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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Getting from Bagan to Inle Lake

At the end of our first day in Bagan, Kimberly and I each admitted to each other that we had thought it was a mistake to come to Myanmar. Yangon had a few grand sights to see, but overall was a terrible disappointment. The city was dirty and in great disrepair, and we found the people were mostly cold and smarmy (a big exception was the proprietor of our hotel, Beautyland II, who was very helpful and friendly). Bagan was such a great change of scenery that we decided to skip Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, and stay in beautiful Bagan a while longer, and go directly to Inle Lake.

We were faced, then, with a few options on how to get to Inle Lake. The first option was by plane, but this was far out of our budget, especially since there would be a hefty taxi ride from Heho, the airport town, into Nyaungshwe, the gateway town for Inle Lake. The train service is nearly nonexistent.

The option recommended by a certain omnipresent guidebook was to take the “local” bus. We would be picked up at 3:30am to catch the 4am bus, which would arrive in Shwenyaung approximately 12 hours later. From there, we would have to catch a pick-up (basically a local bus service on make-shift benches on the back of a pick-uip truck) or a private taxi. All this for 10500 kyat per person, or a little over US$12. I had researched this bus ride online, however, and heard terrible horror stories. You can read some here and here. Highlights include being crammed in so tight that you can’t move your feet, let alone recline your seat; all the windows being open all the time, so you get a good mouthful of dust and smog every once in a while; and vomiting locals.

We walked up and down restaurant row several times to look for alternatives. Three private taxis were willing to take us all the way to Nyaungshwe, with their first named prices being US$120, US$150 and US$180, respectively. Even if we could talk them down significantly, these prices were far too high for us. All the transportation information kiosks told us that our only options were bus, private taxi, or plane.

We had nearly given up hope when we arrived at Ever Sky Information Service. The woman working there gave us the bus option, but also told us that they would be starting a brand new service starting in October (i.e. we would be riding on their first trip!), because they knew that the bus service was so terrible. The twice-weekly share taxi would leave every Tuesday and Friday at 7am (luxuriously late in the morning compared to the bus!). The US$25-per-person taxi was a van which can seat eight people and they would run the taxi even if there was only one passenger. We thought about it overnight and signed up first thing the next day. We even told another traveler about it, who also signed up the following day.

The ride arrived for us right at 7am. The van was quite comfortable – possibly the most comfortable seating I’ve ever had for ground transport. The woman at the kiosk had told us it would seat eight people, but it was really seven plus driver. The van was fairly wide but only had two seats per row, so Kimberly was able to sleep lying down – what a luxury! The generously padded seats also had generous suspension, which were very much put to the test on the treacherous dirt highways through the mountains after Thazi.

My only complaint was that our lunch stop had the worst service I had had in a restaurant since I arrived in Southeast Asia – it took them an hour and a half to get us our food, even though the only other party being served had left halfway into that time, and they got our order wrong. By contrast, the bus from Yangon to Bagan had stopped at a rest stop staffed by a small army of children, so efficiently run that we had wandered around looking for the bathroom, used the bathroom, wandered around looking for a seat, finally took a seat, ordered, ate, and paid, all in twenty minutes. Not that I’m advocating that we should have stopped at a restaurant with child workers, but it seems to be that they should pick a restaurant that keeps us moving along.

Around 6:15pm, a little under 11 hours after we picked up the last passenger in Nyaung U, we arrived about 220 miles away at the entrance to Nyaunshwe.

The next day, we went on a boat trip around Inle Lake in a group with a Japanese man who had taken the bus from Bagan. The way he described the trip, it was nearly as bad as I had read online, except no one had vomited – he did say there were lots of small empty plastic bags placed for easy access, however.

So there you have it. If you’re in Myanmar and looking to get from Bagan to Inle Lake, I highly recommend that you visit Ever Sky Information Service at their kiosk on restaurant row and book your share taxi before it fills up. It really is the best US$25 I spent in Myanmar.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Getting our Myanmar visa from Bangkok – a how-to

Hearing that hermetic, secretive Myanmar would possibly reject tourist visas without much explanation given, we wanted to be sure we did everything ‘right’ when we applied for our visas at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. We had already booked our plane tickets, after all.

Our flight was at 4:30pm on Monday, September 26, and the Myanmar embassy opens Monday through Friday. I highly recommend the WE Bangkok, a brand new hostel about 3 blocks away from the embassy. It was quiet, reasoanbly priced (as reasonable as Bangkok gets, anyway), clean, and friendly. We were able to wake up around 7:45am, brush our teeth and head straight over – there was even a coffee vendor along the way. It was 8am by the time we arrived at the embassy. Others behind us in line had woken up as early as 6am.

I was carrying some passport/visa sized photos, but Kimberly needed some made, so we headed up Pan Road, the side street from Sathorn Road, where the embassy is located. About 30-50 meters up, you can see a bright yellow sign advertising PHOTO COPY services. Turn into the alley and you’ll find the copy shop. The shop seems to get a lot of their business being a go-to place to get Myanmar visa forms filled out, including printing the appropriate photos. They had many copies of the forms on hand and helped us fill them out. They weren’t difficult forms to fill out, but I just wanted some hand-holding since we were going to Myanmar, after all. The prices were quite reasonable.

Around 8:20am, we arrived back at the visa door of the embassy, on the Pan Road side of the compound. Only one person was ahead of us in line and he had gotten there at 6am. As a few people got in line, we chatted about our trips. A young Australian man was visiting Myanmar as part of his long Southeast Asian trip. An Englishman worked in Bangkok at a British school and was taking a holiday cum visa run. A German woman was applying for a business visa to work as a midwife. They all asked where we had gotten our forms. We told them, and they all scurried out to get their forms done, too.

One Southeast Asian man stood behind me and the white folk in line and chatted us up. He said he had been to Myanmar many times and that he got into all the attractions for local prices by charging in pretending to be from Myanmar. His questions became oddly specific in its wording – what is the purpose of your visit to Myanmar, how long will you stay in Myanmar, etc. When we told him about the copy shop to get the forms done, he thanked us for the information and walked towards the shop. We never saw him again.

By around 9am, there were still only a handful of people, which surprised me, as some of the information I had seen online made it seem like it would be a frenzy to grab up the tourist visas – the embassy only issues a specific number every day. By around 9:30am, though, the line was plenty long.

We received numbers once we entered the building, and we were served in order of our numbers. Kimberly and I requested same-day service (a little over 1200 baht per person instead of about 800), which the officer allowed because we were flying the next business day.

We checked out of our hostel but left our bags there, and then toured around the area all day, nervous about our visas. We were nearly sure we should get the visas, but I had heard somewhere that visas can be rejected for not only journalists, but also for lawyers. I had put down “insurance – claims adjuster” on my form. I was worried that they’d call my “current” employer and find out that I had been a “claims attorney” and that I was no longer employed there (when I asked the copy shop owner whether I could say I was unemployed, he suggested “you should… have a job”). I realized that, with same day service, they wouldn’t get any answer at my old job – that was a bit of relief. I then worried about the fact that my father is a law professor.

My neurosis lasted nearly all day, until we arrived back at the embassy for passport pick-up at 3:30pm. The visas had been granted. We left immediately for our weekend trip through a couple of former Thai capitals.

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2011 in Uncategorized