Magnificent Myanmar or Beautiful Burma (Part 1)

This holiday was meant to be a relax by the beach one. The term (a very long one from August to December with a week’s holiday at the start of October) is a killer to put it mildly. And one in which I juggled many jobs, so I was looking forward to a chilled Christmas in warmer climes. But in choosing Myanmar we felt that we couldn’t just fly in and onto a beach, we would have to see some of this country that at times and indeed recently has courted controversy. We talked to a few of the staff to see if anyone wanted to come with us and amazingly, one member of staff said she would come with us until 23 December. Before she left us, she said that she would recommend us as travelling partners again – which is just as well as in 4 weeks time she and I are off again to somewhere…and for reasons that will become apparent after 1st February – the somewhere is not being divulged.

So the first issue we had was whether we would call this country Myanmar or Burma? It turns out Hillary Clinton tried to dodge the name issue too when she visited in 2011. Calling it many times as “this country”. It turns out that Burma and Myanmar as words mean the same thing and one is derived from the other. Burmah, as it was spelt in the 19th Century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar. They have both been used within Burma for a long time, says anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics and is quoted by both The Economist and The BBC. Interestingly the United Nations and many countries accepted the name change, but the UK and USA did not because it was imposed by the undemocratic junta, which is why Clinton was seemingly in a quandary and why the BBC called it Burma.

Regardless of what to call the country, the people who we met were very friendly, happy to show us their country. They are proud of their culture, traditions, their leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San and want to show off their amazing and beautiful historical sites.

Emma and I over the course of a couple of evenings in October while juggling a final assignment, writing letters of recommendations, proofreading student essays, writing lesson plans and reflecting on those lessons, looked at trip adviser and the lonely planet guide, consulted friends who had been before and then booked a series of flights and hotels, and considering we didn’t really know where everything was situated, we think we did quite well.

It wasn’t until we did the first tour in Yangon, that I was told that Yangon was not the capital city! It changed from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw in 2006 and like Canberra, Australia or Washington D.C, USA it is a planned capital city. It was not on our list of places to see. The other city that we did not visit was Mandalay. We had toyed briefly with a boat from Bagan to Mandalay, but 12 hours on a boat up the Irrawaddy River and an early morning departure of 5.30am did not appeal to us. Especially when this holiday had many planned early starts anyway we didn’t want to do another one. The other thing we didn’t do was a cross country bus. As romantic as it sounds to get from A to B cheaply and see some of the countryside from the road, we could afford to fly, it would give us more time at each destination and we could have a bird’s eye view instead. Actually we didn’t feel rushed at any of our destinations and did everything we wanted to do in a relaxed manner.

Throughout all the places we visited, Yangon, formerly Rangoon – though even the airport code remains unchanged at RGN, Inle Lake, Bagan and Ngapali Beach, there were many advertising hoarding with Aung San Suu Kyi’s picture. I asked our guide in Yangon what the word “Daw” meant, and I got an answer but we were also given more of an insight into the poster than my innocent question. The poster refers to what is happening in the Rakhine state with the Rohingya Muslims. The guide referred to this group of people as not belonging to Myanmar and the posters that we saw where in support of her stance. He didn’t see that there was anything wrong. On hearing that, the three of us looked at each other, but didn’t probe any further. And FYI – Daw means Mrs.

We flew direct from Pudong with China Eastern Airways, the flight times were at unsociable hours, and with a 90 minute time difference the 5 and half hour flight time saw us crawl into bed at 1am in Yangon and on the return journey the flight left Yangon at 00.40, arriving into Pudong at 06.15am. But it was either this or make a stopover. All of us preferred to take one flight and sleep where we could. We had also decided that we would fly between the sites. The regional airports were like bus stops, and indeed several of the flights we took had drop offs and pick ups before carrying on. One couple didn’t expect that and nearly left the plane at the wrong place. The flights between most places was between 45 minutes and an hour. We had organised hotel pick ups at the airports in advance. We probably needn’t have worried and picked up a taxi outside the airport at a fraction of the cost, but it was reassuring having our name on a board by a person waiting for us. The only hotel that we hadn’t organised a lift was with the Bagan Thande Hotel in Old Bagan. But we got a taxi outside the airport just fine for 7000MMK.

One thing we noticed was that we weren’t hassled in the airport for a taxi, and this is due to the fact that the drivers aren’t allowed in the terminal building. The “taxi taxi” call starts when you are outside, but even then I don’t think any of us felt hassled. I have felt more hassled at Pudong airport.

Given that we hadn’t organised transport from Nyaung U Airport (closest to Bagan) we needed money to pay for the taxi. Money that none of us had enough of. This was our third stop and at previous airports there had been cash machines in the arrivals hall. Nyaung U was no different. It had three. But the first two didn’t work! The third one thankfully did and we all took the opportunity to withdraw some Kyat. Then spent a lot of it before leaving the airport. Bagan now requires a 25,000MMK entrance fee per adult (before departing the airport) (13GBP) for the Bagan Archaeological Zone. It is valid for 5 days. We had also paid a similar fee of 17,000 MMK at Inle Lake, though that had been collected by a man in a hut along the roadside about 30 minutes from the airport. We nearly missed paying for Bagan as the cash point we ended up using was by an exit. An exit which I realised was marked as “locals only”. We turned back to the exit for foreigners and were immediately asked if we had paid the fee. We joined a queue and then worked out what we were paying for. Once we had the receipt, we were allowed to leave the airport. Only once during our time in Bagan were we asked for the proof we had paid. And somewhere I read only 2% of the fee is going to the zone. Much of it is going towards the government.

There will be more blogs on Myanmar over the course of the next few days. Sadly not written by the beach and under blue skies, but at home where the sky is grey and the temperature about 20 degrees lower than where we have just been.