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Trip Report 28 great days in Myanmar - with many thanks to Santa Maria Travels

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We had a wonderful 4-week trip in Myanmar in February. Most memorable: The gentle, unfailingly helpful people; the food; and of course, the iconic sights and cultural traditions.

First of all, a big thanks to Santa Maria, whom we used for all the local arrangements (air, hotels, cars, guides, transfers). They were incredible - logistics were as smooth as silk (amazing to pull that off in a developing country), and the best we’ve had compared to any of the several similar customized trips we’ve taken in other countries. Santa Maria was always quick to respond via email, there were no problems with the transfer of money ahead of time, they suggested good hotels in our price range, were open to our suggestions and requests, and everything worked flawlessly. We will unquestionably use them again. We did ask for the following specific guides who’d been mentioned in other fodors posts, and these guides were exceptional in their level of organization and service, and made a big difference to our trip: Min Min in Bagan, KoKo in the Inle Lake area, and Tom in Mrauk U.

Even though things have changed a lot in the past few years (maybe the biggest being the widespread use of cellphones), Myanmar is still a very traditional society, especially in the rural areas and even more so in the more remote ones. Underpinning our experience was a sense of poignancy that one of the last bastions of a largely traditional way of life will be gone in some years, as more of Myanmar begins to join the global village. The changes will be mostly good for the people of Myanmar. But as a tourist, the differentness and authenticity that we value will be much reduced.

Our itinerary:
2 nights Yangon (so 1 full day)
3 in Mandalay (originally considered skipping it, but we’re history buffs and after reading up on Myanma history, there’s a lot to connect to in the Mandalay area)
1 in Monywa (drive from Mandalay; and then drive to Bagan from there; both the Thanboddhay Paya and Bodhi Tataung near Monywa were well worth it, and even more so the cave temples at Po Win Taung)
5 in Bagan and 1 in between at Mt. Popa Resort (I’m a big ‘old stones’ fan)
2 in Nyaung Shwe and 3 in Inle Lake
3 in Ngapali beach
4 in Mrauk U (plus 1 in Sittwe to connect to Mrauk U)
and then Yangon on the way out
(In general, we’d rather spend more time in fewer places. A slower pace allows for time to wander and have more unscripted encounters. Even the above was more “If it’s Tuesday it must be Bagan” than we normally like.)

There are many other trip reports that address the main sights and especially the “Big 4” of Bagan, Inle, Mandalay and Yangon, so I wanted to mention some other aspects that may not be quite so obvious:

Going to places outside the Big 4 provides a very different feel, and one where foreign tourists are still not very numerous. Examples are Mrauk U, Sittwe (and its fish market) and in/around Monywa. Even the 5-day market at Taunggyi (capital of Shan State en route to Kakku, in the Inle area) was exceptional.

Mrauk U/Sittwe:
The trip to Mrauk U was really worth it. Not only for the very interesting and lightly visited pagodas and monasteries (at many places we were the only foreign tourists), but also for the time on the river for the trips from Sittwe to Mrauk U and from Mrauk U to the Chin villages. Politically and culturally as well, Rakhine state is very different from the Burman heartland, and you get a sense for the fissiparous nature of Myanma politics.

We were originally leery of the visit to the Chin villages (where one of the draws is the old ladies with facial tattoos) since it sounded potentially voyeuristic and even zoo-ish. But having a guide with us who could translate made all the difference. In one of the villages, which had what our guide called the “cultural ladies”, we spent an hour just sitting and talking with them - about their and our kids and their grandkids (they brought over their grandkids, we showed them photos of our kids on our phones), how life has changed for them, what it was like to be tattooed…It turned out to be a real highlight, but would not have been possible if we didn’t have a person with us who could translate. In another Chin village, our guide warned us that the tattooed women were not cultural ladies but “commercial ladies”, and indeed they were all about the hustle of selling their weaving (which I do not begrudge). In one of the Chin villages, our guide also served as translator for us to have an impromptu talk with the local school kids in their recently built one-room schoolhouse, and we ended up making a small donation for the school.

The Memory Hotel at Sittwe was perfectly adequate given the location, and they have an excellent restaurant on the 4th floor.

Ngapali Beach:
If you want some beach time, Ngapali beach is lovely, low-key and has clear water and white sand. And nothing beats eating grilled fish in one of the beach shacks - we highly recommend the Original Sunset View beach restaurant just north of the Thande Beach hotel (which was also excellent). One of us did a boat trip to a snorkeling point but most of the coral is dead and the snorkeling was not really worth it. We liked scheduling Ngapali beach in the middle of the trip as a break from pagodas.

At Inle, a couple of our highlights were (1) an early morning ride from Inle to Sankar lake in the south - we left around 7:30 I believe, and the mist rising from the narrow waterway connecting the 2 lakes creates unforgettable images and visual contrast (I still remember a boatload of Pa-O women with their headgear shooting past us out of the mist); and (2) a wonderful bike ride, of course arranged by Santa Maria, along the western shore of Inle from Khaung Dine to Indein - lovely scenery, quite flat, very little traffic other than 2-wheelers.

Bagan and Mt. Popa
In Bagan, do make the effort to get up early for a sunrise (much more atmospheric than sunset, due to the changing colors before and after dawn, and also watching the hot air balloons move over the temples). But Shwesandaw is a mob scene - you do get higher up than the quieter pagodas we climbed, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s worth putting up with the crowds.

We loved staying a night at the Popa Mountain Resort, with its magical view over the Taung Kalat. We also did a hike up towards the summit of Mt. Popa - it was interesting to get out and hike first among the trees and then into the clearings with views, but I wouldn’t say it was an exceptional hike, especially compared to what you’d find in the US or Europe. And for any hiking or biking, do get out early to finish before the worst of the heat.

We liked the Bagan Thande hotel in old Bagan. However, their restaurant was poor and ridiculously overpriced - just walk or take a cab into old Bagan to the Moon restaurant, which serves exceptional vegetarian food that would satisfy anyone (none of us are vegetarian).

Our favorite restaurant was Marie Min (also happens to be vegetarian) - went there twice.

Take advantage of the exceptional and inexpensive massages on offer! We had one in practically every major stop.

We had arranged for our guide to accompany us on the boat rides in Inle and to the Chin villages from Mrauk U, as well as on the horse cart ride in Inwa (near Mandalay). This adds a lot to the trip since they can add more context to what you are seeing, and it also makes it easier to change the itinerary on the fly in terms of communication with the boatman. As a result we also didn’t have any problems with the horse cart drivers that many seemed to have.

We did many impromptu stops at village homes and local neighborhoods to talk with the people there (we’d built in time for this). And while we obviously met people on our own who spoke English, it was also rewarding to be able to talk with non-English speakers (via our guide), since they are often a different socioeconomic class from those who speak English.

- We read several histories of Myanmar, and our favorite was Thant Mint-U’s River of Lost Footsteps. Another good read was Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace.

One of our favorite countries overall - too bad they have a 28-day visa limit! So go, and go soon if you can.

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