MYANMAR TRIP REPORT
I wanted to do a write up of my recent trip in the hope it will be helpful to future travellers to Myanmar. I used Tripadvisor heavily for planning our trip so only right to return the favour. Summary at the beginning and more detail on locations and where we stayed below with links to my reviews of accommodation on TripAdvisor.
VISITED: Mandalay -> Bagan -> Inle Lake -> Ngapali Beach -> Yangon
TRIP STYLE: 2 mid twenties Londoners DIYing it – higher end semi-experienced backpackers!
DURATION: 14 nights – we felt we had the perfect length stay and right amount in the places we visited
PRICE RANGE: Budget hotels and guesthouses
SPENDING MONEY USED: $60 average a day (between 2 of us) on food, entry fees, tours, souvenirs . Had budgeted for $80 a day.
OTHER COSTS: 2 internal flights, one bus, one boat ($315 pp paid to One Stop Travel on arrival), hotels - paid for on Agoda and 1 hotel to One Stop – ranging from £20-£70 a night. Air Asia flights into Mandalay/out of Yangon were approximately £200 in total for the 2 of us. Flight from London to Bangkok via EVA Air £580 pp. We also took Malaria pills - we got some non branded ones that were exactly the same ingredients as Malarone, at around £38 pp for the trip (we based it on Bagan, Inle and Ngapali being risk areas). We barely got bitten as I was a ninja with using anti-mozzie spray every wear and wearing jeans at night - personally I wouldn't risk not taking the pills, at that price.
PACK MORE: Loose t-shirts that you can get sweaty in and wash as you go, mozzie spray!
PACK LESS: Cardigans/jumpers – February was very hot, even at night! For women don’t bother taking vest tops as you’ll need to cover shoulders - t-shirts are more practical with temple visits. Don’t bother taking trainers or other shoe-like footwear unless you are seriously trekking – I lived in my Havainas and Birkenstocks
BEST BITS: Friendliest people ever, Yummy Shan Noodles, everything cheap cheap cheap!, Beautiful sunsets (U-Bein bridge, Inle Lake, Mandalay Hill), Shwedagon Pagoda
WORST BITS: Traveller’s tummy, 5 hour wait for replacement bus from Bagan to Inle Lake, indifferent food, Slow internet
OVERALL KEY THOUGHTS:
- People were nicest in all of Southeast Asia, charming, want to talk to you, helpful
- Beautiful. Just amazing. If you like photography, people watching, natural beauty, history and religion you will love it.
- Guide or no guide? We made our own itinerary using TA and getting feedback from Silverswimmer on length and places to go. We then used TA for researching hotels, Agoda for booking hotels, and One Stop agency for booking flights, bus, boat and getting a cheaper rate on one hotel. Way cheaper to get flights with One Stop than on the airlines’ own websites. We booked a 1 day guide in Bagan (Zaw, via Thein Than), and used One Stop for a 1 day trip around old cities in Mandalay – otherwise DIYed it.
- The money thing really needn’t be a stress. Simply order money in advance on Fair FX – crisp dollar bills delivered the next day. Carried them in a book the whole time and in my long purse. We never used cash points, but we took more money than we needed. People did check bills for tears, but not as much as we thought they would.
- We changed dollars to kyats twice - $300 at Mandalay Airport (rate was around 985 which seemed to be the best we saw), and again another $300 at a bank on Inle Lake (we were desperate and running low on kyats – rate wasn’t awful though). We used dollars to pay guides, entry fees and took home the rest – all our hotels were paid for already.
- Its not as touristy or busy as people made out – if you think this is a touristy place you need to get real. Bagan had the most 60-something Western tour groups, but a lot of Burmese groups too. Nyuang Shwe felt the most ‘young’ and backpacker (all the retired people groups on the Lake). Yangon you didn’t notice tourists, same with Mandalay apart from at the main sites (this is because there isn’t much to do, we kept seeing the same few people all the time!). Ngapali there were only tourists – but so few of them it wasn’t an issue.
- If you only like partying on holiday you should forget it –but we live in London so it was actually a nice escape. We probably drank a bottle of beer a day (too hot, not in the culture) less than we do at home, we ate less, we actually lost weight and came home feeling healthier despite our 5 day tummy bug (didn’t affect our trip too much)
- Internet is pretty shoddy but is available in all the hotels
- 'Airports' are no really basic, no more than bus stations. An amusing experience if not slightly nervewracking. Least there's no hanging about!
DRESS ADVICE (for girls)
I was worried about packing the right things considering the religious dress code of no shoulders, no shorts but also wanting to enjoy a welcome sunny break from dreary British winter! In the end I found myself wearing loose harem style trousers with t-shirts/vest tops (carrying with a shawl for shoulders in my bag) in Bagan and Mandalay due to the amount of pagodas visited in these locations. In the evenings I switched to jeans with a top to hide from mozzies. In Inle, Yangon and in Ngapali I wore thigh length shorts and dresses in the day time and saw a few younger groups dressing similarly. It was my choice to risk being rude or sticking out, but I never encountered anymore looks than normal (just being Western is a novelty) - but if you are worried about being disrespectful then stick to trousers to be safe.
We traveled for 2 weeks in Myanmar (maximum we could both get off work), coming in and out of the country via Bangkok and Air Asia.
FULL TRIP DETAILS:
MANDALAY: Much better than we expected, perhaps because this was the first place we visited. I wouldn’t describe it as a City, more like the world’s biggest village. If anyone’s driven through slightly 70s looking low-rise towns in Greece or the south of Spain this would describe it well. I would definitely recommend the order we did our trip in – North to South. We liked Mandalay much more than we expected, but perhaps if it had been the last place we’d seen it wouldn’t have been quite so special.
STAY AT: We stayed at Smart Hotel and they were the nicest hotel staff we encountered in our entire trip. We were met by the owner on arrival and given juice and cold towels as we had walked to the hotel from the Air Asia shuttle bus drop off rather than paying for a taxi (was only a 5 minute walk). Hotel had the fastest internet we experienced in the whole trip, and whilst a little dated the rooms were clean. Breakfast dull but filling and staff charming. Hotel review here: tripadvisor.co.uk/…REVIEWS
DO: We knew we wanted to visit the old cities as we’d heard Mandalay wasn’t very interesting. I’d enquired about motorbike tours via Tripadvisor recommendations but they hadn’t got back in time and to be honest I’m quite glad we didn’t due to the heat and distance. We ended up asking One Stop’s Mandalay rep if they would take us around for the day and we negotiated 45000 kyat for a air con van and driver (his English was pretty good for a driver! Glad we didn’t waste money getting a guide) to the wooden monastery in Mandalay (worth it), Saigang Hill (worth it but not amazing), U Bein Bridge (really good – ignore comments about tourists – what did you expect?! It to be empty?! We got there early around 3.30pm and went on the bridge then, and enjoyed a beer before watching sunset from a boat we hired (bit of a rip off at 7000k but was worth doing). We also saw a few other lesser known sights on the way such as a Monk University and some colonial houses along the river.
We also spent an evening up Mandalay Hill – our hotel charged us 15000 for a taxi which in hindsight was cheekily expensive but he did wait for us and ferried us to and from our hotel.
EAT: We followed Trip Advisor’s recommendation of eating at Aye Mit Tar. A few Westeners but lots of locals. DON’T ORDER TOO MUCH! We ordered 2 veggie dishes and a meat one and a bunch of sides came with it (apparently very traditional, although we didn’t experience this again throughout our trip). The creamed corn was lovely and a tomato relish, which you dipped raw veggies into. Was probably the most Burmese place we ate at. We could barely eat what we had ordered as they kept topping us up! With beers, 9000k.
BAGAN: Bagan is totally worth it, but it wasn’t my favourite place on the trip. Don’t get me wrong, seeing the pagodas was amazing, but it was the hottest place on our trip and so dusty – plus we did get upset tummies so admittedly this may have played a big part. Not to be missed, but certainly oppressively hot in February.
We got the Shwe Keinerry boat down the river to Bagan. Got a bit boring by mid afternoon and insanely hot even in the shade, but was a nice chill-out day, but better than a bus – but skip lunch/bring your own – we can’t be sure but we got tummy upsets for a few days after we ate boring stir fry on the boat.
Got a trishaw from the dock at Nyuang U – 5000 for the 2 of us if I remember, was a novelty way to get to our hotel.
On our first day we hired e-bikes and DIYed it, but given the oppressive heat we didn’t go very far, but did find some quieter sites where there was absolutely no-one and we had a private view of the entire plain! E-bikes were fun but hairaising in the sand, not for the faint-hearted - lots of skidding around and my boyfriend made some local women laugh by falling off – luckily we were on the sand and weren’t going fast.
Before we left we organized for a 1 day tour with Thein Than through recommendations on Tripadvisor. We paid $80 for a guide, driver and air con van. We were taken to the main busier sites but we were glad we did. Yes there are locals selling wares out the front, but its their country and they are entitled to make money from tourism – they really don’t hassle that much and it feels mostly geared up for local tourists.
In the end it was Zaw who met us – perhaps Thein Than is trying to get his friend into the guide business, which is fair enough – and he was great. Really good English and explained a lot about Buddism as well as the pagodas visited. We got picked up at 8.30, had lunch at a nice Western friendly place in the middle of the plain (think it was called something Moon) – believe me slightly more ‘upmarket’ (if you can call it that) Westernised Asian food was welcome given our tummy upsets bland other options, before being dropped back for a rest and then afternoon and sunset viewings.
STAY AT: My review of Thante Hotel is here: tripadvisor.co.uk/…REVIEWS All in all we liked it, wasn’t the best, wasn’t the worst. A nice pool, pretty gardens and decent price, room was clean but dated.
INLE LAKE: The highlight of the trip for me. We stayed 2 nights in Nyuang Shwe and it was a great base. Its $10 per person to enter the area. We travelled there on the bus from Bagan, booking it through One Stop Travel. We had been told the bus was 7 hours but this was far from the truth! In the end a 10 hour bus journey became a 16 hour bus journey – 5 hours in the bus broke down and we needed a replacement, which took 5 hours to come from Inle. Luckily we were near a café, but it was pretty bad being told ‘2 hours’ ‘3 hours’ ’15 minutes more!’ all the time. In hindsight it was part of the experience (scenery from the bus was great, nice to chill and just listen to music and take in the scnenery – especially the 5-7 hour bit around winding mountains pre Kalaw) but at the time we were pretty grouchy and arriving at 10pm after repeated breakdowns, not having eaten all day was a bore. Luckily Aquarius Inn was cosy and clean so made up for the hell journey. Locals on the bus super friendly, handing out cake and telling us where to get off after a mild panic we were on the wrong bus and would it stop in Nyuang Shwe that late at night, how would we get to the hotel? The ever enterprising Burmese were there with a tuk tuk style bus ready to drop us all off for a small fee.
The first day we happened to speak to a lady in our guesthouse (we thought she worked there!) who it turned out ran a local cooking school ('Sue' from Bamboo Princess Travel Services bamboo email@example.com if you are interested) – we organized for a friend of hers to take us around the lake for a day (although we could have made our way to the jetty and found anyone to be honest. Think it was around 15k for the day) We were promised non touristy stuff, but in reality it was lots of visits to goldsmiths stores and boat making as well as the floating villages and fisherman – don’t get too hung up on this though, as it seems to be part of the day and without it, you’d be at a loose end. We finished up our itinerary pretty early and so negotiated to be taken to a bar in a small village to wind down the afternoon before sunset. I’d heard from a friend the second lake is better, but it’s a 5 hour bus ride so unless you’re at Inle for several days don’t bother.
Sunset on the lake was amazing – some of our best photography of the trip.
Second day we wandered around the village, had tea and coconut pastries at the muslim tea shop. We chilled out as were still feeling a bit sensitive with our tummy upsets, before hiring bikes for 1000k each and going to the vineyard. About a 20 minute pleasant ride. Wine wasn’t great, a bit like those big brand winemakers like Blossom Hill, but view was nice late afternoon. We didn’t fancy activities like canoeing and not enough time to visit the 2nd lake, so this was a nice alternative activity.
EAT: On the first evening we had amazing Shan Noodles from a little shop called Inn Thu Kar or Bar– it was 60p equivalent for a big bowl of noodle soup with chicken and mustard greens – delicious. We had cheap but amazing cocktails at a bar nearby too (sorry can’t remember the name, but its not hard to find nice places). The second night we went to Live Dim Sum House – it was a really nice vibe, friendly staff, Dim Sum was a bit overcooked but would forgive this for the atmosphere and the chance to have a break from Burmese food.
STAY AT: Aquarius Inn – read my review here: tripadvisor.co.uk/…REVIEWS Best hotel we stayed at in Myanmar
Well worth it. Pricey to fly to Thandwe for budget travellers, but worth a splurge. 4 days here was paradise – Caribbean weather and views at a fraction of the cost and so quiet.
We didn’t do any activities – but you could do day trips to the island for snorkeling. We just sunbathed, read and swam and enjoyed cocktails and fresh fish at the beach bars every night. All hotels seem to pick you up with their bus, and collect your bags for you at the airport.
EAT: Our hotel was in the middle of the beach (the beach is cut off it seems half way down, with sections, so we were in the middle and there weren’t loads of hotels nearby (maybe 2 or 3) – our hotel was right next to about half a dozen restaurants, bars, massage stations on the beach – with even more along the road (we didn’t even venture out this side of the hotel). We enjoyed the one with the ‘green umbrellas’, the one closest to the hotel and the one at the end (Romantic Beach or something like that – great massive cocktails in coconuts) Tuna steak at 2500k ($2.50) and massive prawns, tempura etc.
STAY: Our review of Thande Beach is here: tripadvisor.co.uk/…REVIEWS We loved it. Was nervous at first as were in the cheaper rooms at the back of the hotel and there were mixed reviews, but it was perfect. After researching, this seemed like the best bet for a cost conscious traveller who prides location and cleanliness.
YANGON: A flying 2 night visit – personally I don’t think you need more, but 3 days would allow you to visit Golden Rock which we sacked off as we didn’t fancy spending an entire day on a bus. We grew to like it over the 2 days – at first we weren’t sure, it was dirty, loud and super hot, arriving on a busy Sunday in complete contrast to Ngapali bliss. Again, glad we finished here rather than in Mandalay.
We arrived on Sunday lunchtime and dumped our stuff and with advice from our hotel, set off to walk from far downtown to the market and then on to the Shwedagon Pagoda. We called in a biriyani place that was in Lonely Planet, really lovely and cheap, we shared one veggie between the 2 of us and it was enough to keep going. Bought some laquerwear owls for our friend as a present (think they were 4000k for the 2 if you’re interested), poked about, then walked on up the hill. We arrived early so had a soft drink on a street side café with little plastic furniture, which was setting up for the evening. We went in to Shwedagon around 4.30pm and hung around until around 6.30pm.
The Pagoda s***s on all other pagodas in Myanmar – so go here last! So beautiful and awe inspiring, with more locals than tourists. We spent hours wandering about and chilling. Worth it to stick around until sunset, when the lights come on.
Got a taxi back to the hotel down the hill.
The next day we did the Circular Train late morning – it was definitely worth it. Read my review here for more details: tripadvisor.co.uk/…REVIEWS Good for photography. We then had a drink at the sky bar, followed by lunch (see below). That evening we went to the Strand Bar for a cocktail – there is no happy hour other than Fridays despite what Lonely Planet says! Novelty experience for Brits given the dark wood paneling and snooker table, a few interesting colonial buildings along this road – I foolishly thought this road would overlook the river, but its basically a dockyard with a big busy road so not very scenic, so be aware.
After we went to Zero Zone Rock Restaurant (in LP) – this place would be hipster central in London! On top of an office block, you have to go up some dingy stairs to get there (and go back down in a goods lift), cheapest beer we encountered in all of Myanmar and hilariously bad girls singing, felt like karaoke! Was a great experience out in the open air, very cool, not that busy, lots of drunk locals as well as tourists – fun vibe.
EAT: First night we went out to an insanely expensive ex pats bar in the Lonely Planet book near our hotel, fun for the novelty of chicken wings and calamari but London prices in Myanmar is crazy! Maybe look elsewhere.
The second day for breakfast we went to Lucky 7 Teashop as we wanted to try Mohinga. It was a worthwhile experience! Very cheap breakfast considering it seemed ‘fancy’ and we sat outside in a nice garden area with lots of more well-to-do locals.
For lunch the second day we went to 999 Shan Noodles (to relive our Shan heaven!). We had 2 different noodle dishes, not soups, one with chili oil the other with ‘salad dressing’ – very similar. Not as good as in Inle but still a yummy lunch and cheap. Crazy how Sprites cost as much as the main in most places you go to!
The final night we tried street food on 19th street (Htinn Shuu Myaing to be precise) – it was pretty bad! I feel bad as the family were so sweet, maybe we just picked the bad stuff (gelatinous sausage, chicken ‘bum’) the best was the sweetcorn! Interesting experience though, very buzzy and Bangkok like along alone this road.
STAY: We stayed at Hninn Si Budget Hotel - it was ok, it wasn't anything special, but it was cheap. Review is here: tripadvisor.co.uk/…REVIEWSEdited: 13 April 2014, 20:48