We're all going to die. Surely this is the end.
The plane, a beat-up propeller number so old it has ashtrays built in, rattles its way toward Rangoon's airport, seat cushions and armrests falling into the aisles and overhead compartments bursting open. The engines sound wrong. With each inexplicable jolt, the passengers gasp and grip the space where their armrests once were.
The flight attendants are unconcerned, wobbling from side to side, pushing the drink cart and spilling coffee. This is business as usual on the morning flight from Thandwe, Myanmar, and its vast deserted Ngapali Beach on the Bay of Bengal to Rangoon. This Myanmar Airways plane – the national carrier! – is busted to bits. So why are we on it?
Time. It's less than a two-hour trip and covers the ground that would have taken more than 24 hours by bus, if the bus made it at all. Myanmar, a country still in the early thralls of its tourism boom, is a land of unreliable transport: the trains derail on the old British lines and the buses break down on the terrible roads. With infinite time, the slow, bumpy route could make for interesting travel. But my partner and I have only three weeks in a country dense with unmissable sights, so these shaky flights are the convenient alternative. And like most other conveniences in Myanmar, they're expensive.
Expense is relative, of course, but in a region where incredible experiences have never cost much, prices in Myanmar are surprising. Those terrible domestic flights start at $100 (U.S.) a person but two weeks earlier, in January, we only paid $35, Canadian, for an international flight from Penang, Malaysia, to Singapore.
Hotels on the low end (a simple bed, desk, air conditioning that half-works, flickering Internet and an improvisational bathroom) start at $80 (U.S.) per night in Rangoon and Mandalay, but that amount would get you a hip four-star with a rooftop pool in Kuala Lumpur. High-end hotels, of which there are a few in Myanmar, start around $400 and don't hold a candle to hotels of a similar price-point (such as the Mandarin Oriental or the Kempinksi) in nearby Bangkok, which have better service and offer better-value-for-lots-of-money.
A cheap approach doesn't really exist for foreign travellers. Burmese have exclusive access to budget hotels, many of which don't have permits to allow foreign guests. Locals pay less for those shaky flights, too, and like many places in the region, the tourist is left feeling like they're overpaying for something by virtue of being a tourist. But you do pay it, often gladly, precisely because this isn't Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam.
Burma, for now, is one of the world's last travel frontiers, a country that closed itself to the world shortly after its independence from the British by limiting tourist visas to 24 hours until 1990, and then, during its military junta years, it had a charismatic (not to mention imprisoned) activist discouraging foreign visitors. Tourist money, Aung San Suu Kyi insisted until 2010 when the country held its first elections in 20 years, was going straight to the general who ruled the country. Independent travel is encouraged, and her thawed stance on the boycott has open the floodgates. Since 2010, Myanmar has seen a substantial year-on-year rise in tourist numbers.
The payoff for the expense and inconvenience of travel in the country is immediate: You have your pick of majestic pagodas visited mostly by locals and saffron-robed monks, miles of empty beaches, complex and irritating cities, and lazy river boats with views of the crumbling once-cities of some forgotten age.
Drew Gough for The Globe and Mail
Drew Gough for The Globe and Mail
Just before sunrise, only the bats occupy the temples in Bagan. The taxi drops us a few hundred yards away and the driver points toward the temple's vague outline against the lightening sky. Then he rolls up his window and immediately falls asleep, waiting for us to return. We trod through the smoky plain and, approaching the unnamed temple, can't at first find the stairs. Unlike some of the other 3,000 ninth- to 13th-century temples from the defunct Kingdom of Pagan, this temple's stairs are internal, pitch black even in daylight. With our cellphone doubling as a flashlight we scramble up the steps, surrounded by squawking, restless bats, and are soon 50 metres above the Bagan Plain, waiting for the show.
The balloons start to pass as the dawn rises, the postcard image that's put Myanmar on the international tourist map. Bagan, a 100-square-kilometre archeological zone comprising the towns of Nyaung-U and New Bagan, is littered with these ancient temples that have stood, mostly, the tests of time, Mongol invasions and earthquakes. Each morning, dozens of hot-air balloons float on the calm drafts over the area, adding flecks of colour to the already stunning scene.
We're joined by a handful of others watching from the temple top, but otherwise, the vista is empty. This is the other side of the price versus experience dilemma: Opt for the cheaper way, find yourself even more alone and then justify your choice by noting, loudly, how the expensive option has only enhanced the view from the cheap seats.
After sunrise, the taxi drops us at a bike shop where we find one of Myanmar's only bargains: a $10-a-day electric scooter that delivers pure Burmese magic. Self-guided and moving quickly enough to generate a breeze to offset the heat, we scour the countryside to stare at as many of these glorious Buddhist monuments as a day allows. It's like Angkor Wat without the nearby comfortable town and the throngs of loud, shoeless Australians discovering themselves. And though Bagan has its share of postcard vendors and aggressive touts at some of the more popular sites, mostly it's spaced out and deserted, your own private fallen kingdom to explore.
Bagan is the most touristed region of Myanmar. It has the widest spread of sleeping and eating options. But it's hot, dusty and remote, so "most touristed" still means "mostly empty." The cost of getting in and out, of the hotels that have air conditioning and a private bathroom (however grim) is inflated and directly connected to that emptiness: There's no one here, so why not pay a little more?
Drew Gough for The Globe and Mail
Drew Gough for The Globe and Mail
Scattered across Asia are a handful of legendary, landmark hotels that formed a circuit for well-to-do Europeans at the turn of the 20th century. These are the hotels with rooms named after former tenants, such that Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Rudyard Kipling suites are ubiquitous throughout the great cities of Asia. Some hotels retain their elegance today (Raffles in Singapore, the Majestic in Kuala Lumpur); some faded then were carefully restored (the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, Malaysia); and some sit on the brink of obscurity. The Strand Hotel in Yangon nearly fell into this last category. A colonial relic on a street choked with the city's unmoving traffic and opposite a construction site, the Strand is mercifully closed until mid-November for much-needed updates. Its legendary long bar was scuff-marked, its rooms worn down. When it reopens this fall, rooms will average around $360 in a city where a good bowl of noodles costs $1 and an average taxi ride $3.50.
In a similar state is the nearby Governor's Residence, run by Belmond, which operates luxury trains and cruises around the world. We arrive for afternoon tea on its expansive open-air veranda restaurant, and the concierge offers a tour of the musty, dank rooms. The fan-cooled mystique evaporates above 25 C, which Rangoon always is. We sweat through tasty tea, pasty sandwiches and melting desserts. It's a gorgeous hotel in desperate need of an airing out, and here rooms start around $300 in the wet season, doubling during the October through April high and shoulder seasons. This for the smell of mould and a fresh seasonal fruit plate every morning.
These luxury hotels (and the mid-range hotels in the $150-$270/night range) are islands in a messy, thrilling and occasionally beautiful city. Rangoon is home to the gold and glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the holy sites of Buddhism and, like Bagan 700 kilometres to the north, mostly devoid of tourists. It's easy to spend a hot afternoon hiding in the shade of its gilded temples watching supplicants circumnavigate the 27-tonne golden dome.
But to take it in, you have to leave your bubble and muck about in the reality of Rangoon, itself a fading colonial wonder. You must hail a taxi among the armies of rats, peddlers and beggars, among the dusty construction workers and men and women hurrying to work in their long, colourful skirts. You must bake in the traffic, marvel at the right-hand drive chaos while peeking over high, stone fences at grand, palm-thronged wooden mansions. You must sweat, get coated in the local dirt and breathe in the resident madness before you can retreat to your overpriced oasis for a lukewarm shower that floods the bathroom.
But the mess here is also the lure. This is new, weird, rough. Myanmar is hard to travel in, but you can just about manage it and keep your sanity if you simply fork out, be patient and see it before anyone else thinks to go.
Many have already beaten you to it. In 2014, Myanmar's Ministry of Hotels and Tourism reported three million foreign visitors. This past year reportedly saw 4.5-million, though these numbers are disputed by skeptical local media because they include day-tripping expats crossing from Thailand at land borders to get a new Thai tourist visa. Still, tourism in Myanmar is trending up, and fast.
There are few places in the world, let alone the region, with Myanmar's diversity of sights and its relative scarcity of travellers (scenic wonders not mentioned or mentioned only fleetingly here include Inle Lake, with its stilted villages and floating monasteries, markets and handicraft hawkers; the uninhabited Mergui (Myiek) Archipelago, one of the last ocean wildernesses; Ngapali Beach, surely the world's calmest tropical beach; the Irrawaddy River between Mandalay and Bagan, with its river cruises and endless views of abandoned medieval cities, some of which haven't been fully excavated). And while local food, beer and transit remain very cheap, Myanmar's tourism industry understands its precarious position as a hot destination, and charges accordingly for the rest of your stay.
People I spoke to in the tourist industry in Myanmar and Thailand acknowledge that a slide down toward region-appropriate pricing is coming, but the risk of waiting for the drop is arriving in a sanitized Myanmar that's flooded with tourists. Here's a frontier: Choose to go when it's rough or when it's cheap.