Friday, December 28, 2012

From Yangon to Bagan

Toby, my friend in Chiang Mai, had written to me in early October. He'd met a guy who was working in Burma, and that guy reported that the tourist circuit there was overloaded. There aren't enough hotels for the number of tourists seeking rooms.

"You better book," said Toby.

And I listened. Toby is not an idiot—when he tells me to do something, I pay attention. And so I scoured the web and the LP guidebook for contact details for hotels. I cross-referenced the hotels I found with TripAdvisor reviews and searched for other postings. I worked out quickly that the guy Toby had met had been absolutely right. Tourist Burma is bursting at the seams, and I was going at high season. Which I had to, because of my teaching schedule.

I'd e-mailed dozens of hotels, and after hearing back from only a few, I started calling by Skype. I scoured hotel Facebook pages for more current information. I sent e-mails again when I didn't get an answer after a few days.

Eventually, I had bookings for everything but one night in Inle Lake. I had to take what I could get aside from Yangon and Mandalay, and what I could get in Bagan was the cheapest room at a hotel called Aung Mingalar, located on the outskirts of the village of Nyaung U.

I also regularly e-mailed local travel agents (sometimes they responded once and said they'd get back to me, then never did), and used all Burmese airline booking engines over and over. Only one ever responded, and that's how I ended up booking my flights with Air Mandalay. I'd headed to the domestic airport counter on arrival and picked up my tickets. That had been an adventure in itself, when the agent would start talking to me, another tourist would interrupt, and she'd say to me "Please wait," then turn to the other tourist and speak to them, then be interrupted by a third. She'd turn to me and say "Please wait," then to the other tourist and say "Please wait," then deal with the third for a while before suddenly remembering me and turning back.

Also, one angry Russian couple wanted to know why their tickets were there, why their names weren't on the list. They got more and more irate as the ticketing agent stood there helplessly, apologizing. Eventually, I interjected.

"There are several airlines," I said. "Are you sure you have the right one?"

"Of course," snapped the woman of the couple haughtily. How dare I.

I was right, she realized when she looked at her e-mail from her travel agent on her iPhone. And off the couple went, galloping to the gate with only 15 minutes left. I don't know if they were allowed on.

On Friday morning, my own Air Mandalay ticket in hand, I left my hotel at the crack of dawn and was bundled into a minivan taxi. Off we went to the airport, where quite a sight awaited me.

Damn. There are a LOT of tourists here.

I sat upstairs in the airport restaurant and paid a small fortune for a cup of coffee and two slices of toast. Why had I packed my peanut butter, I wondered.

Eventually, my flight was called, and a man with a sign waved all the passengers onto a shuttle bus. We were all wearing little pink Air Mandalay stickers, and the burden was on the staff to locate us, not us to get on the right plane.

We flew quickly, though the flight attendants did serve breakfast, and when we landed in Bagan, I had no problem getting a taxi. Fares were posted.

At Aung Mingalar, I ran into the same thing as at the Air Mandalay counter.

"Please wait." Then serving a random other person before turning back and remembering me. This might be part of being overwhelmed by the volume of tourists. The vast numbers of guests is new to the country.

Then, "You can't check in yet, of course." This didn't surprise me as it was eight in the morning.

"We advise you do sightseeing and leave your bag here."


I headed to town and sat down in a restaurant. I ordered a coffee and mashed potatoes and eggs. That sounded good. But it showed up with something strange and rubbery in it. I'm allergic to fish and seafood, so I left it and got the hell out of there.

But the view next to the restaurant was nice.

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