Saturday, May 9, 2015

Myanmar - 2015


  • Most important:  Carry new, unfolded crisp US dollars.  Even if it is torn a bit or something written on the currency, it will not be accepted in most of the places.  Carry small Dollar bills.
  • Take ear plugs if you are traveling by bus, the peace loving Buddhist Burmese seem to enjoy the Chinese 
    fighting movies full of blood flows and a lot of loud screaming.
  • Avocado juice in Myanmar is amazing
  • Go to Shwedagon Pagoda at night, it is much more beautiful and also you will be able to see the reflection of the diamond on the top of the pagoda.  You will be able to find the rays of the diamond  closer to the area where the bell that British couldn’t steal.  You can see the color markings on the ground.
  • Shwedagon pagoda goes through maintenance exactly every five years and during that time they scaffold with bamboo and palm leave sheets for cleaning purposes. They started the maintenance at the end of 2014 for year 2015, so after this year, the next maintenance will be on 2020, schedule your trip accordingly.
  • Circular train in Yangoon is nice and after sometime you’ll be bored because there’s no interesting scenery but you can people watch.  It’s a long 3.5hr ride.  Nice place to take a break and take a power nap.
  • Hard to get the taxis in Yangoon, so pre-arrange your taxi if you can.  Number of taxis are limited and at certain time they don’t want to go to certain places because of the traffic jam.
  • In Shwedagon, you will notice that there are Buddhas for every day of the week at every corner of the direction ( East, NorthEast, etc. - two for Wednesday - one for morning and one for the evening) that you should bath with five cups of water and each cup signifies the following per. the guide: Buddha, his teachings, his followers, your teachers and don't remember what the fifth one is.  When you ring the bell by hitting with the stick, you are supposed to do it five times too.
  • In Shwedagon, except the Buddha on the West side, all of the Buddhas are in stone and the Buddha on the west side was damaged due to fire and he’s in Marble.
  • In Bagan, there are new electric cycles with better seats and better power available, so shop around if you
    can.  We paid $6 for a day for the bike.
  • Don’t miss the sunrise in Bagan and it is one of the best experiences.  If you have time and money, do the hot air ballon in Bagan.  IMO Bagan and Capadoccia are the two places where you can really enjoy the ballooning experience with beautiful scenery (I didn’t do it either place)
  • In Bagan, always carry the entrance tickets with you, you will be asked for it in some important pagodas or during the visit for the sunset.
  • There are buses as well as mini-buses between big cities, enquire your hotel and use the one that you are comfortable with.  If you book the bus, the bus company normally picks you up from your hotel.  So make sure that you enquire/confirm before buying the ticket
  • Don’t ride the bus from Bagan to Inle for the reason of enjoying the scenery.  If you want to save money, use the bus.  The scenery is not that great to spend 8 hours in the bus.
Inle Lake
  • There are two different final stops for the bus to Inle, one is right in the Inle market area (Nyaung Shwe) and the other one is about couple of miles away.  So when you book the tickets, enquire and make sure that you can get off in the market area.  From here, you can walk to your hotel very easily, all you got to do is to ask people in the market for directions.
  • Inle Lake is pretty awesome, in addition to boating there, rent a bicycle from the town and ride down to the Mine Thauk village to have a lunch in one of the restaurants in the lake.  You can try riding your bike in the wooden bridge.  The Forest Monastry doesn’t seem to worth the walk and this’s what I heard from few people we met in the village
  • The winery is pretty good and nice view of the city.  No age limit to get alcohol there.
  • A lot of mosquitos in Mandelay, so take the mosquito repellent with you.
  • You don’t have to carry bundle of cash, ATMs are available in cities.  Not many places accept credit cards yet.
  • One surprise in Myanmar is the laundry cost, where in most of the Asian countries the laundry cost is by the weight but in Myanmar you have to pay by each piece of cloth.
  • Very safe country with very friendly people.  The people of Myanmar have a lot of hope regarding the future and the American government (especially President Obama’s visit) has provided the hope.
  • If you are a Lungi (sarong) person, take it with you and you can wear the lung anywhere and everywhere
  • Despite being isolated from the rest of the developed world for the last 30+ years, it is not as bad as I expected - decent roads and spotty internet.  Friendliness of the people compensates for whatever you may be missing.

Arriving Yangoon

Arrived at the small but simple airport in Yangoon and the immigration/Visa processing is pretty quick.  I saw the
VOA desk at the arrival area, but I have applied and got my eVisa, before leaving India, that took less than 3 hours to receive.  There is a Money Exchange counter in the baggage claims area and if you have US dollars (may be Euro too), it is accepted almost everywhere.  We got the taxi near the arrival gate for $10 to get to the city center and it is the expected price.  Our taxi driver completed a degree in Chemistry in 1988 but driving taxi because of lack of opportunity in Myanmar and he was not interested to go out of the country either.  He mentioned that the country had changed a lot in the last 3 years in the positive direction - the average new car price was $30K had reduced to $15K now and a lot of new tourists now.  He credited President Obama for all these changes.  Also, ATMs and SIM cards were not easily available before, now huge change in these too.  He’s not the last person who was talking highly of Obama and heard the same thing from at least from 3 other people.  

Roadside Vendor's Knowledge

The Four Rivers Hostel is pretty awesome place, closer to the China town. It is managed by a guy who was in Singapore for the last 14 years and moved to Myanmar in the hope of building business not only in the hostel but in other areas too.  Whoever I talked to in this country, they are seeing hope after a long time.  The rooms are clean and well maintained.  Met an Ecuadorian guy, Tony, who graduated from an Australian university making this trip before going to Ecuador.  He wants to go back to Ecuador and build mobile applications to the American and South American markets.  After chatting with the Hostel manager and the roommate, we headed out have dinner in the China town @1130pm.  Met an old lady who was running the roadside eating place selling grilled paneer, veggies and meat, who seems to know more about the world than a lot of people I know.  She talking about India, Japan, USA and UK, and their premiers, when I started talking to her whether she knows where Madras is or she knows about India.  Once she started talking, we were asking her about other countries and pretty impressed with her knowledge.  What a waste of Human capital in Myanmar in the last 30+ years because of the Military Junta.  

Public Transport and Traffic

We took a taxi early in the morning to go to the Shwedagon pagoda near the hotel for $3.  It is easily in the
walking distance but wanted to save the energy for later.  Since we couldn’t find any guides in the pagoda, we asked the person in the ticket counter to get us a guide and they’re very helpful in finding us a guide.  The guide charged $15 for 3 of us and provided us some history on the temple, the guide was an average guide.  After spending a lot of time in the pagoda, we decided to experience the public transportation experience in Yangoon and took the bus#15 to the market.  The traffic jam is really bad and we could have reached market in 10 minutes but the bus took more than 20 minutes to reach that place.  The people in the bus were really friendly and we were the only foreigners in that bus.  It is designed to have more space for the standing only crowd.

Market and Marketing

First we went to the local market where they are selling wholesale medicine and other office supplies, and someone guided us to the tourist market which was closer to that place.  There’s a public restroom well maintained in that area.  The tourist market is full of the regular touristy stuff and paintings.  On the way to the market, there are roadside stalls selling some of the South Indian stuff like, samosa, dosa, uttappam, etc.  There is a food court in the market area that you should visit to see how the different restaurant vendors were trying to get their customers.  The competition is very intense and you can people watch and witness the Myanmar’s intensive marketing there.  The food was decent and they don’t sell beer in the food court.  There are beer advertisement all over the place in Myanmar.

Circular Train

After walking around the market for sometime, we decided to take the circular train and the scenery from the train
is average.  After 3 hours, we reached the central station and the way we found out is because it has more platforms.  In most of the train stations we didn’t find any station names or any signs so you have to keep tracking the stations on the map to see where you are.  The train moves very slowly with a lot of shaking and the ticket master comes in the train to check the tickets.  There’s Golf Course station but we didn’t find any golf courses nearby.  Within 10 minutes from Central station, you can see the scenery changing from urban to rural, and the circular train mostly travels on the rural side.

Leaving Yangoon

After walking around the central area where there few colonial buildings, we reached the hostel in the evening.  We noticed that one of the main roads going through the China town is made to roadside eating area by closing down a few lanes and made into sitting area for the restaurants, pretty lively place in the evening.  Our Ecuadorian roommate, Tony, wanted to share the taxi with us to go to the bus stand but getting a taxi to the bus stand took us some time and effort, the drive to the bus stand is much longer than the distance to the airport and we felt that we’re going to a different city.  Most of the reservations in Myanmar works on the honor system, when we made the reservation either to the hotel or to the bus (directly) we never paid any advance or given any credit card, but when reached the bus station or hotel, our place was guaranteed.  The bus ride to Bagon was very comfortable and the bus reached an hour earlier at 430 am.

Arriving Bagan

As soon as the bus stopped, a lot of tots were there to help us get to the hotel but first I wanted to get the tickets to Inle Lake before heading out to the hotel.  After getting the ticket to the Inle lake (a friendly guy in a different bus counter woke up the Inle bus guy to issue the ticket), we headed to the Golden Myanmar Guest house in a taxi.  Almost halfway, the taxi guy stopped the taxi and asked us to pay to enter the city, I was suspicious because there’re no signs or anything, since I read about the entry to the city, I paid entrance fee and got the tickets.  Since our room is not ready, we used the restrooms before renting a electric cycle to head out for the sunrise.  When one of my daughters tried the eCycle, she fell down twice because she was sleepy and tired, and afterwards she was fine.  

Riding with Russian

We met a Russian lady in the hotel lobby who was interested in going for the sunrise in Bagon, so advised her to get the eCycle for the ride but after trying a couple of times she was not comfortable ridding it.  We decided to take her with us to the sunrise with the understanding that after the sunrise we would be back to the hotel and then she'd be on her own.  The ride was not bad because there’s no traffic on the road and after about 30 minutes we spotted the pagoda where a lot of people were.  The sunrise is truly amazing with fog clearing and a lot of pagodas coming to life after the sunrise.  After spending a lot of time enjoying the sunrise as well as the scenery of hot air balloons over pagodas, we were trying to spot our Russian friend to go back to the hotel.  We saw her going to a small pagoda on the sides of the pagoda where we were watching the sunset and she was not responding to my calls (Called her “Hey Russian” because didn’t get her name).  After coming down, we waited for her about 10 minutes thinking that she must have gone to relieve herself there (the Indian thinking :-) ) but no sign of her, and when my daughter went to look for her, she could not find anyone there.  So we waited for another 15 minutes for her to show up and left to the near by temple.  Before going to the Ananda Temple, I just went on the road for half a km to see whether I could find the Russian but she’s not found anywhere.
Because it was a full moon day, a special day for Buddhists so the temple was very crowded and more than 200 monks were standing in line to get offerings from someone who was donating.  As with any pagoda in Myanmar, this pagoda also had four Buddhas facing the four directions.  There were a lot of flowers and offerings to god stacked up, and prayers were recited loudly in the temple.  We went back to the place where viewed the sunrise from to see whether that lady was waiting there and after hearing a lot of advise from my daughters on how to be responsible, we returned to hotel to see the Russian having breakfast.  When I asked why she left, she mentioned that she didn’t want to disturb us so left without telling….so pissed and not sure I’ll help anyone in the future.

Riding Around

The breakfast at the hotel was decent and it was the choice of scrambled egg, omelet or pan cakes - a standard hotel breakfast in most of the hotels.  After taking rest for sometime in the restaurant, we headed out to see other pagodas but now it was scary in the beginning because, a lot of vehicles on the road - people from the neighboring villages were visiting the temples.  We didn’t have any problem riding the eCycle and the other vehicles are careful with a lot of tourists with eCycles.  The whole day we spend riding around different pagodas with a brief power nap in a temple, before heading back to the same pagoda where we enjoyed the sunrise for the sunset viewing.  Now there was no place to stand on top of the pagoda, it’s very much crowded and only now for the first time they checked for the entrance tickets.  Now we become pros riding the eCycle so we didn’t have any problem getting back to the hotel almost in the dark.

Bus Pickup Tension

When we enquired about taxi to go to the bus stand, the hotel manager advised us that the bus company would
pick us up from our hotel and he made a call to the bus company for the pick up next morning.  The hotel room was clean but we could hear noise from the neighboring rooms as well as from the road.  Since we were so tired riding around all day in the hot sun, no sound bothered us.  We were ready and waiting for the taxi for the pickup at 630am for the 730am bus, but there’s no sign of the taxi even at 730am.  When I asked the hotel manager about the taxi, he was telling me not to worry about it and it was on its way.  I was really worried about missing the bus to Inle, so I was bugging him every 10 minutes from 7am, he laughed and advised me to relax.  But at 730am, I told him that I would pay for the taxi and asked him to drop me in the bus stop.  When I reached the bus stop, the bus was still waiting for a lot of people and 10 minutes after we reached the bus stand, there's a taxi (pick up truck) with at least 10 people reached there…so the hotel manager was right that I didn’t have spend the money for the taxi but at least I learnt lesson on Burmese punctuality :-)

Bus Ride to Inle

I choose to ride the bus to enjoy the beautiful country side and mountains on the way to Inle, even though the scenery is nice, I won’t spend 8 hours in the bus during the day time for the scenery.  The bus was very comfortable and when there’re no seats for the new passengers, the conductor put small stool in between seats for the passengers to sit. First 3 hours of the ride was through the rural side that looks like South Indian village side and I could relate to the scenery as well as things that are sold on the roadside to the villages in South India.  I have been told by the fellow traveler that the night bus in this route was bad because of the music volume in the bus was too loud and the frequent stops (every time they stop, they switch on the lights inside the bus) that makes the continuous sleep impossible for most of the people.

Boat Ride

After taking some rest in the Golden Empress hotel, we headed out to talk to Ms. Mu in the Mr. A Tan company that had very good reviews to figure out the next two days.  Ms. Mu advised on my trip plan and suggested a few changes, she gave us an option to have the boat for the whole day (from sunrise trip to sunset) for $25 that will take us up to Thaung Tho, where the village market was for that day.  Also, we booked our bus tickets tickets Mandelay, booked a taxi to pick us up in the Mandelay bus station to take us around for 4 hours (paid $15 - 5am - 9am) and rented the bicycles.  I wanted to go for the sunrise the next day morning in the boat but got a lot of resistance from the kids, so we left the hotel after having the breakfast.  Talking about the breakfast, it is the standard breakfast like any other hotel in Myanmar but the reviews in TA indicated that it’s an awesome breakfast, so don’t book this hotel for an awesome breakfast (the hotel is good and the manager is very helpful).  The local market in Thaung Tho had a lot of food stalls as well as other shops where we had a lot of sobu tofu from a local merchant for $1 - since she was closing the shop she was trying to finish all of the tofu by filling our plate.  The floating villages in Myanmar are different from the floating villages in Cambodia and here are vegetable gardens or farming areas floating but the houses are built on the elevated poles.  The sunset at the lake was very beautiful and a fisherman was posing pictures to collect tips.

Bicycle Ride

The next day, we woke up late before venturing into the villages in the bicycles.  When we were wondering what to do with when one of our bicycle chain broke off after riding 2 miles, another traveler who was riding his bicycle lent his phone to call Ms. Mu.  Ms. Mu came with another bike within 15 minutes and took care of us.  The roads and the way they were laying new tar roads in the villages reminded me of how they used to lay roads in India in late 1970s, pretty primitive way of doing.  Riding on the wooden bridge was little scary but fun.  We chilled in one of the small shelters on the bridge for sometime watching the village life before taking a small canoe rowed by leg to a nearby (25 feet away) restaurant.  There was a constant chanting sound coming from somewhere in the villages and constant flow of boats going in and out of the village.  

Bus to Mandelay

The ride to the winery was bit uphill at the end but going there is well worth it because of the view and the wine.  The Burmese massage at the end of the long bike ride was worth it and we were able to get back to the hotel on time to catch the share taxi to the bus stand.  The bus stand to take the bus to Mandelay is bit farther outside the city and there’re few places to eat around the bus stop.  Our 730pm bus to Mandelay showed at the bus stop around 8pm and on the way stopped for dinner for 30 minutes - despite being all these delays we were able to reach Mandelay one hour earlier @330am.  The conductor in that bus was a lady and she was waking us every time she was serving snacks or water and the music in the bus was pretty loud.  But overall the ride was good to Mandelay and the bus dropped us close to the city center instead of far away from the city center.  We won’t have known to get down there unless our driver, Mr. Win, was there to wake us up to get us down.

Buddha's Face Washing Ceremony

Mr. Win took us to the hostel to unload our bags and to use the restrooms before heading to the Maha Muni to witness the Buddha’s face washing ceremony.  When we reached the temple around 4am, there’re hardly 25 people there but by 430 am, there were more than 150 people arrived by tourist buses and other ways.  They were selling puja things, cookies, flowers, paper umbrella,etc. in a plate that most of the people bought and put them in a platform in front of Buddha (not sure how everyone picks up their plate).  Once the gate opened at 430 am, everyone rushed to occupy the best seat, but sorry ladies, you can’t sit in the front..:-(

The face washing ceremony is a long and detailed process where the priest bring in flowers, water, sandalwood paste and other puja things in different vessels to arrange in front of Buddha before covering Buddha from neck down with white cloth, then sprayed water on Buddha’s face to wash his face and brush his teeth.  It is funny to see a number of monks taking selfies in front of Buddha while helping to get Buddha ready for the face washing.  To get to the point of washing his teeth took about 45 minutes and it was already 515 am, I didn’t want to miss watching the sunrise @Mandelay’s long wooden bridge, U-Bein, so we left before the ceremony ended.

U-Bein Sunrise

There were not many people at the U-Bein at 545am but people started to show up slowly.  We took a power nap
in the taxi ’til 615 before started to walk around to take pictures and to enjoy an awesome sunrise.  There are a lot of locals come there to do exercise on the bridge, a lot of monks walking along the bridge as well as fishermen at the lake.  After walking on the bridge for some time, we left to the hotel to take rest.


The breakfast provided by the hostel in the neighborhood shop was very good, especially the tea from the shop was one of the best tea I had in Myanmar.  One of my daughters, Shabina, started to throw up by the time we reached the hostel, so she had naan in the shop while we had egg pancake which was very oily.  The boy who was serving us in the restaurant, Akka, was very energetic, loud and very young (about 12 years old).  We spent most of the day at the hostel sleeping and nagging Shabina to drink 100 plus/water every 15 minutes.  We met two other tourists who also had someone in their group having vomit issue and taking rest in the room.  Around 3pm,  Sharada and I left to eat in an Indian restaurant for late lunch and the food in that restaurant is very good.  We packed some naan and dahl for Shabina before walking back to the hostel.  After having the food, Shabina was feeling better, so we decided to walk to the local market to see what is there because it’s late to go for the sunset view from the Mandelay hill where all the tourists go in the evening.  We walked about a mile for the night market to have some juice in the roadside shop and waited for a taxi to get back to the hostel, but even after waiting for 15 minutes, no taxi.  Noticing this, there’s a guy in the neighborhood shop offered to take us back to the hostel in two motor cycles for $2 and we took on that offer :-)

We met a Canadian guy, Steve, from White Horse area in Canada who has been coming to Myanmar for the last 8 years because he likes this country better than any other place.  He was telling how the military regime is good for the tourists because there’s absolutely no theft from the tourists and even if a tourist get robbed, the cops will get their things within 6 hours.  Also, he indicated that it’s the only thing good about the military junta and everything else is pretty bad.  I am not justifying the junta but stating the sad fact.  Realizing the taxi situation in Mandelay, we arranged for a taxi, to take us to the airport, with the hostel.  If you have a chance, deal directly with the taxi guy and you will be able to save some money as well as the taxi guy some money because the taxi guy has to give some money to the hotel or hostel person arranging the taxi.

There is not any signage within the airport for any departures airlines but it is a small airport and you should not
have any problem finding the necessary counters.  The departure gate is almost like a bus stand, there are no signs but people queueing up to board the flight and there’s no clear announcement regarding which flight was boarding.  So don’t wait for any announcement, just ask someone what flight they queueing for and follow the crowd.  We almost missed our flight because we didn’t see our AirAsia flight and didn’t hear announcements but the flight was parked away from the gate and everyone was taking the shuttle to flight. Luckily, I asked someone about the boarding and get in the flight just a few minute before closing the gate.  To make things worse, more than one flight departs from the same gate that was the confusion in my case.

My Views

Myanmar is a beautiful country with very friendly people.  Wondered how these peaceful people or monks are fighting with the  Muslim community in the north as well as why the minorities treated badly here, the simple answer may be the “Mob Mentality” and Politics.  We never had any problems or issues, Burmese treated us very well wherever we visited.  You should visit here before thousands of tourists start arriving here.

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