23 Days in Myanmar

Yangon, Nyang Shwe, and Bagan

7 min read by Dmitri and Betty.

It’s been over three years since Betty and I gave up our apartment in Toronto and began travelling across Asia. So far, we’ve seen eleven countries. Vietnam was one of our favourites — spent around three months there. China is where some of Betty’s relatives live; we travelled around the western part of it for about six months.

Having done all that and more, we eventually got “stuck” in Thailand, clocking two years of ex-pat life in our passports thus far. Myanmar would be the longest departure from our little Thai apartment since we got settled. A new adventure.

During our month “abroad,” we planned on fulfilling our volunteering mission, seeing Bagan, and getting my legal papers sorted. The timing of the latter coincided with the Water Festival, which was to shut down the entire nation for two weeks. So we scheduled ourselves to stay in the country until the offices opened up again.

Yangon announced its uniquely-preserved culture as soon as we stepped into its dusty streets. Men, wearing Longyi (long skirts), chewing and spitting Paan (tobacco/betel leaves mix). Women, wearing light yellow paint made from wood paste on their cheeks to keep cool in the blazing sun. Old Japanese cars, driven and parked on the right side of the road. A bus stop where the conductors chanted their destination as the wheels turned slowly and the passengers hopped into moving vehicles.
A busy intersection in downtown Yangon.

Yangon.

Myanmar’s thawing military dictatorship promoted an influx of Western and Asian tourists over the past decade to see a country that’s been long off-limits, much like North Korea. We were part of that influx.

Yangon announced its uniquely-preserved culture as soon as we stepped into its dusty streets. Men, wearing Longyi (long skirts), chewing and spitting Paan (tobacco/betel leaves mix). Women, wearing light yellow paint made from wood paste on their cheeks to keep cool in the blazing sun. Old Japanese cars, driven and parked on the right side of the road. A bus stop where the conductors chanted their destination as the wheels turned slowly and the passengers hopped into moving vehicles.

A bus conductor chants, helps passengers aboard. Myanmar, Yangon  2016.

📺 Watch: A bus conductor chants and helps passengers aboard.

“The Dogs of Nyang Shwe.”

Nyang Shwe.

The next day we took off on a freezing-cold overnight bus towards Lake Inle. Reaching the town of Nyang Shwe early in the morning, we were greeted by a van driver who charged us around ten dollars for a two-minute drive, then interrupted by a guard, demanding a $50USD park entrance fee.

I spent the rest of the day getting accustomed to our room and massaging the fluids from my swollen feet back into the veins.

There was a lot of work to do: Betty and I were preparing for a week-long intensive course on the “Effective Business Practices” for the local entrepreneurs — our volunteering gig with Partnership for Change (Inle Region) / Inle Speaks Community Skills Development Centre.

Unfortunately, I got sick on day two at Nyang Shwe, so did Betty — and we remained ill for the rest of the trip.

One doesn’t need to be a doctor to get a good guess as to what caused our upset stomachs: local restaurants situated next to open sewers, and meat markets swarmed with flies.

Later, we learned that the Burmese obsess over the popular herbal medicine meant to soothe the gut.

Despite the illness and the busywork, Betty and I were delighted to spend time with the locals, most of whom felt genuinely warm and accepting. And in the areas where we were allowed to be, theft and crime were apparently low enough to leave a laptop unattended. Quite welcome, considering the local currency denominations that required carrying large wads of cash.

Tourist lodging, transportation, and food were all priced unfairly. Restaurant menus would often have their prices scratched multiple times, each new iteration raising the cost by 1.5-2x. Cab drivers charged double what you’d expect for a ride in NYC. Hotels would cost almost as much as the ones we stayed at in Japan — minus the service and room quality.

Burmese cellular network, the only sensible way to connect to the internet, was incredibly slow and unreliable.

On our last day at Nyang Shwe, we took a boat ride across Lake Inle. Beautiful, but polluted with pesticides from a tomato farm upstream, noise from the tourist boats, and smog from the crop burnings.

There was clearly a lot that the country needed to do to improve the lives of its citizens. But there was hope in the air as the foreign dollars, tourists, and technology began to trickle into Myanmar.

📺 Watch: A farmer pushes his wooden boat along Lake Inle.

Bagan.

The staff at our Bagan hostel demanded crisp, freshly-printed banknotes and would not accept anything that had as much as a single crease. This obsession over mint currency appeared to have spawned numerous mini-bureaus that would exchange raggedy USD for fresh paper — for a fee.

We modified our diet to packaged biscuits and water in our desperate attempt to beat the stomach flu.

Still sick, our strength was limited, so we decided to optimize our stay by seeing as many of the historical sites as possible in the first couple of days, followed by “time off” before going back to Yangon.

Hot-air balloon rides, which Bagan is known for on Instagram, were around $300USD per person, needed to be booked months in advance and are not guaranteed to commence. So we didn’t do that.

But we did manage to see the enormous temple city on our own account.

Sun-scorched grass, lush palm trees and temple ruins stretching for miles.

Tired from the heat, exhausted from food poisoning, we longed to be on our way to Yangon. But Myanmar didn’t care — transportation and offices were closing as the Burmese prepared to observe Thingyan, a holiday that celebrates the start of a new year with water fights and street dances.

📺 Watch: Street dance and water festivities in Bagan during Thingyan water holiday.

Train back to Yangon.

Our trip to Myanmar had its moments of awe, pleasant encounters and fun. But overall, it’s been expensive, tiring and in poor health. I think that’s what made this rail passage feel so wonderful: we were on our way home.

Alone in our car, we rocked back and forth on the narrow antiquated British gauge as the local children and their parents gathered next to the tracks, waving and watching us pass.