Saturday, January 26, 2013

Myanmar Part One - Yangon and Bagan

On Sunday January 13th we flew from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Yangon, Myanmar via Bangkok. We had to change airlines and planes in Bangkok to get to Yangon. When we got to Yangon we were standing at the baggage claim watching all the bags roll out. Out came our small blue bag but no large blue bag. We stood there for awhile hoping that suddenly the bag would show up, but no such luck.

So all of the sudden we had one of our first potential crisis. The problem was we were only going to be in Yangon for two days and if we did not get the bag we would have to completely alter our plans or maybe even have to blow off the Myanmar part of the trip. So we frantically tried to impress upon the baggage supervisor how important it was to get our bag. Trying to get that point across with a pretty big language barrier was nerve wracking.

To make matters worse Sara was pretty sick at this point, on antibiotics and definitely not feeling worth a damn. We went into the city and checked into our hotel, which was new and very clean and comfortable. We were in the central part of Yangon and the streets were crowded, noisy and not very clean; so we suffered a little culture shock once again. After dinner we walked down to the Sule Pagoda to explore and take some photos. In Myanmar you must take off your shoes and socks to enter any temple or pagoda.  Our tender feet were not ready for 10 days of barefoot temple walking. When we got back to the hotel we had the staff call and see if the lost bag made the last flight into Yangon. The answer was no so we went to sleep with a fair amount of stress.

The next morning we went to our travel agent which just by luck was only a hundred feet down the block from our hotel.  When I booked the hotel I had no idea the travel agent was so close, what a stroke of luck!  In Myanmar it is impossible to make flight reservations online, you have to use a travel agent and you have to pay in cash - American cash. Additionally there is some crazy government regulation that the American dollars have to be new unfolded money with no crease, marks, tears or any ink stamps on them. We read about this when we were doing our research but we didn't know they would be so fanatical about it. 

Every time we paid with American money we would do this little game where they would hold the money up to the light and look everything over.  Some would be rejected and we would pull more out until they finally accepted what we had. We started to get a little worried because there aren't any ATMs in Myanmar, and you can’t use credit cards. Good thing we picked up extra crisp US dollars in Cambodia!

Our next stroke of luck was when we received notification the missing bag was at the airport.  So back we went to the airport to retrieve the lost bag. A couple of hours later and $40 worth of cab rides we had the bag in our possession and all was right in the world, the trip could continue!

In the afternoon and evening we went to the Shwedagon Pagoda also known as the Golden Pagoda because it has accumulated over 60 tons of gold leaf. It is over 2,500 years old making it the oldest pagoda in Burma and the world. It is very big and very spectacular.  Unfortunately just like in Angkor Wat parts of the pagoda were being refurbished and had scaffolding around those parts making photography difficult.

Early the next morning we left the craziness of Yangon (the biggest city in Myanmar) and took a short flight to Bagan.  Bagan was very different, much smaller and peaceful, in the middle of a plain full of many temples.  In the 11th and 13 century there were 10,000 temples of which over 2,000 exist today. Bagan is dry and somewhat dusty with red dirt and temples everywhere. We checked into our hotel which was nice and in a good location. 

Once again we went through the American money game where they scrutinize the bills and we pull more out. Luckily we found a bank who took most of the money we wanted to change to Krats so we were pretty well stocked up on Myanmar money.  We talked to the two money changers about the government rule they said quite bluntly they know it is stupid and it needs to be changed!  Quite an indication the military government rule is lessening.

The next good thing which happened was our hotel found a nice taxi driver for us named Mr. Po. We ended up hiring him for three days and he did a great job taking us to all the temples and markets we had selected. He even got up before sunrise so we could climb up one of the temples for sunrise. 

All the temples have many local people set up as vendors selling their handicrafts to the tourists. They are all over you to buy something from them but still fairly polite when you say "no thanks". A lot of them are pretty poor and it is heartbreaking to have to say no but you just can't buy from all of them. We did of course find a number of things we liked and bought.  Sara really enjoyed talking to the young girls, who are very friendly and keen to practice their English.  Many of them want to become tourist guides, which is quite an involved process with about a year of study and a long exam.

We had some good meals in Bagan, including our favorite restaurant "The Moon", a vegetarian restaurant where we ate twice.  On the walls of many restaurants and shops we noticed  pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy. She was released from house arrest in 2010, having spent the last 15 years either in jail or under house arrest.  She is much loved in Myanmar, and many people would tell us how much they love her, and how much they appreciate the support of the US and other countries in their move towards democracy.

At the end of our third day we were pretty "templed out" so we arranged a boat ride on the Irrawaddy river at sunset. It was a great break and a beautiful sunset. The boats they use are interesting; they are long wooden boats with a large loud Chinese motor in the back end. The boat ride ended our time in Bagan and we prepared to move on to Mandalay the next morning. Fortunately, our driver Mr. Po had a buddy in Mandalay named Mr. Toa so he arranged to pick us up at the Mandalay airport and drove for us in Mandalay.


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