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Myanmar, The Golden Land

I was sitting on the plane to Yangon, excited about upcoming adventure in Myanmar. As plane approached the land, I was anxiously looking out of the window looking at flat land with lots of green paddies, very few roads or signs of industrial development. Then first buildings of Yangon emerged from behind clouds as plane entered the final stage of approach. Few more minutes and plane has touched down. It is October 19th 2012 15:00, Friday afternoon local time.

Burma, also known as Myanmar is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. One-third of Burma’s total perimeter of 1,930 kilometres (1,200 mi) forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. At 676,578 km2 (261,227 sq mi), it is the 40th largest country in the world and the second largest country in Southeast Asia. Burma is also the 24th most populous country in the world with over 60.28 million people. (source: Wikipedia)

Immigration procedure went fast and smooth, literally from getting off plane till leaving airport it was less than 20 minutes. It is good idea to change US Dollars to local Kyats on airport. As it turned out, the best conversion rate is available on airport. One thing that is important to note, only nice clean and unmarked USD bank notes are accepted throughout the country.

Burmese woman with tanaka

Burmese woman with tanaka


I had first glance of the surrounding during 30 minutes taxi drive to the hotel. First thing that strikes me, is the complete lack of bicycles and m motorbikes on the road which is something unheard of in South-East Asia. As I learn later, this is true only for Yangon, not the rest of the country and only government officials are allowed to use motorbike in the city area. Another interesting thing is, that cars drive on right side of the road here, however driver seat is on right side too. So it feels like driving English car in lets say USA or Europe.

Most of the buildings are quite run down which gives the place  a kind of magic charm of the past but streets are fairly clean. Men wear traditional Burmese longyi, which is a sheet of cloth widely worn in Myanmar. Females are mostly dressed in the htamein, one of the traditional dresses of Burmese women. It is very simple, yet it looks nice and girls, similar to Vietnamese, look way more feminine than in other countries. Most of the people, especially women, children and youth have thanaka on the faces.  Lots of the people, but mostly men chew betel. Betel nut is ubiquitous in Myanmar. Many people chew betel incessantly, despite half-hearted government attempts to curb the practice, or at least to stop the spitting associated with chewing. The streets are covered with big red blotches because, when locals finish chewing their quids, they hawk red gobs and streams of juice onto the roads and walkways, permanently staining the concrete.

Thanaka is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. It is a distinctive feature of Myanmar (formerly Burma) seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls and to a lesser extent men and boys. The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand. (source: Wikipedia)

I caught up with a friend Nyi Joe. He was kind enough to buy bus tickets to Bagan since it was scheduled for next morning. After a dinner and short grocery shopping I am back to hotel for early start tomorrow morning. First impressions are very positive. People are very kind and smiling. Apart from place where we had dinner I didn’t see any tourists. It feels great.

Bagan

Boy with his horse

Boy with his horse in Bagan

Bus ride to Bagan was long. There is a long debate about whether to use bus or local airline supported by government. Facts are that bus is much cheaper but entire day is lost. Distances are big, roads are not up to western standards and trip can have many unplanned breaks as I learned later. You have to make the call. I opted for bus  as I was also on the budget. The bus turned out to be faulty. The engine was overheating and it had to be cooled down with water from rivers, lakes or puddles about every 20-30km. Eventually after few phone calls they managed to send another bus. But it was little too late to make up for lost time. Bus arrived to Bagan in complete darkness, even though it was only 7pm. To clarify things, the bus arrives to the biggest village called Nyaung U ina Bagan area. This is where most of the restaurants, hotels and guest houses are. There is also Old Bagan and New Bagan. All these are about 5km apart from each other so it is easy to cover that distance on bicycle, horse carriage, taxi or even on foot.

Weather in Bagan is hot. It feels like being closed in the oven right from early morning. There is not a single cloud on the sky. Day starts with short stroll to the local market which is actually quite big. It is definitely not designed for tall guys like myself. It rather feels like walking in the cave with all the stalls are cramped together with fabric sheet cover on the top. I have to bend a lot to be able to walk underneath. Looks like any other market in Asia which means it is interesting to me. Until I cross to the “souvenir section”. Mistake. It is too late to escape now. Vultures spot the prey and they are right on me. I somehow managed to stay of their interest but friend that was with me had no such a luck. We are pulled to the right, to the left….”come to my shop, looking is free”. I thought I am used to this from other Asian countries but I never thought how aggressive it can get. I though the local ladies just pushed the whole thing to the new level.

Budhist monk from bagan

Budhist monk from bagan

It’s time to explore the surroundings and temples. That is ultimately the reason to visit Bagan. Probably the best way to do it is to rent a bicycle. What can I say, only blind can miss temples of Bagan. There is hundreds of them. The first one on the list is the biggest biggest one in Nyaung U, the Swezigon Paya. Not knowing the direction I came to pagoda from “back door”. No problem for local ladies to spot me though. I was waved at to come in. No problem, they will look after shoes (not allowed in pagodas) and bicycles “for free”. Of course there is nothing for free. I knew what I will have to go through once I come out. There was no other way though and I have to chew this through.

Nuns collecting alms

Every morning nuns and monks come out to the streets to collect alms

The main pagoda is beautiful, painted in gold which nicely contrasting with blue sky. Young monk novices as well as old ones are walking around accepting morning offerings. The pagoda is relatively quiet at this relatively early hour. It still has the magic charm but it was soon to be filled by more tourists. On the way out, exactly as I expected, I was welcomed by “our” ladies offering me a little chair to rest. It was conveniently turned towards all the souvenirs. I knew I have to buy something. Bargaining is not my nature and I don’t really enjoy it and I decided to go through this as quickly as possible. Picking a little decorated bamboo box I was ready to pay and leave, but the kept filling it with bunch of other souvenirs. They just couldn’t get that I want only the box. After I finally managed to escape I continued riding bike towards Old Bagan. I visited few temples on the way but sun was baking really hard and I decided to pick only the major pagodas, stupas or temples. As there are literally hundreds of them it is simply not possible to visit them all. My bicycle was too small for me and after I first time used the rear brake it stayed half locked so I had extra resistance to fight with. Just as sunset was approaching it was time to look for a spot to take good sunset pictures that Bagan is famous for. The place I found wasn’t a great one but sunset was approaching fast so I decided to stay. After it was over there was still 4-5 km bike ride back to the hotel. That last leg was though, hot sun and half broken bike sucked out the rest of the energy from me and I was back to the hotel completely wasted. Generally it is not smart to go out during middle of the day. Sun is just too strong and from photographic point of view even the beautiful temples of Bagan look flat and uninteresting in harsh light.

Swezigon pagoda

Swezigon pagoda is the biggest golden pagoda in Bagan area


The next day I moved to another hotel. I dropped a class but saved half of the price from previous one too. Short morning stroll to the river was refreshing and I had good time and chat with local family while sipping the coke and looking at surroundings. There were lots of scenes to photograph. Nuns in pink clothing going out to collect the offerings, women bathing in the river, horse carriages and generally family life to be observed right on the street. Afternoon I stumbled upon pagoda where I could climb up and have pretty good view over the Bagan temple area. I thought it is quite good spot for sunset viewing. I met a local painter Aung Aung who showed me around. Since I still had some time I went on exploring some other places but later on I returned and claimed my spot up in the pagoda. Few other tourists gathered there too but it was not crowded so the whole experience was pleasant. I didn’t have my tripod nor ND filters so I was heavily relying on the dynamic range my camera can produce. As it turned out later it was rather impressive (I mean dynamic range of the file).

Kids from Bagan

Kids from Bagan are very camera friendly


If you visit Bagan you will be constantly being offered a horse carriage which takes you to places of interests as locals know quite well what most of the tourists want to see. I politely kept refusing them. I really do not like bicycle as form of transportation but in this case I opted for it as it gives me the freedom to go where I want and for how long I want. Bugging the driver to stop here and there all the time seemed to me pointless. Also there is lot to discover just by walking on the streets. And I encourage everybody to do that. It is good idea to turn into some smaller side streets where there is more likely to find some good photographic opportunities as well as get more immersed into local lifestyle. And there is more chance to interact with people this way. Tourism industry is still very young in Myanmar however people quickly learned the value of tourist dollar. Occasionally you will be asked for “donations” or “money present”, also little change for exchange for photographs. This happens across Asia and I assume other parts of the world. The moral story is up to you to judge but it is generally not a good idea to give money or candies to children. Easy income in form of money can keep them out  of school. With no dental care in place the sweets can do a lot of harm in long term. If so it is good idea to give them different presents and they are appreciated like hair clips for girls, balloons, pens and notebooks. On this morning I discovered a pagoda that looked like dupplicate of the one from previous day. It had almost exactly same shape and floor plan as well as access to the top. In fact there was a local boy who joined me and led me to it. I met a monk there trying to talk to me in broken english. He said something like he foreseen that me and my friend will come and visit the pagoda and such. It sounded quite funny. He smiled from ear to ear showing his teeth in horrible condition, probably from chewing betel

Maung Maung Suu

Maung Maung Suu, the face of my trip in Myanmar

I have to mention the hotel Eden where I stayed and lovely Mr Maung Maung Suu. I really have to give a lot of credit to this uncle. He runs the hotel, always smiles and he is an extremely kind and helpful person. Anybody who visits Bagan or rather Nyaung U and are after budget accommodation, I can recommend Eden hotel. I will miss mr Maung, but it is time to move to the next stage of the trip.

Inle lake

The bus ride to Inle took about 8 hrs. This time there were no unexpected breaks although on one occasion they had to cool the engine down with a hose. This happened during regular break though. There were 4 young monk novices on the bus. They were definitely not used to it. Two of them got sick and I felt for the fellows. It was quite though ride when crossing the mountain range between Inle and Bagan area. Bus climbed quite high and road was winding with hundreds of sharp turns. Not easy even on seasoned traveler’s stomach as bus’ suspension was quite soft and it felt like being on the ship during the storm.

Bus reached Nyaung Swe village near Inle lake still in daylight. I checked into the hotel and went for first exploration. I noticed already from bus this area was definitely more “modernized” also with signs of industrial development on the way. Along with development came dirt and trash on the streets. As Bagan was quite clean, Inle is not so clean….there is lots of rubbish on the streets and it is very noisy as well. There is Festival of Lights going on so there are many markets and big crowds around. Youth is not dressed in longhyi any more as they wear jeans, have fancy hairstyles and they play “macho game”. Actually my first impression of the place is not the best and all of the sudden I miss the peacefulness of Bagan and mr Maung’s smile.

Fishermen village on Inle lake

Fishermen village on Inle lake

It is much cooler here during the night. Lake is about in 850m altitude and I feel it. Especially during breakfast on the hotel’s roof it was quite chilli until first sun rays started to peek out from behind mountains. Whole lake area is surrounded by mountains which keep out all the clouds. Sky above lake is crystal clear. as there is no plan about what to do I stroll down to jetty and hire a boat. I learn there will be a Buddhist “boat”procession on the lake later and I didn’t want to miss it. As I said that nights are cooler, the sun is as strong during the day as in Bagan. Even more so as sun rays reflect on the water surface giving them more strength.

Boats for hire are small narrow motorized sampans. They are very common here in various sizes. The ones for transporting tourist have 4 to 5 chairs with soft cushions and umbrellas to protect against the sun. Too much luxury I thought. It cost about 18000 kyats for a day and you get to see the life on the lake, visit fishermen villages and other places of interest. Inle lake is famous for Intha people living around and from the lake. Their distinct rowing style with using a leg made them famous but in the age of motorised transportation is nearly instinct. I got a feeling it is kept alive only as a tourist attraction.There are few other interesting places on the lake to visit. Firs to all the big market where you can see the locals selling and buying various goods. There is a weaving workshop where clothes are made from fabric which is waved from threads they produce from lotus flowers. Next one is the cigar making workshop. All these places give you a good insight into local way of life. Even though it is getting quite a tourist attraction, it is still worthwhile to visit. There are also few bigger villages on the lake with restaurants that mostly cater for tourists. These villages are like small city with waterways and smaller sidewise canals. Most of the buildings and huts built on poles. There is very little and most of the places are actually floating islands made of lake vegetation. Also the shores of the lake are not distinct. It rather turns into something like swamp or rice field and then it gradually blends into firm soil.

Fisherman from Inle lake

Fisherman from Inle lake in Myanmar perform traditional fishing technique

Today is the last day of Paya Pwe, The Festival of lights. Boats with tourists and locals are lining up to observe the procession of dragon boats and big golden bark. As local police patrol makes the way I spot the dragon boats slowly approaching. Each of the boats has different colour and decoration as well as differently dressed rowers. I assume, each boat represents a village on or near the lake. Big golden bark comes last and it is followed by army of curious onlookers.

There are few places around Nyaung Swe to visit. There is hot spring nearby where you can relax although with hundreds of people trying to get in 3 tiny pools I skipped. Also the prices seemed to raise a lot compared to 2011 (source Lonely Planet) in some places by 100%. This is true also for hotels food and other services. There is winery nearby and Inle resort which you can get inside and have a look on the lake from pier. It looked deserted (no wonder for that price tag). Built for wealthy tourist it was absolutely uninspiring for me though. Personally I prefer to explore villages or go on lake again. Late afternoon boat trip can be nice especially with possibility to stay on lake and watch the sunset from boat. Visiting a fishermen village is a nice experience. As boat slows down and engine runs more quietly you can enjoy the tranquillity of the place. Water is calm almost like mirror only disturbed occasionally by people paddling little sampans. Huts are neatly organised into rows and “streets”. It is quiet, clean like from other world. Occasionally we are greeted by kids who are waving at passing boats.

First time since I landed in Myanmar I saw clouds rolling in and storm was brewing. Temperature dropped significantly, clear skies disappeared behind cloud cover and soon wind turned the smooth lake surface into choppy seas. As it got darker it looked the storm is eminent. All boats, with locals as well as tourists rushed to the jetty or home. Storm somehow avoided Nyaung Swe.  People, mostly youth prepared for big concert right next to our hotel to officially close the festive season.

Motorised sampan heading to Inle lake

Motorised sampan heading to Inle lake just as storm is brewing


Early morning boat ride is the best to see fishermen. This time they were real ones too but they style of fishing seemed to be different to those who performed the traditional way of fishing. Times are changing everywhere and Myanmar is not an exception. The “leg” paddling is still present though but motorised transportation is the future. Hope this tradition will not go instinct completely.

Back to Yangon

The overnight bus to Yangon leaves at 5:00pm from junction about 30 min drive from Nyang Swe. As the time of departure came closer the skies got dark once more and this time there was a downpour. I got little wet and first time since I arrived I felt little cold. Bus to Yangon was a little late but eventually it arrived about 20 min late which I thought is not that bad. It is generally very cold in overnight bus. It felt like being closed in fridge. I am sure aircon inside bus ran on 200% capacity. As in previous bus trips, the continuous stream of local cheesy love songs with volume bumped up all the way was the main “in-flight” entertainment. With couple of break on the way the bus reached Yangon pretty much on time. It seems that generally buses have regular problems with overheating. Once again major stops they cooled down the engine with water.

Burmese women lighting sticks

Burmese women lighting sticks at Swedagon pagoda before her prayers


It is a good idea to book a hotel in Yangon ahead. Most hotels a re expensive and cheap ones fill up quick. I had no booking and I relied on luck. I was about to fly off just after midnight but spending another 20 hours in Yangon with big backpack and without shower was not a good idea. I put my bet on YMCA but they were full. Weather is very hot even more so when caring heavy luggage. It seemed really hard to find a hotel or guest house. I nearly accepted the reality of next 20 hours sweaty and tired when I noticed a guy that I saw on one of buses to Yangon. Thanks to him I got directions to  Mahabandoola Guest House near Sule Pagoda. As mentioned on Lonely Planet with warning to be used only as last resort. This was the last resort so I got a very shabby basic run down room for $10. Still I thought it is God sent. Refreshed and showered I dropped  to Bokyok market to change some USD to Kyats as I run of money. Unfortunately it was early morning so everything was closed. Finally I managed to change some at Central Hotel but it was for very bad rate. I was desperate, and hungry so I changed 20 USD and went back to guest house to get some sleep.

Novice monk at Swedagon pagoda

Novice monk at Swedagon pagoda in Yangon watching sunset


A must visit spot in Yangon is famous Shwedagon Pagoda. It is Sunday so it is no surprise it is full of tourists and locals alike. Admission fee is $5 for foreigners it is well worth it. This pagoda is huge, 99m high and simply stunning. Especially late afternoon as sun gets lower in the sky and gets dark the golden shape nicely stands out against dark blue sky. Later it gets lit up and it is nicely glowing in golden orange colours.

Swedagon pagoda

Swedagon pagoda after sunset


The time of departure is getting closer and holiday is nearly at its end. Surprisingly I didn’t have to pay departure fee which was mentioned in Local planet.  Waiting for the plane I realised how little I saw from Myanmar and there is so much more to see and discover. But I go home with great deal of experience and hope to get back to Myanmar again. Shortly after midnight I boarded the plane and as it took of I observed lights of Yangon, the biggest city in Golden Land, disappearing in the dark.

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  1. November 4, 2012 at 6:48 am
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