I am spending a period of three and a half months writing a book in Thailand and I needed to leave the country to renew my visa. Rather than a quick one day hop across the border to Cambodia, Laos or Malaysia I thought this was an ideal occasion to visit Myanmar, a country my wife Sharron visited as long ago as 1979.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is in the early stages of what will hopefully culminate in a successful and orderly transition from a Military dictatorship, long ruled by the Generals and their cronies, to a fledgling democracy. It has never been closed to tourists but following the release from house arrest of the prominent dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, the lifting of US trade embargoes and the high profile visits of Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama Myanmar is destined to have a higher profile and attract an ever increasing number of visitors. This is not without reason as it possesses some of the outstanding attractions in Asia such as the Schwedagon Paya Temple Complex in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and the 3,000 plus temples dotting the landscape at Bagan.
Indeed the number of attractions that are available to visit in Myanmar in general and the amount of visits I managed to squeeze into my 9 day/8 night trip in particular is such that a writer’s disclaimer is perhaps in order regarding the title – I was hardly meandering through Myanmar!
I did not want to be distracted from my work in Thailand making a multitude of travel arrangements so I did something I had never done before and I organised a private tour for myself.
After a cursory examination of the Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar downloaded onto my Ipad and an exchange of emails with Sharron I put together an itinerary and set it to 10 incoming Tour Operators in Yangon and two Thai Operators that organised tours to Myanmar. Reliance Tours in Yangon were one of only three (!) that replied and I was impressed with their attention to detail, the content of their reply and recommendations.
And so after obtaining a visa in Bangkok off I flew to Yangon wondering what it would be like having a pre-planned itinerary as well as private cars and guides at my disposal in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay. When travelling from St Petersburg to Beijing as part of an organised group last year I had decided I did not make a very compliant group member so I wondered how this was to work out.
As it happened I discovered as well as individual travellers many small groups of friends and family were doing the same as me and getting everything booked through one agent – hotels, cars, admissions and private guides. And there was one definite advantage. If the guide advised he was coming to the hotel at 8am and I said ‘9 am will do’ before we compromised with 830 I certainly got up and away much earlier without having to worry about where I was going and how I was going to get there!
Yangon was an interesting city of some 4 million inhabitants with a modern and impressive airport terminal and I was met by my guide Khaing Oo Swe and on the drive into the city we passed and stopped outside the home of Aung San Suu Kyi where she remained under house arrest for so long until recently. There is an absence of high rise buildings, plenty of extensive lakes and parks, a lot of run down but still attractive colonial buildings and unusually for Asia (and unlike Mandalay) no motor bikes on the road and local folk lore says it was as a result of an errant motor cyclist colliding with and damaging one of the general’s cars that led to all motor bikes being banned from the city! It is also a city that goes to bed early so one is best advised to find a restaurant by 830pm to be assured of eating.
One of the immediately distinctive features of Myanmar was that many of the men appear to wear what initially look like long skirts known as a Longyi. They are in fact a sheet of cloth, worn by both men and women but when men wear the garment, it may resemble a skirt (similar to a kilt in Scotland) It is tied around the waist and runs all the way down to the ankles although sometimes it is folded up to the knees for extra comfort.
Khaing Oo Swe spoke good English, had travelled extensively in South East Asia and Europe and was a pleasant and amusing companion for the two days we spent exploring Yangon and its surrounds. Furthermore he introduced me to the ‘academic’ concept of ‘Dark’ Tourism as he was preparing a paper on the subject. Apparently Dark Tourism is where people are attracted to sites such as 9/11, Dachau, and the Catacombes in Paris (all of which I had visited in recent years without thinking I was either being attracted to or revealing a black or macabre side of my personality) but which could also be extended to Battlefields and ‘Jack the Ripper’ and ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ themed tours.
After a lifetime in the travel industry I was initially rather sceptical of this as just being academic ‘fluff’ as fully 50% of visitor attractions in some countries are to sites connected with history/memorials/battlefields but I read with interest a paper that Khaing gave me on the subject prepared by the University of Lancaster and whilst this might be unconventional reading for a visit to Myanmar I came to see that the genre certainly had some credibility as a legitimate field of study!
There is a lot to see in Yangon but the Jewel in the Crown without doubt is the Schwedagon Paya complex with a never ending collection of gold leafed temples and Buddhas surrounding a giant stupa. It is a photographer’s paradise and was to be the first of many temples I visited in Myanmar but each and every one was colourful, interesting and well worth the visit.
The giant reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Paya was very impressive and bigger in scale than the famous reclining Bhuddah at Wat Pho in Bangkok and I was amazed to learn it there were 7 larger Reclining Buddhas in Myanmar. That would make an interesting themed tour!
And at the Botatung Paya, famed for possessing two of Buddha’s hairs one was unusually able to walk around inside the Stupa. And as for Buddha’s hairs I could not help but be reminded of the great Medieval cathedrals in Europe who used religious relics 800 years ago to attract revenue generating pilgrims as I watched the crowds clamouring for a glimpse of the casket!
We also made visits to view the Karaweik Royal floating Barge on Kandawgwi Lake which is certainly visually impressive for what is a relatively recent Floating Restaurant built by a businessman close to the Generals (hence the term ‘Cronies’ so prevalent in Myanmar) and to the National Museum. This latter visit was surprisingly at my request as I am not usually one for Museums, still less guided tours of museums and I tire quickly. But I found this somewhat dark and hot building to be full of interesting exhibits illustrating the history, art works and handicrafts of this diverse nation.
I also spent the best part of a day outside Yangon visiting the Irrawaddy delta town of Thanlyin and the nearby islet temple at Kyauktan so the two and a half days in Yangon had certainly been both full and interesting.
I needed to check out of the hotel at 0430am to make the 0610am flight to Bagan which was never going to be easy and less so when one stays up to 2am watching live premiership football from England but somehow I made it and if anything revealed the fact that Myanmar has been somewhat cut off from the rest of the world it was surely the fact that I was issued an old fashioned paper ticket to take to the airport for the first time in at least 10 years. I could not remember the last time I saw a traditional old fashioned ticket with duplicate page leaves and kept mine a souvenir! I also thought for any airline to use a logo like ‘You’re safe with us’ could be tempting fate but hey, this is a Buddhist country! However the flight was fine and the stewardesses spoke perfect English – straight out of an English finishing school!
I had landed in Bagan by 0730 and after meeting my new guide headed off for the large market at Nyaung Un and then a large and colourful nearby temple complex, the Schwezigon Paya with a myriad of photo opportunities at both.
And then we headed off to our hotel and were immediately immersed in one of the most unusual panoramas I have ever experienced and one of my main reasons for wanting to come to Myanmar.
There are over 3,000 temples and monuments in the Bagan area over an area which apart from four villages is a rural landscape of trees, bushes, field and tracks. There are temples big and small, temples that have been restored (some better than others) on their original sites as well as temples rebuilt at a new location. There are new temples built where temples were assumed to have stood, original temples standing solid whilst others are in urgent need of repair and restoration. Some have described the rushed restoration of some complexes with only a passing nod to the original design and detail as ‘Disneyesque’ but there is no doubt that collectively Bagan provides a memorable and very impressive spectacle of a comparable stature to Machu Pichu, the Pyramids and Angkor Wat.
There are so many temples one cannot hope to see them all and one is continually tempted to stop here and look there at another temple. You stop to visit one and there are another 5 or 6 within a hundred metres!
Many people hire bikes and cycle around and despite the scorching heat I thought that looked a pretty appealing way to explore but there is no doubt my air conditioned car was a quick and convenient way to get to as many temples as I wanted in a relatively comfortable state.
Over the two days I visited 15 of the more famous and better known temples as well as wandering off into the bush on several occasions to find more monuments, stupas and temples to photo. At some we would stop for just 5 or 10 minutes and at others maybe an hour or more and almost all had large seated Buddahs inside the alcoves or interior.
The scale and detail of the sculpture and carving was not as impressive as Angkor Wat but the sheer volume of temples and the way wherever you looked the landscape was dotted with temples made it as equally compelling and interesting a destination to visit.
Some of the more notable temples that I would return to in a heartbeat were Manhua Paya with three seated Buddhas in adjacent Chambers and a giant reclining fourth Buddha extending the width of the temple behind them, Ananda Pahto with four giant Buddhas each with respectful worshipers bowing before them at the north, south, east and west chambers, Thatbyinnyu Pahto the tallest of the 3000 monuments, Dhammayazika Payawhere where it was possible to climb up on the ramparts for spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, the striking Leimyethna Pahto rendered with white plaster, the attractive and ornate Sulamani Pahto and the mysterious huge but squat Dhammayangyi Pahto with its history of death and intrigue.
And it is well worth joining the crowds to climb onto the terraces of Shwesandaw Paya not only for the famed sunsets with the Irrawady in the background but the landscape to the east is magnificent bathed in pre sunset hues with dozens of golden temples wherever you look. Pyathada Paya is another popular sunset temple where we went on our second evening with equally magnificent views and there are always interesting people to meet amongst the crowds and with whom to compare the days explorations.
There were temples inside caves and temples adorned with paintings and frescoes both original and restored and of course most temples attracted T Shirt and Postcard sellers and anything from a single to a dozen stalls selling handicrafts and souvenirs but what a pleasant surprise – people were not pushy or aggressive unlike many parts of Asia. And many of the stall holders, post card sellers just like the market stall vendors and indeed half the females in Myanmar had large dobs of Pastel Yellow colouring on both the cheeks of their face. Personally I did not find it particularly attractive as it resembled a large blob of paint but apparently it is a traditional form of beautification in Myanmar and I did notice some ladies whose Yellow blobs were actually very ornate patterns similar to the leaf pattern you might get on a cappuccino in an up market coffee shop!
Bagan was a delight and I was kept busy and fully occupied because in addition to 16 temples and the market I made a half day visit to Mt Popa about a 90 minute drive away to visit the famous Temple located 777 steps (I only counted 774!) up a former volcanic plug. There was also a famous Nat Shrine at Popa, Nats being spirits that were commonly worshiped in Burma before Buddhism arrived from India. Nats are still honoured and worshipped but play a subservient role to Buddhism.
As we drove back to Bagan my guide pointed out the multitude of groups of children standing along the road even in what seemed to be completely rural area with no villages. Apparently they are waiting for generous motorists to drop a few coins from the car but the government is rightfully trying to stop this tradition as to many kids were being hit by following vehicles when scrambling for coins on the road.
After Bagan it was a days (forced) relaxation as I was taking the famed ‘Slow boat to Mandalay’ or in my case the ‘Maihka’ up the Irrawaddy River. I had been told this would take 9 hours as long as we did not hit any sandbars as the water levels were low which meant another early start leaving the hotel for the transfer to the river bank at 0530. Once on board there were about 35 westeners and estimates for our journey time ran from 11 – 14 hours depending on who had asked which crew member! There was a restaurant which provided a complimentary breakfast of two slices of toast with no butter or jam and a cup of coffee! It also served rice dishes for lunch and instant coffee throughout the day.
The journey was fine with a plentiful supply of comfortable wicker and cane chairs underneath the awning over the upper rear deck or one could sit up front in the sun but facing a nice breeze.
It was chilly for our 0630 departure so I wore three T shirts and after two hours we passed under one of the most spectacular and longest bridges that I have ever seen – we are talking about a major river with extensive flood plains on either side so the bridge must have been a mile and a half long and I suspected dated from the pre war colonial period in style.
There was not much vegetation on either bank for most of the journey and if I had not known I was in Myanmar I would have assumed I was In Egypt and sailing through a desert. Ironically the Nile is actually quite lushly vegetated!
At times a local pilot boat would come out to guide us through the always shifting sandbars but for most of the journey the skipper seemed to manage on his own and we proceeded without mishap passing under the next two bridges at Sagaing at 630pm.I later learnt that the older 16 span bridge here had been sabotaged by the British in the second world war to delay the advance of the Japanese troops in Burma.
And waiting on the river bank when we pulled to in to Mandalay was our local guide who turned out to be a real star. Naing (Nine) Tun Lin had a delightful sense of humour and a degree in history but had also obtained a US government scholarship to spend 18 months in the USA at the Old Dominion University where he had obtained a Master’s degree in linguistics. Norfolk, Virginia and our family has a home in and close connections with Staunton Virginia not much more than a couple of hours from Norfolk.
Furthermore as well as acquainting us with his view on Burmese history we were also able to drive around Mandalay discussing Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War with a local guide well aware of the difference between a pavement and sidewalk as well as a trunk and a boot as far as a car’s storage area concerned!
Despite its colourful and romantic connotations most people find Mandalay to be a rather anonymous city with a population of more than a million, modern anonymous buildings, lots of motor bikes and lots of pollution but nevertheless a city that has a reputation as the cultural centre of Myanmar and one with an outstanding collection of interesting historic attractions to visit although many of them are located in the immediate areas surrounding Mandalay.
After a visit to the Mahamuni Paya Temple with its famous 16ft seated Buddha covered by 6 inches of Gold Leaf applied by faithful pilgrims (no women allowed to touch this Buddha!) over the centuries we headed off to Sagaing just to the south of Mandalay and which we had sailed past the previous evening. On Naings recommendation we departed from the normal circuit to visit the Tha Kya Di Tar Nunnery at Sagaing where we watched 160 shaven headed Nuns all wearing Pink Robes dutifully queue with their lunch bowls for midday rice before fasting the rest of the day and then we drove up and around the Sagaing Hills area which is bedecked by a variety of Temples looking down towards the Irrawaddy River. We stopped at the Kaunghmudaw Paya Temple and bumped into the two young Americans who had been on the same flight from Bangkok and whom I had also met in Bagan and to cap that when I stopped at a local restaurant the only other people eating there was an English Birdwatcher and his wife that I had been talking to on the way to Mt Popa a couple of days earlier.
After lunch we drove to the river bank and took a small boat to cross a tributary of the nearby Irrawaddy and then explored the former capital of Inwa by horse and cart for a couple of hours and our visits included the impressive Bagaya Kyaung wooden Monastery and the large and ‘flat’ Maha Aungmye Bonzan Temple with impressive views back to the Sagaing Bridges.
The horse and cart was not comfortable but this is a de rigour excursion for all who visit Mandalay and it was a fun and scenically attractive ride as we trotted past ruined temples and an abandoned watchtower.
And the day was still not over as we had time to return to Mandalay and drive rather than walk to the top of Mandalay Hill to join the hordes of visitors watching the sunset at the end of a pretty full day although after fortifying myself with a shower I went and visited the nearby Night market dominated by Clothes, Electrical goods, Condoms and Sex Toys. I kid you not. 30 years of isolation meant a lot of time on ones hands I guess!
If anything my second day in Mandalay was even fuller than the first but a congenial guide, a private car and stops as required to buy cold water meant the day was never a burden in the slightest as everything was interesting and well worth seeing.
After an obligatory stop at an interesting Handicraft workshop (‘we have to stop but you don’t have to buy anything’) we headed to our third former capital just outside Mandalay, this time Amarapura where we visited the Maha Ganayon Kyaung Monastery to watch over 1000 Maroon cloaked Monks dutifully queue up for lunch. This is another of the attractions on just about everyone’s itinerary and I bumped into the Forex trader I had been chatting to on the boat to Mandalay.
The roles that Monks play in Myanmar (where they took a leading role in opposing the Generals) and Thailand is fascinating as it is the responsibility of the local communities to feed Monks, some of whom are monks for life and others for years or months. So it is quite a responsibility for the volunteers from the local community to come in (on a rota?) and cook for a thousand monks every day! Naing had suggested I might want to pass on the Monastery visit and go the less well known and perhaps more photogenic nunnery but I think going to both was fine and after 90 minutes wandering around and exploring the Monastery before ‘feeding time’ we headed off to cross Taungthaman Lake on the narrow wooden U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world so the guidebooks trumpet!. It was a very pleasant walk with nice views of the surrounding lakeshore activities and with plenty of snacks available en route including deep fried smoked rats!
After lunch at a nearby upmarket Thai restaurant (that did not serve Thailands national dish Pad Tai – go figure!) it was back to Mandalay for a visit to the Fort, (occupied by the Japanese Army in World War 2 and the Myanmar Army today) with its long never ending walls stretching over a mile and a half on each side and protected by a large moat. Our reason for passing into the Fort was to visit the impressively rebuilt but almost deserted Royal Palace complex within but as Naing badly twisted his ankle when stumbling over the rocks to take a picture of me I was left to explore the Palace on my own which was fine and my preference as I could concentrate on taking pictures rather than listen to facts I would soon forget.
There was still time to visit Schwenandaw Kyaung, the relocated wooden Golden Palace monastery with ornate carvings and Kuthodaw Paya, a temple complex containing 729 white stupas each holding a marble tablet with hand carved script on both sides of Buddha’s teachings. There are another 1774 Slabs and Stupas at the nearby Sandamuni Paya where I stopped to take some photos and together tourists are told these 2,500 plus stupas add up to be ………….’the world’s biggest book’!
Late afternoon and our day was far from over as we went down to the main river bank and Naing commandeered a twin decked excursion boat that could comfortably carry 150 passengers to take us on the hours journey up river to Mingun where we arrived as the last of the other visitors were preparing to depart which was fine as we had the small riverside village to ourselves although there was no time to climb the giant unfinished stupa. The scale of this cracked and unfinished structure was certainly impressive.
Naing rested his swollen ankle whilst I headed off to view the Mingun Bell, apparently the world’s largest hanging and unbroken bell and just because Naing said there would not be time to get there I got to the Hsinbyume Stupa in time to watch the sunset over the surrounding padi fields and settlements. I guess the reason he was not so keen for me to go was because it would delay the return boat trip to dusk with the ever present concern about grounding on a sand bar.
It would have been impossible to have packed more into my two days in Mandalay and I got to most of the well-known attractions and plenty more as well.
Indeed when I went for dinner at the nearby Unity Restaurant for the third successive night (why quit when you are ahead – the food was excellent and inexpensive) I felt I could not have had a more comprehensive introduction to Myanmar and its friendly people and rich treasure trove of attractions.
And what did I make of Myanmar?
Before I went people told me prices were ever increasing, hotels are overpriced and the quality of hotel accommodation is poor in comparison with Thailand and Malaysia.
Expecting the worst I was pleasantly surprised. I thought the hotels I used were centrally located, clean, had helpful and friendly staff and were similar to French two star hotels and probably in the $25 – $40 a night price range.
And talking of friendly staff I have never in my life had a car door opened for me as many times as occurred in Myanmar. In Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay the drivers were unbelievably courteous, polite and friendly and every time that we stopped the driver would jump out and hold the car door open for me and whenever I returned it was the same. I must have got in and out of each car at least 20 times a day and I never opened the door for myself once.
If I ever have a chauffeur I will insist they are a graduate of the Burmese school of Driver Training! And whilst I am mentioning cars consider this. In Myanmar unlike neighbouring Thailand cars drive on the right but all the cars are right hand drive adding an unnecessary and foolish hazard to the already considerable challenges of driving in a third world country.
I never quite got to the bottom of this other than it was a crazy unilateral decision made by President (General) Ne Win in 1970 and ‘new’ cars are historically imported second hand from Japan where they drive on the left. Now that explanation did not seem logical to me when explained to me in Myanmar but subsequent internet research comes up with identical answers!
The message that underlies much of what is written about Myanmar is ‘Go Now before mass market tourism discovers Myanmar’ but I do not think there is much likelihood that Myanmar will develop its incoming tourism the numbers seen in neighbouring Thailand or Malaysia.
The attractions to justify a big rise in numbers certainly exist but the infrastructure and in particular quality hotel stock to support a rapid rise in visitors is not present so I think tourism in Myanmar is more likely to develop to the levels currently experienced by Cambodia and Vietnam which means it should remain an attractive and not overdeveloped destination for some time to come.
I was able to change US Dollars, Thai Baht and UK Pounds to the local Khip in Yangon and Mandalay and although I was advised dollars were a universal second currency in Myanmar I never saw any prices posted in dollars although souvenir sellers would often shout ‘only one dollar’. I did see an ATM terminal although I did not use it and neither my UK nor Thai phones had roaming arrangements to work in Myanmar. It is necessary to buy a Myanmar Sim Card if like ET you are desperate to phone home. Slow wi fi was available in hotel lobbys and sometimes in hotel rooms so Myanmar is by no means in a dark area off the map!
Myanmar is still going through a stage of transition and of course the central figure is the revered and much loved and admired Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi who is quite likely the most admired politician in the world after Nelson Mandela. Her picture is conspicuously displayed everywhere but all is not roses domestically for Aung San Suu Kyi these days. Some of her younger followers are accusing her of being too fraternal and close to her former captors who still control the government. Just like younger members of the ANC in South Africa who criticised Mandela for compromising with his former captors after his release they want to see more action and more change whereas Aung Suu Suu Kyi will indicate she has to be pragmatic and work with the only cards that she has available to play.
Whilst I was in Myanmar she was asked by the government to visit and mediate with a community who felt they were being disadvantaged by the expansion of a mining area and when she tried to explain why this was happening she was openly booed. She also sat with the leadership for a recent parade of the Armed Forces which attracted some surprising comments but one must remember she has always been close to and had a soft spot for the military as her father was General Aung San, also seen as a national hero and considered the father of the Nation for leading the movement that gained independence from the British before being assassinated when Aung San Suu Kyi was just two in 1947.
It seems certain however that if the 2015 elections take place as planned there will only be one winner and that will be Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no likelihood of any candidate emerging with comparable recognition, respect or stature.
To put it in perspective, although I visited three of Myanmar’s four most famous destinations I did no more than scratch the surface of a country with a similar sized population to France or the UK and I left plenty of reasons to return as everyone who has been there recommends visiting Inle Lake. Mt Kyaiktiyo surmounted by a Golden Rock, south of Yangon is one of the Myanmar’s most famous attractions and the former British summer capital of Pyin Oo Lwin looks very interesting and well worth a visit.
There are also all those giant reclining Buddahs to track down and next time I will incorporate a beach break at Ngapali to be reminded how undeveloped Thai beach resorts were 30 years ago? There were Temples and Monasteries in both Yangon and Mandalay that I did not get to and Myanmar also extends to the very foothills of the Himalaya reaching over 5,880 metres (19,295 ft) at its highest point although I have never heard of anyone trekking in this area and I am not sure it is even open to visitors. Bottom line is that for sure there are plenty of reasons for returning.
On my final morning I went to the colourful Zeigyo Market close to my hotel before setting off for the airport and a direct fight to Bangkok and a dental appointment before continuing by bus to Pattaya.
The first thing I did when arriving back at the villa I am renting in Thailand was to order three copies of Amy Tan’s novel ‘Saving Fish from Drowning’. I thought both my Yangon and Mandalay guides and the Tour Operator who arranged my visit were deserving of a thank you gift and what could be more appropriate than Amy Tan’s fanciful tale of a hapless American tour group in Myanmar!
And the second was to order a copy of George Orwell’s classic ‘Burmese Days’ to be followed by a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi so I can learn more about the past and present of this fascinating country before my next visit.
NB: Please contact me if you would like contact details for Reliance Tours or my Yangon and Myanmar Guides.
© Michael Bromfield