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Trip Report Myanmar - A Visit to a Country in Transition

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Gottravel and I spent 18 days of our 6 week SEASia trip in Myanmar. We were in Myanmar from late January into February. As always I want to thank the wonderful posters on the Asia Board who give their time and expertise so generously. I read thru numerous TRs which also helped in deciding where to go and where to eliminate. I thank all of you who took the time to answer a question or write a TR for us to use as a blueprint for our trip.

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 and on TA. 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 on TA under dl. 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 Ankor Wat or other places I have visited.

Details of what we did will follow…eventually.

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    I've been awaiting your report! Great start.

    You made me think about how I might have felt starting in Mandalay rather than Yangon... Our first trip we skipped Mandalay all together and that was a good decision. On our second trip, we stayed there (glad you liked Rupar Mandalar) and found it so different from the rest of the country. I think it would have been hard for me to start in Mandalay. I will take this into consideration as I offer info and advice to others.

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    Kathie, your TR's were what got me going on getting to Myanmar sooner than later. Thank you again for all the help you provided.
    On the one hand, it can only go up from Mandalay and from some TR's it seems some people like Mandalay. I knew I wouldn't like it, just wasn't prepared for how much I didn't like it. Plus the driver we had spoke minimal English and then the guide we had for the one day wasn't the greatest. I think a good guide can really make a huge difference on my impression of a place. But yes, Rupar Madalar is so nice, so that helped to be able to escape to its serenity.

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    Yestravel,

    Wonderful start, but I knew it would be! I've also been looking forward to reading your TR, especially your impressions of Myanmar. It's one of several places I'm considering for the next Asian trip, and, having already followed in your footsteps on my recent trip, I'm especially intrigued to read your thoughts about Myanmar.

    Looking forward to more..

    Paule

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    Yestravel, I've been waiting patiently for your TR. I share your frustration about the pricing. We're going in November, have our itinerary booked (I hope), but until we know the pricing and pay our deposit, I still feel in limbo. After some missteps (and a change of agent to Zaw) we are using Santa Maria, and have also lined up Minthu for Bagan.

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    @progol - doubt we'll get thru our writing up our 18 days as quickly as you did you TR. I was impressed with how quickly you got your TR posted. Well done!

    @internetwiz (BTW are you an internet wiz?) where did you end up reserving? I remember your posts about Bagan and Inle Lake that I read as we were traveling. Beautiful weekend in DC, huh?

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    Also interested, I went 4 years ago for a short trip with my friend now considering going next autumn with you partner and he is worried we may have left it " too late" .......
    My friend went 2 years ago and said it had really changed since we went in 2010!

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    Glad to see you've started your report! Very much looking forward to reading it, though you've already answered so many of my planning questions in other posts (thanks!!).

    Regarding going now, or waiting, or if it's even "too late", I say go when you can, to just about anywhere.

    I would never tell anyone not to go to Cambodia for example, though it has changed dramatically since I was first there in 2002, then 2007, then 2010. I am going back this summer and expect more change. It would be like telling someone it was too late to see the Pyramids in Egypt or Machu Picchu. Some things must be seen at least once. Am I glad I saw Angkor Wat in 2002? Of course. But I still think it's worth the trip today, and I hope Burma will be the same.

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    At the Yangon Airport:

    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!

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    yestravel....WOW, Maybe I am glad we are staring in Mandalay....I think??! DH would have taken one look at the walk to the domestic terminal and dragged me back inside to book a return flight to Bangkok!

    I went with Myanmar Shalom mainly because with Santa Maria we had to add at least that extra flight and possibly another night, so we could start in Mandalay....we are doing a short river cruise from Mandalay to Bagan first. Fortunately, we will be half way through our trip before he encounters a domestic terminal!

    Please continue with your report, I am taking notes, thanks

    Kristina, I totally agree with you.....just go.

    Cambodia, in 2009, was full of tourist at the major sites, but I am so glad we went. At the time my husband thought I was crazy, but agrees he is glad we went. After I got him to India last spring, he loved it and wants to go back.

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    Kristina, I also agree with you. everything changes so go when you can.

    Either we got used to the domestic terminals or the one in Yangon really was very bad. After awhile I saw the terminals as quaint...a look back at a long time ago in air travel. In Thailand when we flew out of Nan all the lights were off in the terminal, and I use that word loosely, when we arrived there to take our flight. We had to knock on the door to get let in. That walk to the domestic terminal in Yangon was not a good start to our time in Myanmar. To top it off we had gotten up at 4am for our flight from BKK to Yangon so were pretty tired.

    Cwn - By the time I realized we had to go first to Yangon to pay, I really didn't feel like redoing the trip. I tend to get planned out working on these long trips. What is the short river cruise between Mandalay and Bagan?

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    It is a two night cruise on the 1947 Pandow..a restored traditional Burmese river boat that four Australia friends did and loved. It is right up my DH ally, really the reason that we are going to Myanmar while we are in SE Asia...I understand about planning for a long trip...we will be gone almost five months if all the parts will fit.

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    Hi Yestravel

    Thanks for your report. It's great to get another's perspective on places, and I did use your previous report on Thailand and Laos with fantastic results (especially Morodoke in Chiang Rai).

    I also stayed at Hotel Pyin oo Lwin, the room was light, and it being March, I was pleased it was cool. The place was pretty sterile though.

    Funny at Heho airport this morning, I couldn't find anyone with my type of sticker, so just hung around at the back of the waiting area. Couldn't believe the check in lady came and found me ! The sticker was not visible, under a scarf.
    There was not a single westerner on the flight. Plane full (except the seat next to me) with Chinese tourists. Guess that's why the check in lady remembered me.

    To cwn, I've done a couple of Pandaw cruises, will post on your thread later.

    Looking forward to more YT !

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    Me and OH had 3 weeks in Myanmar in Feb/Mar 2010.

    Apart from having our visas, plenty of pristine US$100 notes, and our first 3 nights in Yangon booked, I'd left the rest of our itinerary unplanned and fill it in as we go.

    On our way from Yangon Airport to our hotel (Summit Parkside) the driver asked us how long we planned to be in the country, and how we intended getting around.

    To cut a long story short we booked the taxi for a full day out in the countryside around Yangon, to assess the driver and vehicle. And if we liked the day, then we'd hire him for the next two weeks to show us his beautiful country.

    We liked him, and at the end of our local countryside tour he took us to the taxi company office downtown. We worked out a rough itinerary and agreed a price.

    Two weeks hire of the vehicle, all fuel, road tolls, drivers meals and his accommodation, plus his knowledge of Burma came to a staggeringly low US$800.

    We had an awesome trip, drove up the spine of Burma to the Temples of Bagan, Mandalay, Pwin oo Lyin, Kalaw, Inle Lake, and back to Yangon.

    Whenever we visit any county in SE Asia we refuse to even consider flying between points as there is so much to see on the ground, and Myanmar certainly didn't disappoint on that score.

    Nearly all the roads are orange dust, and every morning we started off freshly showered, but by the end of the day we were an orange colour from head to toe!

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    Thanks, Hanuman

    cwn - cruise sounds interesting. Wow! 5 months, now that's a lot of planning.

    sartoric - sterile is a good description of Pyin OO Lwin Resort. Glad we were there for just 1 night. had we stayed longer I would have asked to be moved to a room that got the sun And yes, the coolness of the town was welcome after the heat in Mandalay.

    LancasterLad - sounds like a great way to travel & certainly inexpensive. Agree that there was a lot to see on the ground. And you must have seen a lot. How long were your drives from place to place? The dust most of the places we went was unreal.

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    Yestravel, of course, Chiang Mai is right.
    I'm at the point of exhaustion I think, so tired that my attention to detail is flagging.
    Will be going home on Thursday after six weeks in SE Asia, three of them travelling solo. Looking forward to getting home in a way, although not the 20 + hours in transit.

    Thanks for the pick up, and I look forward to hearing the rest of your story.

    Cheers
    Caroline

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    Three days in Mandalay

    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.

    [A note regarding Buddhist temples: Custom requires the removal of one’s shoes and socks before entering temple grounds. If you’re planning on doing a lot of temple visiting, bring and wear a pair of flip-flops! I’d brought a pair of sandals with Velcro fasteners and found myself increasingly frustrated by the unfasten/fasten routine at each temple. YT, on the other hand, had flip-flops and easily slipped them on and off.]

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    2010 was back when it was easy to "wing it" in Burma. Now not so much.

    Ground transport makes sense only if you have a lot of time, otherwise it can eat up all of your time in SE Asia.

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    Oops - the above note is for Lancaster lad.

    Interesting report of Mandalay. We didn't bother with the in-Mandalay sights other than the Mahamuni Buddha and a gold-leaf workshop. You've affirmed for me that was a good decision. The gold-leaf workshop was fascinating, as it is all done as it has been done for hundreds of years. The "timer" for the pounding is a half a coconut shell with a hole in it!

    Sorry to hear of your encounter with the man demanding $10. For me, it's a sign of how much things have changed in Burma.

    BTW, it isn't that the palace is badly restored - what sit on the ground now is entirely a recent fabrication. The old palace was burned to the ground.

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    Me too..."Stupa-fied" is priceless!

    sartoric- Thanks, look forward to what you have to say about Pawdaw....DH is charmed by the looks and history of the 1947 boat. I like the idea of just watching the world go by.

    gotravel- Love your report on Madalay. Thanks so much! Those are the places I have zeroed in on. We will go to Sagaing and the Bridge the afternoon we arrive. Then do the city sights the next morning before we board the river cruise at noon. Mingun is the first stop for the river cruise.

    Glad to know you did some things with out a guide...we plan to also. We have been told our driver will have very little English..so that is why I am obsessing over which sites to see. We will see how it works.

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    Thanks all! Appreciate the clarification, Kathie.
    cwn -- you can do fine without guides I think. A good guide can enhance what you are seeing, but without a guide, its easy to get a general, but maybe not in-depth, understanding. And then there is following up or researching in advance on the internet. Plus all the great stuff posted here helps too. Hope your cruise stops at Mingun at a less busy time. I think part of the charm for us was it was totally empty of tourists and very quiet. And actually our adopted guide was pretty good except for his capitalist way with the demanded payment at the end.

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    Well, I do research everything to death according to DH and can tell him all he wants to know. I/we do sometimes hire a local guide for a special site...just really don't like one with us all day...would rather move at our own speed.

    We will be at Mingun late in the afternoon...hopefully the tour groups will be gone and it will be peaceful. Thanks for the information.

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    @kathie<<<Ground transport makes sense only if you have a lot of time, otherwise it can eat up all of your time in SE Asia.>>>

    I agree. But the secret is don't try and cover too much ground on any particular trip. And tbh getting to and hanging round airports eats up a lot of time too. And if you can travel overnight by sleeper train, no time wasted, save on a night's hotel, and wake up in a new destination. Bangkok to Chiang Mai, or Bangkok to Nong Khai/Vientiane are good examples.

    Too many people tick off boxes, but don't really experience the country they've paid a lot on money to visit because they're stuck in a tin can 30,000 feet above it all.

    For every must-see place that're often crowded with tour groups, stalls selling tat, and hasslers, and the like, there are half-a-dozen much more interesting places often only slightly off the beaten track, which you can have more-or-less to yourself.

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    @yestravel<<<How long were your drives from place to place? The dust most of the places we went was unreal.>>>

    Yep, we spent a lot of time sat in the back of the not too comfortable taxi. We did the Yangon to Bagan leg over two days, with an overnight in Tauntoo, having also visited Bago. We also stopped overnight at Tauntoo on our way back to Yangon.

    The drive from Pwin oo Lwin to Kalaw, and Kalaw to Inle were as rough as drives can be. But photo opportunities were round every bend (lots of bends!), and if we wanted to stop, then the driver stopped for us to take in whatever it was we'd seen. I think if you ask a aircraft pilot to stop to take a photo, then the plane falls out of the sky!

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    Thanks YT and GT, you really do make the journey come alive.

    LL. Okay, I can't get the pilot to stop for a photo, but cruising at 11,500 ft, I could see amazing rugged mountains, and I still can't figure out why a 20 minute flight takes 8 hours by road.

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    All - Thank you for the kind comments. The next segment will be up in a day or two.

    BTW…there were at least two comments that were "removed by Fodor's moderators" that I never saw. Does anyone know what they were about? Just curious…

    GT

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    YT and GT, supposedly we're booked at the Trader's Yangon, the Hotel @ Tharabar Gate and Inle View Resort. Until we get our official confirmation from Santa Maria, I'm still holding on to the (more expensive) reservations I made myself. As for being an internetwiz, not so much, maybe very early on, but not now.

    I'm looking forward to your reports on Bagan and Inle Lake. I know it's a lot of work, so thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with everyone.

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    Santa Maria came thru with our reservations and some even dropped in price closer to the time. They dropped in price because we could get a lower priced room, not because the hotel rates dropped.

    Yea, the technology changes so fast hard to keep up with it.

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    I am a bit dissappointed to hear that your driver did not speak English. We had a nice driver in India, but his English was limited and I felt we missed out in being able to converse over the lengthy car rides.

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    Thanks, wkw & dgunbug. Dgunbug, Your VN report was very helpful when we planned that trip. Actually I was very disappointed the driver didn't speak English. I enjoy chatting with drivers and have learned quite a lot from them. As you said, you spend quite a lot of time with them. Just hearing their thoughts about the country and their life is always interesting. I didn't expect a guide, but had hoped for a bit more English.

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    Based on my review of my previous post, I'd like to correct two errors. Our hotel in Mandalay was called the "Rupar Mandalar," not the "Rupar Mandalay." And our driver's name was "Phet Naung," not Thet Now. GT

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    Following along too YT and GT, and enjoying your report.
    The story sharing does help others decide on what to do, where to go.
    I think that's what Fodors forum is all about, kudos to you for posting.

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    On the Road & Hill Country

    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.

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    Thanks for that GT.
    Your story really makes Hsipaw sound so interesting. Will have to go another time.
    If it's any consolation, I took the circle train in Yangon, and was SO glad that DH and I didn't take the Mandalay - Yangon train last year. I also saw the Anthony Bourdain footage, there was no trick photography, and I usually like trains.

    Looking forward to the next episode !

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    I love trains too and kept going back and forth when planning our trip about taking the train from Pyin OO Lwin to Hsipaw. After talking to the British couple I had regrets that we didn't take the train. I also recently read on a TR that you can take the train over the viaduct and then get picked up. Never thought to do that and it may have been a good compromise. Hsipaw is definitely worth exploring.

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    Dona,
    Checked out Asia forum specifically to see if anything from you and wasn't disappointed. Sounds like great trip so far. Glad all is working out. Will keep checking back to read more!

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    On to Bagan

    Phet Naung picked us up the following morning at a quarter to nine for our ride back to Mandalay and the overnight luxury of the Rupar Mandalay Resort. The bumpy five-hour ride retraced at one go our earlier drives from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin and from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. We paused once at an overlook at the Gokteik Gorge, but it was so hazy that it was like looking at a faded photograph rather than a real scene. We were stopped once while a rockslide was cleared from the road. We passed a huge military academy outside of Pyin Oo Lwin - the military seems to have reserved the best of everything for itself. Soon we came to a view over the immense plain upon which Mandalay sat. It took our breath away – the air was choked with exhaust and dust. We again drove past some well-tended vivid green rice paddies and desiccated cornfields. Then we passed various buildings painted in unlikely (to Western eyes) color combinations, Christmas red and a very pale minty green being a repeat offender. It was a relief to arrive at the Rupar Mandalar. The Rupar Mandalar – with the sole exception of the wifi – is a delightful hotel. So delightful, in fact, that one could conceivably run the risk of never leaving the well–tended grounds and accommodating staff to brave the heat, dust and noise of Mandalay. And we didn’t this day. We spent the balance of the afternoon seeking the ever-elusive and maddeningly slow wifi, avoiding the heat and then lounging by the pool. We had our last free cocktails, then ate and went to bed early. We were catching a boat at dawn.

    We had a very early breakfast at the Rupar Mandalar and then Phet Nyaung picked us up for our ride to our large boat docked on the Ayeyarwady. We were among the very first passengers to arrive – not that it mattered in the beginning as all passengers had assigned seating on the lower deck. However, within an hour of departure, most of the passengers had moved to the sunny upper deck. As the day wore on, many of the passengers moved from sun to shade on the top and second decks. On the initial stretch of the river, on one’s right as one headed downstream, there were numerous golden stupas in a lush landscape. Then the banks became more barren as we headed downstream and eventually became low sandy cliffs. We were near the end of the dry season and the boat veered from bank to bank to avoid shallows. At one point, two crew members were on the bow double-checking the depths with long poles - I resisted the urge to shout “mark twain.” After a while, a kind of riverine somnolence set in. I dozed, I read, I photographed passing boats. And I rearranged chairs for further dozing and reading. After eleven hours we neared Bagan and began to see occasional stupas on the left bank. We had been on the river from sun up to sundown.

    Eventually, we pulled over to the left bank and docked. We’d arranged with Santa Maria for a driver (which, as it turned out, we hadn’t needed to have done – there was no shortage of taxis at the docking point). After some delay in getting off the boat, we hooked up with our driver and were soon bound for our hotel, the Hotel @ Tharabar Gate. We stopped off en route to purchase the five day pass to the Bagan Archaeological Zone; the pass costs $15 US or 15 Euros. I paid in dollars. I’m unsure whether payment in kyat was accepted.

    The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate was a large resort-type hotel. The grounds were well-tended and it had an aura of tour-bus luxury that we usually avoid while traveling. (We prefer smaller hotels.) The rooms were nice. Unfortunately, the teak floor in our room was marred, probably from dragging furniture around instead of lifting it. We’d arrived starving; all we’d had all day were some snacks and an order of Shan noodles on the boat. We left the Hotel @ Tharabar Gate, turned left, walked down the road maybe fifty meters and then followed the sign on the right for the vegetarian restaurant “Be Kind to Animals the Moon.”

    Immediately across the dusty street from the crowded Be Kind to Animals the Moon is another vegetarian restaurant, Yar Pyi. The British couple that we’d repeatedly run into in the Shan state had recommended this restaurant. I had a spicy peanut/tomato curry that was sublime – it tasted exactly like Creole peanut soup. YT had an aubergine dip. Although Yar Pyi didn’t serve beer, I was still able to order one. They went to the trouble to go out and buy one, which they then brought to the table but served out of plain sight on a chair beside me in case the religious authorities came by.

    We’d arranged a private guide, Minthu, for our three days in Bagan, based on a recommendation from many on this board. He showed up promptly at 9:00 in a horse-drawn cart (#54). We were supposed to have both a guide and driver, but the driver was unavailable and Minthu was acting as both. This was fortunate, as the horse drawn cart is on the small side and I’m 6’3” – I’m not sure it would have been a comfortable fit for four of us. Minthu discussed the various possibilties for our day and after a brief discussion, we left the choice of temples to be seen up to Minthu.

    We started the day by going to a noviation parade. These are annual events, where the families of young men becoming novice monks dress up their younger children and bullocks to celebrate. I believe that the one we went to was in Thiripyitsaya village. The parade started with a line of girls and young women wearing their finest clothes, many of them shading themselves under elaborate parasols. Then came boys mounted on decorated horses wearing princely finery and decidedly feminine makeup (lipstick, rouge, eyeliner, eye shadow, etc.). Some of these boys were as young as two or three. Then came girls, under parasols sidesaddle on decorated horses, also dressed in regal finery. Lastly came ox drawn carts; the oxen were also wearing elaborate decorative costumes. The entire ceremony was accompanied by booming music and had to have been one of the most unusual events I’ve ever see.

    After the morning spent at the noviation parade, we headed back towards Bagan and visited Shwesandaw Paya (Pagoda), one of the older pagodas on the Bagan plain, a five terraced building topped with a stupa. We explored this glorious building at length, climbing up to the third terrace and scanning the stupa-studded horizon. It is impossible to underestimate the sheer number of pagodas and stupas in Bagan. They number in the thousands and are in various states of restoration, repair and disrepair. Some of them have been repaired – inauthentically per Minthu – by military families in the hope of gaining merit. We found the sheer number overwhelming and the views jaw dropping. For YT it ranked up there with her first impression of Machu Picchu. After visiting several temples, they all began to run together. I tried to address this by noting down the names and then later looking them up on the internet to place a pagoda with a name and verify our visit by comparing the on-line image with my own photographs. This worked fairly well, impeded only by my habit of taking pictures of any and all passing non-visited pagodas that struck my interest.

    After climbing Shwesandaw Paya, it was early afternoon and becoming quite hot. We had Minthu drop us back off at the hotel. He picked us up again around 4:00 p.m. when it was cooler and we headed back out this time to the magnificent Sulamani Pahto. The Sulamani Pahto may have been our favorite of all the temples we visited: a surrounding walled courtyard, multiple receding terraces, multiple corner stupas, elaborate brick- and stonework, gargoyle-like figurines, extensive murals, superb stucco work, pointed arches and a 12th Century Buddha – this pagoda has it all! Next up were Shwegugyi and Pahtothamya.

    Shwegugyi is architecturally lovely, a beautiful off-white building with corner steeples, stucco carvings and pointed arch doorways and windows. It still has its original teak doors and its vertical lines are faintly reminiscent of a gothic church. Pahtothamya was an older, smaller one-story temple, dimly lit with some faint wall paintings. We ended the day by catching the sunset near Sulamani Paya, with what I think was Ananda Pahto silhouetted against the evening sky. Minthu managed to take us to temples when they were relatively tourist free so while we often passed many tour buses as we roamed around we never felt as if we were in a tourist crush. At sunset it was just us and another couple standing on the hill while in the distance we could faintly hear and see the crowds watching the exact sunset view from a terrace on one of the temples. Later that evening, we had dinner at a restaurant next door to Hotel @ Tharabar Gate, catching the tail end of a puppet show in the process. The food was just OK and I didn’t catch the name of the restaurant.

    The next morning, Minthu arrived by car with a driver and we set out for Mt Popa. Mt Popa is something of a drive from Bagan; it took us the better part of the morning to get there, particularly since we stopped along the way to observe the production of palm sugar (“jaggery”). We’d seen this before in Cambodia. Palm sugar sap is extracted from various types of palm trees, then set to boil. The resulting crystallized sugar can be formed into cakes or is used in the production of candies. It can also be distilled into toddy, a low alcohol palm wine with a one-day shelf life. We ended up with a small bag of tamarind palm sugar candy, a larger bag of coconut palm sugar candy, and a bottle of high-test alcohol that had been processed from toddy. All for the equivalent of $4 US.

    Mt Popa is worth the drive. It’s a sheer vertical mountain crowned with a temple. It looks like something out of a fairytale. We took the covered 777 step walkway – shoeless – up to the temple. The walkway is lined with vendors selling food and souvenirs. There’s also a population of monkeys, who are always attempting to steal food from the vendors. Many of the vendors have wooden slingshots, which they use to periodically chase the monkeys off. One doesn’t actually have to shoot at the monkeys; merely displaying the slingshot will cause all except the boldest to scamper away. In addition to the vendors, there were people who cleaned up after the monkeys, who have a tendency to befoul the tiled walkway. The temple on top of Mt Popa has great views out over the surrounding countryside. It also has an unusual convex stupa and a golden niched wall. Inside each niche was a statue of Buddha. The hilltop complex had recently been redone with funds from donors from around the world. Among the donors was the Burma Superstar Restaurant in San Francisco. On the way back down, I stopped in the hall of the 37 nats, or spirits. It was a bit like the Madame Tussaud’s of the Burmese animist underworld.

    We returned to Bagan about 2:00 and called it a day. Minthu had been an excellent guide, very informative and highly knowledgeable as well as personable. He explained the subtle changes in the Burmese depiction of Buddha across the last thousand years and could identify the era of a depiction by those elements. (Across the years, the ear lobes had grown longer until they touched the shoulders and the length of the fingers had evened out until eventually they were all of one length. There were also subtle changes in the top knot on Buddha’s head.)

    That evening, we had dinner with welltraveledbrit and her husband, fellow travelers. In the past year, we’d met up with them for tea in Paris, drinks in San Francisco, and two dinners in Bangkok, the last only a couple of weeks earlier at a GTG at Gaggan with progol and her husband and Hanuman. We met up in the Hotel @Tharabar Gate lobby and headed to the Star Beam Restaurant, off the same street that Yar Pyi is located on. It was a superb meal of smoked fish, papaya salad, eggplant salad, two kinds of chicken curry, prawn curry and roast pork loin accompanied by beer and Myanmar’s own Red Mountain wine (the white is excellent!). We had a great evening comparing notes and sharing stories. Again our trips were paralleling. They were leaving the next day for Inle Lake. We were leaving for Inle Lake the day thereafter.

    The next day was our last full day in Bagan. Minthu had a prior commitment that day and we had arranged to be in the able hands of his brother as a driver. While not a guide, he provided quite a bit of information at the various temples to which he took us. We started early with the temples in the Nyaung U area, Shwezigon Paya (gilded, several standing Buddhas) and Kyanzitthar Umin (murals and a standing Buddha). Then we visited an unidentified temple with a brick stupa that looked like south Indian influenced before returning to our room to escape the midday heat. That afternoon, after about 3:30, we visited Gubyaukgyi, another large brick pagoda with a restored Gubyaukgyi-style stupa, Htilominlo Guphana, Upalithein, Manuha Paya, and Nan Paya. My attention had long waned before we arrived at our favorite, a small stupa with an open chested Buddha that held numerous clocks. We called it quits in very late afternoon and returned to our hotel. It had been a long day. We were exhausted. We ate again at Star Beam that night: Smoked fish, papaya salad and avocado salad. Then to bed. We were moving on the next morning.

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    It sounds like you had a fine time in Bagan with our friend, Min Thu. I'm so glad. I found my first look at Bagan (from high on a temple right after sunrise) to be absolutely breath-taking. It was the view I had dreamed of.

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    yestravel thanks for the great report..... you answered some of my questions about specific temples... Of course, I always want to see everything...! I know I won't be able to go into too many, but had kind of zeroed in on Sulamani Pahto as one to see for sure.

    The fact that you were able to have a nice sunset view without climbing up into a temple has me excited....can you tell me some detail about where the "hill" is, maybe in relation to several temples. Would love a nice view similar to the "classic ones" over the field of temples.

    Our first view will be early morning as we arrive by boat so that may be nice also.

    We are staying at Hotel at Tharabar Gate too. I have made notes about the places you ate. Shalom has us at the Red Canal in a ground floor room in Mandalay, but I may ask him to change that to Rupar Mandalar. I know Kathie liked that hotel also. It is so hard to pick sight unseen!

    Thanks for all the detail about Bagan. All the information is getting us really excited about our trip!!

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    Thanks -- glad the TR is helpful. For Mandalay I was stuck deciding between Red Canal and Rupar Mandalar. As we have said we were very happy at Rupar. I chose RM because I liked the look of the rooms with all the teak wood. I think Red Canal is also a bit out of the downtown, but nearer to some sites. Pls be aware that RM were in the process of adding a new building which should be completed shortly from the looks of it. It was a multi story addition. I'm sure if you email they can tell you what will be in it. The pictures on Trip Advisor are what it RM looks like. I thought it had a resort feel to it. I think you will be fine at either.

    At Hotel @ Tharabar Gate make sure you get a room close to the lobby/restaurant. The rooms are really spread out and some were quite far from the lobby/restaurant.

    I'll see if GT has any notes on which temples we were near for the sunset. I know it was the one that "everyone" goes to for sunset. MinThu made several jokes about that and mentioned there were several good viewing sites that didn't attract so many tourists. I would think your guide should be aware of where to go.

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    Following your travels and loving this report. Of course, you know I'll be studying the details if and when we go to Myanmar. The writing is terrific-- great descriptions of your travels-- and the detail is so helpful for others in planning trips.

    By the way, I also loved the typo -- introducing MinThu to this "broad". --lol!

    Paule

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    Inle Lake

    We took a cab to the Bagan Airport the next day. The flight to Heho was short and it was only a 45 minute drive (via a Santa Maria driver) from the airport to our hotel, the Pristine Lotus Spa. We paused in route to buy “Inle Zone” entrance passes ($10 US or 10 Euros, good for seven days). The Pristine Lotus is a nice, quiet, somewhat isolated hotel on the upper northwest side of Inle Lake. It slopes up away from the lake. Our large room was in the upper part and had nice views. We explored the hotel, then walked into the nearby town Khang Doing. We stopped at the hotel-recommended roadside restaurant Myat Thet Kaung for an early dinner of fried rice, Shan pork curry and a salad of “yellow pea” tofu with sliced scallions. All were so-so except for the tasty yellow tofu salad.

    Before our walk, we’d arranged with the hotel for the next three days’ travels in the area by water – the Pristine Lotus maintains a number of boats and boatmen. (We initially included a driving trip to Kakku, which we later dropped for another day on the Inle Lake.) Inle Lake, or at least the parts of it we saw, is ringed by marshes. Some of the marshes have been converted to fields – tiny islands – via the addition of soil and compost. They also have “floating gardens,” created by the addition of soil to free-floating mats of lake plants. Stilt houses, some of bamboo and woven matting, others of solid wood, are spread amongst the marshes and fields. Access to the lake is via a series of channels cutting through the marshes and around the houses. Every house seemed to have one or more boats, mostly low flat dugout-type canoes. People here live a water-focused lifestyle by necessity. To visitors, it’s a very picturesque world.

    On our first full day at Inle Lake, we headed out for the southernmost parts of a second lake connected to Inle by a canal. It was the better part of three hours away by motorboat. Early morning fishermen were already out on the lake, fishing either by large traps or by netting. The fishermen were all in low dugouts and navigated by using their legs to row an oar while they netted fish or lowered traps. Our boatman had limited English – our conversation consisted mostly of our names and the names of destinations - and was very pleasant. He slowed down whenever we took photos. En route, we saw welltraveledbrit and her husband – they were staying in Naungshwe - in another south-bound boat. We waved at one another as they passed.

    Our first stop was the tribal market in Thaung Tho. Dozens of boats were pulled ashore there. On one side, there was a large market of vegetables and firewood, filled with women in tribal dress. The other part of the market was a long walkway with stalls. Several stalls offered antique silver coins, at least some of which I believe were local reproductions; the 1804 American silver dollar and French Indochina trade piastres made repeated appearances. The Chilean silver peso – with its somewhat belligerent motto of “por razon o por fuerza” (“by reason or by force”) – also made an unlikely appearance. We briefly wandered up the walkway, took photos, bought a 3000 kyat ($3 US) cotton scarf and then pushed off for our next stop, Sankar. Sankar has a number of old ruined stupas (chedi), many of which are half submerged in the lake. We wandered around the chedi, noted that the Buddha statues all had their right hand resting on miniature elephants, and then ran into welltraveledbrit and her husband. We joined up and listened while their guide showed them a monastery and strolled a walkway into town. Then we returned to our boat and headed off to the nearby Tharkong Pagoda. This was a newish temple surrounded by restored chedi. In a misguided attempt to save future effort, I took my sandals off and left them in the boat as a covered walkway to the temple began at the dock. This proved to be something of a mistake as the chedi area – where footwear was permitted – had gravel paths. I ended up gingerly threading my way through the chedi and was rewarded by the discovery of a wonderful large – and unbilled – reclining Buddha in a structure behind the temple.

    Our next (and nearby) stop was at what amounted to a primitive rice whiskey or palm liquor distillery adjacent to a restaurant. I think our boatman’s intent had been for us to have lunch there, but it didn’t occur to me at the time. At any rate, the restaurant was already filled with several large, slightly tipsy German tour groups. We shoved off again and our boatman took us to a pretty stilted restaurant set in the lake. We snagged a table off to the side and had a less than memorable lunch. Indeed, it was so unmemorable that I neglected to note the name of the restaurant. As we were leaving the restaurant, we again ran into welltraveledbrit and her husband. They’d been eating on the other side of the restaurant. Neither of us had seen the other. It was around 4:30 when we made it back to the Pristine Lotus. We skipped dinner.

    After breakfast – which seemed to have doubled as the wifi hour – the next morning, we headed out for our second day on the lake. We captured some gorgeous early morning photographs of fishermen on the lake before going to the silk-making town of In Phaw Khone. There we toured a weaving factory and learned about lotus cloth – lotus stems contain a white fibrous core that can be spun into thread and then woven. The result is a slightly rough-textured fabric that is seven times as expensive as silk. Much of the cloth – and many of the garments – at the factory were a silk-lotus blend. The factory itself was an immense airy space on stilts filled with clacking bamboo looms operated by local women. We didn’t buy any of the garments – mostly scarves – offered for sale. They were expensive even by Western standards.

    After In Phaw Khone, we backtracked to Indein (pronounced “in-dine”). Indein is accessed via a long canal. And today was its turn to host the five day market that rotated among lakeside villages. We somehow made it through a throng of boats to a dock and climbed some wooden stairs to a dirt trail that led into town. The trail was lined with vendors who seemed to have better crafts and merchandise than we’d seen elsewhere. In short order, we bought a shoulder bag, some t-shirts and a white cotton short-sleeve man’s shirt. The vendors also lined the long walkway to the Shwe Inn Thein Paya religious complex above the town. Some stands sold old Burmese banknotes, antique brass Burmese coins and beautifully-worked knives, all of which we passed on. We turned off the walkway for a while to visit the ruined stupas of Nyuang Ohak in the lower town. When we arrived at Shwe Inn Thein Paya, another set of ruined stupas had little appeal and made our way back towards the canal and our boat after the briefest of visits.

    After Indein, we stopped at another stilted restaurant, Inn Thar Lay, for another so-so lunch. We decided to forgo a visit to the cat-jumping monastery; it sounded a bit like Barnum and Bailey writ small. We were back at the Pristine Lotus by 2:30. That evening, we dined at the hotel restaurant and had a superb dinner – Shan tomato-peanut salad, apple-scampi salad, fried calamari accompanied by glasses of excellent Burmese Red Mountain sauvignon blanc. We ended with a delicious sea-coconut pannacotta.

    On our final day at Inle Lake we started late, as we only planned a visit to nearby Nyaungshwe at the north end of the lake. Our boat trip took us through a network of canals lined with large tomato “plantations” and marshland inhabited by herons and egrets. We spent the morning and early afternoon in Nyaungshwe. We explored the market. YT got a foot massage. And we toured the spectacular, scaffolding-enclosed Yadana Man Aung Paya. Eventually, we returned to the bridge near where our boat had docked and had a tasty lunch at the Viewpoint Restaurant – Shan tomato-peanut salad (again!), pumpkin dumplings with tamarind sauce and avocado salad. Then it was back to the Pristine Lotus to settle our boating tab ($60 US for the long ride to Sankar and environs, $35 US for our day at the silk factory and Indein and $20 US for the trip to and from Nyaungshwe). We spent the remainder of the afternoon packing, reading and updating our trip notes. That evening, we again ate in the Pristine Lotus: Shan tomato-peanut salad (I was addicted) and spicy papaya salad. We toasted Inle Lake with some Red Mountain sauvignon blanc. We loved Inle Lake. It rivaled Bagan as the highlight of our trip to Myanmar.

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    As I have a cat that, in her youth, jumped 5 feet in the air to catch things in her mouth or between her paws, I had little interest in seeing cats jump through hoops (though it is testimony to the monks patine in training the cats to do that). The reason we visited the monastery was to see thru collection of lovely old Buddha statues. What we remember best, five years later, is our long conversation with a monk there about politics.

    So often in Burma I found that the object of my visit became a footnote because of fascinating interactions with locals.

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    On to Yangon

    Our Santa Maria car and driver was waiting for us at 7:30 the next morning. The ride to Heho airport was far bumpier than we’d remembered. We arrived at the tiny airport after 45 minutes and almost three hours before our flight. We were flying on Yangon Airways (with the reassuring slogan of “You’re Safe With Us.” Burmese airlines have developed an ingenious workaround for the lack of a coherent announcement system: You’re given a color-coded sticker to put on your shirt so staff at the one functional gate could determine at a glance who was supposed to be on what flight. We were on the red flight to Yangon, which departed after the green flight to Yangon. We’d learned our lesson from our previous open-seated Yangon Airways flight – when it came time to board, we quickly scurried across the tarmac and were among the first on the place, ensuring ourselves of first row bulkhead seats with a little extra legroom.

    Our flight was without incident and we arrived on time at the Yangon Airport, retrieved our checked luggage, bought a taxi pass for the Traders Hotel downtown ($10 US) and were on our way. The midday Saturday traffic was horrendous – it took almost as long to get from the airport to the Traders Hotel as it did from Heho to Yangon. We loved the Traders. It was luxurious and conveniently located. Our bed was new and firm and had nice all-cotton sheets. However, our promised view of the “pagoda” – I’m not sure if they meant Sule Paya or Shwedagon – was non-existent. We immediately began working on our iPads and with the concierge to see if we could get a dinner reservation at Le Planteur, a world-class French-Asian restaurant considered the best in Yangon – success!! Indeed, an excess of success as we had inadvertently booked both a dinner for that evening (on-line) and a lunch the following days (via the concierge).

    I bought a curry chicken bun from the café and we headed out and around the corner towards the nearby Scott’s (aka “Bogyone”) market. It was our first introduction to Yangon’s dense pedestrian traffic and the horrendous state of Yangon’s sidewalks. We had to effectively walk past Scott’s market on the other side of the street, then cross over on a pedestrian walkway and then backtrack to the market. We, like many before us, were seeking a store called Yoyomay – not to be confused with the famous cellist – that specializes in Burmese tribal textiles. There was some confusion on the location – trip reports had it on the second floor of the market while Lonely Planet had it on the first. Then the light came on – the trip reports had been written by Americans while Lonely Planet employs the perverse (in my opinion) European usage for indicating floors. We asked around and promptly found it on the first (or second or upper) floor. The fabrics – from several of Myanmar’s tribal peoples – were gorgeous. After some deliberation, I bought a six foot long Chin runner. It reminded me more of a Peruvian textile than an Asian one. The Yoyomay staff were knowledgeable, helpful and very patient. Afterwards, purchase in hand, we wandered the warrens of the larger market behind Scott’s. There are hundreds of shops here selling clothing, inexpensive textiles, souvenirs, gems, jewelry, food and more. Yestravel snapped a great photo of a sullen looking monk smoking a cigarette, perhaps in an effort to hasten the cycle of rebirth. Somehow, maybe by remembering the alignment of the chartreuse markets relative to the original colonial building – we managed not to get lost and made it back out to Bogyoke Aung San Road. We stopped by a trendy-looking coffee shop for some espresso and a lime cooler before returning to the Traders Hotel.

    At 6:15 that evening we took a cab to Le Planteur and our 7:00 p.m. dinner reservation. We’d left plenty of spare time due to our earlier experience with congestion, but traffic had thinned some and we arrived twenty minutes early. Le Planteur was a gorgeous colonial-era brick building in the European style set on spacious grounds. There were about twenty tables scattered around the grounds, which were a combination of lawn and tropical garden. They were lit by a combination of lighting in the tropical foliage and candlelight. We were seated immediately and a waiter discreetly slid a mosquito coil under our table. We had a choice between the Le Planteur set menu and an a la carte menu. [Note: Both menus have changed since we were there in early February.] YT chose two items of the a la carte menu (seafood ravioli and giant prawns, neither currently on the menu). I had the set menu, choosing, in an unintentional affront to animal rights activists everywhere, a starter of foie gros with apple and a main course of veal (no longer on the menu, I think with a tamarind glaze). We also ordered a bottle of Red Mountain sauvignon blanc, which had become our go-to wine this trip.
    They served us two tasty courses of amuse bouclé, then our respective starters. Everything was excellent, as were our main courses. The set menu also offered a cheese selection. I was offered a cheese selection; our taste runs to strong cheese and I selected the four gooiest, stinkiest cheeses available. One of them was a Burmese cheese that was superb. After we’d shared the cheeses my set menu dessert arrived; we shared that too. (I can’t remember what it was.) It was a wonderful meal, fully the equal of anything offered in a top-end stateside restaurant – in both quality and in price. Le Planteur gave us a ride back to Traders Hotel in a vintage two-tone Morris Minor, a fun end to a great evening.

    After the next morning’s breakfast buffet, we decided to tour the old British colonial buildings near the Yangon River. We used the little map in Lonely Planet. This ended up being quite the expedition. It was hot. The distances involved were more than we’d reckoned on. And Burmese sidewalks are crowded and inconstant, frequently coming to an abrupt end in large holes. In many cases they’re nothing more that a series of eroded and worn concrete slabs laid over drainage ditches. It required one to be constantly on guard about where one set one’s feet; we’d already met a traveler with her leg in a cast due to an accident on one of Yangon’s killer sidewalks. Many of the buildings themselves were in poor repair, having been neglected for sixty or more years. We eventually made our way to Strand Road, where the buildings were in better repair. We ducked into the Strand Hotel near the river. It was like entering another world, one of potted palms and ceiling fans that had otherwise ceased to exist long ago. The lobby was gorgeous - and air conditioned. We rested for a while and then went to the shopping area that ran off it. This was our last chance to buy gifts before leaving Myanmar. The shops were, as expected, more expensive than those in the countryside, but laquerware was nonetheless high quality and reasonably-priced. There was also a nice art gallery in the back, with some modern Burmese art. Our return to the hotel took us by several more old colonial buildings, the Sule Paya and Yangon’s monumental city hall.

    We spent the rest of the day in the shade near the Trader Hotel swimming pool, reading. That evening, as sunset approached, we took a cab up to the east entrance of the immense gilded Shwedagon Paya. We took our footwear off and slipped them into a backpack – we knew we would be exiting on the other side. The sheer scale of the Shwedagon and the surrounding complex cannot be exaggerated. The central stupa is surrounded by a potpourri of shorter stupas in a variety of styles, some also gilded; ranks of shrines with Buddha statues, some with neon haloes; and pavilions, including one labeled “Buddha’s Tooth Relic.” The beauty of Shwedagon itself cannot be understated – it has a perfect shape and minimal distracting adornments. And it’s tall – about 100 meters. The combination of crowds (both tourists and Burmese) and, for want of a better word, stuff, created an impression that bordered on that of a theme park. Certainly, the mood of the many Burmese families that were visiting Shwedagon can only be described as festive. After circling the stupa, we sat on the steps of a pavilion on the west side of the central stupa and watched it change colors as the setting sun hit it from different angles. There can be no better last night in Myanmar than sunset at Shwedagon. We exited via an escalator (!) on the west side and finagled a cab back to the Traders Hotel. We ate dinner in the Traders Hotel restaurant. I thought my dish was excellent while YT thought hers was just OK. The next morning we left for the airport and our flight to Bangkok.

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    Thanks for your entertaining report YT and GT. It's been great to read your take on places that I visited perhaps only 3 weeks after you.

    Le Planteur will have to go on the list for next time.

    Good on ya.
    Caroline

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    Really enjoyed your report, YT & GT. You've really gotten my appetite whetted with your description of Le Planteur -- a future GTG, perhaps?

    I'm fascinated by the contrasts -- your descriptions capture the sense of the country in transition perfectly--the sophisticated shops and classy hotels vs. the rough, crowded sidewalks.

    Many thanks for another wonderful TR!

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    Thanks for following along, progol & sartoric. sartorial, I thought it was rather fascinating to read our two reports of such different visits so close together to the same country.
    And yes, the contrast of being in these very nice hotels with the conditions of the towns/villages was stark. For us, we rarely stay in those type of hotels so it was especially striking.
    Indeed, LePlanteur would make for a lovely GTG.

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    Loved reading about Le Planteur.
    My husband and I often go with both a set menu and a la carte when the restaurant will allow it so that sounds like a plan.
    Can you give me an idea as to the menu prices for both a la carte items and the set menu? The web site does not list menu prices.

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    Kristina - Dinner at Le Planteur is not cheap. This was, by far, the most expensive meal we had in Myanmar - the prices are comparable to higher-end restaurants in a US city. The set menu was $68USD. The ravioli appetizer and the prawns main were $19USD and $36USD respectively. The bottle of Red Mountain sauvignon blanc was $35USD. They even charged us a dollar apiece for our waters. The ride back in the wonderful old car was gratis.

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