With the end of almost half a decade of military rule in 2010, Myanmar has been opened for tourism. It was possible to visit the country before that, but visas were limited and many places were off limits for tourists (some still are). Now an e-visa is available for people of most nationalities. However, with it it’s only possible to enter the country by air through three airports; Yangon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw, the new capital. That place is more or less a ghost town and a totally crazy project – have a look at this drone footage and shake your head in disbelief.
Traveling in Myanmar
Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar is quite expensive. The cheapest accommodations aren’t open to foreigners; hotels have to have a license to accommodate foreign tourists. Bus travel isn’t that cheap either – at least not for tourists. Furthermore, foreigners have to pay entrance fees for about everything, and these fees rise every year. The biggest cut of the money goes to the state, which leaves you as a tourist with a sour taste in your mouth because it’s very obvious that virtually nothing goes to local communities or the protection of the environment.
Myanmar wants more tourism – and it doesn’t lack attractions – but the infrastructure is not ready for it. The roads are in bad shape (from how the bus rumbles and jumps you’d swear the road is unpaved, but it’s not), traffic inside the cities is crazy heavy (outside, however, the roads are almost empty), and there are frequent power cuts (because of that, most hotels and many businesses have generators).
Yangon’s Golden Pagoda
It was raining hard when we arrived in Yangon; the rainy season was about to start. Initially, the taxi driver wanted 15000 Kyats (a bit less than 14 USD) for the ride from the airport but after some bargaining he drove us for the more realistic price of 8000. Bargaining is essential here, tourists tend to be charged much more than locals.
Yangon was probably once quite a beautiful city, judging by the old colonial buildings. Now they’re all crumbling and dirty and the “modern” buildings don’t fit in at all. Still, the old buildings do have their charm and Yangon is definitely one of the more appealing cities in Myanmar.
The city’s main attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s a huge golden pagoda (a place of worship which, in contrast to a temple, doesn’t have an entrance) and a very sacred site for Buddhists. As soon as we got out of the taxi at the foot of one of the four stairways that lead to the pagoda’s main terrace, a girl came to us, crammed a plastic bag into my backpack, “for your shoes”, and held out her hand for money. We thought, …OK…, and gave her a small bill. I took off my shoes and socks an put them into the bag. The girl, however, wasn’t happy with the amount we gave her and grabbed the bag with my shoes in it, “more money! More money!”. We both pulled at the bag (she was pretty strong!), and Hossam gave her back his bag (there were plenty of empty ones on the floor anyway) and told her she wasn’t going to get any more money. Finally she let go and stomped away angrily. Nice girl.
The floor was very dirty since it had been raining (luckily, the rain stopped just as we arrived at the pagoda) and I must admit I felt very uncomfortable walking up the steps barefoot. Definitely not my idea of fun. To make matters worse, the floor around the pagoda was super slippery and I had to walk at a speed of about 2 meters per hour in order not to slip and fall. Nevertheless it was nice and worth the effort; the golden pagoda is very impressive, and we were watched just as curiously by the locals as we watched them and the monks and all the small temples and Buddha statues.
On the way to Inle Lake
Yangon’s bus station is even further from the center than the airport and going there just to buy a bus ticket is not really an option. Plus, the terminal it’s a labyrinth and finding the right company would probably take hours. But the hotel can get the bus ticket for you, for a small fee, of course.
The bus to Inle Lake was very comfortable. We received water and cookies and blankets, which were absolutely essential since the temperature in the bus was about 5 degrees Celcius. Maximum. Everyone assures you that the bus will stop in Nyaung Shwe, the town that serves as “base camp” for the Inle Lake region, but that’s not true. After 11 hours bus drive, we were dropped off at the turnoff to Nyaung Shwe and had to take a taxi. The entrance fee to the Inle Lake region (entrance fee? Yes. Why? No one knows.) is currently 12500 Kyats per person and the ticket is valid for one week but no one ever controlled ours, not even the hotel.
Frankly, Nyaung Shwe is one of the ugliest towns I’ve ever seen. It’s a mix between a village, a port, a market, and lots of construction sites (mostly for hotels) but without any urban planning whatsoever. However, there are some really good restaurants (Ever Green Restaurant! Two lovely girls who cook super delicious curries, soups, and Myanmar’s famous tea leaf salad in an incredibly tiny kitchen) and by doing a boat tour on the lake you can easily escape from the town.
A boat tour on Inle Lake
The boat tour is fun, part of it is very touristy and could easily be skipped but what’s really amazing is to sail through the floating villages and gardens and, at least somehow, to get a feeling for how people there live. The houses stand on stilts and the boats are everything: they’re a means of transportation, but they’re also the road, and the place where people work from when tending to their gardens, loading and unloading the produce, and fishing.
The day we went on the boat trip was the day of the big market in Nyaung Shwe. We started in the afternoon and our boat driver took three of his relatives, who had been selling vegetables at the market, back home with the same boat. They invited us into their home for tea. Standing high above the water on stilts, the house is actually just a normal two-story house with a TV and a radio, a kitchen and framed family photographs on the walls. Only that you can’t just step out of the house and go down the road to your neighbor’s place – everywhere you go, you need to go by boat.
Most boat tours, ours as well, stop at the weaving and silver making workshops. In the weaving workshop, women weave cotton, silk, and lotus (that was the most interesting part: watching how lotus fibers are made into threads for weaving) into beautiful textiles which are sold at high prices in the adjacent shop. In the silver making workshop, a girl explained us how the silver is extracted from the stone (which also contains aluminium and copper) with the use of lots of chemicals so that the other metals “evaporate”. The pretty silver works aren’t sold by weight but rather depending on the seller’s mood and her sympathy towards the potential buyer and are totally overpriced (or maybe we just looked too rich?). The handicrafts are beautiful but I was left with one big question: what happens with the chemicals used for dying silk and extracting silver? Sadly, the answer is all too clear.
With the increase in tourism and the therefore rising demand for silver and textiles, as well as more traffic on the lake, it’s very well possible that in a few years the lake will no longer yield enough so the people of the Inle Lake region can live off fishing and agriculture. If (and that’s a big IF) some part of the entrance fee goes to the protection of the lake, that’s nowhere to be seen. Furthermore, tourism makes more and faster money than the traditional ways of living – at least in the short term. It already seemed to me that some of the fishermen prefer to pose for photos than to actually fish.