Before heading to the United States for the holidays we spent a wonderful week in Myanmar. I’ve been curious about the country since my study abroad program rerouted our trip there in 2007 due to a worldwide tourism protest.
Over a decade later I’ve been able to see what I had missed, and I’m so glad we took the opportunity!
It was a crazy trip, though. We spent 2.5 days in Yangon, took an overnight bus to bagan, 2 full days there, then 1.5 days in Mandalay. A week isn’t usually long enough to see an entire country, but in this case it worked. There are many cities in Myanmar which are restricted to tourists, anyway, so this way we were able to see the countryside and city from South to North to get a great idea of what Myanmar has to offer.
It just happened to be on very, very little sleep.
As soon as we arrived in Yangon I knew we had made the right choice for our mini-trip. Yangon, itself, is nothing incredible, but I could tell the country was some place special. We stayed at a hotel downtown, which is code for: super local and crazy. We walked the riverside, were followed by pigeons, saw dirty, run down buildings, and almost no tourists. It was great.
Unfortunately we were also taken advantage of a bit. We met a local selling traditional male skirts in a park who offered to be our tour guide for a poor village across the river. We agreed, not fully understanding what we were getting into. He helped us get on the ferry to cross the river, then showed us to a private tuk tuk. We were driven to a pagoda and through a fishing village before walking through a very poor dirt road. The people we walked past smiled broadly at us from their shacks.
Our tour guide told us that the village relies on tourists to buy their food. Tourists come to the village, buy a giant bag of rice, and the villagers take turns collecting some. The entire village can eat for two days from one bag of rice, he said. He then asked if we wanted to contribute. Of course our heartstrings were pulled, but we only left the hotel that morning with a limited amount of money. We asked how much it would cost and showed him that we had almost exactly that amount on hand.
It did feel wonderful to buy and distribute the rice, though. They showed Whit how to measure the rice for each family, and he was so happy to be in charge of giving it away.
When it was time to get back in the tuk tuk and head to the ferry things turned sour. It turns out the tuk tuk driver wanted 20k for the 90 minutes we had been together. He admitted that locals would only be charged 8k, but stood firm on his price after we showed him we didn’t have nearly that much on hand. It was an awkward ride back to our hotel with the tour guide who rode along to collect the extra 30k we owed both he and the driver. The entire experience ended up costing us around 100k, and Ben thinks we might have been overcharged for the bag of rice. Oh well, Whit learned a valuable lesson about helping others.
That wasn’t the only time we felt taken advantage of in Myanmar. We were openly overcharge and asked for money in exchange for help more in Myanmar than any other country we could remember. We just started carrying small bills around, knowing that anyone we talked to on the street would expect a tip.
I’m not totally sure how they decided tourists are good for extra money. The thing is, we hardly saw any foreigners on our trip from Yangon to Bagan and Mandalay. Some, sure, but the country really is undiscovered.
I was constantly struck by how abandoned Old Bagan is, for instance. It’s arguably the #1 or 2 most well-known place in Myanmar (behind Inle Lake) and yet it was practically deserted! The area is an archaeological zone where over 1,000 ancient Buddhist pagodas are being preserved and restored. The pagoda clusters are interspersed with dirt roads, and green trees, and no people- making the whole scene like a private backlot tour of the set from a movie on ancient Asia.
We loved it.
We rented an electric scooter and had a blast visiting every nook and cranny of Bagan. The area is so incredibly beautiful that we were in awe almost every place we stopped. And stop we did. We must have visited 30 pagodas! Taking our shoes off in each one. That’s right, people, Myanmar can be a pretty dirty place to visit.
The highlights of the trip were finally visiting a place we’ve heard about for so long, not seeing many other foreigners, going on a hot air balloon ride, the sunset boat trip up the Irawaddy River with stops at 3 riverside pagodas and a cave system, and a whirlwind day of visiting the outskirts of Mandalay by horse and carriage.
The entire week felt like we were straight of a historical novel, and I’m so glad we made an effort to visit this place before it’s too Westernized! I just can’t imagine it will be so neatly preserved for long.
Next Stop: Hong Kong in preparation for our trip to the United States!