Other travellers rave about a destination, you spot something in a guidebook you thought you knew inside and out or a great deal on a flight appears in your inbox. That unforeseen destination is suddenly somewhere you have to go.
And so we found ourselves on an uncrowded Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Yangon.
Burma is fast becoming the hot new destination for independent travellers, there was a buzz about it among the travellers we met.
“Go now, see it before tourism tarnishes it forever!” was the general encouragement.
“It’s a bit more expensive but worth it.”
Others were planning to go and enthusiastic about what they were expecting. We’d set off on the trip with very vague ideas about where we’d go after Vietnam. Burma was a possibility, now it was an absolute.
Why was it originally only a possible destination?
Burma, or Myanmar –as it’s now known, is a troubled land, an oppressive military regime controlling the country for decades.
When the National League for Democracy (NLD) was refused leadership by the regime in 1990 despite a landslide win in the first election in 30 years, their leader Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, which remained the case, on and off for the next 30 years.
The repressed NLD launched a tourism boycott in the mid-nineties urging tourists not to visit the country after forced labour was used to prepare some of the tourist sites for a tourism promotion.
So what has changed?
In 2010 the NLD dropped the boycott, encouraging independent travellers rather than glossy package tours. As a foreign visitor you can benefit the Burmese people if you go about it the right way, avoiding government-run services and establishments and spending your tourist dollar in as many independent places as you can.
The dilemma is still that however careful you are about sharing out your custom, your money will still line the coffers of the government, it is impossible to avoid, all of those services you use, hotels, restaurants, buses, will have to pay taxes.
The only way to avoid this ‘support’ of the government is to not go.
My personal feelings about the morality of visiting Burma is that my money can help ordinary people, yes, some of the money will go to the government but some of it could also help send a child to university or make a family’s life more comfortable.
I’m using the name Burma as this is what the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi call their country, the name was changed to Myanmar by the regime without the will of the people, of the Burmese people we met some referred to it as Burma, others as Myanmar: I hope I don’t offend anyone.
By far the easiest way to get to Burma is by aeroplane, crossing by land is difficult and many parts of Myanmar are still off-limits to tourists.We got our visas in Bangkok, rather handily the Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar is in walking distance from our favourite hostel (and South Indian restaurant) in Silom, and booked our flights: into Yangon and out of Mandalay. This cost a bit more but meant we wouldn’t have to double back.
Our budget was tight and we’d been told accommodation was more expensive so we gave ourselves 10 days to travel up the country.
The flight arrived into Yangon Airport in the evening and the border officials welcomed us with smiles. We had acquired some super-clean US dollars in Bangkok, now we drew out some Kyat from a cash machine in arrivals and booked a ride into town from the taxi stand ($11).
Our driver ushered us outside to his car, he spoke excellent English and promised that many other Burmese did too, a legacy from British rule. Ah, the Empire, yes, it pillaged here too before independence was won leaving the country open to turmoil and military rule.
He offered his services as a guide and driver, we could hire him to take us to Mandalay via many stops for the princely sum of $1000. Obviously this was way out of our budget and we had to let him down.
Instead, we talked about Myanmar, about Burma. We discussed its blossoming tourism, how it was benefitting the common man, and foreign investments, mainly from China.
His daughters had both gone to university, he was very proud. As the eldest of ten children, he’d had to work as soon as he had left school to pay for his siblings. Myanmar is more open now, people are paid more than they used to, he felt the country was changing for the better. One of his daughters worked in Singapore though, as she could earn so much more there.
Min-ga-la-bar : hello, or may this day be auspicious
Jeh-zu tin-ba-de : thank you
Ya-ba-de!: you’re welcome!
These lines should come in very handy!
By 10pm we were sitting out front of Motherland2, the hugely popular budget guesthouse in Yangon, nursing bottles of Myanmar. Even the beer is called Myanmar, so you don’t forget to call Myanmar Myanmar, what clever marketing. Already our tourist dollar is filtering into the government and we’ve only been here an hour.
The following morning was spent running a few errands, booking onward travel and accommodation. Don’t think of using the internet, this is going back to the old ways of doing it, in person, through an agent or on the telephone!
We took a taxi to the National Museum under the promise of riches. It was a great place to start our adventure in Burma.
I’ve been a little obsessed with the Palace of Mandalay since reading the novel ‘The Glass Palace’ some while ago, the book begins with the fall of the palace and the British exiling King Thibaw and his family to India. Many of the treasures from the palace are now in the National Museum and you can gaze with wonderment on the gilded, the golden and the bejeweled; magnificent objects, furniture, jewellery and clothing.
The extraordinary Lion Throne is the museum’s most eye-catching piece, a huge gilded doorway set on a golden platform where King Thibaw would adjudicate on law matters.
Originally there were nine of these grand thrones in Mandalay Palace, the British sent this one to Calcutta, India, while the rest were destroyed during WWII. Luckily this one was safe in the Calcutta Museum and it was returned to Burma by Lord Mountbatten after the country gained independence.
I would love to show you a photo but we had to leave our bags, cameras and phones in lockers before we could enter the museum.
In the next room there was a model of Mandalay Palace and many more exhibits from the palace as well as some royal clothing. It was all expensively opulent and over the top, wonderful! Glass tiles and beads, silver, gold, ivory and gilt, some old photographs of the royal family and entourage hung on the walls and brought the pieces to life.
Upstairs the museum revealed Burma’s ancient history with fossils, bones, cave paintings and pre-historic tools. The second floor has a room dedicated to the performing arts and has a lovely display of musical instruments and a lively glass cabinet of marionettes.
The traditional folk art room as some interesting pieces including papier-mache toys, which were very jolly, and a decorative bullock cart. We would see many more bullock carts when we headed out into the countryside the following day.
It was noon and ridiculously hot outside, we began to walk to the Shwedagon Pagoda but a cluster of food stalls nearby drew us in to the shade of their umbrellas. Some veg pakora and a couple of bottles of iced water revived us.
The walk took us through the People’s Park where we found an old Air Myanma aeroplane, steps lead up and your could go inside it so long as you removed your shoes.
Nearby a tree-top walkway was linked via wooden towers where young Burmese were chilling in the shade. Sprinklers and hoses kept the grass lush and green, the kids were using this water supply to drink between playing.
From the park we crossed the street to the west entrance to the Shwedagon Pagoda, purchasing our tickets at the ‘Foreigners Enter” office. $8 each (we could see the rate of inflation, it still said $5 on the ticket!) and deposited our footwear in the cubbyholes.
Covered escalators whisked us barefooted up to the pagoda, this felt a little dangerous, I’m sure you’re not supposed to ride escalators barefoot. From the dim, cool escalators, or stairs if you approach from a different entrance, you walk out into the hot, dazzling gleam of the golden temple.
At the centre is the main zedi, a cone-shaped stupa, ninety-nine metres high of which the top half is encased in tiles made of gold, thousands of them. The rest of the stupa is covered in gold leaf.
On top of the zedi shimmers an umbrella made from half a ton of gold, this includes over four thousand gold bells, and over eighty-three thousand pieces of jewellery. A gold vane above it moves with the breeze under a golden orb decorated with four thousand three hundred and fifty-one diamonds.
I have never seen this much richness anywhere else in the world, it is extraordinary, it will truly take your breath away.
The marble floor of the pagoda was scorching underfoot, we dashed from shade to shade walking around the golden zedi in a clockwise direction along with the faithful, the monks and the local tourists.
Circling the golden zedi are many smaller zedi and planetary posts representing the days of the eight days of the Buddhist week, Wednesday is split into two days, morning and afternoon.
It is considered lucky to ‘wash’ the Buddha representing your birthday and to leave offerings.
There are also lots of prayer halls, temples and shrines dotted around the pagoda, these provide shady spots to escape the blazing sun, rest and contemplate.
A monk approached me, he was a tourist too, visiting the pagoda with his family. He asked if he could take a pictures of me with his family. I posed for a number of photos and he thanked me graciously with a big smile. After that we both posed for many photos, it was like being back in China again!
We found a quiet spot under the shade of a shrine roof and sat for a while people-watching, waiting for the sun to set. The sun began to cast long shadows and the gleaming zedi became more golden as the sun went down.
We circled it again then stood and watched the last sunlight of the day glint off the stupa. As the light softened the atmosphere of the temple also noticeably relaxed, there was a peaceful calm as people milled around the pagoda, praying.
Chris, in a very chivalric move, descended the west entrance escalators to retrieve our shoes then came back up and we both took the stairs down the more frequently used south entrance. These steps were lined with shops selling items for offering such as flowers, garlands and incense.
There were souvenirs too yet no one hastled us to buy anything, at this time of day it was quiet and cool.
In the darkening light we walked the two and a half kilometres to Little India. Anawrahta Road is packed to narrowness with market stalls and street food vendors. The food is Indian in style, dosa or poori, curries and deep-fried morsels. Colourful vegetables and greens lay neatly packed on the pavement and jeans and tees hung in compact clothing stalls.
The smells drifting along the road from the hawkers and restaurants was too much, our bellies were growling. The Ingyin New South India Food Centre looked bright and inviting, the cheerful staff beckoned us in.
Perched on one of the long bench tables we feasted hungrily on dosa and potato poori from silver canteen trays, the server came over frequently to refill our sambar and potato until we had to tell him to stop lest we burst!
It was so delicious, the shop was very busy with locals and the entire food we ate cost less than £1.
We continued along Anawrahta Road towards our hotel, heading into China town, the market stalls became more Chinese in their produce, dried fish and different vegetables, it smelt of China rather than the spices of India we’d left behind moments earlier.
Further along still we passed two Hindu temples, a Victorian church and a mosque, huddled around which were market stalls selling books and electrical goods. The last stretch of the walk required a torch as the street lights became to sparse to be of use.
Colonial Yangon, the Rangoon of my Imagination a morning stroll that sent shivers down my spine.
The Myanmar Rail Experience. Exactly what it’s like to take the overnight sleeper to Bagan: an adventure!
Bagan, You’ve Never Seen So Many Temples Oh my goodness wow! WOW!
The Iconic Bagan Sunrise to the Unforgettable Sunset. Hot air balloons, well worth getting up before dawn!
Wine and Hot Springs: Cycling Lake Inle Not some thing I’d ever imagined I’d do in Myanmar!
Lake Inle Boat Trip. An Extraordinary Day In Burma! Ok, it’s touristy, but it is incredible and it’s magical!
On The Rails To Mandalay. The Mail Train To Thazi. Another wobbly train through Myanmar, this time through the beautiful hills.
The Golden Land: Travels Through Burma a video ‘trailer’ for these posts about Myanmar.