Being overzealous often requires flexibility as Diane and I learned once again in Myanmar. Having experienced our first work exchange program in Tasmania, Australia only a few months earlier, you’d think I would have learned my lesson since we left that assignment one week earlier than planned mostly because it was harder than we expected. Well, harder than I expected, anyway. Not really Diane’s idea, the work exchange concept seemed like a decent way to spend some extra time in various nations we wanted to see anyway without incurring huge financial burdens. Although we thoroughly enjoyed the chance to learn about and take part in running a small business, the programs work better for younger generation backpacker types with limited financial means who are willing to work harder than middle class early retirees like us. Always learning the hard way, I went ahead anyway and planned our Myanmar itinerary around a 10 day stay at what appeared to be a reasonably nice lodge right in Kinpun Village, gateway to The Golden Rock, one of the top five attractions in Myanmar.
Planning on taking the bus back to Yangon before flying up to Kalaw and Inle Lake, plans quickly changed when we arrived and discovered the lodge wasn’t exactly what the proprietor described. Although on a beautiful and large piece of property, the new proprietors (who live offsite in Yangon) either ran low on funds or decided that two stars were enough for a village that serves no real purpose other than a quick stopover for those not keen on 18 hour day trips. Upon arrival, the local manager told us there were no other guests due to low season and showed us to a closet sized room with dirty walls, an air conditioner the size of a hand-held fan, a mattress that wasn’t really suitable for sleeping and absolutely nothing else except a bar of soap and what passed for a shower.
Realizing the accommodation was unacceptable and the daytime heat was scorching, we asked the English-speaking lodge manager what type of work we’d be doing since they already had a staff of eight and she told us “not much”. With little else to do other than visit Golden Rock and mingle with villagers (which turned out to be a highlight of the trip), spending ten days in the blazing heat with regular power outages and a manager unwilling to use the generator unless they had three paying guests didn’t seem like fun so we simply paid a reduced rate for three nights in the “deluxe room”. Naturally, the wifi didn’t work after the first day which made Googling other options difficult. Fortunately, Yangon was only four hours away by bus and the Hotel Accord was comfortable and inexpensive so we spent an extra four days in the big city and Googled away. Located only another 80 kilometers east of Golden Rock, Mawlamyine is Myanmar’s third largest city and not very popular with tourists, especially in the hot season. Once the first capital of British Burma, it’s the setting of George Orwell’s famous 1936 memoir Shooting an Elephant and probably most well-known to Brits by the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay. Not exactly on most tourist’s radar, it seemed perfect.
Before we talk about the city whose name I still can’t pronounce, lets’ talk bus travel in Myanmar. Researching this topic on the internet returned a cornucopia of conflicting information so here’s a quick primer. Having taken three relatively short (less than six-hour) bus trips, here’s what we learned: Considering all the bus companies cost about the same, choosing the right one makes a big difference. Case in point: After several email communications with Yangon’s Merchant Hotel asking for the best class of service to The Golden Rock, the short South African front desk employee apparently didn’t understand or never took a bus. Although many companies leave daily from Yangon’s chaotic Aung Mingalar Bus Station for The Golden Rock and points beyond like Mawlamyine, he booked us on a company called Wynn Express. More like a hop-on hop-off service for the citizens of Myanmar’s rural towns and villages, the third class service literally stops every mile or two when some farmer or local waves down the bus. Sometimes picking them up, the bus avoids the national highway in favor of a bumpy two lane mess that meanders slowly through the mid-sized town of Bago.
Telling us we needed an hour’s lead time, there was nobody there yet so we relaxed in the little waiting room with two other passengers and watched carefully as about two tons of merchant’s goods arrived in giant burlap sacks at the loading area. Delayed while they tried to figure out how to stuff all the cargo into the hold, they removed our luggage and re-positioned it to the other side and since there was no ticketing system, I watched carefully. Eventually the bus was ready so we bought some water from a young girl who probably belonged in school and whose grasp of making change was above average for her age. More entertaining than anything, we just assumed all bus service was like this and the trip offered an interesting albeit very slow look at rural life. Every vehicle on the slow route was a heavy-duty truck or tuk-tuk style vehicle and the driver made no attempt to pass any of them.
Fortunately, the manager at the lodge in Kinpun knew another bus company for the return journey to Yangon. A step above the first bus, the second company cost the same but was more comfortable, only stopped at what looked like real bus stations (Myanmar style anyway) and even pulled in for a bathroom break like the buses should. Did I mention even the luxurious European made buses have no toilets? Coffee drinkers may want to opt for night buses where you generally don’t need caffeine. More like a second class bus, he did pull over once on a side road while a mother and her young child got off and we watched as the mother helped her young child poop. On the road of course because this is still OK in Myanmar.
Now seasoned bus travelers, we finally got it right the third time for the 311 km journey to Mawlamyine. Seeing much larger Scandia buses at the bus station earlier, we assumed they were only for long distance routes like Mandalay but it turns out the company called Man Dalar Minn Express operates a fleet of first class buses that use the national highway, make no stops except for a bathroom break and are more comfortable than our Premium Flex Air Asia flight. Be forewarned however: The demand is high and the office where these buses leave from is very crowded and can be confusing. Arriving about 45 minutes earlier, we had no idea which bus was correct since all signage is in Myanmar script and the uptight taxi drivers are no help. Eventually making our way into the ticket office, we found someone who speaks English and they wrote down the license plate of our bus which hadn’t even pulled in yet. Offering 2 seat/1 seat configured buses, the plush seats reclined with plenty of leg space and featured small screens, blankets and neck pillows. Using the faster national highway, the driver sped us all the way there in less than six hours. Almost making bus trips pleasant, the third time turned out to be the charm.
Following along on Google Maps, we crossed the largest road and rail bridge in Myanmar over the Thanlyin River and pulled into the unexciting bus station where a host of seemingly desperate and annoying taxi drivers competed for our business. Unlike Yangon, traffic is nonexistent and the driver flew through the streets like a lunatic hitting speeds way to fast for the small city. Arriving at the surprisingly nice Ngwe Moe Hotel, we admired the riverside view from our fourth floor window that reminded us of other tropical river towns like Tortuguero, Costa Rica but with murkier water and sadly, garbage strewn everywhere along the banks. Needing to relax, we walked down the pleasant riverside street known as Strand Road and found a place where locals hung out smoking, conversing and drinking Myanmar beers.
Although most backpackers and tourists that make it to Mawlamyine take day trips to nearby limestone caves in Hpa-An or the newly opened Death Railway Museum in Thanbyuzayt, there’s just enough interesting things to see and the city’s multicultural influence makes for a cool self guided day trip which we followed right from Lonely Planet. Across the bay lies Ogre Island, an off the beaten path local island known for its various craft making. Due to its size, getting there requires someone to drive you once on the island and we’d heard the only place in town to arrange that was the Breeze Guest House despite the giant sign advertising excursions on the side of a small tourism office where nobody spoke English.
Unfortunately, the old Chinese guy at The Breeze seemed unwilling to take us there the next morning, claiming they needed more than two people. Disgruntled and surprised they’d turn down 18,000 Kyat, (about $15 USD each) we complained to the hotel and they eventually convinced someone to meet us at the hotel for a tour but not until the second day of our visit. Dingy wooden boats are the only way to get there for now but they’ve started building a large bridge connecting the mainland to the island two miles north of town which will no doubt remove the charm of visiting a once isolated island. Maybe the Chinese guy was mad at the government for impeding on his livelihood. Either way, we went on Sunday but this post is getting long so I’ll stick to the sights and sounds of the city and post that trip later.
After enjoying an unusually large complimentary buffet breakfast at the hotel we strolled out for a day tour of the old colonial city. Turning up the street and making a left turn on Baho Street, we walked past the Kyaik Thoke Pagoda and saw many colonial style buildings which ranged from well-kept to a total state of disrepair with no rhyme and reason. Quite different from anything in Yangon, it looks more like a suburban city with a mix of wealthier and working class residents and the streets change from quiet residential to bustling activity as you approach the city center.
Not far away, Mawrawaddy Park came into view and we admired this stately little green space which totally contrasts the ugliness of large garbage piles found almost everywhere in Myanmar. Understanding the lack of funds available for waste disposal plants, clearly one goal of the new government should be a massive national clean up effort followed by education that teaches the population why you don’t simply toss garbage on the street, in the river and out the back door. Oddly enough, they burn an enormous amount every day (another pet peeve of mine in Asia) but you’d never know it and if they did a mass burning, it would be the largest inferno anyone’s ever seen.
Walking a bit further the neighborhood changed from prosperous looking old colonial to a working class Indian area with a typical “developing nation” feel where we observed some young girls making some sort of pastry. And of course they smiled and let us photograph them. Always well dressed, clean and polite, the children of Myanmar need their own documentary focusing on a new generation filled with the promise of a better life.
Turning down a side street heading towards Kyaikthanlan Pagoda, the city’s most famous landmark set high on a hill, we found these Indian kids making some sort of crêpe like thing. With skilled precision, we filmed them for a few minutes and they offered us a taste afterwards.
Apparently, Myanmar is the second largest home of Protestant Baptists outside the United States and there’s a beautiful church in Mawlamyine that dates back to 1829. Two famous American Baptist missionaries moved to Yangon in 1813 when British authorities refused to let them stay in India and they must have been successful since 6% of Myanmar’s population is Christian. Behind the church, there’s an overgrown graveyard and some deserted old buildings begging to be renovated that look like haunted houses or the set of a Hollywood movie.
Following Lonely Planet’s Old Colonial Tour, it told us to turn right and ascend some cool looking old steps to reach the city’s landmark temple but we weren’t really sure how to get to the top once we climbed and with the temperature hovering near 40 degrees Celsius, we just bought some water and headed back down towards the city’s central market. Adding to the city’s multi-cultured atmosphere, there’s the large and photogenic Kaladan Mosque which is grander in scale than anything we have in Penang. Reminiscent of colonial days when large numbers of Indians came to work in Burma, you notice a lot of Indian influence in Mawlamyine’s street food as well as large number of working class merchants.
Unlike the sleepy streets closer to our hotel, the city’s downtown and main market is the lifeblood of the city. Bristling with action and more goods than you’d ever need, the city specializes in tropical fruits and its outdoor food court on the river comes alive with grilled meats of all sorts after dark. Thinking I wouldn’t get sick from grilled foods, Diane and I ate there for dinner. Unfortunately, something knocked me on my ass the next day and we had to cut our Ogre Island Trip short by half a day while I spent the next 24 hours sleeping and suffering with horrible cramps. Take heed that they cook all the food with untreated water so even if they grill or stir-fry it, odds are the plate was hand washed in bacteria infested water unfit for western stomachs. Diane thinks it was actually a raw quail egg that a vendor offered me and I mistakenly ate without thinking.
Seen below are some pictures of the rather tasty food that made me sick. Unlike much of Yangon’s street food, they cook most of it fresh instead of letting it sitting in the hot sun all day which is why it’s more familiar looking. Myanmar’s cuisine is an oilier and less spicy combination of Thai, Indian and Chinese and varies between regions. The evening food court was fun and of course, the electricity went out for an hour but Myanmar lives on generators so nobody really noticed although it was harder to identify what we were eating. Hoping to return the next night, that idea went out the window as my stomach tried to expel whatever horrible bacteria entered my abdomen.
Perhaps the most interesting part of our visit to Mawlamyine was leaving. Although there’s a little air strip they call an airport, commercial airline service seems to change periodically in Myanmar so we asked the staff at the Hotel Accord in Yangon to check with a local tour company. Ironically, there’s a once weekly flight to Yangon on Mondays which happened to be the day we were leaving via Myanmar Airways, the nation’s national airline. Unlike many Southeast Asian nations, travel agents will book you a confirmed flight, travel to your hotel with the paper ticket and collect the cash on delivery. Priced at just under $200 USD for the 35 minute one way trip, we decided to cut some bus time and take advantage
** Sidenote: All US dollar notes must be in pristine condition with no rips, tears or folds or they’ll be rejected. Archaic and kind of stupid, this is dumb because much of the Myanmar currency looks as if it’s been through three world wars and I hope this practice goes away once they become part of the International Banking System. But for now, make sure you don’t carry USD in a wallet.
Suggesting we arrive two hours before scheduled departure time, another maniac taxi driver sped us through some un-touristy neighborhoods and dropped us off at a small makeshift terminal building. With one weekly flight on Myanmar Airlines the airport’s only other current tenant is Nok Air, with three weekly international flights to Bangkok. Despite the limited service, the un-uniformed airport employees are ready for work. They ushered us to a little counter with a portable airline logo sign, handed us little hand written luggage tickets with Yangon’s airport code and sent us to a shirtless guy near the one security machine opposite the counter. Apparently having fun, the young airline employee asked us to open the luggage and sifted through the dirty laundry in an obvious effort to seem professional. Satisfied, he put the luggage on a colonial era scale that appears to belong in the local Mon State Cultural Museum and placed it on a small carousel but didn’t really look at the scan machine as it passed through. Picking them both up, he placed them by the exit door.
After that, he asked us to open up our carry on luggage and for whatever reason, looked at all our over-the-counter and prescription medications. For each drug, he grunted something in his language and Diane made a hand motion trying to show what each pill was for. Eventually tiring of this, we both walked through the airport’s sole x-ray machine with all our electronic and metal devices still on us and of course it didn’t beep. Directing us to the metal chairs in the small waiting area, it was almost two hours before departure time and we were the only people in the airport although as many as ten employees shifted in and out, mostly chatting among themselves and occasionally checking their smart phones.
After about a half hour, the waiting room filled up with two young European backpackers, one older Chinese couple and two other white foreigners of unknown nationalities. Suddenly, the silence broke with the sound of our arriving flight. Strangely modern looking considering Myanmar’s past reputation for domestic air travel (not good), the small regional jet almost drove into the waiting area and the airport staff came to life quickly taking out the seven or eight pieces of luggage to the cargo hold. Within five minutes, the staff motioned to all six of us in the waiting area and directed us out to the plane. Already half full, there’s no assigned seating on domestic flights so we grabbed two seats on the impressively clean and redesigned plane. (I’m unsure where the other passengers had boarded). Not more than four minutes later, they closed the door, taxied down the airstrip and took off exactly one hour and 17 minutes BEFORE the 12;30 PM scheduled departure time. When’s the last time that happened to you?
Despite the short 35 minute duration, they still somehow managed to serve a quick drink and a small snack of some nuts and even gave wet-naps. The captain spoke very discernible English and the crew’s professionalism was up to western standards making the flight a nice reprieve from bus trips. After glancing at the in-flight magazine for about five minutes, we landed at Yangon and taxied for what felt like a mile or so where a steamy hot bus awaited and took all the passengers to the hilarious domestic old, crowded and dingy airline terminal. Retrieving bags means crowding around hundreds of Myanmar people and watching the door area carefully as they remove bags from up to six different airlines and simply put them wherever there’s room.
Clearly an interesting alternate plan from our work exchange program gone bust, we probably spent an extra few hundred dollars but like most Southeast Asia nations, Myanamar won’t bust most budgets as long as you ask around for the best deals. Highly recommending Mawlamyine for travelers interested in slightly off the beaten path but very local feeling places or for those with too much time on their hands (like us), we think it deserves more attention but it probably won’t get any. And that’s what makes it so worthwhile. Just make sure you’re careful what you eat, arrive at domestic airports ready for events as unexpected as one hour early departures and remember to bring lots of Maalox Plus with Simethicone should you run into stomach issues.
Questions and comments are welcome and highly appreciated