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.
Yagon city hall surrounding a nice central park
Nicely restored colonial building on a another side of the central park
Much less love paid to the other side of the nicely restored colonial building – the car entryway now fenced off and a mere shadow of its former glory
Temples galore surrounding the main temple in Yangon
Tea shops are all over Myanmar – fun to get the tasty tea with snacks in the afternoon – this one at the train station… note the tiny chairs and tables, which are also used in Vietnam.
Monsoon-like downpour hit during the second half of our circle train ride (taking a train around the suburbs of Yangon has become a tourist thing to do)
Another decrepit colonial building in Yangon – this picture doesn’t show how run-down the building was – and amazingly people were inside, it was still being used (but for what, we rather not know)!
All women and nearly all men wear what they call a “Longi” vs. pants or shorts.
Typical Yangon downtown street
Yangon apartments along the downtown street
The apocalyptic train ticket booths – ticket doesn’t show how creepy it was. At least there’s a way to voice your complaints.
The main pagoda at night
Main pagoda with sun going down
The local train we were on was a bit nicer than this other train
Typical Myanmar meal -veggies, meats, rice – tasty but flavors totally unique
Another pagoda – as our guidebook says “not every city has a 2,000 year-old structure as a traffic circle”
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.
When kids try to sell you stuff, make them jump for pictures instead!
Jen’s brilliant jumping distraction tactic in action again. We had a lot of fun, and the kids did too 🙂
The tallest pagoda in Bagan
Breakfast setting at our hotel – so nice to stay in fairly nice hotels that include breakfast for cheap!
Bagan temples EVERYWHERE – makes for really pretty landscape
“The crown jewel” of the Bagan temples – built towards the end of the peak of the civilization in the 13th century
The largest temple in Bagan – the inside halls were massive
Hotel pool with temple in the background – good way to cool during the HOT mid-day temps
Bagan temple close to the river that you used to be able to climb to the top level, but now closed off – bummer
Jen bought a longi for visiting temples – you have to cover shoulders and knees, so taking it on and off is best way to stay cool. Here local teens came over to help Jen put it on properly
Watching sunset from atop a temple
From our bus to hotel via a local taxi (i.e., the back of a pickup – it was actually really comfortable)
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.
Day 2 hike – looking down at Kalaw from a local temple, with Myanmar-style dragons
Day 1 hike, lunch spot
Our hiking guide dropping off origami presents at our hotel to compensate for taking a wrong turn in a tea plantation – he was awesome, so nice!
Central temple in Kalaw
Shan noodles – dish found throughout Myanmar but originated in the Shan states (Shan is an ethnic group of people, Kalaw is within the Shan states)
View from hiking
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!
Festival hall along Inle Lake
Traditional “long neck” woman – the rings are crazy heavy
Lucky to catch a festival for full moon – this one of many boats, each powered by a Inle lake village, that make-up a “parade of boats”
The royal boat that is the last boat in the parade
Myanmar venice – boats are used along the canals, no roads
“Leaping Cat” temple – with its namesake paying tribute to a statue
The boats that swarm Inle Lake, here waiting in the main town closest to the lake
Hot springs near the lake – nice 45 minute bike ride from town
Part of the festival, small, seemingly makeshift “parade” of 8 or so men and an elephant, going through town
The fish was so good – all this was less than $8
Home on the lake – a little boy poking his head through a window to check us out
We thought the town would be a lot cleaner, being touristy and close to the lake, but its downtown streets, especially after a rain storm here, are not too nice.
Myanmar vineyard – wines not amazing, but certainly good enough and views were great
Candles as part of the festival, a lot of homes and shops getting decked out like this
Vineyard with some workers leaving for the day
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.