- Myanmar: Frozen In Time (South-East)
- Myanmar: Washed in Sandstone and Sunshine (Bagan)
- Myanmar: Burmese Days (and the tragedies) (Far North-Myiktkyina)
- Myanmar: Discovering a World Apart (North-East)
Though there are hundreds of negatives to the junta that overran Myanmar after the U.K left the country to rip itself apart, one thing you can notice is that modern development has been none. And connection with the outside -especially the West- has been little.
Though plenty of minerals are being shipped to China -ask the Irrawaddy dolphin- this country has been locked in for about 60 years -from one slave runner to the next. It was only a few years ago that the veil had slowly begun to roll up and the windows opened, to reveal a culturally rich, gracious, simple -and very poor, smiling country of unending beauty. With the continuing pressure and tenacity and sacrifice of many, but Suu Kyi in particular, the country is finally breathing a little. Unfortunately, the fact that this country is so far back in time, tourists and travelers have become very, very excited.
*Dangers to be considered: At home, you might give someone a few bucks to help them back on their feet. And you can do that. But here, consider that those few dollars are more than a boy’s father might make in a month or a year. This will affect his pride. You are not helping by donating ten bucks to a child that seems unfortunate.
Though things are changing a lot, I was told not to hitch-hike or stay with locals. I still did, but rarely; also I stayed in monestaries, which was not allowed. I did these things when I needed to, or when I/and host felt it was ok. Obviously, there is no CCTV yet, but just consider the pros and cons, and if it is safe. Don’t put someone in danger because you want a unique experience.
Save on your budget: Eat local (avoid the chicken feet) and eat from the street. Eat simple, eat it all, but I am not going to say you won’t get sick. Some of it will be amazing, some good, and you might just end up pissing out your ass for a few days! Such is life when you are a curious, traveling entity who wants to eat the real, taste the real and keep the dollars in the pocket for another day.
So, you’ve stood in line a while in K.L or Bangkok and you’ve gotten your ass to Yangon. Things are going to change so much I am sure, as I was there 4 years ago, but what you know is to bring that American bling in crisp 100 dollar bills and hit that jewellery bizaar for black market exchange. A taxi from the airport to the city is pretty inevitable, but you can share it with a couple others coming off the plane, and save a few bucks. If you are like me, the first time, and forgot that there were no bank machines, you’ll be very thankful you met a very, very nice Australian guy to help you out and lend you 500 bucks!Yangon
The capital will likely change again, if it hasn’t already, but when I was there, this was the capital. There is plenty of information on what to do here outside of the Sule Pagoda. But, my favourite part was the simplicity. Caught between colonial and Asiatic, every day was a beautiful journey getting lost in the streets. Street food! Cheap, good, unique, underrated street food! but you’ve got 4 weeks, make it count! If you want to reach any of the restricted areas, you (had to) get your permits here in the capital, so make sure all the bureaucracy is taken care of then leave all your gear with your guesthouse -unless you are heading overland you’ll be back; Okinawa Guesthouse was about 5 bucks then. There is a direct bus, avoid the tourist buses! to Kalaw and a chance to do the famous, and too often guided hike for a couple days to Inlay Lake.
If you’ve arrived at 4 a.m in Kalaw and are on a very tight budget, find a few soldiers to stand with around a little street-side fire -it gets cold at night up here- and get a hot, condensed milk, coffee. Likely, you’ll be able to find a few samosas too. India got nothing on the Burmese samosa! Kill time until 6 a.m then check into a guesthouse to avoid paying for an extra night. Get a travel partner and share the single bed and save yourself half the cash of a guesthouse fee. You wanna take your budget and chop it in half, travel with someone else -there is no shame in sharing a bed between two men! You’ll likely not get a partner as cool as mine, but you’ll be thankful for it in the long run for real. Like everywhere, walk around and ask every place you can find for a room, eventually you’ll find one for a couple bucks each; it’s not pretty but fuck it man.
A bottle of fake Johnnie Walker comes in around 3 bucks; a beer is about a buck. Cigarettes are sold by the single. My usual was a Myanmar draft, and two single cigarettes in the dive bars. There’s no wild night anywhere, its countryside campaigns walking across humble villages with ox-carts and water buffalo, or bicycle trips, or long boat rides, and local jeeps on the roof-top. From every township there are a hundred different stupas (pagodas) sticking up from hilltops, pick one and walk towards it. Magic will be revealed to you, I promise.
While in Kalau, try to convince someone to give you a map (or maybe now you can find one online) and get the names of the villages between you and Inlay. If you were ready and packed like I said in Packing for your Worldly Excursion then you could potentially walk all the way to Thailand! But the only thing you’ll likely need is a sleeping bag to Inlay.
If you are trying to Save and not spend, then bring a bunch of boiled eggs from your guesthosue in Kalaw, that will help. Otherwise you’ll be just fine.
Outside the main city, to the high, towering monestary, a beautiful spot awaits, with a small lake -try to avoid the guesthouse stay because its steep. The moutainside monestary running for a kilometer or so is a brilliant, overhead, serene view of the open landscape and hundreds of thorned Pagodas.
The best hand-made noodles were in this town, and certainly not the only time in Myanmar, but here they were incredible. Away from the tourist shackles of Inlay Lake, Manadalay, and Bagan, its basically, wander around from town to town and turn over rocks and go walking in one way or another and I’m sure it will be a great, undisturbed experience. And from time to time catching a cave stuffed with mythical snakes, dragons and golden Buddahs.
The bus from Kalaw to Taunggy takes a huge plummet and at the base, and beyond the main township, before the monestary, the area opens up dramatically to multi-colored squares of crop land, open and vast. This was one of my favourite views, from the back of a truck as I’d moved on to Inlay, these auburn, burgundy, hazelnut, blonde and green checkered patterns marking an area so innocent and naked and desirable to be stomped across.
When I was there, regulations and guards made it that the road finished at Taunggy. There is a legendary cave nearby, and Keng Tung is not too, too far away, but like I said, the road finished for me and I had to turn back. Hopefully your tale is a more freelance one.
*Keep in mind this is the Shan state, these are the people that fought hardest against the junta and were not exactly applauded by the General. Some of them escaped across the border to Thailand, many didn’t. This area has seen a lot of struggle and pain and blood -though you couldn‘t tell.
This is a staple for tourists since the colonies, and the boat trips along the lake through all the little built-up houses, hovering over water, are a little like Dal Lake in Srinagar -but with chinese tapestried rooves and a monestary ‘of the cat’. It’s really a great spot, and I found a nice little Hotel for about 6 bucks with banana pancakes in the morning -pretty common actually. There are only a couple of tourist traps yet, in Myanmar, this is certainly one of them -and Bagan as well. Having said that, look around, there is land everywhere.
If you look out to the land, as you are driving there on the big, massive wooden truck from Kalaw -if you didn’t walk- on both sides there are long mountains. There is a stupa on the top of one -there are plenty no doubt. The morning after I’d arrived, looking out to the little stupa I’d noticed coming in, I snatched up a decrepit bicycle to the mountain and then on foot up to this little, tiny blotch in the sky. It was a crazy-gratisfying hike up to the top. Unbelievable little villages cut-off. Unbelievably old school people smiling bright through their broken teeth, stained with red dye from the beetle nut. They took me in, they washed me with their curiosity and left my heart pounding with cheer to near tears. Thick bush, scattered, unpredictable trails, the help of a few young buddhist boys, a cave on the way, and a long, hard-fought, push I finally made it up to the top and an incredible overhead view of Inlay.
Because it is so new on the trail of a million packs and sacks and bucket bars, all it takes is a hike out a few kilometres to get away and soak into the harmony of rural Myanmar. I wish you the best of luck! Buen camino. And keep it real simple; don’t be flashy and remember, its not money that is needed, its clean water.