English | Dutch
The start of our second visit to Myanmar
Bangkok (Thailand) to Bagan (Myanmar), Mar-22-08 / Apr-03-08
Five years after visiting Myanmar for a four week holiday, we are going to visit this country again. Therefore, we are taking a flight from Bangkok to Yangon. At the airport in Bangkok, we take a sandwich while Thai Boxing is shown on big plasma screens. When one of the boxers is knockout, we have finished our tuna sandwich: Myanmar, here we come!

After a flight of one and a half hour, we arrive in Yangon. The difference with the modern city of Bangkok is enormous. Many of the men and women are dressed in the traditional longyis (long unisex sarong style under garment) and many women wear Thanakha (a beige wood paste that is used as an all-in-one skin conditioner, make-up and sunblock). Myanmar is boycotted by the West and terrorised by its regime, but on the outside it looks friendly. After putting our backpacks on our hotel room, we have to change money. While in most countries we can use an ATM, here we have to change Euro of Dollar bills. Due to the boycott, Myanmar doesn’t have ATM’s connected to the international banking system. As Myanmar also doesn’t have the opportunity to exchange damaged Euro of Dollar bills at the European of American Central Bank, the Burmese are very critical when accepting those bills. Therefore, our money belts are filled with crispy new billets that aren’t torn or taped together. To exchange Euros, you have to be in Yangon while it is easy to exchange the US-Dollar in most parts of the country. In general, Myanmar is more Dollars oriented. Some hotels only accept dollars and all hotel prices and entrance fees are quoted in dollars. When you want to pay in Kyats (Myanmar’s national currency), they refuse or use a disadvantageous rate. So, when heading out to Myanmar always take some dollars with you.

A street scene in the centre of Yangon
Everywhere in Yangon, you will see men with handbags filled with a calculator and big stacks of money bills. The only place to change your money at a reasonable rate is on the black market, which isn’t frowned upon in Myanmar. In some streets you are constantly asked to “change money”. After some haggling with different moneychangers we know for which rate we want to part from our Euro bills and then we head to a hotel that is known for its reliable currency exchange service. For our few hundred Euros, we receive hundreds of Kyat notes, as the largest Kyat note only has a value of approximately 0.60 Euro. We hand over our Euros after we have counted all Kyats. The guy from the hotel leaves with our Euros to return within a few minutes with two torn 50 Euro notes. These bills are certainly not the bills that we gave him, but this way he tries to get rid of his own bad notes. After an argument he realizes that we won’t change these torn bills with new ones. He insists that these are our notes, but that he can’t prove it. This incident haunts our mind for some hours, as it is unpleasant to be accused of something that you didn’t do. In our memory of five years ago, all Burmese were friendly and trustworthy but it seems that we also have to be careful in Myanmar.

The days in Yangon that follow aren’t as good as we had hoped for. This is partly due to the hot weather, but also because of the feeling that we are seen as a cash cow. During our previous visit, we have spent many hours lingering in the parks to chat with the locals or simply to enjoy the shade. In many of these parks, there is now a sign that says “for foreigners there is an entrance fee of one Dollar”. As all this money goes to the bad government of Myanmar, we try to avoid these entrance fees as much as possible. Surely, we want to see the highlights of Myanmar so we need to pay some entrance fees but we deliberate about any entrance fee if we think it is worth it.

Ivonne on an ox cart during our visit to Thayekhittaya near Pyay

The next destination after Yangon is Pyay, a relatively non touristy town between Yangon and Bagan. Here, we visit the Thayekhittaya archaeological site. We spent a great day by riding on an ox cart through the picturesque agricultural area while visiting some ancient temples. When we try to buy a bus ticket from Pyay to Magwe, we again notice that the friendly looking Burmese aren’t as innocent as they look in the first place. Because they try to fob off a taxi ride, everybody on the bus station insists that all busses to Magwe for the coming five days are full. When we peek into the reservation register, we see that there are still many seats empty. Finally, after some begging we get our ticket to Magwe. Magwe is our last stop on our way to Bagan. It is typical a town that you won’t miss after leaving it, so we don’t mind leaving Magwe after a hot night in a mosquito infested hotel.

Nyaung U is the place that we are heading for. This will be the base from which we want to explore the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Bagan is a vast area of 42 square kilometres that is dotted with thousand year old temples. We have been here also five years ago, but we look forward to really take our time to cycle slowly trough this area. Anyway, cycling fast isn’t a real option on the loose dirt roads with temperatures rising well above 40 degrees centigrade. In Bagan, we retrieve the feeling that Myanmar left five years ago. While we visit the temples, we are approached by locals that come to us for a chat. After a few days, the vendors recognize us and they approach us for a talk instead of trying to sell something. During our week in Bagan, we also made our planning for the remaining weeks in Myanmar. Our first plan was to travel all the way by busses, trains and boats to the far Northern town of Myitkyina. Due to the hot temperatures and long distances we decided to cancel this plan, as we don’t fancy 24 to 40 hour train rides with temperatures above 40 degrees centigrade (air-conditioning in trains is not heard off in Myanmar). So we decided to visit more or less the same places that we also visited five years ago, but to see them more thoroughly. In a few days, we will take a bus to the Inle Lake and afterwards we travel to Mandalay. The Water Festival is in a few weeks and we look forward to experience it in Mandalay. Locals are also heading to Mandalay for this huge event where anybody can throw buckets of cold water to anyone who passes by. No exception is made of foreigners, so we look forward to cool down in Mandalay.


<Previous weblog>
Go back to home pageGo to Articles sectionGo to Columns sectionGo to Photos sectionGo to countries sectionGo to weblog sectionGo to about us