Prepaid GSM

Yangon, Golden Rock, Lake Inle, Mandalay, Bagan
Part 2

15.12: KL -> Yangon
16.12: Yangon
17.12: Yangon -> Bago -> Golden Rock
18.12: Golden Rock -> Toungoo
19.12: Toungoo -> Inle Lake
20.12: Inle Lake (boat trip)
21.12: Inle -> Pindaya -> Mandalay
22.12: Mandalay
23.12: Mandalay
24.12: Mandalay -> Mt. Popa -> Bagan
25.12: Bagan
26.12: Bagan
27.12: Bagan -> Pyay
28.12: Pyay - Yangon
29.12: Yangon -> KL

Continued from Part 1


16.12.02: Yangon
Guest Care Hotel, Yangon, $18/night
Weather: sunny with a few clouds; no rain
GSM coverage (CC 414 NC 01 network)

In Myanmar the cars drive on the right, which is surprising considering that in India, Thailand and Malaysia cars drive on the left side and Myanmar was a British colony. Unlike Malaysia, Myanmar doesn't use the British flat pin plug. They use the same plugs as in Thailand (round European + flat parallel). Maybe Myanmar decided to throw away everything British after independence.

In the morning after the breakfast we explain the driver that somebody offered us a driver+car for two weeks for $400. Some discussion and we agree on $500 (instead of $550). Maybe we should have bargained harder, but this driver makes a good impression (good personality, fluent in English, six years' experience doing these tours and overall good knowledge of Myanmar). Also this driver is a one-man company - the money we pay goes straight to him and not to an intermediary (as was the case with the $400 offer - we spoke with a guy, but somebody else would have been our driver).

Anyway, we start our tour of Yangon by visiting again the Shwedagon pagoda at 9am until 10am. At the ticket counter they tell us we can't reuse yesterday's tickets (ticket lady yesterday at 5pm told us we could still use the ticket until today 2pm). But they let us go through and I take many photos. 

The next stop is the Irrawaddy river quay - a hot, smelly and dirty place where we spend only a few minutes. We then drive across the town and see some colonial era buildings (customs house, Strand hotel) etc.). The army headquarter is in a very interesting old building, but you are not allowed to take a photo of it.

According to the driver there is only malaria in the extreme south and north of Myanmar.

Then the driver brings us to the Botataung pagoda, where there are some relics of Buddha (his hair). After we drive to the royal lakes and visit the Karaweik stone boat, a concrete copy of a royal barge which now houses a restaurant. Impressive building in a nice setting. 

The last stop is the reclining Buddha, an impressive statue built in 1966. Then we have lunch in a local Burmese restaurant. After lunch we sign the agreement with the guide and pay the $250 cash advance (we use a mix of US $ and FEC). 

By the way, the exchange rate of the US$ is 1000 Kyat, while FECs get 900 Kyat/FEC. The dollar rate in Mandalay is 900-950 Kyat according to the driver.

After we drive to the National Museum (entry ticket $5/person). However photography is not allowed, so we skip it and drive to the Bogyoke market. We send the driver back home and stroll across the market. There is a mix of traditional and modern shops and many jewellery shops. Nearby there is a modern shopping complex. 

It's about 3pm, we are tired, I'm a bit sunburnt, so we take a taxi back to the hotel (1500 Kyat).

In the evening there is a blackout in the hotel. At 7pm we have a dinner in a Thai restaurant, the Sabai Sabai, in the same Dhamma Zedi road where our hotel is (100 m away). The restaurant is relatively elegant (if compared to what you can get in Yangon) and the service is good. Food is ok. Two noodle soups with chicken and shrimp, two fresh fruit juices and two desserts total 3840 Kyat (US $3.84). 

After dinner we take a taxi to the Hotel Central, as I noticed that in that area there are some shops and some nightlife. The taxi ride costs 1500 Kyat - in Malaysia we would have paid the same price for a trip like this, but there we would have had a decent taxi (Proton Saga) with A/C - here all taxis are run-down extremely old cars without A/C. The local taxi drivers must be making good money.

The Hotel Central is near the Bogyoke market. In this area there are several higher class hotels (maybe international class), shops and shopping complexes and many local cinemas with Indian movies (tickets cost 100-150 Kyat). Since the shops are closed we take a taxi to Chinatown. Shirley's legs are cramped and she'd like to have some massage. While she is getting massaged (1500 Kyat for 45 minutes, but we give the guy 2500 Kyat because he worked so hard for 45 minutes), I walk around the food stalls and buy a pack of peanut cookies (peanuts bound together by something sweet) for 100 Kyat. Then I spot a stall which sells sugar cane juice. Hygienic conditions are... whatever they are, but since I'm constipated it can't hurt if I catch the opposite problem. 

The sugar cane juice costs 100 Kyat - practically nothing and I wonder how people manage to make a living out of selling sugar cane juice. Our driver told us that government workers make $10/month. He is pocketing $500 on this 13 days trip - deduct all costs (car rent $225/month, petrol, food and lodging for 13 days) and he still ends up making a multiple of a government worker. Myanmar looks like a country with huge social disparities.

I also change $100 in a nearby hotel at the rate of 1000 Kyat/$ and get a huge and heavy pack of bills (largest denomination is 1000 Kyat). Today a black market trader offered us a rate of 1010 Kyat/$ - I tried to negotiate a better rate, but he just wouldn't go up. At 1010 Kyat/$ it's simply not worth going through all the hassle to change the money with a black market money changer.

After the massage we simply head back to the hotel. Tomorrow we leave Yangon for Bago and the Golden Rock.

17.12.02: Yangon -> Bago -> Kyaiktiyo
Sea Sar Hotel, Kin Pun Camp, $15/night (big double room with A/C, two beds, bath with hot shower; no TV)
Weather: sunny with a few clouds; no rain
No GSM coverage
We manage to leave the hotel at 8:55am and make a first stop at a shop where Tint, our driver, buys water and other drinks and refuels the car. Refueling is done with canisters, as the shop has no petrol pump. Later the driver tells us that the petrol he bought is black market petrol which costs 1600 Kyat per gallon, i.e. 356 Kyat/liter. In the government owned petrol stations the petrol costs 200 Kyat/gallon, i.e. 44 Kyat/liter (but you can only buy two gallons/day at this subsidised price). By the way, petrol in Myanmar is of lower quality (88 octanes, vs. 95 or 98 octanes in Germany).
Tint just got married yesterday. We ask how much a flat in Yangon costs and the answer is that the rent for a flat with two bedrooms is 8000 Kyat/month ($8 per month) - a jaw-dropping price. It seems that the Kyat is severely undervalued.
We briefly stop at the Taukkyan war cemetery at 10am to take some shots. Here there are graves of British soldiers fallen in World War II. After a few minutes we leave. It is rapidly getting hot, as the sun is strong, so we switch on the A/C.
We finally reach the toll motorway. Not much of a motorway actually, but in a better state than most other roads in Myanmar. Our top speed is about 100 Km/h. We are driving towards Bago, to visit the pagodas.
At 10:50am we reach the first of Bago's pagodas, the Kyaikpun pagoda, also known as the Four Faces pagoda, as there are four Buddha statues headed towards north, south, east and west. The ticket costs $10/person and you can use it to see all pagodas in Bago. I wonder who in the end pockets the money. 
We then visit the very fotogenic Mahazedi pagoda, the Shwethalyuang reclining Buddha statue (55m long, quite impressive), a place where they manufacture local Burmese cigars, the gold-covered Shwemawdaw Pagoda (1m higher than Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda) and another pagoda before stopping for lunch. Lunch takes place in a Chinese restaurant and we spend just $4 for the three of us.
It's 2pm and we have to rush to the next place, Kyaiktiyo, where we want to visit the Golden Rock pagoda. We are actually short of time as it takes 2-3 h to reach Kyaiktiyo and from there one and a half hours to reach the pagoda (45 min by truck and 45 min by foot).
The road between Bago and Kyaiktiyo is in a terrible state and we progress very slowly. I wonder why the local government doesn't repair the roads. Lack of money, lack of will or corruption ? I might add that in Myanmar it's as if we went back in time to 30 years ago. Men are still wearing the Burmese sarong (longji), cars in the streets are very old, many people still live in leaf houses, lots of ox carts around and the infrastructure is in a terrible state (as if nobody cared). Every now and then there are road works, but the technology employed is ancient.
Salaries in Myanmar are incredibly low - 10000 Kyat ($10) per month for a government worker. I remember having seen an ad in a schoolbook over 20 years ago, which wanted to demonstrate the exploitation of 3rd world countries by showing a picture of a smiling black woman from a Caribbean country titled "For just one dollar this woman will happily work for a full day". Well, this is the year 2002 and people in Myanmar happily work for 30 cents/day (300 Kyat). 
At about 4:30pm we finally reach Kyaiktiyo - too late to continue to the Golden Rock pagoda. We'll do that tomorrow. We spend the night in the Sea Sar hotel - $15 for a double room with A/C and bath. The room is ok, but nothing special.
In the evening after dinner we walk through the night market of Kyaiktiyo. You won't believe it, but in this market there are several shops selling wooden replicas of machetes, guns, machine guns, grenade and rocket launcher. On many of these replicas they write "U.S.A." in addition to the local Burmese script. Are these things toys for children or do people in Myanmar really put wooden grenade launchers into their living rooms ? Possibly they are toys, although the wooden machine gun is huge and heavy (later the driver confirms that these are toys).

18.12.02: Kyaiktiyo (Kin Pun camp) -> Toungoo
Mother House Hotel, 5 km out of Tounguoo, $15/night (small double with A/C, bath, hot shower; A/C is too cold and can't be adjusted; good breakfast included - unfortunately flies are all over the fruits so we can't eat them)
Weather: sunny with a few clouds; no rain
No GSM coverage

This is the schedule we had set with the driver three days ago:
Date Places/Itinerary Transportation
Dec 17 Yangon -> Bago -> Golden Rock  (Kyaiktiyo) 5h by car
Dec 18 Golden Rock -> Toungoo 7h by car
Dec 19 Toungoo -> Inle Lake 7-8h by car
Dec 20 Inle Lake boat trip
Dec 21 Inle -> Mandalay  (Pindaya) 7-8h by car
Dec 22 Mandalay   (Sagaing, Amarapura, Ava)
Dec 23 Mandalay city and Mingun
Dec 24 Mandalay -> Bagan  (Mt. Popa) 5-6h by car
Dec 25 Bagan
Dec 26 Bagan
Dec 27 Bagan -> Pyay 7-8h by car
Dec 28 Pyay - Yangon 5h by car
Dec 29 Hotel -> Airport

Total 43-47h by car

Now it appears that this schedule is a bit too ambitious, as driving on Myanmar roads is very tiring. Lots of holes and roadworks, constant shaking, slow progress. It must be tiring for the driver too, but I guess he needs the money. The big problem is the huge distance between Yangon and Mandalay, which requires two days in each direction by car. Using several internal flights however would have cost more, as we would have had to organise taxis and drivers all over Myanmar. A good idea would have been just to fly between Yangon and Mandalay (a return ticket) and to hire a driver in Mandalay, to do Mandalay, the area around Mandalay, Bagan and Inle lake. With this option we would have done Bago as a daily tour from Yangon (Bago is interesting with all its pagodas) and we would have skipped the Golden Rock. Skipping the Golden Rock pagoda is actually a good idea, as there is just one attraction there and it takes forever to go and come back (12 hours by bus + 1:30h for walking up and down again).

This morning we take the 8:40am truck from Kin Pun camp to the 'base camp' of the Kyaiktiyo pagoda. We have to take a truck, as the road is very steep and our car is not powerful enough. This (small) truck carries 40 people, packed like sardines on its back. At 9:20am we reach the base camp and immediately rush up the mountain (Shirley is not with us as she is too tired). In 40 minutes we reach the top, where the pagoda and the Golden Rock are. If we didn't rush so much, we would have needed maybe 1h to get up. Suddenly it becomes clear that doing Bago and Golden Rock in one day, starting from Yangon, is  not feasible. At least 11-12h by bus and truck + 2-3h to visit Bago + 3h to climb up and visit the Golden rock = a total of 16-18h. You'd have to leave at 6am and would be back at midnight.

At 10:50am we go down again and reach the base camp around 11:10am and ... there is no truck to take us back. Well, there are lots of trucks, but they are all empty and will only leave when they fill up. It looks like a long waiting time. Renting a full truck to go down costs 10000 Kyat - quite expensive. I'm a bit unhappy about the situation, because what's the point of hiring a driver + car, when then you are still forced to wait for buses? We wait some more time and when the truck is partly full, I pay 4000 Kyat to make it leave.
We are back at the base camp at 12:30pm and leave at 1:30pm after a brief lunch in the Sea Sar restaurant. This place is not good - the day before they served us a soup with ants and today they charge us 3700 Kyat for bad food (yesterday we paid 3840 Kyat for three people in a much nicer restaurant with much better food and service).

It then takes us full seven hours to reach Toungoo - no fun on such bad roads, although the scenery is beautiful - rice fields with water buffaloes and small villages with coconut palms every now and then. Lots of ox carts by the way - Myanmar is a quite unmodern country. Head here if you want to see how SE Asia looked 30 years ago. 

19.12.02: Toungoo -> Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake)
Aung Min Galar Hotel, Nyaung Shwe, Tel. 081-24188, $15/night (big double room with A/C, bath with hot shower, two beds, TV, fridge, lot of furniture; good value)
Weather: sunny, spotless blue sky; no rain
No GSM coverage

Basically we spend the whole day in the car driving from Toungoo to the Inle lake. We leave after breakfast at 9am and arrive in the hotel at the Inle lake 12 hours later at 21:10pm. The driver had said that from Toungoo it would take us 7-8 hours to reach the Inle lake, but his estimate was far too optimistic. I wonder if he underestimated on purpose the driving times to improve his chances to sell us the trip. In any case it's no fun spending a big part of the holiday in a car (especially on such terrible roads). The alternative to a car trip would have been flying from Yangon to Inle Lake, from Inle lake to Mandalay, from Mandalay to Bagan and in Bagan take the train or a bus back to Yangon. But at least with the car the money goes straight into the pockets of the driver.

Leaving Toungoo at 9am, we drive past Yedashe, Lewe and Yamethin and reach Kalaw at 7 something pm. The scenery initially consists of villages, towns and rice fields. The more we drive to the north the environment gets drier and at a certain point it looks as if we were in the African savanna - only lions and zebras are missing. Lots of people conducting ox carts. On the way we make a brief stop at an interesting cattle market.

In Kalaw we have dinner at the Thirigayha restaurant (good dinner for the three of us for 3000 Kyat). The driver then continues to the Inle lake and brings us to the Aung Mingalar Hotel, which he chose for us. The room is fine and good value, even if I would have liked to see some other hotels before making up my mind.

The trip from Toungoo to Nyaung Shwe (Inle lake) takes 12 hours, in spite of the fact that the driver drove as fast as possible, blasting through villages at 80-90 km/h and reaching a top speed of 110 km/h (you should see in what sorry state the roads in Myanmar are). The road which climbs up the mountains from the plains is especially bad.

20.12.02: Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake)
Aung Min Galar Hotel, Nyaung Shwe, $15/night
Weather: sunny, spotless blue sky; no rain; very cold in the morning, evening and at night
No GSM coverage

Today we wake up with 15°C in the room. I wish the A/C unit could be turned into a heater. At 1000 m above sea level the nights get very cold. After breakfast Tint (our driver) brings us to a boatsman who for $10 will do a boat tour on Inle lake for us (later in the evening we find out that the price for a boat trip with other operators is $8). According to the boatsman there is a fee of $3 per person to visit the lake - which we pay to the boatsman. The boat is kind of a Thai long tail boat without the long tail.

Starting at 9:30am, our first stop is at a village of long neck people - great photo opportunity for a fee of $6. My guess is that these long neck ladies make a living by posing for the tourists. The metal rings they wear along the neck are very heavy, by the way.

We then cross the lake to Ywama (beautiful peaceful lake with wonderful colours - I end up taking over 230 photos today) and make a stop at a souvenir shop owned by a friend of the boatsman. On the same day we end up visiting a total of five or six shops with various handicrafts (paper umbrellas, goldsmith, silk weavery etc.) and around these shops there are boats with people trying to sell you souvenirs.

After a stop in a nearby village we visit the Phaung Daw U pagoda - nice but not too impressive. We then have lunch in the restaurant of the Golden Island Cottages resort in Nam Pan. This is a hotel in a very scenic setting, where the rooms are all in traditional style huts on the lake. It looks like a higher class place and indeed the service is very good - we are welcomed by a band playing local music when we arrive - but the food is bad. The fried rice is burnt and there is a big black spider in my chicken with cashewnuts. I send back the chicken and they don't charge us for this dish. Good service, but they need to improve their food.

We spend the rest of the day visiting shops, local villages, doing a tour on our own with a canoe ($2 for one hour) and around 4:30pm we visit the jumping cat pagoda (monks there have trained cats to jump high).

Our dinner is at the Golden Kite restaurant (near Nan Da Wunn hotel, Young Gyi Road). The best restaurant we have found so far in Myanmar - not traditional Burmese dishes, but good western food and packed with travellers. We fill our stomachs with excellent tagliatelle and fresh strawberry lassi, after so much fasting and a diet of cookies.

Go to Part 3

Copyright (c) 2003 Alfred Molon