Wednesday, January 23, 2013

To late for Myanmar?

I can remember when David read the first article about Myanmar. The country, which was closed for foreigners for quite a long time was slowly opening to tourism. The first reports were overwhelming. “A hidden treasure”, “untouched and authentic”, “the most beautiful and authentic country in the region”. We wanted to see it! As soon as we knew the second part of our journey would take us to Southeast Asia it was obvious, we would go to Myanmar too. Moreover, we decided to make it our first destination, just because we could hardly wait to go there.

There are still some restrictions you have to live with if you want to visit Myanmar. Although we were already in Bangkok, we couldn't take a bus or a train, but needed to fly into the country instead, which is not the most (eco)logical thing to do. But we booked some Air Asia tickets to Yangon and decided to spend the first few days in Bangkok, trying to get the mandatory Myanmar visa. I have to admit we did worry a bit, because we have already gathered some bad visa experiences and felt a bit uneasy buying the tickets without having the necessary documents ready. Fortunately, it was one of the easiest visa procedure we have seen so far. The queue was huge, but it all went much faster than expected and since we already bought the tickets we had the right to ask for a same day visa, which we received without any problems. We were ready to go in no time.

Traveling through Central Asia with Karossi, we have never really bothered to book a hotel room. We only needed one from time to time anyway and the hotels were hardly ever full. But since we were backpackers now and our plane was landing in the evening, we decided to go for a safe option. I tried making an on-line reservation somewhere in Yangon, but I never really got an answer to any of my emails, so we decided to make a few phone calls. We soon found out booking a hotel room in the former capital of Myanmar is quite a challenge. The entire town seemed to be fully booked! For weeks in advance! When we have finally reached the Cherry Guesthouse the owner himself seemed surprised when he told us he actually still had one more room to offer, since someone just canceled the reservation. We took it without thinking, even though 38 USD seemed expensive compared to what our guidebook suggested. But the room was really nice and the breakfast good, so we didn't worry about it much.

We were ignorant enough to expect Myanmar to be similar to Thailand, but it was a different world. It was extraordinary green. Even though Yangon is a big industrial city, you could see trees and plants on every corner. The temperatures were a bit lower too. But the most extraordinary thing about Myanmar were the people. No matter if men, running around in longyis (men-skirts) or women with funny yellow spots on their faces to protect them from the sun, they were all smiling and weaving, being as friendly as one could possibly imagine. Children were running out of their houses just to say hello to us. It was absolutely amazing.

We were a bit surprised to see the number of foreign tourists when we reached the Shwedagon Pagoda, but then again, we were at the most famous tourist attraction in the biggest city of the country, so we could not really hope to have it all to ourselves. And we liked the place anyway. It was not exactly pretty, not unless you like tones of gold and Buddhas with bright neon lights around their heads, but it was definitely interesting and worth visiting. And it gave us a chance to find out that we were both born on Monday, which was apparently a very good sign for our future.

Unfortunately times when Myanmar was not touristic at all seem to be long gone. Now English signs are spread all over the city and an entry fee was being collected in every possible place, including parks, even the smallest ones, so that we soon found ourselves avoiding every green spot on the map. We didn't want to support the local government if we could avoid it. We thought the problem only concerned Yangon, which is a big, pretty international city and can therefore be a bit expensive and overcrowded. Back then we didn't know it will turn out to be the cheapest city we would visit in Myanmar.

We have booked a bus to Inle Lake, to see a bit of a countryside. The 20 USD tickets didn't really seem cheap, considering the fact, that we were driving an old bus with no toilet and although we took our warmest clothes, the air conditioning quickly turned it in into a moving fridge. Moreover, the bus made only one single stop during 14 long hours. Trust me when I say it (as I do have some considerable bus experience) it was not the most pleasant drive. And if it wasn't enough we ended up coming at 4 o'clock in the morning only to find out all the hotels and restaurants were closed, so that we had nothing else to do but to walk around waiting for the sunrise. It was actually a very nice experience to see the entire village waking up to life and the sunrise itself was worth staying awake too.

We had a reservation in Teakwood Guesthouse, which remained the only accommodation in Myanmar I have managed to book through an email. It seemed quite expensive too, but since we were coming early in the morning, we decided we would have some time to check the situation and change a hotel if we manage to find something better. We didn't. We met some people who had no reservations yet and they spent quite some time looking for an available room, ending up paying over 40 USD for places that were not even worth a quarter of this price. We were really glad we did the booking, especially that Teakwood turned out to be a really lovely place run by an extremely friendly family, who made us feel at home from the very first day of our stay.

It turns out, that even though our guidebook was published in 2012 the prices included in it are no longer up to date. They actually doubled or in some cases even tripled over the last twelve months. One lady actually offered us a tiny wooden cupboard in the middle of a garage, with nothing but a wooden bench in it and expected to get 45 USD for it. We didn't know if we should laugh or cry. More and more tourists are coming to the country and since there are simply not enough places to stay, the hotels can rise their prices to a ridiculous level and still get fully booked. At least so far, as I'm pretty sure this strategy will not work well in long term. We were not the only ones shocked by the local price level. How can it be that in a country where a teacher is supposed to earn around 70 USD a month I am asked to pay 40-60 USD for a night in a shabby room and should then pay another 10 USD for a taxi to the nearby bus station? It just doesn't seem right. And it gets only worse when you think what kind of standard you could get for this price in the neighboring Thailand.

All in all Inle Lake turned out to be the biggest disappointment of our trip for many different reasons. We were hoping to get some rest in a nice countryside, but ended up in the middle of in the touristic capital of the region. The locals were totally outnumbered! Every second building was a hotel and the rest was divided between restaurants and tourist agencies, all offering the same expensive boat trips. It was a nightmare. In our last attempt to escape this nasty place we decided to rent a bike and get off the bitten track. I do not know if local bikes were simply not made for people of our size or if we were just too late and all the good bikes were gone, but we ended up riding over 30 km on bikes, that were half the necessary size. It was a nice experience, though a little painful one. But it did not really allow us to see much of the countryside neither. Even when we left the village, the road was still full of Coca Cola stands and souvenir shops. Only the guesthouses disappeared to make place for Spa & Welness Resorts. But the people we met on the way were as friendly as ever. Even though they had all the right to be fed up with tourist, they were still smiling and waving, as if we were the first foreigners they have seen in weeks.

I do believe we simply came a bit too late. We met people who visited Myanmar 2 or 3 years before and could not recognize it. They came back to see the “hidden treasure” but ended up shortening their trip not to ruin their budget and previous impressions of the country. Some also claimed we came too early. The place is only opening now and the tourist industry is simply not ready yet to handle all the people wanting to come here. But that is definitely going to change. The only question is, will it really do Myanmar good? Well, the time will show, but I'm afraid the “hidden treasure”, the way people could see it few years ago, is irrevocably lost.


  1. I bet you're missing your portable car bed! Do you think it would be better driving (although I don't think that's aan option yet)

  2. You're totally right, we really miss our car and the flexibility it gave us. Backpacking is cool, but it simply does not compare to overland travels. Next time we're taking Karossi with us!

  3. Hello, it's me again:)

    Well, if it comes to the places like Myanmar, that for a long time have not seen anyone but locals, I think I'd rather see them in my imagination than in reality with all the other tourists. I sign under your question whether tourism will do any good to Myanmar. I guess it depends on tourists...Let's hope for the best for the place and its people.

    Aww, your description of an empty city ands sunrise remided me of my visit to St. Petersburg (ask Karossi - he'll remember where it is:)). We arrived at 4.50am and it was coolish but you could tell the day would be beautiful. And it surely was. Nevsky Prospekt was empty and quiet and it was so wonderful to hear the hummimng of the Fontanka. I will never foret walking and admiring the city in all its glory at sunrise. Three hours later the street and the whole city were unrecognisable:)

    Keep writing but better keep visiting and experienceing not only Thai massage (although I wouldn't say no to it either:))