First, I wanted to thank everyone who patiently helped me with all sorts of questions before my brief 1 week trip. Just returned a week ago and had a trip of a lifetime, even if very (alas, too) brief.
Day 1 Arrived exhausted after a very length trip from the west coast of the US. Changed US$1000.00 at airport (just after you clear immigration) on recommendation of travel agent (Santa Maria). A Santa Maria rep was on hand to greet me and then drove me to the hotel (Traders). Since I was on my own, at nighttime I took a cab to the Shwedagon Paya to soak up the atmosphere. Definitely worth both a day and night visit. It actually gets pretty lively at night, with tourists and locals alike. No safety issues whatsoever.
Day 2 Left early for the domestic airport (right next to the international one) for an early morning flight via Yangon Airways. Motley crowd of tourists, both European and North American, some traveling independently (like myself), though most as couples, retirees or even a few families. Power at domestic terminal tended to fluctuate at times, but by no means of any hindrance. All the flights leave at more or less the same tie window. I was very impressed with Yangon Airways, where a full array of pastries was served on a flight that took just slightly over an hr. Smooth landing at Bagan, where a guide from Santa Maria awaited and took me to the Bagan market. Plenty of bargains, but more interesting to get a sense of local life. Tour temples followed (Shwezigon, Htilminol, Ananda) and around 11:30 had lunch at Myanmar Golden Restaurant. A good place to sample local Burmese cuisine, which is comprised of condiments and curries in small bowls, along with tons of rice. This seemed to be where most locals ate, and was very reasonable for about 5000 kyats (~US $6.00) . Though I was only one, this meal could easily accommodate-it was a lot of food! Checked in at hotel (Tharabar Gate) and napped for about 2 hrs. Guide came back around 3:30 to show me more temples and a lacquerware workshop that accepted credit cards (Bagan House). Afterward, on to Shwesandaw temple to climb up to the upper terrace to photograph the other temples at sunset. No shortage of company here-lots of other tourists, but breathtaking views.
Day 2- More temples, and then a tour of a local village where I saw cigar making, local weaving, peanut oil/products processing and production of thanaka the ubiquitous paste that both males and females apply to their faces as a natural sunscreen. The village was lived in and had an air of authenticity to it, but it was also geared towards tourists. Mixed feelings about it, but overall a positive experience. A tip was expected (and openly requested) here. Afternoon trip included a cruise down the Irrawaddy to photograph the riverside temples from the river (at sunset), and prior to that, a visit to various temples with fantastic murals and stone relief carvings. Had dinner at Sarabha restaurant, which had a puppet show and served local cuisine-highly recommend. One thing to bear in mind: the puppet shows don't always start at the time they indicate, as they generally wait for the larger tour groups to arrive before that actually start (and so the delay can be anywhere from 30 mins to an hr).
Day 3 Early morning flight from Bagan to Mandalay, which was a very short flight (30 mins). You basically start landing almost immediately after you reach cruising speed (18K on these planes). Still, Yangon Airways found time to serve us drinks (pop) on this short leg! Met at airport by guide, and immediately started touring. Visited a nunnery where we watched the novices receiving lunch, which I understand was far less crowded than the more renowned Mahagandyone monastery for males. Afterward, proceeded to Sagaing Hill which was just dotted with stupas and monasteries. The views here were fantastic and highy recommended. We then took a small boat to Amarapura and Inwa, where we toured local monasteries and villages-the horse car tour is not one to be missed! Villagers wave as you pass by, and you get a sense of experiencing the 'real' Burma as you pass agricultural tracts of banana, rice and toddy palm fields, complete with pagodas and stupas interspersed among them. The scenery just about everywhere was highly photogenic. Also noticed a number of tourists biking the bucolic trails, so this is another option. From here, returned back to Mandalay where I checked into my hotel (Ayeyarwaddy Riverview Hotel). This hotel, was not as posh as the other two, had a fantastic rooftop bar and terrace where they served free whiskey sours, a thoughtful touch.
Day 4 Early morning involved taking a 1 hr boat trip to Mingun, where i saw the ruins of the unfinished stupa and a few other temples. The Mingun area has a local village that also sells handicrafts to tourists but overall, 1 hr. should suffice. Returned to Mandalay where I was shown a street specializing in stone and marble Buddhas, gold leaf processing and silk weaving. Highlight for me was the Mahamuni temple, where you see Burmese Buddhism at its most devout. Afterwards, visited an awesome teak monastery, the monastery with the 'world's largest stone book' and the royal palace at Mandalay, all highly photogenic places.
Day 5 Return to Yangon in the morning (via Bagan) via Yangon Airways. Interestingly, we picked up passengers at Bagan who were due to fly out on Air Bagan but since their plane was experiencing 'an issue' before takeoff, they asked if we could accommodate some of their passengers. So we left on a very full flight. Back at Yangon, was able to add in a day time tour of Shwedagon, the reclining Buddha and Scott Market before returning to the US on a very late evening flight.
1. Time: 6 days/5 nights is not enough! Though I skipped Heho-Inle lake, you need at least 10 days to fully appreciate the country.
2. Solo traveling: no issues whatsoever. Saw and met a few others traveling on their own, both male and female. I think the local industry recognizes that single travelers are a growing trend, and so increasingly caters to their needs accordingly.
3. People: exceptionally friendly, curious and 'real'. The people and culture are what make Myanmar a very, very special place. It may not be the more effusive, supercilious (and even exaggerated) 'warmth' that is sometimes present elsewhere, but more a quite, understated warmth that is also very genuine and kind. You'll see what I mean when you get there!
4. Local food: definitely encourage you to try the local food. Myanmar cuisine is pleasing, and serve in copious amounts. You get many servings served in small bowls, together with huge amounts of rice to temper the stronger flavors. Papaya and honeydew juice were the perfect accompaniments. The hotels I stayed in provided two small bottles of water gratuitously. For those who enjoy it, many vendors serve fresh coconut juice.
5. Guides & tips: though the tour agency I used (Santa Maria) provided the guides and drivers, I provided extra tips because I wanted to, but this is certainly only on the discretion of the visitor. Both guides were good and highly knowledgeable, but their styles and personal demeanors were different. For instance, my guide in Bagan was a bit more pushy when it came to steering me to stores and vendors, sometimes irritatingly so. When I provided a tip of $50.00 for 2 days, he then said he had been expecting more, which caught me by surprise. In contrast, my guide in Mandalay was more reserved, but very professional and with no persistent steering cues whatsoever towards shopping. In fact, he was excellent and I felt the US$100.00 I gave him for two days was well deserved (contact me if you'd like his contact info.; I highly recommend him). I also gave small tips to the drivers, since they waited patiently for most of the trips.
6. Temple wear: definitely wear sandals for easy removal of footwear, especially in Bagan where you visit one temple after another. I didn't see anyone wearing shoes/socks. Signs explicitly tell you that shorts, shoes, socks and spaghetti straps (for women) are prohibited. That said, I saw the occasional tourist with shorts (usually to the knees, as in bermuda shorts) , but no one seemed to make a fuss about it. I always wore trousers and a khaki type shirt, either a rolled up long sleeved or a short sleeved one.
7. Changing money: Best to do it at the airport when you arrived. This was also the recommendation of the tour agency before i arrived. According to him, you will not necessarily get a better exchange rate elsewhere.
8. Gifts: I recall reading somewhere in this forum that jigsaw puzzles were well received and so I brought them from the US for my guides. They were well received.
9. Safety of local airlines: The main private ones are Air Mandalay, Yangon Airways, Air Bagan, Air Kanbawza and Asian Wings. I only flew with Yangon Airways, which, with Air Mandalay, was founded in the early 90s and presumably still fly the original planes from that time. I took Yangon Airways and so can only speak about my experience with them. I was a bit apprehensive before I went, but now can aver that any fears were way overblown by the 'on the ground' and 'on the air' reality. Yangon Airways was fantastic, and I can honestly say, the ride was smoother than many of the small regional carriers I've taken back home here in the US, many of which were on newer regional jets! It's all about how well they maintain the planes, and Yangon Airways was very well serviced. In flight hostess service was definitely superior and professional. Interestingly, just about all the passengers were fellow tourists, and the very few Burmese locals I saw were either tour guide accompanying bigger groups or businessmen.
In summary, the time to go is NOW. Changes are on the way, and I suspect a way of life may go with them. My guide told me that they were expecting a million visitors this year, which was way above the government's earlier projections. The infrastructure is fast catching up to these new needs, but it will probably be another 2 years before these needs (especially in terms of hotel rooms) will be fully met.
For those about to go very soon, or currently anticipating a trip in the near future, or still planning one for the medium/long term, go.... you'll have an experience of a lifetime :-) !