Based on the hotels that were available to foreigners and were of decent quality, it was The Governor’s Residence or Traders by Shanghri La. Traders didn’t look too appealing- it was just a large mid rise building on an anonymous block. I had booked the car service transfer add on through TGR but somehow the wires got crossed and no one was there to meet us.

Not knowing if Mr Pederman from Seinfeld could make it through Burma without speaking Burmese, I didn’t know how I would do exactly? A felt a quick panic set in. Would I be able to pull this off and not look to freaked to my traveling partner a mere 5 minutes after arrival? I was expecting us to be rushed by touts wanting money and payment for imaginary services. Surprisingly, we were totally ignored. The spotlight was then on me to try and get us to the hotel. Thankfully, the ones that did catch our eye was the tourist information desk in the arrivals hall. They recognized my plight and were able to arrange a 20 minute taxi for us for $8 USD.

One of the unusual parts about Myanmar is that there are no ATM’s or credit cards accepted anywhere. Banks do not deal with foreigners and traveler’s cheques are not in use. If you run out of money, you’re officially out. You are encouraged to bring with you clean, unmarked, crisp US dollar bills for use while you stay. Any dirty or torn bills are politely returned with requests for alternate payment. Outside of tourist establishments, and there aren’t many tourist establishments to start with, payment is made in the local currency, the Kyat (pronounced CHAT). The catch is that you can’t get Kyats’ at a bank; you have to change them on the street on the floating black market or through your hotel at a less than desirable rate. One US dollar was trading at 900 Kyats at our hotel. I had heard that the street rate was about 1: 1500. There was a change cambio at the airport but it was closed and looked like it had been for quite a while.

The Governors Residence Hotel
Yangon, Myanmar.

We arrived to the hotel at about 4 PM, making it through the city to the Governor’s Residence. The Governor’s Residence is in a leafy embassy / residential district and is one of the few places in Yangon where tourists are found. Our rate ($159 USD) included a buffet breakfast. Based on the appearance of the hotel, similar to the palaces that you see in India, you wouldn’t believe the crumbling infrastructure outside of the walled compound. I’d highly recommend staying here if you pass through town.



We found a taxi and made our way into town to Monsoon for Dinner. The taxi was a flat rate $2 USD anywhere in town. I’m sure the locals pay much less on the bus. Since Myanmar has had trade embargos on it for the last 20 years, most of the cars are falling to pieces. If you’re lucky, you have a left over embassy car that was left behind. Each one had their own personality. On the ride in, the streets were deserted empty.

I always find that you can tell whenever you’re in a second world country by the number of electrical cables that tap in to the power boxes like in this photo.



The next morning we took another $2 taxi into the heart of downtown Yangon. Visiting in September, it was rainy season and the city had a very gray appearance. The sidewalks were covered with vendors selling products and food.

Downtown Yangon.



Of course, one of the sad realities of some parts of the world, if you’re old enough to accept cash, you’re old enough to work.



We first visited Sule Paya, which is in the middle of the city. It’s not every city that has its center marked with a 2000 year old temple . . . After a quick visit there, we set out on a walking tour around Central Yangon, which was previously set up in a grid street system thanks to the British. Many of the buildings were over run with plants and run down. The Colonial Architecture was evident in some structures. Repairs were slowly being conducted on others. Some other buildings had a uniquely Asian stone look to them which I haven’t seen anywhere else. At any rate, there was a stark absence of any franchising or signage of the usual Western products. The Burmese script on the signs was also exquisite and interesting.

Sule Paya



Around town









Shwedagon Paya

Our next day brought rain showers but we managed to make it out to the main event: Shwedagon Paya. The dome here is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar and the stupa is 2,500 years old and covered with gold leaf, a generous sprinkling of diamonds or “other stones”. Seeing this is like seeing Table Mountain in Cape Town or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the unique shape of this symbol is just seared into your memory and it makes for some terrific pictures.

We bought our tickets ($5) and I paid the camera fee ($5). We left our shoes at the front as you do in all Buddhist structures and took the elevator up. Tradition says that you have to walk around the structures clockwise so that is what we did. We spend several hours there and met with a few brave people who approached us to talk about the structure and explain its features. Of the several hundred people that we saw there over 5 hrs, I believe we saw one other western couple. I was really struck with humility by the people who came to pray at the end of their working day – who spent time there relaxing and being thankful for what they had – which I am sure was a lot less than I had back home. Here and everywhere we went in Yangon, people approached us. We were outsiders to them and they were interested to hear what we had to say. “Is there really snow in Canada?” we were asked, amazed that such a thing could exist. English was the main language here prior to Burmese when the British occupied the land and the conversations that we had with the older generation were unforgettable.









Day Trip to Bago, Myanmar

For our next day, I had arranged for a car and driver through the hotel to take us on a private trip to Bago – about 90 minutes drive along a very bumpy 4 lane highway North East of the City. Our travel schedule didn’t allow for a more intensive trip up to Mandalay but I wanted to get out to see a bit of the heartland. It’s also worth noting that like some other countries, the entire country is not open for exploration, you’re only permitted as a foreigner to travel to specific areas. Military check points on the highways kept people in check.





Part of our tour included the Shwethalyaung Buddha, one of the largest reclining Buddha’s in Myanmar. It was supposed to have been “rediscovered” in 1880. Next door to the Buddha was a school. The Lonely Planet guidebook described Bago as a collection of gaudy religious sites – and there were quite a few but it was the surprise of seeing westerners that was the most entertaining part. The children at the school next to the Buddha probably hadn’t seen a digital camera with a screen for a while because they were super excited to see us and have us take their picture. If you look closely, you can see the thanakha- sunscreen made from local tree bark that they use on their faces since they don’t buy or have access to any for purchase.

Shwethalyaung Buddha




Last edited by worldtraveller73; Apr 8, 14 at 8:28 pm..
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Old Mar 10, 12, 12:08 am   #2
 
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We made it through several other religious sites, including a 2 km walk across a religious complex barefoot where Ms World Traveler 73 got bitten by some red ants. The foliage was so green and leafy, from an era gone by.

Temples in and around the Bago area.







Kha Khat Wain Kyaung Monastary

We also visited the Kha Khat Wain Kyaung Monastary complex where the monks were in the process of writing their final exams. A lot like B-School back home with everyone studying except these guys had more determination than I did and my other fellow students.



Snake Monastery by the Kanbawzathandi Palace and Museum


We also stopped by the Snake Monastary where I saw the most unusual site. This temple paid worship to a 118-year-old Burmese Python. Per the Lonely Planet, this very snake eats 11 lb of chickens every ten days, is 17 feet long and 1 foot wide. All the more reason to take a nap next to it!! No, you don’t see this in the America’s . . .



Bago Market

The red ants situation was quickly forgotten when it was time to go shopping. A stop at the market was another local’s interaction. Ms World Traveler 73 was able to get a metal stackable container for her lunch materials back home that were common in Myanmar. Of course, everything is for sale and the locals were interested in us foreigners as much as we were interested in them.







The next day we boarded our return flight home: MI 511 RGN-SIN. As we were dropped off at the Yangon airport, we cleared customs again with no one in the foreigner’s line. I was surprised to see a Thai Orchid Lounge there that looked to be a room with about 6 chairs in it. Surprisingly, we didn’t run out of money, having paid cold hard cash for absolutely everything in the last 4 days.

I really enjoyed our visit there and wouldn’t hesitate to go back. The country did feel like it was Asia 75 years ago. Except that when I was 6, I wasn’t able to tell that there was an excitement amongst the air with the people as the country developed a-new. There is a renewed excitement amongst the people there. They were full of hope and wishes for a new future. Its always strange explaining to people that you just traveled 25 hrs in a plane to visit their country when many of them haven’t traveled 2 hours up the road and perhaps know no different in their lives. Yet these people seem much happier than the stressed out commuters back home. Perhaps that is what the attraction is about places like these.

Editorial Note: Since we took this trip, the military junta government that governed for 39 years has installed a civilian government. They have followed with reforms to allow for the release of political prisoners and these reforms have led to a seat on ASEAN. I would believe the country to grow like any other as it matures into a new nation.

Till our next adventure. . . Visit soon while it still has its charm.

Last edited by worldtraveller73; Apr 8, 14 at 8:29 pm..
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Old Mar 10, 12, 12:23 am   #3
 
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Really enjoyed your TR - great stuff

We've taken our kids (now aged 10 & 8) to Asia many times and have really enjoyed exploring every country particular Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam & Northern Thailand.

Myanmar is next on the list & your TR has wet our appetite
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Old Mar 10, 12, 12:18 pm   #4
 
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Very nice report.
Great photos.
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Old Mar 10, 12, 1:45 pm   #5
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Wow! What a fabulous TR!! Great photos, too!! Keep it up the good work. I'm glad you had a great time.
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Old Mar 10, 12, 3:52 pm   #6
 
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Great trip report !

Brings very good memories of our trip to this country in 2007.
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Old Mar 10, 12, 5:34 pm   #7
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What a great report. We were in Myanmar last year, and it brought back fond memories. We, too, ate at Monsoon. Governors Residence was booked solid, and we had a very adequate albeit not as picturesque stay at Traders.

I highly recommend returning and visiting both Pagan and Inle Lake. There are thousands of temples in Pagan. It is mesmerizing to see them and to realize the devotion and money that it took to build so many.

Given the inability to use credit cards and the lack of ATM machines, and the insistence of the merchants on pristine US bills, it was quite a challenge to get sufficient currency for the trip. My husband went thru well over $10K at the bank to downselect what we took.

It is an easy flight from Bangkok, and we want to return sometime in the future.
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Old Mar 10, 12, 5:40 pm   #8
 
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Great trip report. Loved that part about the snake. I've seen longer ones before (i.e. Reticulated Pythons) but the Burmese python's girth can't be beat.
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Old Mar 10, 12, 5:56 pm   #9
 
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FWIW I was told from a few sources that there is a
fancy hotel in Yangon outskirts that will give a USD
cash advance on a credit card, at a bad rate of course,
but is an option if you get stuck.
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Old Mar 10, 12, 7:10 pm   #10
 
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We had a trip to Myanmar a few years ago, and would love to go back.
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Old Mar 11, 12, 3:36 am   #11
 
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Very nice trip report!

I visited Yangon in Dec 2007 and would love to return to visit other parts of the country one day.
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Old Mar 11, 12, 4:04 am   #12
 
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Great report!
I will be travelling to Myanmar this summer and after seeing your report i am looking forward to it even more.
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Old Mar 11, 12, 4:05 am   #13
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SanDiego1K View Post
What a great report. We were in Myanmar last year, and it brought back fond memories. We, too, ate at Monsoon. Governors Residence was booked solid, and we had a very adequate albeit not as picturesque stay at Traders.

I highly recommend returning and visiting both Pagan and Inle Lake. There are thousands of temples in Pagan. It is mesmerizing to see them and to realize the devotion and money that it took to build so many.

Given the inability to use credit cards and the lack of ATM machines, and the insistence of the merchants on pristine US bills, it was quite a challenge to get sufficient currency for the trip. My husband went thru well over $10K at the bank to downselect what we took.

It is an easy flight from Bangkok, and we want to return sometime in the future.
In Yangon we stayed at The Strand, that belongs to GHM Hotels. We loved it.

Lake Inle, Bagan and also Mandalay are a must if you visit the country.
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Old Mar 14, 12, 8:04 pm   #14
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by amaroo View Post
Really enjoyed your TR - great stuff

We've taken our kids (now aged 10 & 8) to Asia many times and have really enjoyed exploring every country particular Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam & Northern Thailand.

Myanmar is next on the list & your TR has wet our appetite
Thanks Amaroo. I'd love to take my 7 year old son to Cambodia since he'd enjoy exploring the temples. I was fortunate enough to visit Siem Reap in 2008 so am in a position to compare, thankfully!

If you could imagine Myanmar to be like Siem Reap without the tourism - and the updated infrastructure, you be right on. Although I do think that since Myanmar has lots of temples, you may have the "seen one temple, you've seen them all" attitude from children.

Having said that, the temples have corners and hiding spots that are (respectfully and quietly) begging to be explored.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Billiken View Post
Very nice report.
Great photos.
Thanks Billiken.

The photos were taken with an old Nikon Coolpix with a broken lens cover. It didn't change the greyness of the place in September. I finally upgraded to a D5100 this year.

Quote:
Originally Posted by N830MH View Post
Wow! What a fabulous TR!! Great photos, too!! Keep it up the good work. I'm glad you had a great time.
Thanks N830 MH. I'm looking forward to go back sometime.

Quote:
Originally Posted by more4less View Post
Great trip report !

Brings very good memories of our trip to this country in 2007.
I would guess that not a lot had changed between 2007 and 2010 when we visited. However, I'd be interested to know what happens are happening now given the reforms and international attention the new civilian government is attempting to formalize.

Quote:
Originally Posted by SanDiego1K View Post
What a great report. We were in Myanmar last year, and it brought back fond memories. We, too, ate at Monsoon. Governors Residence was booked solid, and we had a very adequate albeit not as picturesque stay at Traders.

I highly recommend returning and visiting both Pagan and Inle Lake. There are thousands of temples in Pagan. It is mesmerizing to see them and to realize the devotion and money that it took to build so many.

Given the inability to use credit cards and the lack of ATM machines, and the insistence of the merchants on pristine US bills, it was quite a challenge to get sufficient currency for the trip. My husband went thru well over $10K at the bank to downselect what we took.

It is an easy flight from Bangkok, and we want to return sometime in the future.
We walked by Traders and didn't really use them except for ordering a taxi from the front. We had the same challenges at the Canadian Royal Bank when packing away our currency for this trip. The logistics of finding fresh currency is actually harder than one would expect. I think we went through their entire bank stock there looking for fresh bills.
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Old Mar 17, 12, 7:13 am   #15
 
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Great report

What a fab report. I have just returned from Rangon and the pictures helped keep alive some fresh memories.

I did not experience the night time at the Schewadagon so that was good to see in your photo. For me I was rather surprised to see so many people sleeping there during the day, but I suppose anything goes in the chaos of this rapidly developing country.
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