Asia, Human Rights, Myanmar, Travel

The Truth About Myanmar

The Truth

When telling others of my urge to travel to Myanmar, I received horrified looks, firstly for my safety, and secondly if I had any moral fibre within my body- why would I want to visit a country where rape, murder and brutality are more common than I cared to admit? Why would I dare to turn a blind eye and continue with my trip to Myanmar, ignoring the fact that a mass genocide is happening? Why would I ignore the fact that blood is being spilt on the same ground as the very same tea plantations I would hike up?

Honestly, I did feel quite the hypocrite.

Although, as I began to lose myself in the beauty of the country I realised that Myanmar is different to what I had perceived, or had been thought to perceive. The fear mongering news pin pointed one issue that the country has had for a number of years and focused on it until there is no other vision of Myanmar to see, a real trait for many journalists.

I am no expert in the historical and political situations of Myanmar, I only know the basic facts like any other visitor of Myanmar, but I do know how the racial segregation and injustice has been embedded within the Myanmar people and their society for many years and where attacks on either side have developed murdering each other, and no one is truly innocent. The locals that are brave enough to talk it about with me, shake their heads and remark on how awful it is, some reply in bewilderment as they realise that the local media has hidden vast amounts of reality from their own eyes, and others highlight just how many problems Myanmar has, and this is only one of them. Many are unaware of the fortitude in which the foreign media has propelled the racial segregation and hatred, they are unaware of the mass genocide that the government and military are forcing the Myanmar country to adopt, and they are unaware of how their underlying problems that have been in their country for decades, have now become the whole world’s concerns.

I myself, have seen the authoritative presence and power of the military, the “Orwellian” power and control that still reigns over the country and the people, either through the various checkpoints that travellers and locals have to shuttle themselves through or the restrictive zones that no one is allowed to pass. I am afraid I haven’t seen the horrors of the genocide by my own eyes, I haven’t seen the pain and suffering of the Rohingya people, which I am sure are aplenty and are atrocious.

What I have seen, is the pure happiness and joy of the local Myanmar people when receiving visitors from all over the world, when sharing facts about the beauty of their country and their excitement on what tourism brings and what they hope continues to bring them in the future.

I have only seen the world that the government and military are happy to share with visitors, the stunning scenes of nature that leave you speechless and that is what I can report on.

The Country

Myanmar is a country unparalleled to any other I have been to. Okay, so the food may not be as delicious as neighbouring Thailand or India, and the scenery at times is reminiscent of Vietnam or Laos, but the hopeful optimism and positivism of the local people, despite their harsh and bleak history, is something else.

After years of dictatorship and living under a ruthless regime, local people beam with smiles and greet you with wide open arms into their country. Partly this lies with the tourism industry still being relatively new to Myanmar, still continuing to grow and on the whole, hasn’t consumed the country and transformed the minds and motives of the local people-yet. Of course, Myanmar has dramatically changed since it first opened its doors, with coca cola now being served in Myanmar, ATM’s everywhere (even in Pagodas!) and a sufficient tourist transport network. The country still has a long way to go before local people become entirely deflated by the arrival of visitors, thus local charm is overwhelming, although of course, time can change that.

The landscape is stunning and varies from an untouched archipelago, voluptuous mountains, serene beaches and ancient temples. Trekking and visiting the thousands of temples that are dotted all over Myanmar, are the most popular tourist attractions at the moment.

The Route

Because I had booked a hot air balloon in Bagan (which unfortunately got cancelled due to a thunderstorm, its best to book in November for a sure flight). I arranged my trip around the route Yangon-Hpa An-Inle Lake-Kalaw-Bagan-Mandalay so I could work my way up the country and organise my time to be in Bagan for the start of the hot air balloon season.

A more popular route is to start in Yangon heading into Mandalay or Mandalay-Bagan-Kalaw-Inle Lake-South-Yangon, thus flying in and out of two international airports and and making sure to trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake where it is a more popular route.

Other common destinations include:

Ngapali Beach

Hpa An (my personal favourite)

Hispaw  (for more authentic trekking and the famous viaduct)

Mawlamyine

Kyaikto (for the Golden Rock)

Naypyidaw (the new capital)

Money

After much research, I found that I couldn’t get kyats outside of Myanmar, but only in Myanmar, thus dollars are recommended to bring in. Many guide books and travel blogs insisted dollars could be used anywhere, but what they didn’t highlight was the pristine condition that they had to be in,  which made using dollars extremely difficult to use. All ATMs give kyats and all places take kyats no matter the quality, so realistically it is much safer for you to pay in kyats and travel with some emergency dollars with you.

Food

As I said before, the food in Myanmar is not as tasty as its neighbours, however luckily for the local people, lots of people move to Myanmar from surrounding countries meaning there is a rich diversity in food; with many restaurants serving Thai, Chinese, Nepalese and Indian food. Chicken fried rice is a cheap staple diet for a backpacker on a budget but if wanting to branch out try the delicious Shan noodles from the Shan state. It is also fairly common to choose a meat dish in a local restaurant and for that dish to come with rice, soup and a number of fermented vegetables- I warn you, their unique taste is not for everyone!

Religion

Most of the country is Buddhist, 90 percent in fact, followed by Sikh, Muslim and Christian. To respect all religions and the local culture, cover your legs and shoulders, especially when going into temples. The locals are not used to the sight of women in revealing outfits and were slightly horrified when seeing so, please do dress moderately.

Getting Around and Accomodation

Bus is the main mode of transportation and varies in style and price. You could be travelling by a local bus that stops at every stop, or a VIP bus that provides bottled water and takeaway meals, all vary in price and comfort, similar to accommodation. If travelling in high season, I do recommend to book ahead as it is still a developing country within the tourism industry and there are as not as many options as one would see in Thailand for example, which does make travel more expensive. You can find cheap guesthouse priced at as little as 5 thousand kyat although a little dirty around the edges.  A rough average is 7 thousand for a local guesthouse you may see nearby to a touristic area, whom has no website. On booking websites, the more expensive and website owned places are available to book, but like all countries in Asia, if you take the time to look a little more around the area, then you will find a cheap and comfortable alternative that suits you.

Inle Lake

Extreme Sports in Myanmar 

As you may be aware, I am a massive fan of extreme sports and anything adrenaline filled, the extreme sports activities you will find in Myanmar at the moment are:

Hot Air Ballooning

Trekking

Motorbiking

Kayaking

Cycling

Caving

Asia, Myanmar, Travel

The Capital: Yangon

Yangon: a city you could spend some time in, but the question is, would you want to?

Being a city lover myself, I was unsure how long I wanted to stay in Yangon, thinking it may just be like any other big city in Asia, and in some aspects I was right. It’s easy to lose yourself amongst identical looking streets with wires hanging precariously low, home to numerous pigeons and shops selling handicrafts from everything to electronic ware to home ware. Streets turned into market stalls with fresh vegetables and caught fish laid out in full glory for sale from a passerby, or occasional lost tourist.

Of course, the more time you spend in Yangon I am sure, the more you appreciate it. Art galleries hidden around street corners, museums filled with useful and interesting information that shines a light on life in Yangon and various neighbourhoods highlighting different communities, are all something which you will see in abundance if you invest time and energy into exploring Yangon.

But the aim of my trip was to escape the clutches of a city, to run away from the smog of traffic and continuous hawkers cries. I wanted to be whisked away to majestic landscapes, scenes of culture and recluses of calm, thus I left Yangon to be my last destination, when both time and money were against me.

Of course, heading to Shwedagon Pagoda is a must when in Yangon. The temple complex is huge and filled with intricate designs and pagodas praising the archaeological Buddhist days of the week, with various elements of Buddha himself (like his sacred tooth or 8 hairs) and four alternative stairways ornately designed and decorated leading to the towering, empowering Buddha. Locals merge with smock wearing monks and colourful tourists in awe and astonishment of its splendour, gazing at its sheer size and colossal amount of gold.

Do remember which entrance you come from as you will leave your shoes there, which if forgotten is a bit of a nightmare. Entrance to the pagoda is 8 thousand kyat and make sure to cover both legs and shoulders for men and women.

The Bogyoke park nearby to the pagoda acts as a perfect retreat to the hectic heaving mass of worshippers at the pagoda. Although the lake is artificial (and a little cheesy with an amusement park titled “Happy World” and swans you can pedal around in on the lake) it is still is a wonderful place to catch your breath and people watch.

Chinatown is also a fascinating neighbourhood to wander around in, as is Little India– especially if craving that cuisine. Although nice to have a stroll around, I wasn’t taken aback by anything within the neighbourhood, which was only home to a few temples and souvenir shops as well as restaurants. Which was a shame, as I really enjoy exploring Chinatown in different countries around the world. Get used to the sight of crumbling colonial buildings too, as they make out years of history with their faded curls of  paint seeping out tales of another world.

A sunset drink at a rooftop bar was something I was recommended (Sakura rooftop bar on the CB Bank Tower) although running out of funds, I swapped the rooftop bar for a local watering hole where a 8 year old boy served sleazy sleepy men, swaying from side to side and slurring their words. Smoke circled the room as men lit up around me and dirty tables shouldered next to even dirtier walls. They looked at me in awe, as to why a blonde white woman would enter such a dirty dive. Honestly, I did question quickly why I was there, but I was swayed by the price of cheap beer and my fellow backpacker friend nodded to the 8 year old for service, we were there to stay.

As Yangon is such a sprawling city, bumping into other tourists doesn’t happen often, unless at major monuments, so locals are still entertained by the sight of westerners. Accommodation; as like the rest of Myanmar, varies in style, price and location. Plush hotels line the city centre, whilst more affordable accommodation is based in Chinatown near the Sule Pagoda. I stayed in Agga Bed and Breakfast which for a bed in a 6 bed dorm, cost 6 dollars, it was clean but a little rough around the edges- but it served its purpose of one nights accommodation before my flight back.

Asia, Myanmar, Travel

Beautiful Bagan

Oh Bagan! A piece of my heart will always be in Bagan. Hours, days, weeks, months, can be spent here, biking around with the sun on your back, the wind in your hair and your eyes drinking in the wondrous landscape of various ancient temples and crumbling pagodas.

One can easily take a swift exit from the main road and end up journeying through empty fields apart from hungry goats grazing on thorn bushes, to be memorised by a pagoda that looks barely intact, still soldiering on and standing in full splendour amongst the horizon, with thousands of other pagodas as far as the eye can see. Trying to explore all of them is challenge for a fool, (which alas this time I was not), so I advise to choose the most popular 8 or 10 temples to visit and take your time to appreciate them in their grandeur, their simplicity, their momentous importance, their varying architecture and design- from glittering gold to Ancient Maya style and their rich past. You can only admire their strength and valour in surviving an earthquake and thousands of years. The most popular and the ones I made sure I visited were; Thatbyinnyu temple (where unfortunately my trousers ripped showing a big hole in an inappropriate place, perfect timing to visit a temple!) Ananda Temple, Dhammayangi Temple, Shwesandaw Pagoda, Shwezigan Temple, Gawdapalin Temple and Siennyet Sister Temple.

After spending a few days exploring the most breathtaking temples, leave a day to discover your own temples at your leisure, whizzing past crowds of tourists and chanting postcard sellers- having your own Indiana Jones adventure. One can easily lose sense of time here, as temple discovering can be a tiring sport. You also begin to lose any sense of importance you might have as human being, recognising how insignificant you are in the world and questioning your position on earth, questioning your choice of religion and questioning your purpose on life. These thoughts relentlessly tumble and fall through your mind as you stand as if a speck next to a victorious, stupendous piece of history, culture, art and religion. Not to mention lose sense of location! Maps.Me– the offline navigation app for travellers is an adequate remedy and helps aid direction, however is not always as reliable as you would hope, so a good sense of direction or travelling in a group (at any time) is highly advised.

Finding an ideal spot for Sunset and Sunrise I would say is similar to shoe shopping, all pagodas are similar but slightly varying in style, popularity and location. You may visit a few until you find the perfect pagoda that suits your tastes. Of course the Shensawdaw pagoda is extremely busy, with horror tales of tourists taking pictures above the mad crowds of visitors and through their legs although hilarious, was not something I was keen to experience myself. I was more of a fan of quieter, calmer temples, where one would have to squeeze up its dark tunnelled stairs and admire the dipping sun from a spot where you can see the more renowned temples from afar. Pagodas offer alternative views depending on where you are in the landscape, where the omniscient mountains stand aloft, with the pagodas hidden in their shadow. Sunset is the most popular time of day to visit the temples and it is a race against time to view it, so do give a leisurely amount of time to find a pagoda and get comfortable, or if even if needs be, to move onto a second pagoda.

Bagan is split into Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nun-U. Each area has its own collection of temples, however each place varies in ambience and feel with varying accommodation and restaurants. Modes of transportation vary widely too depending on location, with e-bikes most popular in New Bagan, and bi-cycles, horses and carts more popular in Old Bagan.

E-bikes, although safer than scooters and much cheaper (4 thousand for a full day and 2 thousand kyat for a half day) e-bikes can cause a bit of a problem. If renting from the wrong shop, unfortunately you may end up with a dead bike in the middle of nowhere, even after the shop owner saying its fully charged. When watching the sunset out with a large group of us, two had to leave their bikes behind because of flat batteries, which could have easily happened to a solo driver stuck in the dark. On my final day, the gods struck down with unluckiness and I picked the wrong rental choice, going through 2 e-bikes in the space of 3 hours, both with not enough charge in them. So a word of advice, do be careful where you rent from and always have a way of contacting them (and try travel in a pair at least -if you can-so you aren’t completely stranded!)

I also took an afternoon trip to a nearby monastery by Mt.Popa. A shred taxi organised by the hostel cost 9 thousand kyat although you may be able to get a slightly cheaper rate asking around. The journey is an hour and a half from Bagan and the monastery is situated out on the top of a rock some 777 steps up (Buddhists believe odd numbers are lucky). The steps aren’t too difficult (especially after surviving the steep two thousand from Mount Zwegabin in Hpa an) but squelching on monkey poop whilst ascending steps filled with aggressive monkeys lingering around, does make the journey difficult. They are used to receiving food from locals (and tourists) and now expect treats from all that visit. Don’t have any loose items like sunglasses or cameras as the troop will steal it and use it as bait for food, so be really wary of your belongings and don’t make eye contact with them either, they see this as a challenge. I have never been scared of of monkeys before, but after this journey…I was terrified.

If this hasn’t put you off, then you will gain marvellous panoramic views of the sweeping countryside that surrounds Bagan, with statues and pagodas dotted around the landscape, whilst Mt Popa stands looming in the distance, surveyor of the land. The monastery at the top has wonderful steep spires and jewelled designs. I do think this view would have been much more appreciated from the top of Mt.Popa itself though, seeing the monastery from afar. It is a full day excursion, taking roughly a few hours each way to hike the mountain, which would have been exhausting but rewarding- and imagine, no monkeys! I took the organised easier option, but I would have definitely have liked to trek up the volcano if I had been more organised with my trip.

Once again, I stayed in Ostello Bello (the flash packer place I stayed in Inle Lake and Mandalay). Being the original Ostello Bellow, I had high expectations but in actual fact, I think it was the worst hostel of the three. Yes the rooms were clean, the AC was working, but other Ostello Bello’s were more organised, had more activities on offer and more space for backpackers to socialise. The rooms also significantly differed in price from 12 dollars to 22 dollars on the 1st of October in high season- and that was pre-booked! My friend was quoted for 38 dollars for a single bed in an 8 bed dorm in high season, which for the same price you could have your own room in a hotel with a pool, so choose wisely! Some backpackers stayed in cheaper alternatives and drank in the evenings in the hostel to socialise and meet others so that would be a smart option for a budget conscious traveller.

The drinking scene in Bagan is quite limited with either expensive restaurants or local bars, where it is unheard of for a woman to be seen drinking in (I know as I was ogled at in surprise in Yangon) thus, many backpackers just drink in the hostel, despite it’s steep prices. Restaurants vary in price and style in Bagan, depending where you stay. Old Bagan is filled with expensive hotels and original guesthouses with many restaurants lit up with traditional lanterns and souvenir shops, whilst New Bagan is more spread out and filled with guesthouses and newer restaurants. I only stayed in New Bagan due to Ostello Bello, but I think Old Bagan would be a much more picturesque place to stay. Restaurants that are good to eat at in New Bagan are; Silver Star, Black Rose and the pizza place ironically called “Pizza“, although expensive (9 thousand kyat) the pizza did taste like a stone backed slice of heaven on my taste buds.

Asia, Myanmar, Travel

Motorbiking around Mandalay

“A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire..”

Many years ago, the whimsical writer Rudyard Kipling rested his weary feet in Mandalay, marvelling at the majestic beauty of the place. Times have changed since then, the poetic romanticism of Mandalay has been replaced by a bustling town filled with travellers whom start or finish their journey here- thanks to the international airport here. The tree lined quiet streets that neighboured next to empty villages and overworked ox pulling logs out the river has vanished, overflowing streets filled with guesthouses and restaurants are now what stands here.

Mandalay has faced a lot of criticism from travellers due to the high expectations created by the literary genius, but although commercialisation has transformed the city, you must scratch beneath the surface to really appreciate what Kipling was talking about. The city is immersed with pagodas and my favourite has to be the one at the top of Mandalay Hill, Su Taung Pyae Pagoda. Renting a motorbike at 8 thousand kyats, my friend whizzed through towns whilst I admired the views on the back, with the wind blowing in my hair wildly. I was content. I feel that riding on a back of a motorbike or even driving one, is an unforgettable authentic Asian experience. Ignoring health and safety concerns and biting my lip hiding my worries, we snaked up to the top of Mandalay Hill, winding around sketchy corners. After paying a cheap toll (as per usual in Myanmar, paying a toll is common) and parking the bike, we took escalators to the top of the pagoda- a strange and bizarre feeling might I add, standing barefoot, reaching closer and closer to the peak of the hill by escalator. Walking clockwise around the shimmering pagoda (for good luck of course), we were rewarded with the panoramic views of Mandalay. Mandalay Hill is a popular destination for sunset, and I could see why.

The Royal Palace is a tourist attraction in Mandalay, although honestly I am not sure why. The entrance fee is high (foreigners have to pay an entrance free everywhere) and if you are not planning to visit the ancient cities, the ticket is a waste really. Foreigners are only allowed to view the immediate complex and although lovely architecture, all buildings are of the same style and design. All replicas with nothing inside them, but an occasional replica of a royal bed and lots of bird poop- delightful on the feet.

There are also famous white Hindu temples and Botanical Gardens that if you are in Mandalay for a while, are worth the visit, but other than that, are really nothing special. Through my hostel, I went on an Ancient Cities Tour, which included the Mahamuni temple in Mandalay and the cities of Irwa and Sagaing. Whilst in Mandalay, we were shown the delicate process of making gold leaves to be placed on temples, a lengthy and arduous process- however the trip around Mandalay became a bit of a tourist trap, stopping at every workshop and shop possible, which was an incredible annoyance especially organised by a backpackers hostel.

Leaving Mandalay behind, we crossed the rusty bridge to Sagaing, where an array of luxurious and opulent temples were varying in style and size; such as the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda and the Sin Myar Shin Pagoda. Swapping glitz and glamour for rural charm, we headed to Irwa by boat (another tourist trap). When landing on the island, we were then told we had to take a horse and cart to the crumbling ruins and teak monastery (which ended up being more of a scam as we saw cars had driven from the main land across to the temples avoiding boat and horse fares).

Finally arriving at the long awaited ruins (or so it seemed) we were amazed at the simple, yet more beautiful designs of the pagodas, where rice fields and hanging laundry neighboured the ancient relics of the past. Watching young local children use these historical monuments as a playground, jumping from stupa to stupa, highlighted an eerie realisation of generations and the appreciation of the past. Continuing on, we reached a teak monastery and more crumbling ruins hidden amongst corn fields and local families bathing in a murky river.

The trip cost 16 thousand kyat for a private car and guide who was around for only half of the trip (what did we actually pay him for?) although the day quickly added up to a 30 thousand kyat day with entrance fees; the horse and cart, boat rides and lunch too. It seems that we had fallen for the scam of Mandalay, easily set up by our hostel too which was disappointing. I would advise hiring a motorbike and using a good quality map to reach the sights of Mandalay,  discovering the ruins in Irwa and cherry picking the pagodas in Sagaing as it will save you money and be more of an adventure.

A visit to U Bein Bridge is compulsory for many visiting Mandalay. Once again, I had heard mixed reviews of the creaky wooden brige from travellers, which made me want to experience it myself even more. Going out at sunset was mayhem, crowds of tourists and locals jostled for the perfect Instagram opportunity and many even splurged out and got photos of the disappearing red orb by boat. The bridge itself is as if the tube in London, squeezing too many human bodies in one contained space. Shoulder to shoulder, you pass the shop stalls selling unusual trinkets and street dogs salivating after your evening snack. Although the view was beautiful, the atmosphere was hectic.

Coming here at sunrise however, is another matter. Although at the time the weather was cloudy leaving little visual satisfaction, the U Bein Bridge had a calm, serene atmosphere. Street dogs followed us as we plodded along the bridge, early rises stretched and limbered their tired bodies, waking up for the day, whilst fisherman sat patiently waiting for a catch and monks flocked across the bridge heading towards morning prayer. Try visit U Bein Bridge for both sunrise and sunset, each are a unique experience.

Other things to do around Mandalay are a visit to some waterfalls 45 mins away which act as a perfect escape from the stifling heat, or head to Pyn Oo Lin, where majestic waterfalls and caves are a plenty. Many head there to go on wards to Hipaw, catching a train along the famous gorge and trekking through tribal communities.

I stayed at Ostello Bello once again, an expensive flashpacker style hostel but a perfect place to meet solo travellers (the day trip I went on we were 12 in total and we were all solo travellers). A room in an 8 dorm bed with AC and a large breakfast was 12 dollars but the best thing about the Ostello Bello in Mandalay is the rooftop bar and lounge area- a safe space for travellers to relax and let go. I did hear good things about Soe Lay Guesthouse, a more personal family run guesthouse which hosts cheap clean rooms and would be more ideal for a backpacker on a budget.

Following recommendations, we went to a night market which lacked stalls- although a cheap Chinese meal is easy to find here (I tried chicken feet!) Near to Ostello Bello, I also ate at Rainforest Cafe where delicious Thai food is serviced in an artsy establishment – which also does laundry and motorbike rental. It is actually illegal for foreigners to ride motorbikes now after a tragic accident in Yangon, hence why all non government official motorbikes are banned in Yangon, however as like many areas in Asia, there are loopholes. A cheaper more local eatery is White House restaurant (nothing like the houses of parliament in Washington-believe me). It’s only open at night and is popular with the locals thanks to its 800 kyat Turborg on draught and local dishes varying in price but all a large style- perfect for  a backpacker.