Thanks to everyone for all your help in planning our amazing trip to Burma/Myanmar. I will attach some excerpts from my Travel blog but give Foderites a few of the pricing and other details here.
We used Santa Maria Travel based in Yangon and booked our hotels/flights/boat to Bagan and two day trips and a couple of transfers. We sent a deposit to their bank in Thailand and the balance paid in cash upon arrival in Yangon. It all went off without a hitch.
I found that their prices on tours were more than double what we could get on our own, so if a nice vehicle is not needed (ie a boat tour) then just book on your own upon arrival.
Here is the itinerary that we had
Cathay Pacific from Vancouver to Bangkok on Dec 27. Overnight in Bangkok.
Yangon Hotel: December 30, 31, and Jan 01. Thamada . We had a triple room (3 single beds) $47 per night for 3 including breakfast. The hotel was okay, not great. The breakfast was one of the worse that we had (boring). The hotel next store, the Park Royal was great and we ate there, used their internet (for a fee) and on the last day paid $10US to use their pool and gym for the day. We could walk to Scott market from our hotel so the location was okay.
Mandalay Hotel: Hotel Queen Mandalay. Jan 2, 3, 4. We had two rooms everywhere else as most hotels could not do three beds. A double was $30 per night and they had a nice breakfast buffet. We found the hotel was new and modern but they did not know how to clean properly and will be run down very quickly because of lack of maintenance
Bagan Princess Hotel. Jan 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 We really liked this hotel. Our room was beside the pool, a very large and clean room and the staff were great. $35 per night. A substantial breakfast included and good food in the restaurant as well as close to many other good restaurants.
Princess Garden Hotel in Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) Jan 10, 11, 12, 13. We loved this hotel too. A great pool, a more than substantial breakfast and free bicycles. We had a little bungalow overlooking farmland and it was very quiet. The owner was so helpful with planning our daytrips around market days etc and treated you as though you were in a five star hotel. $35 double.
Back to Thamada hotel in Yangon for Jan 14 and 15. Off to southern Thailand for the next 8 nights.
Amarapura /Inwa full day (from Mandalay) booked with Santa Maria was $75. We had to pay for our boat trip to Ava (1000 Kyat each) horse cart in Ava for 3 persons 7000 kyat and the boat at UBien Bridge was 4000 Kyat. The entrance fee for all the Mandalay attractions including Ava was $10 USD.
Tip: Try to leave earlier to avoid arriving everywhere the same time as the tour busses.
We arranged our own day trip to Mingun on a boat for the three of us and it cost $40 for the day. You can do a tour in the morning for less, but then you are there with lot of tourists
Bagan: Horse carts were 18,000 kyat for the day with pretty much all of the drivers. You can do point to point or half days, but we found hiring for the full day the best as it is not easy to find one when you need them and you just end up spending the same amount any how
Tip: we had three different drivers. MinThu misunderstood an email and thought that I cancelled one of my days with him, so after waiting around and not being able to reach him we hired another driver. He spoke English, but just dropped us off at temples and then just took us to the next. Min Thu would come in with us, explain everything and give us history and understanding of what we were looking at. He also took us to places off the beaten track. Make sure you get a driver who will also be a guide if you can.
Inle Lake : Our hotel found us a boatman to take us to SanKar for the day $50. (Santa Maria quoted $120 ) We were on the water for 11 hours in total. We also had to pay our PaO Guide ($10USD) and entrance fees( $5)
We hired the same boat without the guide the second day to see other sites on the water (weaving, silversmith, floating gardens) and the cost was $20 from 8:30A until 1PM.
Kakku : We booked with Santa Maria and had a large very comfortable van, all day trip, $155. We also had to pay a PaO guide $10 and entrance fees of $3 each. He took us to other places on the way that we wanted to see as well.
We booked Air Asia to Yangon from Bangkok $188 return
Flight on KBZ from Yangon to Mandalay $101
Shwe Keinnery Boat from Mandalay to Bagan $38
Flight on KBZ from Bagan to Inle (He Ho) $69
HeHo to Yangon on KBZ $94.
We took enough US Cash to pay the balance of our bill with Santa Maria and then $1000 more. I spent $700 of that. The exchange rate in Yangon and Bagan seemed to be the same, around 790-800 K to the dollar. Inle Lake and Mandalay were less. You did get more for $100 bills than smaller ones. You only need $US for fees and they are usually $5 or $10. Take a few $1 bills as well. I spent around $150 on gifts and souvenirs. You can change at the banks now, a few of them are doing it, but we never managed to do that and used the airport or money changers.
I am a vegetarian and can’t eat anything deep fried. EVERYTHING in Burma is deep fried. Well almost everything. The food was not great in my opinion. There were a few exceptions of course but compared to Thailand and Laos I did not enjoy the food as much. It was certainly affordable however.
We found it very pleasant. Yes it was hot but not oppressive. Yangon was the hottest but it did cool down at night. Around 30 degrees.
We never saw rain during the day.
Inle Lake was very cold in the morning. We layered for the boat trips. We wore a t shirt, then a fleece and then a windbreaker. They provide blankets on the boat too. As the day progressed you would peel off layers and then you need a good hat and sunscreen for the afternoon.
I found it very dusty and the exhaust from the motorcycles and makeshift vehicles was very bad. Bring a scarf or something to cover your nose and mouth when travelling by horsecart or open vehicle. I had purchased a surgical mask type when I was in Laos last year which worked really well.
In Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan women would want to trade their goods for lipstick, mascara and any kind of makeup. I am not one who believes in giving things to people because I feel that it encourages begging, but to trade goods is a different matter. We did not have any extra unfortunately. There were not a lot of goods that I felt that I had to have and I found the prices a bit high compared to say Laos. The lacquerware was exquisite. They had different prices for different quality. I bought a few wooden items, a basket that is reported to be 100 years old, and we also brought back some of the amazing little candies, Tamarind Flake, that you get after a meal in most resteruants. They are so good. We found the silk items to be very expensive although lovely. My friend bought some gorgeous jade jewelry in Inle Lake.
Funny enough some of the nicest things that I found were in the gift shop at the Strand hotel in Yangon.
Here are some notes from my travel blog:
Our flight from Bangkok was delayed a few hours but we finally arrived in Yangon at 7PM and checked into our hotel for the next three nights. Our travel agent, Zaw, that I have been emailing back and forth for the past few months arrived and we paid him the balance of our amount owing and he presented us with all of our vouchers. I read in Lonely Planet that they could not get ‘Time’ magazine in Myanmar so I put a number of back issues in my suitcase. I gave a few to Zaw and he informed me that they now sell them here as well but they are very expensive. He appreciated them none the less. We then walked to a restaurant for a bite to eat and bought Zaw and his friend a couple of beers and then we had a early night.
Our first day in Myanmar was very eventful. We had breakfast in our hotel and then walked to change our money to kyat. In the past month things have changed in Myanmar so much it is amazing. You can now change money at one of the Government Banks which you could never do before. We had our many crisp perfect $100 bills in our money belt and make our way to the bank that Zaw had told us about last night. After walking a few blocks we decided to go to the police station to get directions. They were very polite and helpful, drawing us a little map and we set on our way. A young boy of around 8 came up and wanted us to buy some postcards. We told him we didn’t have any cash as were going to the bank and could he direct us. Mistake number one. He said….money exchange over here. We said ‘no, we want the bank’. Yes, it is this way.
We ended up with all this young men around 20 trying to exchange our money. Now up until a couple of months ago the black market was the only way to exchange your cash. You can not get the Kyat outside of the country and bank cards don’t work for foreigners and only high end hotels will take credit cards for a huge premium. The boys tell us that it is Saturday and the bank is closed, but they will give us 820 Kyat per US dollar. We are intrigued as the bank rate is only 790. Mistake number two. We agree to each exchange $100 USD for 82000 Kyat. We went behind a metal sign and they took each of us and we felt swarmed. They talked and moved so fast we really didn’t have time to think. They showed a stack of money that was bundled into 8- 1,000 bills. He counted it and it was like a card trick because he would turn the stack over and then count again. I took it and counted but he was in my face and saying it was 82000 Kyat, all is fine. The same thing was happening to Lana and Jane. So we each hand over one crisp new $100 bill. We caught a cab to the train station and counted our money again when we were there. We couldn’t believe it. They ripped us off for around $36 each. Only one bundle had 10 bills, the rest were 5. They were such great con artists. Lesson learned. It was becoming a very expensive day!
We bought a $1 ticket on the ‘circle train’ which does a three hour loop around Yangon. The train was very basic. Very basic. No glass on the windows, wooden seats and very old. There was only one other tourist family on the train and we were quite the entertainment for everyone. It was a slow trip out of the city and interesting to see the landscape go from large city to more rural and farming areas. Half way through the trip we stopped at a small town where there was a large local market where people from the city go to do their daily shopping. All of a sudden our quiet little train was overrun with locals getting on with huge bags and baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables. There was no room to move. People were passing Jane huge bags of vegetables to pull into the train through her window. The train was completely full with every square inch of floor taken up by either people or produce. If someone needed to get off or get to another part of the car they needed to climb over the huge bags of lettuce, eggplant, bananas, and lots of greenery that I did not recognize. At each stop vendors would get on with large plates on their heads with food for sale. It was an amazing thing to be able to be a part of. We interacted with so many of them even though almost no one spoke English.
A lot of the older people chew ‘beetle nut’ which is a nut that gives you a bit of a high and turns your mouth red. They are constantly spitting out the red juice and it eventually rots out their teeth. Not a very attractive habit. Most people wear ‘longhis’ which are like sarongs but tied a lot more elaborately. The men also wear them with either a shirt or long sleeve dress shirt on the top. I think it must be a lot cooler than pants. A lot of both men and women also put a white paste on their cheeks to keep from getting sunburned. Some will have a design painted on with this magic paste. There were young men getting on and off the train with trays of the paste and paintbrushes to sell to anyone who was interested.
Everyone here is so helpful and friendly (except our con artists from this morning). After the train ride we were extremely hot and thirsty so made our way to this modern 20 story building that had a restaurant on the top floor with an amazing view of the city. The Shwedagon Paya or Pagoda was in the distance. This is the most revered place in the world for the Buddhists. It is breathtaking. We make our way over to the pagoda and hire a guide for an hour who tells us a lot about the spectacular place we are at. It is all made of gold and glowing in the sun. We spent the next few hours there in amazement. It is one of the most beautiful places we have been.
We were sitting looking at the pagoda in the evening light and a man came and stated to talk to us. We discussed how the country is changing and learned a fair amount about Myanmar from him. His English was excellent. He very kindly drove us to a supermarket so we could pick up some items for dinner in our room.
New Years Eve. We were planning to go out to celebrate tonight but too tired to do so. Home by 7:30PM for a quiet evening but were woken at midnight to hear and watch the many firework displays going on around Yangon.
Today we took a cab down to the river area and went into the ‘Strand Hotel’. In its day it must have been a very grand hotel indeed. Built by the British in 1901 when they occupied Burma it is reminiscent of the Empress or such type of hotel. We wandered through some amazing gift shops to get an idea of what there is to buy in Myanmar. We found our way down to the river front but couldn’t find a place to walk along the river so headed back towards town. There are very few tourists here so we turn a lot of heads. They are all so friendly and we said ‘Happy new year’ to everyone which was returned with a smile.
Yangon must have been a very beautiful city at one point but it is very run down now. The buildings and roads have not been kept up. Our hotel which would be considered 3 star here, is large and clean but in need of updating for sure. I pulled the tap to turn on the shower and it came off in my hand. The springs on each of our beds are sticking out and not that comfy. We are on the sixth floor and Jane has us walking up and down instead of taking the elevator. The sidewalks are what is the most amazing and you take your life in your hands when you walk on them. Huge parts are missing and you can very easily turn an ankle or break a leg. We do see evidence of the sidewalks being repaired and buildings being updated. This year Myanmar expects to see one million tourists which is far greater than any other year. The new government in power is giving the people a little bit of hope and tourists are feeling like they can come visit now. We also notice items from home which is surprising as we thought that the trade here was sanctioned.
In the afternoon we went to ‘Scott Market’ (also known as Bogyoke Aung San Market,) to escape the heat. It is around 32 degrees but I don’t find it as oppressive as other countries. There is a bit of a breeze sometimes which helps but it is a busy noisy and dirty city with lots of smog so the heat is felt more. The market takes up a few city blocks and you can buy almost anything you want there, except clothes are too small, even for Jane. Jane bought a few gifts and we met a man who exchanged some more US money for us. We told him of our money changing adventure yesterday and he said “I am old man, you are old ladies, I will not cheat you”. And he didn’t.
The taxis and most of the vehicles here are Toyota Corollas or similar, vintage 1982 or there abouts. They have to pay $10,000 USD for these rust buckets. The doors barley work, our driver last night was sitting in a lawn chair instead of his drivers seat and there are no seat belts. The busses , which are packed to the rafters, are around 1930 vintage.
It was before 5AM when we arrived at the Yangon airport and a young man directed to sit in the waiting room. He came back to fetch us when our airline check in was open but there didn’t seem to any resemblance to a line up. There were people all over the place with bags and boxes and agents putting random bags on the scales. Our helpful friend got us checked in, our luggage weighed and tagged and then walked us over to security and immigration. The security was very lax, we didn’t even have to get rid of our water. We had a green and yellow sticker put on our shirts and sat and waited. There were people with many different colored stickers on their shirts all waiting too. When it was close to 6AM we saw other people with a green and yellow sticker go to the boarding gate, so we followed them. There was never an announcement or sign that we saw; you just had to pay attention to the stickers.
We were met by our pre arranged transfer upon arrival in Mandalay. There was quite the excitement at the airport with people milling about and taking photos. We thought it may have been for us (ha ha), but there was a very famous rock band on the plane with us. A bunch of guys from Yangon with really long hair and the band was called Iron Cross . Our driver was quite star struck. I went over to one of the band members and asked where they were playing tonight, but it was quite a few hours out of Mandalay.
Our drive in was wonderful, the landscape very lush and green with so many vegetable and fruit stands on the sides of the road. We stopped at one to get some papaya the size of footballs, avocados and lime. The produce is all fresh and organic. Mandalay reminds me a bit of India with the 18 seater busses going by with 50 people crammed in, some on the roof, others hanging from the sides and lots of baskets and bags of goods on there as well. There were a lot of motorcycles here as well, which we didn’t see in Yangon. Oxen or horses pulling little wagons with families inside and all their produce.
We arrived in Mandalay city and once again it is a very big noisy dusty place. Our hotel is new apparently only 2 years old. We don’t believe it, It is already looking very warn and not well maintained. The area is not great, although I don’t know if any area of Mandalay is that great. We are just not that thrilled with the big cities. We went to our room to rest for a while and then decided to catch a cab down to the jetty and hire a boat to Mingun.
The area on the edge of the Irrawady river is home to the very poor, fishermen most likely. Homes made of bamboo on stilts with very meager belongings inside. Children as young as 2 running up to us asking for pens, money, what ever. The smell was less than pleasant. It reminded me of being at TonLeSap lake in Cambodia. There are many boats tied together, large wooden boats that have seen better days. Some were to take out tourists and others were for people to live on and still more for fishing. A young man comes up from the boats and we negotiate a price. You can do a tour in the morning but it is now 1PM and we would rather hire our own boat anyhow. We should have insisted on seeing the boat first in hindsight. There wasn’t any kind of a pier.
They lay a very narrow plank from the edge of the bank to the closest boat.
Are you kidding me?
Then two young men stand at either end with a bamboo pole in their hands. This is the makeshift handrail, and it worked. We climbed across three large wooden boats and ended up on the worst of the lot. Directed up some rickety steps we sat on wooden lawn chairs under a tarp roof for our journey down the river.
It was wonderful. There were many little huts and farms at the edge of the river, people fishing, washing, and working near the edge. There are many golden temples dotting the hills all over Mandalay. The journey took an hour to the small village of Mingun. In front of us is this huge brown hill that is the base of a temple that was going to be built, but the king died in the early 1800s before it was finished. It would have been the largest in the world.
As the boat is pulling close to shore we see a wooden cart pulled by two oxen racing towards the boat. I joked and said ‘here’s our ride’ and the older man in the cart pulls up and says ‘Taxi?” As tempting as it was we decided to walk. We were accosted by many women trying to sell us things, paintings, fans, jewelry and hats. We did buy these very dorky bamboo hats but it really helped keep the sun from frying our brains. It was very hot. The women would ask us for lipstick and perfume and makeup. It was very hard to take after a while. You want to help them but it encourages begging. They would follow us for a few blocks trying to either sell or get items from us, but we just kept smiling and saying ‘no thank you’. There are also young men that come up and want to practice their English and say they are going to school to be a tour guide. Can they please practice on you, you don’t need to pay but you know that they still expect something. The village was a typical rural Myanmar village and we visited some Buddhist temples and monasteries. The largest uncracked bell in the world is at this site which weighs 90 tons. It was a great afternoon and we had another early night. What a bunch of party animals we are.
Ko was our driver again today and we had a very full day in store for us. We headed out of Mandalay at 8:30AM and our first stop was a little shop where they made some incredible embroidery and marionette puppets, antiques and interesting objects for sale. The artists were there creating these works or art in front of us. We always think that these items are made by machine but artists like these spend hours on them and probably get paid very little. Two young men dressed Lana up as some kind of Myanmar princess.
Next stop was a silk weaving shop where we saw men and women making beautiful silk scarves and fabrics. Of course the silk store is attached so that we can buy some of these amazing fabrics but we found the prices quite high and the tour bus had just arrived with a bunch of German and Swiss tourists. We spent the day trying to stay ahead of all the tour buses, we were all on the same circuit.
Next stop was the monastery to see the monks eat lunch. There were more than 1000 monks lining up to have their lunch and then eat in silence. The young novices, some around 5 years old, wear white robes while the older ones wear burgundy, unlike in Laos where they wore orange and saffron. Unfortunately it was an absolute zoo with so many tourists. We took a few pictures and then wanted to high tail it to the next stop before the rest of them got there.
Sagaing Hill was home to a large Paya (Pagoda) and offered a fantastic view of the surrounding area. The Pagoda in Yangon has spoiled us for any other I think and although they are beautiful with the gold glistening in the sun they just don’t measure up.
Ava was the next destination on our circuit. This is a small village on an island so our driver dropped us at a dock and we took the ten minute ride across the river. There were very few tourists there at this time as they were probably making a lunch stop. Horses pulling carts lined both sides of the dirt road waiting to show us this quiet and peaceful island. I got to sit up front with the driver; Lana was a bit nervous because the driver had not gotten in yet so I told her that I was driving. The journey was fascinating and so beautiful and relaxed. There was one place where we came upon a scene in front of us with women working in a rice paddy with the ruins behind them. Breathtaking. Our ride was quite bumpy and jostled us around a lot however. We got off quite a bit to take photos and wander around the many ruins and payas on the island. It really reminded me of some of the ruins at Angkor Wat except that there was hardly anyone there, it was fantastic. We could have spent the entire afternoon here but not on the horse cart. We found bicycles for rent which would have been a wonderful way to spend a leisurely afternoon.
Our last stop for today was U Bien Bridge in Amarapura. This bridge is a teak wooden foot bridge that spans 1300 yards over the Taungthaman Lake. Over 200 years old this is the worlds longest teak bridge. 2500 locals walk across this bridge morning and night to and from the village on the other side. The bridge is curved to withstand the wind and is the most photographed spot in Myanmar. We walked across part way and then came down some stairs to be met by our boat driver for the evening. He rowed around the lake and we saw many fisherman up to their waist in the water, as it is not a deep lake, fishing for small red fish like a Grouper.
We get into position along with some other boats to witness the bridge at sunset. Such a peaceful sight with lots of monks and locals travelling across the bridge with their bicycles and purchases on their heads.
A perfect end to the day.
Myanmar for 18 nights and it was wonderful
Thanks to everyone for all your help in planning our amazing trip to Burma/Myanmar. I will attach some excerpts from my Travel blog but give Foderites a few of the pricing and other details here.
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