This could be a long one! We've just returned from 3.5 weeks in Myanmar and it was the trip of a lifetime, so wanted to share the experience with everyone.
A little about us first. We are not keen on organised group travel but quite like the idea of having certain things in place before we go if it is a completely new country. The usually suggested method of dealing with a local agent in Myanmar to sort out the details for us, but then having a fair degree of freedom once there to go it alone, suited us very well. We are not against budget travel and often opt for that, but would describe ourselves as happiest in mid range places if we're honest. What we got in Myanmar exceeded our expectations for the price. Our 23 nights in Myanmar for the two of us came to $2600 (excluding flights from the UK) and included B & B accommodation, four domestic flights, airport transfers, a 2 day, one night hike with all expenses covered, a guide at Pindaya and a car and driver for the final week when we toured the south east (Golden Rock, Hpa-An, Mawlamyine area). Most hotels were around the $35 mark, with a few exceptions, the most expensive two costing around $60. We spent a further $600 between us during our stay and this covered all our meals, excursions and souvenirs, plus occasional entry fees.
During our stay, we trekked overnight near Pindaya, had 5 nights at Inle Lake, 3 nights at Mandalay, 3 nights at Bagan, 2 nights at Mt. Popa, then a week towards the south east to finish .. oh and a night in Yangon at the beginning and end. Hard to pick a highlight, but unlike a lot of people who say give Mandalay a miss; for us it was definitely one of the real highlights, as was Golden Rock and ... oh dear, I will end up mentioning every location in a minute!!!!
Our first night was in Yangon, staying at Beautyland 1 Hotel. It was expensive for what it was .. it's a guest house rather than an hotel but charges hotel prices. Having said that, it was a perfect base for us to be able to walk to the nearby Shwedagon Paya, just a few minutes stroll away so that's why we chose it. We went there at about 3.30pm and stayed until after dark, watching the activity grow towards dusk and marvelling at the colours changing with it. We befriended two monks who took it upon themselves to show us around and explain everything from the points where the diamond at the top of the pagoda shines in a different colour with every step that you take .. to the shrine that you visit, according to the actual day of the week that you were born on, telling us how many times to douse the particular statue with cups of water. It was a lovely introduction to the country. We whizzed out later that evening to meet former Myanmar DE "BonzaiReservoir" who is a good friend of mine. Our arrival coincided with the Chinese New Year celebrations so we headed to lively Chinatown and downed a few beers in a lively area full of noodle bars and barbecued food. Stayed out until jet lag took us over and we collapsed into bed!
After a great breakfast at Beautyland 1 (one of the best we had), we flew from Yangon to Heho airport the following morning and were met by a car and guide who would be with us for our trek in the area. That first afternoon, we explored a local village and then the caves at Pindaya with over 8000 Buddha statues and images. We were there late in the afternoon and had the place to ourselves which made it highly atmospheric. I hadn't expected to enjoy this place as much as I did. It doesn't look great in photographs but is completely amazing to visit, squeezing through little mazes with Buddha statues all around you. Our accommodation that night was at the Conqueror Hotel in Pindaya .. VERY nice rooms indeed and had beautiful, well tended grounds as well as the usual charming staff that you seem to get everywhere. It was one of the more expensive places we stayed at, costing $47 at the time of our visit.
The next morning, our guide took us to Pindaya which was lively because we were there on market day. I could have spent hours poking around, looking at the ladies from the surrounding tribal villages with their colourful headscarves and so on, but we had a full day of trekking ahead .. and anyway, as it turned out, there was ample opportunity to see other such markets during our time in and around Inle Lake. We had opted to do a slightly lesser known trek than the usual ones at Kalaw, wanting to stay off the more touristy routes if possible. Our agent came up with the one that goes to a small mountain village called Yatzakyi and he was spot on with his choice.
On the way, we called in to a small village school which had a fair number of novice monks and they were the naughty ones, leaping from tables and flying off window ledges using their robes as "wings"! Mind you ... it WAS their break time! The youngest class of children then sang to us before we departed which was wonderful. It was a good place to hand out pens and other materials to the grateful teachers. I was keen not to give gifts to children we met on the way, as this place is definitely not yet part of the "bon-bon" begging culture and it would be a shame to see it happen. No one asked for anything from us; in fact, they seemed eager to give to us, wherever we visited, despite having so little themselves. Further along the trail, we were invited in to a house to have sweet sticky rice with their home grown avocados and green tea. Despite us being complete strangers, they insisted in stopping what they were doing to entertain us. Amazing. Couldn't see that happening here in the UK somehow... Lunch was at a small place some hours into the trek. It was a feast of fish stew and various rice and vegetable dishes; all delicious. We saw perhaps half a dozen other trekkers here, but then they all went their separate ways again. We arrived at Yatzakyi village in the late afternoon and to the monastery where we would be staying overnight. Beds were mats on the floor but there was lots of warm bedding available .. and this was very much needed as the temperature dropped to around freezing overnight (the ground was white with frost the next morning..) There were two other people staying at the monastery overnight, but apart from them, it was just us with our guide (plus obligatory local guide) and the two resident monks next door. The toilet and ultra-basic washing facilities were in a hut outside, surrounded by territorial geese, so you didn't go there unless you had to ;-) That evening we wandered into the nearby small village with its few simple houses and were immediately invited in to sit crosslegged by the fire and to share a cheroot or two with the family (I left that bit to my other half...!) and to drink more of their own green tea. The ladies at this village wear their own distinctly coloured headscarves as they all do in Shan state. At Inle Lake we encountered many more, all wearing different colours depending on the tribe they belonged to. It was extremely memorable and enjoyable. We didn't share the same language, but somehow we were all easy together, laughed a lot and we were very humbled to have been given this wonderful welcome by complete strangers once again. Returned to the monastery where a wonderful feast had been prepared for our dinner and had a good night's sleep. Don't ask me how many blankets I put on top of us, but safe to say, we were not cold!
Breakfast the following morning was served on the veranda of the monastery, chatting to the head monk, as the sunlight first hit the building at around 7.30am. It was wondrous. Took a more direct path back down the mountainside to Pindaya which took less time - around 4 hours or so, and we were back in Pindaya by lunchtime before driving the 2 hours to Inle. We stopped briefly to see the rotating market which had reached Heho on that day .. again, very colourful and interesting. Click, click went the camera again....
We had 5 nights in the Inle Lake area, staying at the ever popular Princess Garden Hotel at Nyaung Shwe. Yes, it deserves its excellent reviews.What a place .. and the pool was a fantastic place to relax when we had the chance. I am so glad we opted to stay at Nyaung Shwe rather than being isolated on the lake itself. We loved wandering around, watching the lines of monks with their alms bowls early in the morning, or choosing a different place to eat at in the evening .. although we found one place that was just so nice, we kept going back to it. It was a little restaurant called Htoo Htoo Aung and an easy stroll from where we stayed. Fantastic food, lovely owners, great value.
On our first full day, we had the introductory boat ride on Inle Lake and had opted to have a guide with us on this day (the same one who was with us for the Pindaya trek) because we did not want to waste time being taken to craft places where the boatman would inevitably try to go. We really didn't have any interest in seeing those things. We had a very good idea of what we wanted to see and our guide was, once again, brilliant. We called at Indein which was awesome .. particularly the crumbling, unrestored part at the bottom. Wow. Our guide then took us on a route to the top part which passed through a local village, so we avoided the stall sellers, and he took yet another route back down through another village where we had the chance to meet more local people and observe how they lived. There was a beautiful turquoise river at this point which we crossed by way of a very rustic bamboo bridge which added to the experience! Back on the lake, we saw the floating gardens, Nampan stilted village and many of the other attractions of the northern end of Inle Lake. On the way back, we stopped at Mine Thauk village and visited several monasteries, observing quietly whilst the monks chanted away. Lovely. A super day. I had expected to see more tourists on the lake, but maybe our timings were good .. or maybe it is just so vast that they all disperse somewhere, but we hardly saw any others, apart from briefly in a passing boat.
Having not stopped since our arrival, day 2 at Inle was a rest day, enjoying the lovely surroundings and pool at Princess Garden Hotel. The weather was still quite cool at the time of our visit and although it was hot in the middle of the day, you needed your woollies early in the day and in the evenings. We managed to get internet access at a cafe in Nyaung Shwe that evening too, which was useful to contact the kids back at home. Generally though, we had big problems with this. Only at Mandalay, Mawlamyine and Yangon was it "relatively" easy, with Mandalay being the best as we were actually able to use skype on our phone to speak with them.
On day 3, we managed to get together with a French couple that we met in Nyaung Shwe to share the cost of a boat for the trip to Sankar at the southern end of Inle Lake. What a lovely trip it was .. spectacular and beautiful scenery throughout. The boat cost K45000 between us and we also shared the cost of the Pa-O guide ($10). On top of this was a permit of $5 per person. Our Pa-O guide told us that since visitors have been coming to Sankar, they now have their own small school and hospital so the fees have paid for this. I've never been so happy to part with my money! She was really lovely and showed us around yet another rotating market on the way, at Mawbe. Arrival at Sankar was wonderful, drifting slowly into an area filled with partly submerged and crumbling stupas. The bit out of the water was less atmospheric but no doubt it looks better during the wet season. The whole region is so beautiful though. We left Sankar and called in at a place nearby where they brew very strong rice wine ... 40% and 60% strengths were on offer. It quite took your breath away! The highlight of the day for me was calling in at a mesmerisingly beautiful lakeside temple complex not far from there, with many glittering pagodas and little bells tinkling on the top of them. I don't know the name of the temple but it was so lovely in that setting. Fabulous day.
On the next day, we took advantage of the free bicycle hire from Princess Garden Hotel and explored the lanes and roads along the lakeside. We took the road to the hot springs at Khaung Daing and beyond, and when we'd had enough, brought the bikes back by boat to Nyaung Shwe. Very nice again.
I think that's enough for part one. I will continue with part 2 shortly and our continuing tour in Mandalay and beyond.