Myanmar (Burma) was a very interesting experience. I didn’t know what to expect since the country has been closed off for so long to the outside world but hearing all the recent news about the direction towards democracy and Aung Sang Suu Kyi had me intrigued so we booked a short trip to Yangon (only 3 hours away from Singapore).
My first encounter with the country was with the embassy in Singapore. Since most nationals need a visa to go there I decided to be brave and apply for one directly with the embassy instead of through a travel agent. The entire process cost me 2 days and about $60 ($35 visa fee + $25 in taxi rides) AND waiting in line in a non-air conditioned embassy for 2 hours. It would’ve been easier to hand over my passport to a travel agency for $50 and just get it back after 2 days. OR just do visa on arrival since they’ve began this service. But I was a little skeptical on doing the visa on arrival since I didn’t know if a) it would work or b) if they would end up charging me way more than the stated fee.
Anyways, back to the trip. Our first encounter when we stepped off the plane was a brand new modern airport. It actually looked better than some of the other airports I’ve been in Asia. Stepping outside the airport quickly brought us back to reality though. From men wearing the traditional longyi (skirt) to betel nut spits around us to honking horns and cars scrambling to get out of the traffic jam, I definitely knew we were not in Singapore anymore. We exchanged some money at the airport (about $200 which was more than enough especially since there are no ATMs or credit card usage) and got into our car. The main downtown area is about 30 min away from the airport.
The highlight of the trip was the Shwegadoan Pagoda. The main stupa is made up of 30 tons of gold and the top has a 76 carot ruby plus lots of emeralds and diamonds. The temple was not all built at once but over a period of centuries and each ruling king/queen adding more gold and more bling to the temple. Really makes you realize how much wealth and power was in this country back in the day.There are 4 main entrances to the temple and 4 main Buddha statues to the east, west, north and south and about 30,000 smaller statues around the temple. Pretty cool!
Other things we did were an interesting train and boat ride. The train makes a circular loop around the outskirts of Yangon where you can see more of the local life. The train is really a box with windows on wheels so about 30 min of it was more than enough to get the experience. The entire loop takes about 3 hours. We also took a boat ride to the other side of the Yangon river. The boat ride was only 15 min and on the other side, a short trishaw ride through the countryside showed us a totally different rural setting than the city life just minutes away. We got a chance to visit a local school and monastary. The children were absolutely adorable and I still remember thier smiling faces!
Last but not least I have to mention our awesome hotel – The Strand. It was a treat staying here especially since Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell and David Rockefeller have stayed here as well!
Overall the trip went off without any major hitches. The people were incredibly nice and we noticed that there were not as many scammers or the usual ‘where you from’ comments. Although I think as tourism increases the scammers will too. The city has some great colonial architecture but is unfortunately decaying pretty quickly due to the ability to keep it up. I think it would be a nice city center with a lot charachter if the buildings were maintained properly. Another thing was that we went during the monsoon season so had very little time to actually do some exploring without getting caught in the torrential monsoon pours. Only one regret – I did not get to do the hot air balloon ride in Bagan since it is only operational from Oct – March. Oh well…gotta leave something for next time!!