We took a taxi from our hostel to the airport for our flight to Mandalay, Myanmar! I was excited for Myanmar because there isn’t really a lot of information on traveling there and how things work. All we heard was that you should bring all the cash you will need with you because ATMs are unreliable. Also, we found out the four places that people visit are Yangon, Bagan Temples, Inle Lake, and Mandalay. We wanted to make sure we hit up all four of these spots because I doubt I will ever be in Myanmar again. Myanmar is a crazy country and not much is known about it to the outside world. It is really under the radar. Also, tourists are only allowed to visit certain regions of the country because of political and social issues currently going on in different states. The government recently opened up it’s boarders again to tourists in August of 2013. You were able to visit before that but it was more difficult and even more restricted than it is now. There also isn’t much information online about people who have visited. You have to go in pretty much blind or you have to learn about it through people you meet who have been here. We were shocked when we arrived how few tourists are actually here. After our time here, we estimate that about 2000 tourists are in this country at one time. That number may be wrong but the fact that we estimate such a small number shows how few people actually come here. Locals stare at you if you are white and ask to take pictures with you. There are no chain restaurants in the entire country. Coca Cola just arrived here two year ago, making Myanmar the second last country in the world to get Coke. The only country left to get Coke is North Korea. A lot of the tourist infrastructure that all other countries have isn’t fully developed here, and now I won’t take that for granted. For example, night buses here are a fairly recent thing and don’t really make sense. You leave cities at like 5:00 pm and arrive at new cities at 2:00 am. It really makes no sense. I don’t understand why they don’t just leave at 9:00 pm and arrive at 6:00 am. When we arrive in cities here, no hotels are open to accommodate the late arriving tourists wanting to give them business, so you literally have to knock on doors of guesthouses to find somewhere to sleep so late at night. It’s things like that that just aren’t figured out yet. And they don’t do the buses like that so you have to book an extra night at hotels either. All hotels that we went to didn’t charge us for the late night that we arrived. They counted it as coming in the morning of that day. It just doesn’t make any sense to me, a person who has seen the way most other countries run bus travel. Anyway, we went through customs, exchanged some currency, and we took a bus to the city from the airport that was included in the price of our flight ticket. Once we arrived, we were bombarded with tuk tuk drivers trying to take us to our hotel. We just avoided them all and walked. We eventually found it because the city is easier to navigate than most. It is set up like a grid similar to NYC with the horizontal and vertical streets being numbered. The Grand Palace was in the middle, like NYC’s Central Park and everything else was around it. After checking in, we quickly realized how different accommodation is here. Myanmar doesn’t really do luxury hotels, but they try to make their guests feel like it’s luxury by having over the top customer service. The rooms are plain and basic, no matter how much you pay over $30 a night. If you pay less than that, then your room will more closely resemble a prison cell in a third world country than a hotel room. Bugs, rats, and geckos are common in budget accommodation here. I found the over the top customer service here annoying. I just want to check in and go to my room, but there are four people catering to me once I arrive in the hotel. One gives me orange juice, one takes my bag, one scans my passport and one tries to communicate about questions but fails because of the language barrier. It’s actually more stressful when they are all over you like this. Whenever you go to the desk to ask a question, about three people try to answer it at the same time, but none of them really know what you’re saying. For example, if I asked the question, “what time do buses leave for Bagan in two days?” The lady would pick up the phone, call a bus company and book me a ticket to Bagan. She would then ask me what time I wanted and then I would say I don’t want the ticket right now. She would then say, “no bus ticket?” I would say “no.” She would then hang up and I would point to my wrist and ask, “what time bus?” And she wouldn’t understand the western gesture of pointing to the wrist as a sign for “watch” or “time” and would call another person over who would then ask, “can I help you?” I would say, “what time is the bus to Bagan?” She would pick up the phone and ask, “what time do you want to go?” I would say, “what time can I go?” She would then have the bus company on the line and ask me, “morning or night bus?” I would say, “morning.” She would then talk to the person on the other end of the phone and say, “ok, what day?” I would say, “March 29, how much?” She says, “12,000 each ($12)” and I would say ok to be done with it. She would hang up and give us our ticket and ask to pay now. So, the point is, if you want to ask a simple thing, you better expect an adventure to follow. We left our hotel and paid a driver to take us to the Grand Palace. We paid $10 entrance and were granted access to all sights for three days in Mandalay. It’s weird here also because many tourist activities are quoted in USD but everything else is in the local currency kyat (pronounced cheyet). You need to carry both around and can offer to pay everything in kyat but actually get a worse rate than if you use USD. We walked around the Grand Palace and were surprised that most tourists in the place were tourists from around Myanmar. We only saw one other group of two white people in there the entire time we were. Locals took our picture more than of the palace. One monk asked us of we could take a picture with his sister and mother and then said, “May you always be happy” which is their version of “Bless you.” There are so many monks here. In Myanmar, many parents send their young kids to monasteries to become monks and get a better education, similar to private school in the USA but more extreme. Then, once done with school, they can decide for themselves if they want to stick with it or stop being a monk. Because of this, there are thousands or little monks at all of the sites with us. We call them cute little monklings. There are also girl monks here who wear pink robes. That’s a first that we have seen. We walked up stairs to a tower that overlooked the Grand Palace. We then walked out of the huge area and saw two kids our age bargaining with a tuk tuk driver. The driver asked us if we needed a ride and quoted us a price. We accepted it because it sounds like a good deal, but that was only because our hotel kind of lied to us and told us a high price. We got on and met the two kids. They were both exactly our age and from the USA. There was a guy and a girl, both traveling solo and both had similar trips to us. The guy, Max, was from California and the girl, Lynsey, was from St.Louis. They met in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar and did an itinerary opposite ours in the country. We asked them a lot of questions about to best go about see everything here, what to see and skip, and prices for bargaining. They gave us so much valuable information. We went around with them for the rest of the day. We saw a couple more temples and then the worlds largest book, which was actually thousands of scripts carved onto marble slabs in a compound area. It was different. We then ended our day at Mandalay Hill, which is the place people see the sunset over the city. There is a pagoda on top that you can walk around and then everyone posts up on the west side and watches the sun go down. Pretty much every tourist in Mandalay does the same thing. On the first day, you ride around the city and see all of the temples and then on the second day, you visit the surrounding areas of Mandalay, which is what we will do tomorrow. There were only about 150 tourists seeing the sunset tonight, which really shows how few people are actually visiting this country, given that most of the tourists in the country’s second largest city are on this hill tonight if it is their first day in Mandalay, and that number is only 150. After the sunset, our driver bright us to a market with local food. We ate at a cheap local place on the sidewalk and then walked to Chinatown to get a couple of beers and chill for the night. Max got food poisoning from lunch today and had to go home earlier than us. Lynsey, Matt and I hung out until the bar on the street closed and then we took taxis home. We planned to meet up tomorrow to see the outer city. It was great first day in Myanmar.
Last night, we arranged to meet out tuk tuk driver in the morning so he could take us around all day to a few places outside of Mandalay. He first picked Matt and I up and then Lynsey and Max. Max was still pretty sick so he decided to stay in the hotel, so just the three of us went together. We rode to a gold leaf factory, where guys hit gold sheets with sledge hammers for hours and thin it out, to then coat figurines with. We also went to a silk weaving factory, where ladies use wooden machines all day to make tourists think everything is hand made, when really, they have sewing machines that create everything in their shop. After doing to tourist scam shops like these, our driver took us to a monetary where thousands of monks lined up for the first meal of the day. It was really cool to see. They ranged in age from kids who could barely talk to old men. The older men got to eat first and everyone else had to wait for everyone to get their food before they could start. We drove outside the city for about 30 minutes until we got to a bridge that overlooked a bunch of pagodas on a hill. It was a neat sight unlike any other. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that there are more temples in Myanmar than in all other southeast Asian countries combined. Whether it’s true or not, I definitely believe it because there are so many everywhere you look. We walked to the top of this hill with a pagoda on top. It was a hot walk up many stairs. Up there is where I learned that big waters are 300 kyat ($.30) everywhere, no matter where in the country, at all times. So if someone tried to sell it for more ever, you simply give them “the look” and say “300.” They will always agree because that IS the price. Lynsey gave us that little tip. Something that we noticed was that most of the Burmese people have this white paste visible on their faces, specifically their cheeks. We learned that this is a natural recipe for a sunscreen type solution. They wear it all day, everyday to keep their skin as white as possible, which is a big cultural thing all around Asia. The whiter your skin is, the higher class you seem because you don’t have to work outside as much to make a living. In America, we have tanning cream commercials, and here they have commercials with tan people putting on whitening lotion to appear more pale. We walked back down the stairs and our tuk tuk driver brought us to a random ferry stop. We were confused but got on the small ferry and were taken across the river, where there were a bunch of horse drawn carriages. We are some chicken and rice and then took one of the horse drawn carriages around the island that we were on. The island was pretty big, so walking wasn’t an option. We stopped at 5 or 6 temples and walked around. It was neat because we were the only ones at each of the temples that we went to. It once again shows how few tourists actually come to this country. We saw little monklings on school and got to observe them trying to learn. It looked like the older monk teacher was fed up with the energy of the kids and kind of gave up. It’s funny that some things are so similar everywhere in the world. After riding around for two hours and seeing a bunch of temples, we rode back to the boat stop and took a ferry back to our tuk tuk. Our driver took us to the last stop of the day, this famous bridge that is actually on the cover of Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia On A Shoestring.” It was 1.6 km long and was a walking bridge across a river. We chilled at a restaurant there for a little and ate. We then went to another for a couple of beers. A little before sunset, we walked to the bridge and took a bunch if pictures as the sun went down. We got back into our tuk tuk and our driver took us back to Mandalay to drop us off at our hotels. I wanted to see a political satire show tonight that is famous because the performer keeps getting arrested for years at a time because he makes fun of the government here. I ended up not going because I don’t really like politics or satire, so Matt and I said goodbye to our new friend Lynsey and chilled on our rooftop lounge all night. It was relaxing and there was a local women playing some string instrument for an hour or so. We went to bed around 11:00 pm so we could be well rested when we left on a bus tomorrow to Bagan to see the world famous temples there!