My Burmese Days

May 20, 2013

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The travel agent in Bangkok thought I was crazy. My plan was to get my visa for Myanmar the next day, fly to Yangon to see the famous Shwedagon Pagoda that night, and then get on the early morning flight to Bagan. She said even just flying to Yangon that evening was impossible… 

Getting the visa and the flight to Yangon on the same day was a piece of cake. On the flight to Yangon, the attendants handed out the routine customs and immigration forms, and as expected, the usual paraphernalia were banned. However, I discovered that Myanmar has an interesting restriction that I'd never seen before:

Fortunately, I had left my immortal materials at home, and my arms are not of the fire kind, so I was sure I was fine (unlike the time I accidentally took a mobile sim card to North Korea!). And the customs form told me I was in some for fun: what kind of a country has typos on their customs forms?!

I didn't have much time to get to the Shwedagon Pagoda, so I raced from the airport to the hotel, checked in, got my camera gear together and doused myself in mosquito repellent. I was using a pump spray bottle which sprayed a nice fine mist. However, when I got to my face, the bottle decided to stop spraying the nice fine mist and instead it felt that shooting a jet stream of tropical grade DEET straight into my eye would be a better approach. The pain was unbelievable. It was like a vibrating taser icepick being stabbed into my eye and deep into my brain. I actually fell over from the shock. After washing my eye as much as I could––in god knows what quality of water––I realised I didn't know how serious my situation was and that I should Google the problem. But Google was at least one world away…

I was still determined to see the bloody Pagoda so I invoked the invincibility that one has when one is one's 20s and assumed I would be fine. (At 29 I still have some of the invincibility left---but apparently not enough to concern the customs agents.) So I raced down to the lobby to get a taxi, only to be informed by the girl at reception that the Pagoda had closed for the night. Apparently "some nights the pagoda shuts soon". Disappointed that my red eye was for nothing now, I figured I could at least organise my flight to Bagan. The girl kindly showed me the local newspaper: splashed across the front page was a huge cyclone warning. There was a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, and it meant no morning flight to Bagan for me.

My Burmese days were not off to the flying start I had envisaged. Contrary to the defeatist prognostications of the travel agent in Bangkok, I had made it to Yangon. I also managed to get a red eye––just not the one to Bagan.

Luckily, I had a backup plan: catch the early morning bus to Kyaikto––which seems to be pronounced "Chai-Tea-You?"––to see the famous Golden Rock.

The bus was hot, wet, and cramped. When the rain from the cyclone came we had to close the windows, which made it even hotter, and closing the windows didn't seem to prevent the rain from getting into the bus, so it got even wetter. And, yes, it got even more cramped: the bus was picking up more people as we made our journey (and it wasn't dropping anyone off). After stewing with the locals for about 5 hours, the driver figured I was done, and dropped me off somewhere. I didn't know where this somewhere was, but I knew it wasn't where I was meant to be.

Eventually a kid came up to me and gestured for me to sit across the road and said "wait truck". Thirty minutes later a truck with some monks on the back arrived. I joined the monks, and the driver gave the kid some cash. They didn't say anything or even look at me, and there didn't seem to be any expectation for me to pay for anything. I don't know why the driver paid the kid, but he did take me to where I wanted to be.

After checking in to a hotel at the base of Chai-Tea-You? I had to convince the manager that the mountain was not closed (as he insisted it was). He finally relented and took me to the truck that was about to leave for the mountain top. There must have been at least fifty people packed into the back of the truck. They were all very wet from the rain––despite being wrapped up in candy-coloured disposable ponchos. I was soon also wrapped up in plastic (I got to be a bright blue) and was awkwardly squeezed in among the locals. After a dozen more people somehow squeezed in, we took off for a roller-coaster ride up the impossibly steep, and very wet, road. Even the locals were clearly frightened and I suddenly recalled hearing that these trucks occasionally tip over and kill everyone...

Needless to say, we made it---although my life expectancy was a lot lower than it normally is for about 45 mins. I had hoped to see the sunset, but there was just too much rain and mist. Nevertheless, I got some decent pics.


I ended up sleeping at the top of the mountain (there are three hotels up there), and it took a while to get down the next morning, so I ended up taking the noon bus back to Yangon. The noon bus left at 1pm, but it was air-conditioned and dry, and I had the entire back seat to myself. I even managed to get some work done. The bus made it back to Yangon in time for me to see the Shwedagon Pagoda with a little bit of light left in the day.

Shwedagon Pagoda

When I got back to the hotel, the manager helped me organise a flight to Bagan for the next morning. We couldn't make a booking, but after talking to the airline, she said all I had to do was arrive at the airport at 5am, and I could easily buy the ticket for the 6am flight. I'm not a morning person, and I was exhausted from my quick trip to the Golden Rock, but somehow I managed to get to the airport a little after 5am. When I got to the airline counter and said I would like to buy a ticket for the 6am flight to Bagan, the woman told me:

"Please, sir, sit and wait thirty minutes… for immigration."

"Err… No, I don't have a ticket. I would like to buy a ticket", I said, confused, and showing her my wallet.

"Yes sir, check-in please wait 30 minutes."

"Oh, can I buy a ticket at check-in?"

"The flight is at 6am."

"Yes, I know. Can I buy a ticket for it? How can I buy a ticket?"

"Immigration is not open. Please wait. Sit."

Amazed, I looked around for another airline. I found several, but none had flights to Bagan. Finally, I found one in a dark corner of the airport, in an office that was more like a janitor's closet than an office. Stepping over the mop bucket, I asked the girl behind the desk, which had packs of Chang beer stacked on it, if I could buy a ticket for the next flight to Bagan. Within a minute I had a hand-written ticket to Bagan and I was being rushed to the plane. Without going through any security at all, I boarded the flight and an hour later I was in Bagan.   

I spent two days in Bagan exploring a fraction of the thousands of temples. It was about 40C/104F for most of each day, and I was sick from the food––mostly curries, which had an earthy component to their aroma that reminded me of the cow paddies on my grandparent's farm (smells can conjure the strangest flashbacks!). But it was worth it. The temples are spectacular, and there is a light in Bagan that I have never seen anywhere else in the world. At 3pm the shadows are long and the light is golden. I did my best, but my photos don't do the light justice...




On my last night in Bagan, I found a very nice restaurant called The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant. I recommend eating there––and only there. The food was fantastic. And the people who run the restaurant are very friendly. They had just bought an espresso machine and were working out how to use it. We got talking and I soon found myself giving a mini lecture in the kitchen to the restaurant staff on how to make espressos and cappuccinos. As I was grinding some beans, I could see some locals also watching from outside through the windows. By the time I was done, a small crowd had gathered to watch the foreigner make coffee.

The next day I flew to Mandalay. My hotel in Bagan had organised a ticket for me, so it was much easier this time. But the trip was not without incident, and I got to learn an important fact about flights in Myanmar: sometimes the flights leave early! I shared a taxi with some cool Americans from the hotel to the airport and arrived with plenty of time to check in (about 40 mins). I was chatting casually with the Americans as we got out of the taxi, and a mob of airport officials came running up to us yelling "Dr Lyon?! Dr Lyon?!". I nodded and pointed to myself (somewhat warily) and one of them stuck a sticker on my shirt and grabbed my suitcases. "The flight is leaving! We go now. Hurry, sir!" Without checking my ID or going through security, they put me on the flight which started up the runway––while I was still finding my seat! We got to Mandalay at about the time we were scheduled to leave Bagan. Not bad! 

I didn't have a hotel booked for Mandalay, so I went to the tourist information counter to find one. The woman behind the counter found one for me; only $25 per night and she said it was nice. That was a pleasant surprise because the hotels had been strangely expensive and shitty up to that point. So I had the woman make the reservation. But when I got to the hotel, the price was $85 per night! I don't know why everything is so expensive in Myanmar. The prices for all accommodation were at least double what the internet and guidebooks reported. I couldn't be bothered trying to find another hotel, so I just took it on the chin.

Mandalay wasn't that great. There is some interesting stuff there, but nothing amazing. I climbed to the top of Mandalay hill, and went to the teakwood monastry and few other things, but nothing really stood out for me. (I avoided the Palace that occupies a big chunk of the center of the city, because it didn't look interesting and it was repaired using forced labour. A taxi driver even asked me not to go there.)


The world's biggest book.

Two extremes in publishing: kindle vs. the wold's biggest book.

Teakwood monastery


The last day of the trip was devoted to exploring the ancient cities that surround Mandalay. It was a particularly aggressive day. I hired a driver/guide to pick me up at 4:30am to see the sunrise at Sagaing Hill. We then went to Mingun, Inwa Island (where the only way to get around is by horse and cart!), and then finally to Amarapura to see the sunset at the iconic teakwood bridge. (Although I didn't like Mandalay that much, its surrounding area is very cool.) The sunrise at Sagaing was a disaster, though, since the sky was completely overcast. My driver, Nuang (who I'm now friends with on facebook!), kept apologising for the weather. But I didn't mind at all; I was happy for other reasons, and having the occasional setback just enhances the perfect travels days when they come along. At any rate, the spectacular sunset at Amarapura definitely made up for the lack of sunrise, and it was the perfect way to end the trip---and a 16 hour day!

Monk school at a teakwood monastery on Inwa island.

Sunset at Anamapura