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Land of the Golden Temples

Contents:


Boycott

After Cambodia we traveled to Myanmar via Bangkok. Myanmar is an isolated country, ranking 154th on the list of countries surveyed in the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom 2005, beating only North Korea. Political freedoms are certainly not much better either.

Although Myanmar is now the official name of the country, the name change from Burma to Myanmar was imposed by the current unelected military government and hence has not been fully accepted, at least outside of the country. However in Burmese (the language of Myanmar) the country has apparently always been called Myanmar. I use the name Myanmar in my story for that reason, except when the name Burma seems more appropriate.

It is impossible to travel to Myanmar without being confronted by the current travel boycott against the country. Specifically the Campaign for Human Rights and Democracy in Burma which recently launched a new campaign, in which they ask people to sign a pledge, that they will not visit Burma.

All the arguments used in support of the travel boycott may be correct, but there are two points of discussion. The first is about the unequal treatment of offenders, why after all would a travel boycott not be applied across the board to all countries that commit human rights violations? For example why is there no travel boycott against China, for its actions in Tibet or its human rights violations at home?

The second point is that it is unfortunately the people of Myanmar who bear the brunt of this boycott. Already living in difficult circumstances they may now also be starved of the revenues that foreigners could bring them. Rest assured that the generals, with their support from Beijing, will remain in power and live a life of luxury at the expense of their citizens, regardless of the boycott.

I would strongly urge any person who chooses to visit Myanmar, to think very carefully about where they spend their money. Do not go through official travel agents, but visit the country independently. This will give you full control over where the money goes to.

Until recently those not traveling on organized tours were forced to exchange 200 US Dollars into Foreign Exchange Certificates so that the government could still get their hands on some of the foreign currency that independent travelers brought into the country. However in an attempt to promote tourism, this obligation has now been abolished.

While traveling in Myanmar you can spend your money at private hotels, bus companies and airlines. Like in any country however the government still earns money through taxation and certain fees, but it is well possible to make sure that most of your money ends up in the pockets of ordinary citizens.

Myanmar is a very poor country. Its infrastructure is in dismal condition. Traveling on Kipling's famous road to Mandalay is therefore an excruciatingly lengthy experience, not to mention uncomfortable. Though we were still glad to be on the bus when we saw that the train had derailed, its passengers walking to the road to try to get on some of the passing buses.

The largest banknote is one of 1000 Kyat, worth approximately 0.85 EUR or 1.10 USD, which is the lowest value largest banknote of any country we have visited so far. Even in Laos the largest banknote was worth a whole 2 USD.

Contrasting with this is the incredible richness of Myanmar's sights. The country is dotted with golden zedis (stupas) and gold leaves are ceremonially affixed to many Buddhas.

Yangon's highlight is surely Shwedagon Pagoda, impressive even though the golden zedi was being renovated while we were there. There is a diamond at the top, only visible at night from certain points as a dot of light. The diamond refracts the light from the spotlights at certain angles (not the kind of logical explanation that you will hear at the pagoda).

Two other golden zedis in Yangon are Sule Pagoda, spot in the center of town and Botataung Pagoda, unique because the stupa is hollow. Inside each stupa is said to be a relic of some sort, in Botataung this is a hair of the Buddha. The zedi was destroyed during WWII, the relic was found amongst the rubble.

Mandalay

Mahamuni Paya in Mandalay has a Buddha statue covered in gold leaves, so thick that the original form is barely visible, every day the faithful (and the not so faithful, like me) continue to stick more leaves of gold on the statue. Strangely women (or "ladies" as the sign read) were not allowed to approach the Buddha. There were an annoying number of beggars at this temple.

Kuthodaw Pagoda (or "the world's largest book"), also in Mandalay, has 729 marble slabs with the entire Tripitaka inscribed on them. Each slab is housed in its own little stupa. If you learn to read Burmese numerals you can, to the amazement of the monks, find the last page, page number 729.

A short and pleasant boat trip up the Ayeyarwady river from Mandalay, lies Mingun, which would have been the site of the world's largest zedi (stupa), had it been completed. The zedi was planned to be 150 meters tall, but only the base was built. Mingun also claims to have the largest hanging uncracked bell in the world, weighing 90 tonnes. You can get under the bell and ask for someone to "ring" it for you.

In Amarapura, just south of Mandalay, one can find U Bein's bridge, a 1.2 kilometer long teakwood bridge that snakes across a lake.

What made our visit to Mandalay an even more exciting experience was that we met a group of English students on Mandalay Hill. They invited us to their class so that they could practice their English with us. It was a fun experience.

An entirely different experience was a visit to a Moustache Brothers show. Par Par Lay, the group's leader spent 7 years in jail for making a joke about the government. He is actually mentioned by name in the movie "About a Boy" which stars Hugh Grant.

It was coincidentally on February 14th when both these experiences made us fall in love with the people of Myanmar! It made me think how counterproductive the boycott actually is.

We should visit this country, we can actually help them, for example to practice English and inform them about the outside world or give some handy tips for using the Internet. But also to help keep the spotlight on a persecuted dance troupe, like the Moustache Brothers, so that the government will hopefully continue to leave them alone. The more foreign eyes there are in Myanmar the more protection there is for the people of Myanmar.

Bagan

After so much traveling we are sometimes unimpressed by things. Other tourists click away in awe at things that have become normal to us, a local market, a river boat, another temple, waterfall or whatever. Then we are happy to be impressed again by something so out of the ordinary and unique as Bagan.

Bagan, a temple area 8 hours south of Mandalay, officially counts 2217 temples spread out over a vast area. The view from any temple top consists of other temples as far as the eye can see!

One can spend days pleasantly roaming around the temples in a horse cart or on bicycle. You will soon get very confused by all the odd sounding temple names, it helps to write them down, otherwise I couldn't possibly tell you the temples that we visited.

Wetkyi-in, Gubyangyi (many frescoes were taken by a German collector), The-Gyar-hit, Upali Thein, Law-ka Hitpan, Ananda Pahto (one of the biggest and best preserved), Migala Zedi, Shwesandaw Paya (nice view from upper terrace), Ananda Ok Kyang (the monastery next to Ananda with well preserved murals), Makabodhi Paya (with pyramidal spire), temple 1976 (with its 5 sides and real name unknown to me), Bupaya (by the river), Gawdaw Palin, Thatbyinnyu Pahto (the biggest in Bagan, but unfortunately one cannot climb up), Ngakywendaung Paya (with its nice view), Mimalaung Kyaung (quiet), Dhammayangyi Phato (big but missing its top), temple 730 (another 5 sided temple whose name I do not know) and Nandamannya (which was unfortunately closed). Not to forget a little side trip to mount Popa.

Out of the 2217 temples only 17 are pentagonal and I found 2 of them by pure coincidence while cycling around the Bagan area. Both were not indicated on my map, so I still have no clue how they were called and can only identify them by their numbers: temples 730 and 1976. Numbers which incidentally are written only with Burmese numerals so it pays to learn them (it also happens to be a nice way to impress the locals, who are invariably surprised).

Inlay Lake

We spent a few more days on Inlay lake, well not really on the lake as those resorts are rather expensive, but in the nearby town of Nyangshwa. A beautiful lake in the mountains littered with villages on stilts and floating gardens. Local boatmen have a curious paddling method, they use a foot to paddle. It all seems a little inconvenient, but most of them are doing it that way, so there must be something to it.

Somewhere in the lake lies a temple, nicknamed Jumping Cat Temple, where the monks have trained cats to jump through loops. Very curious.

A short bicycle ride away from Nyangshwa lies Maing Thauk village, which is entirely on stilts and still quite authentic. On the day we visited we were told that 2 other tourists had come earlier that day.

Lasting Impressions

We returned to Yangon to catch our flight back to Bangkok. As we left Myanmar, we reflected on our visit. It is a country that left us with very strong impressions, first and foremost from the people we met and talked to.

Many Burmese showed a great interest in talking with us, it gave them an opportunity to practice their English and ask some questions about the outside world. I was impressed by their friendliness and their strong desire for freedom (at least amongst young people).

One young man showed me a photo of Aung San Su Kyi only to exclaim "I love her". A deep expression of happiness appeared on the face of that young Burmese man when I told him that the whole world knows what is going on in Myanmar and that we all support her cause.

Secondly we were impressed by the splendid temples, it seems that golden stupas are everywhere! The country really has an exceptionally rich heritage.

Traveling in Myanmar is like traveling used to be, before the age of mobile phones and the Internet. Though both can be found in Myanmar, hardly anyone has a mobile phone and the Internet has been neutered so that people cannot exchange e-mails without the government being able to read them.

They do this using a filtering software package called DansGuardian, developed by Daniel Barron, that blocks all web-based e-mail services such as Yahoo and Hotmail and forces you to use a government controlled e-mail service.

After having visited Myanmar and met so many Burmese people we can say that we now care a lot more about them and certainly will be following developments closely, hoping for the best, a peaceful and bloodless transition to democracy.

I am more convinced than before that the travel boycott is counter productive. I will say to you simply: go there independently, fall in love with Myanmar and its people!

Back in Krung Thep, better known as Bangkok, for the last time on this trip, we finally managed to visit the Royal Palace. Generally in Bangkok, we had been organizing our travels and doing the normal things in life, such as eating nice food, using the Internet and going to movies.

After a few days, we were off to Malaysian Borneo, like Myanmar also a beautiful destination, but in an entirely different way. That will be the topic of our next travel update.

If you would like to be notified or no longer want to be notified of our travel updates please e-mail me.

e-mail Otto de Voogd


Photos

Yangon

Sule Pagoda Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda Reclining Buddha Shwedagon Pagoda Zedi Shwedagon Pagoda Cleaning Shwedagon Pagoda Statue Yangon City Bus Botataung Buddha Hair

Mandalay

Mandalay Hill Guardians Portrayal of Hell Mandalay Hill Students Mahamuni Mandalay Street Kuthodaw Tripitaka Page Tipitaka Page Zedi Kuthodaw Golden Lion Moustache Brothers Show Moustache Brothers Pigs in the Harbor Local Sailing Boat Mingun Zedi (Stupa) Base Mingun Bell Hsinbyume Paya (Pagoda) Pathodawgyi View Pathodawgyi Paya U Bein's Bridge Sunset from U Bein's Bridge

Bagan

People's Desire Shwezigon Paya Ananda Pahto Ananda Pahto Ananda Buddha Carrying a Horse Bagan Frescoes Panoramic view over Bagan Another Buddha Bagan Mural Htilominlo Makabodhi Pentagonal Temple Thatbyinnyu Pahto View from Thatbyinnyu Cylindrical Temple Sunset Over Bagan Pentagonal Temple Temple 730 Ceiling Owl in Palm Tree Mount Popa Old Popa Macaque Tourists Posing

Inlay Lake Peddling Video

Foot peddling on Inlay lake

Inlay Lake

Inlay Fishermen Foot Peddling Houses on Stilts House on Stilts Inlay Spires Inlay Market Rolling Cigars Five Buddhas Jumping Cats Temple Floating Gardens Inlay Lake Waterbuffalo Inlay Villagers

Bangkok

Bangkok Royal Palace Bangkok Royal Palace Bangkok State Tower


Practical Information

To my knowledge the information provided here was accurate at the time of our visit. However time passes and things can change.
 

Boycott or not?

On the one hand the Campaign for Human Rights and Democracy in Burma simply asks people not to go to Burma. On the other hand Voices for Burma asks people only to go if they can create a positive impact for the people of Burma.

We found the Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar to be quite helpful in avoiding businesses run by the government or military. If you are not prepared to do the research and make this effort, then please do not go.

Visas

Myanmar: 950 THB (through our travel agent in Bangkok)
Note: You are no longer required to change 200 USD into FEC (foreign exchange certificates) upon entering Myanmar.
Thailand: no visa for stays up to 30 days.

Money

There are no ATMs in Myanmar, your best bet is to bring cash US Dollars, hotel and other tourist charges are labeled in USD anyway. Euros are sometimes accepted too (but the rate is not great).
Do NOT exchange money at the airport as the rate there is only half of what it is in town. Exchange rates are highest in Yangon on the black market (near Sule Pagoda). Rates for 100 USD bills are higher than for other bills. But as the largest denomination bill in Myanmar is 1,000 Kyat (worth approx. 1.1 USD), this will land you with some 90 bills to count, at least if you are so lucky that they don't give you 500 Kyat bills. Certain serial numbers for Dollar bills, that have been used by counterfeiters fetch lower exchange rates as well. These serial numbers are said to start with "BC" or "CD" but I am not sure about this.
Be very careful when exchanging money on the black market, count your money and do not let the money changer touch it after that. Only once you have established that the amount is correct do you hand over your Dollars.

Internet

The Internet in Myanmar has been neutered by the government, it is impossible to reach web-based e-mail services such as Yahoo! or Hotmail, you have to use the government's e-mail service to send and receive e-mails. Fortunately you can access your Yahoo! address book by going directly to address.yahoo.com, which at least allows you to get the e-mail addresses of the people you want to mail.

Costs

Thailand - Baht, approx. rates: 1 USD = 37.50 THB, 1 EUR = 48 THB

Bangkok: Four Sons House: 550 THB (bathroom, TV, aircon)
Bangkok: Metered Taxi from Khaosan Road to Airport: 207 THB + 60 THB highway tolls.
Bangkok Airport: Passenger Service Charge: 500 THB per person
Flight: Bangkok -> Yangon: 6500 THB (Bangkok Airways)

Myanmar - Kyat, approx. rates: 1 USD = 900 MMK, 1 EUR = 1150 MMK

Yangon: Taxi to city: 5 USD (cheaper may be possible if you walk out of the airport compound to find a taxi there)
Yangon: Mother Land Inn (2): 13 USD (bathroom, aircon, breakfast incl.)
Yangon: Shwedagon Paya (Pagoda): 5 USD (for foreigners)
Yangon: Botataung entry fee: 2 USD
Taxi to Yangon bus station from downtown: 3500 MMK
Bus: Yangon to Mandalay: 4500 MMK (New Mandalar Htun Express, pretty bad bus, like most buses in Myanmar).
Mandalay: Sabai Phyu Hotel: 10 USD (bathroom, aircon, incl. breakfast, but could be cleaner).
Small taxi from Mandalay bus station to downtown: 2500 MMK
Mandalay Hill entry fee: free (was 3 USD)
Mahamuni Paya entry fee: free (was 4 USD)
Small taxi for the whole day in Mandalay: 10 USD
Kuthodaw Pagoda ("World's biggest book"): 2000 MMK (or the 10 USD city pass)
Moustache Brothers show: 2000 MMK (every day at 20:30) 39th Street between 80/81 Street, Mandalay.
Return by boat to Mingun: 1500 MMK
Mingun entry fee: 3 USD
Bus from Mandalay to Bagan: 4200 MMK (through Hotel 5500 MMK) Horrible trip, to be avoided! Unfortunately the river boat was full, even when trying to book it several days in advance.
Bagan Archaeological Zone entry fee: 10 USD (levied at entrance of the area).
Nyaung Oo (Bagan area): Golden Village Inn: 10 USD (bathroom, aircon, fridge, sat-TV, breakfast incl.) Same owner as New Heaven Hotel.
There is an excellent new restaurant nearby (opposite New Heaven Hotel): Myitzima Restaurant run by a very friendly owner called Kyaw Myint Aung.
Bagan: bicycle rent: 500 MMK per day
Bagan: horse cart from 08:00 to sunset: 6000 MMK
Bagan: horse cart to the airport 1500 to 2000 MMK (taxi is 3000 MMK)
Flight: Bagan -> Heho (Inlay lake): 68 USD with Air Mandalay (there is no airport tax in Bagan)
Heho Airport Taxi Mafia charges 15,000 MMK for the ride to Nyaungshwe, hard bargaining got it down to 12,000 MMK which was still way to much. Alternatively one could walk to the main road (not far) where it is possible to catch a pickup truck to the Shwenyaung intersection, from where a pickup to Yaungshwe can be taken. This variant would probably costs around 500 MMK per person but could take a long time as you have to wait a lot for pickups to show up and fill up.
Nyaungshwe: Teak Wood Hotel: 15 USD per night in the new section. Annoyingly they asked for payment of all days in advance.
Tour of Inlay lake by boat: 10,000 MMK (for up to 5 people)
Bicycle rent in Nyaungshwe: 700 MMK per day
Maing Thauk canoe tour: 500 MMK per person
Pickup from Nyaungshwe to Shwenyaung: 200 MMK per person
Bus from Shwenyaung to Yangon: 7000 MMK (through a hotel or agent in Yaungshwe)
Yangon International Airport: passenger service charge (airport tax): 10 USD (it is not included in your ticket)

Thailand - Baht, approx. rates: 1 USD = 37.50 THB, 1 EUR = 49 THB

Taxi from Airport to Khao San Road (meter + 50 THB): 177 (meter) + 50 (airport surcharge) + 60 (toll) = 287 THB (in comparison the airport bus costs 100 THB per person)
Four Sons Village hotel: 500 THB (bathroom, aircon, sat-TV) beds are bit old and hard.
Bangkok Royal Palace entry fee: 250 THB (as usual in Thailand, only foreigners pay, everything in Thailand seems to be maintained thanks to foreign money).
A favorite restaurant of ours near Khao San Road (since we got hooked on Japanese food) is Taketei.


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