Myanmar, also known as Burma, is an alluring landscape strewn with golden pagodas and temples. It has an atmosphere that sometimes seems like a lost world, which calls to mind Somerset Maugham’s or Rudyard Kipling’s tales of the exotic East. As Kipling once wrote about Burma “It will be quite unlike any land you know about.”
We visited Myanmar the last days of the military junta, when conspicuous, uniformed generals ruled, and military forces patrolled in trucks mounted with machine guns. Our guide warned us against photographing any military personnel or activities. We also heard—but cannot verify—that the local people wanted tourists near them as they tempered the harshness of the military regime. Certainly everyone we met in Myanmar was exceptionally friendly.
I will not comment on current conditions in Myanmar, but at the time of our visit there were no ATMS, no banks or offices for currency exchange, and very few businesses that accepted credit cards. Currency exchange was officially illegal, but widely practiced in small dark rooms in back alleys for varying fees. A big part of the guide’s job is getting you a fair exchange rate at a reasonable fee.
We paid for our hotels before our trip (online, by credit card), and our only use of credit cards while in Myanmar was for the Balloons over Bagan tour (see below). The tour was through a British company that held a unique concession for the tours. That day we booked the tour was also our only use of the internet in Myanmar.
We heard tales of first-time visitors who arrived at the airport and had to leave the country and come back with cash in order to continue their travels. Yes—even the airport lacked foreign exchange offices, and the locals are not interested in US dollars or any other currency but their own (the Kyat).
Our one use of US dollars occurred on leaving, at the airport. We had to pay an exit fee of US$20 per person. The cashier was very particular about the physical condition of the bills. So, bring plenty of crisp new dollars (or British pounds or Euros or any currency respected on world exchanges).
Again, I cannot comment on how conditions have changed on commercial transactions since the regime change. But, cultures change more slowly than governments and what we experienced in Myanmar is probably quite relevant today. Once accustomed to the rules, the inconveniences were minor, and our trip was simply extraordinary, as shown in the photographs below and in the gallery link.
Our plans for travel started in Yangon (formerly, Rangoon). We had arranged for a private tour of the country with a local guide with a car. From there we drove through the center of the countryside, a scenic rural landscape on our way to Mandalay and from there we took a private boat to Bagan. During our two week trip we never met another American tourist
In Yangon we visited one of nation’s most holy shrines, Shwedagon— a towering golden temple that Buddhists in Myanmar on their spiritual path will try to visit at least once in a lifetime. Shwedagon rises as Somerset Maugham wrote “glistening in gold like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.”
Myanmar is a land of millions of images of The Buddha. Virtually, everywhere you look is a figure of stone, clay, metal or wood, and paintings or engravings. One temple has an alleged million representations of The Buddha on its walls. We saw many broken remains of Buddha statues laying around on ledges and floors in damaged temples in the central part of the country. I hope that now there is some security to protect such shrines as it would be easy for visitors to walk away with these thousand year old treasures . Maybe now that UNESCO is involved, there is hope for the right kind of preservation.
A hot air balloon flight at dawn
over the architectural wonderland of the Bagan plain, where more than 3,500 temples and religious structures built between 800 and 1,000 years ago stand. They occupy a small stretch of land which includes Old Bagan. The temples are at their visual finest at dawn or as the sun is setting. The morning sun raises mist from the river, which shrouds the temples in a mystical haze.
Of all of my world travels this is the most impressive vision I have ever seen. By the time the balloon landed I was dazed and oddly silent, and I had tears in my eyes.
If I could only choose just one place in Asia to visit it would be Bagan. It is a true wonder of Southeast Asia.