Two Weeks in Burma
- Submitted by: Oren Golan
- Submission Date: 09th Feb 2005
I've been to Burma at the beginning of December 1993. Burma (now formally called Myanmar, but I'll stick to the traditional name) has been alternately open and closed to tourism in the last decade, but it seems that the military government finally realizes that tourism has its advantages, so more and more tourists are expected there. Yet, Burma is still one of the countries in Asia which has seen the least number of Westerners, and it is one of the things that makes a visit there so special. Naturally, things change very quickly in a country that is opening itself to tourism, so the information I give here should be taken as a guide only - I wouldn't want to get angry e-mails from people who spent half a day looking for a hotel that no longer exists :-). I travelled in Burma with the 1993 edition of the Lonely Planet guide to the country, and it was already out of date but still quite useful. Anyway, the best source of information is people who'd just been there, or travellers that you meet in the country (there won't be many of them, though). Bangkok, being the main gateway to Burma, is a good place to gather such information.
Two things make Burma an attractive place to visit. One of them is the scenery, dominated by thousands of pagodas in every possible color, shape and size. The second, and most important, is the genuineness of the country and the people. Being unexposed to the west for many years, a tourist in Burma is as much an attraction to the locals as they are to him. Walking in the street, a 'white person' feels that people are staring at him curiously, and will often try to communicate with him, just for the sake of 'contacting with the world out there'. Unfortunately, this will probably change soon, as more and more tourists will get to the country, and therefore I recommend going there as soon as possible. However, since most areas in the country are still closed to tourists and will open very gradually, Burma probably has the potential of remaining authentic at least for the next few years.
Burma is governed by a military government, which is known to be very cruel with its opponents. Trying to avoid any 'western, democratic influence', the government is doing its best that the locals will have as little contact as possible with westerners (e.g. moving the entire village of Pagan away from the tourist attractions there). When you do get in touch with the locals, please avoid from bringing up political issues, and do not try to convince them to take you to areas closed to tourists - you might get them in serious trouble !
At the end of 1993, the only way to get to Burma was by air. An exception for this is crossing the border in northern Thailand for a one-day visit to the local tribes. Anyway, the only 3 airlines that fly to the country are Myanmar air (flying to Bangkok and Bangladesh), Thai (daily flights to/from Bangkok) and Bangladesh airlines. Naturally, most people will arrive from Bangkok, and a round trip cost (in November 93) around 200$US, depending on the airline.
a visa should be obtained from Burmese embassies (there are ones in Bangkok, Kathmandu, Delhi and most other Asian capitals) in advance. It took me 1 hour to get it in Kathmandu, but it usually takes a day. When I got my visa, the maximum allowed stay was 2 weeks. However, as far as I know, since early 94 visas can be issued for a whole month.
Where to visit and for how long?
When I was there, only the centre of the country, which has 4 major interesting area, was open to tourists. Other areas were off the limits, and it was impossible to get there - the locals are too afraid of the military government to risk themselves taking you there. The four areas are the Capital Rangoon (currently called Yangon), Inla lake, Mandalay and Pagan (aka Bagan). From my experience, 2 weeks are about the right time to see these major attractions without being too much in a hurry, but without spending too much time 'getting to know the people' either. If more areas are open to tourist, or if one wants to get to know the locals better, a longer stay will be required.
As in other Asian countries, Burma uses FEC - Foreign Exchange Currency, also known as 'tourist money'. On arrival to the country, each tourist must exchange 200$US (in cash or TC) with 200 FECs. Paying for formal services must be done in FECs - this includes accommodation and transportation, though most hostels will accept US dollars in cash as well. For food etc. one should use kyats (pronounced chats) - the local currency. In December 93, the official exchange rate was 1$=6 kyats. The black market rate, however, was 100-120 (!!!) kyats per dollar (a little less per 1FEC, which you can change to kyats as well). For those who are not reluctant of using the black market (and the locals are not !), this makes the stay in Burma almost as cheap as other Asian countries. Accommodation would cost 15$ (or FECs) for a double room, and a reasonable meal might cost around 50 kyats - 9$ if you visited the bank, 50 cents if your rickshaw driver was friendly... If you run out of FECs, you can change more US cash in any bank, though most places will accept US dollars as well. Quite often they'll be willing to change FECs back to dollars if you have too many of them at the end of your trip, and sometimes even buy your kyats back. In some tourist attractions there are special prices for tourists. Many travellers have stories of ways they refrained from paying these high rates, but it's up to the traveller to decide whether he/she wishes to cooperate with the dictators or not...
As a part of the government's policy to prevent the locals as much a possible from being exposed to the bad influence of western tourists, only few, approved hotels in each city are allowed to accommodate foreigners. Don't try to convince other places to host you (though the prices are much cheaper !) - they're too afraid to do it, and they've got a reason too - the military government might imprison for a long time people who break such laws. The conditions in the approved hostels are moderate to good - a double room with a fan, and sometimes with en-suite shower/toilets or even air conditioning, will cost 15-18$US.
The Burmese people:
Being unexposed to tourism in particular and to the west in general, the Burmese people are very kind, quiet and friendly. The military government tries to prevent and harmful western influence (which might, god save us, bring some democratic ideas to the people's minds !), and it does is quite successfully. Not only are the numbers of tourists maintained low - they also do not allow the import of any western-culture goods. The latest pop music, for example, that many locals heard is Elvis. For this reason, the 'white' traveller is as much an attraction to the Burmese as they are to him. The locals often try to communicate, hear stories, or just stare at these 'weird people'. Communication is a problem, because the government also stopped the teaching of English in schools. Therefore, the ones who speak the best English are the elderlies, and it is not uncommon for young people to call their parents or grandparents to help them understand the tourists. Import of western goods is both forbidden and impossible (due to international boycott), so the locals are very happy to receive or trade unique local souvenirs and gifts. DO NOT bring to Burma whiskey or cigarettes - so many people brought them in that they are no longer worth their price. 2-dollar T-shirts that you can buy in Bangkok will not be worth much more than that when you trade them for a souvenir in a shop in Burma, but they will make a local very happy (esp. if they have a 'made in USA' label or a Michael Jackson picture :-), and even a pair of used Levis jeans might get you a discount on something. Also bring a few small souvenirs (even just nice-looking pens) with you - you are most likely to experience very friendly encounters with the locals, and you'll probably want to give them something in return.
OK, after such a long introduction, it's time to give more details about 'what did I do there'. Following is my itinerary - as long as only 4 areas are open to tourists, most visitors will follow about the same route, with minor changes. This shouldn't worry you - During our stay in Burma, there hardly ever saw more than 10 other tourists a day!
We arrived in the afternoon to the Yangon airport, and after changing 200$ to FECs, we headed to the Information counter - they give a map of Burma for free, and reconfirm your outgoing flight. DON'T FORGET to do it before you leave Yangon - you're very unlikely to be able to phone your airline from outside the city ! We took a taxi to town - walking OUT of the airport's area is a good idea - prices will be more negotiable. Just like we heard, the taxi driver was very friendly, and at the end of the ride, he offered us to change dollars to kyats. The rates in Yangon are higher than anywhere else in the country, so it's a good idea to change most of the money there. Try to get information from people who've been there recently (maybe even leaving tourists at the airport on the day you arrive) as for the current black market exchange rate - and always bargain ! We headed straight to the railway station, taking the train North to Mandalay. You must buy a tourist ticket for the first class in a special window, and it'll cost you 35FECs. The first class, though, is quite good, and you can easily sleep during the night if you take the night train (when I was there there were 2 such trains, at 6pm and 7pm).
Mandalay : The night train arrived in the late morning. On the way we noticed that every tiny village in Burma has a pagoda in it, so within a few hours in the train you see hundreds of them - of all shapes and colors - a beautiful view. The common means of transportation in Mandalay is a trishaw - which looks like a double-wheel-chair attached to bicycle, and can carry 2 people. Don't miss the local markets, selling just anything you can think of (that is, anything that was invented before the 60's), and try the food stalls - the Burmese food is delicious ! I never had any stomach problems after eating in the markets... The trishaw driver will probably take you from the train station to his 'favorite' hotel. Prices are all the same - around 15$ a night for a double room (payable in dollars or FECs). Our hotel was 'Sabay Phyu' (or something that sounds like it), with air-conditioned rooms, common toilets and a very friendly manager who was willing to help in arranging our travels around town. If you manage to find the 'Golden Express' hotel - it should be good as well (see Pagan for details).
A Trishaw driver took us to a full day tour in the city - including the Mandalay hill, a few Pagodas, the walls of the ancient palace, gold-leaves making workshop and of course, a souvenir shop.
Myomyo, Sagain and Amarpura. 4 of us rented for 44$US a car and a driver to take us the Myomyo, a beautiful town 2 hours east of Mandalay. Don't miss the morning market - the most colorful, live and genuine market I've ever seen. The local waterfalls, and the botanic gardens, are also nice. DO NOT visit the Candacraig (?) hotel recommended in the Lonely Planet - it's been long since the place had any colonials in it, and tourists who insist on having a 'colonial lunch' get food brought from the nearest food stall ! Back In Mandalay in the afternoon, our hired driver took us to the deserted city of Sagain and to Amarpura - just outside town.
on the boat to Pagan. The boat leaves Mandalay at 5am ! It's a good idea to get your favorite rickshaw driver take you there late the previous night (not too late, or you wont have a place to sleep) and spend a not-so-comfortable-but-very-cheap-night in an armchair on the deck. Tickets for the boat trip can be purchased in the tourist office in town for 20 FECs, though if you get on the boat without tickets (they are checked only in the morning) - the conductor will sell you one as well. On the deck there is a rope that separates it to two areas. In one of them there were 30-40 tourists, sitting in comfort on their arm chair. In the other half, just as big, there were about 200 locals, siting on blankets on the deck together some chickens and other livestock. The amazing thing was that the locals stare at the tourists as much as the foreigners look at the Burmese, and soon people started to try communicating with each other. The trip takes 13 hours. The boat stops in many villages on the way, and locals will often come onto the boat to sell some locally-made snacks (no, unlike many other Asian countryside areas - you will NOT be able to buy a bottle of Coke or a Mars bar). The View from the boat is very nice, and of course - you get to see hundreds of different pagodas. The best hotel by far in Pagan is the 'Golden Express', which is actually a chain - there are hotels in Pagan, Yaungwe (Inla lake) and Mandalay (though I haven't seen the last one), and their quality is much higher than any other hotels (though they might be a bit more expensive - 18$ a night, instead of 15, for a double/twin). The only disadvantage of the one in Pagan - it's out of town, but then, 'town' has 10 houses, and there's nothing to do there anyway :-).
Pagan: This is definitely one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. In an area of 42 sq.km. there are a few thousand pagodas (or what used to be pagodas), mostly made of brown bricks but there are ones of many different sizes, shapes and colors. Some of them are 40-60 meters high, and you can sometimes climb to the top through a maze of internal corridors, and watch the entire area from above. There are two ways to explore the area - hiring bikes, or hiring a cart, a horse and a driver. It's highly recommended to take a cart for the first day, as the driver can take you to the most interesting sites and give heaps of interesting explanations - just make sure his English is good enough before taking him. We paid 300 kyats for a full day. Pagan is also a good place to buy souvenirs - your driver will probably take you during the day to one of the shops in the area. The Burmese specialize in laquerware, and make beautiful things for very cheap prices (esp. if you have some western goods to trade).
Pagan: This day we hired bikes (100 kyats a day ?) and explored the area ourselves. There's quite a new restaurant in New Pagan - just a few km down the road from the old city, which serves great, cheap food - unfortunately I can't remember its name, but it's just near the river bank. Since there are thousands of pagodas in the area, which are quite different from each other, you can spend quite a few days exploring them.
Pagan to Inla lake: For a few hundred kyats you can go on a pickup truck (with 50 others !) all the way from Pagan to Yaungwe (at Inla Lake), about 10 hours drive. We preferred to hire, 6 tourists, a van and a driver for 20$ each (as you can see, the locals are very happy to give services for hard currency, as long as it's in the open areas). On the way we stopped in Mt. Popa - a high mountain with pagodas on the top and great views. We also stopped in Bindaya caves - stalactites and stalagmites caves with thousands of Buddha statues of all sizes in it - quite impressive. In Yaungwe, the best hotel is the 'Golden Express'.
Yaungwe: The morning market here (Mondays only ?) is almost as exciting as in other places in Burma, with interesting goods (things you'll find in the west only in antique shops). The town is very quite and peaceful, with water canals between the houses.
around Yaungwe: there are a few villages around Yaungwe, and walking around them gives a good opportunity to watch primitive agricultural methods and to meet people who hardly saw any 'whites' before.
Inla lake: The tour in the lake is organized by the local tourist centre, and costs 9 FECs (? I'm not sure about the exact prices). Even if you take private tours, you'll still be taken first thing to the tourist centre to pay the visitor fee. Make sure you take a tour (if possible) on a day when there's a floating market in Ywama (only once or twice a week - is it on Wednesdays ?). Although there were 1 or 2 boats in the market with souvenirs for the tourists in them, most people around were genuine locals, trading fruits and veges. Exciting ! During the tour you will also see the fisherman that raw the boats with their feet, watch the 'floating fields' and visit 'the monastery of the jumping cats'.
back to Yangon: Hired for 40$ a car+driver to Thazi - mid way between Inla Lake and Pagan, and on the main route from Yangon to Mandalay. Unlike on the way north, buying the train ticket back to Yangon you have two options - paying 27$ for a first class, or 9$ for 2nd - not very comfortable for a night train, but saves some money. By the way - unlike in other Asian countries - we felt totally secure in the second class and could fall asleep without worrying about our belongings disappearing overnight.
Yangon: The capital city has very little to offer to the tourist. The main (and only ?) attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda , which is very beautiful and impressive. Locals enter for free, tourists pay 5$. Yangon also has many markets with great bargains for those who must bring some presents to the friends back home...
This is it. I hope my dying memory didn't cause me to give too much false information, and hopefully it'll be at least an initial Internet guide to Burma until other travellers who had been there more recently will post their impressions. As I said before, Ill be happy to answer by e-mail any questions anyone might have about the country (my current address is firstname.lastname@example.org , though in 5 weeks I'm off to Asia again :-).
Enjoy your trip !