It's a bit difficult to get into Myanmar. You need a two way ticket, and before not long ago you required to give a detailed itinerary of where exactly you're planning to travel to. We planned 6 days in Kuala Lumpur in order to get the visa done which takes 5 days. Now the visa application procedure is outsourced to some travel agency, they take 1 day but charge $10 for their services, which is not bad considering that this agency was a 10 minute walk from our hotel and had AC inside. When we came to pick up the visa, we got a taste of what Myanmar was like when the pickup was 2 hours delayed and there was no explanation given.
We arrived at a small but very clean airport. Again, a country not like I imagined it. People walk around all fashionable and sit into big and sparkling jeeps. But then I thought that it might be like that only in the airport where people actually have money to fly. And indeed once we got out, we went from a first world airport to 3rd world city streets. The roads are better than in Nepal, but everything else is not far from it.
Myanmar is a strange priced country. It's a 3rd world and poor country, but hotel prices are ones on the most expensive in SE Asia ... probably next after Singapore. The number of tourists go up, but locals still don't have enough money or expertise to build hotels, so number of hotels is lacking. A very average room costs around $30, where in other SE Asian countries, you could live in a castle for that amount of money. It comes in a great comparison with food, where a huge bowl of soup can cost $1, and a 1 liter bottle of water is 20 cents. Additional cost except accommodation, food, transport and entertainment, come the scams. It seems that every single price that we're told somehow increases when we're ready to pay. With exchange rate $1 = 970 Kyat, an $8 entrance ticket becomes 8500, although $8x970=7760. We argue with them, they try to prove to us that they have a different exchange rate ... it's very funny, as their booth is a meter away from a currency exchange place!!
Hotel booked us a taxi for $8, the driver took $10. Bus tickets were $8, at the bus station suddenly they're $9, even if we show them confirmation letter with date, seats and price. They tell us that this is a VIP bus, or VIP seats. Bills in restaurants almost always come wrong and how do you prove you're right when the menus don't have prices and for every item you have to ask how much it costs ... Alex's nerves are getting looser and looser... I'm still ok, not sure why, maybe because Alex is dealing with the money, but I don't get it, why argue, just pay how much you think is right.
It seems that the country doesn't have anything except stupas and pagodas ... maybe except the beach, which we went to of course. Considered to be one of the best beaches in SE Asia, we couldn't know whether to agree or not. It's 13 kms long, nice fluffy, clean sand, clear water, but almost not a single soul on it. There is no music, no people, no pina coladas. How would you rate a beach like that. I finally had 4 days to sleep and gain my strength after the sickness. Too bad we didn't do much, and barely made it to an island an hour south of us, but I got the sleep that I needed ... travelling just gets it out of you.
5 hours back to Yangon, 2 hours back and forth to the city center and a night bus to Mandalay, we're finally in a new city 24 hours later. The bus is a VIP AC bus, of course you don't need AC when it's 15 degrees or so at night, but since all poor countries sometimes lack brains, they always set the AC to freezing just to prove how rich they are and how special you are. Thank god I remembered my AC buses in other countries and took a sleeping bag with me which was a night saver.
In Mandalay we saw more temples which require a $10 ticket, with all the benefits going to the government and a whole section in LP which gives hints on how to dodge paying the price. Everyone in here is against the government which controls everything. We have a new edition of Myanmar LP, 1 year later, the prices are almost double. There are special hotels that are open to tourists which the government says how much to charge for; only special places in the country which are open for tourists, in other parts of the country people don't live very well (I'm not surprised with a $40/month average salary), the government still uses forced labor, and apparently there are still cannibal tribes! In short, Myanmar is a strange country, but people are generally happy. I found already that social status, security, money doesn't affect the happiness factor.
Buddhism here is very different than I've seen anywhere before. Here they regard it more as a religion rather than a philosophy. In any temple there are usually hundreds of Buddhas, all lit up with neon halos, and people pouring water on him and praying to him. I'm sure Buddha wouldn't have want to see that if he was alive.
We've seen hundreds of monks walking and receiving food. It was more of a tourist attraction rather than a traditional ceremony. Hundreds of tourists shoving cameras into their faces. I guess they have a good chance every day to practice their patience.
I signed up for a 3 day trek. The owner of the guesthouse who organized it was Indian, and was concerned more about making money rather than creating a good reputation. We were 5 people, and she said that if we'll be 6, then we'll get a discount. We saw another couple who wasn't really talking to us, and we were told that they're taking a private tour. So we didn't get a discount, and they paid 3 times the price to go with guides who don't speak any English, and they ended up walking with us all the way. We later found out that the owner told them that we don't want them in our group!! Other that than, the trek wasn't that great. We saw some villages and tribes, the landscape was nice maybe for a few hours. A lot of the time we walked on a road where cars go, but it was nice to see something else than stupas and monasteries.
New year is not celebrated in here. We sat in a cafe with the group from the trek, at midnight some people shouted "Happy New Year!!" ... that was about it. On the main street there were way too drunk guys where we clearly didn't fit in. In Russian we have a saying that you'll spend the year as you celebrated it. Lets look at the positive and make the year about forgiveness and overcoming obstacles.
Took a boat trip around Inle lake, pretty much saw everything that we saw on the way into the town after the trek. One temple was amazing, and it was where we waited for a boat for 2 hours at the end of the hike. It was one of the most beautiful temples I've seen, and the guides didn't even tell us about it. If I saw it, it would've been absolutely unnecessary to take a boat trip. At least it was cheap, $15 for 4 people for a whole day trip.
Bagan was next. There are 4000 temples in Bagan spread over a large park territory. We took bicycles and spent 2 day riding from temple to temple, all of them somehow differ from one another. We saw a sunrise from a temple, a must see experience, and every time I'm convinced that it's just as good to see the same thing when you had good 10 hours of sleep. We arrived to Bagan at 4am on the bus, and only because of that I agreed to go see the sunrise, which wasn't that great anyway. I think Bagan is my favourite place in Myanmar, relaxing, fun, and interesting with a small street of very good restaurants serving Western food and real Belgium chocolate pancakes :) We spent there 2 days, but I wished we would've skipped Mandalay and stayed in Bagan 2 days longer.
Another night bus back south, a pickup truck and one more bus. The bus got stuck. It's a weekend and an independence day, and all of Myanmar decided to visit its holiest site - the golden rock. It's a rock balancing on a side of a mountain that has survived a few strong earthquakes and apparently granted some wishes that even the royalty gave away it's gold to cover the rock in it. The traffic was crazy, nothing was moving, thousands of people were walking somewhere. We walked too, but then someone turned us around, and told us to come back a few days later, told us where the bus is to the next destination and helped us get a motorbike taxi half an hour to the bus parking. They were going 100 kms/hr, crazy guys!! When we arrived they asked us for double the price, and an addition to luggage. We sent them somewhere and gave them $2 as was agreed upon. Nobody spoke English in there and it was difficult to understand what time the pickup is leaving or how long the ride is. Someone showed "6" on their fingers, and we tried to figure out whether the ride is 6 hours long, or will it arrive at 6pm. Our driver didn't want to accept US dollars, and we run out of Kyat, they kicked us out of the pickup. It's good, because we took a next one, and it was half the price. Another foreigner completely lost her mind, was asking everyone if the pickup is going to Hpa-An like 20 times, the locals were already ripping their hair off their heads. She was running around the pickup and screaming in English if someone here speaks English ... I was sitting there laughing, they explained everything on hands. It goes to Hpa-An, it leaves now, it costs $3 and will be there at 3pm.
In Hpa-An we ate breakfast in a local restaurant where we ate until we exploded. We ate yummy chicken and fish, sweets, tea, soups for $1.20 for 2 people and then fixed both of my bags for 30 cents. Awesome town! We took a whole day tour to see different caves in the limestone mountains, and swam in a canoe inside a cave. The caves weren't as great as the scenery which we enjoyed very much. In the morning Alex woke up with 100s of bed bug bites, I don't know how that happened, since I had only a few and tiny ones and we slept in the same bed. I think he must've had an allergic reaction. They were huge and red and puffy and itched like hell for a week. And then he was cheap enough to get $20 antibiotics which the pharmacists advised him to take. He said that the pharmacist just trying to get his money. In the end, the infection spread, and the red spots starting appearing randomly on his body even a month after the first incident.
Another attempt at a golden rock. Some local guy met us, showed us everything, where to leave the luggage, where to exchange money, where to catch a bus back. We were always cautious, expecting him to ask for a tip or for money to store the luggage, but nope, it was all done with good intentions ... amazing!
The road to the golden rock is very steep, and there are special trucks going up. I don't know how much power that truck has, but a hell of a lot. It stopped on the way to collect donations or for some other random stops, and it took us an hour to get up with probably half an hour being breaks of some sorts. At the top it's a disney land as usual. Thousands of shops, restaurants, too many steps, people, a huge area, and a small rock standing on a cliff. There were more people chilling or sleeping somewhere else, not too many right beside it, or taking pix of it ... weird ... In short, nothing special, it should be deleted from top attractions of Myanmar list for sure.
In the evening we went to our last stop - Bago, which is only 2 hours away from Yangon. We took a motorcycle tour in the morning, saw as usual a bunch of temples and a lying Buddha. I think I'm templed-out. We saw a temple where there lives a big Python, and people all over come and give it money. Then the Python moved and the money poured in like rain. Maybe I should've bought a parrot and done a similar business in a hut nearby ;)
Back to Yangon and off to long missed civilization of Thailand.