I’ve had a tough time writing this one. I’ve started over a few times and it still isn’t right. So bear with me – it may be a little slow, as is the internet here.
Myanmar is not like the rest of southeast Asia. It hasn’t been open to tourists as long and it is way behind in catering to them. It makes for more difficult prep work, which so far has involved more word-of-mouth than anything else, as the internet is slow to non-existent. This also makes it more expensive compared to the other countries we have visited. Apparently, this is because hotels have/had to be licensed by the government, which is/was difficult. I haven’t figured out the current situation, hence the slash (/) marks.
The country has a troubled history. It’s lengthy, confusing and is still yet to be determined. I won’t go into too many details, as I’m still trying to understand it myself. One thing I do know, there are places we are restricted from going because there is still unrest and fighting. I had wanted to try to go as far north as we could. We have been discouraged from doing this as it will take an incredible amount of time due to inadequate infrastructure, and because of rebel groups that are fighting the government and killing each other. So we won’t go there. That’s enough to persuade me. Like Cambodia, I highly recommend reading a bit about Myanmar. It had many kings, with many ethnicities “united” and then became part of colonial British India. The British set up many towns to facilitate trade of local products, such as teak. Since being free of Britain, Myanmar has been struggling to find peace amongst themselves.
We booked two nights ahead of time in Yangon at a popular place that has free airport pick-up. We wanted to be sure to run into other travelers to get a feel for where we should go. We didn’t buy a guidebook ahead of time because we had heard that everything that is written about Myanmar is obsolete almost as soon as its published because the country is changing so rapidly. Also, as I said, because of fighting in certain areas, a few places are closed to foreigners, but this changes rapidly and can only be ascertained from the locals.
Although Yangon/Rangoon may be the most well-known city in Myanmar, and the largest, it is not the capital anymore. In 2005, the military moved the capital to the center of the country. For a cost of upwards of $4 billion, Nyi Pti Taw was constructed. But we are not going there. Supposedly, it’s just 8-lane highways and crappy construction. It gets 2 pages in the guide book we ended up getting. Yangon and Mandalay each have their own sections.
Anyway, back to Yangon. We arrived by plane at 8:30 am, went through immigration at a snail’s pace and were at the hotel before 10 am. In time for breakfast. And then we took a much needed nap as we had woken up at 4 am in Bangkok, which is half an hour ahead of Myanmar.
That afternoon, we walked to Sule Pagoda and then up to Shwedagon Pagoda. It took quite awhile, but walking a city is really the best way to get a feel for it. That, and its easier for Riki to take a million pictures. We arrived at the pagoda in time for sunset, which is the most popular time to go. We encountered more tourists than we had seen all day. The incredible complex costs $8 to enter but is definitely the highlight of Yangon. We wandered around as the light slowly faded and the electric lights came on. I discovered the pagoda has free wifi (something we had not been able to access at the hotel very well), so I did some research while Riki continued with the picture-taking.
The next day we walked to the train station and got on the local loop. It costs $1 for foreigners and you can hop off anywhere you like. We opted to do the whole three hour loop in one go. Almost as soon as we took off, we stopped again. And it continued like this. Stop, go. Slowly. At one of the first stops, a Burmese woman living in New York sat down across from us. She was delighted to find out we were Americans. So delighted, that she gave us three of her oranges. And then some packets of chocolate goo that she insisted we eat right away (but that we could also put in water). And then, when a man selling a different kind of oranges got on the train, she bought us three of those too. Because they were better, she said. The next lady who took her place, spoke no English. But we smiled and she smiled, like most people do here. And then, she took a hot ear of corn out of her bag, split it in two and gave it to us. Without saying a word. So within an hour, we had acquired 6 oranges, 6 packets of chocolate goo and an ear of corn. Without even leaving our seats. Lovely. The scenery was lovely too. Riki stood with his head out the door most of the second half. We travelled at a snail’s pace, but we passed some market towns, where the people heaved baskets into and out of trains, as well as some farmland.
On our last day, we had decided to take the night bus to Inle Lake. We checked out of our hotel, stored our bags and walked into the city. We went to the market, which had tons of handicrafts, but also some local goods. It obviously is catering to mostly tourists already. We also went to Chinatown, where there were tons of decorations, as it was their New Year’s festival.
We returned to our hotel, shared a cab for the hour ride to the bus station and boarded our “sleeper” bus (just a little extra reclining) to Inle Lake.