A June 2003 trip
to Myanmar by seethesun
Quote: Few places on earth remain as untouched as the fascinating Myanmar. This mysterious country has much to offer in terms of history, culture, and unspoilt scenery. This trip to Yangon in 2003 was the only group tour we ever joined, but it turned out to be worthwhile.
Once inside, it doesn’t feel like you’re in Myanmar at all. Classy chandeliers hung from its high ceilings and there were sparkling marble floors, beautiful and expensive-looking art, and rich, luxurious carpets greeted us as we enter. Most of its clientele are Japanese and Chinese businessmen, and their influence is quite obvious.
Our double room was very spacious and comfortable, approximately 40 square meters, and had all the amenities of a good hotel. As usual, I gauged the quality of a hotel by its bathroom and toiletries. It was the internationally recognized five-star class. It had a well-stocked minibar, coffee/tea-making facilities, and a view of the Royal Lake. Due to our tight itinerary, we missed sunsets overlooking the Royal Lake, which was supposedly a beautiful sight, even from our hotel room.
Our room came with buffet breakfast every morning, a wide spread of Japanese soba, Chinese porridge, and American breakfast, breads, muffins, and fruits amongst others. The hotel also has a decent pub at the concourse level that offers reasonably good music. We did not have much of a choice, as, being a part of group tour, we were told not to wander out on our own. Most nights, we just congregated again at the hotel’s coffee lounge to chill out after a long, tiring day.
If you’re staying at this hotel, do make it a point to explore its grounds. They have an excellent swimming pool and garden. The hotel staff was extremely friendly and only too eager to practice English with the guests. I was particularly impressed by their help when I wanted to send out some postcards. They didn’t have enough small change and I did not apart from some dollars. The concierge took my postcards, stuck some stamps to it, and paid for those stamps out of his own pockets. And they probably don’t earn very much.
The hotel also has meeting and banquet facilities, a shopping arcade, a small gym, and a health club.
Standard rooms are priced at $200 and above.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 14, 2005
Attraction | "Shwedagon, Jewel of Myanmar"
If Cambodia has Angkor Wat and Bangkok has Wat Phra Kaeo, Yangon’s gem lies in the revered Shwedagon Pagoda. Dating back some 2,500 years, the world-famous Shwedagon is not just a tourist attraction, but continues to be an important place of worship for the locals.
Situated on top of Singgutara Hill, its main stupa rises 100m from sea level and can be seen as far as 3km away. Shaped like a bell, gold plated, and adorned with precious stones like diamonds, sapphires, and rubies, it’s believed that the main stupa enshrines eight hairs of the Buddha. Words alone cannot describe the grandiosity of the stupa, but perhaps some statistics would help. The 100m tall stupa is made of 60 tonnes of gold, plus 15 square feet of gold leaf. There are reports that the gold orb at the top contains 4,351 diamonds with the main diamond weighing 76 carats!
We arrived at the foot of Shwedagon around 4:30 in the evening and were told to wander freely on our own. However, we were advised to gather at the main open space in front of the stupa for a "magic show" at 6pm. We wandered around happily, clicking our cameras away.
At about 6pm, people started gathering in front of the stupa, where we waited for the magic to happen. With every degree of the sun going south, we witnessed truly one of the most interesting changes of lights. This splendid change of sunlight upon the golden stupa took everyone’s breath away. Again, pictures are worth a thousand words.
Myanmar is a Buddhist country where Buddhism is not only a religion but a way of life. The locals adopt the "butterfly culture" as Myanmarese live in harmony and peace. They take whatever that comes their way as fleeting and nonpermanent. Hence, they do not get too upset if they are faced with calamity, and neither do they become overly elated when fortune comes their way. Every person in Myanmar aspires to make a pilgrimage to Shwedagon at least once in their lifetime. Given the abject poverty most locals live in, once is all they can probably afford. We saw many seated in front of the Buddha for hours without moving, probably in contemplation of life, probably in awe of the splendor in front of them.
Apart from Shwedagon Pagoda, other Yangon’s attractions include the Kyaukhtatgyi Buddha. Measuring 230 feet long, this reclining Buddha is a major sight of Yangon. Adjacent to the temple is a marketplace for souvenirs. Apart from jade and rubies, teak is another major product of Myanmar, and one can find very interesting teakwood memorabilia, statues, and carvings cheaply.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 17, 2005
Shwedagon Pagoda Road
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 25, 2005
My fascination with Myanmar can be traced back to my days as a secondary school student, studying its historical ties with the British Empire, when its name was still Burma. No other country in Asia enthralled me as much as Myanmar. This was partly fuelled by its hermit stance in the world map and so little of it being reported in our daily news. And, as I grew up, the fascination grew deeper. Having read Amitav Ghosh’s highly acclaimed novel "Glass Palace," I felt I couldn’t postpone my plans for visiting Myanmar. Never a fan of group tours, we initially tried to organize our own trip there, but Myanmar is not exactly a very friendly country for single travelers. We were met with roadblocks at every juncture. At the same time, one of the local travel agents was organizing its maiden tour to Yangon and gave away steep discounts. We thought, well, the end justifies the means. Myanmar has a population of 42 million and Yangon is home to 4 million people. The city itself seems to have trapped in a time warp. Decaying colonial buildings with a bad need of paint lined the roads and buses and cars that looked like a donation from WWII and overloaded tuk-tuks with people hanging precariously outside it formed our first impressions of Yangon. Just as our bus was approaching Nikko Hotel, we saw a line of school children walking back to their mud houses with decapitated zing roofs. Once upon a time, Myanmar was one of the richest countries in Asia, having the largest repository of precious stones in the world. During her glorious days, Rangoon was the most important port for ships plying between the Andaman Sea and South China Sea. Burma is a resource-rich country that suffers from government controls, inefficient economic policies, and abject rural poverty. The junta took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize the economy after decades of failure under the "Burmese Way to Socialism," but those efforts have since stalled and some of the liberalization measures have been rescinded. Burma has been unable to achieve monetary or fiscal stability, resulting in an economy that suffers from serious macroeconomic imbalances, including inflation and multiple official exchange rates that overvalue the Burmese kyat (CIA Factbook)Nevertheless, Yangon is rich with beautiful people who are ever ready to smile, and golden pagodas of temples peak in between colonial buildings and tree-lined boulevards. In this journal, I will try to give an account of what I saw, but I run into the danger of romanticizing things, as Myanmar is, after all, a very special place for me. The Lonely Planet guidebook and activists warn prospective travelers to weigh the pros and cons of visiting Myanmar before going. They claim that tourism dollars are channeled directly to the junta for more repressive activities. The way I look at it is, if this is true, from your shopping at the local markets or having meals at a local non-government run restaurant, at least some of our tourism money can benefit the locals directly. But, if you believe that you should not compromise your political ideals, then it is best not to visit Myanmar.Quick Tips and Suggestions
A visa is a must to enter Myanmar, and the government is very sticky about this. We found that applying through a reputed travel agent cuts off a lot of hassles. Myanmar currency is the kyat (pronounced chi-at), which is approximately 950 kyat to $1. Though hotels may have slightly more expensive rates, it’s still the better choice. Black markets are aplenty and the locals are only too keen to have your dollars. Credit cards are acceptable only at international hotels and shopping malls. It’s best to bring sufficient cash with you. Though it’s always more fun to explore destinations on your way, Myanmar is one country where joining a group tour with an English-speaking guide will be more rewarding. The best time to visit is during the months of October to February, when it is supposed to be cooler. Our trip was in June – smack in the middle of the hottest and wettest month. Local Myanmar cuisine is heavily influenced by Malay, Indian, and Chinese cooking. Expect a lot of curries and stir-fry’s in your meals. Do not drink straight from the tap, even at the hotel. Only drink bottled water. We had lots of charcoal pills on standby, and they were put to good use.
Best way to get around:
I can’t give many tips here as we traveled in a group in the luxury of air-conditioned bus and the comfort of having everything arranged. One thing - no matter how desperate you are, don’t tempt fate by hopping onto their local buses or tuk-tuks. As a matter of fact, Myanmar does not have personal insurance.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia