If you have ever considered visiting the country of Myanmar, I have two words of advice – ‘GO NOW’ !!!!! The country is beautiful, and has not yet been invaded by western food chains or customs. As one post that we read in one of our books stated, “The people of Myanmar don’t yet know that they are supposed to be selling tee-shirts to tourists’.
My wife, three friends and I just returned from 14 wonderful nights in Myanmar. The trip was put together by Exotic Voyages. Mai Phuong, our agent from EV, put together a great trip for us, starting in Yangon, then Inle Lake, Kalaw, Pindaya, Mandalay, Monywa, Bagan and finally back to Yangon again.
I’ve posted many representative pictures from this trip to flickr. Please feel free to view these shots. http://www.flickr.com/photos/118131035@N06/sets/72157641221997143 alternate link to the same photos: http://bit.ly/1jQU4VP
Before I get into details of the trip (all positives), I first need to say that everything (and I mean everything) on this trip ran like a precision clock. Our guides were waiting for us as we arrived into every stop of the trip. Daily activities ran flawlessly. Our tour included bicycles, boats, horse carts, horse-and-buggies, mini-buses and planes. Every one of these connections was on-time. Most exceeded our expectations. All were delightful. The buses were spotless, drivers were polite and helpful, the boats were comfortable, the bicycles and horse trips were fun.
I can’t speak more highly of Mai Phuong and Exotic Voyages. Mai was very quick to reply to all of my emails as we put the itinerary together. She provided us with very detailed documents along the way. Mai Phuong arranged for our Myanmar visas on arrival – they were processed in the Yangon airport without a hitch. Twice during our trip, I received a phone call (on our guide’s cell phone) from Exotic Voyages, just checking up to see that all was well. Definitely above and beyond the call of duty. I can honestly say that I can’t think of a single thing more that Mai Phuong and Exotic Voyages could have done for us. They were incredible !!!!
Our guides were great. Ei Shiyer in Inle Lake, Kyaw Kyaw Oo (‘Jo Jo’) in Mandalay, Kozay in Bagan and Khin Maung Kyaw (‘Kelvin’) in Yangon. They were personable, knowledgeable, enthusiastic. Their experiences ranged from only a few months to a decade plus. We loved being with each and every guide.
The hotels were all clean and comfortable, with very helpful staff. Some had better breakfasts, some warmer showers and some stronger internet access. All were very acceptable.
Our hotels were, in order:
Yangon – My Hotel
Inle Lake – Golden Island Cottage
Kalaw – Amara Mountain Resort
Pindaya – Inle Inn
Mandalay – Ayarwaddy River View
Monywa – Win Unity
Bagan – Sky Palace Hotel
Yangon – My Hotel
And now, to the review:
We spent only a few hours in Yangon our first nite, arriving to the hotel after 2:00 am, and leaving for our flight to Inle Lake at 6:30 am.
Inle Lake provided an incredible first impression into Myanmar. We spent three evenings in Inle, traveling around the lake on private long boats. On the way to our hotel, the boat drivers would drive very close to the fishermen of Inle Lake who row with one leg to allow both hands free to handle the nets. We took some great pictures of these fishermen. We visited local markets, silver makers, weaving shops and more. We had an extra special surprise on our last morning in Inle. Our guide Ei Shiyer invited us to her friend’s house, in the village just outside of our hotel, for a typical Myanmar breakfast. Her friend, a chemistry teacher, had invited us, thru Ei. It was so nice. The food was delicious, and plentiful. It was a treat to see how a local Myanmar family lived.
One day we traveled by bus towards Taunggyi, the capital of the Shan state. On the way we picked up a delightful local guide, ‘Kit’, a member of the Pa-O tribe, local to the area. We visited the Kakku Pagoda, home of over 1,000 beautiful stupas. It was an incredible sight. Kit was warm, friendly and quite fun. She taught the ladies of our group how to tie head turbans in the typical Pa-O fashion. On the way back to Inle, we stopped at the Aythaya winery, the first (and only one of two) wineries in Myanmar. That day we also stopped into Ei Shiyer’s house, where we met her father and her sister, who made us tea and avocado drinks. Truly a memorable stop.
We left Inle Lake and drove to Kalaw. There we took a four hour trek into the Shan Mountains. The trek was very nice, not very difficult. We traveled thru beautiful cabbage (and other crops) farms, finally arriving in the Palaung village of Panenebin for lunch.
The following day we headed out to Pindaya, home of the Danu tribe. There, we visited the sacred caves of the Shwe Oo Min Pagoda. The caves are home to over 8,700 Buddha images, set into every nook and cranny in the cave. The first was placed there in the late 1700’s. The site was awe-enspiring.
The next day said good-by to Ei Shiyer and were met by our next guide, Kyaw Kyaw Oo. We would spend the next several days with Kyaw Kyaw in Mandalay. Kyaw Kyaw was wonderful, and filled our bus trips with stories and legends of Myanmar. We drove 7 hours with Kyaw Kyaw to Mandalay, through hills and mountains. Very pretty scenery filled the day. In Mandalay, we visited several monasteries and nunneries, some ancient, some newer. One highlight of our time in Mandalay was a visit to the Mahagandayon Monastery, home to over 1,000 Buddhist monks. It was a thrill to watch the monks line up for their afternoon meal, each in the same-colored robe, carrying their alms-jar in their arms. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the legendary U Bein Bridge, made of teak wood salvaged from the remnants of the Royal Palace. Some in our group enjoyed sunset there, sipping coconut water drinks. I took the time to photograph the monks and lay-people walking across the bridge at sunset. We enjoyed two sunsets in Mandalay from the rooftop restaurant of the Ayarwaddy River View, overlooking the river, once described by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘Road to Mandalay’.
The following day, we visited several more pagodas, including the Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to the ‘Worlds Largest Book’ – 729 marble slabs enscribed in Sanscrit. We finished that day at the Shwenandaw Monestary. This is also called the ‘Golden Monastery’ – It was originally part of the Royal Palace, and is the only building remaining from that palace.
We witnessed a beautiful ceremony in one of the pagodas – Hundreds of young women, aged 5-20+ were dressed in elaborate costumed dresses. They were all giving thanks to the Buddha on the day before they would enter the nunnery. They will become nuns for as short a time as three years, some for their entire lives.
The next day, we drove to Monywa for one evening. Along the way we stopped by the Boditahtaung Pagoda, home to a standing Buddha over 31 stories high. That evening we went, by jeep, to Po Win Taung, an incredible complex of limestone-carved temples (reminiscent of Petra, Jordan). The temple complex was filled with Buddha images and wonderful wall paintings. An added bonus was the presence of many monkeys (macaques, I believe), wandering throughout the complex.
The following day, we traveled by bus through the area, learning about Cherout-making, beetle-nut and tea plantations. We witnessed the preparation of tea leaf salad, a local delicacy. We left Kyaw Kyaw that day, and met Kozay who accompanied us on our private boat for a two hour trip down the Ayerwaddy River to Bagan.
Our three days/nights in Bagan were incredible. Kozay was extremely knowledgeable about the temples and pagodas on the plains of Bagan. We spent our first sunset atop one of the pagodas (along with many, many other tourists) to witness the sun setting behind the plains. Pictures can’t describe how beautiful that was. We returned to the plains the next day via horse and buggy carts. It was a wonderful way to experience the pagodas. Our drivers knew just where to stop to get great shots of the structures. Our last day in Bagan began with a bicycle tour to a local market (where we met Kozay’s mother and beautiful daughter). From there we pedaled into the plains to visit several more of the magnificent pagodas. Kozay was very enthusiastic as he described the history and architecture of each of the pagodas that we visited.
We finished our tour of Myanmar with two days in Yangon, once the capital of this fine country. Our guide, Kelvin was friendly, knowledgeable and very flexible to our needs, wants and desires. He is an extremely competent photographer and was very glad to help all of us take great pictures. He brought us to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most religious site in all of Myanmar. The complex was incredible. Again, pictures cannot do justice to the pagoda. Kelvin waited with us there until after sundown, helping me on several occasions to get just the right photograph.
Kelvin recommended three wonderful restaurants for us in Yangon, each one better than the other. My favorite was the ‘House of Memories’, housed in the former headquarters of General Aung San. We had an incredible massage at a place recommended to us by Kelvin – The Seri Beauty Salon, just down the street from the Savoy, and within easy walking distance of our hotel. We had a one hour full massage, provided to each of us by two young women. The massage cost only 12,000 kyats (we gave each of the young ladies an additional 3,000 kyat tip).
The people of Myanmar were friendly and helpful. Everywhere we went we were greeted by warm ‘Mingalabars’. We always felt as if we were treated with fairly and with respect. We would always leave a little ‘extra’ when we paid our bills in the restaurants. On many of those occasions, the wait staff would follow us into the parking lot with the change that they thought that we left by mistake.
Temperatures in Inle, Kalaw & Monywa were very pleasant during the day and pretty cool at night. We really enjoyed the fireplace in the room in Kalaw. By contrast, it was very warm and dry in Bagan & Yangon (bring hats & sunscreen).
The food was very good. Unless specifically requested, the food was not very spicy, far different from meals that we’ve enjoyed in neighboring Thailand. We took the normal precautions of frequent hand washing, use of anti-bacterial rubs. We drank only bottled water, and used that same water for brushing our teeth and rinsing our toothbrushes. Some of us followed the advice of the CDC and WebMD and took precautionary Pepto Bismol tablets before each local meal. One of our travelers had a stomach bug that lasted only 24 hours. No one else in our group had any difficulties because of the local food.
As recommended in other posts, we brought clean, new $100 & $50 US bills to Myanmar and converted them at money changers and in our hotels. I did try to use a few ATMs that I found in a shopping mall in Yangon, but was unsuccessful in those attempts. I would recommend that you don’t plan on ATMs, and bring enough US currency to get you through the trip.
Meals ranged from 4,000-12,000 kyats (about $4-$12) in almost every restaurant that we went to. (most were in the 4,000-6,000 range). Tall bottles of local beer (quite good) usually ran about 3,500 kyats. 12 ounce cans of the beer were generally about 2,000 kyats. Bottled water was very inexpensive in restaurants, usually about 1,500 kyats for a large chilled bottle. Wine was on the expensive side, at around 20,000 to 25,000 per bottle. Only a few of the restaurants served wine by the glass.
Many toilets are the squatting kind so "bring your own TP" (BYOTP) for the toilets because it is generally not available.
Shopping was fun and very stress-free. I have to admit that I’m not too much of a bargainer on small items (it’s very difficult to justify bargaining down a 4,500 kyat tee-shirt). We bought a very beautiful laquerware presentation bowl in Bagan from a reputable shop for about 75,000 kyat. It came apart into three parts to make packing much easier. We also bought two sets of laquerware coasters for 45,000 per set. You could easily pick up much less quality laquerware around the temples of Bagan. One member of our group paid 5,000 for a set of laquerware coasters. (but, you get what you pay for). Only in Bagan did we experience people coming up to us, trying to sell us things. The sellers were, however, very polite and took it only took a single ‘No Thank You’ from us to stop the sales attempt.
I also purchased three ‘opium weights’ in Inle Lake, for about 35,000 kyat per. Each of these weights has the old gov’t authentication stamps, indicating that these ‘might’ be original weights (probably less than 100 years old). You could easily buy obviously new reproductions of opium weights, made in the local bronze factories, for much, much cheaper.
I never use the expression ‘Trip of a Lifetime’ – all trips are unique, and all are of this one and only one lifetime. If I did use that expression, however, I’d be very tempted to use it for this trip. Mai Phuong and Exotic Voyages did an incredible job of setting everything up for us. The trip gave us a very good taste of Myanmar, from local markets, to age-old Pagodas, to out-of-the way sites to see. Every connection, every transport, every tour ran like clock-work. I can’t thank Mai Phuong enough. I usually do all of the organizing and planning for my groups’ vacations. I left all of that planning, this time, to Mai Phuong. I’m so very glad that I did.
I would very strongly recommend Mai Phuong and Exotic Voyages to anyone looking to explore Myanmar. You won’t be disappointed that you did.
If anyone has any questions on my experiences in Myanmar, or working with Exotic Voyages, please feel free to reply to this post. I’ll continue to monitor the post to answer an/all questions that I can.
For the record, my group consisted of 4 women, ages 40-69, and myself, age 56. We are all very experienced travelers and have toured together to many countries in three different continents over the years. We do not travel in large tour groups, but instead prefer to work with local agents to supply guides in each of the cities that we visit.