Myanmar Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Myanmar, December 2013.

We exploited our friends to take us to catch the light rail in downtown Seattle after enjoying a fabulous Christmas Eve meal in their house. Barbara's supplier had worked her magic to get us the best Economy class seats on Eva Air, we were on the first row of their 747 upstairs cabin. The 22-hour journey on Eva and Thai Airways was one of the best we have had: Wonderful amenities and service, great food and cute stewardess.

We arrived Yangon and took a taxi to our hotel in downtown, just south of the train station. The old narrow streets reminded us of Hanoi and Jakarta. We rested a bit and immediately went out to take a walk to one of the three most significant temples (Payas) in Yangon. Botataung Paya (photo, stupa) right on the Yangon River, is known for the holiness of keeping a relic of some hairs of Buddha. The pagoda is totally covered in yellow straw, and inside decorated throughout with gold, mirrors and gems. We saw many local people praying, we guess that they are on their way home and stop by to reflect their day. Flowers and paper-fold lotus are the norm for worshipers to buy and make offering. A lady with a cage of sparrows tried to sell us a couple to set them free, for good luck. Barbara thought her birds are trained, once we set them free, they will just fly back to her house so she can gather them and come back to set them free forever. Then she thought of the essence she learned from the paya: Be mindful and don't do evil. Well her evil thought should be quashed. We smiled at her and freed ourselves from her gaze, and took a taxi home to crash.

Friday morning was sunny and a bit cooler. We rose just before sunrise time and walked about 10 minutes to Sule Paya (photo, Sule Paya), a 2000 year old temple in downtown Yangon in the middle of a major traffic circle. It is impressive and calm in the morning, with lots of worshippers who seem to be office workers on their way to work, lunch boxes in tow. They come to pray before going to work. Praying seems to be such a pivotal and natural part of their daily life. We came back to our hotel for a western style breakfast: Juice, fresh fruits, eggs and a local pancake, plus toast and coffee. Not bad, though we saw a lot more colorful breakfast items offered by street vendors on the way back to the hotel. We bought our bus ticket for Bagan from Delta Travel, an agency conveniently next door to our hotel. We chatted in the common room with a couple of hotel guests just returned from Bagan and Mandalay. Then we set out to execute our itinerary for the day. First to Chaukhtatgyi Paya, where a massively large reclining Buddha (photo, Buddha) is housed. The 108 signs on the bottoms of Buddha's feet (photo, sole man), are supposed to have predicted his enlightenment and greatness. We flagged down a taxi to take us to the National Museum, which does not seem to be on most tourists' agenda. Our taxi driver did not seem to understand what "museum" is. After some effort, he drove us to another museum. After another round of explanation; we finally reached our destination after doubling his price, which ended up about $2.50 USD, not a big loss. Taxis are so plentiful and cheap in Yangon, we can go everywhere in them, what a luxury. The national museum is huge with good English labels. Though most of the displays are indifferently lit, it is still an impressive collection of history. The artistic creation of Burmese people is clearly demonstrated in the display of the golden throne room, culture and folk room. Richard was very happy to see an entire gallery dedicated to performing arts, displaying frog drums, Shan drums, xylophones in the shape of crocodiles and dragons, fiddles and harps. We came out of the museum happy, and walked through the giant "people's park" to get to a selected lunch spot. The park is meticulously maintained, but very few visitors to be seen. We guess that might be due to the fact the park is fenced high, a very different concept of parks from how we think at home. We were looking for a recommended Burmese restaurant, which the tour book indicated that "see Thai Kitchen", so Barbara assumed it is the same place with two different names. When we saw Thai Kitchen we went in. Even though the items recommended by our tour book could not be found on the menu, we got some really tasty and fresh dishes with very attentive service. Though not cheap by local standard, we also received a complementary dessert. It was when we walked out, filled and content, we saw the sign of our intended Burmese restaurant next door.

Shwedagon Paya (photo, Shwedagon), with its magnificent entrance (photo, lion guards), was our next destination, one of the main purposes of visiting Yangon. We spent the next several hours witnessing the magnificent 2500-year-old golden pagoda evolved under full sun, at sunset (photo, stupa) and finally all the high power lights were shining on it while the sky went complete dark (photo, night view). Waves of people, locals and visitors went around (photo, visitors) worshipping, praying and paying special respect to the Buddha at their birth date corner. There are 7 days of the week, each represented in two corners. We understand that Aung Shan Suu Kyi prays at Tuesday corner whenever she came to the Paya. Thousands of oil votive lamps surrounding the golden stupa were being lit, accompanied by the pretty bell sounds around the entire compound, made it such a memorable evening.

Saturday morning was again sunny and somewhat warmer. We went for a walking tour. First the lively morning open air market, where housewives visit to get food for their families. Fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers, as well as live fish, different kinds of meat, along with a dozen types of rice, countless varieties of spices, all being traded with loud bargaining. We continued through Little India and Chinatown, where older Chinese men were having their tea and smoke, taking dim sum, discussing local politics enthusiastically. We passed a Kali Hindu temple, and stopped at a Lassi stand for a refreshing papaya drink. We checked out of our hotel at noon and set out to the train station (photo, train station) for the circle line train ride to see different neighborhoods of Yangon. It is a hard-seats, slow moving commuter train, going through lesser neighborhoods, and garbage dumps full of plastic bags. So, at first it seems like maybe not such a great tourist attraction. Further out on the line, it goes through some suburban townships with folks walking alongside the track, and lush, green countryside (photo, outer Yangon). The ticket for this 3-hour ride is $1 USD. Back in downtown, we visited a nice local tea house and enjoyed some tea and salad. We stopped at the supermarket to stock up for our overnight journey to Bagan on the VIP-class bus. The bus was indeed quite deluxe, with seats resembling the airline's business class. The steward gave us drinks and snack. The bus stopped only once for a break where we got some late night dinner at a gigantic center with a dozen or more buses and countless cars all parked. Having slept poorly and with jet leg for the past two night, Barbara slept amazingly well, while Richard suffered from some stomach flu when we reached Bagan in the early Sunday morning.

Arriving Bagan, we met a lovely young couple from Taiwan at the highway bus stop and shared a taxi ride into New Bagan with them. Our hotel was still dark, but the teahouse next door seemed to have been open all night long with a couple of ladies taking care of late night travelers like us, and long distance drivers stopping in to fuel their energy with strong tea and samosa and fried donuts. Our hotel staff was very kind to give us an early check-in so we were in our room by 8am. Richard was down for the day and slept off his fatigue and jet lag. Barbara did some washing, some emailing and caught up with the trip report, we were geared up for an early start next morning.

Monday morning we rose around 5am, got out of the hotel on our bicycles by 5:30am and rode all the way to Shwesandaw Paya to see the sunrise. It was misty and chilly. The sunrise lighting up hundreds of temples and stupas across the plain was an amazing scene and a magic moment (photo, sunrise). A dozen hot-air balloons up in the smoky air added more mystery and beauty to the atmosphere (photo, baloons). We continued on our bikes to Ananda Pahto, where four giant Buddha statues carved from teak have survived numerous earthquakes through the centuries. Other important temples we visited included Htliominlo Pahto, Kyasin and Shwezigon where 37 pre-Buddhist Nat figures were displayed. Our late lunch in Nyaung U was so good, the staff was very friendly and the restaurant also offers a slightly better internet connection than our hotel. We relaxed in the restaurant for a long time, before heading back to Shwe-Lelk-Too Temple, a hidden gem only guesthouse owners would tell you. It was indeed not as crowded as the other more famous ones bombarded by bus loads of tourist. We stopped by a small roadside temple where we saw several figures carved inside the temple wall. They seemed to be out of the place, as they were female in scanty and revealing garb, more like Hindu temple figures. We chatted with a blond girl, who turned out has spent a week here and is something of a self-educated expert on the local temples. She gave us a tip of visiting a nameless temple, super close to our hotel, as a great sunrise view spot. Right before sunset, we climbed up and joined a handful of lucky visitors to experience an amazing sunset, when the last few rays of light shining on the countless stupas.

Tuesday we got up right before sunrise and went to the recommended temple number 1185. There was nobody in sight but us. The temple has a sign explaining it has been repaired and cared for by a donation from Korean donors. A lone caretaker came along with his dog, and struck the bell in the temple yard precisely as the sun rose (photo, another sunrise), a unique and sobering experience. Bagan is a deep flat basin nestled among hills and mountains surrounding it. The place is misty and wet most of the year, blanketed by wood-fire smoke each morning. Coming from Seattle, it still surprised us that the sun does not burn through the thick mist til noon most days, and that laundry does not get dry unless put directly under the sun when the sun is out. Back at our hotel for breakfast, we befriended our hotel manager, who kindly showed us how to operate his rental electric bikes. It was our first experience to ride on them. After some hair raising, and somewhat hilarious preliminary practice, we went exploring (photo, intrepid e-biker). We headed to the Central Plain to see a few more remote temples. Pyathada Paya (photo, Pyathada) is high and climbable and offers a panoramic view of the Bagan plain, as it is located right in the middle of all. We came back to Old Bagan and had lunch in the Moon, a vegetarian restaurant featuring very nice tealeaves salad, eggplant curry and noodle. We stopped briefly at the riverside below the local replica of Mahabodhi temple before heading back to our hotel. We wanted to take the room for another night but the place was sold out due to New Year’s Eve. The manager was very kind to invite us to use their employee bathroom for a shower and further invited us to join their staff New Year celebration party. We had some home cooking chicken soup and fried noodles, and washed them down with Myanmar Beer and some whiskey. With the music, we danced with everyone with took pictures together, til our overnight bus arrived.

Wednesday, very early New Year morning, we arrived in Mandalay. A nice young Thai man by the name of Samart who had happened to book the same hotel as ours, helped us to get off the bus at the right place next to the train station. In the 4am dark, we walked a few blocks to our hotel. We were amazed to find out the official hotel check in time is 6am. The staff was very nice to give us a room even before that and offered breakfast. We freshened up and rested a bit, and found out our camera lens was coming loose. We walked along the busy street and found a watch shop, where we fixed it with their fine tools, and with the help of the friendly staff (photo, Mandalay shop). Outside the shop, we caught a pick-up truck fitted to sit three rows of passengers (Lain Ka) and paid the USD equivalent of 50 cents to get to Mandalay Hill. The hill, being the only uneven spot in the entire city, can be seen from everywhere. A 45-minute barefoot walk up the hill under covered pathways turned out to be a 2-hour affair for us: Every turn you make reveals new views and scenery, all the way to the top (photo, Mandalay overview). We joined a dozen or so monks and nuns in a Lain Ka for the trip down the hill. Then we walked a mile along the moat around the royal palace, which is still totally occupied by the military. Less than 10% of the space is open to tourists with a ridiculous high admission fee going to the military. We peeked into the palace from the entrance gate guarded by soldiers, and continued to walk to the end of the moat to Sedona Hotel, where we exchanged money and used their facility. The Mandalay Marionnettes puppet theatre is right across the street from the Sedona. We brought two tickets for that evening's show. Next to the theatre is a tea house for us to rest our sore feet. Bottomless tea, a cold rice noodle salad, and a friend Shan noodle cost about $2 USD. The food is so cheap we had another light dinner right after the tea. The show was wonderful, featuring an 84-year-old puppet master, still at his peak, with several of his students, and a 6-piece Myanmar orchestra. The ticket is not cheap, nevertheless we were very happy to pay for our share helping the tradition from losing ground to western rock and roll, which is popular with young people, who counts for majority of the population. Obama’s visit in 2012 also boosted up the US image in Burmese people.

Thursday morning, we rose at a reasonable hour after a very long and peaceful night of rest. We secured a couple of bikes and arranged for the next day's shuttle ride to airport, before setting off on the Lonely Planet-recommended Cycling Tour. Starting from Eindawya Paya, we rode through some local villages. Outside one house, we stopped to sit down on a wooden bench for a rest and a drink of water. A child of the house came out to greet us, and we greeted back. Soon after, a bowl of boiled finger food (tastes between boiled peanuts and sweet yam) was offered to us by the boy’s mother, not for any money, just because we stopped in front of their house and they are doing their kutho, a merit they gain through helping others, as the core of the Theravada Buddhism. We were deeply moved and humbled by their action, which is natural to them. Barbara got nothing to show our appreciation so she offered her candy to them. Not sure if it is entirely correct. We continued to visit a couple of monasteries where we were accosted by young monks seeking out foreigners to practice their English. In Shwe In Bin, Barbara looked at their English text book and practiced with them (photo, monks), though Richard is more sought after as he is viewed as an authentic native speaker. We rode south to Mahamuni Paya, an impressive 13-foot sitting Buddha is venerated there as the patrimonial image of Myanmar. On the way out, we passed by a metal working shop where gigantic gongs and countless cymbals were being hammered out. Richard chose one cloud looking cymbal with very pretty sound, and a beater. We caught another Lain Ka to get to the famous U Bain Bridge (photo, iconic bridge) over the Taungthaman Lake. The water level was about the lowest as this is the driest time of the year. We walked the entire raised teak bridge, the icon of Myanmar, in the sunset, stopped in the middle to enjoy a coconut with flocks of tourists (photo, another sunset). Since most tourists only walk a bit and back, we ended up at the other end of the bridge with no tourists, and therefore, no taxi. We walked through the village as it became increasingly dark and quiet. A pick up taxi saved us and delivered us back to Mahamuni Paya, where we picked up our stashed bikes, and rode back to the theatre district, around the corner from the Marionnette Theatre. We bought tickets to the Mintha Theatre to catch a traditional Burmese dance performance. We had some tasty dinner at the same restaurant we were at the previous night, before the show. The lead dancer, also the owner of the theatre, was first rate and the 7-piece orchestra was more impressive than the one at Marionnette's. A very memorable evening and a perfect ending to our Myanmar experience.

We really enjoyed the scenery, the temples, the food and the weather in Myanmar. But what impressed us the most, is the local folks we encountered. They are poor compared to western standard, but mellow. They struggle, yet seem content. The loyalty to the family, the devotion to the Buddism, made us truly humble.