Travelblog Burma

One month in Burma in December 2012 - January 2013 (plus four days in Bangkok as a warm-up). I did not bring a phone, touch the internet or check e-mails during the entire trip. Highly recommendend, but it means being old-school-unreachable and having to delete over a thousand mails after returning home.

 
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Bangkok

Day 1-4: December 18 - December 21 Bangkok

Rediscovering the often-visited city through the eyes of my (then) new Leica D-Lux 6, a nice little compact camera. Obviously I was quite taken by the colour-select mode, which I have hardly used ever since. (PS: That camera has long been outperformed by the iPhone X-series - that´s why I have a Fuji X100F now. Love it.)

 
 
 
 
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I always end up visiting temples in Bangok. Probably because it is so quiet there.

I always end up visiting temples in Bangok. Probably because it is so quiet there.

 

Burma

I know it´s called Myanmar, but I just love the old name. Also, I was reading George Orwell´s Burmese Days on my trip, and that title wouldn´t work with Myanmar in it, would it?

Why Burma? It was probably the next logical step after Thailand and Indonesia, so I travelled to Yangon for the first time in December 2004. Back then, I immediately fell in love with quaint and quirky Yangon, a beautiful and somewhat smallish city (compared to Bangkok, anyway), not yet overrun with tourists or Western consumerism, still breathing the romantic air of some fictional old days. The other place I visited in 2004 was Bagan, with only a handful of tourists around, so I had that magical place almost for myself. A time to remember. A few days later I was back in familiar Thailand when the tsunami struck … but I was on the other side, on Ko Pha Ngan.

Bagan December 2004. Very few tourists back then.

Bagan December 2004. Very few tourists back then.

Eight years later, in December 2012, it was time to return. This time I opted for places that were not yet visited by many tourists, who in the meantime have been flocking to the country in increasing numbers. So Inle Lake and Mandalay were out of the question, and so was Bagan: I had already been there, and that blissful solitude of my first visit was certainly not to be repeated again, I didn´t want to spoil my memories. What actually got me going was an entire archipelago in the South of Burma, in the Andaman Sea, that I had found on a map. Undiscovered islands! In South East Asia!

I contacted an old expat, who had been living in Burma for many years and also organized travels from his cranky little Kontor in the old part of Yangon. He immediately crushed my idea of just “floating around the country”, classic backpacker style: that was hardly possible, at least to where I wanted to go, down South along the Andaman coast. I actually had to book domestic flights well in advance, since I would be travelling around Christmas-time. And so I did: book flights. While contemplating whether to fly from Yangon to Kyaing Tong (in the North) on Dec 25 or 26, out of a hunch I chose the latter date - I somehow didn´t want to fly on Christmas. Turned out it was the right choice, because the flight on the 25th actually crashed.

So my itinerary included several small cities along the coast (after my return from the North and New Years Eve in Yangon). And the fabled group of islands I had discovered on that map, and that even Lonely Planet didn´t mention? Well, there wasn´t really much to it, since the islands are simply uninhabited and unaccessible, except for MacLeod Island, with a beautiful beach and a lousy resort.

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Travelling around Burma was a beautiful but weird experience. I was on my own, as I have been many times before on my travels, but … usually you meet people: other travellers and, obviously, locals. Not so in Burma. First of all, the destinations I had chosen were so off the beaten track, that I was virtually the only Western person most of the time (except for Yangon and that resort). Also Burmese people do not speak English. They just don´t. Not one single word. The only exceptions were, again, in Yangon (and probably in those touristy places that I didn´t go to), where I had my few conversations with locals. In the entire month, I talked to maybe 20 people - but Burmese people are very sweet, as far as I can tell, it was mostly sign-language and smiles. In addition to that I was travelling without phone or internet-access, had no medium to play music or podcasts with me, and my two books I had finished after three days.

So it was essentially a month-long silent meditation, walking and looking around in a non-verbal bubble.

Upon returning to Berlin it felt as if I had been gone for a half a year. I was completely spaced out.

Oh, did I mention that Burma is beautiful?

 

Day 5: December 22 Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda

Just like back in 2004 the Shwedagon Pagoda was my first stop in town.

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One remarkable thing happened that day, December 22, 2012: A group of vultures sat down on the cupola of the main pagoda, causing a major uproar not only with the local population of crows, but also with the Burmese people watching. They were very concerned, as this had not happened before in living memory (as I was later told), but also seen as a bad omen. The next day it even made the headlines in the local newspapers. Maybe it did have something to do with the Mayan calendar, after all.

The vultures, surrounded by agitated crows.

The vultures, surrounded by agitated crows.

People watching the spectacle.

People watching the spectacle.

 

Day 6-8: December 23-25 Yangon

The city has changed remarkably little in the eight years since 2004. Still largely untouched by Western commercialism and the destructive force of project developers. But the first shopping malls started popping up …

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No, it´s not a boat. It´s a restaurant, made of concrete.

No, it´s not a boat. It´s a restaurant, made of concrete.

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A trip to the countryside, down the river

A trip to the countryside, down the river

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Day 9: December 26 Flight from Yangon to Kyaing Tong

While booking the flight up North I had to choose between Dec 25 and Dec 26. Turned out I made the right decision …

This is actually the Domestic Terminal

This is actually the Domestic Terminal

Lovely decoration at the security area.

Lovely decoration at the security area.

View from the Domestic departure lounge onto the airfield. Waiting for my Air Bagan flight to Kyaing Tong to be announced …

View from the Domestic departure lounge onto the airfield. Waiting for my Air Bagan flight to Kyaing Tong to be announced …

The same flight from Yangon to Kyaing Tong by Air Bagan, the day before, Dec 25 - had crashed, just before landing. That was the flight I had almost taken …  The photos shown are from the national newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, which was handed out to the passengers during our flight. I am sure we all had the same thought: What are the chances of the same flight crashing on two consecutive days…?

The same flight from Yangon to Kyaing Tong by Air Bagan, the day before, Dec 25 - had crashed, just before landing. That was the flight I had almost taken …

The photos shown are from the national newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, which was handed out to the passengers during our flight. I am sure we all had the same thought: What are the chances of the same flight crashing on two consecutive days…?

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Arrived safely …

Arrived safely …

 

Day 9-13: December 26-30 Kyaing Tong

Kyaing Tong is a nice little city up North, with a distinctive Northern feel to it. It lay at some altitude, surrounded by hills, and there was a vague Chinese undercurrent.

The lake in town. Picturesque comes to mind.

The lake in town. Picturesque comes to mind.

Everywhere in Burma: The plastic chairs and tables are very, very low.

Everywhere in Burma: The plastic chairs and tables are very, very low.

The cool dude in town. I couldn´t really figure out what he was up to. A shaman? An eccentric?

The cool dude in town. I couldn´t really figure out what he was up to. A shaman? An eccentric?

In the market stalls.

In the market stalls.

There was a fair going on, where local tribes from the villages came down to town. The overall atmosphere was not overly cheerful.

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Back to Yangon for New Years Eve …

Back to Yangon for New Years Eve …

 

Day 12: December 29 Village People

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The deal (I had a local guide) was to bring stuff from the pharmacy to the village, which was then handed out by the chief.

The deal (I had a local guide) was to bring stuff from the pharmacy to the village, which was then handed out by the chief.

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Can you spot the sceptical looking dude?

Can you spot the sceptical looking dude?

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I can´t for my life remember what they were looking at.

I can´t for my life remember what they were looking at.

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Day 14: December 31 Yangon: New Years Eve

Apparently the first festival in Burma ever, hosting all the countries popular bands and artists (without exception singing in Burmese) and attended by a very young and eager crowd. Very few Westerners were present, but lots of baffled parents in the back - they had never seen anything like it, and many obviously didn´t like what was going on. Funnily everything was over ten minutes after midnight, when all kids rushed home.

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Day 15-16: January 1-2 Myeik

Part two of the trip: Going down South, starting with a flight (there was no other way of getting around than domestic flights) to the sea-side town of Myeik. As later in the other cities in southern Burma I was the only tourist. And virtually none of the Burmese spoke any English at all - so it was basically a silence meditation while walking around town, as there was zero communication with anyone. A weird experience.

A view of Myeik from the monastery up the hill.

A view of Myeik from the monastery up the hill.

Well, I was the only one.

Well, I was the only one.

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Blond Burmese

Blond Burmese

Gas station

Gas station

 

Myeik Harbour

Yes, please.

Yes, please.

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Day 17: January 3 Down the coast: Taking a boat from Myeik to Kawthaung

To avoid taking yet another flight and to have a glimpse at the mysterious Burmese Andaman Islands during my trip down South, I embarked on an 8-hour boat ride. It turned out to be rather unpleasant: an extremely noisy engine, smelly fumes and difficult to chill on the vibrating hull of the boat. But we did pass through the islands, which were indeed all unpopulated except for some sea-gypsie settlements.

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That guy did the right thing: a hammock is the only comfortable way to ride on that boat. He did not speak to anyone.

That guy did the right thing: a hammock is the only comfortable way to ride on that boat. He did not speak to anyone.

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Kawthaung, finally

Kawthaung, finally

 

Day 18+28: January 4+14 Kawthaung

The southernmost town on the Burmese Andaman coast, near the Thai border at Ranong. Gateway to the island.

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The only time during the whole month in Burma that I saw backpackers: They came on a boat from nearby Ranong, Thailand, to get a Burmese entry stamp and then return to Thailand right away to get a 30-day-reentry-visa … no wonder people in Kawthaung are unfriendly and prices are much higher than in Myeik - most Westerners just come to town to leave right away.

The only time during the whole month in Burma that I saw backpackers: They came on a boat from nearby Ranong, Thailand, to get a Burmese entry stamp and then return to Thailand right away to get a 30-day-reentry-visa … no wonder people in Kawthaung are unfriendly and prices are much higher than in Myeik - most Westerners just come to town to leave right away.

In the very far background on the right there is Thailand.

In the very far background on the right there is Thailand.

 

Day 19-26: January 5-12 Myanmar Andaman Resort

MacLeod Island was pretty much the only one accessible to travellers in the Southern Burmese archipelago, at least in January 2013. As a matter of fact, this largely unknown group of islands (even Lonely Planet did not even mention them) was the reason I made the trip down South, where very few tourists went.

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No doubt - one of the nicest beaches and swimming waters I have ever seen. But no accessible coral reefs.

No doubt - one of the nicest beaches and swimming waters I have ever seen. But no accessible coral reefs.

And my hut was quite fancy, sure. It was huge, at least for my standards.

And my hut was quite fancy, sure. It was huge, at least for my standards.

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Can´t complain about the view from my balcony, right?

Can´t complain about the view from my balcony, right?

And the mosquito nets worked quite well.

And the mosquito nets worked quite well.

But the problem was - the resort. It was the worst ever. I am not a friend of “resorts” anyway, but there was no other place to go to on the islands.  This is the restaurant: the chairs were ridiculously uncomfortable, at night everything was bright with awful neon light, there were no cozy areas or even hammocks … and the other guests: Couples, old people and Russians. And old Russian couples. Since I had to eat, I ate my dinner as quickly as possible and escaped back to my hut. Where there was absolutely nothing to do, but to go to sleep and wait for the next morning. So I learned that even the most beautiful beach can be a bit boring without locals, friends or other travellers to hang out with.

But the problem was - the resort. It was the worst ever. I am not a friend of “resorts” anyway, but there was no other place to go to on the islands.

This is the restaurant: the chairs were ridiculously uncomfortable, at night everything was bright with awful neon light, there were no cozy areas or even hammocks … and the other guests: Couples, old people and Russians. And old Russian couples. Since I had to eat, I ate my dinner as quickly as possible and escaped back to my hut. Where there was absolutely nothing to do, but to go to sleep and wait for the next morning. So I learned that even the most beautiful beach can be a bit boring without locals, friends or other travellers to hang out with.

But at least I could go scuba-diving, which was quite nice.

But at least I could go scuba-diving, which was quite nice.

And entertain myself with hermit-crabs, which were abundant on the beach. They come out of their shell when you whistle at them.

And entertain myself with hermit-crabs, which were abundant on the beach. They come out of their shell when you whistle at them.

Or enjoy the sunsets. Those people were actually Burmese government-officials on an overnight visit.

Or enjoy the sunsets. Those people were actually Burmese government-officials on an overnight visit.

Fishermen stopping over.

Fishermen stopping over.

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Low tide.

Low tide.

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Day 27: January 13 The Lonely Beach

The best day in a long time: Kayaking over to a lonely beach, daytripping in bliss and complete solitude. Perfect.

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Midday.

Midday.

Mid-afternoon.

Mid-afternoon.

Later in the afternoon … and I had left the kayak on the beach, which made it difficult to get it back into the sea. I was barefoot and the corals were very sharp.

Later in the afternoon … and I had left the kayak on the beach, which made it difficult to get it back into the sea. I was barefoot and the corals were very sharp.

 

Day 29+30: January 15-16 Dawei

And yet another coastal town in the South, a two-day stopover on my way back to Yangon. Again, no other tourists.

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Here´s a little story: The guy on the left is a police-officer, I met him in a tea-shop. We got along well (though he didn´t speak English, like nobody in the non-touristy-areas does) and had a couple chai together. Hours later I saw him again as he was conducting traffic at an intersection in town. He urged me to join him at the middle of the crossroads, where he stopped traffic from all directions and handed his mobile-phone (with camera) to some guy on the sidewalk, who was ordered to take a photo of us two. Me and the cop - holding hands (!), as he insisted on doing - actually quite common in some countries.  Much later in the evening, as I was finding my way back to the guesthouese in the dark streets of Dawei, a motorcycle stopped next to me. It was him again. He had been looking for me, and he had found me. And what did he give to me? A laminated print of the photo, of us two holding hands on the middle of the street. Burma.

Here´s a little story: The guy on the left is a police-officer, I met him in a tea-shop. We got along well (though he didn´t speak English, like nobody in the non-touristy-areas does) and had a couple chai together. Hours later I saw him again as he was conducting traffic at an intersection in town. He urged me to join him at the middle of the crossroads, where he stopped traffic from all directions and handed his mobile-phone (with camera) to some guy on the sidewalk, who was ordered to take a photo of us two. Me and the cop - holding hands (!), as he insisted on doing - actually quite common in some countries.

Much later in the evening, as I was finding my way back to the guesthouese in the dark streets of Dawei, a motorcycle stopped next to me. It was him again. He had been looking for me, and he had found me. And what did he give to me? A laminated print of the photo, of us two holding hands on the middle of the street. Burma.

The Air Bagan check-in counter at Dawei airport, obviously defunct. Not that I cared to ever fly with them again.

The Air Bagan check-in counter at Dawei airport, obviously defunct. Not that I cared to ever fly with them again.

 

Day 31: January 17 Yangon Railway Station

Back for one last day in Yangon: The old railway station (though I didn´t see any tracks or where they could have been), apparently - hopefully - due for restauration. An architect´s dream. Or nightmare.

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This building seemed to be part of the complex. I absolutely loved it.

This building seemed to be part of the complex. I absolutely loved it.

Of course I had to sneak inside.

Of course I had to sneak inside.