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    by mkataoka Fodor's Editor | Posted on Nov 28, 16 at 01:31 PM
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Trip Report Yangon Made Easy

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We had a 2 night cruise (Seabourn) stop in Yangon, and I wanted to book a private tour experience rather than a cruise shore excursion. So, after reading TA reviews and a NY Times article about ProNiti travel, contacted Min, the owner, and set up a two day tour experience. Our guide, Zayao (sp?) and driver "Ollie" was very patient as we dealt with passport delays in getting off the ship. I'd asked for a 7am pickup as the temperature was predicted to reach 104 today, but we couldn't get off the ship until about 8:45a despite the ship arriving at 5a in port. Since our cruise port was about 1 1/2 hr drive from Yangon, had decided to spend night in Yangon at the Savoy Hotel (excellent, booked it myself) rather than driving back and forth for a two day tour.

First, we went to Pomelo, a free trade shop with hand made items from disadvantaged kids, which I'd requested. Wished I had room for the large, colorful paper mache elephants but got a beaded necklace and bracelet and some beautiful hand made cards. Then visited Botataung Paya, which houses a sacred hair relic of Buddha, where Zayao was very helpful in explaining the Buddhist practices behind the temple. I wondered why so many individuals were facing one of the many corners that come to a point and he said for privacy in praying while so many are around. Very pretty with some ceilings and walls covered with mirrored mosaics.
Next stop, Scotts Market, which met my expectations that we should have skipped it. We were given an hour to shop on our own (without success). I had heard of a good shop with tribal fabrics but they were very expensive and I didn't care for the darkness of them.

After this, Zayou said we'd catch the circular train to our lunch destination. So, we got to observe (and be observed) by locals as we traversed four stops to disembark at Padomar restaurant, which was very good and safe eating. At first I thought it looked like a typical large tourist spot, as there were some buses in the parking lot. There was a lovely garden outside for eating, but not at lunch when you needed the a/c. They offered a selection of both Burmese and Thai food, Had vegetable tempura with tamarind sauce (OK), and a good prawn curry with coconut rice (good but not that spice) and Thai chicken noodle stir fry that was the best.
After lunch, in the heat of the day, we checked into the Savoy for a much needed nap and a too quick dip in their lovely pool. The hotel was very charming in an old Burmese colonial style and we had a large bedroom that overlooked the pool and garden. Breakfast the next morning out on the terrace overlooking the pool was also delightful.

At 4:15, we went to tour the Chaut That Gyi Pagoda, home of the enormously reclining Buddha. Zayou spent a long time explaining various Buddhist concepts and answering our many questions. We learned that because the Buddha's head is painted with long eyelashes, bright eyes and red lips, it indicates he's young and healthy. Because his face pointed south, he's just resting, not experiencing nirvana. The astrological marks on the bottom of his soles had indicated that he would become the Buddha from being Prince Siddhartha. Zayou looked up what day we were born on so we could worship at the animal station associated with your day of birth. Basically, you pour a cup of cool water over the Buddha figure in your station to cool off and ease your mind. He also took us down the steps to a monastery where the monks lived and talked about their life.

Tonight I booked dinner at Le Planteur, an excellent French restaurant now in an old beautiful colonial villa set on the shore of Lake Inya. We had a lovely table outside on the second floor terrace, and enjoyed watching the people from our cruise on a shore excursion who were eating at large round tables on the lawn and being harassed by a gaggle of geese. So glad we were up above the fray. There was a local dance performance being done for the cruise group so we could also enjoy that. After a glass of Taittinger champagne (yes, available by the glass!), enjoyed a delicious starter of stuffed pasta shells and DH had roasted mushroom soup, great bread, my veal medallion wasn't tender enough, but his duck breast was out of this world and we shared items from the delicious dessert trolley. They drove us back to our hotel in a 1955 red & white Oxford beautifully restored car…complimentary. Overall, an enchanting evening.

The next morning, Zayou picked us up at 8a for our visit to the prime attraction, Shwedagon Pagoda. Most people view this at sunset, but I'd requested an early am visit when it would be cooler, we'd be fresher, and I thought, less crowded. However, it was a Sunday morning and it happened to be when the new novices and their families paraded around the temple. So, while crowded, it was filled with colorful sights of the young monks and nuns celebrating their journey so was able to take many photos. We took an elevator up to the complex, and after traversing the covered walkway, you come upon the large main complex which is aglow with glitter, noise and sparkly pavilions with many Buddha images and large temple bells. For being so hot out and having to walk barefoot, the floor remained cool. The zedi is 325' tall and covered with gold leaf and topped with diamonds…it has been restored lately and is almost completed. Very interesting and we spent several hours here before the heat became unmanageable.

After this, on request , we toured the Bogyoke Aung San Museum. the home where Aung San Suu Kyi's father lived and where she lived as a young child. It was filled with photos from his memorable short life as he was assassinated in his early 30's and was a touching and humble memorial. The home and belongings were simple and offered cool breezes.

Following this, we stopped for lunch at the historic Strand Hotel, where we also drove by some of the colonial buildings, then headed back to the ship.

Pro Niti provided a personalized, custom experience with good guide and driver and Min responded quickly to my emails….very happy with the experience! I was also glad not to spend more time in Yangon, partly from the heat, but also there was a lot of ramshackle squalor. Our guide said there has been many improvements over the last 3 years with better roads, more reliable electricity, and the proliferation of cell phones, which have become very cheap. We read some articles in local papers which openly criticized the government and published articles of violence at the borders so it seemed as if free speech has become a reality.

Our last morning in Myanmar we opted to go on a ship excursion to a local village, Thanylin, so that we 'd be sure to get back in time. This was disappointing as first of all, the "village" wasn't very small. The experience was rather contrived as we first rode on an old wooden pony cart (one couple and driver per cart) and paraded through the busy traffic clogged streets. I'm sure the local drivers loved that. Then we walked around some quieter village streets and watched a street eats woman prepare a snack. Then, got on a tri-shaw ride, 1 per biker, that dropped us off at a local market. Had about 45 minutes to walk around and see the fruit's/vegetables/flowers and other sundry items….at least it was covered and the most fun was all the kids saying "hello" then laughing…predominately about 10 year old boys so they must be learning English in school at age. Overall, pretty low key. Finally, we ended up at a small monastery where no one was there…until a bit later a couple of kids showed up. One was sitting next to a bigger chair, which was the head monk's chair. Apparently, one American didn't hear that as to the horror of our tour guide, he sat in it and several rushed over to ask him to get up.

One thing I forgot to mention earlier was the beauty practice of Burmese women to apply a type of yellow clay paste called Thanaka on their faces…typically in a round design on the cheeks. Often little boys also had this type of decoration.

While we didn't get to see the best of Myanmar, as flying to Bagan or Lake Inle was too risky in missing the ship, we did enjoy our time in Yangon. We were thankful we hadn't arranged a flight to the north, as onboard ship we learned that our published departure time of 4p on the third day had been moved up to 11a by the immigration authorities, not enough time to fly back from the north…so future cruisers, beware.

Earlier on our cruise, we had had several enrichment lectures by the former ambassador of South Africa to Myanmar & Thailand, who spoke of the history and politics of Myanmar and one lecture was solely devoted to Aung San Suu Kyi. HIs admiration for her shone through his words as he described several meetings he'd had with her. He told us he's met many famous people throughout his career, but Aung San Suu Kyi, along with Nelson Mandela, stood apart for possessing such a special quality. Hearing those lectures helped us put our visit in a bit more context.

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