Our next adventure was Myanmar (formerly Burma). Because of the military dictatorship in the past, there weren’t many Western tourists here until the past few years, when Democratic elections began. We wanted to see the rapidly developing new darling of Southeast Asia before it succumbs to Western tourism.
But we almost didn’t make it in the country, due to visa issues. After booking flights a month or so ago, our plan was to get visas in Chiang Mai, by having the passports sent to Bangkok via courier. When we arrived in Chiang Mai, the travel agents advised that we try the online eVisa instead. From our research, the brand new online system had gotten good reviews and other travelers had gotten their visas within less than the promised five days. We coughed up the $50 USD each for the online visas, but the day before our flight, the visas had not arrived. At 5 pm the day before the flight (the fifth business day), our online status changed from “pending” to “approved” visas…but still no email with the official visa letter. Because it was the weekend, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to get ahold of anyone from Myanmar immigration.
Then there was the issue of whether we boarded a flight to Myanmar without the visa. We decided to take the flight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok, and try to convince the Air Asia attendants to let us on the flight to Yangon, Myanmar. In Bangkok, they informed us that they wouldn’t let us on the flight without the approval letter, as someone in our situation had been sent back to Thailand at the Yangon airport a few days before. Luckily, the email with the visa letter came through while we were standing at the Air Asia counter in Bangkok! Saved by the email a few hours before our fight. At least it was a happy end to a stressful part of our trip.
Arriving in Yangon, we were surprised that it felt more like a chaotic and dirty Indian city than a developing city in Southeast Asia. Myanmar also has a hotel shortage, due to the recent backpacker influx, so the accommodation was not great for the price point. However, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was amazing – 2000 years old, covered in gold leaf and topped with diamonds in a huge compound. We met a girl from Colorado who is teaching English in Yangon on our flight, and met up with her for the pagoda and drinks! However, we were sad to miss our friend Kyaw, who works in Myanmar.
Bagan was up next. Reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan is covered with thousands of temples built by a civilization whose prime lasted ~200 years spanning the 11th and 12th century. But unlike Angkor, the preservation, excavations, and renovations performed in the late 19th and 20th century were performed under a military government and often not historically accurate nor well done. The cost of this was never obtaining UNESCO World Heritage status. Nonetheless, there are over 3,000 temples, many large, many more small, and a dozen or so impressive and definitely worth a visit.
From Bagan we made our way to Kalaw, a backpacker friendly town at the top of a mountain pass, known for its hiking. We found a great guide and enjoyed two day hikes in the surrounding mountains with him.
Inle lake, at the bottom of the mountains from Kalaw, is a small town and big lake that have been inhabited for thousands of years. We took an all-day boat tour with an international crew we met the night before, and saw villages, temples, markets, tourist shops, and even a local festival parade, all along the lake and rivers. Apparently over 100,000 people live on the lake – amazing!
We left just one full day in Mandalay, which we used to see the big sites. The highlight is a palace at the center of a 2-km by 2-km moat in the middle of the city, leftover from the last emperor in the mid-1900’s, and Mandalay hill and surrounding temples on one of the moat’s corners.
Overall, we enjoyed the incredibly friendly faces in Myanmar, and it was interesting to see a country that is not Westernized or changed by tourism. The people by far were the highlight. They were so friendly, so warm and welcoming. When you smile or give a little wave, in no other country do you receive back so many wide smiles and enthusiastic waves.