Yangon gold and the road to Mandalay

A good deal of our time in Yangon went towards logistics – talking with Kalya, pouring through Lonely Planet, calling up hotels around the country as we sketched our route. We did get out a bit however.


One of our first excursions was a sunset visit to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the largest, most iconic and holy pagoda in all of Myanmar. It towers over the city and is the stuff of local lore and historic legend. You can read more about it here if you’re interested.

As with many of the things we’ve seen on this trip so far, photos can not come close to capturing the grandeur of Swedagon – but as always I will post some of my pictures anyhow. 😉 Our first visit was a bit spontaneous and I didn’t actually have my camera with me – the photos are from a subsequent visit at the end of our time in Myanmar. We got a cab from the hotel to drop us at one of the four entrances. We hadn’t seen the pagoda before this (it’s visible from many, but not all, vantage points in the city), and it managed to deliver the drama.

One enters the large compound through a long, broad covered stairway. The entrance of each of the four stairways is guarded by massive chinthe on either side – for their sheer size already an impressive sight to behold! Vendors, devotees and orange-robed monks accompanied our slow ascent through the passage, and then suddenly the courtyard was before us.

We were lucky; on our first visit the pagoda wasn’t too busy. The atmosphere was peaceful in the soft twilight and it felt like we were the only Westerners in this gentle, sacred, awesome space.

We wandered in barefoot across the still-warm marble of the compound,  watching the night descend as the endless lesser spires and buddhas were lit up, until we turned a corner and caught our first view of the main stupa itself. The thing is just huge and just incredible. Covered in plate gold and topped with an unbelievable number of diamonds, I would have thought the excess of riches could come across as tacky but it is simply awesome.

We were also lucky to meet a lovely, friendly monk named San Ta (sure I am spelling that wrong) who took time to chat with us and show us some of the lesser known sights within the complex.

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Shwedagon towers over the city of Yangon. This photo was taken from some swank restaurant in a high-rise that a friendly Burmese guy we met on the street took us to. (We went together for a tea afterwards at a normal shop where he taught me some basic Burmese words) 🙂

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Entering the complex

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Up close at the big pagoda

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Night falls at Shwedagon

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Neon Buddha

The (new) road to Mandalay

I may write more about our time in Yangon later, for now though, let’s get the trip started. After all the planning and preparation, we were finally ready to leave the creature comforts of the Classique and sink our teeth into the rest of Myanmar. We decided to start our trip with a boat trip up the famous Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwaddy) River.

To do this though, we first had to get to Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar. Mandalay is another place I knew nothing about, but there is a Robbie Williams song called “The Road to Mandalay“ which I do know (which, reading the lyrics, has very little to do with the Burmese city I think) and this inevitably became the auto-repeated soundtrack in my head for much the trip!

We seemed to have great timing – we arrived shortly after the opening of a brand new highway the government had built between Yangon, Mandalay, and the new capitol, Nay Pyi Taw (if you are interested to learn more about the wackyness of the Burmese government, look into this place). That meant that the trip to Mandalay would only take around 6 hours by bus – something that would not have been possible a month earlier.

More affordable than planes and more reliable than the trains, buses are a really popular mode of transportation in Myanmar. We were amazed at the size of the bus center in Yangon. The place is a dusty maze of parking areas crammed with hundreds of buses old and new, food shops and ticket offices. It took our cab driver well over five minutes of driving around and stopping for directions until he found the right corner of the center where our bus was waiting.

We got a luxury bus for this leg of the journey. Decent seats, air con, a complimentary wet nap to wipe the grime of travel from our faces (unnecessary since we came straight from the hotel but boy could we have used it at later points in our trip!), and TV and stereo blaring primitively edited Burmese movies the whole trip long. (one about a man who cross dresses and poses as a nanny to get closer to the woman he loves seemed somehow familiar… 🙂 )

Travel on the highway was smooth but surreal. We saw hardly any traffic on the brand new highway traversing mostly empty plains. Some sections were still under construction – occaisionally we’d pass teams of construction workers protected from the strong sun by long sleeves and pants and broad hats. The whole length of highway between Yangon and Mandalay had only one rest stop, fashioned somewhat after the Western style, with huge (nearly empty) parking lots and a strip of redundant restaurants and shops (although the excessive number was western, the shops themselves were decidedly Asian, with things like dried fish hanging from the ceilings and free green tea with every beverage or meal ordered). The whole thing was bizarre but fun.

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Sign posts at the rest stop

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Workers at the side of the empty road

Travel buddies

We arrived into Mandalay on time (in fact, I still owe Roman for losing that bet…), pulling into a smaller but equally dusty bus station outside the city. There were a couple of other Westerners on the bus with us; we ended up sharing a cab (i.e. squishing into the back of a mini-truck) into town with a Dutch man and his Burmese wife.

Elmer and Ohmar ended up becoming our travel companions for much of the trip. Luck had it that much of our itinerary was the same, and even when we thought we would miss each other due to timing, we often ended up randomly crossing paths. They were good fun and generous with their local knowledge (Ohmar especially), and added so much to our experience of Myanmar.

We discovered that we were both taking the same boat ride to Bhamo for the next day, so they joined us at our hotel in Mandalay (cheaper yes, but a definite downgrade from the Classique (grungy, dark, big, inexplicable hole in the bathroom ceiling), but they were showing football in the lobby so Roman was pretty happy. 🙂 TV in Myanmar is pretty restricted by the government, but one thing that gets aired consistently and is a definite improvement over the often dull, contrived government-controlled local programming is European football. Folks in Myanmar are crazy for it and we met a lot of Manchester United fans during our time there).

The boat was scheduled to leave at 6am and we had to get there before hand because Elmer and Ohmar still had to buy tickets, so it was a short night in Mandalay before our early start the next day…

Myanmar: First notes from Yangon

Arriving in Yangon

Flying into Myanmar from Thailand was magical. As I mentioned earlier, I knew next to nothing about the place, and with the little information that I did have, my imagination could run wild.

I felt we were alighting in a land forgotten by time, tropical, mysterious and unknown, conflicted but yet somehow unspoiled, rife with untold, shadowy cultural riches.

We had a late afternoon flight. The landscape scrolling beneath the plane was a rich green: broad sweeps of flat lands covered in countless rice paddies and other farm lands, punctuated only occasionally by low buildings or, more spectacularly, by the spires of gold-painted Buddhist pagodas, aflame in the last sun rays of the day.

The plane landed just as the sun was beginning to melt into the tree-lined horizon. Time after time during our stay there I would have the same realization – the sun is just bigger in Myanmar than in other countries I’ve been to in this world. I couldn’t stop watching it as the plane taxied on the runway. I tried to capture it with my iPhone – this image does nothing to convey how huge it seemed but here it is anyway. 🙂

IMG 0308 The setting sun above the plane’s wing

After waiting in massive lines in the bustling and huge Bangkok airport, Yangon International was small, simple and above all peaceful by comparison. The airport staff was dressed in drab brown uniforms; women in unflattering skirts and tired socks pooling around their ankles. There was definitely a feeling of depressing government influence in the attire, but everyone we dealt with was cordial and quiet – the vibe was surprisingly tranquil.

We got a taxi from the airport to our hotel – a battered Nissan Bluebird, a model I’d never heard of before. Taxis in Myanmar are pretty impressive. New cars and proper replacement parts must be really hard to come by. We did see some modern, western-style cars in the former capital, but most people and certainly no taxi driver can afford them. Every taxi we took during our stay was a well-loved but totally dilapidated rust bucket with exposed inner workings and improvised upholstery held together by scraps of metal, duct tape and hope. I really got a kick out of them! 🙂

A taste of home

There was another aspect of driving in Myanmar that I enjoyed. Thailand certainly felt more western after India. Myanmar was definitely a whole different flavor, but there were a few little things that were distinctly reminiscent of home – and specifically the States.

This was the first country we’ve been to in Asia where they drive on the right hand side of the road. What’s cool though is that they take what ever cars they can get – the driver’s seats seemed to be on the right side of the car as often as on the left. 🙂

It’s a small thing, but I also noticed American Standard brand toilets and sinks everywhere we went – a brand that I haven’t seen anywhere else but in America. Someone must have secured a good deal with the Burmese government…

The other thing that I hadn’t seen in ages and ages but was a huge part of our trip was the US currency. The Burmese currency, the kyat (pronounced chat) is so unstable, that tourists have to pay for larger purchases (hotels, transportation, etc) with dollars. It was funny to see those distinct and familiar bills again after such a long time. 🙂 Apparently there are issues with forgery; people will only accept spotless, creaseless bills of a certain age – there are even some serial numbers that get rejected. There are no international banks or ATM machines anywhere in Myanmar (apparently the local banks still operate with manual book-keeping – nothing is computerized) and only a handful of places in the entire country are equipped to accept credit cards, so the money you enter with is the money you have for the entire trip – that is if people accept it. We had a couple of bills that we just couldn’t get rid of because of slight bends or discolorations.

So we had to be cost conscious in a whole new way on this trip, which added an interesting dimension to the travel. Taking after my dad for a bit ;-), I ended up being the one who worried and worked over our budget again and again; in the end we had more than enough money, even with the imperfect bills. We stayed in budget hotels nearly everywhere we went and did what we could to keep costs down and our experiences were no less rich for spending less money.

Accommodation: The Classique Inn

The one place we did totally splurge was in Yangon, where we stayed in an incredible hotel. The Classique Inn was just gorgeous. Six elegant rooms in a quiet setting (north of the city center, so it’s a bit away from the action), run by a mother and daughter who live with their family in a house next door. The building, rooms and garden area were just beyond gorgeous and provided lots of inspiration for my dream house of the future. We paid less than USD 60 a night, a price which included really reliable in-room WiFi, high-quality breakfast in the gorgeous garden and most generously of all, tons of personal travel planning support from Kalya, the daughter. She gave us great suggestions, helped with logistics and let us monopolize her phone lines as we booked what ended up being a phenomenal trip around the country.

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Beautiful bedroom
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Foyer outside our bedroom leading to the ground floor

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Our outdoor breakfast spot

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Lovely Kalya and the shy but sweet young man working at the hotel