This is the first in a series of blogs about our trip to Myanmar (Burma) over Chinese New Year in January 2012.
Our first interaction with Myamar began our trip back to the US in December for our daughters wedding. We landed in San Francisco and spent the night there before flying on to Salt Lake City, our taxi driver at the airport was from Yangon. He told us about his family back home, how his mother and daughter were at a Bhuddist monastery on a retreat. When he dropped us off at our hotel he sweetly thanked us with a bow and closed palms and wished us a pleasant journey to his country. This was to be an auspicious pre-cursor echoed our entire experience in his wonderful country.
Planning to Go
The pen is mightier than the sword
The sanctioning of Myanmar by the US State Department created a negative pall over an entire nation and kept two worlds far apart. Perception is a powerful thing and the international policies of the United States have left many countries in a very unfavorable light. Granted there are warranted reasons for the US’s actions but things are never so black and white, and the power of a such a negative label often discourages further understanding. I knew so little of the country, its history and its people. Vague facts stood out like islands in the sea of isolation : military conflicts, protesting monks, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Nobel Peace prize. Ignorance bred fear and concern. When visiting Stan last October in Vietnam we were discussing Chinese New Year, as is my usual bents I leaned toward adventure and Stac toward comfort and relaxation. Stan pushed hard that we consider visiting Myanmar, he arguments : the country was beautiful, the people were friendly and they needed our tourist dollars. I also talked to Tahir at work who had visited ten years ago in the early 90’s and had loved it, he’d visited Bagan, Inle Lake and Ngapali Beach.
So I began researching. First there was controversy over whether we should even go. At the time Lonely planet had entire section largely centered on moral grounds of whether you would end up supporting the government (bad) or be helping the local economy and breaking down isolation (good). Much of this was dissipated by rapid changes in the government, visit by Hilary Clinton and finally normalization of relations between Myanmar and the US the day before we left. Perhaps though the most compelling arguments were put forth in Thant Myint-U’s excellent book : The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma, in summary there were that sanctions were largely ineffective against the government, basically the military, since they controlled all resources and they could survive for years to come. Further these sanctions reinforced the government’s perception that they should withdraw. And lastly only through interaction with the outside world could we break down the isolation and “provide fresh air to the stale political environment.”
Surprisingly for a place that I’d never really even heard of there was a lot of online activity, both Bagan and Inle Lake looked amazing and Ngapali Beach sounded warm and relaxing. Stac was concerned, actually quite concerned and I assured her based on what I’d seen that there were hotels that could offer comfort while we were in adventurous and beautiful places. She agreed with a warning that if things went wrong, like she got malaria or our kids were stolen that it’d be entirely my fault. We purchased tickets, got our visa’s and began searching for a local tour guide in Myanmar to help us with our in-country tour. Based on recommendations from other Beijingers on Beijing Cafe, we found Tin Htun with 7 Day Tours in Yangon and began our plans. Our itinerary was as follows :
- Fly on China Air from Beijing to Yangon, the only “direct flight”, which actually stops in Kunming on a Thursday.
- Spend Thursday night in Yangon
- Friday fly to Bagan
- Monday fly to Inle Lake
- Wednesday fly to Ngapali Beach
- Saturday fly back to Yangon
- Sunday fly back to Beijing
Domestic flights inside of Myanmar are unpredictable enough they didn’t recommend trying to make connections the same day; however we didn’t find this to be the case for our flights. Only one of our internal flights was delayed and this only by an hour and it was at the end of the day. Through another old friend Mark Warburton we’d also been introduced to another travel agent Sanda Than, who was a friend of his and we had her arrange transfers from airport to hotel and a tour guide in Bagan. Other than that with our Christmas flights back to the US for our daughters I’d had very little time to do any research, though while in the states I’d visited a doctor and gotten a prescription for pain killers, in the event that anything like the dislocated elbow incident of Guilin happened again, Doxy as an anti-malaria medication and Ciproflaxin as an antibiotic in the event that we got any stomach bug while there. After returning to Beijing we also visited our local clinic to get a typhoid vaccination for good measure.
Paying 7 Day Tours for the hotels and in-country flights ended up being an adventure in international money laundering. Due to sanctions credit cards are not able to be used in 99.9 % of the hotels and there is virtual no real banking system. For payment I had to make an international wire via our bank in the US to a Singapore company (which had nothing in its name to do with travel) who in turn somehow got the money to Myanmar and 7 Day Tours. The rest of our trip and our transfers we would pay for in cash once we arrived in the country. When asking Tin Htun how much money we should bring he said that we’d probably spend $300 on food and then we just would need to bring some money for souvenirs and the like. I settled on $1800 and in the end this ended up being a grave under-estimate. This isn’t because Myanmar is an expensive location, more that the fact that once your in-country there are zero ATMs. No banks to withdraw from. You take for granted the easy access to your money until your completely cut off. And I also think its easy to under estimate what you spend back home when you use your card everywhere and withdraw whenever you want cash. Combine this with the fact that your paying for taxi’s and at times your isolated in a western hotel with comparative to local options exorbitant prices far from cheaper alternatives, you can easily spend $75 plus a day just on food. Add in everything else and the money goes quickly. Miss your flight and have to spend an extra night and you can run completely dry. Word to the wise take extra cash and then a bit more in reserve in the event that something goes awry.
Landing in Yangon
After getting back to Beijing there was only 10 days before we left for Myanmar and we’d barely unpacked our Christmas bags and put away the Christmas tree before we were packing our bags for Myanmar. Our flight left Beijing at 8:05 am which seems like an agreeable early hour when your booking your trip in the abstract but when your showering at 4:15 am and trying to get the kids up and ready its way too early. We left our apartment at 5 am, freezing in our thin sweatshirts since we knew that Myanmar would be much hotter than Beijing. We were flying as direct as you can get from Beijing to Yangon, a flight through Kunming. Its the same flight and the itinerary doesn’t even list the arrival and departure times in Kunming; however after we airborne they informed us that we had to deplane, take everything off while they cleaned the plane and then we rebounded. Same seats and everything. What a pain.
We load up and off load and gather by the gate where an airline attendant tells us that Yangon should wait a minute. Miles had to pee and we ran off to the bathroom. Suddenly the group is off following the attendant through the crowded entry way. Stac, Sofi and the Sheppards were laggardly following and we joined them heading in the general direction of the group except we’ve lost them in the crowds of travelers. Suddenly I spot the light blue shirt of the annoying dude who sat in front of us and shushed us because we were talking too loud. They were turning the corner and heading up an escalator. We start up about 10 feet behind them and when we arrive at the top we’ve lost them again. Afar off in a another room we spot blue shirt man again and gather near immigration where they hand out another set of boarding passes. Then we have to go through immigration and fill out departure cards because technically the flight to Kunming is domestic (though it left from the international terminal) and fill out an departure card. After getting through immigration we go through security again and go back to the gate area where we wait for our flight to re-board. The take off was delayed for some reason even though our plane was sitting on the tarmac, since we’d just landed on it. Finally we board a transfer bus and walked on the tarmac to plane. A short 90 minute flight and we are in Myanmar.
When we landed in Yangon and queued in the immigration line for foreigners, there were three other lines, one for Myanmar, one for diplomats and one for seamen(?!). We saw Sanda Than waiting for us outside the glass with a sign Mr. Mark Griffith 7 pax. Through customs we got our bags and loaded into the van with our driver Tun Tun Oo and Sanda. A 30 minute ride to the Kandagwyati Palace where the girls and kids got a bite to eat after a long day of travel. I changed into something cooler and waited in the restaurant itching to get out before the sunset. I tried to be patient, but as a photographer I get obsessed about the time of day when the light is nice, in the end it turned out to not really matter.
Shwe means gold and Dagon is the old name of the city (meaning hills) before it was renamed to Yangon which means peace. The pagoda is the holiest site in Myanmar and one of the top holy sites in Buddhism; it houses relics from all four Buddha’s and most importantly eight hairs of Siddhartha after he achieved enlightenment and became The Buddha. The main feature is a zedi or stupa, which stands 360 feet tall in the center of a raised temple complex. The entire stupa is plated in solid gold, not just gold leaf. The top is encrusted in jewels with over 5000 diamonds and 1500 rubies. On the very top is a 76 carat diamond which is nearly twice the size of the Hope Diamond. The pagoda glows a bright golden color in the sun and even at night when its lit from all sides by electric lights.
We arrived at the elevator entrance, took of our shoes (a strict requirement at all temples and pagodas) paid our $5 entrance fee and took the elevators up to the Pagoda’s main level. Surrounding the main pagoda, aren innumerable set of temples, smaller stupa and shrines. As you exit the elevators you walk through a covered walkway past a large banyan tree that grows from cuttings of the original tree where Siddhartha achieved enlightment and around buildings until the main stupa comes into view. Here I just stopped, in dumbstruck awe. The size, the color and the majesty of this ancient building were overwhelming. The evening was warm and crowds walked clockwise around the shrine; many stopping to pray. Monks lit candles and incense. Devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and poured water over statutes with a prayers. You could feel the palpable sense of reverence and you immediately could tell of how deep the religious sense of Buddhism runs in Myanmar. A monk spent 40 minutes or so walking us around the pagoda, telling us about the shrine. One of the the cool things he did was take us to several points on the grounds where if you stood and stared at the very top of the shrine you could see different colors of light glinting through the prism of the diamonds on top; red, green, yellow, orange and even blue.
Later that evening we returned to our hotel where we met Sanda again to change money. Usually this is done at the airport but she agreed to give us the same rate published at the airport and amazingly she pulled bundle after bundle of Myanmar Kyat (chat, an “at” sound) out of her bag. She didn’t have quite enough to change all of Austin’s money so she agreed to come back later, I was upstairs but Austin said the table was piled hi with bills and he felt like some ganster. Then we met Mr. Tin Htun, paid him for the rest of our trip and picked up our vouchers for the hotel and our tickets for our domestic flights. Off to bed, our journey into the interior would begin tomorrow with another super early flight.
Future blogs on…
As I finish them I’ll link them here
- Inle Lake
- Ngapali Beach
- Getting Home
- As I finish them I’ll link them here