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Trip Report 16 fabulous days in Myanmar

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I travelled in Dec./Jan with my (adult) daughter.The trip was booked with Kyaw Khaing of One Stop Travel (www.onestop-myanmar.com) in Yangon. We were very pleased with his service. He patiently answered all my planning questions, usually by return mail.The cost was very reasonable. I chose to have moderate hotels but, another time, would upgrade a couple of them. Kyaw also kept tabs on us as we travelled through the country, phoning either us or an associate agency at each location. Although my daughter wanted to do some biking, I have not been on a bike in many years, so I booked drivers and guides (in retrospect, too many.)
Some general observations:.
-the people are wonderful...friendly and unfailingly helpful. Many speak some English.
-there are thousands of motorcycles, apparently mostly from from China. A large number are unlicensed , as are the drivers. They are mostly driven by the young.
-the most important part of a driveable car seems to be the horn, which is used constantly
-S Korean culture seems to have a big influence on the youth eg. hairstyles, clothing etc.
-Canada is known for Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne---how disheartening!
-the majority of our guides had university degrees (economics, archeology,law.) but there don't seem to be any jobs
-we saw quite a few large permanent billboards displaying patriotic slogans
-driving on the RH side of the road in a RH drive car (or even a horsecart) is an interesting experience.

We flew AC from Toronto to HK, Thai to BKK and Air Asia to Yangon...overnight in BKK. What a deadly, long trip in economy!! All other flights were on KBZ--attentive service, 2 segments were not full, 2 left early and 1 was late.

Yangon
-1 day at beginning and 1.5 at end of trip.
We were met by guide Myo Ngwe (travel.myo@gmail.com), a driver and Kyaw. Since the $$ exchange was not yet open (opens at 9:30) we were taken to a bank. After all my fretting about finding "perfect" bills they were barely glanced at. I received all brand new 5000 kyat bills. I had been expecting great bundles of old notes. We later exchanged money at a bank and at a travel agency in Mandalay with equal ease. Myo was an excellent guide and his English was very good. As we were tired ,we sort of sleepwalked through the day. It would have been better at the end of the trip. The Shwedagon is indeed beautiful. I was not impressed by the sacred white elephants, chained to their small area of concrete. Other sites were interesting.
Hotel-Panorama. Skip it! The best part about it was the adjacent Ruby Mart dept. store which sells everything, was always very busy and has a coffee/snack bar which was good for people watching.
Restaurants: Feel -very spicy soup for breakfast
Aung Thu Ka--small, all locals, many small dishes of vegetarian (I think!) food
Sakura--lovely view but pricey (4000kyats for a Myanmar beer) I chose it for our last evening because I had read that prices were in US$ and we had very few kyats left. Old info., I guess. The food was good.
Apparently there was someone killed in a bomb explosion on our first day in Yangon. That night there were 2 very loud explosions. I really wondered what we were in for. However they were reported to have been natural gas explosions.

Pindaya
At Heho we were met by guide Ngelay and driver. Although the roads to Pindaya were rough the countryside was very picturesque. the caves and Budhhas were very unique and fascinating. We also saw the papermaking workshop where they use mulberry leaves to make the paper for attractive products
Restaurant ---Green Tea...good food with several vegetarian options in a tranquil setting beside a lake.

NyaungShwe/ Inle Lake
Hotel--Amazing. It was wonderful, from the cool towel and melon juice on arrival to the hot water bootles placed in our beds at night .Service was excellent and always with a smile Our room was on the ground floor overlooking the canal and had a nice porch with comfortable lounge chairs. On NY's Eve they had a free mini-buffet and all guests received a gift. There was also a huge fireworks display and many other NY celebrations in N'shwe.
Breakfasts were good but dinner lacked veg.choices.
Restaurants: Unique--family run, good food, inexpensive, slow service
Golden kite--crowded, mediocre food, terrible service
Uhlapaw noodle---good noodles, inexpensive
Aurora---(best of the bunch)--friendly, family run,inexpensive. excellent curry, "presents" of soup. salad and oranges.

On our first day on the lake we visited Mine Thauk market where we talked to several people and enjoyed sweet tea and pastry. We then walked through the village and "hiked" up to Forest Monastery. It was a lovely, peaceful spot with a superb view of the lake. Next we visited workshops of our choice (couldn't resist a silk and lotus scarf)and had lunch at Ngwe Zwyaw restaurant in another village where we also visited a pagoda. Of course, we took many, many photos of the rowers on the lake and it was a thoroughly enjoyable day .
The next day we went to Taunggyi--nice city. large market, and were supposed to go to Kakku. We cancelled the latter because we were tired and the roads were very rough--probably not our brightest decision! We had lunch at Aythaya winery--lovely deck overlooking vineyards but also a very scummy pool--food was OK, wine not very good and service very,very slow. Upon our return to N'shwe we stopped at the Red Mt, Winery---had a lovely time sipping nice wine and enjoying a beautiful view over the lake.

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    Sankar--Another beautiful day on the lake.(Thank you, Kathie, for your enthusiastic review of this wonderful place!) We picked up our PaO guide, Pe (excellent English,very laid-back, also had an extensive knowledge of native plants) and then stopped at a market to which almost everyone seemed to come by boat. Sankar was quiet and atmospheric with all the stupas. As we walked around we were given wildflowers by the children. We also visited the wooden monestery. Although our guide thought that there were a lot of tourists we saw very few.
    We visited the rice winery, viewing the process and tasting (wow! potent stuff) Lunch was delicious and was served at tables under canopies in the yard. We dined amongst the geese, brightly coloured roosters, puppies and children. Then we walked along a stream where women were doing the laundry and bathing children and young people were swimming. Interesting to note that, at Sankar, the govt(I assume) has built a whole row of western style toilets for tourists. We found the whole day delightful and did not find the 2.5 hr trip each way to be too long as there was so much to see. We finished the day seeing a beautiful sunset over the lake.
    Next AM we were back on the lake again, visiting Indein. Another very atmospheric place but with lots more tourists.
    I loved our time at Inle and wished that we had stayed longer. We really didn't need a guide all the time because, as my daughter pointed out, many of the places that we saw are in the LP book. It was easy, though!

    Mandalay
    Lovely, quite new international terminal but only 1 international flight comes into there. We were met by guide Kyaw Kyaw and driver. For part of the way into Mandalay we travelled on a very new 4 lane, divided highway. Posted speed limit was very high. There were also bicycles, pedestrians and motorcycles using this road. I think that our driver had never had the opportunity to drive so fast so he took full advantage of it. Older car, probably with questionable tires and no seatbelts had me cowering in the backseat. I asked to take the slow route when returning to the airport!
    I found Mandalay to be big, noisy and polluted. The sidewalks are worse than those in Yangon--full of huge holes and, where they are decent, the motorcycles park. We learned, by the end, to just walk on the road and hope for the best.Several times, locals came to our aid when we were trying to cross the streets.
    Hotel: Mandalay City Hotel--pleasant with a nice pool and grounds and obliging staff.It was quite peaceful despite being just off a major street.
    Restaurants: Marie Minn--excellent vegetarian food with reasonable prices
    Chapati stand--chaotic and we got a number of things that we didn't order, couldn't identify, didn't eat and seemed to be charged for.
    Nepali Restaurant-very clean with all veg'n choices and reasonable prices.
    The Moustache Brothers show provided an entertaining evening. We had the hotel order a taxi which would also return us. Lu Maw is the MC and is very sharp. He is able to talk about politics and happenings in the countries of everyone attending the show. This is also interspersed with much denigration of the generals and politics in Myanmar. It is a sort of vaudeville-like show. He appreciates receiving English language newspapers from other countries. After the show they sell their tshirts to raise $$ for aiding political prisoners

    We had a private boat (not necessary) to Mingun and paid our fee at the Paya. My daughter climbed the steps and path at the RH side and said that it involved some almost vertical climbing and jumping over crevices caused by the earthquake. There was an excellent view. There were certainly a lot of vendors at Mingun. I had read that artwork was cheap but watercolour starting prices were $50-150.
    Saigang was much less hectic with beautiful views from the big pagoda.We ate at the Saigang Hill Rest.--tourist prices and unsmiling, perfunctory service.
    We decided not to go to Inwa because we were told that there were no options other than the horsecarts. Possibly this was a mistake.
    Our guide took us to another village where they make pottery from riverbank clay. We walked around, saw the pottery making and then went to a soccer game being played against another village. There was a huge crowd (motorcycle parking was at a premium!)and, apparently, lots of betting.

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    Enjoying your report. I love hearing others observations of Burma.

    (BTW, I don't think you made a mistake by skipping Inwa - the most uncomfortable horsecarts imaginable, and all tourists must be taken to the same 4 spots - awful, lock-step tourism!)

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    I just returned from Myanmar last night after 32 hours on a plane, so I will not be beginning my report for a while, but I am enjoying reading yours. We too skipped Inwa, and have no regrets about that decision. We visited the Ruby Mart department store and could not believe the upscale (for Myanmar) goods and well dressed people shopping there. I could not help wondering who those middle class looking people were, many of them very young adults. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your report.

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    Now I loved Inwa, we all did. But we seemed to miss all the tourists for some reason and had most places there to ourselves.

    I also love Marie Min in Mandalay. She was just great and we all loved the food.
    And like you we did not find the 2.5 hours on the lake long at all. It was so interesting.
    Waiting to hear more.

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    Enjoying your report. We left Myanmar a week ago (in Vietnam now), and loved the boat ride to Sankar as well. Didn't have a chance to go to Mandalay, so I will be reading your report with interest.

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    Welcome home, Shelly! I can't wait to read your report.

    Deb, I'm glad you enjoyed Inwa. I thought the sites were interesting, but the arrangements were awful.

    I'll look forward to your report as well, susncrg.

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    Amarapaura--We stopped briefly at the Maha Ganayan Kyaung Monastery to take some photos of the monks. The young novices were under the eagle eye of an elder monk. Not one monk seemed to take any notice of the tourists. This really must be a humbling(?) experience to be watched by hordes of tourists everyday. It was already very crowded and more people kept arriving. We took a few photos and left for the silk shop--nice stuff but pricey, I thought.
    The highlight of the day was U Bein bridge. We arrived well before sunset so were out on the lake for quite awhile. It was interesting to see the fishermen, in chest high water and smoking cigars. The boatman first took us to the other side of the bridge close to what seemed to be a duck farm and then we just watched the passing parade of people using the bridge. He was very good at positioning the boat so that we could get photos (and we certainly have a lot!) As it approached sunset all the boats took up position in a semicircle on the other side of the bridge. It was quite crowded by that time but nobody got in anyone else's way. The views in the changing light are amazing.
    The next day we left for Bagan. If I had realized that our flight would not be until late afternoon we would have opted for the boat trip. We stayed off the portion of new multi lane highway going back to the airport so it was a nice slow trip.

    Mt. Popa--We transferred to Mt. Popa Resort in Min Thu's brother's taxi--70,000 kyats return. This area was much drier than we had experienced previously. The trip took about an hour. We passed through a number of small villages with lots of people around. The road up the mountain has a lot of sharp curves. We had originally booked this night as my daughter wanted to do the hike to the volcano rim as described in LP. However, we were never able to get any info on this hike so she ended up just taking a walk on a trail. I lazed by the infinity pool gazing at Taung Kula.
    The resort is a lovely place and would be worth another night if time allowed. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and the views are stunning. Each villa, which is on stilts on the side of the mt., has 4 suites each with a large verandah.
    I thought that the village of Mt Popa was a dusty, uninteresting place. I had read about the monkeys but didn't appreciate just how many, and how bold, they are. It was amusing, however, to see a monkey abandon a bunch of bananas which it had just stolen, to a cow that was walking along the street. I started the climb to the top but couldn't take the monkeys. My daughter continued but wasn't too impressed.
    On the way back to Bagan we stopped at a sugar palm farm. I was amazed at the number of products produced from these trees.

    Bagan--we stayed at the Kumudara Hotel in New Bagan I'd been dubious about the location and should have acted on it. This hotel really is on the edge of nowhere. Granted, there are views of pagodas from your room, but there are no restaurants nearby and the taxi fare to Old Bagan is at least 6000 kyats each way. We did walk, about 15 min each way along a dark road, to the Green Elephant Restaurant. It was lovely but almost totally empty. The food was good, the prices high and the service was 'hovering'.
    Next morning we were picked up by Min Thu. I wanted to be there during the Ananda festival but really had no idea just how crowded it would be! It was the busiest day and it was a zoo. There were hundreds of motorcycles. Apparently a new bridge had opened the previous week thus allowing all the extra traffic. Twice Su Su's legs were almost hit. Live4today has described the gift giving to the monks. It was interesting to see the variety and the sheer volume of gifts. They were arranged in numbered lots on long tables and the head(?) monks drew lots for their allocation. We passed by the oxcart camp where people from outlying districts stayed while attending and giving their gifts. I thought that these people, with their traditional ways, and the young on their motorcycles certainly showed the changes taking place within the country. Later in the day we watched, from the top of a pagoda, the oxcarts wending their way homeward.
    We visited a number of stupas and pagodas, had a nice lunch at the Moon and saw the sunset from a very crowded pagoda(there were a lot more at a neighbouring pagoda).Someone has commented recently on the rebuilding of the pagodas. Those repaired with "old" materials by Unesco (?) are certainly much more attractive and authentic looking than those being repaired now as the govt requires the use new materials. Some have a sign naming the donor. We had a lovely day as MinThu is an excellent guide.
    I was completely dismayed however, when Min Thu told us, on the way back to the hotel, that he had to meet 2 groups of clients at the airport the next day and that his uncle would be taking us. I had booked with Min Thu in late Sept., changing my itinerary to get 2 consecutive days. I reconfirmed our arrangements the week before Christmas. We did go with his uncle (who charged the same price, 20,000 kyats) as our options seemed rather limited at that point. He's a good driver but certainly not as good a guide. We went to a couple of pagodas (we explained that we were rather "templed out") and visited some interesting workshops --lacquerware, rice noodle making, bamboo weaving (making the sides of houses) and had an excellent lunch at Sarabha. There were still a lot of worshipers but it was less hectic than the previous day.
    Someone commented previously on the vendors at the pagodas in Bagan. I found the women to be the worst. One would attach herself to you at the entrance and want to guide you around. Some could not be discouraged. Of course you would be expected to buy at the end. I did buy a number of small things that I really didn't want but I found it very irritating. The men were much less aggressive and quite pleasant and would just have a conversation with us.
    For some reason I had pictured Bagan as being quite serene. Perhaps it usually is but certainly not during this festival.

    We returned to Yangon the following AM and left to spend a couple of days in Bangkok the following day.

    All told, it was a wonderful trip. To anyone thinking about going, do so soon, as the country is changing and the pace of change will probably accelerate.

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    Thank you for your report. I've never been to Bagan during a festival, and, of course, the Ananda festival is the largest of the year. So your experience was quite different from both trips we made. It makes me think that if/when we return, I'll make sure it's NOT during a festival.

    Min Thu not being able to guide you himself one day is probably a reflection of what a popular guide he has become. It's good news (for him) bad news for those who want to book him.

    I'm interested in your side trip to Mt. Popa did you visit any of the Nat shrines?

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    We were in Bagan for the last weekend of the Ananda festival, and although by that time many had left, it still was noisier and more crowded than I expected, although it was interesting to see the goings on connected to the festival. Interestingly, Min Thu bailed on us the last half day of our 3 day booking, as he said he had to meet a group at the airport. He did offer to arrange a boat ride on the river for our last half day, but after 2.5 days of touring with him, we felt that we had had enough and opted to just visit Ananda Temple on our own and relax at the hotel. I was happy for him that he was able to connect with a tour of ten people staying at an upscale hotel, as he obviously could make more doing this than guiding us for the day, but I would have been disappointed if we had not had the 2.5 days with him previously.

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    I too would avoid a festival again. We had five nights in Bagan and the first two days were so quiet and peaceful. When the villagers started to arrive we were quite excited to find we were going to be part of this festival. By day two we were very tired of the noise and traffic and spent the afternoon lying by our pool to escape. One day of it was enough.
    I also must say that success may be spoiling Min Thu. He is an amazing guide, but after the communication problem of day one and him not showing up, on day two he was late.

    My friends were on the hot air balloon and on the way back to our hotel in the bus they saw Min Thu at one of the higher end hotels chatting to some tourists. He called our hotel to say he would be late, and showed up 45 minutes late for our agreed upon time. I was not pleased.

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    Kathie--Yes, I would certainly recommend giving the busiest days of the Ananda festival a miss.

    I was interested in seeing the nat shrines but only saw a couple of them. I was so paranoid about being bitten by a possibly rabid monkey that I gave up looking and retreated to the street( where, at least the monkeys were not right at my ankles). Possibly if tourists stopped feeding the monkeys at the entrance and near the lower flight of steps they would not be so aggressive.

    Live4today--I agree with your comments about Min Thu. He is an excellent guide, in addition to driving the horsecart. I understand why he would want to just guide larger groups.
    However, he confirmed our arrangements for 2 days about 3 weeks prior to our arrival and I felt really let down. If he is going to take horsecart bookings then he should honour that commitment. He was also late both in the AM and after lunch but I had put it down to the crowds.

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    I understand your dissappointment and annoyance with Min Thu and agree with you that he should have honored his bookings. The only thing I can say in defense of his lateness (and he was late meeting us also) is that I think he was booked and working almost every day in Jan. I attributed his lateness more to exhaustion than to laziness. Stiil this is no excuse for disappointing pre booked clients. It is just an observation.

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    I do, of course, feel a bit responsible for it. We've seen this happen before where a guide in a place that has been remote is recommended, and when suddenly travelers start going there, the guide is deluged and doesn't know what to do. I'm thinking of a guide in Siem Reap this happened to more than a decade ago. For many years, very few people visited Siem Reap. Once it got on the tourist map, the guide was deluged and ended up making people unhappy because he committed to more than he could do.

    Alas, this is now happening to Min Thu. He has been a horsecart driver and guide for years, many of them very lean years. Suddenly, Burma is on people's radar as a place to visit. I'm sure it is hard for him to turn down any work, after all, all the work could dry up at any moment, as it has before.

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