Travelers in Myanmar

Trip Start Jan 01, 2010
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Trip End Jun 30, 2012


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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Every new encounter is a story. Observing how people travel is fascinating for me, so instead of flatly describe my journey in Myanmar, I will do it through the travelers I met on the road. Here are some of them :

    - Phil : I did not technically meet him in Myanmar, but this Australian around my age was seated in the opposite row on the flight Kuala Lumpur - Yangon. By then, I did not expect to meet many travelers in Myanmar, so I started to discuss with him to know his plans. We arrived in Yangon at night and agreed to share a tax, together with 3 other people. 1,5$ per person for the 40 minutes ride into town. Not too bad... They went to a top-end hotel while Phil and I chose a budget guest-house downtown. Only a bedroom with double bed was available, but Phil was reticent to share the bed with me. Personally, I don't care, I did it many times with strangers, even (one time) with an Israeli girl I had just met at the reception of a hotel in India. Israeli are easy going. I asked the manager if he is OK to put a mattress on the floor, no problem for me sleeping on the floor. We had a deal.

    - Szimon :  Here come this Polish guy. Apparently he was in the same flight than us, but I did not remember seeing him. Phil and I had taken the last available room, so I offered to take the double bed with Szimon and let Phil sleep on the floor. We had the second deal of the night. For the next 2 days, Szimon and I walked around Yangon. First mission was to change money at the black market. Official exchange rate between $ and Kyats in 1 for 450. But at the black market, it is easy to get 800 or even 900. We find some Indians who offer 900 but in the confusion they ripped Szimon off 100$. But he complained to the police and got his 100$ back. No harm… Meanwhile, we went visiting many pagodas and stupas, which are the highlights of Yangon. It is free for locals but foreigners have to pay between 2$ and 5$ for the biggest stupas and museums. Since the money goes to the government, I decided not to pay any entrance fee. I made a first try in Shwedagon Paya and skipped without much problem the 5$ fee, and guided Szimon after me. But after 1 hour walking around, I made a fatal mistake and we were caught and gently asked to leave or to pay. We left (we were about to leave anyway). I started to see some tourists, but it was still OK. Next day, we left for Bago to see more stupas. Szimon climbed at the rear of a motorcycle for a 5 hours tour, but I opted to walk. We both skipped the 10$ government fee for all the attractions in town. It was not that difficult, since locals don't pay, there is usually only one guarded entry while 4 or 5 are unattended. We stayed only one day in Bago and we took a night bus to Inle Lake. Once we arrived, we were asked 5$ to have the permission to enter the village where the guesthouses were. A hold-up ! Szimon paid but I said No and walked through. The guard ran after me with his motorbike but gave-up when I was determined not to pay. I am not particularly proud of this, I prefer discretely sneaking inside, not seen, not caught... and no harm. But paying to enter a city, I had never seen this before ! Actually, yes, I saw it once in Nepal, but I had not paid as well ;) Later I followed Szimon and 2 other Singaporean girls in a full day boat ride on the lake. It was when I met with Burmese mass tourism : many tour groups, around 80% French : Nouvelles Frontieres, Terre d’Aventures, ADEO, Nomade… Every big French tour company had its own bus and boats. Why I was not surprised ? How Burmese adapted so fast to tourism is astonished. They quickly learnt the game of overcharging foreigners, for bus tickets and so on (to their defense, the government indeed led the way) but their handicrafts and souvenirs sales techniques still need improvement : "10$. But no problem, you can bargain. Tell me a price". And they are so kind that it is a pleasure to be offered things to buy : "C'est joli c'est pas cher". Nothing to see with the aggressiveness of the Indians.

    - Estelle :  I had read the best treks in Myanmar are around Inle Like, the most popular being the 3 days walk to Kalaw. I wanted to do it on my own, but did not succeed in getting reliable information about where the trek started and which way to take. There was no map and a local guide explained me that he was not allowed to give information since the government do not allow foreigners to trek alone. Further more, apparently foreigners are supposed to sleep only in authorized guesthouse every night, making camping or home-stay impossible. I found a group of 3 leaving the next day : 2 Canadians and one French girl, Estelle. I said good-by to Szimon, who went directly to Bagan and joined the party for the 3 days / 2 nights trek to Kalaw. First night spent in a monastery, second with locals (they told us home-stay with a guide was permitted, but they can say whatever they want, who will check ? I did not). Easy trek. Alone, I would have made it an overnight walk, but the scenery was nice and the talk with Estelle funny. The Canadians were cool, but they had plenty of money and did not realize they were wasting in front of the locals, like buying a bottle of mineral water at each stop and leave behind half of it.  No wonder why after the locals think that every tourist has money. I am sure they did not notice that I systematically took the half-full bottles and kept the precious drinkable water. Finally we arrived in Kalaw, I stayed one more day with Estelle, walking around. After she went back to Yangon while I headed to Mandalay. Bye-bye.

    - An American : I can’t say I loved Mandalay. The city itself is big and polluted, but around were there historical cities. I spent 2 days walking around. I think it is useless to recall I did not pay the 10$ fee to visit all the sites. Anyway, checks were scarce and very few travelers actually pay… I had the ticket Estelle had given me, so I managed to visit the very few places where controls were in place, but I could have lived without seeing them. I stayed almost alone during these 2 days, because I wanted to get rid of the city as soon as possible and therefore adopted a "Japanese on holidays" behavior, making some 12-hour sightseeing days. But I had a very lucky encounter with an American at breakfast, when he told me he would try to get a Chinese visa in Mandalay. After my tough 4 weeks last year, I had planned another visit before next summer, because I did not want to live with a bad image of this country. Now that I know what to expect, I believe I am skilled enough to get the keys for a happy travel. But the idea of having to get another visa worried me. It is worldwide known that Mr Nicolas Sarkozy and Mr Hu Jintao are not exactly good friends, and in consequence French have a hard time when applying for a Chinese visa, principally outside France. Internet is full of SOS from French people blocked in Laos or Vietnam, unable to enter China. When I applied in Islamabad, the clerk simply did not want to give it to me. Each time I showed the additional document he had requested, he asked for another one. I finally managed to get a single entry visa, but had to go through a travel agency and I prefer not to recall how much it had cost… So, I was worried, but when I learnt there was a consulate, I thought I had nothing to loose trying my luck. I walked there and innocently asked the lovely diplomat what papers she needed to issue a 6-month double-entry visa. She said “fill this form and give me a picture”. Next day, I walked out with my visa. I was astonished. No questions, no documents. Either she really liked my curly hair, or more likely since last official visit of Mr Hu Jintao in France a few months ago, when both Presidents together played the “neither Dalai Lama, nor human rights” game, and instead signed many contracts, a note has secretly been dispatched to Chinese consulates : “Please be kind with French citizens”. We should ask Wikileaks for the answer… And it was also in Mandalay that I realized how much child labor is common in Myanmar. I asked the waiter (no more than 10 years old) at the chapati stand how much he earned and he told me around 25$ a month with free food and accommodation. At least he had something to eat. This is the paradox of dictatorship, everybody is poor but there is no comparison with the poverty in India for example. It is not due to the dictatorship itself but to the associated economical system (government owned industries, control of prices, restrictions in foreign exchanges...). If one day the dictatorship ends, no doubt the new economical system will sink the country into poverty and violence for at least some years, like it happened in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union... (a French student from IEP I met in Bangladesh explained this to me)

    - A Danish : this time, I am upset I don’t remember his name, but what happened when we arrived in Hsipaw could have been very funny, had not it been the consequence of the explosion of tourism these last few years. Myanmar definitely lacks touristic infrastructures and the fact that 80% of the country is closed to foreigners make that all the tourists go to the same places. It is not a problem on the “golden diamond”, delimited by Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan, where guesthouses are plenty, but outside it (it would be a little too optimistic to call it “off the beaten track”), the number of tourists drop dramatically, and the number of guesthouses allowed to host foreigners even more. In small villages, only one or 2 guesthouses can host foreigners, and usually only one in the budget range. And since people who venture outside the well traveled diamond are mostly backpackers on a shoestring, everybody want the budget option.  In the bus from Mandalay to Hsipaw, we were 7 or 8 backpackers and everybody rushed to Mr Charles guesthouse, the one highlighted in the Lonely Planet. Danish literally made a run and was the first one there, terrified by the idea he might not get a room. As usual, I was the last one to come. I carry a tent anyway, so I always have the option of sleeping outside in case basic accommodations are full, and of course I did not care it was forbidden in Myanmar. But I got a room without any problem, no one slept outside that night.

    - Sarina : it was not only the person but also the place where I met her that made this encounter lovely. I met her in Hsipaw and she is Swiss. For a few days, I thought I was back in Colombia countryside, full of Swiss backpackers. Hsipaw was definitely worth the detour, no doubt my favorite place in Myanmar. A resting town surrounded by Shan villages. I did not do much in Hsipaw, except some walking in the villages nearby, an early morning visit to the market and the attendance to an early mass. Burmese are not only Buddhist, some are Christian and Muslim. The priest were cool, he offered us breakfast after the mass, but he obliged the kids he took care of to attend a daily 6am mass, before school. I am not sure kids need to meet God everyday at 6am to be happy, but they rather need some sleep. It was also i Hsipaw that I finished my reading of The Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini, about Afghanistan from the fall of the monarchy to the Talibans of 9/11. It confirmed my wish to make another try to visit this country, next year inch'allah. Sarina will be in Southeast Asia until the end of April, like me, so we'll probably meet again.

    - Lucas & Georgia : let's face it, I had a bad start with Georgia. When she told me her name, I could not help it : "Really ! It is amazing ! It is my favorite US State !". As a matter of fact, I just know one place in Georgia, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, or ATL in IATA code. And I indeed love this place, only because if the main international hub of Delta Airlines and therefore they have VIP lounge in every concourse... We went together to Namshan, even more on the beaten track, 80km North of Hsipaw. I walked back through Shan villages to Hsipaw, but I did not manage to convince them to come with me. So, I walked alone, and I made it fast. 1,5 days instead of 3, and still time to enjoy tea and talks with locals.

    - Jojo : I am not sure, it is the right spelling, but I liked called this 45 years old English woman. I met her in Kiaukme, where I had made a stop on my way back to Mandalay, because I wanted to try to go to Mogok, into the rubi valley, a place strictly forbidden to foreigners, following the steps of the French writer Joseph Kessel who traveled there in the 50's and wrote a book. I thought it was worth the try, but I did not find one single driver who accepted to bring me there, they told me it was too risky for them if we were caught. Anyway, it is probably nothing more than an ordinary Burmese city, I wanted to go there only because of the book. So I came back to Kiaukme and took the train back to Mandalay. The journey was gorgeous ! And in Mandalay, another night train to Bagan, together with Jojo. We bought ordinary class tickets, with wooden benches. I threw my mattress on the floor and slept tight, only awaken at around 3am by the shouts of Jojo against a Burmese family whon only mistake had been to let the window open and let the cold in. To visit Bagan, foreigners must pay a 10$ fee, but I had old tickets for me and Jojo and it worked. Hotels are supposed to check foreigners do have the ticket, and in case they have not (if they bypassed the checkpoint) the hotel sell to them. But I had a look to the ticket the receptionist had just sold to a French couple, I realized that the number was even older than mine. The son of the bitch had kept their 20$ and gave them an old ticket ! And when I left, he asked me for my ticket "because I must give it back to the police". Fuck-you my friend, I sell it 5$ to you. You'll still make a 5$ margin on it... Anyway, I did not like Bagan, too hot, too many tourists and stayed only one night.

    - Jimena : in Myanmar, breakfast is always included in the price of the room. But, it is minimal : one egg, some toasts and coffee. Therefore, I used to stay at least 2 hours at breakfast every morning. First he gave me the opportunity to chat with the other guests and play the scavenger with the food they leave behind them. The guy got only 3 toasts and found the way to leave 2 of them uneaten. That's how I met her, on my first morning in Mawlamyine, in Southeast Myanmar, far from the tour groups. She is Argentinian but emigrated in London 6 years ago.

    - Marco : Jimena and I planned to spend a day in an island near Mawlamyine and we offered this Serbian gay to come with us. The hotel manager asked us if we needed a guide, and when we said no, he told us we were very brave to go alone. It was when we disembarked in the island that we understood. Nobody was able to tell us when and from where the evening return ferry would leave. Jimena and especially Marco did not want to take any risk and wanted to come back on the same ferry that had bring us on the island. But I said "Guys, let's go, and let's go NOW exploring the island". It was hard but we finally found the return ferry.

    - Yves & Julie : another French couple my age, but a definitely interesting encounter. They live in Paris and have connections with the underworld of artistic squatters and dumpster divers, a community I would like to join if one day I put my backpack off. Everybody in Mawlamyine took the same ferry to Hpa-An, my last destination in Myanmar. One ferry, 35 tourists on it and only one guesthouse in Hpa-An. It looks I already lived this situation in the past. But the owner of the guesthouse was well organized and had room for everybody, including the 30 French. I could have played my Bengali and ask to every French tourist I met why he came in Myanmar, but did not bother. The French likes to do special things, or at least he likes to think he does special things, because after 27 days in this country, there is definitely nothing special in this country, at least not in the open regions. Bangladesh was much more interesting...

    - Sonia : the last one to illustrate the funniest thing of Myanmar. I could as well illustrate my feeling with Eric and Ramona, a German couple, I had met my first day in Yangon, and again in Hsipaw, and again in Hpa-An, and again at the airport. Since flying in and out is officially the only way to enter and exit Myanmar (although in certain conditions and with a costly permit overland travel through the border may be permitted), and since the Air Asia flight to Bangkok is the cheapest option, you meet at the airports many people you met on the road. Like in a summer camp, everybody is then sad to leave. I met Sonia in Kyaukme and again in the train to Mandalay, and it was a lucky encounter. She is the same flight than me and  since she had been coming to Bangkok for the last 6 years, she'll show me around...
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