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22 Days in Burma, Northern Thailand & Southern Laos

22 Days in Burma, Northern Thailand & Southern Laos

Old Jan 1st, 2011, 03:28 AM
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22 Days in Burma, Northern Thailand & Southern Laos

Our Background: Robbie (short for Roberta) is 65 and DH Fred is 72. In our young marriage (8 1/2 years) we've been to Asia several times. We'd been to Luang Prabang and loved it and we'd spent 2 + weeks in Burma in '05. We knew we wanted a return to Burma and wanted to see other parts of Thailand and Laos. I had been to Northern Thailand (and Cambodia) in my previous life but felt sure Fred would like to experience Northern Thailand.
Planning: Of our two trips to India, trip to Vietnam, Bhutan, Laos, Thailand, etc, etc, I found planning this trip the most labor intensive. Besides dealing with 9 internal flights, I had to make arrangement with in bound operators in all three countries. I utilized many of the suggestions offered by the Asia experts on this board, but had to do a lot of research in addition. We took in to account several considerations in constructing the itinerary: we wished to minimize the number of days devoted solely to transit (good luck); some flights on Lao Air to Pakse, Laos only fly on two or three days a week; if possible, we wanted to avoid the Gowd awful compulsory Christmas and New Year's Eve dinners required at some resorts.
So an overview of our itinerary looked like this:
Burma: 1 night Rangoon, 3 nights Bagan, 2 nights Kandawgyi, 1 night Rangoon.
Thailand: 3 nights Chiang Mai, 3 nights Golden Triangle
Laos: 2 nights Don Daeng Is, 1 night Don Khong Is, 1 night in the boonies, 1 night Bolaven Plateau, 1 night Pakse
Thailand: 4 nights Krabi
In an effort to maximize the Business Class frequent flyer miles we were using, I booked Thai Air (through Continental miles) LA-Bangkok-Rangoon and on the return Krabi-Bangkok-LA.
I'll save info on packing strategies, reading material and other stuff at the end.
BURMA
I still persist in ineffectively making a statement against the ruling military regime by calling it Burma but I found that to communicate with the local people, one must refer to the country as Myanmar.
The Thai flight from Los Angeles was blessedly uneventful. If I were paying for these BC seats, I would not be happy: not fully flat bed seats, lackluster food and service. Certainly not the Thai BC of 10 or 15 year ago. But under the circumstances, I relinquished my complaining rights when I got the free ticket.
So after 20 some hours we were finally in Rangoon. Getting through the arrival procedures was simple and efficient, no military in sight.
You may recall that Visa on Arrival was suspended back in September, given the upcoming November "elections" ( a referendum on a bogus constitution). This service was expected to be reinstated sometime after the November 7th electrion but just in case it was't, I sent away for a visa. Got the visa back from the Union of Myinmar Embassy in DC in 10 days. The vis application instructions say to use Fed Ex, very complicated. For reasons not worth describing I advise using US Priority Mail. More to come. Happy New Year to everyone.
I am indebted to so many active contributors to this board: Kathie, Craig, Dogster, fromDC, nywoman, Bob of Bob and Karen and many others. We took Bob's suggestion of a guide in Rangoon and Kyan [email protected]) met us at the airport. Kyan ("just call me Joe") was a delightful fellow.
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Old Jan 1st, 2011, 04:40 AM
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Happy New Year, Robbie - nothing better than starting it off reading one of your detailed trip reports. Keep it coming!
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Old Jan 1st, 2011, 10:46 AM
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Welcome home, Robbie! I've been looking forward to your report. I can't wait to hear about your time in Burma!
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Old Jan 1st, 2011, 11:17 AM
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A great start to the New Year!
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Old Jan 1st, 2011, 12:21 PM
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glad joe worked out for you.... we just loved him and have kept in touch.
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Old Jan 1st, 2011, 08:01 PM
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Thanks for the encouragement and Happy New Year all. I'm not home yet. Actually touring southern Laos but found a reliable computer at Kingfisher Lodge that was not in use for hours at a time, so I began. Enjoyed an elephant ride up to an ancient temple this morning, leaving in a couple minutes to travel through part of the Bolaven Plateau. More4 on Burma from next reliable computer.
Robbie
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Old Jan 1st, 2011, 08:59 PM
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Looking forward to more. Happy New Year and safe travels.
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Old Jan 2nd, 2011, 07:50 AM
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how does one judge a "reliable computer"?
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Old Jan 5th, 2011, 12:24 AM
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Bob there are two essential criteria: 1) the hotel/lodge has a computer and 2) it operates continuously for 10-15 minutes at a time.
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Old Jan 5th, 2011, 12:37 AM
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Forgot to mention that the only moment of concern was when we answered no to the arrival form question: Are you carrying more than $2000 in foreign currency. Asked in a country in which the banks can't be trusted (credit cards are not accepted for this reason) and where US dollars are required to settle bills with hotels and tour operators.
A bit more on money in Burma. The dollar has lost value in the last five months. I can't recall the official government explanation but the folks on the street believe that this currency manipulation is to make the Kyat appear stronger. With two devasting devaluations in recent history, that is a hard sell. Even your departure fee must be paid in dollars.
To change money into Kyat for tips and small purchases you
go to a money changer, preferably in Yangon since they offer the most favorable rates. You get the best rates for crisp, unmarked, unfolded $100 bills. The money changers will reject any bills that look worn, have a crease or tear. I heard that this is because the money changers sell the bills to the Chinese and this is their requirement. There are severe penalties for any local to be caught with US dollars so as soon as they get dollars they high tail it to the money changers.
If you happen to have any "tarnished" US bills, you can give them, like the Old Maid card, to major hotels. I paid my departure tax in tattered bills just for spite.
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Old Jan 5th, 2011, 12:54 AM
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Joe whisked us off to our hotel after visiting an on the way market. Whoever recommended Hlendan market,thank you. It was a sweet, very local, non-tourist market. Per usual flowers and produce formed a square around the market and sundries, hardware and clothing held sway inside. Just my greeting of hello (mengalaba) transformed curious looks of shoppers and sellers into broad smiles of welcome. Suddenly singing inside the market drew all eyes and ears. The transvestite performer was singing her heart out and posing with coquettish gestures in hopes of "donations".
We chose the Governor's Residence for our first night in Rangoon. It was in a peaceful, leafy part of town and had a pool. The hotel, a former colonial residence, made liberal use of local woods that were polished to a shine. Our room was spacious and I loved the rich simplicity of the design elements. The public spaces were tranquil, the tropical gardens throughout lovely. Staff gave great service, helpful and friendly without being intrusive.
It took a couple of hours for the city to feel familiar, registering on a mind that just came off of 22 hours in transit. Little seemed to have changed since our '05 visit. Colonial buildings were still dirty and crumbling; "faded glory" gives more dignity to their appearance than warranted.
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Old Jan 5th, 2011, 01:09 AM
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Passing the Chinese and Indian sections of town brought back fond memories. The unkempt apartment buildings and broken pavement with open sewers were still the same as we approached Scott's market. Joe took us to his money changer in the market. I tried to find Bon Ton shop where I'd bought some old tribal jewelry last trip. But it was getting hot and we had other fish to fry.
We took Craig and Jeanne's suggestion and checked out the shops in the Strand Arcade, adjacent to the hotel. Some shops offered distinctive items, some just overpriced small gifts. At River Gallery I found the work of an artist that I thought was fabulous. Apparently, everyone else appreciated Khen Zaw Latt's talent as well. His two pieces in the gallery were already sold and he's done exhibitions worldwide. We toured the public areas of The Strand Hotel and decided we liked our choice of the GR.
Our energy was fading so we repaired to our hotel. We had agreed to meet a representative from the tour company we used to pay them for airline tickets and other services.
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Old Jan 5th, 2011, 08:27 AM
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great start robbie.... i will be following along...
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Old Jan 6th, 2011, 07:50 PM
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We had a delicious lunch in the garden area at Governor's Residence. Our table was in a secluded spot facing a rock water fall. So relaxing after the hustle and bustle and dirt of Rangoon (and we'd only spent 3 hours touring so far). While having lunch Zaw from Santa Maria Travel and Tours was shown to our table. I had been corresponding with him since I selected Santa Maria (SM) as my inbound tour operator. There are several good agencies; I chose SM because of their flexibility. Most agencies want to provide you a fully inclusive package with guides everywhere. I wanted as much independence and flexibility as possible.
Everyone traveling in Burma will need the help of a good agency because: 1) only travel agents inside Burma can book internal flights; 2) some hotels cannot be reached directly; 3)ground transportation arrangements are best done in advance by the company you choose. SM initially booked us on Air Bagan and when they had their credentials pulled in November, SM quickly rebooked us on Air Mandalay for similar times.
Zaw was as charming in person as in his correspondence. He accepted our offer of a drink and we exchanged paperwork. I forked over $776 ($436 for 3 internal flights; $120 for 2 nights at Kandaygyi Resort in Pyin Oo Lyin (Maymyo) and $220 for driver to pick us up in Mandalay, tour 2/3 day then drive us to POL, take us around for the next 2 days and get us back to the airport in Mandalay days later).
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Old Jan 6th, 2011, 08:11 PM
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I created an embarrassing situation for myself when, in appreciation for all Zaw's hard work and great touring suggestions, I asked if there was a little something we could bring him from the USA. I should have been more specific; favorite team cap or shirt. Zaw wrote back he'd like a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses and attached a photo. Since I wear prescription shades I had no knowledge about Ray-Bans. E-Bay enlightened me quickly.
Just so happened that the owner of Snow White Tours, with whom I kept in touch, was coming to Pasadena for a Bhutan roadshow so she was our house guest for 4 days. I mentioned my Ray Ban dilemma and she gave me a useful perspective. In essence, the brand name insures quality and that Asians are fed up with cheap goods from China that fall apart. So I bulked up on crow stew and emailed Zaw if similar quality glasses would do. He easily agreed.
So in our exchange process, I handed Zaw the sunglasses i purchased for him. He was delighted; Kencho was spot on in her evaluation of the request for Ray-Bans.
After a rest we resumed touring with Kyan mid afternoon. We visited New Treasures Gallery. Several floors of interesting works. We walked around this neighborhood, we needed the exercise.
Per our request we arrived at Shwe Dagon Pagoda by 4 pm. We walked and watched the activity until dark. I spent alot of time at the Pagoda on our '05 trip and found it just as enthralling this time. In the midst of lots of activity (family members doing rituals at the shrine representing the day of the week they were born, monks walking arm in arm, the sweeping brigades sweeping the floors, the pious in prayer or meditation with beautific looks on their faces. Kyan did not have the in depth knowledge of Buddhist iconography I would have wished, so he punted.
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 01:06 PM
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You're fanning the flames of my desire to return to Burma.
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 06:03 PM
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more, more!
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 06:41 PM
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Kyan/Joe suggested a riverside restaurant for duck, The Golden Duck after first suggesting a Chinese place. The smell of sewage did not enhance the ambience. We ordered a 1/2 duck and Joe said for sure we needed a full duck so we deferred. A half duck was enough for the 3 of us, even with Joe's voracious appetite. So we had the restaurant pack up the other 1/2 for Joe to take home. Hmmm. We settled up with Joe. He had quoted us in dollard ($50/day) so we gave an extra generous tip to compensate for his loss due to the drop in the dollar.
Day 2 Bagan
We were on the road to the airport by 5:15 am for a 6:30 flight which was, naturally, 40 minutes late.
We chose Minthu to guide us on the strength of Kathie's recommendation. I can't thank you enough Kathie; he turned out to be the best guide we've ever had. His knowledge is sophisticated and in depth and his English very understandable. I liked him from our first interaction. He's a tall, lean young man with an engaging manner who would guide us for three days.
In my first visit to Bagan, I was sorry I had not visited more temples. We were with another couple and both us wives curtailed our temple list to prevent our husband's from turning into nagging children (Can we go home now? Why another temple, they're all the same, etc). This trip Fred agreed to three days in Bagan with time to see all the temples I wanted to visit.
So I read what I could and poured over Paul Stratchen's Pagan, one definitive work on Bagan's (Pagan) architectural/religious wonders. So I made a modest list of 15 structures that most interested me, knowing that we would defer to Minthu's recommendations.
Minthu picked us up after settling in to Tharabar Gate Hotel and we trotted off to the Thiripyitsaya Hotel to pay for our hot air balloon flight reserved (3 months in advanace) for tomorrow. Well, that's not quite accurate. We did not trot, Su Su, Minthu's sweet horse trotted while we sat comfortably in his well cushioned buggy. During our Bagan days I saw a lot of horse carts and can say with confidence that Minthu's Horse Cart 54 is the Rolls Royce of horse carts.
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 06:52 PM
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Our first temple visit waw to Pya-tha-da. We enjoyed the structure, the Buddha image and mural paintings plus the temple top affords a beautiful panoramic view of Bagan.
A word about temple touring. You must be in good physical shape: good balance and coordination, no ankle or knee problems,able to bend your head low walk down steps 6" wide and 12" apart while paying attention to your footing in very dim light. All this climbing up and down is barefooted as you never enter a temple with shoes on. You must conquer any fear of enclosed spaces or heights. This is said not to discourage anyone just to know what to expect.
Next we saw temple #820 (according to Strachen's catalog). Its noted for its beautiful Bagan period (11th-13th century)architecture and Buddha image. So serene and peaceful.
Next we toured the famous Su-la-ma-ni temple with its beautiful mural paintings and stucco carving.
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 07:09 PM
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It was getting hot (I'd guess high 80's) so Su Su got us back to the Tharabar Gate Hotel for lunch and relaxation.
The Tharabar Gate Hotel is lovely. Last trip we stayed at the Thiripyitsaya and I was not impressed. We did stay in a standard room and I'm sure the suites are better but I just didn't like the vibe of the hotel. My objections were that it catered to large (loud) tour groups and the room decor was indifferent. The TG feels like a much more upscale property. The plantings and gardens are lush, the lobby beautifully appointed with dark woods. The Tharabar Gate gives no discounts as far as I could tell. All websites showed no availability, SM could do no better, so I booked it direct. Suite was $250/nt, same price as a suite at Thiri.....Hotel.
I realized that with doing so much touring during the day, a suite was not necessary; only remedy was to really, really enjoy it. We ordered lunch through room service and they set it up in our private garden outside the living room. This lovely garden space, clad in bouganvillas was a delight. After lunch I read on one of the chaises in this garden.
In the late afternoon we resumed touring. We toured the Nat Thaunt monastery in Taung Bi village to see the beautiful teak wood carvings on the exterior and in the interior. On the east side of the village we climbed a ruined temple to see a sweeping landscape of the Ayeyarwaddy River with pagodas and temples dotting the surround. We walked around Taung Bi village to glimpse the village life, the structure of their bamboo houses. Our sunset viewing was from the top of Myae-bon-tha temple, majestic.
We had an OK dinner at Saraba II restaurant, came home and sacked out.
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