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Travelling: Travel Report: Ethereal Burma PDF Print E-mail
Travel Report: Ethereal Burma

Sherrie Liu won our very first grand prize to Myanmar, a trip that was generously sponsored by Sedona Hotels in our recently concluded "Register and Win" lucky draw. She returned with this account of her adventures and experiences...

Ethereal Burma
by Sherrie Liu

Mystical MyanmarHaving never won anything in my life, I was thrilled to receive Expat Singapore/Sedona Hotels' grand prize trip to Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar). The trip exceeded all our expectations: Walter and I were enchanted with Burma. As a travel destination, it's virtually unparalleled, with golden pagodas, charming people, inexpensive dining and transportation.

Once you fall under Burma's spell, it's easy to forget the political reality of the country. However, if you go, you can hardly ignore Burma's terrible human-rights record, and SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the ruling government party since 1988) oppressive leadership. Most guide books I leafed through warned that the responsible traveler has to wrestle with the question "Should we go?"

Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 (and who lived under house arrest for six years and now lives in self-imposed confinement as the regime's most visible protester - argues that foreign money, including tourist dollars, should not be spent in Burma while SLORC denies freedom and human rights to the people. Others argue that the opening of the border encourages an opening of society and tourism may assist the Burmese in eventually overthrowing the SLORC dictatorship.

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Burma is a land of pagodas. Flying over the country, the land is dotted by these gilt structures, like golden Hershey's Kisses, and we spent the majority of our time visiting these monuments. For Walter and I, the greatest pleasure of Burma was meeting the people. They are eager to talk, to practice English, to help, and to welcome you to their country. They give unstintingly of their warm hospitality and often all they have to give since we've read the average per capita income was anywhere around US$300 to 600 a year. (To put it in perspective, our 23-year old tour guide said that it costs about US$8,000 to buy an apartment in Rangoon/Yangon.)

Sherrie in Yangon

After checking into the Sedona Hotel Yangon, we immediately took advantage of the hotel's free shuttle service to downtown. Amazingly, this capital city is spread out over a wide expanse that includes wide boulevards, gardens, lakes, parks and pagodas. We were dropped off in front of Rangoon's liveliest market, Bogyoke Aung San Market. Here in a rabbit's warren of covered alleys, you can find crafts from all over Burma, including lacquerware, puppets, jewelry, gold and clothes.

You can also change your money at the black-market rate here (the official rate is about US$1 to 6 kyat, but most people openly exchange at the black-market rate of US$1 to 320 kyat). The U.S. dollar is the most widely accepted Western currency, and in fact, many tourist attractions and shops demand payment in US$ or FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificate, US$1 equals FEC 1).

From Bogyoke Market we took a leisurely walk through the downtown side streets. Despite the crumbling Colonial buildings (or maybe because of it), Rangoon is full of charm. The alleys were bustling with betel nut stands, food stalls, tiny outdoor tea shops with low plastic stools, vendors selling a variety of odds-and-ends, and barefoot children playing soccer.

By late afternoon we decided to retreat to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the best-known and most venerated throughout Burma. Its golden stupa dominates the city skyline and is encrusted with rubies, sapphires and diamonds, and crowned by a 76-carat diamond. Leaving our shoes behind (as is the custom at all pagodas), we followed the stairway leading to the pagoda. As we approached, an almost shy voice called out, "Would you like to tour the pagoda? I can show you." Our 18-year old guide (who is waiting to attend university since they were closed down by the government four years ago), was bright and friendly, and from his meticulous handwritten notes, eagerly pointed out a religious fairyland of shrines, pavilions, protector demons and Buddhas.

On our second day in Rangoon, the Hotel Sedona had kindly arranged for a half-day city tour. After a leisurely lunch of local cuisine at Green Elephant Restaurant, we tackled some other city sights: the Chaukhtatgyi or Chauck Htatt Kyee and its massive reclining Buddha, the Golden Sule Pagoda, Maha Bandoola Garden, and Chinatown.

Sherrie and tour guide at the Reclining Buddha

Aside from pointing out the local attractions, our guide gave a unique insight into the superstitions of the Burmese. She told us that a friend had broken up with a boyfriend upon learning that he was born on an "incompatible" day of the week. Although she insisted she was not superstitious, she later revealed that she didn't wash her hair on Wednesdays as it was considered bad luck (you would not receive money for 45 days).

We left at daybreak the next morning to catch our flight to Mandalay. The first thing we noticed while driving along in the Sedona Hotel Mandalay's airport shuttle, were the numerous cyclists. A much smaller city than Rangoon, Mandalay could easily be seen by bicycle – and the challenge was on. After a brief respite at the hotel, we rented bikes (US$6 for two bikes for a half day) at the Mandalay Swan Hotel next door to Sedona. Since I was too short and too timid to tackle the rental bike, a manager brought out a smaller mountain bike and adjusted the seat for me. Only later did I find out that it actually belonged to a hotel driver who "loaned" it to me.

Riding alongside the massive and moated Royal Palace toward Mandalay Hill, we received a lot of stares, smiles and waves from passing motorists and cyclists. (I'm not sure if its because we were Westerners, or if it's strange to see Westerners riding bikes with the locals, or if I just looked so funny and stiff on a bike.) Near the foot of the hill is the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, famous for its huge Buddha statue carved from a single block of marble. We left our bikes next door, in the care of a caf� owner and set off to climb to the top – its a popular place at sunset to take in the city views.

On our second day in Mandalay, we hired a taxi driver for a half-day tour (US$6, plus a present – more on presents later). Sitting on benches in the open back of his mini Mazda truck, we stopped by the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung, made entirely of carved teak and mosaics, the Kuthodaw Pagoda, which houses the entire Buddhist scriptures on marble slabs (it is often referred to as the world's largest book) and the two-century old teak footbridge, U Bien Bridge, in nearby Amarapura. After returning from a seriously dusty ride, we immediately headed to the pool at Sedona for a refreshing dip.

In a day of Mandalay sightseeing, I don't think we encountered but a handful of foreigners. Burma is a place still largely untouched by the West – where children are gleeful at receiving a gift of a ball-point pen or lipstick. (We brought a small surplus of colourful Bic pens which make handy gifts/tips – and I've been told Western T-shirts can work miracles.)

Many thanks to Expat Singapore for giving us the opportunity to discover Burma and to Sedona Hotels for taking such great care of us while we were there!

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