Friday, February 01, 2013

How I Backpacked Through Myanmar

Before I made my way to North Korea, I paid a visit to another country with an equally tremulous political past. It was Myanmar, the land of a thousand temples. Fortunately, Myanmar has recently made impressive strides away from tyranny and towards democracy, which would allow tourists like us the opportunity to see this amazing land. 

I carried a physical Lonely Planet book this time since it was hard to find internet on the ground. Myanmar  Beer was very good. 
Similar to North Korea, Myanmar used to be a country where tourism was actively discouraged. Now that the government has become more democratic, Myanmar is one of the hottest spots for tourism. So much so that supply has not been able to keep up with demand and access for tourists into the country has been impeded by the lack of flights and hotels. I decided to take a backpack and do it myself during the low season. Compared to North Korea, it was easy to do Myanmar independently despite that there are still no ATMs and barely any internet access. Below are some of my favorite experiences in Myanmar . 

My top experiences 

  • Seeing the thousand temples in Bagan

    • This is simply the most breath taking view I have ever witnessed in my life. Climbing up onto an thousand year old pagoda and look out into the distance and see nothing but a thousand more pagodas in the horizon is unreal. With no other tourists around, you feel as if you were transported back in time. The king of Bagan built over 10,000 Buddhist temples during 11th century to 13th century and made his city a Mecca for buddists. It is also partly because of this that the kingdom eventually collapsed, given the debts incurred by the building extravagance. It was a classical story of a nation being over-levered on debt that eventually collapsed on itself. Sounds familiar? 
    You can get this view by climbing on top of pretty much any pagoda
    There were no fences, railings or other tourist infrasctures. Everything was untouched and raw
      Very windy...
  • Getting ripped off in Bagan
    • On my first day to Bagan, I was lost in thought while admiring a pagoda by myself on top of a half ruined wall. I was surprised when I looked down and saw a lone Burmese man looking up at me. I was even more surprised by his surprisingly good command of English. He told me that he was a artist who came into the pagoda to copy the murals from inside the pagodas to replicate as paintings 
    • I thought it must have been fate that brought me face to face with this esteemed artist in the middle of nowhere in Bagan, so I asked him to show me his paintings if it pleased him. He gladly agreed and was extremely kind to show me all of his sand paintings whiling telling the stories behind them. Eventually, he even allowed me to purchase one of the paintings. I was quiet honored. So then I went happily on my way to explore the next Pagoda, where I saw a whole row of such artists sitting there selling the exact same painting for 1/20 of the price that I paid for... 
    • Sand paintings...
    • I thought I learned my lesson but then I ended up buying a bunch of post cards from very cute little kids later which was extremely overpriced as well... 
  • Being fanned in Mandalay and seeing all the monks 
    • Mandalay was the last royal capital of the independent Burma. It has been the center of Burmese culture throughout the colonial days until today.  There is still a heavy colonial influence in the city; so I was sitting there in this restaurant by myself, and this Burmese waiter came behind me, stood there, and started fanning me with these large banana leaf fans, just like a scene out of Burmese Days by George Orwell. It was a pretty surreal experience but I wasn't complaining.... 
    • I saw the most numbers of monks in Mandalay in my life. They were everywhere, especially in the mornings walking on the streets going from door to door to collect alms. This was a way for Burmese people to earn merit by offering food or money to the monks. 
    • This this what they look like when collecting alms but they're actually lining up for lunch in this picture
  • Horse wiping poo all over my face
    • I was sitting next to the driver in the back of a horse driven cart touring some ruins in Mandalay. 
    • The horse was nonchalantly pooping while trotting along. It didn't really bother me since there was a basket tied behind his butt that caught all his poop, which I thought was pretty clever. 
    • Pretty clever that is, until the drive whipped the horse causing the horse to tense up and flick his tail. All the sudden, I felt all these "stuff" splashing onto my face. Turns out that the horse tail has been brushing back and forth along this poop basket and now with this flick, my face was covered with horse poop as well. It didn't seem to bother the horse drive tho....
    • My horse cart driver
      Nice view while getting a face full of horse poo 
  • Fisherman in Inle lake 
    • The fisherman in the Inle lake were unlike any other that I have seen. They have a special rowing technique. Instead of rowing with their arms, they row with one leg wrapped around the ore, with the other leg balanced in the boat. That way their arms are free to engage the nets and other things. It was quiet a spectacular sight. 
    • One of the many fisherman in the lake
      This will be a rare sight soon as the boats become motorized 
  • Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon 

    • One of the biggest pagoda in the world is located in Yangon. It has also existed for 2600 years which makes it the oldest pagoda in the world as well. It is a impressive sight. For this reason alone, a stay in Yangon is absolutely required. 
    • It is still very much in use today
      There's apparently diamonds at the top
  • Car rides and life in Myanmar

    • I had the pleasure of being inside some truly interesting cars while in Myanmar. Here are some pictures. 
    • Door handles are an unnecessary luxury 
      Actual pad lock on the glove compartment...
        The shuttle bus I took to the airport

    • It was very interesting to walk around Yangon and imagine what it might become. 
    • One of the main streets in Yangon
      This was the nicer neighborhood too
    • It was really interesting that most people in Myanmar still don't wear pants. I bought a set of longyis to fit in. 
    • The locals were really happy when I wore it

Recomended books - Burmese Days by George Orwell. This was an earlier work by George Orwell before he wrote the likes of 1984 and Animal Farm. He was definitely not as an mature writer, but it was still a fascinating read nonetheless. What's more interesting is that, scenes from the book, even tho it was written in the 1920s, still can be witnessed in Myanmar today since the country hasn't progressed much under the military regime for the past 80 or so years. 

How to plan Myanmar
For a introductory tour of Myanmar, it is necessary to visit 4 cities. Yangon in the South, and Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake in the North. International flights typically land in Yangon, with a few flying into Mandalay from Kunming, China. AirAsia runs cheap flights from Bangkok to Yangon.  To travel domestically, you could travel by bus or train if you are on a budget. Or, you could take domestic flights around the 4 cities. When I was there, it was not possible to buy tickets from outside of Myanmar, so you would have to contact a domestic Myanmar travel agency and ask them to book your flights for you. Once you land at the Yangon international airport, a rep would meet you and hand over your vouchers. 

It is extremely important to bring almost new US dollars with no folds or creases that was issued after 2006. They won't take anything with any slight fold.  Money change used to be a significant problem because of a official rate and a black market rate. It is no longer a problem, the money exchange at the airports are fair and efficient. There is, however, still no international ATMs.

I relied on my Lonely Planet for hostel/hotel recommendations but despite being published in 2012, the prices were completely already out of date. So my best suggestion is for anyone who's targeting to visit to do some more research on the internet for the most up to date information. 

Feel free to send me a message if you need help planning your Myanmar trip. Better go soon before it turns into another Thailand as tourism is expected to double every year..

Other interesting photos 
Hide and seek under the tractor

Public transportation going to work

Long neck people

Village in the middle of a lake

Building roads

Monks go to school just like regular kids


All students wear green as part of the uniform

Spring water shower


Selling potatoes like a boss

I remember this from China where you go to a place to get cooking oil

Pretty comfortable

Pagoda in Mandalay
Local sunblock
Floating farm
Monastery of jumping cats
Some sort of checker game
What people did for interaction before Facebook
I used to do the exact same thing in China about 20 years ago 


Pedro said...

Mate I loved that shit!!!! I am doing a trip in south-east asia starting in 1 week and have 10 days with nothing planned. Do you think it would be worth checking Myanmar? How expensive would that be? Would you be keen to send me an email?
The main things I need to know are the prices of the hotels and food and how to move around. Also where to go during this short period. I absolutely loved the thousand temples and the natives. Probably one of the few people in the world that you can see something so natural and full of culture. Unfortunately will probably not last long.

Have you heard of a beach called Ngapali?

Thankss!! Hope to hear you sooon!

Myanmar tours said...

Great post and beautiful photos.

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