Feeling almost like we just got back from our Australian adventure, it’s time to set off on the next trip, this time to the brand new democratic nation of Myanmar. Formerly known as Burma, this fascinating large nation literally just began its future after decades of authoritative military rule by installing a democratically elected new government. Recently creating a powerful state counsellor position for herself, Aung San Suu Kyi bypassed a constitutional ban on serving as president by giving herself similar powers to a prime minister. Entering a new phase, she’s the daughter of Aung San, who’s considered the father of modern-day Myanmar, and the 70-year-old Nobel Laureate is also the leader of The National League for Democracy which rose to power during a series of 1988 uprisings.
Footnote: No pictures in this post are mine; they’re all from the internet; I will take plenty of photos.
Anticipating the eventual reversal of a repressive military junta run government mostly cut off from the world thanks to sanctions by almost every western power, Myanmar’s seen a massive modernization and amazingly fast improvement to its infrastructure in the last four years. With sanctions finally lifted and plans to join the international banking system sometime this year, 2016 looks to be a major transition year making this everyone’s last chance to visit what’s left of a relatively unchanged undeveloped culture before it morphs into a tourism hotbed like Thailand, its western neighbor. Already visibly different from a few years ago, Yangon is the nation’s largest city and signs of consumerism are already everywhere. Boasting a quickly expanding range of boutique and luxury hotels, the nation is the fastest growing smart phone market in the world with an 80% market share that’s even higher than the USA. Understanding the growth potential, Air Asia just started non stop service from Penang less than two months ago which solidified our decision to go before it becomes another Vietnam.
Spending three weeks, our itinerary includes one week of work exchange at a newly opened eco hotel near the famous Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, more commonly known as The Golden Rock,. Precariously perched on the top of a granite boulder, it’s the third most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar and one of the top ten must-see sites. Unclear if we’re willing to continue with work exchange programs, we’re told the hotel work involves more outdoor gardening than house cleaning which may prove too much during the end of hot and dry season but we wanted to try one more program that promises more sociability and local tourist opportunities than Tasmania did. Starting out with three nights in Yangon, our work exchange host recommended a boutique hotel owned by a friend and sure enough, they upgraded us to a suite at no extra charge. With views of the famous Shwedagon Pagaoda, the city’s number one attraction, we’re planning on doing a walking tour of downtown and visiting Bogyoke Aung San Market, the city’s largest and most interesting bazaar. Travelling by bus to work exchange location may prove interesting since I’ve read that buses don’t meet other Southeast Asian nation’s standards but with a ban on foreigners renting cars, it’s the most practical option.
Thinking seven days is more than enough work for two retired ex cubicle dwellers, the next stop after the hotel is Mawlamyine, the fourth largest city in Myanmar and former capital. As the gateway to the country’s south-eastern region, the main highlight is visiting Bilu Island. Accessible only by local ferry (if you can call it that), and also known as Ogre island, it’s home to 64 local villages famous for all kinds of crafts from rubber bands to wooden instruments. Hiring a local guide is the best way to see the island and they take you on as many stops as possible before getting you back to the ferry by 3;30 PM since they prohibt foreigners from staying overnight. Sadly, a $60 million bridge project began last year which will almost certainly decimate the island’s charm proving again that now is the time to visit Myanmar. We’re also planning a day trip to the newly opened Death Railway Museum which showcases the miserable life of war prisoners who died during construction of a famous railway built during World War II. Priced at $50 to $65 per night, there’s no luxury accommodations in town but the local hotels seem comfortable enough and we’re hoping to take the train from the work exchange town but you can only buy tickets at the station you leave form a few days before departure so we’ll have to see about that.
Three days later we take a bus back to Yangon for a layover night and fly to Kalaw the next morning. One of the nation’s most visited but scenic areas, the mountain location promises to be cooler than the rest of the trip and most people use the area as a starting point for two or three-day treks to Inle Lake, a beautiful freshwater lake in the Shan Hills. Choosing to trek with a company called Naing Naing and based only on internet references, we’ll trek one day, sleep at a local hill tribe village similar to what we did years earlier on an excursion to Thailand, and finish in the tourist town of Nyaung Shwe before flying back to Yangon the next day for another layover night before returning home. While in Kalaw, we’ll also be spending a day at Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp. Founded in 2011, they focus on providing care for elephants no longer fit to work. As the last nation on earth to still use elephants for a multitude of industries like forestry and logging, there’s great concern that this will change in favor of automation now that the country’s been opened up for free market capitalism, although much of it still run by the old junta government.
Given the limited signals often associated with developing nations, I’ll try to post something from my Ipad when possible but posting might be difficult while we enjoy the latest adventure of our experimental early retirement. Hoping to keep the entire trip under $2,000 USD, it should clock in at about one-third the cost of Australia, making it possible to keep to our first year’s proposed budget including three long trips. Thanks for following along and please do check back once we return.