After almost a week of chilling in Boracay, I was keen to get on the road again. After a quick stopover to visit my cousin Ant’s wife Tara and their two girls Nicky and Emma (Ant was away on a boys weekend in Perth to watch the Boks take on Australia), I headed off to my next destination: Myanmar!
Myanmar has a very interesting history: a former British colony, it has only become a viable destination for tourist in the past four or five years once the ruling military junta started implementing democratic reforms. However, many parts of the country are still closed to tourists, or only accessible with a special permit. Tourism levels are still very low compared to the rest of SE Asia, but this is rapidly changing. Whereas a year ago a mobile SIM card cost USD1000 and you had to bring in all your cash in clean, unfolded large denomination US Dollar notes, today you can pick up a SIM card for USD1 and all the major tourist towns seems to have ATMs. It also sounds as if the transport infrastructure is improving dramatically, and hotels are slower raising their standards. All this has of course resulted in costs increasing significantly, but it is still a good value destination. A budget double onsuite room costs around USD20 – 25, 650ml beer around USD1.5 -3, meals around USD2 – 6, and buses between USD5 and 20, depending on the distance and level of comfort.
As we fly in over the sparsely populated green rice paddies and canals, I could tell this was going to be different from other places I had been to. I arrived in Yangon, the capital (formerly Rangoon) and was immediately struck by the completely lack of scooters on the road, something which is unheard of in SE Asia. Apparently the government decided one day that they were too dangerous for Yangon’s streets and banned them practically overnight. Strangely this only applied to Yangon – in the rest of Myanmar they are everywhere. This lead to a huge increase in the number of cars in Yangon so that it’s 8 million residents could still get around, although unfortunately there doesn’t appear to have been any upgrades to the roads, which are now horribly overcrowded. Some of the positives is that the city is much quieter as a result, and you are never unable to find a taxi – I estimate that around 25% of the cars were taxis. The people also seem to be much better drivers and don’t follow the Philippines style of driving where you either have your foot flat on the accelerator or flat on the brake. However, as a pedestrian you are right at the bottom of the pecking order, only slightly above the dogs. Crossing the road is a challenge for everyone, especially since the Myanmar people don’t seem to like to give way to anything. I once saw I car deliberately accelerate to close up a tiny gap that a pedestrian was about to use, even though the car in front wasn’t moving. Other than this strange quirk and a prevalence of Betel nut chewing & spitting, the Myanmar people seem very nice.
I quickly checked into my downtown hotel and did what I always like to do in a new city – set out on foot to explore a bit. It was a Sunday so the traffic wasn’t too crazy, and everyone was out and about at the various stalls lining the streets. Yangon is an interesting mix of old run down colonial buildings and some modern buildings. Several of the older colonial building are being renovated and turned in hotels etc. but it still retains a bit of charm often missing in other cities. There are several large Buddhist temple and pagodas dotted around the place, giving it an interesting skyline. I walked about 10kms, visiting the Sule pagoda (in the centre of town and around 2000 years old), had a delicious lunch at Monsoon Restaurant and an expensive beer at the swanky Strand Hotel, and visited the huge main pagoda that looms over the city. The following morning I also saw the huge reclining Buddha (third biggest in the world) and a large sitting Buddha and had a great Burmese curry at a restaurant at the lake.
After a pleasant stay in Yangon, , I caught a taxi for a long and occasionally terrifying ride through the traffic to the bus station to catch my overnight bus to Bagan. The fact that the bus had a verse from the Lord’s Prayer on the front windscreen made me little nervous but in the end it was quite a pleasant ride. It started with some announcements over a PA system with a echo that sounded like someone playing with a reverb machine for the first time, followed by a lucky draw where you won either a eye mask or inflatable pillow (I won a pillow but unfortunately the plug wouldn’t stay in), and then we set off with the aircon on full blast. The ride was pretty bumpy but I managed to get a bit of sleep before we arrived in Bagan at 6am. I was fortunate to find a guesthouse that let me check in early and get refreshed to go out and explore Bagan.
Bagan is famous for the 2000+ Buddhist temples and pagodas of various sizes spread out across the landscape, with the first being built in the 11th century. I don’t know what set off this crazy orgy of temple building, but I’m pretty sure it all ended with a really bad hangover. As your drive around you see the spires in ever direction, rising up between buildings in the towns and the trees and fields in the countryside – really quite impressive. There are various option on how to get around, ranging from a simple bicycle, to a horse and cart, to an electric bike, a car or a giant tour bus. I opted for an electric bike (USD6 a day) and spent the next two days whizzing around the sights. For the first day I visited the main temples, and then completely templed-out, spent the second day cruising around checking out the scenery – just me, my pink electric bike and the open road. Due to the heat I also spent a bit of time rehydrating with some beer (after the biking was finished) and eating some delicious food. Weather Spoons (best burgers in SE Asia plus good wifi) and Bibo (great Burmese food) in particular are recommended.
I left Bagan on a very early bus heading towards Mandalay on my way to Pyin Oo Lwin, a town in the hills above Mandalay. I’d decided to give Mandalay a skip for now so that I could get to Hsipaw for some trekking, but I might pop in on the way back to Yangon at the end of the trip. Mandalay is more like a typical asian city and is a lot more modern than Yangon, and a lot noisier, with hooting, revving scooters everywhere. I spent a hot couple of hours there over lunchtime before heading to Pyin Oo Lwin in the afternoon. Pyin is a nice stopover on the way to Hsipaw. It was originally established by the British colonial government as a refuge from the summer heat, and the whole government, together with other important people would escape there each year. As a result the architecture has a very British feel about it, with quaint double story building with decorated balconies and Tudor style walls all over the place, and a huge botanical garden just outside of town. There’s also a large Indian population so Indian food can be found everywhere. I had planned to spend one day there to see the gardens, but a huge early morning thunderstorm lasting until lunchtime put pay to that idea. My efforts to get to the gardens were stymied by rivers of water flowing down streets, and after backtracking to find an alternate route about 5 times I finally gave and and wandered around the parts of town I could get to, before stopping to write my blog.
Tomorrow I’m hopping on a famous train to Hsipaw which goes through some dramatic scenery, including the extremely high and rickety Gokteik viaduct (assuming the train is running tomorrow – it was cancelled today because of the rain). Wish me luck!