Myanmar was a place that both of us were excited to visit since it only recently became easily accessible to tourists. The place is changing at an unbelievable pace. We had a Lonely Planet that was a few years out of date and it suggested that we bring the entire budget for our trip in crisp $100 bills (2006 series or later). Given our tendency to plan things “on the fly", this posed a bit of an issue. We arrived at the Bangkok airport departures area with about $40 in distinctly un-crisp bills, and realized that there was no ATM. A major panic ensued in which we scrambled to contact a friend who was living in Yangon, and to check online forums for an update on the cash situation. Turns out, ATMs are pretty much everywhere in Myanmar (even in Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important religious temple for Myanmar Buddhists). This was indicative of the place as a whole. We were expecting development just slightly above North Korea, and in reality, it’s a reasonably developed place that is quite easy for backpacking. Buses were clean and generally on-time. Hotels were ludicrously expensive ($55 for a dismal double with no window in downtown Yangon), but easy to find/book online. English was widely spoken. People were helpful and honest. In fact, one of the defining things about Myanmar for us was the lack of "tourism fatigue" suffered by the people we encountered. Across the board, everyone we met was friendly, welcoming, and genuinely wanted to get to know us and tell us about themselves and their lives. All in all, the country we expected to find most challenging was, in many ways, the most pleasant.
We arrived in Yangon, the capital and largest city in Myanmar, late at night. Our first impression was, “Wow, this is pretty nice”. The roads were reasonably smooth, there were no motorbikes (apparently there were so many road deaths that they were banned, a nice boon for the local taxi industry), and our driver spoke reasonable English.
Yangon itself is a weird place. There’s tons of construction going on, much of it funded by the Chinese. Apparently, the dearth of supply along with the flood of foreign capital has pushed land prices in Yangon up by something like 10000% in the last few years. Next door to new buildings, there are crumbling colonial-era buildings blocked off by barbed wire to prevent squatters. Electricity comes and goes a bit, as is the case in much of the world, meaning that you sometimes have to walk up a bunch of stairs to avoid being caught in the elevator.
We spent a few days in Yangon, though it really only requires a day or so. Must-see sights include the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is gorgeous at sunset.
As it was absurdly hot, I was being an uber tourist and wearing shorts. Fortunately, the good people at the ticket booth were happy to lend me a fetching longyi. It wasn’t my best look, though I can appreciate how useful it is for hot weather.
We also visited the world’s largest reclining Buddha. It’s supposedly bigger than the Statue of Liberty, and certainly looks more chilled out.
Other Yangon highlights include my [Mac's] attempt to return a package of underwear I bought at the government-owned mall. Four months and many dubious laundromat visits into our trip, I needed to pick up a few new pairs and figured the mall would be a good option. I figured wrong. Having purchased the cheapest underwear in the whole mall, I wandered only a few short blocks before being presented with a knock-off package of the famous name-brand "Calin Kelum" underwear at a street stall. For 10% of the price of the mall pair. Devastated by my egregious shopping-fail, I elected to attempt a somewhat sketchy return of my ill-advised undergarment purchase. A bit of an ordeal ensued… it went something like this:
Me: “I bought these two hours ago but realize I don’t need them. I know this is weird but I'd like to return them. I haven't worn them at all. Here’s the receipt and you can see the package is still sealed.”
Clerk: [uncomfortably, slightly disgusted pause] “Um, you need to talk to customer service.”
Me: [trying to remain cheerfully upbeat, pretending that where I come from, they always accept underwear returns] “I don’t see customer service for this store. Where is it?”
Clerk: “Oh, all the stores are owned by the same company [aside: that company being the Myanmar Government?], so only one customer service desk.”
I walk to the customer service desk
Me: [deciding this time to adopt a bold, devil-may-care approach] “I’d like to return these.”
CS Rep: [not looking up] “We don’t do that.”
Me: [slightly put out but not ready to concede defeat] “What do you mean? You don’t do returns in general? This is a pretty normal thing in most of the world. I realize that the fact it’s underwear is a slightly complicating factor (pauses after realizing that should use more basic English)… can I speak to your manager?”
CS Manager: [grabs the store manager, who is wandering around the near-empty mall, aimlessly]
Store Manager: “I can’t make this decision, I need to check with the owner of the mall” [note, this is a 4 story mall with about 25 stores]
I proceed to play Candy Crush for 30 minutes in an office, assuring myself that this is no longer about the 14 USD, but the principle of the matter [the principle apparently being that I hate overpaying for underwear].
Mall Owner, after coming in and looking at me from the doorway a few times: “OK, we’ll refund your money, though this isn’t a thing we normally do” [his face basically says, "I can't believe I'm being taken away from important work to adjudicate on a sketchy underwear return for this surprisingly stingy American"]
Mac: “Great, thanks for your help. Good luck with your mall.”
I walk outside and triumphantly buy my knock-off Calin Kelums for about 0.50 USD.
Flush with my victory over the oppressive Yangon mall regime, I returned to the hotel to meet Whitney who, understandably, wanted nothing to do with my crusade. After I relayed the finer points of my mall battle, we set out to meet our friend Angela, who was on an eight-week assignment helping an NGO in rural Myanmar. We ate a fantastic dinner of local street BBQ, hoping our SE Asia-hardened stomachs would weather the storm. We closed the night out with a bottle of wine on Angela’s roof, admiring the golden stupas that peaked out from the otherwise largely dark skyline. The conversation was an interesting mix of discussion about topics ranging from international development consulting to wedding planning (Angela was recently married to our friend Alex and provided some sage advice on how not to stress ourselves out too much). Immensely enjoying a friendly face in a foreign place and feeling a bit more relaxed, we prepared ourselves for the bus to Bagan.
Our journey to Bagan began on a rough note with possibly the worst bowl of soup I’ve ever had in my life. To whom it may concern: do not, under any circumstances, order shan noodles at a kiosk in the Yangon Bus Station. I recognize that for most of you, this isn't immediately relevant or important advice. But on the off-chance you find yourself in my shoes, remember to avoid this blunder at all costs. To fully understand the situation, you need to know that the Yangon bus station is ENORMOUS. And crowded, and chaotic, and potentially the only truly tourist-unfriendly spot we found in Myanmar. Once we located our bus, we were terrified to stray more than a few meters away for fear of being lost into the sea of exhaust and spitting men. That pared our breakfast options down to a single noodle shop (and we were facing a 8-hour bus ride, without food). I ordered Shan noodles, which are supposed to be a type of noodles native to the Shan people in Northeastern Myanmar. We had eaten it before, and it was delicious. This was not that. This was up there with the worst food of the trip. It was like eating small cords of human hair in a broth the color of a Burmese squat toilet. I had one bite and was done.
But, after that, things improved dramatically. The bus ride was really easy, with a newly-paved highway most of the way. We were staying in New Bagan and were under the impression that the bus would drop us off there so that it was a walk to our hotel. Wrong. We were dropped unceremoniously on the side of the road about 12km away from New Bagan and were immediately assaulted by taxi drivers offering us ridiculous fares to our hotel. My tolerance for bargaining after extended bus rides being low, I was close to biting the bullet and paying the 8 USD, even though I knew it should’ve been 2 USD. But we were walking with a French backpacker who had just completed an overland motorcycle trip from France to India (casually via Iran), so felt the need to maintain some shred of backpacker credibility. Eventually, a pickup driver relented and we climbed in the back of his truck to be shuttled down the road to our hotel for a semi-reasonable price, split with our new friend, the shrewd French backpacker.
We were planning to spend three days in Bagan, with the anticipated highlight being our Balloons over Bagan tour, widely regarded as one of the greatest ballooning experiences in the world. We were both really excited, particularly since my only other ballooning experience had been over Woodinville, WA where we nearly crash-landed into power lines.
I won’t go into the details of every temple because that’s not what is cool about Bagan. Unlike Siam Reap, where there are maybe 10 temples that everyone goes to see on a bit of a circuit, Bagan has thousands of temples scattered on a plain. The thing to do is rent an electronic bike and just go exploring. One of the coolest moments for us was when we went rogue and explored some remote parts of the southern plain, finding our very own temple complete with a secret passage up to the top to watch sunset. Just be sure your e-bike doesn’t run out of batteries, because it’s not fun to pedal that awkward contraption over loose sand for an hour (nearly happened to me).
The balloon trip was as incredible as we had been lead to believe. We woke up at 4:30a and were picked up in an old-style open bus. We were transported to a large open field where they served coffee while the balloons were inflating.
We were really lucky with the weather, which was clear and not very windy. This meant that we had more than an hour in the air and were able to see a huge swath of the temple plain. Our pilot Christophe was a bit of a maverick, taking us low over some temples before soaring up more than 1000m above the ground to take in the whole scene. It was absolutely one of the highlights of the trip.
Kalaw to Inle Trek
Kalaw is a small town between Bagan and Inle Lake that is a famous starting point for trekking. After a great experience trekking in Laos, we opted for the 2 day – 1 night trek to Inle Lake. We figured this would be a reasonable amount of time outdoors and give us a nice taste of the local culture by doing a homestay. It turned out to be one of the coolest things we did in Myanmar.
Our guide called himself Momo and was a fantastic leader for our adventure through the Myanmar countryside. He sang, he spoke about 13 local languages, he told us all about how the country is changing (both for better and worse), and he was a damn good cook. Oh, and every mile or so, he would stop dead in his tracks, look in the direction of Inle Lake and shout "INLE LAKE, WE ARE COMING...DON'T MOVE!" and then collapse into giggles. It was hilarious.
We were there during the dry season, so the countryside was a bit reddish-brown, but we went in with the expectation that this trek was less about jaw-dropping scenery and more about culture. It delivered on that expectation, though there were still a few moments of real beauty.
The best part of the trip (and of Myanmar in general) was the people we met. The locals were so kind and excited to show off their country. That said, a lot of them are still facing serious poverty. The day-to-day struggles are staggering compared to what we deal with in our routines. There was the little girl (no more than eight years old) who we saw carrying about 25 pounds of water on her back up a steep hill to her village. We offered to carry it for her, which she eventually allowed, though she kept a close watch on us. Despite this, everyone was extremely kind to us and seemingly in good spirits. It led to lots of discussion between Whitney and I about whether or not they are “happier” than people in the West. This has been a recurring topic of conversation throughout the trip as we debate what type of life offers us the best chance at fulfillment.
The family we stayed with for a night on the trek were lovely hosts. The mother had four sons and a daughter. Two of the sons were monks at the local monastery and they came by for dinner, which she cooked with the help of the daughter. The mother and daughter were teachers, so they spoke a bit of English, and described how things are changing as people buy DVD players and mobile phones become more accessible. The infrastructure isn’t great (mostly solar power which runs the DVD player), but people are creative. It made us both wonder how access to information about the outside world will change their expectations. In some ways, it seems the happiest people were the ones who had enough to meet their basic needs and no understanding that there was any other option out there.
The trek ended on the second day after about five hours of walking. We happily flopped down into a boat which whisked us across the lake as we enjoyed celebratory beers. In the back of our heads, the seed of doubt about Nepal had been planted. Our legs ached terribly after two days of trekking at low altitude. Would we be able to make it through a 10 day Himalayan trek? Rather than stress too much, we continued our “plan 3-5 days in advance” strategy and decided to worry later.
Inle Lake is famous as a trade hub for the many hill tribes of Myanmar. People with fish trade with the people from the hills who have stone. It’s basically one big game of Settlers of Catan. This means there are lots of fisherman, floating markets, floating gardens, etc. It’s a cool spot, though I can’t say that we were totally blown away. Maybe we’ve hit floating lifestyle exhaustion after SE Asia, but the coolest part for me was just cruising around the lake and watching the fisherman. They have a distinctive paddling style with their legs that I can’t imagine is extremely efficient, but they manage and it looks cool. Plus, they use their oars to smack the water to scare the fish into their nets, which is totally badass to watch.
One highlight is the enterprising guy who waits at the entrance to the main lake and then strikes the pose immortalized in the cover of Lonely Planet. Every tourists is like “OMG, I know that photo” and proceeds to take a few snaps. The guy then proceeds to paddle up to your boat and insist on payment for his efforts. At first, people in our boat were annoyed, but ultimately I admired the guy's chutzpah.
There is a fairly established tourist circuit, for which we secured a guide and a proud vessel. We were not alone. Even though Myanmar isn’t overrun with tourists, there are a few places it feels crowded. This was one of them. On the bright side, one of those tourists who jumped in our boat turned out to be a close friend of some of our close friends from home (shout out Nate and Kay!). Small world!
Despite the crowds, there were some cool stops along the way including an over-water lotus fiber weaving factory. The woman working in the factory make some gorgeous products and their extremely complex manufacturing techniques are the same as they’ve been for over a century. But, unlike a century ago, they now accept Visa and Mastercard! Ah, progress.
We also stopped by a cigar rolling operation. This was cool to see but since neither of us smokes and we were not sure how US Customs would feel about us bringing home Burmese cigars (ask Cuba), we didn’t purchase anything.
We made a loop through the floating gardens to see where they grow some of the famous Inle Lake tomatoes. They looked great, though with the farmer’s house (and toilet) floating next door, we waited before taking a bite.
Finally, we stopped by the floating monastery that is famous for the cats which the monks have supposedly trained to jump through hoops. Sadly, the cats no longer jump. Apparently, it was a single monk who had a way with the cats and trained them to jump. Now, the cats sit around like normal cats while the monks kindly offer tea. Still a fine stop, but it’s funny that no one has attempted to re-brand the monastery even though the cats haven’t jumped in years.
After Inle, we took the bus to Mandalay, where we killed about nine hours in the airport until our flight to Bangkok. We had a great experience in Myanmar, but were also looking forward to our "lost weekend" in Bangkok with Hannah. Plans included: haircuts, a 4-D movie experience, crispy bacon, craft beer, Mexican food, and more!