Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) wasn’t really on our radar until numerous travel companions suggested that we should go there while it is still relatively untouched by international tourism.
- Since independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the country has been in one of the longest running civil wars that remains unresolved.
- The country was under military rule under various guises from 1962 to 2010, and as a result is one of the least developed nations in the world.
- The military government changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989.
- Since 1992, the government has encouraged tourism in the country and finally opened doors to some of the regions within Myanmar.
- In 2005, the capital city was relocated from Yangon to Naypyidaw.
- Tourism in Burma has been developed mainly by the government and most money earned from tourism still goes to the government rather than the general population.
- And in more recent history, per Holocaust Museum research, there are alarming reports of persecution and violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. They have been stripped of their citizenship rights and as of this year their voting rights as well. They are known as the “boat people” as they try to seek asylum in other SE Asian countries and are being turned away. If the boats ever make it, people that survive the journey have experienced awful violence. While out to lunch with a friend who works with an NGO in Myanmar helping counsel the “boat people”, she received a call of a boat that just arrived filled with women who have experienced “grave bodily harm and rape” on the boat. You can learn more about the situation here and here.
- Although progressively changing with the influx of international tourism, I have never met a more honest and genuine group of people. Example: me: “How much for the cab ride”? cab driver: “$5, oh no no, it actually should be $4, oh no no, if you are going there then it’s only $3”. WHAT? In what world does the price drop when I already agreed to $5?
- People are constantly smiling at you, a very REAL smile, the kind that makes you want to go hug a person.
- Kids are always waiving and not because they want to sell you something but simply because they want to say hello!
- You feel like a rock star as people constantly want to take a picture of you or with you. Kieran suggested we were the Kay-Z and Beyonce of Myanmar. I will take that.
- Majority of men chew and spit out betel leaf with areca nut (called Paan) which seems to destroy their teeth and cause red staining all over their mouth and the sidewalks where the betel nut is spit out (or really anywhere). These betel nuts give users a “lift” but also causes oral cancer. What we noticed and learned from locals is that this has become more of a class determining thing. Where people at government jobs and higher ranked positions, do not chew betel nut and have perfect smiles, but the majority of street vendors, taxi drivers, etc., all chew this stuff.The streets in Yangon look like this…appetizing, yuh?
- Women/girls and some men/boys wear decorative make-up called thanaka which is made from ground bark. The first morning when we had breakfast at our B&B, we almost told the woman serving us that she had baking flour on her face…that could have been awkward….
When it comes to Yangon and some other places that we visited in Myanmar, I can’t say that there is that much to see (sights/museums). However, if you want to be absolutely enriched by a culture that is so unfamiliar and unique and still relatively untouched by the “western world”, then I HIGHLY recommend coming here as soon as possible.
HOW TO GET TO MYANMAR:
It takes about 3-4 business days to acquire an e-visa to enter Myanmar which costs $50.00 for either EU or US citizen at this time. If using the e-visa, you are only allowed to enter through the three international airports in the country. The visa is good for 30 days.
We were flying in from Siem Reap, Cambodia on June 3, 2015 to Yangon, Myanmar with a stop over in Bangkok. For someone who is not the calmest cucumber of a flyer, these two flights (1 hour each) just about pushed me over the edge where I would have suggested hiking to all other countries going forward (and we all know how much I love to hike).
Flight leg #1 – awful turbulence – the kind where every time the plane drops 20 feet you wonder how will this plane ever land exactly?!
Flight leg #2 – pretty calm flight which was supposed to last about 50 minutes, ended up being a 5 hour adventure with circling Yangon airport for about an hour and a half as we couldn’t land due to a bad storm (which we were flying in) and then a diversion back to Thailand (Chiang Mai this time) for a refuel as we were low on gas. Once we landed in Yangon (10 pm at night rather than at 5pm), all we could do was eat some pizza (I can always do that) and take a sleeping pill with a beer in hand.
WHERE TO STAY:
Yangon is a huge city (population is about 5 million) and it is not a walking city as it is super hot and the distances are huge. Most tourists just jump into taxi’s as they are pretty cheap, although traffic is absolutely horrendous and it can take 45 minutes to drive 3 miles. Both times that we were in Yangon, we stayed pretty far from the center ($3-4 taxi ride), but it was actually pretty nice to be on the outskirts near Inya Lake.
Bike World Bed and Breakfast: A solid #1 rated on Tripadvisor B&B although it was pretty shocking how expensive all housing in Myanmar was (this was low season) and what you get for the money you pay compared to the rest of SE Asia. This B&B is owned by a husband and wife team – she is Burmese and he is Australian. She is definitely the heart and soul of that enterprise! The rooms were very clean and the breakfast was fantastic with home made bread and pizza available at all hours of the day.
Oh, and they had pets, which definitely gives them an extra star on TripAdvisor!
Great Feel Hotel: when we were coming back to Yangon at the end of our trip through Myanmar, we knew that we wanted to stay closer to the airport as we would only be there for 2 nights. It was a great choice (you never know what you are going to get even after reading 100 reviews on TripAdvisor.com, Booking.com or Agoda.com).
We arrived super early (6:30am) and they welcomed us with open arms and even fed us breakfast for free. We were the only guests at the hotel at the time and they treated us like gold! It’s a small family run hotel with great breakfast, clean rooms and a semi working WiFi (which is more than I can say for the rest of the country). When we went to volunteer at the dog shelter (more on this later), they packed us a yummy lunch and when we were leaving for the airport at 6am, they packed our breakfast to go for the plane – can we say sweet or what?
I will say that I was extremely excited about “Burmese” food as there are so many delicious Burmese restaurants in San Francisco and I was hoping that the local food would be even better. However, when it came to Yangon, the food was pretty underwhelming. Most places that we went to didn’t have names and the street food wasn’t very clean or appetizing to look at, so we did a lot of “safe” eating at Tripadvisor rated restaurants. On our last day in Yangon, we did go out with a few locals from the animal shelter and ended up having some of the best local cuisine of just rice and chicken.
Here are a few spots worth mentioning:
Acacia Tea Salon: A pretty popular tea house that is very upscale for Yangon. Traditional tea is a big deal in Myanmar which consists of black tea with sugar and condensed milk and is delicious. This place was more of a take on the English Tea and it was just ok. We did however, enjoy meeting with a friend of a friend (Jocelyne along with her husband and daughter) who have spent the last 4 years working in Yangon (thank you Gladys for the intro).
999 Shan Noodle House: a really tasty noodle soup spot right in downtown Yangon. I could have eaten here every day if we were a bit closer.
THINGS TO DO:
Circular train: this was by far one of our favorite tourist activities in Yangon. It is a locals train that goes in a big circle around the city. The entire ride takes about 3.5 hours and is a whopping 40 cents (no, there are no toilets). WE LOVED IT! Aside from being the only tourists on the train which has no air conditioner, no real windows and open doors, we really truly got to experience what the locals lives look like inside the city and on the farms on daily basis. We also got to taste some of the cuisine sold right on the train (donuts with condensed milk). Also, many pictures were taken of us by the giggling local women.
Just waiting for the train … as the only tourists, we were given the only two chairs that were available so we could sit in comfort! So kind!
Yay – here it is!
He read this book for about 2 minutes before realizing how outdated it was…
The inside of the train – these ladies work hard!
You can sit or stand anywhere on this moving train…
One of the train stops is a huge market…
Ladies and their produce…
Here is the main train station in the center of the city where we disembarked…
Shwedagon Pagoda: In the last 3 months of travel through SE Asia, we have seen MANY temples and this one was just as beautiful and grand as many others that we have seen thus far. This is the most sacred Pagoda in Myanmar and it stands 325 feet tall in the middle of the city. It was built somewhere between the 6th and 10th centuries. However, according to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world.
The base of the stupa is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and other males can access. Next is the bell-shaped part of the stupa. Above that is the turban, then the inverted alms bowl, inverted and upright lotus petals, the banana bud and then the umbrella crown. The crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. Immediately before the diamond bud is a flag-shaped vane. The very top—the diamond bud—is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond (Cat, I thought you would appreciate this).
As impressive as this place looks, it has a bit of the “Disneyland” attraction feel with huge lines of people walking around in circles (entrance fee is $8 which is pretty expensive for this town).
What takes away from this otherwise magical place is that hundreds of golden Buddhas have Las Vegas like light installations around their heads which caused Kieran and I to yell out “Wheel of Fortune” on few occasions (the lights are a pretty recent invention). It is still very much worth a look and it is beautiful at any time of the day although I highly recommend going at sunset when it is a bit cooler.
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue: I was yet to see a Synagogue in SE Asia, so when I stumbled upon this place with population of approximately 20 Jews in the city of 5 million, I had to find out more. I really wanted to go in and take a look inside as the pictures looked very impressive, however, the guard of the Synagogue who lives on the premises told us that the main matriarch of the Synagogue passed away a few days earlier from lung cancer and thus the Synagogue was closed for a few days.
Markets: There are many markets to choose from all around the city. We stumbled upon one right in downtown of Yangon and unlike many markets in SE Asia which cater to tourists, this market was all about the locals. Every block is divided up by the type of food/materials that are being sold, for example, kitchen wear is one side, while live chickens are sold on the other side; school supplies sold on a different street along with other paper goods, etc. We ended up buying a whole bunch of school supplies (coloring books, pens, pencils, Frozen pencil case holders) and giving them out to kids as we traveled through Myanmar.
Oh, the irony! School supplies for the kids!
Movies: On a very hot afternoon, we decided to escape the heat by going to see a movie (plus we really wanted to check out the new Avengers movie in 3D for $2.50)!
What an eye opening cultural experience this was! In a theater with occupancy of about 70 people (every seat was taken by locals), about half were on their cell phone talking out loud the entire time. Can you hear me now? Not only that, but the men were chewing the betel nut, and spitting it out right under their feet into a little plastic bag – lovely! It was hilarious and crazy at the same time. I don’t remember much of the movie nor did I hear any of it (it was in English), but it was pretty interesting to see just how oblivious people are to their surroundings. I just wish my phone worked too…
Another thing about the movie theater is that they turn on the AC to below freezing temperatures. Once we walked out of the theater, our jaws were chattering and it took about 45 minutes for my lips to go from blue to normal – see proof below…
And just like any country on this trip, there was always time to watch a little soccer!Pearl Heart Animal Shelter: MY ALL TIME FAVORITE ACTIVITY EVER! While we were in Yangon, we learned of an animal shelter that needed help with moving dogs from one shelter to another during floodings (this is a wet season). We weren’t going to come back to Yangon once we moved to other parts of the country, but once we learned that our help may be needed, we were excited to come back and help out even if for a day. It ended up being the best thing for us as we spent all day with the locals who gave us a great tour of the shelter (150 dogs) and the new shelter that is currently being built.
Overall, dogs are treated very well in Myanmar, unlike in some other countries – I am looking at you, Vietnam. However, due to the lack of knowledge and funds, 99% of dogs are not neutered/spayed, thus causing a huge overpopulation problem which then causes numerous diseases to be spread between dogs and then humans. Also, as dogs are everywhere and the traffic is horrendous, we have seen many dogs that were hit by cars with broken legs, backs, etc. There are many VERY sick, unfed dogs running around – probably some of the sickest that I have ever seen on this trip. People are also very scared of the wild dogs as some could be infected with the rabies virus (a rabies shot for a dog in Myanmar is only $5).
Our ride from the hotel to the shelter (about 1 hour outside of the city)…
On the way to the shelter, we had to pick this beautiful lady at the vet post surgery…she was very sweet!
Once we arrived, we had to walk a long distance through flooded fields…
Bringing tasty treats for the pups!
This big guy led the pack… (Kieran did too!)
It was HOT! and I am wearing my ugly shoes…
Here is the shelter! Pretty impressive what people can accomplish with very few resources…
On arrival it wasn’t clear who was more excited – us or the dogs!
After all of the excitement, it was time for relaxation . . . We had an amazing time with a very generous group of people who dedicate their weekends when they are not working at their full time jobs to spending time with these dogs (feeding them, socializing with them and taking them to see vets when needed).
If you are ever in Yangon, please please please reach out to these great people and try to volunteer or make a donation!
And if you are ever in Mandalay, please check out Stray Dog Savers and help them out as well!
Next stop on this journey is Bagan, Myanmar! It’s super quick to travel via air; however, if you want to save some money, the environment and just simply need a break from all of the above mentioned turbulence, then I highly recommend going with JJ Express as it is really the only luxury and comfortable bus company that makes you feel nice and safe! You can simply message them via their Facebook page and then pay in person when you get to the station. The bus station is located about 45 minutes outside of the city, so give yourself plenty of time to get through the crazy traffic!
See you in Bagan!