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Trip Report Myanmar - Our thoughts and experiences from our recent trip

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In November, I made my fifth trip to Asia (my DH’s third). We spent a total of eight days in Myanmar, before heading off to Chiang Mai, Malaysia and Singapore.

Our trip was not unlike others on this forum, so instead of going through every aspect of our itinerary, I thought I’d focus on things that might help future trip planners.

MONEY
Yes, it’s true. You need pristine U.S. bills. I was unable to order new money from my bank, but it was easy to acquire $100 bills, which is pretty much all we needed. I ended up with a stack of smaller denominations, which I ended up converting at moneychangers throughout our trip. I changed $300 in Yangon and $300 in Bagan. This was more than enough, having prepaid for hotels, most activities and guides. I did not use an ATM during our trip, so I cannot comment on their availability or reliability.

TRAVEL PLANNING
We went back and forth on whether we wanted to book our hotels and guides on our own, or work with a travel agent. In the end, we ended up working with Zaw at Santa Maria. For the most part, he was able to give us better rates that booking directly with the hotels, or having hotels arrange guides or drivers. In the cases where the pricing was about the same, the added bonus was paying SM for our services in three installments, which meant we didn’t have worry about carrying as much cash with us as we travelled. Zaw was quite wonderful to deal with and we took him out to lunch on our last day in Yangon, as he was leading a photographic tour when we arrived.

AIRLINES
We traveled on Air ZBZ, whose slogan was “flying beyond expectations”. Not really knowing what to expect, our expectations were exceeded. Air KBZ was fine (and we got to all our destinations safely), aside from some slight delays, which we would have liked to know about beforehand since we couldn’t understand the airport intercoms. It is amazing that their manifests are hand written and when you check in at the counter, your names are checked off from a list. The same list is crosschecked when you go through security. By the way, we were able to take water with us through security. The baggage tags are hand written too, and the bags are generally hand carried to the plane. They are hand carried upon arrival too. As an FYI, our planes boarded and exited from the rear; on the flights that you can get a seat assignment, plan accordingly. You cannot get seat assignments that originate elsewhere, and people do move toward the back for the next leg of the flight.

We flew Air Bagan to Chiang Mai, and they were much more modern, having computerized records and able to make seat assignments.

LODGING & OTHER THOUGHTS

Yangon
In Yangon, we booked our own stay at Classique Inn, which is in Golden Valley. On a map, it didn’t look far from town, but with traffic, it wasn’t the ideal base location as there is nothing around there, although it is in an upscale residential neighborhood. We spent our first and last nights there. For the first night, it was fine, since we were totally jet lagged and had them prepare us an early dinner. For our last night it ended up being a pain, since from the airport we dropped off our luggage, then headed into town for lunch with Zaw and some final sightseeing before having dinner at Sharkey’s, which was on our way back to the hotel. In retrospect, we would have stayed in town but the original hotel we'd requested increased their rate 50% between 2013 and 2014, which totally annoyed me, so the Classique Inn booking was done as a reaction.

Bagan
Like a lot of people on this forum, in Bagan we stayed at the Hotel@Tharabar Gate. I guess I was expecting to be able to walk somewhere in the evening, but the November nights are very dark (bring a flashlight!), so our nighttime outings consisted of walking to watch the sunset at the river and walking across the street to have dinner at Yar Py or Starbeams (Be Kind to Animals the Moon is there too) or next door to Sarahba II. In retrospect, we’d probably do more research into possibly staying in New Bagan.

We did have a Santa Maria-arranged guide for our stay in Bagan. This was after the infamous Min Thu never definitively said he could guide us and stopped answering my emails until I fired him. There are plenty of very qualified guides available. Don’t feel that the one or two names on this forum are your only options.

I did do the Balloons over Bagan ride, which was a highlight for me. Santa Maria was able to arrange this for me at a much cheaper rate than my fellow riders traveling on an OAT tour. We also took at trip to Mt. Popa, but sickness and heat precluded us from walking to the top. It is an amazing sight and I don’t regret including it in our itinerary.

We only used our credit card once during our entire stay in Myanmar and that was to buy lacquerware at the Lotus Collection near New Bagan, which had a more modern selection. We were not charged a surcharge (but the cynical me thinks it was already built into the price).

[NOTE: for those enterprising folks out there, a fish pedicure or foot massage business would do well in Bagan.]

Inle Lake
I thought I’d done my homework when I picked Inle Lake View Resort for our stay in Inle Lake. Silly me, I figured between the road and lake access, we could take a boat or taxi into “town” after spending the day on the water. Since the boats don’t run at night and the taxi ride to Nyaungshwe would take 40 minutes, we didn’t have the chance to go there. Staying at Inle Lake View Resort, you are a captive audience. After our first night eating at the resort’s uninspiring and overpriced restaurant, we walked down the dark road to eat at Myat Thek Kaung for our other dinners, which was much more to our liking (again, bring your flashlight!).

We did meet the Yangon woman owner of the resort. We gave her some menu suggestions for the restaurant, which she seemed to take to heart. She told us that she had just opened a boutique hotel in Yangon. I think it’s called the Loft. How I wished we’d stayed there instead! She was quite lovely, as was the French manager and the local assistant manager. We were quite pleased with the level of service there, particularly when we had an issue with our shower. Unlike western hotels, we were shocked that the problem had been fixed when we returned to our room later that afternoon.

Upon arrival in Heho, we opted to go to Kakku. We really enjoyed seeing the small towns (and even Taunggyi) on our way there. Our Pa’O guide’s English was even less understandable than our driver, but it was a memorable side trip none-the-less.

Again we went through Santa Maria to hire a boat driver and a guide. Between the trip to Kakku and the boat driver, the prices were about the same that was quoted by the hotel, but we were happy to have paid for these expenses at the beginning of our trip.
The guide was a splurge, costing more than our guides in Yangon and Bagan, but she really did add value to our stay.

On our first day, we left our hotel by boat around 0700. The lake was idyllic in the early morning light, with the fishermen casting their nets. Our first stop was Indien, which was peaceful when we got there. No one was at the pagodas and the vendors were just beginning to set up their stands [NOTE: the items at the stands were not unusual at all. Recommend you go to Pomelo in Yangon instead]. We wandered down a side street and went to a house to buy some big rice crackers. By the time we left, hoards of tourists were headed there. I kept thinking: this is not Kathie’s Indien. It is now definitely part of the tourist circuit. From Indien, we went to Sankar, which we didn’t enjoy as much as Kakku, but it was quiet there and we loved going on the less visited part of the lake.

Our second day on the lake, we did do a more “tourist” circuit. The five-day market was at Paungdaw Oo Pagoda, where the village was getting ready for an alms ceremony. It was extremely crowded, mostly with locals and inside the pagoda was a glorious sight – novice monks sitting alongside Pa’O women in their turbans.

Wanting to buy a typical Shan bag, our guide took us on a walk, over bridges and through the village to the factory where the bags are made. We saw the looms, and met the family who makes the bags for the villagers to sell. Because they didn’t have a finished bag in the color I wanted, one of the men took the unassembled fabric and sewed up a bag while we waited. We felt this was a priceless experience, as we didn’t think this was a common tourist destination. The walk there was a big contrast from the hubbub of the market and the pagoda.

We did stop at Ywama silversmith village as well as the infamous Myat Pwint Chel, the lotus and silk weaving workshop. Both places now take credit cards, but discount for cash. I paid for my purchases with kyat, but the prices were quoted in dollars.

The places we liked the most this day were the floating gardens (they take up 25% of Inle Lake!) and the boat building workshop, where they build the boats you see on the lake using manual tools, dowels and screws – no nails. Lunch was at Inthar Heritage, which is a Burmese cat sanctuary. Sitting outside, we were able to watch life on the lake – fishermen, tradespeople, as well as tourist boats.

As you can probably tell, our favorite place was Inle Lake. We thought it was a magical place and hoped that the inevitable influx of tourism doesn’t change things too much.

One of our conversations with Zaw was on the lack of a central reservation system for travel agents. My response to him was that Myanmar could take all the lessons learned from western systems and be up and running in a fraction of the time. I think this holds true for the country in general. The service levels of hotels and restaurants generally met our expectations, and were much better than one would find in many other third world countries. Whether that’s indicative of the kinds of places we stayed, the gracious nature of the Myanmar people, or Myanmar following the lead of other successful hospitality examples remains to be seen. I’ll be curious to see how things change over the next five to ten years.

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