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Trip Report Tips for Myanmar in October

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I've been meaning to write up something for months. I got so much useful information from other travelers that I had to pay back the debt. I'm going to focus on general tips rather than a day-by-day recounting.

My wife and I traveled with our 2 kids (had their 5th and 3rd birthdays there) and my parents. From the end of September through the beginning of October we were in Myanmar for 11 days on the standard loop (Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay-Inle Lake) then we went to the Thailand beaches for a week. We used a tour agency to set up the trip that we wanted.

We arranged hotels, transfers and guides through the local Santa Maria Travels. I've used tour agencies all around the world and they were one of the best. The late afternoon flight they set up from Inle Lake to Yangon was sporadic and our flight was canceled. So, we were forced to take a morning flight back to Yangon, essentially giving us an extra day in the city (which we did not want). Santa Maria did everything possible to remedy the situation and make us happy. If you are looking for any level of tour agency involvement, I would recommend them.

Some travel itineraries go counterclockwise (Yandon-Inle-Mandalay-Bagan). I would recommend the standard clockwise direction. The first two days filled with Shwedagon, other sights in Yangon, and Bagan were the most intensely, mind blowing days. It is the most amazing “Welcome to Myanamar” and sure to be some of your favorite travel memories. Also, Inle lake is much cooler than the other stops. It was so nice to rest there after cooking in the heat of Bagan and Mandalay.

When we were there, the best place to change money was in the airports. Apparently the rates throughout the airports were fixed by the government, so it doesn't cost you more to change in Inle Lake (Heho Airport) than it does to change money in Yangon. We were forced to change outside the airport once and ended up getting a worse rate. Lower denomination bills have worse rates and the condition of the bills is still important, but they don't have to be in perfectly new, crisp shape. Just no marks, tears, or excessive wear.

Bagan is amazing. We spent 2 days in the area and 1 on a day trip to Mt Popa. It is the only place that we really wished that we had had an extra day.

We rode horse carts in Bagan and Inwa. Lots of reviews say that the carts in Bagan are much better. I didn't really find this to be the case. Besides the kids enjoying “driving” the carts, no one else in our group thought that horse carts were very worthwhile. They are bumpy, uncomfortable, hard to see around with the top up, hard to take photos from and hard to stop on the fly or go see things off the road the look interesting.

We had a car to drive us to major temples with a guide. That was great for learning about Buddhism, Bagan and Myanmar in general, but everyone's favorite was just exploring on our own. There are so many amazing things to see in the area. Bikes were our favorite way to get around. The entire area really isn't that big, so you can get most places just riding a bike. I'd recommend taking them out early to catch the sunrise and ride around in the cooler morning hours. Then, explore the ruins again in the late afternoon until sunset. There is talk of UNESCO taking over Bagan so I don't know how they will change things, but for now you can explore pretty much any temple. We would ask our guide if we could climb a temple or take pictures of something and their response would always be, “Why not?”

We used what Santa Maria and other tour agencies call stationed guides. They are locals of the particular area and only stay with you while you are in that area. Beforehand we were a little concerned about the English of these guides. When you pay to have someone teach you about the country, but can't even understand them it makes for a poor experience. All the guides that Santa Maria choose for us were amazing. Their English was excellent, they were friendly, great with our kids and made traveling so much easier.

I read a lot of reviews that said, if you are going to skip any of the typical stops in Myanmar, skip Mandalay. I would say that is true, Bagan and Inle Lake are more fascinating, but it doesn't mean Mandalay should be skipped. Even after Bagan we loved most of the things we did in Mandalay. Sagging Hill, the monastery, Mingun, U Bein bridge, craftsmen, etc. were all great.

However, the most dull and uneventful part of the trip for us was also in Mandalay. Inwa. You take a small boat across the river and then ride horse carts around to a few different places. It might be okay walking or biking, but if I were to redo my first trip to Myanmar, I would skip the area altogether. Nothing really stands out. If at all possible I would find something else to do around Mandalay.

King Mindon on the other hand knew how to build things. Everything that he built is worth visiting: Mingun pile of bricks and bell, largest book, teak temple, etc. I was afraid that the hour long ferry ride up the river to see the “largest pile of bricks” would be a waste of time. However, it ended up being very fun. You can walk on a small trail to the back of the Mingun pagoda and you'll have the place entirely to yourself.

If you are looking to buy souvenirs, these are the locations that I thought were best. Brass bells & windchimes – Bagan. Sand art – Bagan. Puppets – everywhere. Shirts – Yangon. Artwork (watercolor & ink) – Mingun & Mandalay. Laquerware – Bagan (of course). Crèche – Inle Lake. Silver Jewlery – Inle Lake. Silk – Inle Lake.

In budgeting, I had a hard time estimating how much cash to bring for meals. Our meals cost $7 each on average eating in nice restaurants. 1 liter of refrigerated bottled water cost about $0.45.

Pindaya is another place that I debated skipping. It is a long drive in the opposite direction from Inle Lake. After going there I only wish that we had had more time. Even with the long drive my 5yr old said of Pindaya, “This is the best day ever!” The hours of driving on bumpy roads were through the most amazingly beautiful countryside in Myanmar. It is all farmland for various crops. Everyone is out working in the fields and the colors of the hills are a stunning quilt of different shades of green.

After sampling the very loud boats on Inle Lake we opted to visit Kakku rather than Sankar. We didn't make it to Sankar or Indein so I can't compare the 3. We were told that they all have the same building style, but Sankar and Indein are in a more ruined state. The drive to Kakku was long. About an hour to get from a hotel on the lake to Taunggyi where you pick up a Pa-o guide and another hour to Kakku. The drive was not quite as enjoyable as the drive to Pindaya. Interacting with the Pa-o was fun and Kakku is really cool, but don't expect it to be the highlight of Myanmar.

Back in Yangon we re-visited the Chaukhtatgyi reclining Buddha. It was around 6pm when we visited on our first day in Myanmar so our kids were asleep. Who can be expected to stay awake that late into the evening? Anyway, when our 5yr old walked into the building he exclaimed, “Wow...” That sort of summed up Myanmar for me. No matter how many amazing things you see and do, there is always something else to wow you.

We were never worried about our safety or that of our kids. In fact Myanmar felt like one of the safest places we have ever been. After being in the country for a few days I left my backpack with passports and DSLR camera in it while I walked around a pagoda. Halfway around I remembered the value of the things left in my backpack. I actually debated whether I should even worry about it. I ended up running back and retrieving my things, which were untouched. I don't know if it is due to the goodness of the people or the brutality of the government, but Myanmar has a very safe feeling.

Traveling with kids in Myanmar was great. It allowed us to interact with people in ways that we wouldn't have been able to otherwise. The people are very loving and kind towards children. Once on U Bein bridge our kids were crying about something. Everyone tried to console them, to the point of giving them the merchandise that they were trying to sell. Small trinkets, but when you consider the people's income it is very generous of them. If you are debating taking your kids to Myanmar, take them. It isn't filthy dirty, there aren't sick beggars everywhere, you can always find food that they will eat, and everyone is very cognizant of the children's safety (on high ledges or water's edge, etc).

Just a short note about Thailand. We went to Railey Beach, Krabi to snorkel, play on the beach and ride elephants with our kids. The scenery was breathtaking, like every picture you see of perfect beaches. It was perfect for what we were wanting. However, we found things to be more expensive in Thailand and the people not as friendly. If I was doing the trip again, I would have cut out Thailand and tried to go to the elephant camp and beach in Myanmar instead. Not that Thailand is bad, but Myanmar is just that great.

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