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22 Days in Burma, Northern Thailand & Southern Laos

22 Days in Burma, Northern Thailand & Southern Laos

Old Jan 7th, 2011, 07:44 PM
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ok, when does fred's vacation start.... at this rate you will kill him!!
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 07:44 PM
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tell him i'm sending my lawyer....
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 07:57 PM
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Robbie, we also thought the room service lunches served in our garden was the best thing about those huge suites!

I'm so glad you enjoyed Min Thu!
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 08:58 PM
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Bob, you could send prayers to the atheist; manslaughter does not apply on vacations.
Day 3 BAGAN
Naung U (pronounced ya oo) market is a large bustling affair,selling everything from batteries to betlenuts. I had not remembered children begging in Bagan in '05. I asked Minthu whether he thought there were more hungry children in Bagan now than 5 years ago. I was trying to check out my impression that there was more poverty now. Fred thought the level of subsistence existence was as in'05. In the end, I decided that my impression was an artifact of zipping around Bagan in a big van, In a horse cart you are going at a slower pace, can stop often, peek into bamboo houses. If I understood correctly, the Bagan Archeological Zone, which covers much of Bagan is a government holding and the farmers cannot own the land; it belongs to the government. In other parts of Burma owning farm land and the land on which your house sits is possible. This, no doubt, adds to the low living standard in this region. Having said this, I saw no evidence of starvation, skin diseases, eye diseases or any other signs of poor nutrition in Bagan or elsewhere.
After the market we visited the well known Shwe-Zigon Pagoda (aka chedi, zedi, stupa). With its gleaming gold color it resembles Shwe-da-gon in Rangoon.
We stopped at one of the Nat Thaunt's monastery temples. The mural paintings were lovely but not old by Bagan standards. The 17th and 18th century murals were very colorful owing to the introduction of blue and green colors.
We took lunch at Mya-ya-da-na Restaurant, a Chinese place serving excellent food.
During our rest time at the hotel I sat by the pool and read. My stomach was sending cramping signals and gurgle sounds which did not portend well. Back in the room Fred had the chills. He was begging off for the afternoon. I still intended to go with Menthu until a second cramp and grumble sequence made it clear I needed to stay back too. So I met Minthu, gave apologies and reassurances it could not be the lunch with just ate, too soon. We rested in the room, ordered lightly from the room service menu and finished off the complimentary wine left for us; a rather good Italian red from September, a noble vintage.
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 09:13 PM
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I realize I skipped over writing about the Balloons over Bagan ride that happened on Day 3. The two balloons were filled to capacity. The take off and landings were handled beautifully. The whole operation is a class act. The view over the temple and pagoda dotted landscape provided ever changing sensory input. First we could see sunrise over the plains, then sun shrouded in mist, then full sun. We were up in the air about an hour. I thoroughly enjoyed the flight. But it did not wow me the way the Cappadocia balloon ride did. Maybe there's nothing like the first time....in a hot air balloon.
Day 4 BAGAN
After 9 hours of sleep Fred and I awoke feeling fine. We started touring late enough to sample the buffet breakfast at the hotel.OK. Minthu had suggested that the things we would see today were at considerable distances so he suggested he go in his car, which he rents out when not using it. I thought a car would be a nice change. And an amusing surprise. A World War II era Willy pulled up and we loaded in. The jeep was quite the relic. No gauges worked, the door could only be opened from the outside and it bumped along a bit faster than Su Su. I dubbed the car Su Su II and Minthu was delighted that she now had a suitable name.
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 10:11 PM
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Robbie, I am loving your reports, especially since we are heading out to Burma Jan. 24! Thank you for your detail. Such interesting reading.
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 11:24 PM
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Your welcome Patty. So far I have been posting this report from the luxury of our Krabi beach resort, Amari Vogue. The drill is to sit in the sun and read two hours, then come in a type a bit, then lunch, a bit more typing, you get the idea. We leave tomorrow and who knows when I'll recover from jet lag enough and read my mail, get back to work and then pen more of this report.
So where was I? Ah yes,
our first stop was Shwe-san-daw pagoda with "fill up your senses" early sun spilling over the panorama that is Bagan.
Minthu had listened to our requests to visit any village or monoastery having a ceremony. We drove off to a temple festival in Nyaung Oo township. The purpose of the festival is to give gifts to the monks. First the villagers bring their donations: food, food with money stuck to the food by long toothpicks, sweets, blankets, money trees. All beautifully arranged beneath Buddha images. The equivalent of the monastery's CFO, painstakingly logs in the donation and give the donor a receipt (what? for a tax deduction on Schedule A?)
While waiting for the ceremony to begin we walked around the village. Dirt paths swept clean, little litter, friendly smiles. Back to the festival area.
Then more villagers, monks and nuns pour into the courtyard of the monastery communal house. Soon the monks line and are presented with their donations. From the 7 year old monks (which I call monkettes, with no disrespect intended) to the very old ones, all seemed pleased with their gifts, especially the one that got the blanket. By the time we left most of of the monks were heading out of the courtyard.
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 11:43 PM
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On the way to Old Bagan from Nyaung Oo we visited Tha-yar-bon temple, another breathtaking view of the Ayeyarwady river and the landscape with temples and pagodas.
Time for lacquer ware shopping. First stop was Maung Aung Myin. In my opinion, this shop wins the prize for the exquisite workmanship of their back room (high end) collection. We purchased a lovely 60 year lacquer ware box in very good condition with appropriate wear on the edges. We didn't like the offerings in their front room. Contrarily, we dismissed the back room at Golden Cuchoo and picked up some nice gifts in their front room.
While in Myan Ka Ba village I wanted to visit "a friend", Ma Win. When I visited her village in '05 she was selling postcards and practicing her English. We talked and walked around her village and she told me there would be a big ceremony the next day.... and there was. A shinpya is a great festival where the young boys going off to the monastery for the first time are dressed as princes and paraded around the town. A few inquiries led to the location of her home but she was still on duty at a temple and would not be home for an hour. So we took an excursion. Moe Moe Lacquerware shop in New Bagan has the best viewing of the workers dealing with all phases of the lacquer making process with out the agony of detailed explanations meant to whet one's appetite to buy, buy, buy.
By the time we finished lunch at Si Thu Restaurant along the riverside, Ma Win would be home for lunch. She didn't remember me at first but nonetheless showed the wonderful Burmese hospitality. I met her husband and two sons. A raving beauty at 20, she was still lovely at 25. I gave her an enlarged photo I'd taken of her on our first visit. When I reminded her about the ceremony, it clicked, she remembered me. I gave her some nice soap and shampoo. It was a short and sweet visit and I wish her the best.
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Old Jan 7th, 2011, 11:59 PM
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In the afternoon after rest and pool time, we took a full tour of West Paw-saw village. In the late afternoon, after the heat of the day, the main activity is fetching water from the water tanks. Children as young as 14 were balancing 5 gallon petrol jugs of water home. The plains were heating up and our pace was slowing down accordingly. When we visited Dhamma-yan-za-ka pagoda Fred decided to stay in Su Su II, he was pagodad out.
He made an exception for our last stop, the graceful Ananda temple. One of the four Buddha images has the unique quality of appearing to change expressions when standing at different distances from it.
Minthu dropped us at Thiripyitsaya where I had booked a massage. I remembered from last visit that their massages were very good, as was this one. Fred sat and read, then we had dinner there on the terrace. Pretty river view if you can relax with a bunch of kids playing ball games on the terrace and tour groups of twelve all over speaking each other.
I was sad to say farewell to Minthu when we dropped us at Tharabar Gate. He presented us with a detailed cost accounting. He had eliminated the 1/2 day we cancelled and continued to quote his price in dollars ($18 a day for horse cart and his superb guiding and $35 a day for Su Su II. This meant he was losing 30% since his quote months ago. So our tip was generous and well deserved plus we added back in the 1/2 day we cancelled, added in the 30% the dollar had depreciated. He seemed stunned. We told him he deserved it and should not be penalized for his government's actions. We bade fond farewell.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 01:38 AM
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DAY 5 BAGAN to MANDALAY to PYIN OO LYIN
We took an 8 am flight from Bagan to Mandalay where our driver from SMT, Ko Nge, was awaiting us. I didn't much like Mandalay on our first two day stay, so my aim was to do surgical strikes on the places we missed on our earlier visit.
With Zaw's expertise on Mandalay (his home town) we had worked up a near perfect itinerary for our interests.
Our first stop was U Bein Bridge. When Zaw suggested it, I was ready to email back that's we'd already spent a good deal of time there on our first visit. Then Fred and I chatted about it and thought it would be interesting to see the bridge in morning light with morning life crossing over. Tip: forget the morning, get there by 4 pm and if you're a photographer, stay til 5:30. The sunset and bridge life are so much better with the sun highlighting the grain on the 120 year old teak bridge. Also to the west of the bridge are stairs leading down to the beach area. From this angle the bridge in fading light is a splendid sight. As long as we were in Amanapura (about 15 miles from Mandalay)we may as well check out the weaving for which they are well known.
Ko drove us to a weaving workshop with a shop across the street. Didn't jot down the name but if you ask for the workshop with the shop across the street, you'll find it. Men and women were weaving silk on different kinds of looms. You could watch them at your leisure without an insufferable information talk about the process of silk weaving, beginning with the neonate silkworm. I bought a beautiful hand stitched cotton longi (long, traditional skirt), the one I brought with me has been around.
Then we were off to Mahaghandayon monastery to watch the monks line up for their 11:00 am meal. At 10:15 the monks start gathering and a few minutes later 600 to 700 monks are in two parallel lines with their begging bowls ready to receive their meal. The monks ranged in age from 6 to 80 and gazed into the distance as they patiently waited. A gong sounded and the monks began filing in to the monastery courtyard. Like a bridal procession, each pair of monks paused for a minute before entering. Monks presided over the dishing our of rice from two enormous tin vats of rice. Once in the courtyard the monks loosened up. The young monks seemed to be taken care of as well as teased by the monks several years older.
After lunch we departed for Pyin Oo Lwin, an old British hill station. When Mandalay got insufferable (over 75 degrees for the Brits) the would repair to their favorite hill station. The ride to POL was beautiful. Half hour out of Mandalay and the road begins to rise and the flora and fauna change. Wonderful, lush scenery with a good road. POL sits at about 11,00o feet give or take. Its a quaint town surrounded by a lake with fertile land for growing rice and other vegetables. We stayed at the Kandawgyi Lodge, a place I could not book on line, so SM tours did it for me. This is a British hotel of faded glory, mostly faded, little glory. But the owner bent over backwards to make our stay enjoyable. The only thing he couldn't do was spare an extra small heater for the large room (lake view jr. suite, $60/nt) where temperatures at night dipped to the low 30s.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 02:16 PM
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This is just fabulous - I am really enjoying your report and wondering when we can start planning to return.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 03:07 PM
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Not sure I understand what is going on with the value of the USD; is there something specific to Burma that happened, or are you referring to worldwide currency fluctuations?
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 03:51 PM
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The dollar has dropped more markedly against the kyat than other currencies.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 06:22 PM
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To backtrack to earlier today around Mandalay, I found the info on the weaving shophwe Sin Tai Silk House. And our lunch was at Ko's Kitchen, we'd enjoyed it on earlier trip and found it tasty this time as well. We also found great antique pieces at Pho Pyane (on Saging Rd.) but the wood piece we liked was too big to carry and too expensive to ship. Sun Flower Traditional Arts was also worth a look. Do pack flash lights; they are useful for examining pieces in dimly lit shops, for seeing details on temple murals and for minding your footing.
On the drive to POL we stopped at a roadside market specializing in beautiful flowers and good selection of delectable vegetables. All grown localling at this increasing elevation.
After settling in to our room and resting up from the busy day, we toured the locally famous botanical gardens. Since the hotel is considered on the grounds of the gardens, we were given free passes. We spent an enjoyable hour walking through the beautiful gardens. The landscape architect from Kew Gardens was a consultant for these gardens. Families were picnicing, children were squeling at the all flower Mickey Mouse, couples were cooing and pre-teens were playing a game involving trees, something like musical chairs and the teens who could not afford to go in the stadium where the rock concert was, could dance to the music out on the lawns. Several teenage monks were having a great time snapping photos of each other in silly poses. It's so nice to see them enjoying their age. The Kandawgyi Lake that is the centerpiece of the 330 + acre gardens was home to much water foul. We watched as a protective black swan tended her five chicks. Throughout the lake were many regal looking black and white swans.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 06:48 PM
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I am loving your report, Robbie, and taking notes as I go for our trip in two weeks. I appreciate your detail and suggestions for photographers at U Bein Bridge. Can't wait to see your photos!
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 09:30 PM
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Thanks Patty. I'm now writing from the Thai Silk Lounge in Bangkok. The last post was done at the lounge in Krabi.
Back to Pyin Oo Lwin: So after getting pleasantly lost in the gardens, we were driven for an early dinner at the Terrace Cafe; not good, why didn't we just eat at our hotel?
DAY 6 Pyin Lo Lwin
Its really cold in the mornings as well as at night. My strategy for dealing with cold mornings and warm days is to wear long silk & wool ski underwear and long wool socks under my longi and a few layers on top. As the chill eases, I peel off the long underwear, socks, warm jacket and long sleeved shirt.
I wasn't the only one who felt the morning chill. We visited the Shan market early morning. The women and men were wearing parkas, gloves, wool masks, scarves, etc. The market is so named because the local Shan bring the produce from their fields to this market. All the locals, regardless of ethnicity shop here daily. After a thorough look around we drove some miles out of town to a typical Shan village. The countryside all around is lush, the fields very fertile. We walked through Moe Gyo Pyit village. Bullock carts were the common mode of transport. I came upon women sorting damson fruit, a very popular fruit in these parts. Its eaten on its own and used in some of the fruit wines produced in this area. I noticed the greater ethnic mix north of Mandalay: Indians, Muslins, Shans, Burmese. The Anglican church was probably a mark of the British reign. We stopped at the Chinese Temple, Tian Ran Kung. It is a local attraction of minimal interest.
Before lunch we looked around at some of the stately old British mansions. Most of the homes in and around POL were of sturdy construction; bamboo houses could not stand up to the 63" of rain they get in their 5 month rainy season. To date the Kandawagyi Hotel is the only hotel of decent standard and not government owner. There is a new hotel, due for completion in a few months, with a catchy name, Hotel Pyin Oo Lwin. It looks promising. So the two Southern Californians lunched at a place called San Francisco...and it was good.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 09:45 PM
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After lunch we loafed. I sat on the front porch of the hotel taking in the view of the lake directly in front of the road.
My hand laundry was spread out on a towel in the warm sunshine (having washed yesterday the clothes were still wet after hanging near the heater last night). The high altitude sun felt envigorating and I was amused by the book I was reading. The Merry Mysoginist by Colin Catterill is one in a series of detectivce stories set in late '70 Laos. With wry humor, the author captures the flavor and follies of the policies and politics of that day.
Taking full advantage of the ticket waiver, we got another voucher for the Gardens. The hotel provided a much appreciated map. So we set out with purpose. The orchid garden was beyond any orchid collection I can recall, 300 species, one more beautiful than the next. Adjacent, there is a section displaying wild orchids, also worth seeing. There are two bamboo forests on this grand garden and both were wonderful. Tall, thick bamboo, species I'd never seen.
After a return to San Francisco for a bite, we turned in early as we had a busy day ahead: return trip to Mandalay, visiting several places in Mandalay and getting to the airport in ample time for the flight back to Rangoon. I put on 2 pair of long underwear, heavy wool socks, ski underwear tops and 2 layers of fleece. Even Fred thought it was c-o-l-d.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 10:14 PM
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DAY 7 POL to Mandalay to Rangoon
Another beautiful ride through pine forests. We were descending for at least 1 1/2 hours, then flattening out as the approached the sprawling city that is now Mandalay. We first visited Mandalay Hill (which we did not have time for on earlier trip). The haze was strong enough to interfere with clear views of the surround. The pagodas on the hill were lovely. One family had spread their blanket and lunch out in front of a Buddha image. They even had a water dish for their cat. So many religious sites in Burma feel like places to just be, not only to pray, pay homage or make merit.
Our next stop was suggested by Zaw per my request. We spent a couple hours at the Aye Yeik Mon Nunnery and Protective Orphan Girls Buddhist Mission School (that's how the card reads); its located between 62nd & 63rdSts and 21 and 22 Sts. Email [email protected], advanced appointment required. It is home to 115 girls age 18 months to 35 years. Like all unmarried girls in Burma, it is traditional to live with one's family. So unmarried orphans can stay until they marry or turn 35. They are mostly funded by donations. One of the nuns took us on a complete tour: dorm rooms with trunks bearing the stamp "Donated by Global Vision", computer lab, library, infirmary. The big donors are German. It costs $42 to feed the family breakfast. Several older ladies sat on a bench waiting, as we were, for the girls to return from school for lunch. Lunch was donated by these ladies so they would help distribute it.
While waiting for the girls, two middle aged German women came bicycling up the path. Christina introducted herself to us. Long story short, she's the ex-wife of the man who bankrolled the orphanage. She comes over from Germany to help out for a month or two, several times a year. The nun showed her the childrens' books we'd shlepped from Los Angeles and she was thrilled.
The younger children came back from school first. The nun showed the kids a couple of books that had them name zoo animals, letter of the alphabet. They especially liked the books that had fold out tabs. Watching the kids' enjoyment made it more than worth it to carry the extra tonnage.
Groups of pre-teens and teens strolled in in small groups. As they saw us, each one greeted us in English: how do you do or hello or very nice to meet you. Fred and I engaged in the expected social replies and conversed with several of them.
At the gong of a bell over 100 mouths lined up. The ladies presented each girl with a plate of food and a small gift, each girl bowed and gave thanks. When all were assembled in the dining hall, they sat, hands pressed together and sang prayers.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 10:30 PM
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It was evident that the girls were well cared for and loved by the nuns and lay workers there. We gave our cash donation and moved on.
Before the orphanage, we had stopped at Kine Tan Zag - a huge market, running 3 or 4 blocks long. Interesting if you've never been to a regional market. Surprised that the ethnic groups do not wear their traditional dress as they do at the markets around Sapa, Vietnam.
After a quick spot of lunch somewhere, we went to the Shwe Inn Bin monastery. What a shame that the beautiful teak carvings had been painted black with what looked like boat paint. Now they just need the money to restore the wood and properly protect it. Fred and I took time to walk around the surrounding neighborhood. Its a peaceful shady, sleepy area in the southwestern section of Mandalay.
We had to head for the airport without visiting a shop I favored on first visit. It sells beautiful carvings and other antiques. It was called Thein Htike Shin owned by Maung Thein and located in a strip of shops off the east entrance to Mahamuni Pagoda, [email protected].
Our flight from Mandalay to Rangoon went smoothly and we checked in to The Savoy. We'd spent 3 nights here on our first visit and wanted to stay here our last night. The hotel is still well tended but the service seemed lax compard to our earlier visit. We had a good dinner in the Italian dining venue and then off to bed.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 11:53 PM
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DAY 8 RANGOON-BANGKOK-CHIANG MAI
Breakfast was delivered to our room and by 6 am we were wending our way to Yangon International.As the city was waking, I reflected on our week here. It was everything I could hope for. My earlier feelings were affirmed about the gentleness of its people, the beauty of the countryside and the inspired sites/sights despite one of the world's most horrific military dictatorships. Even though there were fewer billboards around Rangoon exhorting the citizens to be on guard against foreign influences bent on poisoning their minds with falsehoods, the propaganda goes on. In the inflight magazine back to Rangoon, there was a 1/4 page ad of government doublespeak. I'll quote portions.In the section on The People's Desire: "*oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views; * crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy." In the section on Economic Objectives: "*proper evaluation of the market oriented economic system, * the initiative to shape the natrional economy must be kept in the hands of the State and the national peoples". And most painful and ironic is the section on Social Objectives: " *uplift health, fitness and education standards of the entire nation". Heartbreaking.
There is much debate about whether or not to visit Burma. Suu Kyi has been opposed as have some human rights groups. I've taken the view that the more eyes on the ground, the better. Even Suu Kyi in the cover story of the January 10,2011 issue of Time shows her increased flexibility in achieving the betterment of her people.
For those planning their first trip to Burma, I would not do our itinerary. We had already spent 3 days in Rangoon, 2 days in Mandalay, 4 days in Inle Lake area, 2 days in Bagan and 3 days at the beach at Sandaway on our first trip. Pyin Oo Lwin doesn't have the cache of other parts. For a stand alone first trip, I'd suggest: 2 days Rangoon, 2 days Mandalay, 3 full days Bagan, 4 days Inle and if you like the beach, 3 days at Sandaway. That's a good 14 day trip IMO.
I waved goodbye to Burma from the ascending plane, ready to fly on to Thailand
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