25 February to 12 March 2012
Visas for Burma are really easy to get but they are only valid for 28 days (who came up with this figure?) and although it is possible to overstay your visa and pay a fine of US$3 per day, this can lead to complications (mainly hotels refusing to accept you) and so is not that advisable. With 28 days you can see a good chunk of the country but it is not enough to see it all so we decided to head back and see a bit more.
I must say that our decision to come back wasn’t solely based on the fact that we love it here. There were other important factors to take into account such as the fact that, weather-wise, China (where we are heading next) is a big ‘no no’ until at least the end of March and frankly we were getting a little bored of sitting around on Thai beaches for days on end (it can happen?) so when we found out we could fly directly from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Yangon without the need to get a Burmese visa in advance it seemed like a good thing to do.
The flight was pleasant, I had the beef, Kirsty the chicken (no movie) and the visa on arrival, which is a new thing, was chaotic but it worked and an hour later we were on our way into town courtesy of the complimentary pick-up truck sent by our guest house. All good until we kept feeling ‘things’ around our legs. When we looked down, we saw an intrusion of cockroaches which had made a rather large nest just by our feet. Kirsty flipped, I walloped a few with my flip-flop but needless to say, we both spent the rest of the journey with our feet ‘up’ and our eyes firmly fixed for any sudden movements. I told the driver when we arrived. He just laughed.
We were spending seventeen days in Burma this time around and planned to spend most of this in the west of the country. After spending our first day in Yangon sorting out flight tickets (success) and making future hotel reservations (no success), we flew to Sittwe in the west of the country. If you look at a map, you will see how close the town is to Bangladesh (aka British India) and during the British era, it was an important port, used to move goods between the two countries. It’s a bit scrappy today but you can still see colonial-style buildings around the town and the harbour is a fascinating place to while away half a day.
Port area, Sittwe
Main market, Sittwe
From Sittwe, we took a boat inland through waterways and deltas to a place called Mrauk-U (pronounced ‘mraw-oo’), a fascinating place where hundreds of centuries-old temples dot the landscape.
Passengers waiting to board the ferry between Sittwe and Mrauk U
We have been to plenty of temple complexes in our time but I think this was one of the best because around the temples village life still thrives. So, you could be visiting one temple and right next to it there would be a local farmer working in his field and monks playing a game of football (true, see the photos!) and this gave it a very unique feel. Add to this the inaccessibility of Mrauk-U (from Sittwe, it takes at least five hours by ferry) and the friendliness of its people and you have one of the most charming spots in all of South-East Asia.
Ratanabon Paya, Mrauk U
Mrauk U: Kothaung Paya (left) and sunset over the temples (right)
We also had the chance to explore the surrounding villages including those inhabited by Chin women who tattoo the whole of their face including their eyelids. This strange custom is no longer practised (it was banned by the Government in the 1960s) but it is still possible to see ‘tattooed grannies’ which is all that is left now given the date of the ban. Admittedly it was rather strange but apart from Fratton Park (Portsmouth F.C.’s football ground!) where else can you see such a thing?
Tattooed elders in the village of Pann Paung
Also in Mrauk-U, ‘it’ finally happened – the dread of all backpackers in Burma – we didn’t have a place to sleep. Burma is so busy with tourists at the moment and there are so few guest houses that you spend a fair proportion of your time trying to make an onward reservation. We managed to book a room at the Prince Guest House in Mrauk-U for us and a French couple but six of us turned up. The other couple (from Belgium) made their reservation over a week before and had not bothered to reconfirm it – foolhardy in Burma to say the least. So all six of us turn up to be met by the utterly delightful Joy, a nineteen-year-old sweetheart who could have told me that she had personally destroyed my record collection and I wouldn’t have been able to get angry with her. Anyway, you can guess the rest, we had a room (under the name ‘Market’ but close enough!), the Belgians didn’t and there was no record of the French. So why, when we were the only ones with a reservation, did we end up sleeping in reception? We’re too bloody nice, that’s why! The French were only in Mrauk-U for one night (which is utter madness given the effort it takes to get there) and we and the Belgians decided to give them the room so that they could get on with their sightseeing immediately. The Belgians got the store cupboard after we flipped a coin for it. I lost and Kirsty and I ended up on a bed in a curtained-off corner of reception. It wasn’t all bad. We got to sleep for free that night and spent the money that we would have spent on the room on beer instead and as a result, we slept pretty well.
We spent longer than planned exploring Mrauk-U’s temple ruins and taking side trips before heading back on the same rickety ferry to Sittwe. As we had flown from Yangon to Sittwe, our aim was to try to get back to Yangon by land so we took another boat, this time south to Taunggok but once there we worked out the only way to get to our next destination was via an eleven-hour minibus ride that left at 5 PM along the road from hell. Quite frankly, at our age this was not acceptable and so we managed to find a driver who would take us and two other travellers at the more sociable hour of 10 AM but, unfortunately, the trade-off was an unsociable price tag of US$125 for the charter of the van. All things considered, it was money well spent and we arrived in Pyay (our next destination) just before dusk and were tucking into sweet and sour pork and Myanmar beer not long after that.
Pyay: Sehtatgyi Pagoda (left) and Shwesandaw Pagoda (centre and right)
From Pyay we wanted to head into the Ayeyarwady Delta but this was not possible without first going to Yangon and if we had to go to Yangon first, we both knew we wouldn’t have the energy to head out to the Delta and back via the same route. Travelling is slow and uncomfortable in Burma and you want to minimise the number of journeys you do and you certainly don’t want to backtrack. Luckily Pyay was a nice place and as well as having a great river location, some good places to eat and some interesting things to see and do, it has what must be among the best value hotel in Burma. With a swimming pool, ferocious air-conditioning, hot water, tip-top fixtures and fittings and even wi-fi, the Golden Dragon Hotel was extremely comfortable and all for a mere US$35 a night including breakfast. Given that we usually pay US$20 for a ‘just about OK’ cell-like room with shared bathroom most nights you can see that the Golden Dragon will leave us with very fond memories of Pyay!
Finally, it was back to Yangon for a final overnight before saying goodbye to Burma and heading back to Bangkok for a ‘lovely’ two weeks of dealing with embassies, trying to buy warm clothes (harder than you think in steaming Bangkok!) and eating lots and lots of nice food before heading up to China and Central Asia.