May 16, 2016 § 2 Comments
Though my trip to Myanmar blandly started at the website of Skyscanner comparing air ticket prices, I’d like to think it actually started along stacks of bookshelves lined with yellowing pages about Southeast Asia. It was a Friday afternoon in the library when before leaving, I was suddenly gripped by the impulse of checking out a couple of books about Myanmar. Going there and ticking off on my list all the blogged-about activities certainly wouldn’t differentiate me from other casual travelers. But reading something more rooted and personal than the Wikipedia article might just do otherwise. I went to the shelf assigned to Myanmar, skimmed superficially through the decaying spines and plucked out several compelling ones that I subjected to another round of selection by reading a few pages of each. I didn’t want to be a pretentious history buff, nor did I want to commit to books I was dead sure I wouldn’t finish (i.e. too thick). In usual dating fashion, I bade “Sorry, it’s never going to work out” to all the titles I just forced myself to pick earlier and in the end checked out a narrative by one of my favorite Filipino writers (C.P. Hidalgo), a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi (B. Victor), and finally a historical guide book lined with much needed photographs to whet my curiosity. “28 days”, the lady told me as I asked when it was due back. “I can renew it online, right?”. “Can”, she said with a toothy smile. And with that, I flipped to the first page of Five Years in a Forgotten Land. Exactly a week later, I took my first step on the land where Orwell took inspiration for 1984 and where some of the best travel photos are often taken.
Upon landing in Yangon, the structure of the airport was nothing impressive. If anything, it was reminiscent of our own airport; though JM claims ours was way better now when I told her that. I haven’t been home lately so I wouldn’t know. We exchanged our USDs at the airport, as all the online blogs advised. You get better rates when you have 100s, so forget the 50s and 20s unless you really want to. And oh, don’t ever bring even just creased or stapled bills. They’re not likely to accept it. After counting almost half a million kyats (CHATS), we took a taxi to the city. Make sure to look for the official taxi stand when you do so. If you walk straight out of the door immediately like we did and commit to just any driver, you might get charged 20,000 kyats for what’s rightfully 8,000. We haggled and they brought it down to 12,000. I almost gave in, but JM was on a strict budget. And that’s how we found the deviously hidden official taxi stand by circumstance.
The drive down Pyay Road was dotted with big mansions, which was a contrast to the multistory apartments in downtown Yangon. Our taxi driver that day had a good command of English and he answered my inquiries as I drew questions from the road. As democracy in Myanmar had only been formally attained a year before when they held their first election after years of being ruled by a military regime, it was a fascinating time to be there. Tourism mocks were already starting to appear, but a lot of its culture and history remains intact and observable. A lot of British structures were present, and the support of the Japanese was particularly evident in the vehicles, appliances and even the trains. For awhile, I also thought North Korea had captured their market which was historically illogical, turns out Nok Air was a Thai budget airline. I asked our driver if the people look up to Aung San Suu Kyi, and he quickly replied “Oh yes, the people love the Lady”. During the entire trip, I would recall threads of history I had read and was reading from the books I borrowed. Among the things we noticed was that majority of the cars were white. We presumed it might have something to do with religion or culture, but we never found out the real answer. The majority of the men also wore longyis (LONG-JIS) whether under normal shirts or branded polos, while women were oblivious to the opaque thanaka painted on their face to protect them from the sun. We reached the city in under an hour and we had the taxi drop us at Agga Youth Hostel. Technically, all we needed that day was a place to leave our bags and to take a bath. We were scheduled to take the night bus to Bagan in 10 hours. What was wonderful about Agga Youth though was that when I emailed them asking for day-rates, they told me we could shower and leave our bags for free. I was dumbfounded by their email. “Why would it be free?”, I asked JM in disbelief weeks before while I was doing the itinerary. “Isn’t it interesting that we’re shocked when people do something innately good these days?”, she replied. So we accepted the kindness and dropped off our bags there before heading out to the streets of Yangon under the uncomfortably blazing hot weather.
We took a path going to Sule Pagoda, while meandering here and there in between some side-streets. The people were nice in general, they were neither withdrawn nor imposing. Though not everyone knew how to speak English, they were courteous and pleasant. We didn’t feel like we were going to get mugged no matter how shady the place looked, and most importantly we never got mugged nor heard from anyone that they had any equivalent experience. Hygiene was a different matter though, so medicine and abstinence would probably be wise for the faint-gutted. For an hour while walking, what we wanted to spot most was a store that sold hats. We were a bit surprised that it took us an hour to find a stall selling hats when it was practically a necessity at that weather. After circling around interesting stalls and tea shops, we finally found a stall that specifically sold hats. *pure joy* I got the widest brimmed hat I could find while JM picked out the cowboy cut. “Bagay sayo”, I told her, whereas mine looked like my bolster pillow’s cover. I couldn’t care less, except for having to remove it every time I wanted a photograph.
Before reaching Sule Pagoda, we were already dripping wet from our sweat. The moment I saw blocked plastic letters saying “ICE COLD BEVERAGES” displayed in one of the old buildings, I quickly dragged JM to the other side of the road. It was a major road I believe, but J-walking was very much the norm. We both ordered cold fruit drinks and I got a couple of dumplings. That was our first juice in Myanmar, and we found them too sweet. By the time we had our last juice, we still had the same conclusion that their drinks must be laden with sugar. “Para akong uminom ng diabetes”, she said. After resting awhile within that restaurant’s failing air-conditioning, we walked out again to look for the Yangon Central Station of the Circular Train. This train goes literally around Yangon and is a good bet for people-watching if you have 3 hours to spare. It costs 100 kyats for the entire line if you want to ride in the non-AC carriage, and 300 kyats for the AC. We bought AC tickets, but I think you’ll do better buying the non-AC if it’s not that hot. It was right smack noon however in one of the hottest times in Myanmar when we got there. And to illustrate just how hot it was, as much as we felt like dropping dead on the pavement due to the heat and exhaustion, we didn’t dare to because the temperature of the ground was bound to be worse. When we finally spotted the train beneath that bridge that took us back to memories of reading 1Q84, we couldn’t be any happier.
We only did 5 stops on the train as we didn’t have enough time to spare. We even had to forego going to Feel Myanmar Restaurant, which I had been eyeing since I started reading about the local fares. We went down a station near the famous Shwedagon Pagoda (8000 kyats, free for locals) and proceeded there as our last destination in Yangon. The stupa of Shwedagon is visible from afar within the city and like other Buddhist temples, shoes are removed as a sign of respect. The temple was huge and glaringly plated in gold. There seemed to be more local people than tourists, which was great. I wondered though if they didn’t have to be at work at that time because it was just around 5 in the afternoon then. After Shwedagon, we went back to Agga Youth, took our free bath and bade the courteous and hospitable staff goodbye.
The taxi from the city to Aungminlar Bus Station took us more than an hour. The bus station was more far-flung than I had imagined from the map. On that note, I had booked 2 out of the 3 bus tickets we needed online before our trip. Given our time constraints in our schedule, it was a good and reliable decision. However, booking there itself would cost only roughly half of what’s online. The bus stopovers had become one of my favorite moments over the course of our trip as it was an opportune time to eat local fare. I was never disappointed, and in fact one of the best meals I had there was in a stop between Bagan and Inle Lake. Local food was not astounding, and I can only describe them as homely close to the heart. They seemed to be a fusion of Thai and Indian cuisine, which was not surprising given their geographic location. Oddly however simple, I loved their food. Their sauces were usually a very oily and mild version for curries, a lot of peanut and fish sauce for their noodles. Cilantro and chilis were a staple, haters beware.
We woke up in Bagan the next day. The driver stopped the bus unceremoniously and one simply figured out that you were wherever you wanted to go. It was also perhaps because I got the Normal option. Our experience was quite different for the last VIP bus where JM and I met the Myanmar girl that amazed us. Upon alighting, men (mostly half-naked) started swarming us. Again as with any country, they tried to charge us 20,000 kyats for the ride until New Bagan. Since I had asked Ostello Bagan how much the rate really is, I attempted to bargain to 8,000. The guy who cornered me wouldn’t budge and the other taxi drivers knew how to respect each other, so I proceeded to get another guy who offered a horse cart at 8,000. It took us 4 times longer than if we got a cab, but the sun was barely up then so the ride was breezy. Bagan was very different from Yangon. Stupas were far more common than people. The land was sandy and dry, and the town itself lulled you into a slower cadence. Upon reaching Ostello, we dropped our bags and rented e-bikes (which basically were old Japanese scooters, 3000 kyats for one-seaters and 5000 kyats for two-seaters) and proceeded to look for breakfast. We went to a local place that the map in the hostel listed as a “very good tea shop”. The food was good but not great, and JM remarked “kung ito na yung very good nila, ano pa yung iba?”. When we passed by that shop again later on, I realized that the place was named “Very Good” in fact. The misleading name gave us a good laugh. After breakfast, JM explored on the e-bike and I decided to stay at Ostello to continue reading on Aung San Suu Kyi and sip on more cold fruit shakes. The hostel was very dainty and there was a lot of free seats. The place was run by an Italian and the staff were very warm and helpful. Frankly, driving the e-bike also frustrated me, which was why I took a pass from going with JM. As much as I’d like to point out that the brakes weren’t working well and it was difficult to maneuver, I probably clearly just lacked experience on scooters/motorbikes. JM returned at noon and we proceeded to look for lunch. My fears soon took their form and while trying to run the e-bike at a sandy path, I accelerated by mistake, mishandled the wheel and successfully flung myself off the moving seat. Good thing I had a helmet on as the shield cracked instead of my face. I got a deep cut in my toe and a huge bruise that spanned half of my leg for the following 2 weeks. I gave up trying to look for the restaurant by the river and we drove to the nearest restaurant instead which proved to be a good decision. As JM said, “buti na lang nangyari yun no, at least nahanap natin to”. I smiled halfheartedly for though I was still shaken, the food was indeed really good. We had local curries, stir fried vegetables and a good 600 mL of cold Myanmar beer each. The place was quaint and the owner was nice. He kept refilling our plate of peanuts to apologize that the cooking took a long time. Puppets hung on the wooden ceiling and flowering plants decorated the place. Upon going back to the hostel to check-in, we took a shower and celebrated at the sight of beds.
As with any trip to Bagan, both the sunset and the sunrise are the moments you’ll never want to miss. Taking a photograph of the horizon with silhouettes of the stupas and pagodas outlining the skyline is a beautiful souvenir, alongside actually watching it. It’s good to ask for directions for temples with a good sunset or sunrise view as the temples are usually unnamed and deserted. What’s even better is if you have more than 2 days in Bagan to afford you the luxury to explore more temples and not flock to the common ones. Our sunrise temple was quite an experience as JM proposed that we get a bigger e-bike and I could ride at the back. It was pitch black when we left at 4am and the street lamps barely lighted the path. It was terrifying and fun for the both of us, though I didn’t dare laugh too much while she was driving as I didn’t want to distract her from driving. We couldn’t find the temple we wanted to go to at Old Bagan, but a good Samaritan brought us to an unnamed temple where we had it all to ourselves – a contrast from our sunset experience where the temple we went to was swarmed with fellow tourists. After the feat, JM was quite scared from driving the both of us further so we agreed to get separate e-bikes once again. The rest of the day, JM spent on the e-bike, and as you might have guessed, I spent walking around town and finishing my book. We also bought additional books about Myanmar from a local bookshop. The old lady manning it was so pleased we came back as promised that she gave us free bottled waters. That was 600 kyats saved. At that gesture, JM was compelled to get 2 books instead of 1. We caught a night bus to Inle Lake at the end of our 2nd day in Bagan.
We arrived at Inle Lake at 3 am and proceeded to Song of Travel. They offered day accommodations at a good price (6500 kyats) and the dorm was actually good. Each bed had a curtain and the shower cubicles were clean and new. Inle Lake is best known for the photographs of fishermen paddling with their foot and carrying conical baskets. Sadly, this practice is no longer done by the locals and though we will spot a fisherman seemingly doing that, it is only for tourists’ sake and much like our own Ifugao in Baguio, done as a way to earn money. We booked our boat tour at the hostel for 15,000 kyats each (I was totally sold by how they described their tour), which later on we discovered was quite a sham since you could split a 15,000 boat between 6 people. I knew that beforehand since I actually did research on it, but unfortunately I got carried away by the words “unique”, “customized”, “cannot be replicated”, etc. It was alright anyway as we made friends with an English girl, a Spanish couple and a large Vietnamese group of travelers who just met at an online travel forum. The boat trip started at around 6 am. Inle Lake was much larger than I had imagined. It was bordered with mountains on the side and both dotted and rimmed with villages, often on stilts on the water. What was most astonishing too was the “Floating Gardens”, where people dredged soil from one place and piled it into columns in another place, and planting vegetables like tomatoes and gourds on the lake itself. It was interesting to see the farmers tending their gardens on boats. Though the water wasn’t exactly clear, the people did their laundry and bathing in the lake itself. Even the tap water was from the lake, as brown water started running when I tried washing my hands at one of the stops. I saw water pumps and water lines in some villages, though because people barely knew how to speak English, I couldn’t ask how the water was, or if it even was, filtered before being distributed. I could only surmise that garbage collection was non-existent and so human waste probably goes to the lake as well. It was interesting how the people lived not just by the lake, but on the lake as well. Town borders were demarcated in the water by wooden gates passable by one boat at a time. And though cleanliness billboards were posted at regular intervals, most boats were motorized and powered by diesel. I was at first alarmed why nothing is being done yet to stop the lake from being polluted by the motor fuel, but I caught myself realizing that Myanmar’s democratic government is just about starting. A lot of places had regular power disruptions and tap water was not potable. Local TV shows reminded me of Philippine entertainment in the 90s and drivers drove haphazardly on the road. Shopping malls are not yet a thing, but a few fastfood chains were already present. Despite this, Facebook and sleek smart phones were everywhere. The internet was clearly the fastest moving equalizer, and so was KFC.
We left Inle Lake a little bit drunk. We only spent 15 hours at Inle and as we got to the bus station early, we went to a restaurant across the road for our last beer in Myanmar. It was only 1800-2500 kyats for their giant amber bottles, so it was a cheap place to be an alcoholic.
Our trip ended at Yangon again, where I took a cab to the airport while JM stayed on for another day. I don’t think we spent enough days at Myanmar, there was clearly so much more landscapes that it offered and culture to be discovered. As it was also the first time I had read more in-depth prior to going to a new place, it was fascinating for me to trace the places as I had imagined reading them, understanding what the NLD meant to the people, and why the military regime existed and persisted despite the terrible humanitarian acts they did. I’ve corrected my wrong notion that all people in Myanmar are Burmese, just as not all people in the Philippines are Tagalogs. Though I cannot claim to have fully grasped the Myanmar zeitgeist, I can say I’ve gained a notch deeper of understanding for the Jewel of Asia.
Here’s a rough budget breakdown of the prices at that time for anyone interested.