Bangkok to Yangon – Part One

With daily return flights starting at just £48 (2400 baht, low season, booked well in advance) from Air Asia, Yangon now counts as a viable excursion/visa run from Bangkok. This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by locals either; I met dozens of Thais, Malays and Chinese taking a long weekend in the city.

Arriving in Yangon the first thing you think is, hell the plane took a wrong turn and I’m in Bombay or Calcutta, Indian architecture, tea shops, chapatti stalls, Bollywood cinemas and dirt lots of dirt. Only difference the locals are about the most chilled out you’lle ever meet. Then you remember Burma wasn’t a separate colony but part of British India, so had the same architects.

There is a plethora of stuff to do, shopping in the markets or city centre where prices are the most jaw droppingly cheap I’ve ever seen. The Sukura Tower offers a stunning view of the city from the overpriced restaurant at the top, (200 baht + per dish) we had drinks only, 80-100 baht each but the location so great we stayed for seconds. Temples litter the city draped in gold like no other place on earth, Chinatown was disappointingly bereft of traditional architecture but the colossal British colonial public buildings made up for it. The location of Ang Sung Suu Kyi’s house is also visit-able and the road bloc that keeps her under house arrest a curiosity itself for its punyness and lack of security alone.

Eating in the city is both surreal and pleasantly surprising, with a better selection of foreign food than Bangkok. Restaurants range from Italian to Mexican, and Japanese, Korean and Indian restaurants are everywhere being the staple cuisines of the locals along with the differing regional dishes. On top of this street stalls and tea shops sell an unimaginable variety of foods you never imagined existed, the variety is enormous but the prices not. Western fast food chains can’t trade in the country but that hasn’t stopped Burmese imitation chains from appearing, such as Pizza Corner and Tokyo Fried Chicken. Service too is surprising, at even the most basic guest house you’lle be treated like you’re at a 5 star hotel, opening doors, unbrellering you to the taxi, and of course Burmese are the friendliest and most honest people in any country you’ll ever visit.

The main reason to visit Yangon is Swedagon Pagoda, the greatest Buddhist monument on earth and easily as spectacular as the pyramids or Taj Mahal. However this awesome monument deserves a later blog all to itself so I will cover it in Part Two.

Gems Museum
To any armed robber or gangsters who happen to be fans of my blog. If you’re planning a heist might I suggest the National Gems Museum. Burma is perhaps the most gems rich country on earth, the museum boasting arguably the finest collection and no security whatsoever. Less a museum and more a large square room, the exhibits are housed in old style wooded tables with glass tops. The museum is more than just a collection of gems and it has three distinct sections. One side is mined minerals in their raw state, much out of cabinets, everything from iron ore, silver, platinum, zinc, marble, onyx, coal to precious stones, a giant geologists wet dream collection with hundreds of exhibits. In the middle are the precious gems collections with examples of every kind found in Burma natural, in state and polished. The collection includes the largest ruby in the world (think coffee mug), the largest sapphire, largest star sapphire and some smaller ones only the size of tennis balls.

The final part of the museum is the jade section with exhibits of giant pieces of stone and fine carvings. Being the only tourist who had visited the place for some time, one of the several all-female staff who spoke excellent English decided to give me a personal tour of the place. Seeing a stunning 15 piece immaculately carved black jade tea service next to a smaller less impressive 7 piece translucent green one, I asked her the price, judging this to be the finest of the jade exhibits, to which she replied $4000, leaving me amazed by how cheap, but hastily added the green one next to it was worth $24 Million. Guess I’d better really not try buying gems.

Having seen the rather lame in comparison crown jewels in at the Tower of London and the security that surrounds them, I’m still speechless at the fact the whole time I was there, just 1/8″ of glass, eight ladies and an open door stood between me and around a billion dollars. So now where to find a hammer and a getaway car………..

P.S. If any raiders do decide to take my advice, my 10% goes into a Swiss account and email me the number.

If you read Lonely Planet there’s a section on should I go or not, telling you if you go you break the international boycott and gives you the cases for and against breaking it. Hypocritically and dishonestly Lonely Planet then contradicts this and tries to reassure everyone who does choose to go, hey you’re still not breaking the boycott after all, have your cake and eat it. It does this by telling you not to pay entrance fees, so missing all the sights after going to all the trouble of going there in the first place. So you don’t pay $5 and miss Swedagon and that money has been denied to the Junta. A few pages later it recommends a military owned Guest House so $15 a night goes straight to the military. Have no illusion, you are breaking the boycott if you go.

By breaking the boycott you are putting money in ordinary people’s pockets, chatting to locals around the country (English is common here) who are desperate for contact with the outside world. I have to say in this respect Burma isn’t like any other place I have ever visited, I have never encountered anything like the air of desperation there, not just the poor like in a India but all levels of society are living day to day starved of not only food, but education, experience, vitality and any kind of personal empowerment to change their pitiful plight. I am one unashamed convert that everyone should go to Burma, break boycott and interact with these people. But don’t lie to yourself as Lonely Planet suggests and pretend you are not.

Visa Warning
When I set out for my month in Burma life was simple, daily flights from Air Asia among other airlines and visas on arrival. However while there the unpredictable Burmese Junta cancelled visas on arrival and the rumour was they were going to introduce a 2 weeks waiting time for visas at the embassy (currently it was same day express or 3 days regular). The rumour was this was only temporary for the election period, so researching the current visa regulations would be a good idea before travelling, in fact the regulations changed both times I’ve been to Burma, while there, and I have seen many the unable to enter the country despite being all correct a week or two before, daily checking is a good idea.

Money Warning
While at the hotel I was staying, a Swiss guy arrived and had to U-Turn and leave the country the same day. This was due to not having the correct money. You cannot use credit cards (apart from at a few top hotels and then only to pay the bill) or Travellers Cheques in Burma, there are no banks or ATM machines. You must bring all the money you need for your whole stay in cash. Many guest houses in big cities accept Euros and some in the countryside prefer Kyat(Burmese Currency) but most places only accept US Dollars. Many entrance fees can only be paid in Dollars too, all places in Yangon I went accepted Kyat but in Mandalay they only accepted Dollars.

Dollars bills must be pristine to be accepted, if you bring old Dollars they are as useless as toilet paper outside Yangon, other currencies don’t have to be pristine. The black market traders at the Aung Sung market will exchange most major currencies, old Dollars and many other non-major currencies from nearby countries. Money changers who approach you on the street or around Sula Paya will rip you off.

Part Two

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