First, I want to recommend two outstanding people:
(1) Kengtung Trekking Guide -- Sai Sam Tip -- Tel. 09-4100-6263, firstname.lastname@example.org. We spent three days with Sam Tip visiting the ethnic tribes in the Kengtung region, and he is excellent. He speaks several of the tribal languages/dialects. He also knows quite a few of the residents in the various tribal villages. Sam Tip's father (who recently died) was also a famous guide who did a lot of charitable work for the tribes, and Sam Tip has continued on with this work. All of this means that you'll get unparalleled access to the tribes if you visit them with Sam Tip. Indeed, if you show up with a guide that the tribal people recognize and can speak to, they are going to be receptive to you, communicate with you (through the guide), allow you to take lots of pictures, allow you to wander around their village, etc. Visiting the tribes in Kengtung is one of those actitivies where the guide is all the difference between an excellent experience and an unmemorable experience. Go with Sam Tip, and you'll have an excellent experience.
(2) Bagan Horse Cart Driver -- Ko That (Horse Cart No. 40) -- Tel. 09-402753856. No email. We spent 2.5 days in Bagan with Ko That, and he is an outstanding, hard-working, customer-pleasing horse cart driver. We were out with him from sunrise to sunset (save a 2 hour mid-day rest break for the horse) on both full days, and he worked tirelessly for us. The routes he chose for us were well thought out, and he got us away from the large crowds as much as possible. He timed and coordinated everything perfectly. He quickly picked up that I was into photography, and he had a good eye for suggesting good angles for shots. He was also very patient, listened to any requests we ha, and never complained / rushed us / tried to be lazy about anything. Note that he is not a "tour guide" (he might know a lot of history, but his English just isn't too strong). So if you just want a highly competent horse cart driver -- and you're willing to read about the temples yourself (or simply don't want to listen to a guide talking non-stop), I'd strongly recommend Ko That.
10-Mar: Arrived in Rangoon around noon. Spent 2-3 hours exploring the city by foot (seeing the colonial buildings, Chinatown/Indian quarter, etc.). Visited Shwedagon Pagoda at late afternoon through sunset. Hotel in Rangoon.
11-Mar: Fly Rangoon-Mandalay (early morning). Had driver pick us up at airport to take us around the ancient cities. Visited Mahagandayon Monastery to watch the monks eat, walked up Sagaing Hill, spent quite a while at the U-Bein Bridge (including boat for sunset). Hotel in Mandalay.
12-Mar: Half-day (9am-2pm) trip to Mingun on the public boat. Afterwards, had driver take us to the Mandalay city sites (Golden Buddha, a couple workshops (marble buddhas, gold pounding, etc.), Golden Palace Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda, sunset at Mandalay Hill). Hotel in Mandalay.
13-Mar: Had driver take us to Inwa on the way to airport for 1pm flight from Mandalay-Kengtung. Arrived Kengtung at 3pm, and spent the afternoon exploring the city by foot (the big golden pagoda, walking around the lake). Hotel in Kengtung.
14-Mar: Kengtung market; trekking -- Akha tribes. Hotel in Kengtung.
15-Mar: Kengtung market; trekking -- Loi tribes (Wan Yut, Wan Seng). Hotel in Kengtung.
16-Mar: Trekking -- Ahn & Silver Palaung tribes. Late afternoon flight from Kengtung-Heho. Hotel in Inle.
17-Mar: Inle sightseeing by boat (sunrise, Thaung Tho five-day market, various villages/workshops, sunset) . Hotel in Inle.
18-Mar: Inle sightseeing by boat (sunrise, Indien, more villages/workshops, My Thien hike to the forest monastery and walking along teak bridge, sunset). Hotel in Inle.
19-Mar: Fly Heho-Bagan in morning. Half-day visiting temples in Bagan by horse cart. Hotel in Bagan.
20-Mar: Full day of visiting temples in Bagan by horse cart. Hotel in Bagan.
21-Mar: Full day of visiting temples in Bagan by horse cart. Hotel in Bagan.
22-Mar: Fly Bagan-Rangoon. More Rangoon sightseeing (took the train to Insien and back, walked around random slummy areas near the train station, giant reclining buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda). Hotel in Rangoon.
NOTES ON THE CITIES
- Overall, it's a pretty interesting city. I think it's an underrated city and would disagree with the conventional wisdom that there's nothing much to see besides Shwedagon Pagoda.
- If you're the type who likes big cities / people watching / street photography / watching locals going about their daily life / meeting the locals / seeing the colorful outfits people wear / etc., Rangoon has a lot to offer. Walking around random parts of the city and taking the local train are great for this.
- Shwedagon Pagoda was quite overrated. It's just a really big golden pagoda, and it's just not that interesting or impressive. Totally overcrowded, but not in a spiritual "lots of people praying" kind of way (i.e., think busloads of foreigners, plus domestic tourists in Western clothes just taking photos of each other). They're not really equivalent, but Bangkok's Grand Palace seemed far more impressive.
- Inwa was much better than expected. We weren't even planning to go based on all the bad stuff I'd read, but we had a 1pm flight the last day and saw everything else, so we figured we'd go on the way to the airport. The place was totally devoid of tourists in the morning; tour buses were starting to show up as we were leaving, so we'd probably feel differently about Inwa if we had visited later in the day. We really liked the lush green scenery and wandering around the temples ourselves. However, our horse cart driver was a first-rate A-hole (which wasn't too surprising given what I'd read about the Inwa horse cart driver) who tried to rush us, scolded us for taking too long at the sites, refused to stop for quick photos along the way, and even demanded extra money because we were too slow (which we refused to give him).
- Sagaing Hill was alright. The walk and temples were decently enjoyable, but nothing that great or memorable compared to the many temples/pagodas in Burma/Asia. I have to disagree with the folks who said they would spend all day there. The view from afar looking upward at all the stupas/pagodas is more impressive than the view from the top of the hill.
- U-Bein Bridge was the highlight of Mandalay. We got there at around 2.30pm, a good couple hours before the sunset-viewing tour buses showed up. We just slowly walked along the bridge watching and interacting with the locals. It was really interesting people watching, photo ops, seeing daily life, etc. Sunset on the lake by boat wasn't touristy at all as I'd read (just 3-4 boats out there total), and it was really scenic.
- Mingun was a decent half-day trip. The sites themselves (a big bell, a big incomplete pagoda, etc.) aren't too memorable, and there are lots of annoying vendors on the main tourist route. But we got off the tourist route and wandered around the village and got to see a slice of local life. The boat ride itself wasn't terribly scenic or interesting. However, the area around the Mandalay boat dock is quite exciting and action packed -- locals doing all sorts of things.
- Mandalay's city sites were decent, but it seemed like we were seeing everything in the same order as the tour buses were and it was pretty annoying. The carvings on the teak monastery are pretty impressive, the golden buddha is interesting to see for a few minutes, but the "world's largest book" was unmemorable. Didn't have any desire to see any of the other city sites. We're not shoppers, but I thought that the marble buddha workshops were among the most interesting workshops I've seen anywhere. This is probably because they're not really intending to sell 1000 lb. marble buddhas to Americans / Europeans, so it's an authentic workshop and not some tourist gimmick.
- Kengtung was a nice detour from the normal tourist circuit. The city was nice, and there are lots of fancy hoses around the lake (hint: opium money). In particular, Kengtung market was fascinating. No tourists whatsoever, and it's different than your typical Asian street market in that many of the vendors and customers are dressed in colorful tribal outfits.
- The whole point of visiting Kengtung is for the ethnic tribal trekking, and that was certainly a unique experience. It was an expensive portion of the trip (flights to/from Kengtung are expensive, car/driver to the hiking trailheads is pricy, etc.), but Sam Tip (see review above) was very good and we saw fascinating things we'd never seen before. But some of it felt a bit weird (White people walking into a tribal village taking pics of people as if they're on display) and some of it was really depressing (a young Akha girl had some major tooth pain and couldn't even swallow and nobody could treat her). Except for one Palaung village that seemed sort-of "fake" and "capitalistic," visiting the tribes felt very authentic and untouristy. The trekking itself is of easy-to-moderate difficulty, and the scenery is fairly repetitive and boring.
- In short, we thought Inle Lake was a giant tourist trap and we didn't get the appeal. If friends were to visit Burma, I'd recommend them to nix Inle from their itinerary entirely.
- We had planned to spend two full days exploring the lake by boat -- one day going to Indien and the normal sights, and a second day going to the less-visited southern part of the lake (Sankar). Apparently the water level was too low for boats to get to the southern part of the lake, and nobody had reached it for the past 10 days. This was disappointing (and we might have felt differently about Inle lake if we got off the tourist circuit and made it there), but that's nature.
- Indien was nice to see. The ruins were interesting, and the monastery was decent. There is also another monastery nearby that can be reached with some scrambling/hiking, and that provided some nice views. We got up for sunrise on the lake and went directly to Indien, so we beat the crowds by an hour or two. There were hoards of tour groups arriving as we were departing, and the experience would be totally ruined with all those crowds. Also, it's a 10-20 minute walk up a long staircase from the ruins to the main monastery, and this staircase is completely lined with stalls peddling junky tourist stuff. Any hope at a peaceful / spiritual experience of walking up to the monastery is entirely lost by the constant yells of "just looking" and "cold watah" from the vendors.
- The five day market at Thaung Tho was pretty interesting. Once again, we got up at sunrise, and caught all the action. The locals travel by ox cart from over the hills and do their shopping at the market. By the time we left, the locals had already headed back out in their ox carts and the boats filled with tour groups coming ashore in droves. As with Indien, this would have been rather unpleasant had we not woken up at an ungodly hour.
- The "workshops" and "villages" we visited were totally touristy, un-authentic, annoying, and fake. Visit an umbrella-making workshop or a cigar-making workship, and you'll be offered to buy the same crappy likely-Made-in-China t-shirts and keychains. I don't know if our boat man was mediocre or that's just the way it is (we expressed an interest in avoiding the crowds and the typical tourist places), but it seemed like there was no way to escape the endless made-for-tourist Disneyland-ride type of experience.
- Besides Indien and the five day market, nothing else about Inle Lake was remotely interesting or memorable. Other than the novelty of seeing people row with their feet (which I suppose is kind of cool, but gets old after you've seen it a few times), Inle Lake didn't seem particularly scenic or unique. There're plenty of other places in Asia where you can see houses on stilts along a lake/river, kids bathing naked and parents washing their dishes along a river/lake, etc. It seems that tourism has already ruined the lake and stripped it of its authentic and relaxing feel.
- Bagan was really annoying the first day (when we mostly visited the most impressive/famous temples), but was better the next day and a half when we got away from the crowds.
- Tourism has already ruined Bagan. The major temples are disasters. We've been to many places around the world filled with annoying vendors/touts/beggers/scammers/etc., and we can't recall of any other place where the vendors are so consistently allowed to peddle their junk and harass tourists INSIDE religious sites. The worst offenders are the guys selling their reproduction "paintings" who line the entire floor of a temple with their "paintings" -- held down by rocks so they don't blow away -- thereby forcing you to walk over their junk and to tread carefully so as to not trip on the rocks. Vendors also sit inside the doorways and hallways of the temples, totally blocking you from even walking by. Annoying kids selling postcards freely wander inside the temples and regularly tap you and/or purposely walk in front of your camera to block you when you're taking a picture. If you visit a temple with slightly less tourists that isn't totally off the beaten track, you may be the only tourist there at that particular moment, but the vendors and their friends (which seemingly nothing to do) are hanging out at the temple talking loudly amongst themselves and sometimes blasting their radios, thereby depriving you of the peace and quiet that you thought you'd get when you arrived and saw that there were no tour buses at the temple. Clearly, nobody is policing/regulating any of this, and anything goes in Bagan.
- Traveling by horse cart was definitely the right move. It's definitely too hot to bike in March, and driving around the remote temples by horse seems so much more "real" than doing so by car.
- Bagan seems more about the overall experience than visiting any particular temple. The temples individually aren't really that fascinating; what made Bagan interesting was just riding along the dusty roads past temple after temple and scrambling to the top of one temple after another for a new view of the landscape.
- We didn't do Balloons over Bagan. The appeal seemed to be the ability to view the landscape from high above, but the perspective you get from climbing to the top of any number of the temples is very good (and $300 cheaper).
- We booked with Myanmar Shalom, and I'd strongly recommend them. We used them to book only the flights and hotels. Lots of tour companies totally ignored our emails. Sammy was slow to respond at first, but once he initially responded, his subsequent responses were prompt. Sammy was honest, straightforward, and organized. We didn't even have to give any deposit; just cash on arrival. Santa Maria would have been my second choice (they were responsive and professional); for some reason, they couldn't book all the specific flights I wanted but Myanmar Shalom could, so that was a dealbreaker.
- ATMs: Only saw an ATM at Rangoon airport, which worked perfectly. I read that some of the other airports had ATMs, but there were none at Mandalay, Bagan and Heho. We had plenty of cash; but exchanging money at an airport seems to take forever and using an ATM is far more efficient.
- Exactly two sites -- Shwedagon and the Golden Buddha -- prohibited entry wearing normal knee-length American men's shorts. These sites both had longyi to borrow. It's really hot, and there's no need to avoid wearing shorts for the entire trip (though one might have a different experience wearing 70's short shorts).
- Definitely spend your last night in Rangoon (i.e., the night prior to your international flight). We had a 3 hour fog delay on our flight into Rangoon, and spending the last night in Rangoon avoided us having to miss our international.
- The hotels are, on the whole, totally overpriced compared to the rest of SE Asia. We stayed in average $50/night places, which would probably be $20-30 places elsewhere.
- I can't recall seeing a computer anywhere in the entire country except in RGN's international terminal. The domestic airlines and hotels all used pencil and paper for the bookings. Pretty amazing.
- Most vendors/cabbies haven't learned to -- or choose not to -- gouge foreigners, but some will try to gouge you. If you're getting gouged, hold your ground. At Heho airport, one cabbie was acting as the "mob boss" and told every cabbie who came up to us to offer the same price and refused to let any of the cabbies negotiate with us individually. We just stood there for 5 minutes, and eventually this price fixing cartel broke down.
- Planning this trip was very difficult. Not a whole lot of information exists. LP is largely useless and outdated. Studying the trip reports on Fodors (Kathie, Craig, etc.) was most helpful, and next was googling random blogs. LP's message board archive is gone, so that made planning even harder. And I found tons of misinformation on TA; I asked several questions on TA, and I received answers that were verifiably incorrect.
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Burma Trip Notes; Sai Sam Tip (Kengtung Guide); Ko That (Bagan Horsecart)
First, I want to recommend two outstanding people: