Late November, 1999 - “No way will I travel there!”
“That Country could erupt in mass chaos at any moment.” “Keri,
it’s just too dangerous now to visit Myanmar,” I told my daughter
during her recent visit to Thailand. “Last month the Myanmar Embassy in
Bangkok was involved in an armed takeover by protesting students and
tensions are high with conflict breaking out around the borders,” I
Myanmar (formally Burma, and renamed by the current
military dictatorship) has been under constant turmoil since the election
in 1990, when the dictatorship failed to recognize the National League for
Democracy, who unanimously won the popular vote at the polls.
My daughter relented and suggested another itinerary
for our vacation together but I knew she was disappointed and had her
heart set on visiting Bagan in Burma. I thought of how rare it is to be
able to travel with Keri and how the educational experience could benefit
her. I called Kwanjai at my wholesale travel company in Bangkok and booked
the flight for the following day.
Myanmar Airways charges B5500 for the round trip
flight. We had to make a quick trip to the Myanmar Consulate in Bangkok to
obtain a tourist visa, which was processed the same day. Without
permission, no one employed by the media can enter the country. Keri, 25,
a screenwriter for a Los Angeles TV production company, simply wrote she
was a professional.
The outbound procedures went quickly and we were off on
the less than two hour flight to Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital
city. There is a relatively small airport, not designed for frequent
international flights, that entails a long walk across the concourse to
the terminal building. Soldiers carrying automatic weapons guarded the
of the Mingun Paya
Upon entering, there is a row of tough looking
immigration inspectors who scrutinized the visas we obtained in Bangkok.
We were pointed to two booths that collect the mandatory $300.00 fee from
each arrival and issue FEC’s in their place. The “Federal Exchange
Certificates” are redeemable at any Government store or hotel, but are
not refundable upon departure. I laughed with the administrator and
refused to buy the certificates. Keri became anxious and I could see she
was in distress. I stepped aside with the official and amazed Keri by
talking him into accepting $300 from the two of us; he smiled and we
patted each other on the back. This is Asia and I have found most things
to be negotiable.
Exiting Customs, we were besieged with guides, all
yelling and describing their hotels. We pushed our way through and found
seats in the waiting room where we studied Keri’s Lonely Planet Guide
and some local brochures that were being passed around.
Hungry tout guides stood by, as we were the only
arrivals who were not on a planned Government tour. We did not have the
local currency (Kyat, pronounced “chat”) and the official exchange at
the airport is 6 Kyat to $1.00. I had been here previously (three years
back) and remembered that the black market was over 100, so we paid the
long cab ride in dollars ($4). It turned out that the popular exchange for
American dollars (which locals are not officially allowed to possess) is
now 340-360 to $1.00.
The traffic had increased substantially since my last
visit three years back and gasoline is no longer rationed. Yangon is busy
and green with trees and thriving vegetation. We arrived at a small hotel
near the river, clean with friendly staff and spacious rooms, and sat down
to make travel plans. (Queens Park Hotel 132 Anawrahta Rd. $22, full
We purchased one-way plane tickets to Mandalay, the
second largest city in Myanmar for $110 each on Yangon Airways, a new
domestic airline competing with Myanma Air (Government) and Air Mandalay,
which started two years back. They all seem to use the two engine ATR72
aircraft, the government ones had seen better days.
Like most tourists, we started with the Shwedagon Paya
in central Yangon, which bears a huge gold dome reflecting the sunlight, a
dazzling sight when first seen. It is an enchanting place to spend an
afternoon. We were in awe of the many unique golden pagodas and lavish
marble and tile floors and ceilings.
takes a rest at the Burma Temple, Yangon
That night we ate over the water at a three-decker
restaurant with exquisite food and atmosphere. They opened a special wine
I brought and one of their curry dishes was truly memorable. (Junior Duck
Restaurant Yangon River Road across from the Strand Hotel.)
Lunch or dinner at the Strand is a must. This original
British hotel was built in the 30s and is a landmark in Yangon. The hotel
mogul Adrian Zecha from Bali reportedly spent over $36 million US dollars
on a complete remodel four years ago. The place is gorgeous but remains
empty with the non-discountable rack rate of $400 a night. A ridiculous
price in Yangon, but beautiful to see.
Hotel rates are usually negotiable and the Kandawgyi
Palace on the Royal Lake offers a spa at the foot of your bed and your
private pool outside of your own villa. The hotel’s rack rate is $275
that can be negotiated as low as $80 including meals. This would be my
choice next time around.
Off to Mandalay (“where the Flying Fishes play”).
Many choices on hotels there and fierce competition for the business. A $1
cab ride delivered us to the Mandalay Swan Hotel with an elaborate
entrance and lobby. Again, rack rates are high but were discounted to
about 35% of asking. Keri and I shared a suite overlooking a spectacular
pool with excellent poolside service. (Rack rate $180, we paid $60.)
Several restaurants within the hotel grounds provided delicious local food
and a fun marionette show. Sedona Hotel is another choice next door to the
Swan with similar rates and amenities.
A Mandalay local restaurant serving authentic Burmese
food is Aye-Myit-Tar at 530 81st Street between 36th & 37th. We had
trouble eating, as our SIX young waiters stood around the table observing
every bite we ate and watching our expressions. We shared several steaming
platters of chicken, fish and duck and I’m sure few tourists ever eat
there. We were the center of attention and felt quite conspicuous. The
bill was less than $4.
Mingun was one of the highlights of our trip. A two
hour boat ride to the opposite bank of the Irrawaddy River discloses a
tiny village nestled in the trees which remains much like it was fifty
years ago. Hard wooden benches on a small antique wooden boat (without
life jackets) provide a trip with lots of local color.
As the boat nosed onto a sandy beach, we disembarked
and walked up a short incline to Mingun. Horses and carts were there for
taxis. A footpath parallel to the river takes you to the ruins of the
Mingun Paya, the base of an uncompleted temple built by King Bodawpaya who
died when half way through the construction. If he had lived, Mingun could
have boasted the tallest zedi in the world.
The friendly people and the little girls who held our
hands provided us with a remembered welcome. Keri met a girl her age who
acted as our guide and took us to lunch at her private home where we spent
the afternoon. The town is a not-to-be-missed experience.
The many marketplaces in Mandalay and the huge palace
and moat in the center of town create a city immerged in Burmese culture.
We bicycled around old town dodging ruts and chuckholes and ignoring the
stares from the locals and uniformed children getting out of school.
Everyone was curious and helpful.
Bagan (Pagan) was the drawing card that triggered
Keri’s desire to visit Myanmar. It is considered to be the most amazing
site in Southeast Asia. On a stretch of land covering over 40 square
kilometers along the Irrawaddy River stand thousands of stupas and
temples. In every direction, you see the huge and glorious temples soaring
toward the sky. Some come with elaborate historical tales while others
just carry a number.
Dating back two and a half centuries, these brick and
cast structures carry the remnants of elaborate drawings and paintings on
the walls and ceilings and tiny staircases within the walls allowing
access to the open ledges and peaks far above.
Keri suggested getting there by boat, which sounded
relaxing and informative. Checking the schedules, we found that the
reported short boat ride was actually twelve hours and sitting on the
river for that length of time was not my idea of fun; so we decided to
We met U. San Win, the station manager, at the office
in Mandalay. He had a cast on his left arm and was adept at answering the
phone, talking with us and doing his paper work at the same time. He
turned up at the airport collecting the tickets, again at the Immigration
line, again ushering us into the plane and I fully expected him to don a
Captain’s hat and disappear into the cockpit. He did direct the plane
waving a light with his good arm and waved goodbye as we accelerated out
of the parking space directly onto the lonely dark runway. The only other
passengers aboard were from a tour. (One way to Bagan for $42.)
We exited at Nyaung Oo into an even smaller airport
than Mandalay and asked the friendly ticket agent where we should stay in
Bagan. A dilapidated cab bounced along a pitch-black dirt road and we
could see in the silhouette, large structures shadowed around us. After
what seemed like hours, a large lit gate appeared announcing our arrival
at the Thante Hotel on the river. This is reported to be the best
accommodation in Old Bagan and has been recently remodeled in grand style.
We opted for the best category and were shown to
picturesque bungalows with decks over the river featuring teak floors with
high pointed ceilings. My snoring bothered Keri so we had adjoining
dwellings with massive tile and marble bathrooms. A great breakfast buffet
was served on the riverfront with friendly uniformed waiters and eggs
cooked to perfection. (Thante Hotel rack rate $98, negotiated to $35
We hired a private car with guide and driver and set
out to see the temples. (Dawn to sunset for $25.) The cool breeze blew
through the vehicle eliminating the necessity for air con. With literally
thousands of monuments to see, we were only interested in visiting the
major attractions. One could spend weeks visiting and studying the various
temples and stupas and never run out of new ones to see.
Our guide was eager and excited to work with two
American tourists and spent time showing us every important detail. His
English was excellent and, although forbidden by the Government, he was
anxious to ask us all kinds of questions about the outside world.
The time spent at Bagan was fascinating and only
compares with the trip Keri and I made to Angkor Wat in Cambodia earlier
Thinking about Myanmar, what stands out is the
deprivation of basic rights that we all take for granted. Citizens are not
allowed to use computers (people approached us and asked what they were)
and (outside of Yangon) they have no movies, bars or places for gathering
and entertainment. The Government has closed all of the universities.
Permits are necessary for Burmese to travel outside of their own
districts. Foreign travel for them is almost impossible. Basic medical
care is only obtainable by the wealthy and the military; people are dying
unable to obtain the proper medicine. The Government scrutinized Keri and
me wherever we went. Our passports were constantly examined and
immigration checks were required at every domestic airport; officially, we
could only stay at licensed hotels and forms were filled out at each
During our stay, we attempted to spend our money at
local establishments and did our best to benefit the local people rather
than the government. Several local residents whispered to us of their
dissatisfaction and were fascinated by the freedom we enjoyed.
I was ready and anxious to get back home to Thailand and felt a warm
glow when we were airborne and on our way back to Bangkok. Myanmar is a
boiling cauldron ready to erupt and will one day hopefully have the basic
freedoms that we take so much for granted.