Uncovering Burma: Parts 7 and 8

Author’s Note: We cycled through Burma for five weeks. The following 10 part series is our account of how recent political changes in this historically isolated country are affecting the lives of its everyday citizens. 

Part 7: Chasing the Sunset

Sunrise over some small temples in Bagan

Bagan is a valley with 2500 temples strewn across it, most ancient, some new, a vast complex of Buddha statues and enormous shining shrines and crumbling brick pagodas, a few well preserved, most not big enough to earn government repair money.  The town adjacent, Nuang Oo, is a chief destination for any foreign visitor, and is quickly becoming a staple of those on the South East Asian backpacking circuit. It is a place tourists come from all over the world to watch the sun cross the horizon.

Every day, one hour before sunset and sunrise, all the tour buses start their engines in unison, and the hotels empty out to fill them and head out to the twice daily show. The most popular place to watch is the Shwe San Daw Phaya temple, where you can sit higher than any other.  It is also has a bus parking lot. Thirty minutes before showtime, the temple’s three Western (or Eastern) balconies are packed with tourists, who perch shoulder to shoulder like crows with DSLR lens beaks, each jostling for the best position to take a photo hundreds of others took yesterday, and the day before, and could easily be downloaded from Google images.  The hundreds of temples below, being photographed, stand mostly empty, but for a few adventurous souls who walked.  When the sun sets, the place clears out. The beer stations back in Nuang Oo are full before it’s completely dark.

The rhythm of Bagan is indicative of how tourism has changed Myanmar since the trickle broke into a flood after the country opened up.  We tourists are clearly overwhelming the infrastructure.  In major stops like Yangon and Bagan, the hotels are booked full almost every night. Tales abound of travelers who were left stranded because there was a not a single room in town.  The government has not helped the situation: getting a license to host foreigners is a lengthy bit of bureaucracy that normally involves remodeling and high taxes, and few owners have that kind of capital.  The shortage is evident in the rooms’ skyrocketing prices.  We paid an average of over twenty dollars a night for our hotel rooms, over twice what it costs in neighbors Thailand and India.

But just as the tourists of Bagan stuck to the same temples, they seem to stick to a fairly standard itinerary.  Almost everyone we talked to was going to the same places, “the big four”: Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake, with the fifth option being to visit some of the Western beach resorts.  It seemed as if most who visited Myanmar were still meek to set out and explore the places where Lonely Planet had not yet reached.  Thirty kilometers south of Nagpali Beach, one of the largest of the resort towns, we were among the first foreigners to visit a small fishing village on the coast.

Crowds of tourists await sunset on one of the more popular temples.

There is some good reason for this. Internet in Myanmar continues to be as reliable as congressional campaign promises, and feeble English in rural communities makes communication difficult.  Furthermore, the roads away from ‘the big four’ are atrocious, and travel difficult. Even short journeys tend to involve sleepless nights on buses that try and distract passengers from the jostling with bad Burmese soap operas.  The visa is also short, just 28 days, and few really want to test the Burmese government’s policy of allowing overstays with a fee of 3 dollars a day.  Finally, the police questioning is as omnipresent as the free glass of orange juice at hotel check in—while there are always smiles, the intimidation of a uniform is often enough to keep people on the safe routes.

Mostly though, people just don’t know where to go, or feel that the big four are good enough.  Tourism is new enough in Myanmar that even the most trod-upon destinations keep their exotic flair; they still feel like Burmese towns that are being visited rather than foreign colonies. Even in Bagan, you can follow the locals to the best restaurants in the center of town, and pay the same thing they do.

This will change quickly.  Not just because Myanmar will become better documented, and the tourists will blaze more trails outside the big four. The rest of Myanmar, with its forgotten pagodas and ancient ruins and untouched beaches, will not be able to ignore the call of so lucrative a business.

Part 8: Playing Cat and Mouse with Burmese Immigration

Myanmar may be opening up its borders, but it is still very strict about keeping tabs on the foreign tourists within them. Entire regions of the country are blocked to foreign visitors because of rebel activity, and the government requires tourists to stay in approved guest houses every night of their 28 day visa.

We were bending the rules. After we learned the visa overstay fees were only $3 dollars a day, we moved our flight out of the country to two weeks later. We also were stealth camping throughout our bike tour; being neither able to cycle to, or afford the government approved guesthouses every night, we often took by tent to the woods and fields, hiding out of sight from the road so no one could find us and report us to authorities. Sometimes we’d get discovered by quizzical farmers in the morning.

In Monywa, we decided to stretch the limits further. Our draw was the massive India-Myanmar highway project and beautiful scenery in the Northwest. We wanted to check them out by cycling through the Alaung Daw Kattapa National Park and staying in a city called Kalemyo, but then we heard rumors that we needed a permit to go there because it was on the border with Chin State – one of the restricted regions.

Boys play around a pagoda north of Monywa

We decided to visit the police station in Monywa to find out. We thought it would be easy –a yes or no question.

It was a circus.

“What is your problem??” “What is your problem??”Chairs were drawn up and mineral waters poured. Four officers dropped what they were doing and took seats around us at a conference table, like some kind of business meeting. None of them spoke English. The word “Kalemyo” raised some eyebrows though. More scurrying. We were ushered between three buildings, where different police officers at the station popped their heads through the door to look at us while frantic calls were made to locate a translator.

Finally he arrived, a university student. “What is your problem??”

No problem, no problem — we just want to go to Kalemyo, we said. Will that require a permit?

A second translator, an ex-tour guide, showed up.  More phone calls, more scurrying. Finally, an answer: “The immigration office is ready to receive you.”

They didn’t know.

However, we knew spending half the day at the immigration office was a bad idea when our visa was two days away from expiring.  Besides, it seemed as if the immigration office in Myanmar is always ready to receive you; it is their job to record visa numbers on sight.  Sometimes police officers do it just because they’re bored. So without getting a straight answer on the Kalemyo question, we made our gamble: we decided to go for it anyway. If we had to deal with immigration, we’d do it on the road.

The next morning we set off on our bicycles. It wasn’t long before we started reaching check points. We stuck to our usual policy of blowing through the road blocks. While we could always see the red and white striped traffic gates approaching, it’s hard to tell until you’re up close if it’s a toll booth or immigration check. Either way, we’d rather not deal with the hassle of passport checks and questioning if we didn’t have to. A couple times in Rakhine State that meant being intercepted down the road by immigration officers on motorcycles. They said we were supposed to stop, but we always played the dumb tourist.

After so many times pulling off the stunt, we knew there was a pending confrontation with the immigration officers in the Northwest. It finally went down in Kalewa, a junction town at the mouth of the Chinwe River where we stopped for lunch. We weren’t in town ten minutes before two immigration officers swooped in on us. “Immigration!” they yelled, as if we couldn’t tell.

Officer Tun Tun and his assistant took us to a local tea shop. They wanted to know if we had a permit, so we pointed at our bikes and said “yeah, bicycles” with big smiles and then gave them our passports. While they copied down the information, we nervously fished through our papers, and readied a copy of our flight itinerary, as well as a translation a friend wrote for us explaining in Burmese that we knew our visas were expired, and would pay the overstay fees at the Mandalay airport.

We bit our lips. This was the moment of truth – no permit and an expired visa. Our fate was in Officer Tun Tun’s hands. We watched the officer frown, furrow his brow, tap his pen hesitantly, and then…he handed back our passports.

“Thank you…Is there anyway else I can help you?”

“Actually yeah –“ we said. “What’s your favorite restaurant in town?”

We all laughed.

A farmer in his fields during dry season, northwest of Mandalay



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