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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Some say Myanmar ... some say Burma

Flying over central Australia en route to Bangkok, via KL.
With only a couple of months behind me since I'd been to Thailand, oops, I was doing it again! Well, actually, Alex and I would do a few days in Bangkok, followed by a little over two weeks Myanmar (Burma) followed by a final last few days in Bangkok (read ... I really wanted to make sure I got to the infamous Chatachuk market). Myanmar or Burma?  That would require a post (or two) unto itself!



Ombi, Thai coffee and Nu Deang.
Having just secured a new job, and with both Alex and I having a couple of weeks off over Christmas, we decided to get away. What better way to spend our 'free time' than travelling? Around the festive season there is no such thing as a cheap ticket, so we did our best by buying a Melbourne-Bangkok return and a Bangkok-Yangon (capital of Myanmar) return with Air Asia. To be frank (would you expect anything less from me?); I love bypassing the festive debacle. As much as I love my family, I love 'missing out on' the presents, the hype, the commercialism, and a tradition I find overwhelmingly outdated. I secretly, well perhaps not so secretly, wish that we could make a bigger effort with people between New Year and Christmas and not just the few days between Christmas and the New Year! Slap! That was me slapping me off my bandwagon! Oh yes, back to the trip!

Loaded with two weeks worth of a brilliant handover notes at my new job, I jumped onto the plane exhausted.  I had spent most of the last week trying to get ready inbetween trying to take in lots of new information. Does it come as any surprise that I fell asleep before take-off?

With Link's family and baby Sean.
Thailand is easy for both Alex and I; we have done it so many times that it really has become second nature.  We would both be going to Pong and Link's house together, for a couple of days. These are the gorgeous friends I stayed with when I was here on my last trip.  Land, pick up bags, go through passport control, grab a taxi, go to Pong and Link's.  The roads have improved considerably in the last couple of decades, and especially when it's not peak hour, getting around Bangkok is a breeze. We were there in no time at all, with Pong, Link and Nu Deang there to greet us with open arms.  Nu Deang came out and gave me a big hug; she  remembered me as I had been there only recently.  She recognised Alex too as we had spoken to him several times on skype. Nu Deang took me to see her baby brother Sean; he had most certainly grown in only a couple of months.  What a cutie!
Bangkok haircut!

The next couple of days really were lots of fun!  Good times and good food with Pong, Link and both of their families. Alex and I would not make it to Kanchanaburi to visit Pong's parents this time, but they came to us. I also managed to fit in a haircut with the lady that I had it cut by last time I was here. Ten minutes and done!  I love it!  I am one of those 'cut my hair and let me get out' kinda gals!  Don't want to hear your problems, or your whingeing, just cut my hair and let me leave!

December is a lovely time to be in Bangkok as the humidity is low and the temperature pleasant. Pity I did not do my homework on Myanmar though ... more on that later! Loaded with tummies full of great food, and hearts and minds full of good times, we were off to Myanmar. After hugs all around we jumped into a taxi and were on our way to the airport. A new adventure awaited us! Myanmar here we come!

On the way from the Yangon Airport to Downtown.
As I mentioned, we had barely done any research, with only a Myanmar Lonely Planet in tow. All I knew was that tourism was booming and that the accommodation, and  many other prices, were also outdated. Oh well, I had the right clothes (!!) with me and we were used to wingin' it. So, here goes. The flight to Yangon was short and painless and after a little over an hour we found ourselves in Yangon.  Let the journey begin!

In practice this was my second trip to Myanmar, in theory my first.  In the mid 90s I remember doing a 'half day tour' from somewhere in the south of Thailand, because ... well, it was not really the done thing then, and well, I could!  All I remember was that it rained and rained, the temples looked different and that the people seemed very poor!  Having said that Thailand too was very different back then. With some fleeting memories, I wondered how Myanmar would stack up in 2013!

Burmese vendor with the infamous Thanaka on her face.
We had at least booked our first few nights in Yangon and would be staying at the Hninn Si Budget Inn. We had organised this from Australia, including a free pick up from the airport. Samsun, our driver, was there to meet us, and in the 30 minutes or so it took to drive us in, we learnt some basic Burmese. Mingalaba (hello) and Gesu ve (thank you) would be used many, many times over on this trip. This was exciting! I felt like a little kid, as I stared at the surroundings as Samsun taught us Burmese and explained what we were looking at. Very different to Thailand.  Most definitely poorer. My appreciation of Myanmar after our two week stay would be 'it's what Thailand was like 20 years ago'.

Myanmar street food.
We arrived at the hotel, and settled in; very basic, but very clean. The number of visitors to Myanmar is comparatively small compared to her neighbours, which is primarily due to its current political situation. After the military junta transferred power to a civilian government in 2011, the tourism sector saw a massive increase and in 2012, for the first time in the history of the nation, tourists numbered more than a million.  It is believed that this more than doubled in 2013. So, we were living the change. One side effect of this lightning speed growth and change is that prices for things such as accommodation, transport and tour services have more than doubled in a period one to two years. We had also read that ATMs were virtually non-existent and that only crisp, off-the-press US dollar notes would be accepted. Not that we felt overly comfortable carrying a wad of US dollars, but it did not seem like we had much choice.  Once there, we found that although not common, it was not impossible to find the odd ATM. As I mentioned, we were living the change that is occurring in Myanmar right now!

Holding up the Sule Pagoda.
We spent a couple of days in Yangon, taking in some amazing sights, such as the Sule and Shwedagon pagodas. The former is a spectacular temple which was within walking distance of our accommodation. Surrounded by government buildings and commercial shops, it's not every city whose primary traffic circle is occupied by a 2000-year-old golden temple. It is particularly beautiful at dusk and indeed very atmospheric.  We did not actually go inside as we had to pay ... and considering the way in which the country spends its money, Alex and I were very cautious about paying out!  Whilst Myanmar is a geographically beautiful country, populated by gentle people, it is also notorious for its human rights abuses, so we wanted to ensure that as little of our money as possible was going to the government, via things such as entry fees to temples! I almost lost my marbles when we were told that we had to pay USD $8.00 to get into the Shwedagon Pagoda. Whilst it is the 'Burmese Mecca' and arguably the most famous and impressive religious structure in the entire country, I was incensed at the thought of where my money would possibly go. In a country where wages are around USD $40-$50 per month, I found the $8.00 entry fee ludicrous! Come in 'toursist' spinner! Breathe in, breathe out ... after a little tiff with Alex, in we went ... it was swarming with tourists and I was trying not to do a head count and tally the government's profits! I just have to let some things go!

Shwedagon Pagoda.
I should explain that whilst Myanmar's currency is the kyat (pronounced chat), that the country also uses the American dollar ... nice clean and crisp notes thank you very much!  The exchange rate is approximately just under 1000 kyats to the US dollar.


Shwedagon Pagoda.
I must say despite my little hissy fit, I did enjoy the Shwedagon Pagoda; it is indeed a spectacular sight. We went there in the later part of the afternoon as it morphed from a glittering bright gold to a crimson gold and orange as the sun casts its last rays. Despite the number of people and my initial trauma, I was still bedazzled with the visual intoxication it provided me with. As the masses poised their cameras to take the usual touristy shots, I walked around and tried to take in the peace and tranquility of the beautiful temple away from the maddening crowds. I had found my peace!

The many faces of Myanmar, Yangon.
Over the next couple of days we casually walked around taking in everything from ports to Musmeah Yeshua, Yangon's only Jewish synagogue; people watching, of course, was the compulsory activity. The sprawling mess of the Bogyoke Aung San Market was in the mix ... markets always are! Myanmar, despite its recent surge of tourism is still very much a third world country. The roads desperately need repairing, the footpaths are often pot-holed viewing platforms for the sewerage and mosquitos that live below and most cars would not ... have passed a basic inspection ... 20 years ago.  But it's the people that really captured our hearts!  Always a smile which became even broader when we would say hello in Burmese! I could not help but wonder if this would all change when the country would be 'permanently damaged' by tourism.  By the end of our time in this country, we would note that it was like Thailand 20 years ago. With change always comes the good, the bad and the ugly! Myanmar ... watch this space!

Alex's doppelganger, on the stop over to Inle Lake.
Our next stop would be the placid Inle Lake, in Shan State, an overnight bus ride from Yangon. I must mention that whilst relatively comfortable, the overnight buses in Myanmar would rock up at their destinations at really odd hours, like 3 or 4am in the morning.  What does one do at this hour? And speaking of buses and the likes ... we took a taxi to the Yangon bus terminal, which was some 45 minutes away from the centre, to encounter a bus city!  Seriously, this place was an entity unto itself!  I had never seen anything like it ... buses, people, cars and food stands everywhere! It was indeed a small city. We ended up on a VIP bus to Nyaungshwe near the edge of the lake, which was three seats, rather than the usual four, across. Very comfortable, but freezing!  Hello Kitty had never looked so good; the blankets provided were thick, warm and well, very Hello Kitty! We met Fabienne and Jochen, a fun Swiss/ German couple who we chatted, laughed and had a middle-of-the-night food break with. Crazy young travellers like us, note the young! Check out their blog. We tried to sleep through the cold, but I struggled as I found it uncomfortably cold.  When we arrived at Nyaungshwe in the early hours of the morning, I understood why ... not only had the bus been cold, but it was very chilly outside ... as in mist chilly! When I had looked at temperatures across Myanmar, I had looked at the top temperatures, but not the bottom ones.  We were going to have some cold mornings and nights in this place!

Lake Inle countryside.
We had booked Remember Inn Hotel from Yangon the night before, and once off the bus we made our way there. A thin veil of mist covered the town (and us!) as we walked the short distance to our destination. Sure it was peak tourist season but in Myanmar we never really felt bombarded by by people and tourists. We had not made any advance bookings as we did not really have an itinerary; the plan of action was to book only a night or two in advance, once we had worked out where our next stop would actually be. Sometimes we got a place first pop, and other times it would take a few goes. Luckily, all the places we chose (again, what would we do without mobile technology and the capacity to review potential places!?) were comfortable and clean. Over our two weeks we would pay between USD$20.00 and $40.00 per night with $25-30 being an average (double bed and private bathroom). This has apparently more than doubled in the last couple of years.  This is what we call progress!


Our boat on Lake Inle.


Weaver, Inle Lake.
Nyaungshwe has grown into a bustling traveller centre, and this place is probably as close as Myanmar gets to having a backpacker scene. And with a backpacker scene comes good coffee ... of course I found some! We even found a restaurant that made great soup and veggie dishes; Wa Toat became our local! On paper, Inle Lake is about 22 kilometres long and 11 kilometres wide, but it really is hard to tell where the lake finishes and the marshes start. In any case, it is obligatory, almost a rite of passage, to do the Inle Lake longboat trip. The drivers of the boats will almost certainly find you, before you find them. Indeed we were approached by many, and in the end we went with an affable guy called Kyo-Kyo (pronounced Jo-Jo). So, we spent a day on the lake, looking and stopping at everything from stilt-house villages and floating gardens to lotus weaving and cheroot (a type of cigar) making. And then there were monasteries (including the famous jumping cat one, but there didn't appear to be any cats, let alone jumping ones!), temples and pagodas.  There are a number of tribes and groups in the country, and the Lake is renowned for the Intha technique of leg rowing, where one leg is wrapped around the paddle to drive the blade through the water. The balancing act is amazing to watch!

Market day in Nyaungshwe.
We also happened to be in Nyaungshwe on its big market day, where hill tribe people come from around the surrounding areas to sell their wares and food. I had a mission ... to buy another jumper!  My legs were OK in the only pants I had, Thai Fisherman's pants, but I just needed that extra layer up top for boat trips, early mornings, late nights and bus trips.  I picked myself up a lovely little grey number.  In fact, so lovely that I only ever wore it inside out! The style was acceptable, the print on it was not! Well, it's certainly better than being cold!

We were going to visit Mandalay next, but we'd heard of a little place called Hsipaw up north, that was supposed to not be very touristy as well as being a great place to do some hill-tribe trekking ... the kind of trekking that was available in northern Thailand years ago before the masses descended. With a flexible itinerary and no firm plans, we decided that that would be our next stop. So, we booked our ticket and were off without further ado.

The infamous fishermen of Inle Lake.
As usual, the bus would arrive at its final destination at a really odd time ... 3am!  We tried to choose the bus that left latest but that made little, if any, difference. We met a great French guy, Fabien, at the bus station as we were leaving Nyangshwe.  We would end up at the same guest house in Hsipaw and in fact on the same hill tribe trek. We actually met some lovely travellers not only around the Inle Lake area but around Myanmar in general.  We noticed that it was a bit more of a mature travellers set and that there were very few young, say under 25s, around. I feel Myanmar just takes that little bit more to navigate and it most certainly isn't party central.  If it's a party you want you are certainly 'barking up the wrong country'!

Ombi

Next: An 'uncommercial' Christmas in Hsipaw, Mandalay and New Year in Bagan.

"The amount of love and good feelings you have at the end of your life is equal to the love and good feelings you put out during your life" - Anonymous

Somewhere over central Australia.

Alex and baby Sean.

Ombi and Nu Deang.

With Link's mother.
Myanmar ... moving forward!
This is how we wire our house,! Yangon.
Alex enjoying Shan soup in Yangon.
OH&S eat your heart out, Yangon.

Local Thai coffee at Pong and Link's local market.
Leaving Melbourne Airport, with the obligatory coffee.
Nu Deang with Pong's parents.











Downtown Yangon.

Temples of Yangon.

Market food, Yangon.

The many faces of Myanmar, Yangon.




















Free wireless at the temple; how times have changed!

No money to pay your USD $8.00 entry fee?  Do not fear!


















Outside mosque, Yangon.

One of the many mosques in Yangon.


The many faces of Myanmar, Yangon.
Downtown Yangon with sule Pagoda in background.
Reading the morning paper, Yangon.
Nyaungshwe morning market, Inle Lake.
Nyaungshwe morning market, Inle Lake.
Nyaungshwe morning market, Inle Lake.
Chicken anyone? Morning market, Inle.
Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake.
Nyaungshwe.
Nyaungshwe lady. 
Washing time, Nyaungshwe.
Around Inle Lake.
The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round.
Sunset, around Nyaungshwe.
Around the Nyaungshwe countryside.
Nyaungshwe lady.
Seamstresses, Nyaungshwe market.




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