Myanmar II

Yangon

The First Ride

Walking to the Yangon train station I was unsure how the train ride was going to go. I overheard one of the hostel employees recommeding a traveler to take the bus and not the train because it is a very long and rough ride. From what I have heard most of the train travel in Myanmar is long, bumpy and rough. I was running late but needed some snacks, I stopped at the Ruby Mart convenience store and made it to the station with 5 minutes to spare before the departure time of 0400 pm.

 The train left at 0415 pm, I was in a sleeper cabin with four other guys. An older Aussie man named Wayne, an English guy named Jack and two other English guys named Ollie and Dave. Wayne had just spent some time traveling in India, Jack has been traveling for a few months through Europe, Mongolia and Asia, Ollie and Dave were traveling through Myanmar for 10 days on vacation. The train windows were open and we had a great view of the countryside.

Bang!! bang!! clack! The train slammed back and forth rocking constantly on the tracks. It was beyond bumpy, litereally getting tossed from my seat at times. It was a slow train, our maximum speed must have been 30 km/hour. We stopped at many stations along the way, picking up and dropping off local people in different villages.

I was introduced to some Myanmar train toilets, the system is pretty simple – a standard squatting toilet, where the waste goes directly on the tracks. Anyone who has taken the train has noticed the funny sign that asks the passenger to ‘refrain from using the toilet over the bridge – for bridge preservation reasons.’

Throwing garbage and littering is a normal habit in the Myanmar culture. A daily example: A man on the train buys a cob of corn in a plastic bag, after he is done eating his meal he then throws the plastic bag and all the trash outside of the window. All of the local people seem to do the same. A good opportunity for travelers to lead by example through simply throwing trash in the garbage bin.

It was an 18 hour journey on the train. There was no food dining cart so we bought our meals [from outside the train window] at different stations along the way. I ate some chicken and rice, people were selling drinks and other food options at some railway stations along the way.

The countryside is beautiful in Myanmar, the slow train affords you the time to take it all in. We exchaged stories and talked until it became dark and late enough to try to get some sleep. With no air condition the windows were open most of the journey, by this time many bugs and insects have flown into our cabin. We decided to leave one small light on to attract the bugs (I particularly appreciated this being on the top bunk). After laying down I got tossed around the bed a few times but was happy to be able to stretch out my legs. I’m not sure if it was more of a miracle that I got some decent sleep or that the train did not derailed.

 Heading north towards Bagan morning broke into a clear sky, the rain had yielded and it was a change to see dry streets again. I leaned out the window and bought some fresh pinapple for breakfast, it was a quick exchange as we weren’t stopped at the station for long. The last few hours of the journey we saw people working all pieces of the land from ox pulling plows aerating the land, cattle being herded on farms and rice fields being worked all around the countryside.

Arriving around 0930 am the 18 hour sleeper train had ended up costing me 16,500 kyat ($18 Canadian), saving more than $10 in comparison to taking the bus. All the negatives I had heard about the train were outweighed by the benefits of traveling locally and seeing the countryside.

Local man sitting having a cigarette at the train station (Myanmar, 2016).
Local man sitting having a cigarette at the train station (Myanmar, 2016).
Train tracks (Myanmar, 2016).
Train tracks (Myanmar, 2016).
Typical view from the train (Myanmar, 2016).
Typical view from the train (Myanmar, 2016).

Bagan

 Leaving the train Jack and I had booked into the same hostel in New Bagan at a Ostello Bello. We managed to get a shared truck taxi for 2,500 kyat per person at the train station. Initially the driver wanted 6,000 kyat each but the price dropped significantly when we joined with another group heading into Old Bagan. Funny enough, three of the nine of us heading into town were backpacking with ukuleles. Heading into Bagan we stopped at a tourist office and were each charged the standard 25,000 kyat ($30 Canadian) entry fee to the town for five days.

Bagan is a mystical place with temples and pagodas all around. There were over 10,000 temples and pagodas from the 11th to the 13th century. Today there are more than 2,200 remaining, most of which can be explored. It baffles me that at one time in Bagan there were two temples being built per month.

After arriving at Ostello Bello and having a quick bite to eat, Jack, Hannah and I rented some electric motorbikes (ebikes) and set out to explore the area. Ostello Bello seemed expensive costing $18 Canadian/ night for the 12 person dorm. The room included sample pasta 3 times per day, free Myanmar cigars, coffee, tea, clean failities and has a great atmosphere so in the end it was definetely worth the stay.

The place to rent ebikes is right outside of the hostel. Initial the price was 3,000 kyat for an ebike and laundry [unlimited laundry included]. The two shops were competing offering better prices and the price quickly became 1,000 kyat from 0100 pm until nightfall. One dollar to rent the ebike all day and have my laundry done.

Temple Time

We spent hours driving through different areas, passing rice fields, countless pagodas and temples. Passing through fields where the trail was made of sand and extremely slippery we found our way to some secret pagodas. The weather was great, I couldn’t believe the change from the constant rain in Yangon to the sun in Bagan. The three of us had a great time enjoying the temples, many of which didn’t have anyone there but us.

We grabbed a bite to eat and a bottle of rum at the corner shop. I was playing ukulele on the rooftop watching the sky change colour while the sun set. Each night in the hostel there is some entertainment or activity going on. On this night it was a ‘quiz night.’ Jack, Hannah and another English guy and I entered a team. We weren’t quite as good as expected but we had a good time regardless.

I rented an ebike early morning and went riding into the dark to see the sunrise. The monsoon brought some unfortuante clouds and haze this morning. The views were not postcard perfect but the landscape is serene.

After taking a nap I awoke a putrid odour in the room. “Ahem, cough, cough”, trying to clear my throat, struggling to breath the odour was toxic. Thinking I’d prefer the limited oxygen in the air above 5000 meters in Nepal’s Himalaya mountains. There was a sewage problem in the room and I was upgraded to a 4 bed dorm room free of charge.

Ostello Bello and Hostelworld each sent an email to confirming my booking, not something that usually happens. Most often I make a reservation online on hostelworld or hostelbookers and only they send an email.

In the Ostello Bello email it stated that if you play an instrument, have a skill, or provide entertainment you are eligible to receive a free night accommodation. I confirmed this with them on arrival. Shortly after my arrival I was told that I would be playing on my second night and could receive my third night free of charge.

‘Ukulele live by Patrick‘ was posted on the big whiteboard all day. I spent a few hours putting together a set list including some songs on both the ukulele and guitar. I’m still new at the ukulele so I was a bit hesitant when night rolled around. It was too late to back out as it had been advertised for a day and a half so the show must go on.

I played a few songs on the ukulele and then switched to a 6 string guitar and then switched back playing a few more songs on ukulele. It turned out to be a success playing from 8:30pm until 9:30pm. The ukulele ($10) paid itself off twice on the savings I got from having a third night free for providing entertainment ($22). Likely the most profitable show of my music career so far.

 Many parts of Myanmar remain closed to tourism, people often travel similar routes when exploring the country. I have run into many friends in Bagan who I met during my time in Yangon. I ran into Justine from Toronto (we met in Yangon) and some friends in the morning as they were waiting to check in.

 It was a nice day so I rented an ebike for 2,000 kyat and had my shoes washed [included in the ebike rental]. I rode to the bus station and bought a ticket to Kalaw on a VIP bus for 0600 am the following day for 11,000 kyat. In the afternoon I ran into Justine and some other friends at the hostel. We took the ebikes throughout the temples throughout the day and had a blast. We played chinloo with some local guys. We watched the sun set over the temples, someone dubbed the group of us the ‘Bagan Biker Gang.’ I ran into some friends from Yangon, also sitting on the same temple watching the sunset.

Many people had issues with their ebikes, batteries dying, not starting, etc. Thankfully I was able to ride for 3 days with no issues. Be sure to get the name and phone number of the company the bike is rented from because they will bring a new ebike if there are issues.

The only place I’ve been that can compare with the vastness of the temples in Bagan are the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia. Though still they are very different, Bagan is unique and beautiful in many ways. Three days of visiting the temples and pagodas was sufficient for me, particularly with the expensive accomodation.

 After adventuring around and watching the  we all headed back and had some dinner. It was my last night in Bagan, the hostel had BINGO as entertainment. We played for a couple hours, the prize was one free beer per BINGO. I called it an early night because I was catching the 0620 am bus to Kalaw.

I have heard nothing but good things about the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake so I’m excited to do some trekking and see the Myanmar countryside.

Temple, temple, pagoda, temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Temple, temple, pagoda, temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Temple, temple, pagoda, temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Temple, temple, pagoda, temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Temple, temple, pagoda, temple (Myanmar, 2016).
The hazy skyline can’t ruin the view of the beautiful temples (Myanmar, 2016).
Gorgeous temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Gorgeous temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Herding cattle (Myanmar, 2016).
Some cattle passing by (Myanmar, 2016).
Farmer passing by with some animals (Myanmar, 2016).
Farmers passing by with some cattle and goats (Myanmar, 2016).
Found the entrance to the secret temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Found the entrance to the secret temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Temple town (Myanmar, 2016).
Temple town (Myanmar, 2016).
Playing some chinloo outside of a temple with some local guys (Myanmar, 2016).
Playing some chinloo outside of a temple with some local guys (Myanmar, 2016).
Bagan Biker Gang having fun (Myanmar, 2016).
Bagan Biker Gang having some fun (Myanmar, 2016).
Temples all around (Myanmar, 2016).
Temples all around (Myanmar, 2016).
Our electric motorbikes lined up (Myanmar, 2016).
Our electric motorbikes lined up (Myanmar, 2016).
Sunshine and blue sky making for a great day (Myanmar, 2016).
Sunshine and a blue sky making for a great day (Myanmar, 2016).
Temples (Myanmar, 2016).
Field filled with small temples (Myanmar, 2016).
Playing a Myanmar song during my show at Ostello Bello (Myanmar, 2016).
Playing a Myanmar song during my show at Ostello Bello (Myanmar, 2016).

Myanmar I

Yangon


I got my visa online for $80 USD (United States dollars), it was checked at the border leaving Bangkok to ensure I am able to enter Myanmar before departing Thailand. I recommend going to the embassy in Bangkok to get this visa as it about half the price. The visa states on it that it is valid only with proof of exiting the country so I booked a flight back from Mandalay in twenty-six days the night before I took my flight. With no issues at immigration I got onto the plane and a short time later landed in Yangon, Myanmar. I don’t have much knowledge about Myanmar but am seeking some new adventures.

I made a few Dutch friends passing through immigration and ended up sharing a taxi to a Okinawa Guesthouse on 32nd street, just a minute walk to Sule Pagoda. My friends and I split up the beds sharing the room for $10 USD (United States Dollars) each per night. Not cheap accomodation but I knew it would be more expensive in Myanmar. We ventured down to 28th street and had some delicious street food. The pineapple was amazing, likely the best I have ever had. Having a traditional dinner and a few Myanmar beer I called it a night early to rest up for tomorrow.

Walking down the street it is very common to see many local people with red stained teeth, spitting out red juices. I thought there was a gingivitis epidemic and was concerned for the oral health of the population. I soon found out that what they were chewing on and spitting out is betel nut. It is commonly used as a mild stimulant with or without tobacco.

I have used www.couchsurfing.com numerous times in the past and enjoy the opportunity it provides to meet and stay with local people. I arranged to stay with Koko from couchsurfing the day after my arrival.

The guesthouse provided a nice breakfast. I spent the afternoon hanging out with my Dutch friends, we set off to check out the circle train. It is a 3 hour slow train that goes along the border of the city. Within a few hours we saw people working in markets, locals hopping on and off, going to and from work, kids and youth heading home from school.

 A local man who could not speak English but had a translation book to practice offered a local cigar. Many of the locals smoke these throughout the city, it is made with tobacco leaves, I didn’t particularly enjoy it but smoked it to be polite. Head out the window or sitting with the door wide open watching the city function was a relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

Plenty of street art and interesting architecture (Yangon, 2016).
Plenty of street art and interesting architecture (Yangon, 2016).
Emergency vehicles lined up (Yangon, 2016).
Emergency vehicles lined up (Yangon, 2016).

Couchsurfing
After heading back to the guesthouse I picked up my things and called for a taxi. Koko had called me numerous times throughout the day to clarify my plan. Finally I was on my way over so I gave him a call and he spoke with the taxi driver. Meter taxis are not used so the price is negotiated before the ride. Unable to obtain a price Koko thought was reasonable, I hopped in anyways not minding the 2,000 kyat foreigner price mark-up. The taxi ride cost me 10,000 kyat (~$11 Canadian).

The traffic in Yangon is always busy, but becomes madness during rush hour. No motorbikes are allowed within the city. The number of cars, trucks, and taxis on the road has grown significantly in the past few years. There was a 90% reduction of vehicle prices sometime around 4 years age. Now the streets are flooded with vehicles. Licensing, obtaining a permit, and buying a nice vehicle would cost ~$400,000 USD a few years ago. Today the same vehicle is priced at ~$40,000 USD so traffic has grown exponentially.

The taxi ride I took was at rush hour. It was a draining two hour drive for a usually twenty-five minute ride. I fell into a deep sleep in the taxi and missed four calls from Koko, on the fifth call I awoke up surprised. The driver was laughing as I answered the phone. “He call you four times?” I checked my phone afterwards and laughed. “Exactly right” I said as I had picked up his fifth call. A quick update and we arrived shortly after at a local teahouse.

Koko introduced me to his father, mother and a few aunts as they were sitting having a tea. I had a tea and spoke about my journey and the long taxi ride. We chatted for a while, they were all kind people. I was not bothered by the pouring rain; it has been raining on and off since my arrival in Yangon.

We headed to Koko’s house on his motorbike where I met his wife and son. We picked up some Myanmar beer and whiskey from the store. The whisky is dirt cheap in Myanmar, about $2.20 Canadian for a 26 ounce bottle. Koko’s friend came over and we drank, played guitar and had a great time exchanging songs and singing along. I heard some great traditional and catchy Myanmar music. I spent the night in a guest room on a pretty hard bed but managed to get some sleep.

Waking up in the morning I went with Koko to the local market (3 minute walk down the street) and picked up some chicken and other groceries for his wife to make lunch and dinner. We headed out on his motorbike and he showed me where he went to university. I had my first traditional Myanmar massage. It was a bit less rough than a Thai massage though it still involved a lot of stretching and bending I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.

We visited an orphanage where 52 children live. There is minimal funding or support available for a multitude of reasons. The house that they all live in is very small, only rice and soup is served to the children because of the high price of meat. I spent some time playing soccer with a few of the kids. It’s an eye opening experience, many children are brought to the orphanage resulting from conflicts within Myanmar. Some families are in a position where they have to give their children up because of no money or opportunity.

Before I left one of the girls working gave me a package of information for providing donations. The orphanage was called Sunrise Home Youth Development Center. Donations and contact with them can be made through sunrisehome.student@gmail.com. If anyone is ever looking to donate I’m sure they would appreciate any help, they are doing good things here.

The montessori we went to was just a three minute walk down the quiet street. It is a big building that provides English, French, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish lessons to students (and anyone) trying to learn a language. I met Koko’s friend, he is a monk that runs the facility. He explained to me how the programs work, the cost for each individual is only 3,000 kyat/ 3 months including books. I can’t believe that the cost is only $3 Canadian for 3 months of learning. It is a phenomenal opportunity for the youth and adults to learn English and other foreign languages.

I sat in a chair for a few minutes, hearing the children speaking with each other in English. The monk came over to me and said “alright, so Koko told me that you are looking to teach, do you have your program ready for today?”

I felt some sweat beads start from my forehead as I pulled on the neck of my shirt.

“Uhm, yes I think so”  I replied, unsure of what my program was going to be about. He then continued to tell me, “So you have from 4:30pm until 6:00pm.”  Wow, I thought to myself, what the hell will I do for that length of time. There was a guitar sitting by and Koko had mentioned kindly that I was great at playing and singing (as we had jammed for hours the night before). Playing and singing was now included in my program.

It was a bit longer than I had anticipated speaking for but with only 5 few minutes to develop my program itinerary, it developed quickly. I was going to talk for a bit, take questions, tell stories and then play some music on the guitar.

There were 70-80 people, mostly pre-university and university students, along with some older people and monks crammed into one room. With the understanding that they are at all levels of learning English; I was introduced and handed the microphone. It was exciting that on my third day in Myanmar I was getting the opportunity to speak here.

I talked about myself and my travels, my work in Canada as a nurse, the healthcare, political and educational systems. Because it was my third day in Myanmar it made for a bit of trouble when I started taking questions; some of them were hard to respond to.

One student asked, “what is your favourite Myanmar food?” “So far the street food” I said trying to explain it is what I have mostly eaten in my first few days.

“What can you say in Myanmar language?” I blanked out, having trouble remembering how to say hello. I asked the student for a quick lesson and they swiftly reminded me that “mingalaba means hello”.

“Are you single or married?” “Single,” I responded and the children broke into chatter. I couldn’t help but laugh at the follow up question.

“What do you think of Myanmar woman?” “Kind and beautiful,” I responded trying to be honest. Another student graciously pointed out that the girl asking the question was also single. There was an outbreak of laughter and chatter. Avoiding an awkward moment I took another question.

“What has been your favourite thing to do in Myanmar?” “Seeing Schwedagon Pagoda was beautiful but doesn’t compare with having the opportunity to speak with you guys (the students).” It was exciting and fun to have an interative time speaking with all the students; it is one of the highlights of my whole trip so far.

So many different questions and curiosities came up that I was able to get to know Myanmar people in a unique way. After an hour and fifteen minutes of speaking and fielding questions I was relieved by the monk who took over for a quick five minutes.

I spoke with a guy who was volunteering at the montessori and he recommended I sing Baby by Justin Bieber while he plays the guitar. In retrospect we should have sang Sorry because I know the words. Singing Baby was slightly embarrassing as the students surprisingly and gracefully sung out every word while I was at the front stuttering along with the microphone trying to keep up.

Enough of that, I played a few of my own songs and regained a bit of dignity. I checked the clock and it was 6:05 time was up already. I had a photo with most of the students and then went back with Koko to his home for dinner.

After dinner it was an early night to bed. I did some reading about Myanmar trying to figure out what areas I want to visit. I didn’t sleep much this night, over exhausted and too warm to find comfort I spent much of the night tossing and turning.

In the morning I went to breakfast with Koko, his wife and son. We had a quick bite to eat and I said thanks for having me stay with them for a couple nights. It was a great experience I would not have been able to have at a guesthouse or hostel.

Koko, his wife, son and I eating breakfast at a local restaurant (Yangon, 2016).
Koko, his wife, son and I eating breakfast at a local restaurant (Yangon, 2016).
Me and some of the kids from Sunrise Home Youth Development Center (Yangon, 2016).
Me and some of the kids from Sunrise Home Youth Development Center (Yangon, 2016).
Speaking with the students (Yangon, 2016).
Speaking with the students at the Montessori (Yangon, 2016).
My five minute break when the monk was speaking (Yangon, 2016).
My five minute break when the monk was speaking (Yangon, 2016).
DSC05958
Photo Time (Yangon, 2016).
A street view near Koko's sister house (Yangon, 2016).
A street view near Koko’s sister house (Yangon, 2016).
DSC05939
Street view at the montessori (Yangon, 2016).

Back into downtown Yangon 

Headed back into Yangon with Koko’s recommendation I took an Aung minibus for 1,000 kyat and arrived on 39th street. I booked into a hostel called Little Yangon. Though a bit expensive it was a great spot just a few streets up from the Okinawa guesthouse I first stayed in. There was a comfy bed, air condition in the rooms and a nice shower. Easily the best shower I have used since the start of my travels. I met some great people at Little Yangon and the atmosphere was nice.

Wifi here is slow, difficult to access and unreliable, cellphone plans and data are cheap and easy.

Five years ago the cost of cellphone a SIM card was $400 USD.

Today it cost me 7000 kyat ($6 USD) for SIM card plus calling/texting with 1.35 GB data.

It rained daily in irregular patterns, though it always seemed to be raining it would sometimes stop for a few hours in the afternoon. It didn’t bother me, I expected a lot of rain coming here in the monsoon season.

I spent days wandering visiting a few temples, trying the local Shan noodles, having coffee chatting with local people and enjoying my travels. I visited a few teahouse Yangon is renound for and was impressed with the fresh coffee. I really liked the city of Yangon so I spent a few nights at Little Yangon. My return flight ticket to Bangkok is booked from Mandalay up north so I will not be back to Yangon.

The best nightlife in Myanmar is supposedly in Yangon. One night I went to a nightclub called Pioneer, it was expensive to get into at 10,000 kyat ($11 Canadian) but worth the experience. It was filled with 95% local people whose dance moves were definitely original. The DJ was a female and she had a hype woman beside her on stage with a microphone, she was encouraging the crowd to get crazy and enjoy the night.

I have been watching pieces of Milos Raonic (#7 World Ranking) play his way to the Wimbeldon finals, the first time a Canadian man has ever competed in a Grandslam final. I found out there are no televisions in Bagan so I stayed one more night at Little Yangon to catch the final match. It was disappointing to see Milos lose the match but we had a fun atmosphere with some British and Candian friends watching.

I walked to the train station and despite some resistance booked an over night train to Bagan for the next day at 0400pm. It was 02:50 pm so the man refused to sell me a ticket despite being open until 0300 pm. It took me 35 minutes to find the right spot so I wasn’t going to leave without the ticket. I eventually had him sell me a ticket for 16,500 kyat ($18 Canadian) and an older gentleman named Wayne from Australia was behind me in called in “I’ll take the same thing” and also booked a spot on the overnight train to Bagan. After a good nights rest I headed to the train station in the afternoon unsure of how my 18 hour train ride to Bagan was going to go.

Downtown Yangon (Myanmar, 2016).
Downtown Yangon (Myanmar, 2016).
Downtown Yangon (Myanmar, 2016).
View from the temple downtown Yangon (Myanmar, 2016).
View of Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon, 2016).
View of Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon, 2016).
Visiting in Sule Pagoda (Myanmar, 2016).
Visiting in Sule Pagoda (Myanmar, 2016).
Rangoon Tea House (Myanmar, 2016).
Rangoon Tea House (Myanmar, 2016).
Monks in front of a temple (Myanmar, 2016).
Monks in front of a temple (Myanmar, 2016).
View of downtown Yangon from outside of Sule Pagoda (Myanmar, 2016).
View of downtown Yangon from outside of Sule Pagoda (Myanmar, 2016).