We noticed that you're using an unsupported browser. The TripAdvisor website may not display properly.We support the following browsers:
Windows: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome. Mac: Safari.

A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

dl
Washington, DC
Level Contributor
1,103 posts
109 reviews
Save Topic
A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

I spent 18 days of our 6 week SEASia trip in Myanmar. We were in Myanmar from late January into February.

The necessary planning and planning and planning seemed to take forever.

I started in the spring working with Santa Maria Travels, http://www.myanmartravels.net/index.htm. Santa Maria had been recommended on this board. I was happy with their services. In the planning stages they were efficient and responsive answering my emails the next day. All arrangements went smoothly and they were easy to contact the couple times we needed to during our time in Myanmar. The major frustration was that prices for airfare and hotels don’t get set until closer in and I was having a difficult time getting an idea of what the trip might cost and what we might add or would need to delete due to costs. This, of course, is not the fault of SM. Since prices had escalated these last couple years, I couldn’t even go by what others had spent a year or two ago. It was early fall by the time I got estimates for rates and airfare. Planning and traveling in Myanmar may take patience, be prepared. I normally don’t use TA’s, so I am certainly not an expert on rating them, but I would rate Santa Maria 5* and highly recommend them.

In the end the itinerary we worked out was pretty much the typical tourist circuit which follows: (Note: full reviews of hotels are posted. Also our general preference is to stay in small BnB’s or real boutique hotels so these hotels were very different than our usual digs when we travel).

Flew roundtrip on Air Asia from BKK to Yangon. I booked these flights. We had to stop at Yangon first on the way to Mandalay to pay Santa Maria. We then went from Yangon International airport to the Domestic airport to fly Mandalay that same day. I had asked about getting the vouchers in Mandalay & paying, but they said it had to be done in Yangon. That’s something I would certainly check on if you don’t want Yangon to be your first stop.

3 nights in Mandalay @ the Rupar Mandalar Resort which we loved. This was a smallish place, but they were building a rather large addition near the pool area - 5*

http://www.ruparmandalar.com

1 night in Pyin OO Lwin @ Hotel Pyin OO Lyin which was a new hotel that was barely okay, our room was dark & COLD. Maybe a room that got sun would have made a difference - 3*

http://hotelpyinoolwin.com/index.php

3 nights in Hsipaw @ Mr. Charles Guest House, which is a basic guest house and it was fine for what it was – 3*

http://www.mrcharleshotel.com

1 night back in Mandalay @Rupar Mandalar

Boat to Bagan - 10-11 hours, but to my surprise I enjoyed all of them

4 nights in Bagan The Hotel @ Tharber Gate in Old Bagan which has a perfect location. Hotel could do with some sprucing up. It was fine - 4*

http://www.tharabargate.com

Flew to Heho and drove to Inle Lake where we spent 4 nights @ Pristine Lotus Spa Resort which is a lovely property with some lake views - 5* (http://www.pristinelotus.com)

Flew from HeHo to Yangon where we spent 2 nights at Traders Hotel. Big business hotel with typical hotel comforts and was being refurbished. At long last we had great Internet connectivity & it gets extra for that - 4*.

http://www.shangri-la.com/yangon/traders/

Santa Maria made all hotel reservations and flight reservations with the exception of the roundtrip to and from Myanmar that I booked online. All flights were on Yangon Air and were fine. I did research to try and avoid patronizing properties currently directly connected to the corrupt regime & its cronies. Severl hotels Santa Maria suggested we did not stay at due to the regime connections, but I realize it’s hard to know who owns a stake in what and where the money really goes.

We took pristine US$, but we did find ATMs available and had no trouble using them. We had one ATM that was out of order’ and someone directed us right around the corner to a working ATM. Our bank reimburses any fees so we didn’t need to worry about ATM fees. The fees were about $5. Hotels had signs that they accepted credit cards with varying fees attached ranging from 3% - 5%.

Myanmar grew on me – it was not love at first sight by any stretch perhaps because we started in Mandalay, a very hard place to love let alone like. I found the people open, curious & friendly. Food was generally good with some very good dishes thrown in. Some of the sites are jaw dropping. I’m very glad I went, learned a lot and understand a bit more about a country with a very tragic, turbulent history.

The issue of going now or waiting is vexing to me. Myanmar is not ready or equipped for the number of tourists it is experiencing. I have read articles on this and talked with locals about it. In a few years it will have a better tourist infrastructure that might make it easier or more pleasurable to visit. Myanmar is past what it was say even 2-3 years ago, but it is definitely not what it will be in 3- 5 years. Myanmar is in transition from the old to whatever it will become. I know there are way more tourists now than a couple years ago, but with a very few exceptions I never felt the presence of too many tourists like one may experience at Angkor Wat or other places I have visited.

Nova Scotia
Destination Expert
for Nova Scotia
Level Contributor
11,266 posts
166 reviews
Save Reply
1. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

Thanks so much for this excellent report. I will not your TA recommendation.

We plan on going this year even though it is in this state of flux. I am sure it will be interesting.

dl
Washington, DC
Level Contributor
1,103 posts
109 reviews
Save Reply
2. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

Thanks -- I'm sure you will enjoy it.

AT THE YANGON AIRporT (continued)

Our flight from Bangkok to Yangon was short and uneventful. We had hoped to start our Myanmar trip in Mandalay. However, Santa Maria Travel & Tours had insisted that we settle our bill and receive our vouchers by meeting a Santa Maria representative in the nice Yangon International Airport terminal. At any rate, we cleared immigration and customs without difficulty, quickly found the Santa Maria representative and were soon huddled together on a bench counting out crisp new $100 bills and comparing hotel vouchers against our itinerary. I also took advantage of a nearby moneychanger to convert $300 into kyat, the national currency. I watched with some amazement as she pushed back a small stack of 10,000 kyat notes in exchange for $300. The dollar to kyat exchange rate is approximately one dollar to a thousand kyat; this does have the advantage of making mental conversion of prices easy – just drop three zeroes. This was, as it turned out, the only time we were to exchange money during our travels in Myanmar; on every subsequent occasion, we used ATMs, which can now be found in larger towns, at least those on the tourist circuit.

After we’d received our vouchers, we headed to the domestic terminal. The responses to our question regarding directions seemed a tad on the vague side, a half-dismissive hand gesture indicating that the domestic terminal was to the left as we were facing the outside doors. As we soon found out, the domestic terminal was indeed to our left. However it was also outside the doors and in a separate building a quarter mile (400 meters) down a dilapidated sidewalk along a busy street. We made our way through a scrum of taxi drivers and started rolling (or carrying, in my case) our luggage down the uneven and oddly interrupted sidewalk. It was our first introduction to Yangon’s heat, infamous sidewalks and high curbs.

The domestic terminal turned out to be near-abandoned, down at the heels and almost completely devoid of anything resembling facilities. Check-in consisted of walking up to a stand, showing our names and being given a colored sticky to affix to our clothes. We sat on a tilted plastic bench, eyed an unattended and derelict-looking X-ray machine, and attempted to read our books. We had a three hour wait. I finally managed to buy a couple tiny bags of cashews and a bottle of warm water from a woman tending a small stand. Lunch was served! After some other passengers filtered in and milled around the X-ray machine, we approached and were told that we could enter the gate area. Our luggage was cranked through the X-ray machine, we received cursory scans and were then in the post-screening gate area. There was absolutely nothing there, just some rows of plastic seats and an immense old-fashioned scale that looked like it dated from the 1920s. The room slowly filled up with a mix of foreign travelers and folks from Myanmar. (I’m not sure what you call people from Myanmar – Myanmartians, perhaps?)

Then - a flight was announced! Some ancient speakers made scratchy noises incomprehensible in any language and a gentleman wearing a Yangon Air shirt and a longhi walked back and forth in front of the crowd with a small hand-held sign with the airline and flight number printed on it. Half the waiting crowd lined up and filtered out. Forty-five minutes later it was our turn; more scratchy noises heralded a gentleman with a sign that had our flight number and airline name. We grabbed our luggage and headed for the door to the runway. We were on our way to Mandalay!

WDC
Destination Expert
for Buenos Aires
Level Contributor
4,290 posts
61 reviews
Save Reply
3. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

Information filled, funny and interesting TR - as has come to be expected of your (and DH's) world travels, DL.

I look forward to more.....

Warks.England
Destination Expert
for Myanmar, Yangon (Rangoon), Ngapali, Tossa de Mar
Level Contributor
15,174 posts
368 reviews
Save Reply
4. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

dl

Most people in Myanmar (especially the Burmans) still refer to themselves as Burmese. I have never heard any other expression

and

did you read the Top Question thread on Yangon airport-Arrivals and Departures before you arrived,it would have alleviated the hassle of transferring between terminals and given you a good idea of what to expect.

Do keep posting,and submitting reviews. Things change so quickly in Myanmar (and for the Myanmartians !!) and up to date information is eagerly sort here on TA.

thanks again

SS

dl
Washington, DC
Level Contributor
1,103 posts
109 reviews
Save Reply
5. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

I am confused. How would reading the thread alleviate the hassle of going from the international to domestic terminal? Was there a way to do the transfer that we missed?

dl
Washington, DC
Level Contributor
1,103 posts
109 reviews
Save Reply
6. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

The Mandalay airport is new and some distance from town. We’d arranged for an airport transfer with Santa Maria. Our Santa Maria driver was Thet Now, a nice soft-spoken man who spoke minimal English, but usually chose to remain silent. It was a long (and silent) drive on a near-empty expressway through a desiccated landscape to arrive at the seemingly endless city. At first impression, Mandalay is a hard city to like, hot, noisy, hazy and dusty with air redolent of diesel fumes and wood smoke. We were arriving mid-afternoon and hadn’t planned any sightseeing that day, so Thet Now took us directly to our hotel, the Rupar Mandalay Resort.

The Rupar Mandalay was spectacular – luxurious, relatively new teak buildings, beautiful grounds, a nice pool, spacious rooms and superb, helpful staff. We were exhausted – we’d gotten up at 4:00 a.m. for our initial flight from Bangkok to Yangon – and I promptly threw myself into our wonderful king-size bed for a long nap. YT hit the spa to take advantage of the free foot massage and to explore other spa possibilities. Later, we availed ourselves of the free happy hour cocktail, eavesdropped on fellow travelers’ conversations and had dinner in. Our meal, from a mixed western/Asian menu, was delicious, as was the sumptuous breakfast buffet the following morning. (I had slowly developed affection for papaya, particular papaya with a little lime juice squeezed on it.) Indeed, we were destined to eat at the Rupar Mandalay every night we stayed there, due to both inertia and the fact that the Rupar Mandalar is in a suburb of Mandalay, with no other restaurants within walking distance.

A little before nine the next morning, Thet Now arrived to take us on our scheduled tour of Mandalay sights. We began with the teak monastery (Shwe In Bin Kyaung). [Note: When we arrived at the Teak Monastery, we bought two 10 U$D Mandalay Archeological Zone tickets, which are good for a week. If one is so inclined, Lonely Planet’s Myanmar book has a section advising how to visit Mandalay sights without paying the ticket price; given Myanmar’s poverty, I personally consider that kind of cost-cutting churlish.] The Teak Monastery is about 120 years old. The exterior, both the roof and parts of the walls, is covered with sometimes elaborate teak carvings. The interior is beautiful and high-ceilinged, with much of the wood covered with a faded gold paint that gives it a subdued feeling. I particularly enjoyed some of the simpler carvings on the exterior walls and doors, which depicted scenes from everyday life. Out of everything we saw in Mandalay city, this monastery was our favorite.

Next up was “The World’s Largest Book,” the grounds of the 19th Century Kuthodaw Paya and the adjacent Sandamuni Paya. The Kuthodaw Paya is a large white and gold temple surrounded by small stupas covering engraved marble tablets of Buddhist scripture. The Sandamuni Paya contains more stupas containing more slabs offering commentary on the Kuthodaw Paya scripture. I must be spiritually deficit as I found the “Book” part dull and repetitive. However, the central golden stupa was gorgeous and I was fascinated by the shifting neon halo behind a Buddha statue. The grounds of both temples (aside from the repetitive book stupas) were beautiful, golden and tiled. Next we went to Mahamuni Paya, home of a bulbous Buddha where the faithful apply layers gold leaf to statue, resulting in a somewhat lumpy, misshapen appearance. Fortunately for the Buddha’s princely good looks, the gold leaf was applied only to the statue’s torso. Women aren’t allowed to apply gold leaf, but instead view its application remotely via what we dubbed a Buddha-cam.

After that, perhaps sensing that we had overdosed on Buddha-related stuff (“stupa-fied”), Thet Now took us to a craft shop – mostly selling puppets and wood-carvings - that we were in and out of in ten minutes. Then we went to a silk weaving outlet where we arrived immediately after a French tour bus. The store was impassable; we couldn’t even approach the scarf displays. We had earlier passed on a gold-pounding atelier altogether. After a brief shopping excursion, we were on to the Mandalay Palace. The Mandalay Palace is inside the moated and walled Mandalay Fort. The notorious army of Myanmar occupies most of the fort. Entry to the old fort is through a bridge and gate on the east-facing side. After a checkpoint (“no camera, no camera” advised Thet Now in one his longer orations), Thet Now drove us to the Palace, which is the only area within the fort open to foreigners. The Palace is a series of teak buildings and pagodas that had been completely – and poorly – restored in the 1990s. Other than one oddly shaped building and the external ladders on the upper stories of some pagodas, we found the Palace uninteresting.

By now it was early afternoon. As is our habit, we’d filled up at breakfast and had skipped lunch. Thet Now took us down to the river once known as the Irrawaddy and now renamed the “Ayeyarwady.” We caught a riverboat upstream to Mingun while Thet Now went off, presumably to a late lunch. It was cool and pleasant on the river; we lounged in two chairs as the boat struggled against the current. It deposited us on the steep bank near Mingun and we pulled ourselves up to the riverside town. Most of the tourists had come in the morning on the public ferry and we now had the town pretty much to ourselves. We acquired a self-appointed guide, Ton Ton (pronounced “tawn tawn”) who spoke excellent English. He took us around the various sites: A large Buddha footprint, the world’s largest stupa base (Mingun Paya) and the world’s largest working bell (the Mingun Bell). (Mingun does big.) The stupa base was made of brick and had suffered extensive earthquake damage, but its sheer immensity was stunning. It would have been the world’s largest stupa if completed, but work had been discontinued after thirty years. I cannot find any definitive estimate of its size, but I’d guess it is about 40 meters in height and perhaps 120 meters in length. A larger area, surrounded by a low wall, adds to its apparent size. We circled the entire building, stunned by its size.

The bell was fascinating. One can stand inside the bell while someone rings it from outside with a large wooden stave. Contrary to expectation, it’s not particularly loud inside when the big bell is rung. From the Mingun Bell we walked to the Hsinbyume Paya, which, in my opinion, was the single most beautiful temple we saw in Burma. It’s all white and surrounded by seven terraces that are supposed to represent mountain ranges; however, the waviness on the terraces reminded me more of ocean than of mountains. YT thought it looked like a giant wedding cake. Overall, we preferred Mingun to anything else we saw in the Mandalay area. Perhaps this was due to the fact that it was empty and we enjoyed a very relaxing boat ride and stroll around the village. We also saw our first Aung San Suu Kyi portrait in the Mingun market – her face was to reappear on photographs and on t-shirts for the remainder of our trip to Myanmar.

We had a minor contremps while returning to the boat. I was planning to tip Ton Ton 5000 kyat – about $5 US, the equivalent of day’s wages in Myanmar – for his hour of help, when he demanded $10 US, which we viewed as excessive. He insisted he needed that much money to “buy a textbook.” Moreover, I was only carrying kyat, not dollars. Ton Ton refused kyat in any amount and demanded dollars. This started some back and forth, with the end result that that YT ended up giving him 300 baht – Ton Ton accepted Thai currency in a pinch – and he stalked off proclaiming that he had to find some other travelers. Usually, we try to negotiate stuff like this in advance, but he had been so solicitous and friendly that we hadn’t this time. Our mistake.

We managed to find our boat – I’d taken a photograph when we left it – and proceeded back down river. The trip back with the current was speedy; it only took about half an hour. We found Thet Now without difficulty and returned to our hotel. We were beat. We again ate at our hotel – it made sense given our exhaustion, the Rupar Mandalay’s relative remoteness, the hassle of getting into town and, perhaps above all, the coupons for a tasty free cocktail. The food was again excellent although it was probably more Thai than Burmese.

The next morning, per our agreement with Santa Maria, Thet Now showed up with a guide – a lovely young woman whose name sounded something like “Eat Mo.” We were scheduled to visit Saigang and Amarapura. Unfortunately, EM’s English was only a little better than Thet Now’s. She was, however, more given to explanation since she was a guide – Thet Now’s approach had been to pull up to a sight, tersely announce its name and indicate where he’d be waiting. (He’s a driver though, not a guide.) We began with a visit to the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery in Amarapura, pausing along the way to watch a line of tricked-out trucks with immense sound systems. EM explained this an offering to Buddha that took place on a monthly basis. The items affixed to the trucks (brooms, bowls, pillows, baskets, no clothing but pretty much any other household items) were festively arranged.

Maha Ganayon Kyaung was crowded with young monks and foreign tourists. The young monks were playfully assembling into a long line that would receive alms (food) from the devout and then terminate in a large food station outside a dining hall where they would have their second and final meal of the day. The tourists photographed the assembly of the monastic line; some also positioned themselves to give alms. I took some nice photographs of monastic laundry drying, the monastery buildings, the tourists and the assembling novice monks before the procession started. After the procession, we stopped briefly by a beautiful white lakeside temple (I didn’t note down the name) and then proceeded to the U Bein Bridge, a long teak bridge that spans Taungthaman Lake. Since we were visiting in the January dry season and the lake was low, much of the bridge was currently spanning vegetable plots. It had an oddly elevated appearance since the wood (I assume teak) flooring attached to the teak supporting pillars was five or more meters above the fields. Perhaps the most intriguing element about the bridge was its sheer immensity; it’s about a kilometer and a half long. We walked out a ways. Despite a large number of tourists, it’s a working bridge. People were going both ways, many carrying baskets of produce. There was a colorful boat rental section near the foot of the bridge on a muddy section of the western shore of the lake. Some tourists had hired boats and boatmen and were floating serenely on the lake. In other boats, the owners were napping. It was a memorable scene.

Next we crossed the Ayeyarwady River on a motor bridge and proceeded to Sagaing and the temples on Sagaing Hill, Soon U Ponya Shin Paya and Umin Thounzeh. Soon U Ponya Shin Paya is a large temple complex with a huge gilded stupa, superb colorful tilework and fantastic views of the Ayeyarwady. Umin Thounzeh (the “thirty caves” pagoda) was equally impressive, a curved green and gold colonnade containing 45 images of a seated Buddha. (We didn’t see any caves.) Both Soon U Ponya Shin Paya and Umin Thounzeh are highly recommended; they are nothing short of fabulous. For lunch we stopped at what looked like a traditional stop for all tourists. We didn’t note the name of the place. After lunch, we returned to our hotel mid-afternoon, napped and then packed. We were going on the road with Thet Now the next day.

Warks.England
Destination Expert
for Myanmar, Yangon (Rangoon), Ngapali, Tossa de Mar
Level Contributor
15,174 posts
368 reviews
Save Reply
7. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

Great detail,I am really looking forward to future installments.

SS

WDC
Destination Expert
for Buenos Aires
Level Contributor
4,290 posts
61 reviews
Save Reply
8. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

Yes indeed; great detail and great sense of it all, so good overview for those of us who have not yet made to this appealing sounding part of the world. Thank you DL for bringing it to us.

dl
Washington, DC
Level Contributor
1,103 posts
109 reviews
Save Reply
9. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

Thanks, Marnie & silverswimmer

On the Road & Hill Country -Pyin OO Lwin & Hsipaw

The next morning, we got up and took advantage of the early morning wifi at the Rupar Mandalar and then had our last breakfast (for now) at their wonderful breakfast buffet. Then we loaded up Phet Naung’s car and headed out. The first half hour or so was through the outskirts of Mandalay. Then we passed some brilliant green fields and began heading up into the hills. Looking back, we could see only a haze over the plain on which Mandalay sat. Traffic was heavy. And it was predominantly large trucks. Phet Naung’s car – as did most cars in Myanmar – had the steering wheel on the right despite the fact the country drove on the right. This made for some nerve-wracking moments when we attempted to pass large trucks; by the time Phet Naung could see if the road was clear, half the car was over in the incoming lane. Fortunately, most truck drivers would indicate by turn signal if the road ahead were clear.

We made it to Pyin Oo Lwin in about two hours. En route, just outside of town, Phet Naung stopped at a large white and gold temple, the Maha Ant Htoo Kan Thar Pagoda. I explored it on my own while YT remained in the car. I made the faux pas of placing my foot on the first step on the stairway into the elevated complex to remove my footwear and was promptly lectured in Burmese by some exiting devotees. The temple itself was beautiful and had nice views from the surrounding terrace. Afterwards, we checked out some non-descript colonial era buildings and the Purcell clock tower in town. Then we dropped our luggage off at our dark cold room at the Hotel Pyin Oo Lwin and then Phet Naung drove us to the nearby Kandawygi Gardens. The Kandawygi Gardens are some very large botanical gardens situated around Kandawygi, a small lake. It was Sunday and the gardens were crowded. We strolled around the lake, exchanging “mingalaba”s with groups of young people; it seemed at times if we were the Gardens’ major attraction. After some wandering, we sought out the orchid gardens and spent some time there checking out the numerous varieties of blooming orchids. Then we made our way back across a footbridge over the lake to the parking area and Phet Naung, and he dropped us off back at our hotel.

Later that evening, we took a car through the chilly evening – who knew the tropics could be so cold? - to The Club Terrace restaurant for dinner. The food was excellent - and probably the first real Burmese food we’d had since arriving in the country. We spoke to a pair of British travelers at the next table; they were also bound to Hsipaw the next day, although they were going by train. After dinner, as we waited for the return taxi, we spoke at some length to the owner of The Club Terrace. During our time in Myanmar, we had avoided any political discussions in order to prevent any difficulties for either ourselves or for the people to whom we talked. However, it was apparent that Myanmar citizens – whatever their political views – welcomed Myanmar’s ongoing opening to the world and the opportunities it represented. Those opportunities might be coming a little too fast though. The owner indicated that Myanmar’s infrastructure was not able to handle the large numbers of tourists that had begun visiting the country; even his restaurant was overwhelmed at times, although, fortunately for us, this evening was not one of the times. Then the cab came and we returned to our hotel with a decidedly novice driver and his teacher. His excitable driving served to take our minds off the frigid temperature. The driver was quite pleased with himself that he made it safely to our destination

The next morning, after a disappointing breakfast buffet, we set out for Hsipaw. It was about a three-hour drive that took us, at one point, on a series of switchbacks that were blocked by a combination of roadwork and large trucks jockeying back and forth to negotiate the sharp turns. Once, in the distance, we spied the Gokteik Viaduct, the long railroad bridge spanning the enormous Gokteik Gorge. (When we were planning the trip, we’d considered taking the train, but had been put off by reports of breakdowns, delays and an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show “No Reservations” filmed on the train that showed Bourdain lurching in a 120 degree arc from side-to-side in an antique railcar.)

Our first impression of Hsipaw – later changed – was of a smaller version of Mandalay – dusty and noisy. Our destination was the Mr. Charles Guest House, a pleasant trio of buildings on a side street off the main road. We bade a temporary good-bye to Phet Naung and checked in. Mr. Charles Guest House has a range of accommodations – everything thing from shared rooms without showers and toilets to large new rooms with king beds, bathrooms and balconies. In addition to providing probably the best lodging in town, Mr. Charles seems to have cornered the market on tourist services. Mr. Charles provides tour services (half day walking trips, boat trips, full day walking trips, over-night trekking and sight-seeing by car or bike). Should you injure yourself trekking, Mr. Charles offers a clinic. Should you be thirsty from when you return from your trek, Mr. Charles also offers several varieties of cold beer. Mr. Charles can also arrange onward transportation to Lashio or back to Mandalay by either car or shared mini-van. Indeed, Mr. Charles offers everything except meals - we went out to a late lunch at the restaurant San around the corner and down the street for some fried rice, Shan noodles and a coca-cola and then wandered the town a bit. On our return, we arranged for a boat trip for the next day that would take us up river an hour to a hike to and from a monastery, and then to a small Shan village. We spent the rest of the afternoon in our room, washing articles of clothing, updating trip notes and reading. Later that evening we walked to the River Club for dinner. The food was excellent, the seating by the river superb. Nearby, already eating, were the British couple that we’d met the prior evening at the Club Terrace showed up. They’d enjoyed their train ride - and had arrived without delay. We talked a bit. They were spending one more night in night in Hsipaw before undertaking a trek that would take them to Inle Lake. I admired their ambition. Shortly after 6:00 a monk at the enormous Buddhist temple two blocks from our hotel had begun a long and amplified sermon. It was to last for three and half hours. I’d noticed an enlarged photograph of the monk at the temple earlier that day. We had arrived in Hsipaw just in time for a loud two-day Buddhist “revival meeting” (actually a fund-raising drive for temple construction). We greeted the nine-thirty p.m. ending with joy; the man didn’t have the most pleasant of voices.

It’s foggy in the mornings in the hills near Hsipaw. We could barely see the buildings across the street from Mr. Charles’. The breakfast buffet at Mr. Charles’ proved interesting. One of the three-building complex served effectively as a backpacker hostel; the backpackers, most of whom were going to spend the day trekking, used the breakfast buffet to carbo-load and put away an amazing amount of food. The resulting scrum had wiped out of a lot of the fruit and almost all of the western breakfast items, including toast and pancakes, by the time we arrived. Fortunately, the backpackers were rather parochial in their food tastes and there was plenty of a delicious Shan-style noodle soup left. And, most importantly, there was coffee.

The morning boat trip proved to be an instant relief from the dust of central Hsipaw. The boat departed around nine, after most of the mists had cleared on the river. We were in a long narrow boat with a pilot and an English-speaking guide. As we proceeded upriver, we passed women washing clothing on the banks, water buffalo, drying corn, bamboo rafts floating downstream and other boats, some with European travelers. Eventually, we pulled ashore on the far bank and began our walk to the Lonyon, a Tai-Shan monastery. We passed through forest and then carefully-tended fields of eggplant, papaya trees and low rows of pineapple plants. After half an hour or forty five minutes, we arrived at the monastery complex – mostly deep red wooden buildings with pale green shutters, a photographer’s delight in the morning sun. The complex was filled with frolicking novice monks – I took a photo of several of them grinning at something that one of them had downloaded on an electronic device. Another touring couple – German or Austrian – had arrived at the same time we did and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the young monks. I took some pictures of the interior and the robed Buddha surrounded by Buddhist flags.

Then we returned to our boat and continued up river until we arrived at the confluence of two rivers just after a series of class two rapids. We passed on the chance of swimming, admired the mildly turbulent view, turned around and headed back down river. After a while, on the other bank past the monastery landing, we pulled ashore. We had a brief tour of the tidy village of stilt houses largely made of teak with tin roofs. Some houses were partially teak with woven mat walls. Many of the houses had small adjacent houses for prayer. The walks between the houses were of pounded earth; many of the walks had signs indicating that buffalo were not allowed on the walk. Our guide indicated that this was because the people living there did not want the animals befouling their streets. I was struck by the overall tidiness, the sense of order and of industry. Everything – drying corn, stacked firewood, pots, the baskets and hats hanging on walls – seemed arranged for maximum tidiness and utility: sheng fui on a communal level. We stopped by a low house of woven mats that also functioned as a train station and a snack shop - the tracks of a narrow gauge railway ran about three or four meters away from the storefront and its lone waiting bench. If our guide hadn’t told us, we never would have identified the house/store with its hanging bundles of snacks in plastic bags as a train station. After our brief tour, we headed back towards our boat. On the way our guide pointed out a loofah vine with large nearly mature gourds. When picked young, the gourds are edible; when picked mature the fibrous gourds are used as scrubbing sponges. (I’d always thought loofahs came from sea creatures!) By the time we again set out downriver, the cool foggy morning had become a rather hot early afternoon. After arriving back in town we stopped by the Pontoon Café for coffee and guacamole (!) that would have seemed entirely Mexican were it not for the black sesame seeds on top and the accompanying fried tofu strips. We returned to our room for some reading and a nap.

That evening, we made our way out to a Chinese restaurant run by the memorably named “Mister Food.” There, we ran into the intrepid trekking British couple for the third night running! They must have thought we were stalking them. They had spent that day doing what we had planned to do the next – visiting the “Shan Palace,” a noodle factory, “Little Bagan” and Mrs. Popcorn’s garden restaurant. The highlight of the meal came when one of them observed that visiting the noodle factory had put them off noodles for life – this as I was digging into a mound of stir-fried noodles with pork! I promptly ordered another beer. We returned to our room with day two of the itinerant monk carrying on at the immense temple. Again, he stopped promptly at nine-thirty p.m.

The next day, we arrived at the breakfast bar a little early, had pancakes before our soup, waited until the fog lifted and had a lovely morning walk. Perhaps mercifully, we couldn’t find the infamous noodle factory. We did find the Shan Palace and had an interesting half hour talking to “Fern” (I’ve spelled the name spelled phonetically) regarding the last half-century of Burmese history. Fern was the wife of Mr. Donald. Mr. Donald was the nephew (son of the younger brother) of the last Shan prince of Hsipaw. During the March, 1962, military coup that effectively ended democratic rule in Burma for over fifty years, the last Shan prince, or “Sao,” Sao Kya Seng, had been detained by the military and never seen again. (There is a book-length, albeit poorly written, account of these events by the last Sao’s Austrian wife, Inge Sargent, in her autobiographical book “Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess.”) Fern and Mr. Donald now live separately in two houses that had once belonged to the Sao’s family; neither can leave either house at length for fear that the military will claim the house had been abandoned and arbitrarily seize it. The story was heart-rending, as was the situation of this charming lady living in the under-maintained and decidedly modest “palace” that was perhaps as large as a home in a suburb in Europe or the US. Fern does not have wifi and is dependent on visitors for information as well as income. If you go to the Shan Palace, please make a donation and bring some English-language books! The Shan Palace is on a largish, somewhat overgrown plot of land. Don’t miss visiting the prayer house nearby on the grounds; it’s a sadly neglected monument to faith.

After the Shan Palace, we continued on to “Little Bagan,” which lies out of town past the turn to the Shan Palace. “Make a left by the big tamarind tree,” we were advised; fortunately, although unable to tell tamarind from teak, we do know large trees and made the correct turn. You go by “Mrs. Popcorn’s” on the way to Little Bagan; we poked our head in, indicated that we’d be back for lunch and continued down the road to Little Bagan. I couldn’t get the James Brown song “Mother Popcorn” out of my mind. Little Bagan is a series of stupa fields on either side of the road. Many are in a state of ruin, overgrown with plants, some with trees growing out of the middle and covering the outside with roots. There are a few that are either new or have been restored. Some are still used for worship; they are statues of Buddha inside. After making the rounds of Little Bagan we headed back to Mrs. Popcorn’s for lunch. There had once been a Mr. Popcorn, who had in fact manufactured popcorn. He was deceased and Mrs. Popcorn no longer made popcorn, but instead served lunch to people passing by to Little Bagan. We were shown to a shaded table by her daughter, “Lady Popcorn.” We eventually switched to another table to avoid some persistent insect attacks. Our lunch consisted of cold cauliflower salad, chicken curry, cabbage soup and some curiously potent beans. The portion was too large for us to finish; we concentrated on the curry and the cauliflower salad and I had some of the beans. The setting was particularly nice: we had reclining chairs and a shaded table with a nice view of a beautiful manicured countryside on a warm bucolic noon day on the other side of the world from our polar-vortexed home.

We slowly walked back to Mr. Charles’ – I kept wanting to call it Mr. Charlie’s – to avoid the encroaching mid-day heat. I rummaged around their bookshelves and borrowed a copy of Colin Cotterill’s Laotian murder mystery “Disco for the Dead.” We skipped dinner – whatever hunger we had wasn’t enough to make us brave the inconstant sidewalks and the abrupt drop-offs into murky ditches. We spent our last hours updating our notes and packing our suitcases. We were leaving the hill country the next morning.

Nova Scotia
Destination Expert
for Nova Scotia
Level Contributor
11,266 posts
166 reviews
Save Reply
10. Re: A Trip to a Country in Transition - Myanmar

What a wonderful adventure you had. Thank you so much for sharing it. We hope to get to stay with Mr. Charles!