Backpacking in Myanmar: The first day, and why we came
I am back from Myanmar, also known as Burma as called by the British.
Is it dangerous? Some may ask.
I don’t think so. Definitely much safer than India. There are less cheating rickshaw wallas around. There are lazy rickshaw wallas who don’t want to pick us up.
Why do you want to go to Myanmar? Was a question frequently asked by fellow travellers, and friends.
I think, I like many others, felt Myanmar deserves some kind of justification. People are always talking about it. How unsafe it is. How un-nice the government is. How a poor lady is being locked up in her house for years.
But just because we hear that stories doesn’t mean we don’t go right? How would we know, if that is just one side of the story. Who is going to tell you about the horse cart driver in Bagan, the city of Pagodas? Who is going to tell you about Ko, the 23-year-old university student, studying in Yangon?
That is why you have to go, and see it for yourself.
Take the train, you must. To see the people, to hear the voices.
So should you go to Myanmar? Will money you spend further strengthen the government?
After I came back, I think, you should still go.
It is true that the government benefits (a lot) from foreigners. When we took a city train, we paid USD1 (1,000 kyat) for a round trip. Locals only pay about 10 kyat. One ticket was enough to pay for.. 100 locals?
We paid USD5 or 5,000 kyat to enter the Shwedagon Padgoda in Yangon, pay everywhere.
But I have seen how money has reached the locals.
In the guesthouse I stay in Yangon, girls younger than me sit at the reception, checking in for the numerous tourist that arrive.
In the restaurant, boys aged 17 take orders, cook and serve you food.
I saw a little boy half my height carrying a mop, climbing up 4 floors to clean the rooms.
If you don’t come, who will pay them?
With the elections coming up in November, the number of visitors have decreased, a child tout told us in Bagan. This could be because you can no longer get a visa on arrival at the airport.
“Now is the low season,” said the child tout, who couldn’t be more than fifteen.
My point is, some money will definitely go to the government. But some will also flow to the privately run businesses. These children, because of tourist, can speak English, if not, they try to make an effort to use it.
And you bring with you, a whole lot of stories from the outside world, which they could be interested to know.
It’s your call, but if you ever thought of going to Myanmar and was put off by some form of political instability, don’t.
Due to the short time we had in Myanmar, we decided to take a domestic flight to one of the more interesting parts of Myanmar, Bagan, where ancient brick pagodas line the landscape with fields in the middle.
We paid a local tour agency, USD250 for a round trip ticket from Yangon to Bagan. (Which is really overpriced). We found out from our Korean friend that she paid USD69 for a single trip ticket from Yangon to Bagan.
Still feeling abit sore about it, but I guess we didnt have much choice, because we couldnt make a bookng from the internet, and this was the only way.
If you need to book domestic flights, do it in Myanmar if you have the luxury of time.
So when we reached the airport, we met this lady, who handed us the tickets thankfully. We were so worried that no one was going to be there.
She requested us to hire a taxi to explore Yangon for the 4 hours we had before we took our domestic flight. We agreed, and paid USD22, which is once again, very overpriced. She told us it takes USD10 to go from the airport to the city, (actually I think it’s just USD8).
Well! So we entered this taxi with leopard skin covers. It looks quite jarring to the eye really, I was thinking why don’t they just leave it as brown instead of printing these weird stripes.
The windows were left open, there was no air con. The taxi driver wore a red Adidas shirt, and a longyi… its like a sarong, that some of the guys in Yangon wear. It’s really quite normal to wear that, just that I am worried for them that it may drop? hahah
So off we go! We first sent the lady back to her office. She is nice, and offers us information of the city.
Friend S, who is travelling with me, asks her about how she spends family time. She has one kid, whom she leaves with her sister to take care I think. The whole family meets back in the evening at about 7pm. She tells us she sometimes has to go to the airport on weekends. So time is taken up too.
After she left the taxi, the taxi driver asks us if we have local money. We tell him we don’t, and that we want to use USD throughout the trip. No, he says. You will spend more. Because for water which cost 300 kyat, you end up paying USD1, 1000 kyat.
He also tells us that we should not change money at the airport as the rates are almost half of that of the black market.
So we agreed with him, and decided to trust him. “We are going to a bank,” he says, but only outside the bank. In the bank you get bad rate, but outside.”
He makes a phone call, and tells us he is calling the taxi company to tell them that he is driving us.
I find that weird, I think it’s just an excuse for calling his black market friends.
Sure enough. He parks outside the bank, and a man carrying a plastic bag for what appears to be banknotes enters the cab. The transaction takes place in the taxi.
He gives us a lousy rate. 920 kyat, he says for one USD. In lonely planet, it was USD1 =1000kyat.
I tell the taxi driver, and he says because of the elections, the rate is falling.
That means a lost of 8 USD if we changed 100 USD.
We tell him 1 USD to 950, and he refuses to budge.
In the end, we negotiated to 930.
Once again, we were kind of cheated cos we realise there was this shop that was giving USD1 = 980 to our friend.
But well, at least we didn’t get blatantly cheated like some others.
There were stories whereby some tourist were approached by an Indian Man near the Sule Paya in Yangon. They gave him a 100 USD note, and with a quick switch of his hands, he handed them back a 1USD note.
Gosh. This is probably the only scenario where magic tricks can help you “make a living?”
On the way back to the airport, we passed by a place where there were guards outside.
“What is this place?” I asked
“Park” he said.
“Why are there guards there?”
“I don’t know why.” said the Taxi driver, who didn’t sound willing to speak.
We later learnt that the park is actually quite a famous place to visit in Yangon, and that Taxi-Driver didn’t even inform us.
He tells us he has friends from Singapore who come to Myanmar to do volunteer work.
“Oh do volunteer work is ok here?” I once again asked, testing water.
“Ok, ok,” Came the reply. There was no more said.
When we reach the airport, the Taxi-Driver demands for new USD notes.
This kind, he said pointing to the old USD notes we have, can go back to Singapore to use. Not here. He is very fussy. The note cannot be crumpled, or a coloured in a certain manner. In the end, I have to pay in kyat.
At the domestic airport, there is no one at the check in counter. It is empty. We are two hours early, but it is empty. We sit around and wait.
The time comes, and we check in. We are able to hand-carry all our bags. I was um, pleasantly surprised.
The plane is quite unique. We sat to the propellers, that looked like giant fan blades, all black in colour. The plane takes off. As it does, the blades started spinning, quite dangerous outside our window. The plane rattles with the movement, followed by a loud droning noise.
Which lasted throughout the flight. I can hardly hear or converse with Friend S.
Halfway, close to landing, the plane dips. Planes do dip, but this plane dipped a little more which left me clutching the chair seat for support. I looked at Friend S for assurance, who looked at the air stewardess, who was strapped to the seat facing the plane and was reassured. She had a calm and serene look.
At the Bagan airport, we pay USD10, a one-off fee to enter all the pagodas. This supposedly goes into the preservation of the pagodas. Some pagodas have indeed been preserved.
The airport is literally empty. Once again, no one is at the check in counters. A security rests in the orange plastic chairs that reminds me of the waiting chairs in our polyclinics some time ago.
Outside, there is only one or two taxi drivers that call out to you when you exit.
What a day.
What I found most interesting was the slogan of Yangon Airways – You are safe with us.