The Road to Myanmar

Backpacking in myanmar

Over Christmas I got hold of the latest South East Asia on a shoestring guidebook. The last time I owned one of these chunky editions was in 2006. Back then Myanmar was called Burma – I think. She was under military rule and the country was closed to visitors. Whilst included on the map inside the cover of the 2006 guidebook, Myanmar was tantalisingly shaded out. I remember staring at her and wondering what she must be like behind those imaginary walls.

Thankfully Myanmar shrugged off its military rule in 2011 and is slowly taking steps towards becoming a functioning democracy. Myanmar held its first free democratic election in living memory in 2015. A fact the locals are very proud of and happy to tell you about if you ask.

As well as the changing political climate, Myanmar is poised to claim its seat among the industrial powerhouses of Asia in the coming decade.

A huge landmass rich in minerals, oil and natural gas, Myanmar is ripe for an economic revolution.

A new bilateral trade agreement with a single superhighway linking Myanmar with India and Thailand look set to hurl this ancient country into the 21st century very soon.

Tourism in Myanmar

Many parts of Myanmar are still closed to visitors today.

It’s pretty weird looking at places on a map just a few miles away and not being allowed to travel there.

I’m not entirely sure why there are still corners of the country that are off limits. Perhaps it’s simply a bureaucratic hangover from times past. Perhaps Myanmar sees the challenges its neighbours have with tourism and is striving to execute better control. Or perhaps it’s simpler. Myanmar is a country with a shameful human rights record. Maybe she’s just not ready for the world see her naked yet.

Nevertheless, there are around a dozen or so tourist zones which visitors are allowed to travel to. These include most of the major towns such as Yangon and the enigmatic Mandalay, as well as a few archaeological sites and beaches. These will prove perfectly sufficient to most visitors as the maximum length of stay for foreigners is limited to 30 days.

First Impressions

I can’t remember ever having a better first impression of a country than Myanmar. The Visa application process is 100% online. We applied on Monday morning and received an acceptance letter by email on Tuesday afternoon.

Clearing immigration in Yangon was swift and painless. No queues.

We simply flashed our passport and acceptance letter at the official. He responded with smile and proceeded to teach us the Burmese words for “hello” and “thank you.”  We left the airport up-beat and hailed a taxi.

Things were going perfectly until we arrived in the city centre. I’ve written before about traveling in December and January. It really is a different experience to the quieter months. Yangon like all of South East Asia gets very busy around New Year. We foolishly hadn’t booked in advance and had to endure a fruitless 2 hour search for a backpacker hostel with a vacant room. We ended up settling for a shabby overpriced 3 star hotel. We got railroaded into taking a 3 night deal for 70 USD per night. Not a great start to our Myanmar budgeting. Still, breakfast was included and the staff were friendly. We grabbed a quick shower and headed out to look around.

Incredible Yangon

Yangon is unlike any major South East Asian city I’ve experienced.

We arrived 2 days before Independence Day so there was a palpable holiday vibe.

Yangon’s streets are a Manhatten style grid system which makes them super easy to navigate. Most are one way and all but the main ones are devoid of traffic. The colonial architecture is abundant and grand. No two buildings are the same exact colour or style. Every window has a balcony with a parasol roof. A web of looping washing lines chock-full with technicolour clothes decorate the facades like bunting. Boys play five-a-side football and girls play badminton in the sleepy streets below.

On Independence Day itself the streets are officially closed and each one becomes a children’s sports day complete with silly games, chalk running tracks, prizes and a compere. Everyone on the entire street – every street, from toddlers to grandparents gets involved. Not a drop of alcohol is consumed and not a sound of a motorised bike or car can be heard.

A scene of utter otherworldliness right in the centre of one of Asia’s busiest urban hubs.

I had to pinch myself the first time I walked around a corner and saw this. Was I dreaming? I would not have though that scene possible in 2015. A wonderful travel moment I’ll never forget.

Yangon
Independence Day games in Yangon

Yangon to Inle Lake by Night Bus

After astounding Yangon we took a bus north to Inle Lake. Myanmar’s bus network is completely out of step with the rest of the country’s technological development. The buses are new looking luxurious coaches with comfy reclining seats and foot rests. If I have one complaint it’s the Air conditioning.  IT’S TOO HIGH!

The AC is configured for daytime use, there is no thermostat that can be easily adjusted – just an on/off switch which the driver controls. You can shut the vent over your head but not the one to the side.

Each passenger is given a blanket upon boarding, but most are dressed for Thailand’s beaches and are woefully unprepared for the sub-zero temperatures on the night buses.

Navi and I wore jumpers, rain coats, long trousers, sock and shoes. Even with the blanket though it wasn’t enough.

One hippy chick in the seat ahead of us got off at a rest stop and never got back on. She marooned herself in a random town, preferring an uncertain future and the likelihood of a night on a plastic bench rather than face another minute on the night bus.

I’m pretty sure that everyone that took this bus ended up with a runny nose and cough for the next few weeks. We certainly did. Needless to say we took day buses from then on.

Inle Lake

Inle Lake is also cold. Daytime temperatures in January are comfortably warm but the moment the sun starts to set you’d better not be outside in a t-shirt. Early mornings are colder still. The upside of the freezing temperatures is that there is no need to pay extra for AC rooms and no mosquito troubles.

We stayed at the small dusty town of Nyaung Shwe. Day trips on the lake cost around $15 from here.

There are dozens of communities living on the shallow lake in interconnected stilt villages.

Most practice traditional crafts. There are silver and goldsmiths, textile manufacturers spinning lotus silk, farmers, boat makers and of course, fishermen. All are happy to demonstrate their art to passing tourists which makes for a fun and educational day.

The real delight though is the lake itself.

There is something so soothing and tranquil about this glassy blue savannah. Stresses of the mainland seem to melt away under the big skies and gentle lapping currents.

Inle Lake
Big skies over Inle Lake

The Temples of Bagan

The Bagan archaeological zone is Myanmar’s must see attraction. From the 9th to the 13th century the area served as the capital to the first unified region which would later become Myanmar as we recognise it today. During this period and to a lesser extent for 600 years afterwards, architects and monks went wild building over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Today, many are in ruins but a remarkable number survive almost fully intact.

The best way to see Bagan is by bike.

There are around 20 square miles of monuments to see but most are clustered close to the main roads and towns.

Many of the larger temples are pyramid shaped and can be climbed via steep stairways on the outside. Interiors are cool and austere with faded frescos and gleaming gold Buddhas enshrined at their core. Even in peak season there are hundreds of ruined temples that receive no visitors.

It’s a wonderful spiritual place to stroll around in and get lost for a few hours.

The views from the uppermost terraces of the larger temples are to die for. A sunset or sunrise excursion to one of these is a must but get there early to secure the best vantage point.

Bagan
A typical view in Bagan

The towns around Bagan are OK but they are dedicated tourist centres. Prices are high and there is a shakedown mentality towards foreign visitors. Everywhere you go there seems to be an extra fee for something or other. I don’t mind paying extra but I dislike feeling like a walking dollar sign. I can forgive them this though. Life for the average person here looks pretty hard to me. Even when you do get ripped off you can’t stay mad for very long in the face of this place. The sheer number of monuments and the beauty is truly bewildering.

It’s not a world heritage site yet, but it should be.

For me, Bagan joins a very short list of awe inspiring all-time favourite ancient sites such as Angkor Wat, Hampi, and the Giza Plateau.

The Road to Mandalay

By the time we reached mysterious Mandalay we only had a week remaining on our visa. Regrettably it wasn’t the mists, Moulmein pagodas and rice paddies of Kipling’s imaginings. Mandalay is a modern Asian city impatient to shed its colonial past. Blunt steel and glass towers are fast overtaking the crumbling terraced streets.

Cobbles replaced with concrete and old ways vanishing under an onslaught of brightly coloured advertising banners for mobile phones and foreign consumables.

Mandalay may have once been beautiful. I hope she was. But sadly, I’ll never remember her that way again.

Our trip ended here.

The old and the new
The old and the new

Backpacking in Myanmar

Shrouded in secrecy for so long, but now the curtain is up. This is a spectacular country. We left Myanmar with so many new friends and we can’t wait to go back. What better endorsement is there.