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Craig and Jeane’s Myanmar Trip Report 2007

Craig and Jeane’s Myanmar Trip Report 2007

Mar 4th, 2007, 10:44 AM
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Craig and Jeane’s Myanmar Trip Report 2007

This thread is a continuation of the “Craig and Jeane from Bangkok 2007” thread written mostly while we were there. I feel the 10 day Myanmar portion of our 14 day trip deserves a thread of its own as many readers of this forum have spent time in Bangkok but have not visited Myanmar.

By way of introduction, I researched this trip extensively – not an easy thing to do as the only up-to-date travel guide book available is Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma). This guide book is actually quite accurate in almost all respects except that the authors tend to have their own ideas about how to spell place names. We also used the book The Treasures and Pleasures of Thailand and Myanmar. I’ll save my comments on this guide which contains mostly shopping advice for later. Several on this forum recently posted reports on their own Myanmar trips and I am most appreciative of their help – thanks to Hanuman, Femi, and albaaust. Also, thanks to Bob (rhkkmk) and Karen Kimball for originally suggesting Myanmar as a destination and thanks to Laurieco for sending us a wonderful video documentary on Inle Lake. In addition to the guide books and Fodor’s reports, I found useful information on the virtualtourist and tripadvisor web sites as well as the web sites of a couple of Myanmar tour operators:
www.myanmarinformation.com and
www.myanmars.net.

We used a local Myanmar travel agency, Santa Maria Travels & Tours and I am so glad we did. They arranged hotels, interior flights, cars, boats and drivers, guides, hotel transfers, day trips and our balloon ride. Not only did we save a lot of money versus arranging the trip on our own but we had a local company that was accountable for ensuring that our trip was successful in all respects. Our guides saved us a lot of time and aggravation and were able to solve a couple of problems that came up along the way. Santa Maria was excellent to work with. I corresponded via e-mail with Kyaw, the office manager over a period of 8 months, asking questions, and making several changes and additions to our itinerary along the way. His responses were always accurate and courteous.

While I could devote a lot of ink on our decision whether to go or not due to the controversy over the Myanmar military regime’s dismal record on human rights, it has already been debated to death elsewhere on this forum. The issues, pro and con are also clearly laid out in the Lonely Planet guide. That being said, I devoted far more time to reading about this mysterious country prior to our trip than I have for any other. In recent years we have toured Thailand (2000), Costa Rica (2001), Bali (2003), India (2005), and Bangkok, Siem Reap and Luang Prabang (2006). I have found for the most part, that people in these countries benefit tremendously from visiting tourists and I see no reason why Myanmar is different in that respect. While on the subject of reading, I highly recommend the following books on Myanmar:
The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe
and especially,
The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U for a fairly comprehensive, well-written and interesting history of Myanmar.
The popular novel, Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan might also provide you with some good insight.

Continued in the next post...
Craig is offline  
Mar 4th, 2007, 10:47 AM
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Our 10 day itinerary was set up as follows. We typically would arrive at new destinations by air relatively early in the day.

Day 1 Yangon (from Bangkok)
Day 2 Bagan (from Yangon)
Day 3 Bagan
Day 4 Bagan (day trip to Salay/Mt. Popa)
Day 5 Inle Lake (from Bagan via Aung Ban 5 day market and Pindaya Caves)
Day 6 Inle Lake (day trip to Taungyi and Kakku)
Day 7 Inle Lake
Day 8 Inle Lake
Day 9 Yangon (from Inle Lake)
Day 10 Yangon (day trip to Twante)

Travel in Myanmar is difficult. The roads are bad. There is no particular reason that I can think of that the flight times almost always require you to rise at 4 or 5 in the morning – sort of puts a damper on evening activities such as dinner out. It seemed like at least 90% per cent of the tourists in Myanmar are on group tours that whisk them from one place to the other – many would spend just one(!) night at Inle Lake, for instance. Unfortunately the hotels do cater to these tours as they are their bread and butter – more on this later.

I’ve been up since midnight and now I need a break. Many details to follow on this thread…
Craig is offline  
Mar 4th, 2007, 11:09 AM
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Craig,

Great start.....sounds like your still jet lagged. We'll be here waiting when you get up. Welcome home!

Aloha!
hawaiiantraveler is offline  
Mar 4th, 2007, 05:26 PM
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Get some rest and I look forward to reading more about your trip Craig.
Hanuman is offline  
Mar 4th, 2007, 05:49 PM
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looking forward to more....glad you took our advice from our experiences there....

quite honestly we never gave the government one thought while there....we noted the caution our driver took when talking about things outside of the car, or things other than tourist sites... the military is hard to miss and our yangon hotel was next to a large military installation and also next to a former ruler's home...

i guess there are plenty of places in this world with somewhat similar situations, but that won't keep me away....and i don't think that boycotting tourism to these places does not bit of good...they don't care and they don't miss you!!!
rhkkmk is offline  
Mar 4th, 2007, 05:51 PM
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sorry---"...boycotting tourism to these places does one bit of good..."
rhkkmk is offline  
Mar 4th, 2007, 06:50 PM
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Great start Craig. Looking forward to reading more!
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Mar 4th, 2007, 08:00 PM
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Craig - glad you had a great trip. We will be hanging on your words as we are in the planning stages for a trip to Myanmar for the end of the year. Can't wait to read about your experiences...
WinterTravel is offline  
Mar 4th, 2007, 09:58 PM
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I'm looking forward to more of your report so I can relive my wonderful three weeks in Burma two years ago. Keep the presses rolling.
Robbietravels is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 02:13 AM
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DAY 1 Monday

AAC Limo arrived at the Intercontinental Bangkok at 5:45 AM. The hotel had prepared a boxed breakfast for us since the Club Floor Lounge was not open for breakfast until 6. When we arrived at Suvarnabhumi a half hour later, there was already a long line for economy passengers waiting to check in. As we waited, more Thai Air check-in counter personnel showed up and the line started to move along quickly. We were checked in by 7 AM and 15 minutes after that we were through passport control and headed to the departure gate. Thai flies an Airbus A300 on this route – a fairly large plane with a 2-4-2 configuration in economy. I considered flying business class but the premium for the 1 hour flight just wasn’t worth it. We had an aisle and a window seat. Jeane who is not a big person and never complains about tight airline seating told me she thought her seat was cramped. The flight left a few minutes late but arrived pretty much on time in Yangon. We were bussed from the terminal in Bangkok and to the terminal in Yangon.

Immigration at Yangon was efficient and smooth. We had applied for our visas from the Myanmar embassy in Washington, DC by mail back in January. Since neither of us are journalists, there was no problem. Turnaround was about two weeks total using express mail. The international arrivals area is not large but it took a while for us to get our bags anyway. Since we had well over the $2000 per person cash limit, we decided to declare this for customs. If you do this, they will ask you to fill out an additional form that states exactly how much cash you each are carrying. It only took a couple of minutes to fill it out and while we probably could have walked right through, we preferred not to risk spending any time in a Myanmar prison. In theory, you are supposed to keep a record of any money that you (legally) exchange but nobody asked for this form at departure. The reason for carrying so much cash is that credit cards and travelers checks are generally not accepted anywhere in Myanmar. The cost of our tour alone was over $3300. Outside of customs Lillian, our guide was waiting for us holding a sign with our name on it.

We had lots of luggage – 3 huge checked-in bags, 2 roller-type carry-ons, 2 full day packs and another shopping bag with some breakable items. This created numerous problems throughout our Myanmar trip, the first of which was getting it all into the compact Toyota along with the driver, guide and the two of us for the ride to the hotel. Somehow we managed. We piled stuff in the front passenger seat and we used a bungie cord to hold the trunk closed. Lillian, Jeane and I sat three abreast all crammed into the rear seat with our day packs on our laps. The half-hour ride to the hotel was not as bad as you might think but I was very concerned since we had scheduled an all-day tour later in the trip on very bad roads from Heho airport via Aung Ban and Pindaya to Inle Lake. I told our guide she needed to tell Santa Maria that we needed a bigger car or some other accommodation for our bags – more on this later.

When we arrived at the Savoy Hotel, Lillian asked for our passports and airline tickets so she could get us checked in and confirm our on-ward plane reservations. This was standard procedure at each destination as flight times constantly change in Myanmar. One of the Savoy staff brought us delicious glasses of watermelon juice. After check-in, we were escorted to our room, a huge suite. We agreed to meet Lillian in the lobby after settling in for about 45 minutes. The Savoy is a gorgeous Colonial boutique hotel, filled with Burmese antiques. As others have said on this forum, it is not a 5-star hotel but it is truly comfortable. At $125/night including breakfast, tax and service it was quite a bargain. Our room was on the third floor overlooking a fairly large pool. There was no elevator but there were only two flights of stairs to climb. There was separate a/c in the bed room and living room but none in the bath. The room was non-smoking only because housekeeping had removed the ash trays – we found that the non-smoking concept didn’t really exist anywhere in Myanmar. Our only real gripe with the Savoy was that the shower water temperature was inconsistent and the water pressure was weak. The bath had two sinks, a shower, and a separate tub all with modern fixtures. The counter top was granite. There were TV’s in the bed room and the living room – channels included Asia News, CNBC and an Australian news network but not CNN.
Craig is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 02:17 AM
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DAY 1 (continued)

When we returned to the lobby, Lillian was waiting for us. I sat down with her for a couple of minutes to go over our plans for the day. Basically, we wanted to check out a couple of the major temples and a few shops in inner Yangon, visit the Strand Hotel and tour Shwedagon Pagoda just before sunset. Lillian came up with a good order to do things and we set out in our small white Toyota on our tour. Our tour car seemed to be standard issue in Myanmar – these white Toyotas were everywhere we went. Our cars were always in pretty good shape with automatic windows and a/c that was fairly effective. In Yangon especially, we occasionally saw people driving large Toyota SUV’s – surely a major status symbol here. Other passenger vehicles that we saw on occasion were VW Bugs and American jeeps.

Yangon was not what I expected it to be. It is basically a dump – very third world, little charm to be found anywhere. Because of frequent power failures, several busy intersections did not have working traffic lights making driving rather perilous.

Our quick visits to the three major temples were worthwhile – Botataung for its “Buddha hair relics”, Chak-Htat-Gyi for its impressive reclining Buddha and Sule for its unique location in the middle of a traffic circle.

Good shopping is quite limited in Yangon. Since it was Monday, Bogyoke “Scott” Market was closed. From the outside it did not look like we’d want to spend much time there anyway. “Treasures and Pleasures” recommended a visit to Myanmar Lacquerware prior to going to Bagan where most lacquerware is made. It was rather difficult to find and we spent barely 10 minutes there checking out the shop’s small inventory. Also on our “Treasures and Pleasures” list were Zawgyi House and J’s Irrawaddy. Jeane found a nice shawl made from lotus fibers at Zawgyi House. J’s Irrawaddy had moved to the arcade attached to the Strand Hotel from its old location. The new shop is fairly large with a diverse selection of clothes and crafts. It is located upstairs on the second floor of the arcade. Also in the arcade were a couple of interesting crafts shops and an art gallery where Jeane saw an amazing cubist-style oil painting by a local Myanmar artist that we both really liked for only $350. We knew we were going to come back to Yangon at the end of our tour and look at other galleries in a different section of the city so we decided to hold off on purchasing it.

Shwedagon Pagoda is coming up next. Unfortunately, I have to get ready to go back to work.

Craig is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 05:06 AM
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Looking forward to reading more...
sharon1306 is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 06:07 AM
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did you feel that yangon was as much a dump as is siem reap?? we found parts of yangon to be quite charming... our driver took us down strets that had some lovely homes and the diplomatic area was quite nice too....

scott's market had a few nice shops but generally was not too much different from other asian markets...we did buy one watercolor there which we are quite pleased with...the day we were there it was quite empty of shoppers and that made it quite nice...

original art works are a bargain in myanmar if you can find ones to your liking....there are a few galleries in yangon...

we felt that yangon was in a time wharp and you could really get a sense of the colonial aspect that i find hard to see in VN or Laos or some of the other countries that are more "modern" on the surface...

anxious to read more when you have time...

rhkkmk is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 07:15 AM
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Bob, we do feel that Yangon is as dumpy as SR. When we returned to Yangon later in our trip we did see the diplomatic area with some lovely homes while visiting galleries in that area. Some of these neighborhoods abutted some pretty bad areas so we also observed lots of high fences and barred windows. We saw several interesting watercolor paintings at excellent prices but ultimately purchased the painting we saw at the gallery in the Strand arcade. A couple of the galleries we visited in the suburbs were huge - will provide more details later in the report. Jeane went to Scott's market but I did not - she said I did not miss much. You can still see the colonial time warp you refer to at places like the Savoy and the Strand but overall the city is very run down and very ugly. Maybe it has changed somewhat from when you were there.

Gotta get back to work - did you notice that since I returned today, the market has gone up?
Craig is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 07:17 AM
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As always Craig, a very good and detailed report.

I will be taking detailed note as Iris and I are planning on going to Burma.

Rob
robmac is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 07:20 AM
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have yet to look at the market, but expected it would happen when a poobah returned to the roost....

i guess i will have to dig out our pics and take a look....SR is still a dump, but yes things do change over a short period....
rhkkmk is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 07:42 AM
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I should also mention that I am subconsciously or consciously contrasting Yangon to the beauty of Bagan and Inle Lake - not a fair comparison perhaps...
Craig is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 07:57 AM
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well, the comparison of the temples and SR is pretty profound too...
rhkkmk is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 12:15 PM
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good point...
Craig is offline  
Mar 5th, 2007, 01:23 PM
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DAY 1 (continued)

If you have limited time in Yangon, make sure you don’t miss Shwedagon Pagoda. We toured it with Lillian just before sunset and then stayed to watch the sun reflect off the main stupa as the sun went down. I felt that Shwedagon was comparable in importance, majesty and detail to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. As with many important sites, pictures don’t do it justice. As a side note, you must remove all foot coverings (shoes AND socks) to enter any temple, pagoda or monastery in Myanmar. Teva sandals made life much easier for me. Unfortunately, the Myanmar people have a habit of spitting and for some reason temples are no exception – at some point you are likely to step in something gross. I recommend bringing large moist wipes for removing the dirt etc from your feet prior to putting your footwear back on.

After sunset, we headed back to the hotel. Before leaving we checked out the vendor stalls at one of the entrances to Shwedagon but we really didn’t see anything of interest. Because we had an early flight, we chose to have a light spaghetti dinner in the hotel restaurant. From our table we had a great view of Shwedagon Pagoda all lit up for the evening.
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