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Travel & Holiday

Myanmar's rustic magic

The warmth of the people is reason enough to visit, and the lack of transport options adds to the charm
The Straits Times - May 20, 2012
By: John Lui
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Myanmar's rustic magic Sunrise over Bagan, the city of more than 2,200 temples, and the Buddhist Kason Tree-watering Festival at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. --

There is a four-word sign on the luggage X-ray machine at Mandalay airport that sums up Myanmar, so I took a picture, thinking that no one would mind this minor bending of the security rules.

Big mistake. I was nabbed by a woman in a uniform who demanded to see what other shots I had sneaked. Luckily for me, most of them were loving portraits of curries, noodles and cats. I was ordered to delete the offending image of the sign and felt immensely relieved to be let off the hook. Never had a man scuttled across a departure hall so quickly.

The sign read: 'Respect all. Suspect all.'

Looking around the lost-in-time towns of Myanmar, at the men in their longyis (sarongs) spending afternoons in teahouses and the women's faces painted with thanaka tree-bark powder, it is easy to forget the country's delicate security situation.

The army is trying to keep a lid on a handful of separatist rebellions, while at the same time, the military regime is taking baby steps in loosening its grip on society and politics.

And yet, aside from that lady in uniform - and all others in uniform, actually - the people of Myanmar are the friendliest and sweetest folks I have met in South-east Asia. They still get a kick out of seeing foreigners and asking you where you come from. And if you are a Singaporean, get ready to hear: 'So expensive!' You can retort with: 'Do you know how much I am paying for a room here?''

Yes, there is a tourism boom right now because of the nation's democratic reforms, and rooms are two to three times more expensive than they were last year. Rates published in paper guidebooks today are obsolete the moment they are printed.

I did not know this when I stepped out of Yangon International Airport earlier this month. Neither did I know that taxis can double as pizza ovens from 10am till sunset. They look nice enough on the outside but their interiors offer a glimpse as to how caked-on dust can work to hold rusty metal together.

One of my first stops after landing was lunch at the Feel Myanmar Food restaurant (124 Pyidaungsu Yeiktha St, Yangon), located in the Embassy sector of town. This eatery, well reviewed online and in guidebooks, lives up to the praise. Its buffet-style selection of Myanmar salads, seafood and curries is tasty and a gut-busting meal should cost you less than $8. It is so good, in fact, that I wished I had left it to the last part of the trip rather than the first. Almost every restaurant was to pale in comparison.

So the good news is that while hotel rates have skyrocketed, the cost of dining has stayed low. Better yet, in towns such as Nyaung Shwe, next to the tourism hot spot of Lake Inle, the street food stalls will come out at night, filling the air with the smells of grilled fish and meats and Indian edibles such as pakoras and murtabak (which are called chapatis there). It should be safe to eat the cooked food at these night markets. Just give a wide berth to the free Chinese tea that is placed on every table, as they are served in cups soaked in a tabletop communal bath.

In Yangon, the must-see site is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Its 99m-tall golden stupa is one of the country's most iconic images. As luck would have it, I arrived at the temple during the Kason Tree-watering Festival (known as Vesak day in Singapore), a major holiday marking Buddha's birthday. The temple was thronged with worshippers, many of whom were pouring pots of water on holy trees and statues.

Despite the heat and the crowding, which would have put Singaporeans in a mood to smack one another with handbags, everyone at the temple was either reverential or jolly. The sight of a slowmoving, well-behaved crowd was almost as awe-inspiring as the gilded stupas glowing in the sunset. As someone we met joked, it must be because there is no Starbucks here yet to caffeinate the population. The trade embargo means there are no foreign fast food or chain stores of any kind here - heaven or hell, depending on your politics.

There are other clues as to the cultural isolation of the country. Street book-sellers offer a range of ancient English textbooks from India containing useful phrases such as: 'The Prime Minister will deliver a radio talk on the 15th' and 'I must avenge my father'.

The best way to sense the cultural zeitgeist is not through the official newspapers but the T-shirt hawkers' wares. A glance at their merchandise will make it clear that democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Angry Birds currently rule, not necessarily in that order.

The next day, I took an Air Mandalay flight to Bagan, the ancient capital city that is home to more than 2,200 temples. Like most domestic flights in the country, passengers are on the ground again almost as soon as they take off. The plane is usually a vintage model that vibrates as it flies, providing in-flight entertainment in the form of coffee pulsing in groovy patterns in the cup. Self-stirring drinks!

There are cheaper but slower alternatives to air travel, such as the bus. There are a few inter-city routes served by plush air- conditioned coaches, but many others are covered only by rickety vehicles with open windows, making numerous pick-ups and drop-offs. An American couple I met endured a 10-hour overnight ride in one such bus between Mandalay and Lake Inle. They looked traumatised by it. Never again, they vowed.

Others recommend hiring a shared taxi for city-to-city travel, which I never tried, because heatstroke or tetanus are best enjoyed while one is still in his 20s.

The lack of choice is part of the charm - some would say hazard - of travelling in a country that is not quite ready for mass tourism.

In Bagan, I opted to hire a guide, car and driver through our hotel, the Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort (Bagan Archaeological Zone, www.thiripyitsaya-resort.com) at a total cost of US$95 (S$120). There was the option to hire bicycles and go self-guided, but with the ambient temperature at 40 deg C, I decided to pass on pedalling. Hiring a driver for a day is a cheaper, not to mention more comfortable, option for seeing a city in Myanmar if one has to make four or more meal and sightseeing stops.

My Bagan guide was Mr Khin Maung Aye, 55, who, like many older citizens, speaks good English, thanks to a colonial education. The trained archaeologist is a fount of knowledge, not just of the 11th- to 14th-century Bagan art and architecture, but also of current affairs, and over the years has become familiar with foreign digestive systems.

'Do not eat that,' he said, protectively, taking away the bowl of fermented soya bean and prawn paste dip from my lunch spread at a roadside restaurant.

A mouthful of that stuff put one of his clients down for the count, he explained. 'Mr Aye', as I called him, put him back on his feet with a herbal cure. The grateful Brit, as a gift, printed a set of business cards for the guide, ones that half-seriously added the job titles 'Archaeologist, Doctor, Philosopher'.

Then it was time to wrest myself away from the care of the good doctor and fly to Mandalay, a city whose name still evokes a romantic colonial past. The reality, however, is one of a heaving, traffic-choked metropolis. However, it remains a centre for handicrafts and a visit to the stonecarving district is an eye-opener. Not only because of the remarkable skills on display, but for the depressing sight of children as young as nine or 10 working as sculptors.

Dr Joaquin Villegas, a 60something Harley-Davidson motorcycle fanatic and semi-retired gastroenterologist from Mexico I became friends with while cab-sharing from Mandalay airport to downtown, tut-tutted his disapproval.

'Look at that. So young and no gloves, no dust masks,' he said, pointing at a child of around 10 caked in a layer of white marble dust so thick, he looked as if he had Kabuki opera make-up on.

The next day, I flew to the scenic Lake Inle. Its elevation of 880m above sea level allows it to be 5 to 10 deg C cooler than the rest of the country, thankfully.

The freshwater lake, the second-largest in the country, proves to be the highlight of the trip - its adjoining town of Nyaung Shwe is large enough to have a range of guesthouses and restaurants to suit every price range, but small enough to not have bad traffic.

Here, visitors will see the monastery where cats are trained to jump through hoops for donations and the famous leg-rowing fishermen. Your hired boatman will take you to the tourist-trap silversmiths and souvenir shops, but you will be so relaxed you probably will not care.

The best sight turned out to be the weekly market at the village of Nampan. Here, men and women from the Shan, Danu and Pa-O hill tribes, among others, gather to buy and sell. It is overwhelming, smelly, vibrant, a huge amount of fun and impossible to take a bad photograph.

There is a fascinating amount of ironmongery on sale - ordinary people still buy scissors, knives and shears forged by blacksmiths. They are as cheap as the China imports and should last for years, with occasional tune-ups from the local smithy.

Then it was back to Yangon, before going back to Singapore. Carefully stepping around the betelnut spray on the pavements, I drop by the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue (85, 26th Street), a remarkable 19th- century building, and am almost pulled inside by two earnest young Jewish American tourists, Chaim Frenkel and Jonathan Hornstein, both 22 and recent graduates of the University of Michigan.

They are observing the Sabbath as best they can, praying in the temple and giving hospitality to guests like me. Hornstein tells me his mother has packed not one, but three first-aid kits for his backpacking tour of South-east Asia.

Frenkel observes: 'Jewish mothers, Tiger mothers, not so different.'

Myanmar is stuck in a time warp and is a relief for anyone tired of seeing the same Bob Marley cafe in Vientiane, Ho Chi Minh City and Denpasar. The dreadlocked, sunburnt brigades and the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises will appear soon enough, and the nation's citizens will give up their longyi for jeans and T-shirts.

Go to see a warm, relaxed people, ready to smile and indulgent of pushy tourists, including those who take photos where they should not.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

GOOD TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

  • Hotels, cafes and public officials will accept only United States currency in pristine condition and of the latest design. My Singapore money-changer assured me that US$1 bills were exempt from this bizarre rule, but he was wrong. I had a dollar bill that was refused by several cashiers because of a stain on one side.
  • Your ATM and credit cards are useless in Myanmar. Pay what you can online before leaving and bring lots of greenbacks.
  • Simple transactions, such as immigration checks, currency exchange and buying domestic flight tickets, will trigger a storm of paperwork at the counter. Have your passport ready and be patient because paperwork there can literally mean working with pen and paper.

The officials are stern and, well, officious. I was told to fill out a new departure card because the one I filled on entry had become a bit grimy around the edges.

  • A visa is necessary to enter the country. To avoid the line at the Myanmar Embassy, it is worth buying your flight through a travel agent, who can then handle the visa application on your behalf for a small fee. It will take at least three working days for the Myanmar Embassy here to produce a tourist visa.
  • The official US dollar-kyat rates are now close enough to black-market rates that street money-changers are no longer worth the risk. There have been reports of tourists being scammed through money-counting tricks.
  • Hotel room rates have risen in the last three years, rendering the prices in paper guidebooks such as The Lonely Planet obsolete, even in the latest editions. Use the Web to find the latest rates.
  • Your hotel might say it has Wi-Fi, but forget about uploading shots to Flickr from your room. Because of government filtering and weak infrastructure, Internet access could well be too slow or flaky to do anything more than send short e-mails, then only at speeds that rival snail mail. Foreign mobiles do not always roam successfully in the country, so a local prepaid SIM card might be a necessary purchase. Get it at telecom shops in airports and in downtown areas.
  • Taxi touts lurk inside airports quoting ridiculous rates. Do not bother haggling. They prefer to spend their time looking for suckers. The real drivers congregate outside and it is easy to find one willing to take the recommended rate.

The standard rates, by the way, are not low. It makes sense to cab-share, especially for legs such as the ride from Heho, the airport town, to Lake Inle. The 40-minute ride in a minivan-taxi costs 25,000 kyat (S$38) solo, but if there are five of you, each passenger pays only 5,000 kyat.

The charges are the same even if passengers need to be dropped off at different hotels.

  • Wear sandals if you plan a temple tour. No footwear is allowed in holy places and laces and buckles can quickly become a nuisance. However, consider that the protection that shoes offer against the hazard of pavement betelnut spray might be worth the inconvenience.

Stone temple floors can be frying pans for bare feet during midday. Do what many locals do during the hot season - stay indoors from noon till 3pm.

  • If you go in the hot season, between April and September, take along a good hat, long-sleeved tops, trousers and sunblock. Also take mosquito repellent if you plan to see Lake Inle or go hiking. Check your bed's mosquito net for holes and browse online traveller's health advisories for yellow fever, dengue and malaria alerts before leaving.
  • Of the domestic airlines, only Air Mandalay claims to have compliance with an international safety standard - European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Part 145.
  • Small packs of colour pencils make good gifts for village schoolhouses.
  • Have with you a small torchlight on a keychain for the frequent blackouts.

GETTING THERE

Silkair flies direct to Yangon from Singapore daily.

There are at least six companies that fly domestically: Air Bagan, Air KBZ, Air Mandalay, Yangon Airways, Asian Wings Airways and Myanma Airways (not to be confused with Myanmar Airways International).

The main cities of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Heho (Lake Inle) are served by two or more of these airlines. A one-way inter-city flight costs between US$70 (S$88) and US$110.

Buying domestic flights in advance online is one option, but if you are the type who like to wait and see, an agent or hotel concierge in Myanmar might be able to find a better package deal for internal flights.

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