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Trip Report Yet Another Myanmar Trip Report Before I Forget Everything

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Apologies for lateness to all of you who were so helpful with my last minute add-on trip to Myanmar. We got back from Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia in mid-February, but jumped right into a remodel project that has kept me busy. Since there have been so many TR's lately, I will try to concentrate on additional and/or different info from other reports, but my enthusiasm for the country may make me forget this pledge. As some may remember, I asked for help when the Laos portion of our trip got cancelled, and we only had approx. 6 weeks to plan for Burma and no advance research except for your wonderful TR's.

We emailed Santa Maria Travel and corresponded with Zaw. He set us up with drivers, guides, air tickets, hotels and Balloons over Bagan. We didn't quibble with hotel choices too much as many places had already booked up. We decided to limit ourselves to 3 areas given our limited time before meeting up with our Vietnam group in Bangkok. We even left Burma one day before we totally had to, just in case there were any pesky flight cancellations that several posts had warned of. We could not afford to miss our group...but as it turned out, every flight was on time with no changes and we could have stayed an extra day.

One big issue...because this was added on after we had already purchased RT tickets from SFO to BKK, and because we were flying discount airline Air Asia to Yangon from BKK, we couldn't check our bags all the way through. As a consequence, we had to go through immigration in BKK, pick up our bags, go to check them in and go through immigration again to get on our flight. We arrived in BKK at around 11:00am, and I had picked a late afternoon flight to Yangon, just in case of emergency. I am really glad we did, as the airport was packed and it took a whopping 1 hour and 45 minutes to get through immigration and another 30 minutes to get back through. It all worked out but was very tiring on top of a long haul flight. We arrived in Yangon in the early evening and a Santa Maria agent was there to take us to our hotel and get situated.

Our itinerary was:
2 nights Yangon -Park Royal Hotel
3 nights - Arewaddy Riverview Hotel
3 nights Inle Lake- Inle Paradise Resort
1 night Yangon- Summit Parkview Hotel

We never made it out of the hotel for dinner as we had intended, and just relaxed and went to sleep, as Zaw would be picking us up the next morning for a full day of sightseeing. The Park Royal was a typical business hotel. Several other hotels we had asked about were totally booked and we were happy to get a comfortable, clean room. Our room was fairly spacious and the bathroom was fine, but had seen better days. It turned out to be way nicer than our room at the Summit Parkview later in the trip, but did not include the nice Schwedagon view we got there. The breakfast included in the rate was quite extensive with sections for Asian, Indian and western foods.

Zaw showed up on time and was very nice, informative and fun to tour with. His English was OK, though not as good as the gentleman's who picked us up at the airport. We did what was probably a fairly generic, and energetic, itinerary that kept us moving until evening. That was OK with us, as we only had a little time in Yangon. It included Sule Pagoda, Botataung Pagoda, the extremely large reclining Buddha, Scott Market, the Moseah Yeshua Synagogue (home to the only eight Jewish families left in Yangon), several street markets, and a long walk around downtown including the Strand Hotel and a building with several different banks in one room, so we could change some money. We wanted a very local lunch, so Zaw took us to a little hole in the wall restaurant where we picked various curries. He picked what he called pork curry. When he wanted me to try some I did, though it didn't look like what I call pork. As I suspected it was pork innards, something I don't like, but I got one bite down, and DH gamely had a few more to be polite. Our pick of some kind of shrimp balls was fairly tasty. We didn't eat the raw veggies that came with it, so no stomach issues at all. while the food was only OK, the ambience was just what I was looking for. All local working people having a regular meal. The real winner of the day, of course, was Schwedagon Pagoda, a place where you can spend hours and just can't stop taking photos. Everything about it is so interesting, from the architecture to the worshippers. When the lights come on in the evening, it is quite glorious. One thing I found interesting was the "Las Vegas" Buddhas with their neon haloes around the heads. I had never seen that in other temples before. Lots of bling. I wish I could go on to give you a restaurant report, but I don't think we ate dinner. We had to leave the hotel early the next morning for our flight to Bagan, so they packed a breakfast box for us. They also had croissant and coffee available in the lobby for those leaving very early. A nice touch.

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    I'm glad to see your report! I'm glad it all worked out on such short notice.

    The "Las Vegas" Buddhas - lol, good description- yes, you see the neon around the Buddhas in Mandalay as well. A very odd elaboration, IMO, and it made me wonder what started the trend.

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    Nice start! We're planning on visiting the synagogue in Yangon, also. I believe the Rabbie is also a travel agent and his son lives here in the U.S. A friend stopped there this summer and said it/he was very interesting and fun.

    We're also only going to be in Yangon for a day and right now, because so many of the Fodorites have said it's not really necessary to have a guide in Yangon, are not planning on doing so--but it sounds like it might just be the most economical use of time???

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    520-
    We did find it an economical use of time. It could certainly be done on your own, but we got around to many more things in a short amount of time. I did want to fit in the circular train on our own, but we just ran out of time. Later on in the TR, I will talk about our half day in Yangon at the end, and again fit in a lot.

    On to Bagan. We had arranged to meet up with Min Thu based on Kathie's great recommendation, and to be picked up at the airport by his brother. We arrived at our hotel by 9am. We thought we were with Min Thu for the afternoon we arrived, as well as the next 2 days, but he was going to be busy the afternoon we arrived, which turned out just fine for us. We had tried to get the Inn at Tharabar Gate, but they were full. Santa Maria then recommended the Kumandara in New Bagan, but we decided we would prefer to be in Old Bagan. We settled on the Riverview and it has some nice features depending on what you want. On the downside for those who want to be close to restaurants, it is further out and on the river bank, so it was a 30 minute walk to "downtown". We like to walk and are used to getting outrageously sweaty when we are in SE Asia, so it worked. We could certainly have taken a taxi or horse cart, but we wanted to explore. On the upside, after a long wrangle with reception about what room we were getting, we ended up in a spacious room right on the river with a balcony that was always in the shade, where you could watch as people fished, did laundry, herded water buffalo and generally lived life, and you lounged about. So it's another option to consider. It does have a nice pool area, a spa and restaurant which we only used for breakfast. It was the typical buffet with egg station and assortment of ethnic breakfast choices, but we did not find it to be anything special.

    What is special, is Min Thu. What a lovely person he is. We enjoyed our 2 days of slowly clip clopping along and went to loads of pagodas, enjoying every Buddha image we came across. I will leave the longer descriptions to Kathie's TR that inspired me to contact Min Thu. We kept the apples from our breakfast box in Yangon for his horse Susu, who seemed to really enjoy them. Thanks to the poster who suggested that! In addition to the temples, we enjoyed the local market in his village (which is very close to our hotel) and watching the novice monks in his village make their rounds with their alms bowls. After we visited Shwezigon Pagoda, knowing we liked to just see local life, he took us to a nearby village where all the villagers make bricks by hand. It was quite warm and the work looked hard, hot and quite amazing. We then went to a local rice wine distillery and "pub" where the man in charge plied us with samples of all his different wares. We also wanted to check out the lacquerware and we visited the shop with the finest quality and another of lesser quality. Though we had seen demos of lacquerware in several places before, the quality shop had impressive artisans...and impressive prices. We almost, but did not, purchase anything. After seeing the lacquerware in Vietnam, I kind of wish I had.

    We did go on the sunrise hot air balloon ride, and enjoyed it quite a bit. If it's in your budget it is worth doing. Where else in the world can you soar over 1000's of temples scattered across a plain? A lot of fun and wow, you even get a baseball cap to prove you were there. If it's not in the budget,climbing to the top of some of the larger temples gives a great view too.

    We loved Bagan and were sorry to leave. If time was not an issue, I think another day or two would have suited us just fine. If you tire of temples, then I think our almost 3 full days is enough. Oh, forgot about eating. We had lunch 2 times at Be kind to Animals, The Moon and enjoyed it. DH loves tofu and liked their curry. I had a great, but mild guacamole served with pappadam. They have gigantic delicious avocados in Burma. Their pumpkin soup was really good too.

    A driver from Santa Maria picked us up early the next morning for our flight to Heho, for our trip to Kakku and on to Inle Lake.

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    Thanks dgunbug and marya. I didn't think anyone was reading.

    Anyway, on to Inle. As with the rest of the flights it was on time. The only weird thing is the way the flights are announced. A person walks around with a small sign on a stick, sometimes quite silently, that has the airline, flight number and destination on it. This generally works OK, but I was studiously watching for our flight and a man with a sign went by several times but it had a different flight number on it. Finally, we approached him because it seemed like time for our flight and almost all the passengers had shuffled out the door and he said yes, this is your flight and didn't seem to think it odd that he had the wrong number on the sign. Oh well, we made it out on time with a few other puzzled passengers and were on our way.

    We had read several TR's about side trips to both Kakku and Pindaya and had decided to go to Kakku from the airport and then on to the Lake. We knew it would make a long day considering getting up early and a lot of driving, but decided Kakku sounded like something unusual to see. Our guide, who was a freelancer supplied by Santa Maria, and driver were there at the airport. As it turned out, if i had realized that this guide would add very little to the day, because we also had the obligatory Pa-O guide for Kakku, we would have foregone having him. He was quite nice and did speak English, which was good because the driver did not, but it got quite crowded in the small car with 5 of us and he had nothing to do or say until we dropped off the Pa-O guide. We got our guide in Taunggyi. She was a lovely young woman studying at the university there. Her dream was to own her own business being a distributor of tobacco for the making of cheroots. She wore the traditional garb with of the Pa-O, with the distinctive colored "turban" and showed us how easy it was to wind it on properly.

    It was a long drive to Kakku through fairly scenic farms and villages. She answered our questions along the way. I was wondering how we'd know when we got there until all of a sudden you knew you were there. 2478 stupas ( though I can't swear that's the correct number) with their metal umbrellas and chimes tinkling in the breeze, it was quite a sight. I had been prepared for the fact that they would be restored stupas, so I didn't expect ruins. While there is certainly a quarrel to be had with the way they went about the restoration, I think it certainly is an amazing sight. There were very few people when we got there, so it was a peaceful place to walk around and our guide showed us the best place to take a photo, where you could get both the stupas and their reflections in the water of a reflection pool.
    We had put in an order for lunch at the restaurant across the way, and it was ready for us when we got back from walking through the site. Don't expect great food, but it is a great view and the beer was cold!

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    I am reading and enjoying your report.

    Interestingly, the Park Royal Hotel, which you were able to book at the last minute was totally booked in August when we made our reservations for January, so we had to take our second choice, which worked out fine. I guess the lesson for those booking future trips is that if you have your heart set on a particular hotel and it is booked, keep checking for cancellations as they do occur.

    I am happy your last minute trip to Myanmar worked out so well. Did you enjoy your trip to Vietnam which I think you were going to visit after Myanmar?

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    Thanks everyone for letting me know you're out there. Yes, Shelley, sf 3707 said good things about Summit Parkview, but that was booked. I wasn't sure I wanted to spring for the Strand or Governor's Residence, but maybe in the future I will go more luxe. Right now we are taking quantity over quality. We had just come back from diving for 7 weeks and are leaving in 2 weeks for more diving, so I find that we "cheap out" in little ways where we can. Vietnam and Cambodia were great, it was our first ever group tour with OAT and we had some terrific experiences.

    Back to Kakku; we left after lunch and stopped in a Pa-O village where we walked around the village and stopped in a home where grandparents were babysitting their 2 very energetic and friendly grandsons while the parents were working. They showed us around the house and small garden. Further down the street a woman was doing yard work and I found it interesting that she was wearing the full black traditional clothing. It was pretty warm by that time and it looked like working in a wool suit would be. We drove back to Taunggyi to drop off our Pa-O guide ( I just found her name, Nang Htoo Yam) and unfortunately it was too late to explore around the town. We headed off to the Lake because we needed to get to the resort by boat before dark.

    We stayed at the Paradise Inle Resort and our guide had to go back to Nyaungshwe, because there were no vacancies on the lake. It was a typical Inle Lake resort on stilts and it was OK, but not one of the nicest on the lake. I think it was the best one Santa Maria could get at that late date. Our bamboo bungalow was way far from reception. It was a huge room with a sitting area and a gigantic bathroom. It had a musty smell upon entering but after a few minutes you couldn't really smell it. The furnishings were utilitarian at best. As with most bamboo sided houses, there is no insulation and I had to laugh at everyone saying how hot they were in Burma. We just about froze at night on the lake. The only way we could shower was to do it just as we got back from a day out, because at night and in the morning it was really, really cold in there. I wore everything I had with me!

    The breakfast buffet was the least extensive of any of the places we stayed. You are pretty much captive for dinner as the resort is situated right on the lake, not nearby anything. We found a couple of dishes we liked a lot, so it worked out for us. There were some big tour groups coming through the resort, mostly French or German. So at dinnertime we were one of the few small tables, with some long tables for 20 or 30 people. The first night they had some entertainment, a local band of the same sorts of instruments that greet you every time your boat pulls up to the resort. We could hear it even from our bungalow, but they stopped before we went to sleep. There was also a bar, but we never checked it out. There was free wi-fi, but we needed to go to the lobby to get it to work.

    In spite of the above, we absolutely loved our time at the lake. Gotta go, back in a bit.

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    The next morning we were picked up by our boat and guide to go to the 5 day market which was being held at Indien. The morning was still chilly, but warmed up as the day went on. The boatman had blankets for us and umbrellas to put in front of you as a shield for the wind. He would slow the boat when we would start to take photos, especially of the fishermen's one legged rowing while they used both hands to put out their nets. The ride was really interesting and it was very odd to be actually going "uphill" as the channel narrowed and there were little gates we would go through as the water level went up a couple of inches.

    We got there a little before the major crowds though it was still very busy. We are local market junkies and so we had a great time. We bought some of the big round crackers that they sell skewered through a bamboo stick, very cheap and tasty. We also bought some peanut brittle that was better than any I ever had. Our guide bargained for a hat and it was fun to see how a local does it. We chatted with a man selling native medicines and really liked a little metal man figure he used to smash up herbs. He said it was not for sale, as his uncle gave it to him years ago. Later we walked to Shwe Inn Thien Paya via a walk through the woods instead of up the covered stairway. We came across a lady sitting making the big crackers by taking the rice paper, burying it in the heated sand for a few seconds and when it crisped took it out and shook off the sand. She offered us one as a gift and I offered her some peanut brittle. She didn't want it, but from out of nowhere there were suddenly 10 children with their hands out. At the top we explored the paya and the mostly ruined 1054 stupas on the hillside. We walked down the stairway and found the exact little pot metal man we had seen at the market and bought it. When we got down to the bottom, the vendor, who must have run down the hill as fast as he could, was waiting there for us to sell us another one. The guide and I said no and walked away, leaving DH who for some reason was still arguing with him, and sure enough, 5 minutes later he walks up holding the second one, declaring it was a much better price. As it turned out we ended up seeing these figures all over the place.

    We also went to Phaung Daw Oo Paya, wandered the village nearby, by boat and on foot, and seeing the floating gardens. We did not want to go to all the various tourist stops, but did agree to see them weaving lotus fibers and silk and it turned out to be pretty interesting. We did not plan on seeing the jumping cat monastery, but we were going by and agreed to take a quick peek and caught the "tail" end of a performance. Our guide knew we were interested in wildlife and so he took us to a place he knew where the ibis and egrets come in to roost in the trees before sunset and there were hundreds of them flying in. This is situated at the rear of, I think, the Golden Island Cottages II. It also had a path you can follow into a village that was a nice walk to take.

    We picked up our Pa-O guide, Meng Zaw, at this same hotel the next morning for our trip down to Sankar. As with Kakku, it was superfluous to have the Santa Maria guide with us, too. Our first stop was at Nampan for the five day market there. This was much bigger than the market at Indien. Meng Zaw was great to tour the market with. He was much more knowledgeable about things than the other guide.

    What was remarkable about the trip down to Sankar was the sudden absence of all tourist boats as soon as we left Nampan. We really enjoyed the boat ride and were very glad we had decided to go. Sankar was so different than Kakku, but you could see that there was restoration starting and I hope it will not be a repeat of Kakku. It was very peaceful wandering through the ruins of the stupas and very atmospheric with some partly submerged in the water.

    We also visited a rice wine distillery across the river and had lunch, as well as some samples of the 40% and 60% rice wine. I had the boniest chicken curry ever, so the rice wine was better than the food, though not by a lot. After lunch, we walked through the village to Tar Kaung Pagoda and its numerous stupas and Buddha images. They were putting in a new area in the village with a number of restrooms. They weren't ready for us, but I think ShelleyK got to!

    In summary, w,e loved our time on the lake and were sorry we did not have time to see Nyaungshwe or Taunggyi at all or to do any more walking. We enjoyed seeing Kakku, but I think we would have been disappointed if we had gone after Inle Lake. There were so many stupas to see there on the lake, that the impact of the sheer numbers at Kakku would have been a letdown at the end, compared to seeing them first.

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    I'm glad you had a great time at Inle. We stayed at a hotel beside the lake and never had the problem with it being so cold. I guess that's an advantage to being beside rather than on the lake that I never thought of. Certainly it's cold out on the lake in the morning and we brought plenty of layers.

    The hot/cold contrast in Burma is a surprise. I've been traveling in SE Asia for nearly 30 years, and I've never been as hot as I was in Rangoon the first time I was there (they were having a heat wave) nor as cold as I was on the boat ride from Mrauk U to Sittwe. We were wearing all of our layers, had our hoods up, and the boatmen put blankets over us!

    I'm still following along with you.

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    I'm glad you are, Kathie. I was struck by the same thing. We travel regularly in SE Asia and we are always hot. We were astounded at how cold it was at times. I packed as I usually do and was caught off guard. A sweatshirt would have been welcome, but my thin sweater and a long sleeve shirt and the wool scarf I wore to SFO came in handy.

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    I'm still following along, also.

    I think the temperatures on the lake are a daily hit or miss thing as we were directly on the lake in Jan. and the temps at night never got below the high 40's. Coming from New England, that is not cold. It was much colder at night in Kalaw, in the mountains.

    Your report has brought back many happy memories. Thanks for posting.

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    We left Inle Lake quite early to get to the airport for our morning flight back to Yangon. Our boatman was on time as well as the driver who met us at the dock in Nyaungshwe. We had said goodbye to our guide the evening before. If we had it to do again, we would have just used the Pa-O guide where necessary for Kakku and Sankar, and possibly used a guide the middle day, though if you have time to thoroughly research what you want to see on the lake and can transmit the request to the boatman, it isn't crucial by any means. For our purposes, it was nice having someone who spoke English and knew his way around the lake to get us where we wanted to go with efficiency of time.

    Our flight back to Yangon was on time and we were picked up at the airport by a guide new to Santa Maria. We had one last afternoon to sightsee. We wanted a local place for lunch and the driver, who was the same one we had the first day, suggested a teahouse that was totally off the tourist track. It was tasty and cheap. We went to the 24 hour market, which I think is the same market that used to be in another part of town, but moved very recently. It was gigantic and combined the fish, meat and produce markets with a large flower market. Our guide bought us various fruit to try...we used our bottle of water to wash it first and had no ill effects...and insisted on sending us back to the hotel with bananas and avocados and I can't remember what else, even though we said we were leaving the next morning. A lady selling lots of varieties of dried shrimp wanted us to sample her best quality, and while I was nervous, it was surprisingly good and not real salty or fishy. Just as we were leaving, after roaming for almost an hour, we saw the only other tourists in the place arrive. If you are a market fan, this was a really good one.

    We went to a pagoda with a huge marble Buddha and we also made a dreadful stop, since we were very nearby, to the white elephants. This was not part of my plan and it was awful. There are 3 elephants chained very tightly by one leg and unable to reach each other or move much and they keep them that way except for approximately four hours or something ridiculous. It was very sad and one of the elephants was clearly going cuckoo, doing that kind of perseverating movements that cooped up animals do. I wish they would take them off display!

    We had made an appointment to visit the synagogue, which was not open the day we went there and after that wandered through a Hindu Temple unfortunately undergoing a very messy renovation that got our feet really dirty. We ended up by wandering through Chinatown and sampling some very good corn fritters and fresh bread. By the time we got to the hotel it was dark and we were tired. So we relaxed in the room watching our view of Shwedagon and eating bananas and avocados! Not how we planned the last night, but it worked out fine, since we were pretty stuffed from all the street food. The next morning we flew to Bangkok to meet up with our OAT group going to Vietnam and Cambodia.

    We were very happy that we decided to take this spur of the moment trip to Burma. I only wish we had had more time to explore, as it is a wonderfully interesting country. The people were friendly and I am sure we will continue to stay in touch with Min Thu, if only to say hello once in a while. Thank you to everyone whose posts inspired us to go and whose suggestions were unerringly on the mark.

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    Great report. Sorry I missed the Yangon market you went to. It wasn't mentioned in LP. Just curious as to where it was located, if you know. I agree that you really do not need a guide at Inle Lake if you do some reading beforehand an know where you want to go. I am glad you had a good trip. Thanks for posting.

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    Shelley- sorry I don't know exactly where it was, but can probably find out. It really was a great one and I probably would not have found it without a guide, as it wasn't close to where we stayed.

    Thanks Kathie- hope I have a second chance too. Hope the elections today help keep things going in the right direction!

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