Dear Lonely Planet

Életünkben először vettük a fáradtságot, és küldtünk egy emailt egy útikönyv-kiadónak, segítendő a munkájukat. Ez volt az. Előzményként érdemes annyit tudni, hogy a Lonely Planet Mianmar-kötete példátlan módon az első húsz oldalán azt taglalja, hogy a lelkiismeretes turistának egyáltalán szabad-e betennie a lábát egy ilyen mocskos diktatúrába.

In case you got here through Google or some other wonder of the internet, this is a letter we sent to Lonely Planet after out trip to Myanmar.


We are a Hungarian couple who spent 40 days in Myanmar from mid-December to late January 2007/2008. Because of the riots in September 2007 there were even less tourists in the country than it is usual, and this obviously turned some people in the tourist industry (trishaw drivers in Mandalay, souvenir sellers in Bagan, boatmen at Inle, etc.) quite desperate and pushy by Myanmar standards. The least we can do to help this country is contributing some tips & info to the next edition of LP Myanmar.

But before that here are our two cents on the boycott issue. Coming from a country that had its fair share of repression in the past decades (though luckily never anything as bad as what is going on in Myanmar right now), we simply cannot understand why anyone would make the suffering of the people of Myanmar even worse by cutting one of their last ties with the free world, with money and, well, with joy. We are quite sure that in 1958, two years after the Soviet tanks crushed the uprising in Budapest, when the country was full of political prisioners and many of them were being executed, every single Hungarian would have LOVED to have as many foreign tourists come to their country as possible.

We also believe that in a regime like the one in Myanmar it is simply impossible for anyone to be in the tourist industry without making concessions to the all seeing authorities. This can be a percentage of the profit they make, or simply giving information about their neighbours to the local military in exchange for being allowed to operate their businesses. No matter where you stay in Myanmar, a five star resort or a simple guesthouse, you can be one hundred percent sure that the owners have made some kind of deal with whoever is in charge in that area.

However putting some money into the wrong pockets should not be the main concern. Anybody going to Myanmar – even the package tourists – is doing the people of Myanmar a lot of good by showing them that there are people in the world who are free, and that this freedom is such a great thing, that even the most oppressed should always aim for it.

We find it absolutely unfair that LP Myanmar devotes a dozen of its pages to the boycott issue. Before coming to Myanmar, we travelled for 2 months in Central Asia. Why doesn’t LP Central Asia dedicate an entire chapter to the pros and cons of visiting horrible dictatorships like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan? Surely Turkmenistan’s regime is as vile as Myanmar’s, yet LP presents it as a funny little place where the leaders love to put up gold statues of themselves that all of us should rush to see. We just don’t see the logic.

Why nothing about a possible tourist boycott in LP China? If we want to be really cynical, we can say that we know the answer: it would be a huge blow for LP to have your books and websites banned in China. But we are not this cynical, so we think this has to do more with the fact that the most prominent person of the Myanmar opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi is pro-boycott. Well, this might be a bit hard on a Nobel laureate, but unlike the Dalai Lama, while Aung San Suu Kyi is a remarkably strong woman, she doesn’t seem very intelligent.

This is also not a surprise coming from ex-communist country. Many of the charismatic leaders of the anti-soviet oppositon here (the Pole Lech Walesa being a prime example, but there are many more) turned out to be incredibly dumb and incompetent once they got to run their countries. The moral of the story being here that you shouldn’t give so much credit to what one isolated voice says. We have not met a single person in Myanmar who was pro-boycott. And as for the exiled groups being pro-boycott… should we stop going to Cuba just because somebody living large in Miami says so? Please drop this whole „Should you go?“ chapter from the next edition.

So here are our tips:

– Getting the Myanmar visa at the consulate in Kunming, China is very easy. They can even do it in 24 hours if you are willing to pay (not much) more.
– Getting the fresh US dollar notes needed in Myanmar in China is feasible, but it takes some time. Bank of China will only change yuan into USD up to a value of 500 USD at a time. So it’s either getting a bunch of people together to help you out with their passports, or it will take repeated visits to the bank.
– We tried the overland option from Kunming, but it’s not worth the money, so we ended up buying plane tickets to Mandalay for 1580 yuan each. The other option would have been to pay 1450 each to the travel agency that takes you across the border from Ruili to Lashio. So add to that the costs of getting to Ruili from Kunming, plus accomodation and other expenses along the way, plus the fact that with this option your money will surely end up in the pockets of some really dodgy characters. It was an easy decision for us, and we just backtracked from Mandalay to Hsipaw.
– We found airplane tickets in Myanmar consistently 10-20 dollars cheaper than the prices quoted in LP.
– Apparently it is now impossible to extend a 28 day tourist visa in Myanmar, so overstaying is the only option. It’s pretty easy, just 3 USD per day per person. We even met a German woman who stayed in Myanmar for 60 days, and she had no problems exiting the country. You just pay, and that’s it.

– The Royal Guest House is – as all places openly recommended by LP – a bit overcrowded. Try to get a room in the left (as you enter) side of the building, because those on the other side, especially the lower floors, have no windows.
– The cheapest meal we had was at the chapati stand on the opposite side of the street from the ET Hotel. We had FIVE smallish curries and FIVE chapatis for a grand total of 750 kyat. And it was good. On the other end of the scale Ko’s Kitchen is extremely good, but a dinner for two with drinks will be near 20000 kyat.
– The best internet café is the modern looking one just to the west of Royal Guest House, with higher prices, but about 20 PCs, decent bandwidth and a sure way to access all sites blocked by the government, like Gmail.
– The (tourist) boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan is now 25 dollars per person, and apparently half of that in the other direction. It took us nine hours, and we thought it was money well spent, with comfortable chairs and the captain even stopping the boat near Sagaing hill so everybody on board could take good pictures. Avoid the boat’s bar/restaurant, where a Coke is 3000 kyat, and bring some food and drinks from Mandalay.

– We are probably not the first ones mentioning this – and it is also openly discussed on your Thorn Tree forum – but everybody North of Mandalay seems to know about Mr. Charles of Hsipaw sending Mr. Donald of the Shan Palace in Hsipaw to jail for 30 years for being an Aung San Suu Kyi supporter and having ideas about opening a guesthouse of his own. We obviously have no proof of this, but if the rumours are true, and Mr. Charles had a hand in this, we really hope that his overpriced guesthouse disappears from the LP forever, and this story gets mentioned in the next edition.
– The food at Mr Food’s in Hsipaw is really bland, and also expensive for such a filthy place. The Burmese Cuisine place that is recommended in LP is OK, but please note that all curries there are served cold. Except maybe in the morning…
– There are rumours in Kyaukme about a guide trying to rape a Croatian girl (travelling solo) in March 2007. We have no proof of this, but we saw the letter the girl wrote after the incident, and it seemed pretty genuine.

– In Bagan don’t believe the horsecart-maffia who will tell you that not all the pagodas can be visited by bike, „because the sand is too deep“. Try to get a half decent bike (not easy in Nyaung U), and avoid crossing the southern part of the Central Plain (south of Solomoni Pahto), which is the only place that is difficult to cycle (but not impossible, we did it, and managed to destroy all our tyres). Instead, get to the sites in this area from the perfectly sealed New Bagan-Nyaung U road.
– Best place for sunset: Thabeik Hmauk, just behind Solomoni Pahto. Not a single toursit in sight.
– The best restaurant in Nyaung U is Little Bit of Bagan, which seems to have two branches now in the same street. Aroma 2 is almost as good, but service is painfully slow, the manager and his son are incredibly annoying, plus they have huge signs on the street proudly proclaiming their recommendation by Lonely Planet.
– In Old Bagan the Sarabha restaurant is expensive, bland and serves the tiniest of tiny portions. However there are two less foreign tourist-oriented restaurants opposite the Archeological Museum, and San Thi Dar – the one closer to the main road – has a really friendly owner family with a funny kid and quite good and cheap food. Two can stuff themselves for 5000 kyat.
– The trip to Mount Popa is not worth your money. In fact it’s not worth any money at all. The steps are now full of the monkeys‘ shit, piss and BLOOD (definitely not betel), and the view from the top (hazy forest in all directions) doesn’t compensate for the suffering caused by having to skip up and down among all this mess.
– Internet access in Nyaung U is a real pain, we could only check our emails – after showing the owner how to get around the government firewall – from the one-computer stand across from the market that is mentioned in the LP book as well, and from the Little Bit of Bagan restaurant.
– The Bagan-Taunggyi bus that is good for Kalaw and Inle Lake now leaves at 03:30 in the morning, and takes 12 hours two reach the junction at Shwenyaung. It’s a long and very uncomfortable ride on a local bus, that stops every five minutes to pick up and drop off passengers.

– We found the Teakwood Hotel in Nyaungshwe a bit overpriced (25 unbargainable dollars for the nicer rooms on the top floor), but if you are willing to pay, the woman who owns the place and her family are quite nice and helpful.
– Food is crap in Nyaungshwe, no matter where you go. In fact the whole of Nyaungshwe is a pretty crap place.
– Best internet in Nyaungshwe is at the KKO Internet Café, but it’s still very bad even there.
– We couldn’t get a boat to Inle Lake for a full day trip including Indein for less than 14000 kyat, and we really doubt that it can be done now much cheaper than this.
– We found Inle Lake itself very nice, but all the usual boat-stops horribly overrun with souvenir-sellers. At Indein there were actually TWO armless men painting with brushes held in their toes. Does it get any more touristy than this? The Jumping Cat Monastery is only interesting as one of the dumbest tourist attractions anywhere in the world.
– The easy one hour bikeride to Maing Thauk and the ‚Forest Monastery‘ above it is absolutely worth the effort for the views and the peace and quiet.

– Royal Beach Motel is a nice place, though the room rates quoted in Lonely Planet are way outdated. Top floor rooms go for at least 35 USD after some heavy bargaining. Their restaurant is overpriced and not that good compared to what you can get much cheaper in the shacks on the other side of the road. The breakfast is really nice, though.
– There is internet at the business center of the Amata Resort, and it costs 3 USD per half hour. And while expensive it is, fast it ain’t.
– The best food we had in Ngapali (in fact in all of Myanmar) was at the Two Brothers restaurant, which is not where it’s marked on the map in the guidebook, but just opposite the entrance of the Amata. They might have the best seafood in the world for these prices. Our favourite was the steamed crab, stuffed with a lot of garlic and ginger.
– Going for a snorkeling trip from Ngapali is only worth your money if you have never seen a coral reef anywhere else in the world, and you don’t plan to see one either anytime in the future. There are only a few reef fish (even at eight in the morning, when there should be the most), and hardly any live coral. Which is not a surprise, since all the small tourist boats have huge anchors that the crews happily use everywhere.

– The guide who meets every single foreign tourist arriving in Sittwe (or sends his marginally nicer brother to meet them) is surely the most annoying person in the Myanmar tourist industry. Once he puts his greedy hands on your shoulder it’s very difficult to get away from him, so if you are annoyed by types like him, run away as fast as you can.
– Unfortunately it is difficult to run away from him completely. There is a true boat-maffia between Sittwe and Mrauk U, and we found it impossible to charter a boat for two for less than 20 dollars each, and also impossible to find anyone to sell us a ticket on any other boat for anything below this price. We are not saying it is absolutely impossible, but you have to be very assertive. And it’s no better coming back from Mrauk U, since there are so few tourists that everyone in the tourist business there knows about every single one of them, and noone is willing to ruin business for the others.
– The boatride from Sittwe to Mrauk U (or the other way round) takes at least five hours, but it took us seven and a half in one direction and almost six in the other. Currents are pretty unpredictable here. And these times exclude what the crew will spend repairing broken down engines. We didn’t want to travel for a long time in the dark, especially after reading about the tragedy here involving five Italian tourists, who all died after their boat sank in a freak storm in the dry season. But we ended up being so late that we spent four hours cruising the pitch dark waterways. Really not recommended. And it can get very cold on a boat at 9 PM.
– In Mrauk U the Waddy Htut hotel is a decent budget option, especially after what we heard about the Prince (filth and no electricity), from people staying there. The Waddy Htut faces the Eastern wall of the palace, has electricity from 18:00 to 22:30, clean rooms and hot water in buckets. Breakfast is OK, served on the balcony overlooking the street. A double room with bathroom was 15 USD per night. They have bikes for hire for 2000 ks per day.
– The Moe Cherry restaurant is OK but overpriced for what you get. We preferred the Danyawady near the market, where they have acceptable Chinese food for about 4500 ks for two persons.
– Not all kids in Mrauk U are friendly. Some throw stones at you, other insist on dancing while you are trying to watch the sunset, and then have the nerve to ask for money.
– The entrance fee to Mrauk U is now only 5 USD per person, but the annoying „lighting fee“ has increased to 3000 ks.
– The only legal way to see Chin people from Mrauk U is by signing up on the only organised tour offered, which is supposed to visit a single Chin village. Obviously we skipped this.

– Ocean Pearl Inn is a nice enough place with a decent breakfast. Staff are super helpful. Rooms could be cleaned a bit more often, though.
– A good internet café is the Castle near Sule Paya, just above the AA Pharmacy, at the end of a long and winding staircase.
– Note that the better Yangon restaurants outside the city centre close between 14:30-ish and 17:30-ish, and this can be very annoying if you’ve paid for a taxi to take you to one of them at 3 PM. This is less likely to happen in the city centre, but here some of the restaurants (like the excellent Singapore’s Kitchen) don’t even bother with opening at lunchtime.
– Our brief guide to Thai restaurants in Yangon. Sabai Sabai: Good and very popular with well-off locals and expats. Yinn Dee Thai: The best of the lot, but inexplicably empty. APK Kitchen: A bit cheaper than the other two, also a bit less interesting food-wise, but still decent enough.

– The Myanmar Beauty Guesthouse really is THE best hotel in Myanmar. The nicest room is number 1 on the second floor of building 4. For 25 USD you can watch the sunrise from your bed, be treated to the biggest breakfast of your life, plus get as much fruit as you can eat from the garden. Staff treat you like part of the family. Dinner is available for 3000 kyat per person, and you get much more than what you can possibly eat.
– The trip to the elephant camps is absolutely worth it, even if it is very expensive. For two it was 80 USD each, and even if there are more than four persons, it’s still 50 USD per person. This includes transport there and back with Dr. Chan Aye, lunch, the 10 USD collected from every foreigner at the start of the Taungoo-Pyay road, and the encounter with the elephants. To see an adult elephant giving it all she can to pull a one ton log along a riverbed is the experience of a lifetime. If you go with Dr. Chan (and probably he is the only one in Taungoo who can organise this), part of your money will surely go into the free medicine that the doctor distributes to the dirt-poor villagers along the way, so instead of complaining about the steep price see it as a chance to genuinely improve the lives of some very desperate people. Dr. Chan speaks excellent English, is obviously very much respected by the villagers and can explain everything from the local malaria situation to the training of the elephants.
– Dr. Chan can drive you from Taungoo to Pyay on a dirt road. It’s at least 12 hours on the road, and this is even more expensive. A 3 day / 2 night trip visiting the elephant camp and a Karen village along the way is 500 USD for two persons in an old Toyota, and much more in a 4WD with air-con. We gave this a miss.

– Please don’t encourage tourist men to wear longyis and tourist women to put on thanakha. They all look pathetic.

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