Part 1: Building An Asian Experience Around A(nother) Mistake Fare
Part 2: First Stop – Japan
Part 3: Off To The Chaos of China and North Korea
Part 4: Air Koryo Flight 252, PEK – FNJ
Part 5: DPRK The Arrival
Part 6: Statues And Souvenirs
Part 7: Homeward Bound
Part 8: Xi’an and Terra Cotta Warriors
Part 9: Myanmar, Land Of A Thousand Pagodas
Myanmar is a country in transition. Tourism is booming, yet the infrastructure has not kept pace. The majority of transactions are cash only – and in US dollars. Reservations, if you can make them, are on the honor system or require a good faith wire transfer to hold. The rumored ATM at the airport was a questionable source of funds (when it worked) so the only real option was to carry cash. I found a small budget hotel (May Shan) that offered to hold a room and arrange for flights to Bagan, which were impossible to reserve in advance. I had decided to spend the majority of my time there, leaving just enough time to experience Rangoon on the way in and out. The Hotel Tharabar Gate (in Bagan) also held a room for me on the honor system. Both expected payment in US dollars upon arrival, in cash. Creased or soiled bills were not accepted, only those in pristine condition.
My flight from Bangkok arrived on time, and immigration was painless thanks to the visa I had secured before arrival. I changed money at the airport, but given the wide acceptance of US dollars, probably didn’t really need to. Certain things were slightly less expensive if purchased in local currency, but US dollars were readily accepted if not preferred. The locals have clearly discovered the tourist. and I had to negotiate with several taxi drivers for a ride to my hotel before I got a reasonable fare.
The May Shan hotel is located smack dab in the center of the chaotic downtown area, steps away from Rangoon’s most celebrated pagoda, Schwedegon. I was warmly greeted as I checked in, and handed over several large bills to cover my room and flights. I would be leaving at 4am the next morning to catch my 6am flight to Bagan, so I quickly dropped off my things and set out to explore the city with the little time I had.
The city is chaotic. Everything is old and falling apart, yet it’s thriving and residents have learned to adapt. It will definitely be interesting to watch the evolution of this vibrant and busy city as new investment money filters into the country.
I was up at the crack of dawn to catch my flight to Bagan on Air Mandalay. The ticketing and boarding process is quite amusing, as boarding passes are hand written and seat assignments given via a sticker placed on the front. (The Wandering Aramean has a great post on the process here, which was similar to my experience.) I’m not gonna lie, I was a little nervous about this part of the journey, as one of these planes had just gone down a couple of months before. The flight was short, and tea and croissant handed out as breakfast was welcome as I white knuckled it and tried to enjoy the ride. Of course, we landed without incident.
Bagan was the last stop on my Asian adventure, so I opted for a nicer, pricier hotel. And I wasn’t disappointed. The Hotel Tharabar Gate was ideally located, well appointed, and very comfortable, which I was grateful for since I now had the sniffles and was feeling a bit under the weather. With 100 degree heat, the best time to explore was the early morning and evening. This afforded ideal sunrise / sunset pagoda viewing – which was simply stunning.
To get around, you could hire a horse and buggy driver several of which were located right outside the hotel entrance (though you could find them everywhere.) Bikes were also a good option and were readily available for rent, though with the extremely hot weather, a little less popular. I preferred to walk so as to be able to explore every pagoda that I came across (literally one every few feet.) Speaking of feet, no shoes or socks are allowed in or on the Pagodas.
As a fair haired, light eyed American, in a place where until recently not many outsiders visited, I was quite the spectacle. More than once, Burmese families on holiday in Bagan came up to me wanting me to pose for photos with each of them.
I returned to Yangoon for a quick overnight before my flight back to the US. This time I opted to stay at the Sedona resort, which was closer to the airport, a good call since it was the start of the New Year and the annual water festival was in full force (and a lot of roads were either closed or congested.) My flight wasn’t until 5pm the next day, so I secured a late checkout and booked a two hour Burmese massage before beginning the first leg my journey home. A wonderful ending to a wonderful trip!