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Trip Report Myanmar trip report 2012

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Things have changed since the last Lonely Planet was published. I suggest not bothering to purchase it.

We are middle range travelers. We like to stay in smaller, boutique hotels, and spend our money on trinkets rather than on upscale hotels. That being said, my daughter, and 4 other friends set out for a 11 day tour of Myanmar, with a local tour company. We spent a third of what other companies were charging because we don't need to stay at the Strand or Traders. We stayed around the corner though. All places that Santa Maria suggested were clean and the beds comfortable. They even had hairdryers - a novelty item when I travel! We were in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Kalaw and Inle lake. Since the trip was SO inexpensive, we upgraded to the Princess at Inle Lake and did not regret it. What an awesome place.
We brought about $100 in one dollar bills and never used any of them. The airport exchange rate is no different than anywhere else and we changed about $400 dollars there. That lasted about the whole trip. If you exchange $100 bills, you get a better rate. There are still no ATM;s ,except in Yangon, but lots of banks are around to exchange more money if you need to. Every hotel either had internet or the town had an internet cafe. However, sometimes they did not have connectivity or my family did not receive the emails, even though they appeared to go through. And, almost everywhere, there were western style flush toilets and (gasp) toilet paper! This is a big difference from when the Lonely Planet was published and things are changing, literally on a daily basis.
Food is very inexpensive, usually no more than $7-$12.00 for an entree. We stayed at the Mandalay City hotel, which had good food and a lovely pool, which we never got to use as the days were jam packed with activities. Be aware though, that it is right next to a mosque, which loudly announces morning prayer and loudly has chanting in the evening. We stayed at the Bagan Thande Hotel which was awesome, and the Dream Villa Motel in Kalaw, which was very basic ( a back packer hotel for sure) but within walking distance of their restaurant which was very good.
When I do this trip again (yes, I want to go back!) I would stay 3 days in Bagan and at inle lake - we stayed 2 in each place, In Bagan, we were too exhausted to walk into the town and had no time to see the National museum which was right behind the hotel (which is on the river and surprisingly unbuggy). We took the balloon ride and did not regret that either.
I would also stay another day at Inle Lake in order to explore their village and rent bikes for the afternoon. Mt Popa was a fun day and an easy walk up, as the whole place is covered with a canopy and the stairs are all ceramic tile - I expected more of a macchu Picchu kind of situation, but it was actually over built, as far as i am concerned. Watch out for the monkey pee , which is slippery , and the walk is done barefoot.
Make sure your guide takes you to a real lacquer ware factory in Bagan, as the process is amazing. We also bought honey and peanuts along the roadside and learned how to make LePet, a popular snack.
What we liked best about using a local tour company was being able to use local guides, as their knowledge base (in my opinion) far exceeds even the best american guide, as they live the life and know the history from a personal level.
A word of warning for those who are thinking about taking the all day boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan.... it is ALL DAY. 11 hours worth of all day, on rattan seats with no cushions, or downstairs with cushions but diesel fumes and incredible engine noise. Also, at least on our boat, there was only lunch served. No snacks of any kind. It is not like a ride on the Nile, there is not much to see. Better to fly to Bagan and spend your extra 10 hrs there.
I am now the proud owner of ruby earrings, several marionette (marionette show in Mandalay was adorable and very "local"), many "jade" necklaces,seed key rings and bracelets, another silk scarf, and several sand paintings. Everything is made by hand, at the moment, in this country, which makes it all the more special. I will post more if I think of anything else of interest.

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