Friday, December 21, 2012

Myanmar in December 2012: Yangon

I had the whole month off in December but I didn't get a contract for the following semester until about the middle of the month, so I busied myself with many projects the first weeks in December.  Bobbi was still working in Abu Dhabi so I didn't feel the need to leave town and stay gone the whole month. But Bobbi was making plans to visit her mom in Houston for Christmas. I felt I needed a holiday though (a real one, rather than face issues in Texas) and it turns out that one place up and coming for tourism and that has clear skies in December is Myanmar.

It's a little hard to find information about visas to Myanmar. Official advice if your country of residence has no Myanmar consulate (none in UAE) is to go to Bangkok and pay to get your visa issued overnight. However I would leave on a weekend which would mean I could not get one until Monday if I got to the embassy in Bangkok on Friday, or Tuesday at the latest, and then I would have to book a flight to Yangon.  If you go on Travel Advisor you find you can get your visa online at but info there suggests an unstable playing field with regulations having changed at one point requiring joining a tour group before they would issue a visa (but after you had paid up front for it). So I was unsure of what to do until I found from a friend that she had got a visa as recently as October from  To make a long story short, I applied on their website on the 9th, paid an extra $30 for 7 day rush service, and the visa was waiting for me on arrival when I reached Yangon airport. The company handling the visa was refreshingly communicative in email, reassuring me at times when I absolutely had to book my flight, as prices were going up daily, yet I needed to get there before the sharp Christmas fare increases.

I tried to get the agency to book accommodation for me but they told me all the budget places were full, and in the end I had to book online just a couple of days in advance of travel and pay $90 a night for the room (which listed for $70, but the rest was plus plus).  Frankly it was worth it.  I sent this on arrival Dec 19, 2012 ...

"I just got to Yangon. Pretty painless, no ordeals for me. Thai food on the planes and wine with meals, though on the last flight I had only the one glass (entering traveling mode). Visas were issued perfunctorily on arrival as all the paperwork was in order. My bag was sitting by the carousel on my way into the cool night air. All the cab drivers were wearing longies, so it was clear I was in Myanmar.

"I'm in a good hotel for tonight and tomorrow, called the Thamada. Wifi seems fine here. The cab driver who brought me from the airport didn't like the $10 I handed him, but he was nice, so I sorted him out. I will likely try to get to Mandalay from here, get the long bus ride out of the way first, then work back toward Yangon."

As you prepare for Myanmar you are warned of many pitfalls. One is supposed to be the bus rides, were reputed to be rough.  I guess I was expecting Laos where, when I was there, bus rides were to be endured, not enjoyed. I didn't find the buses in Myanmar that bad. I took buses to Mandalay, from there to Lake Inle, then to Bagan, and from there back to Yangon, so I wasn't traveling on remote routes. There were day buses in Myanmar but it was more practical to travel at night.  Buses usually left in the evening after dark and arrived between 3 and 6 a.m. where they were going. They all had DVD but it was usually off by midnight.  But the bus drivers always played themselves music which you could hear in the front of he bus so I started reserving seats in the back where I didn't have to listen to that all night.  It wasn't always comfortable enough to sleep well, but it was comfortable enough.

Most travelers to Myanmar know you must bring 'pristine' US dollar banknotes. The driver's polite request for a better $10 bill was the first of many rejections of the money I was carrying, but I found this to be more particular to the capital than to the countryside. Outside the capital, no one rejected any of my money, whereas in the capital it was inconvenient to change money.  On the other hand, travel in Myanmar was so cheap that I didn't have to change money outside the capital (I changed $500 there and at the end of two weeks changed $50 back at the airport, but this accounts only for my kyat (the local currency, pronounced 'chat;). I often (but not always) payed US dollars for my hotel accommodation, which from then on ranged $20 to $50 a night.  But I guess I spent about $700 on the ground there in two weeks, or about $50 a day.

Lonely Planet Guide (LPG henceforth) warns travelers not to change money at the airport since the government rate of exchange is a tenth that of money changes.  However, I found that not to be the case. I did seek out money changers when I first got there.  I changed my first money in Bogyoke Market in Yangon, from a seemingly nice man in a longie, who gave me essentially the same rate as I found I could get later at the bank exchange offices, about 850 kyat per dollar.  However I was offered as much as 900 on the streets, but these were whispered offers on street corners that I felt might end up costing me in the end. When I left the country via Yangon airport, I found that the same bank exchange counters were operating there, giving very fair rates of exchange. Downtown Sule Paya (paya means pagoda) is the place to go if you want to try and get 900 kyat for your dollar :-).

Another warning for travelers to Myanmar is that you will be away from Internet for long periods of time. Outside the capital Internet could be offline for hours at a time, but it was usually available at some point during the day, at some point in all the cities I was in.

Burma seems to be the new land of smiles. Taxi drivers are universally friendly here and if they overcharge it's only a dollar, and they often come down when haggled with.  People on the bus were very friendly.  With very few exceptions (dubious money changers in the streets, the odd kid wanting 'money-bon bon-bahpoin pen') no one hassles me here so far.  Meals and transport are very cheap (bus transport costs a tenth of the cab ride for example).  People in streets and on buses are shy and sometimes will try to strike up a conversation, but they don't persist, and the crowd has a friendly feel about it. If you need help in the streets people try to assist. This used to be a British colony, so English crops up surprisingly often.

I wrote this from Yangon on December 21, after I'd been there for two days ...

So far Burma has been not unlike Vientiane or maybe Bangkok back in the day (minus the girls) and travel in the countryside is reputed to be rough like Laos, long journeys.  I'm going on my first one tonight, overnight bus to Mandalay.

Yesterday I walked around Yangon and visited some gilded stupas, like Shwedagon Paya. On the way there I went to the zoo because the road I was walking along, I might as well detour through the zoo. The animals there were displayed in such a way that visitors could get up close to them.  It's funny that the elephants for example, don't step down off their pedestal, no need for a fence apparently.

I spent sunset at the big Pagoda in Yangon and then went to the hotel and had a beer while I checked email and Facebook, and then had a second night's luxury sleep.

My second morning there I milked the hotel for all its comforts, and its excellent breakfast (Japanese and Chinese set breakfasts with no eggs) till checkout and then went on a day-trip in the countryside. I could have hired a cab for the day, about $30, but instead decided to brave (according to LPG) the 'slow and uncomfortable' Burma bus system to the rural side of the river. However I found the local bus neither slow nor uncomfortable.  It was a pleasant ride to a town named Thanlyn about an hour from Yangon (would have taken half an hour in a cab) where there was a big pagoda, but small compared to the one in Yangon.  And from there I had to get to Kyauktan where there was another pagoda in the middle of the river.

There is a sign there that tourist must use a special boat (for their safety).  All the locals are getting ferried across in basic but sturdy motor canoes but the sign said tourists would use a 'large' boat that cost 5000 Kyat (each thousand is a buck and a quarter).  Plus on arrival at the pagoda there is a ticket office only for tourists, $2.  No big deal, but some people don't like the money going to the government, but if the government is changing and tending toward reform shouldn't we support it? Why drive down the government to give all the money to capitalists?  Up to a point, maybe, but there needs to be a counter-force to unbridled capitalism, which leads to inequity fast.  Unbridled dictatorship is probably worse, but the solution is a middle road.  I don't mind giving small change to the new government, which in any event is doing nothing like the US government is doing with our tax dollars. Anyway there was a poster of Aung San Siew Kyi in the bus on the ride back to Yangon, and in other very public places. I saw no pictures of strutting generals while I was in Myanmar.

I did manage to resolve one riddle though ... if tourists in Mayanmar take pictures of nuns and monks, then what do monks take pictures of?

Would you believe, tourists?

The following installments of this traveler's tale are posted with photos:

Inle Lake and Bagan be edited and posted shortly (but not today :-(so, stay tuned :-)


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