Final Days in Rangoon and Burma

Trip Start Nov 07, 2006
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Trip End Nov 18, 2006


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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thursday and Friday, 16 and 17 November

On Thursday afternoon / early evening, I finally did the main thing that I came to Burma to do: Take pictures of the Schwedagon Paya at sunset. The main stupa of the Schwedagon Paya is like the Eiffel Tower of Burma. It dominates the skyline of Rangoon. It is also the most sacred Buddhist site in the country. It is of a complex of shrines, pavilions, images, bells and stupas. But let's let the pictures tell the rest of this story.

Now for some practicalities: The entrance fee for foreigners is 5 US dollars. There is an optional brochure than can be purchased for another dollar. I've been to Schwedagon a total of three times now and on the third visit, the staff there tried to make it look like the entrance fee was 6 dollars and included a "free" brochure. In fact, that is just a way to try to get another dollar out of tourists for a fairly useless brochure. If they try this on you, stand your ground and tell them that the entrance fee is 5 dollars. If you want the brochure in addition to that, feel free to buy it, but remember that it is your choice.

It is also necessary to remove your shoes before entering the complex. I always bring an empty plastic bag with me so that I can put my shoes in the bag and the bag into my backpack. Having your shoes with you allows you to leave from a different entrance from the one at which you arrived. It also eliminates the possibility of having your shoes stolen (by accident or otherwise). And it prevents you from having to make yet another donation for someone to "watch" your shoes. (Or rather, to watch that you don't get your shoes back without making a "donation".) Additionally, I always bring some "Wet Ones" wet wipes with me to clean my feet after walking around the relatively dirty complex. And finally, if you are planning to take pictures at sunset, don't forget to bring your mini-tripod. And perhaps an extra set of batteries and some spare memory cards. Trust me. This might save you from having to make another trip to Burma.

A taxi to the complex from the center of town should cost no more than 1,500 kyat, or just over a dollar. (I got 1,280 kyat for each dollar when changing on the "black" market at the big market complex - the Bogyoke Aung San Market, sometimes known as the Scott Market - near my hotel.) Ask around at various places in the market before doing a transaction. Also, don't change too much money as certain costs have to be paid in dollars by foreigners, such as hotels, flights and train tickets. Certain nicer restaurants give you a choice of paying in kyat or dollars. I changed 100 dollars on my first day in the country and that was enough to cover all of my local-currency expenses for the 11 days of my stay in the country. Upon leaving the country, it is necessary to pay a $10 departure tax. As I had a little more than $5 worth of local currency left over, they allowed me to pay this tax partly in dollars and partly in local currency. (The rate they gave me on my kyat was somewhat unfavorable, but much better than keeping the money, which is useless outside of the country.)

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The rest of my time in Rangoon I spent buying souvenirs at the main market near my hotel and just wandering around town soaking up the atmosphere. I also bought some milk, bananas and pastries for breakfast on the morning of my departure as I would have to leave my hotel and 6 a.m. to get to the airport for my 8:30 flight, thereby not having time to eat at the hotel. (Air Asia, the discount airline, not only does not provide meals on its flights, they even prohibit passengers bringing their own food onto the plane. Actually I'd like to see what they would do if I smuggled a banana on board.) Since I arrived at the airport a couple hours before my departure, I had plenty of time to devour my breakfast before departure.

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On my flight back to Bangkok from Rangoon, the chap sitting next to me told me that he was a Burmese government negotiator. He asked me if I was working for the CIA. Ha! How to answer such a question? If I say no, then he might think I am because I would have to deny it, right? And if I say yes, then maybe I am anyway - but I'm just trying to confuse him. It's really a question that is impossible to answer "correctly". But logically, would the CIA hire somebody who couldn't even remember to bring a spare set of batteries to the Schwedagon Paya for his camera? On the other hand, maybe "forgetting" the batteries was just a clever trick to give me an excuse for having to go back. A more likely explanation, I think, is that when you are working for a dictatorship, you probably suspect everyone of being a spy and trying to bring you down. I hope I worried him - at least a little bit. I wanted to tell him not to be too mean to "the people" so that when his employer collapsed he might still have a chance of surviving. In the end, though, I decided to keep my mouth shut. He'll have to work out for himself what is the right thing to do.

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An observation about Burmese culture from my "Lonely Planet" travel guide:

As most Burmese are slim (due to a lack of food), plumpness is considered a sign of health and beauty. The expression "Wa-laiq-ta!" ("How fat you're looking!") is considered a compliment. That would explain why none of the "beauties" in the night clubs appealed to me.

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All in all my trip to Burma was rather enjoyable. The highlight were the temples of Bagan. The lowlight was my difficulty finding food. However, given that I just had a stuffer of a meal a few minutes ago, the hunger from the trip is already forgotten and only the good memories remain. (Well, I do still remember my sore butt from the day I spent on the bicycle touring the temples.) But other than that, I have only good memories. Thanks for joining me on this trip and I hope to have you along for the next one as well. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me.
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Comments

Sai on

I am not sure if you could read my comment. In 2011" how fat you're looking" is no more consider as a compliment :) I don't think myanmar has lack of food(plant can grow everywhere on Myanmar soil).

Your bargaining skill is better than us (Local).Trust me.

Hope you will be able to come back again and explore in Shan State which is similar climate/scenry to ChaingMai.

FYI, taxi fare in Yangon and Bagan/Madalay/Taunnggyi are different becasue the fuel price are differnt.

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