Travelling to Myanmar

Hot air balloon over plain of Bagan in misty morning, mandalay Myanmar. Photo Travel mania/Shutterstock.

Most would have grown up knowing this country as Burma (the name given by the British during the colonial period). Myanmar was ruled by a military junta for many years after independence and the name changed back in 1989.

Travelling in Myanmar is now a lot easier since increasing democratisation of the country in 1992 when Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic party came into power (although she herself has only become part of the ruling civilian government in the past 12 months).

Australians visiting Yangon (formerly Rangoon) the capital usually arrive by plane from Singapore or from a cruise ship docked at the Yangon river. Both the dock and airport are some distance from the city centre, so the first thing one encounters are the Yangon traffic jams!

Welcome to Yangon (Myanmar) #backpacking #southeastasia #travel #myanmar #burma #yangon #streets #traveltogether

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There are now a number of more ‘Western’ hotels in Yangon, although it is interesting to stay at the more charming traditional places. We stayed at the Belmond Governors Residence, a teak mansion in Dagan Township, a bit out of the hustle and bustle of the town centre, which was quite relaxing. It has beautiful gardens and ponds and an immense swimming pool. Rooms were large and well appointed, and the meals, both Western and Burmese were more than satisfactory.

Time to catch our breaths before starting our Road to Mandalay Tour with @sourceevents @nigelanthonyvz

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In the city, there are growing numbers of cafes and restaurants to meet the requirements of tourists, but we were warned not to eat street food or drink the local water.

The local currency is the Kyat (at present 1,000 kyat is equivalent to A$1).

There are many sights to see (including the amazing Shwedagon Pagoda, which dominates the city skyline), markets to visit and lots of opportunities to simply observe life in this busy and bustling place.

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The pagoda has eight ‘sides’ with a corner for each day of the week, and Wednesday is split into morning and afternoon (to make up the eight).

There were Buddha everywhere, in little nooks and in the large prayer rooms. People make offerings and libations, pouring water over the small Buddhas and statues of animals in the corner corresponding to the day of the week that they (or whoever they are praying for) was born. I had to visit Thursday, Wednesday afternoon, Friday and Tuesday to take in all the members of my family!

We saw the pagoda at sunset, gently lit up from below and also by the setting sun, lighting up the gold leaf that covers the whole thing, and the hundreds of coloured jewels that are in the ‘umbrella’ at the top of the pagoda. An amazing sight!

River cruising in Burma

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One of the best ways to see more of the Myanmar countryside is to travel on one of the many river cruises (mostly running currently on the Irrawaddy River between Yangon and Mandalay). These visit many small provincial towns and travel through countryside dotted with small villages (each with their own pagoda), paddocks of cattle and the occasional goats and market gardens full of produce.

We left our hotel yesterday morning and went directly (via a 35-minute traffic jam) to our river cruise boat — the RV Samatha where we were able to unpack and settle in, after a light lunch.

On the boat, we had the obligatory safety briefing and meeting with the captain and crew, before dinner, then bed in a comfy nest of pillows. It poured rain during the night, but as we were still moored in Yangon, it didn’t really matter.

You also get to see life on the river — fishermen, boats dredging for gold and precious stones in the river silt and many, many barges carrying goods downstream, including logs, gravel and LPG tanks. A fascinating way to see the country.

Sunset, Irrawaddy River (2015)

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Taking the train

We wanted to do something a bit different so we got a cab to the main Yangon railway station and caught the Yangon Circle train.

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We were assisted quite helpfully by the ticket seller/station master who shepherded us across to the correct platform and ensured we boarded safely. (He was also there when we arrived back to ensure we had had a safe journey.) Great service!

It was fascinating — three hours of bumping and grinding along with the locals in wooden carriages pulled by a diesel engine on narrow gauge tracks. Thirty-eight stops in all — mostly at very old platforms with no seats or other amenities. People cross the lines just about anywhere and the level crossings for cars etc are often not controlled — or if they are (on main roads) its a manual gate or a low trolley wheeled across the road by hand on a narrow track.

On the train, various people came along selling bottled water, hot corn, quails eggs, mandarines, watermelon and various snacks. The woman selling watermelon carried a huge tray of it on her head, expertly cut the wedges of melon into slices and chucked the rind out of the open window onto the tracks.

People got onto the train carrying all sorts of things — baskets, herbs, fruits, vegetables and huge bags of plastic bags for recycling.

We passed lots of market stalls, garden plots and market gardens, then further out from the city huge fields of crops, a large fish farm and many places where crops were growing in chest high water — we know it was this deep as there were people harvesting who were standing in these fields — or ‘sitting’ in rubber tubes as they worked.

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There was also quite a few factories, freight yards and what looked like a shipwrights yard near a river.

It was an incredible day, full of the sights, sounds and smells that are probably so familiar to many people in this big city.

The whole train journey cost 200 kiyats (about 20 cents Australian), but the experience was priceless!

Have you travelled to Myanmar? Is this a destination on your bucket list? Share you experiences with us,

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