Burma. An Enchanted Land.

Sep 19th, 2006, 03:53 PM
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Burma. An Enchanted Land.

I canít remember when or how Myanmar first became a possible destination, but I think what first caught my eye was the cruise ship ĎRoad To Mandalayí.

The itinerary that finally developed was a 4 night stay in Bangkok, a 2 night stay in Yangon, 4 nights on Inle Lake, 1 night in Mandalay and finally an 11 night cruise from Mandalay up to Bhamo (a frontier town near the Chinese border) which ended in Bagan. Then I had a final night in Bangkok, and returned to the US yesterday.

In Yangon I stayed at the Savoy (staff were very friendly and welcoming), Inle Lake was the Lake View Resort, and Mandalay was the Sedona. I really didnít like the Sedona as it is a large hotel with very little character. I ended changing my room twice, once because I was placed on the smoking floor ( I was not asked for a preference) and next because the air-conditioner was not able to sufficiently cool the room. In neither situation did the controls on the wall bear any relationship to the temperature of the room. In Bangkok I stayed at the Riverside Marriott, which I had used during my last visit 5 years ago.

I did have a lot of concerns about the morality of my visit considering the political situation, and the trepidation only increased as the trip approached. Turns out this was one of my best trips ever, and I could not be happier with the decision I made.

I expected to see people who were somewhat withdrawn or subdued in some way, but decided to go with the advice of Gloria (Thank You!) and others, and I must repeat I think I made the right choice. I certainly did not expect to see teenagers in malls bopping to ipods!

The people may not be happy with their leadership, but they definitely appreciate the tourists and I was told many a time how happy they were that we were visiting their country.

The highlight of my trip was definitely Inle lake. It is a different world. Not just geographically, but also in atmosphere. It is difficult to describe. Suffice it to say, I was not ready to leave even after 4 nights. It helped that I had a wonderful tour guide, a lovely young lady who was tuned into my interests and desires.

I also loved the Road to Mandalay. The service and facilities were maintained at the highest standards. The food was European and excellent. If I do have a complaint, it is that my contact with the local people was quite limited while on the cruise. I also wish the shore excursions were longer. Also, whenever the chef tried anything even slightly different/unusual/spicy I heard complaints from other passengers, and concerns about becoming ill. 3 or 4 passengers did have days when they were under the weather, with some blaming the food as the likely culprit. I can imagine the complaints would be worse with Ďlocalí food. However, that is the downside of being on a group tour.

While I did feel a little removed from local life while on board, the ship allowed me to extend my stay in Myanmar, which I would not otherwise have done. A very big concern for me when I travel is the standard of accommodation, and outside of Inle Lake, I found nowhere else that looked inviting.

In Bangkok I visited the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, took a klong tour, visited the bridge over the river Kwai, and most memorable of all, the Tiger Temple.

I am trying to write an effective summary, for fear that I may go on for far too long, so please feel free to ask for more details.

Femi is offline  
Sep 19th, 2006, 04:13 PM
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Can't believe I forgot to add: The reason I was so enchanted was the people! I can't recall (except perhaps Turkey) anyplace where people have been warmer or more inviting.

There was also a lot of beautiful undeveloped (rural) landscape.

Femi is offline  
Sep 19th, 2006, 05:02 PM
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Tell me more about Inle Lake and the Inle Lake View Resort. We are also spending 4 nights there, staying at the Inle Lake View Resort. Did you travel independently and hire a local guide or do a private tour? What were the highlights of Inle Lake? We are also staying at the Savoy - any advice?
Craig is offline  
Sep 19th, 2006, 05:23 PM
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You mention the tour guide you had - what was her name and how did you get in touch with her? Thanks.
althom1122 is offline  
Sep 19th, 2006, 06:49 PM
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Femi thanks for writing your report..your experiences were a little different from mine.I do think the more people report on their own experiences the more others will be able to make informed decisions especially about travelling to Myanmar.It is really interesting that you hated the Sedona and liked the Lake View whereas we were the other way round. Can't wait to see what you think Craig!
I agree with you about the people living in Myanmar.
albaaust is offline  
Sep 19th, 2006, 07:38 PM
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thanks for this...is there more??
rhkkmk is offline  
Sep 19th, 2006, 11:05 PM
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OK, I feel like Iíve been given free reign. Here are more details:

I really wanted to do the 11 night RTM cruise as I thought this would get me away from the big cities (I was correct there), and planned the rest of my trip around the cruise. I gave my travel agent the itinerary I had come up with, and in the end, we booked the tour through Orient flex pax.

I didnít book myself through a local agent because I was worried about how to combine the escorted tour with the independent portion. Now that Iíve been there, this is a concern which no longer seems valid to me. My agent was also reluctant to book with a local agent, which I was not very happy about, but was a compromise I had to make. Iím considering Vietnam next year, and I think we have found a local agent www.trailsofindochina.com with which we will both be happy.

I flew from Bangkok to Yangon, and checked into the Savoy. I was very happy here, in particular because of the friendliness of the staff. Do bear in mind (as Iím sure you all know) that this is highly personal. When met up with others on the cruise ship, others did not like it as much. One reason being that it was under German management and had a lot of German guests.

This particular subject may be a bit controversial, because it stereotypes people. But, in some instances, I have found stereotypes to be valid general/broad descriptions. To say the Burmese are friendly is a stereotype. To say Germans, as a group, are not the warmest people is another stereotype.

I must say that the Germans on the cruise, although fluent in English, made the least effort to socialize, and were actually quite rude. They were the only group that resorted to the use of obscenities, with most disputes occurring over the concept of saved seats. They were very particular about where they sat and if a favored seat became occupied, rather than move on to the next (the ship was only half full), they would elbow the offending party off Ďtheirí turf.

It is still considered low season, so there were not that many guests at the Savoy, and the few guests I did meet at the Savoy were a mix of American and European (Iím not sure of the specifics).
I did ask other travelers who were more familiar with Myanmar about The Strand. The pictures of the rooms look very similar to other places, yet the rates are more than double. No one could really give me a justification for the high prices. Most people had only stayed at one hotel in Yangon, and so were able to compare.

I liked the Savoy because it was small, and it just had the right feel for me, and the right level of intimacy.

I only had breakfast at the Savoy, which was a simple set (Western) menu, but which was more than adequate.

It was a relief to find that the Burmese were pretty free with the use of place names, and used both old and new place names interchangeably.

While Iím speaking of Yangon, I think this is the right place to mention the white elephants which I visited on the very last day of my trip. They are located about 10 minutes away from the airport. I never saw them listed anywhere, but found out about them quite by coincidence on that very last day, and immediately set off to see them while waiting for my next flight. Everyone seemed to know where they were, it wasnít hard to find.

The RTM guide mentioned that the conditions were rather sad as they were chained in place. Indeed there were a total of 4 elephants chained and on display; 2 white (a pinkish brown really), a brown and a grey. Without the gray, I would not have realized that comparatively the brown was an unusual colour. They were all rocking in place which was distressing for me to watch, and the little pink one was grunting rhythmically.

When I got back I mentioned my concern to the RTM guide, who pointed out that the elephants were extremely valuable as a symbol of favor/blessing/auspiciousness by the gods on the current regime. If anything bad were to happen to the elephants, it would be very bad indeed for the legitimacy of the current regime and so they were ensuring that the elephants got the very best care. He said that they were not chained all day, and they got exercise time with the mahout. Physically they looked to be in very good condition, I was just worried about their mental health. Iím not really knowledgeable enough make a more detailed assessment of why they were pacing.
Having trouble sleeping, which is why Iím writing now. Iíll move on to Inle Lake tomorrow.
Femi is offline  
Sep 19th, 2006, 11:09 PM
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Sorry, I was trying to point out that most people could NOT compare The Strand with other hotels as they generally picked one place and stuck with it for repeated visits.
Femi is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 07:02 AM
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i too visited the elephants...they are sort of a national symbol as i remember...i thought there were very content...
rhkkmk is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 09:43 AM
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Inle Lake
I landed at Heho airport and was greeted by an official looking young lady who I thought was my guide, but turned out to be an airport employee. There is a rather strange system at Heho which does not allow guides on the airport premises. It was nice to be met off the plane, have the toilets pointed out to me, and receive help with my luggage.

Outside the airport gates I was introduced to Nan, who seemed no more than a slip of a girl, whom I judged to be no older than fifteen! Turns out she was 23 (most people looked a lot younger than they really were) and this was her very first season as a guide. I must admit that my heart sank a little at seeing how young she was, but she turned out to be the best guide of my trip. Her name is actually much longer, but I never caught itís entirety (something to do with being Friday-born, etc).

Part of this was her freshness, and naiveté. For instance, I donít think she had quite mastered the art of selective translation. Whenever I asked her what was being said, she gave me the unfiltered version, flattering or not! I think she also may have been a little disappointed with my lack of knowledge about Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, my official state bird, or even the average annual rainfall in my home city L!

Heho is a dusty little town which gives no indication of the pleasures that await. We drove on to Nyaung Shwe, the town on the very northern tip of Inle lake, which appeared to cater to backpackers. We then boarded the long tail boat, and the magic began.

It is still difficult for me to understand how vast the lake is. It seemed to take an hour by boat, no matter where we went. The sky also seemed endless. The place I was reminded of the most was the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. Strange I know, but that was what I kept thinking.

We began with the silk weaving villages, and various other handicraft villages which I quickly tired of. I also was not enamored of temples. Nan quickly caught on to this, and began to ask if I would be interested in various sites before we actually got off the boat. At the very end I suspect she simply skipped the lot, which I was very happy to do.

She also realized pretty quickly that my main interest was the markets, and we spent most of my stay following the markets. These are held on a rotating basis, once every five days in varying towns around the lake.

I loved the markets because rather than having to trek up to hill tribe villages (3 hours each day), the villagers came down to the market I could meet them there.

Nan was from the Pa O tribe and so were several of the people who attended the market. They were amazed by Nan and held her in very high esteem. I think it is rare to be Pa O and work as a guide. The market women asked a lot of questions about how their children could also one day become guides.

Nan explained that her village had made a decision to make education a priority, and families were actually penalized for not letting their children attend school. She told me that her tribe had made education a high priority when negotiating with the government before the Shan State was opened to tourists and the rest of the Burmese.

It is essential to understand that these markets were not for tourists (although I did encounter a few), there were very few trinkets, if any, for sale at the smaller markets. It rained a lot, and the mud and puddles were ankle deep.

After our first foray, I thought I would have to throw out my sneakers/trainers. I was walking around with big clumps of mud encasing my feet. On the off chance that they might be salvageable, I asked at the hotel if anything could be done with them. There was no hesitation on their part. When I got my shoes back, they were cleaner than they were before my visit to Burma!

I loved nothing more than to be driven (?) around the lake taking in the sights, rain or shine. A word of caution though, when it rained it did get quite cool on the lake, and somehow the sun also seemed fiercer when it shone. Nan was very careful of her complexion, and sat under an umbrella most of the time. The Pa O are known (so Iím told) for their beautiful, clear complexions, also (Iím sure) for their fairer skin. Nan was very careful to use only the thanaka she ground herself, and none that was pre-mixed.

The Lake View Hotel is supposed to have really good food, but I found it to be just ok. Part of the reason for this may have been the darned set menu, but the few items I had off the menu, were also just okay. They swear there are no mosquitoes (everyone ate outside), and they put mosquito coils under the tables. I took that with a grain of salt, and wore repellant anyway and it was just as well. I spotted quite a few, but never actually got bitten.

I loved the rooms. Spacious and a great view of the mountains and the lake (the rooms are set up on a hillside). There is also a spa which I did not visit, and they are in the process of building a pool.

Craig, if you have more specific questions, let me know.
Femi is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 10:12 AM
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after this write=up britney knows all about you...
rhkkmk is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 12:03 PM
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what a great report. thanks for posting.
offwego is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 12:52 PM
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Here goes my first attempt at posting photos on the web:

I hope it works...
Femi is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 12:54 PM
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...and of course it dosen't.

One more try:
Femi is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 01:04 PM
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Looks like that did the trick (fingers crossed).

General Observations
Footwear: Iím guessing that about 95% of the general population wears flip flops/thongs on their feet. When I was being driven around, I thought it was because that was the most affordable footwear. However, after 5 minutes of walking around myself, it made perfect sense.

Shoes have to be removed pretty frequently when entering houses, temples, etc. Flip flops win hands down as the easiest footwear to get on and off.

Very little roadway was paved, and as it was the rainy season the roadways were covered with mud and puddles, rubber flip flops are the most forgiving material available. I would strongly advise against wearing leather shoes as they will be ruined instantly. Itís not just cleaning them, I doubt that leather will ever truly dry (and thus will become instantly moldy) in that climate.

Flights: I never understood the rules of getting to the airport. There were times that I became quite concerned as I was dropped off at the airport with less than half an hour to spare. Turns out this was more than adequate.

At other times, when I arrived within the more typical 2 hour check-in window, the flights left early! More than half an hour early in some instances. In the end I just learned to trust in the guides and stopped second-guessing them.

Children- By which I mean children selling trinkets. They are very enterprising. The worst pestering (and I do mean pestering) occurred at the major points on the tourist circuit; Mandalay and Bagan. There was surprisingly little in Yangon, and it was non-existent in the Shan State (where Inle Lake is located). Please DO NOT give out pens, candy, etc. I was accosted for these items frequently, and it really was unpleasant. I would hate for this to spread to the rest of the country.

I had made little kits which included crayons, notebooks, stickers etc to hand out. My guide in Yangon wisely told me to give these out only in the Shan State and nowhere else. It turned out to be very good advise. I let Nan (my Inle Lake guide) decide where and when the items I brought would be distributed. We made donations of the items to schools and monasteries, and some villages that we stopped in.

The RTM was also very strict about requesting that passengers not hand out these items randomly. We attended a formal ceremony at a school, where supplies (books, etc) were donated. As a lot of passengers had brought candy and other goodies, we were allowed to add them to the pile for a more orderly distribution.

Temples: I am afraid to admit that I have very little interest in temples. Most of the time I went for the photo opportunities than for the temples themselves. As most people are devoted Buddhists, I think this is a difficult concept to impart. Each temple is special in itís own way, and they would be happy to show you a dozen a day.

What I really want to point out is how slippery the floors are. They are lethal! Perhaps this was exaggerated by the fact that it was rainy season. The tiles used for flooring are very slick with little to no tread. The stairs are devilish to cope with as they are uneven, and some (the most wicked of all) even had a downward slope!

As I am quite clumsy to begin with, I was terrified of falling and breaking something. There were too many near misses to count. In the last week someone in my group pointed out that it was helpful to adopt the Ďpygmy shuffleí , little shuffling steps rather than strides.

The Burmese women are extremely graceful, and it took me a while to realise that they were also finding the floor treacherous. The ladies would flutter down like petals, it was hard to believe they had not intentionally lowered themselves. I never saw a man loose his footing. I also came to admire how the ladies negotiated the muddy pathways with delicate steps, rather than sinking ankle deep into the mud like I did.

Food: Just about all my meals were included. In both Yangon and Inle Lake, I encountered something I never had before; The Set Menu. The Set Menu includes about seven different courses for both lunch and dinner. After about the 3rd day, the food essentially started to look and taste the same. I had the hardest time convincing my guides that I really did NOT want nor need all that food. Somehow they have come to believe that this is what tourists want. I can see how it may have started out as a good idea in the beginning, and indeed I was excited the first time I had it, but the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

I had tried to tell the wait staff on my own that I only wanted 2 or 3 items, but I was still pressured to get everything and just leave what I didnít want. In the end Nan was able to help me break the curse of the set menu that hounded me. In fact, I came to just how highly individual tastes in food are. Although I wanted more adventurous food on the ship, where I felt Ďsafeí, I was reluctant to be as free with street food. I was offered all sorts of goodies in the markets of Inle Lake, and for the sake of politeness, had to try a few bites. Well, nothing (dire illness/dysentery/cholera/purple polka dots) happened.

I told Nan I loved sticky rice. She found me a stall in the market that sold sticky rice with a banana in the middle (which went from yellow to red after cooking) all bound up and steamed in a banana leaf. It was hard to eat with my fingers (I had only intended to try a little corner), so the shop lady wiped off a metal spoon with what looked like a dirty rag, and they both stood back to watch my reaction. Put on the spot, I threw caution to the winds and ate it. All of it. And once again, nothing happened.

I was offered bits of homemade brown sugar, strange fruit, and other tidbits, and nothing happened. I ate lunch (no set menu!!) with Nan at her usual hangout, a small shop near her office in Taunggyi. She walked around the counter and lifted all the lids off the pots, describing what they contained. She also ordered her favorite appetizers (pickled tea leaves, and other things Iíve forgotten). I was worried about the appetizers as they had been sitting out when we arrived and were served at room temperature. This breaks several of my rules about dining on the road. But Nan was so enthusiastic, I tried them all. And amazingly, nothing happened!
Femi is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 01:07 PM
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Femi - first of all thanks for your great report - I am really looking forward to my trip in February. I especially enjoyed reading about your experiences at Inle Lake. I expect that we will follow a similar itinerary there following the markets most of the time.

Your photos are amazing. I will share them with my wife Jeane - she's quite a photography buff and they will definitely get her exited about our trip.
Craig is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 01:15 PM
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Femi - you snuck in those general observations while I was writing my previous post. A couple of questions - do you think it would be helpful for me to lay out our expectations in advance to our travel agency regarding not too many temples, variety in meals and some of the other issues you had? Also, I don't do well with flip-flops - do you think Tevas would work well for Myanmar?
Craig is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 01:28 PM
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Hi Craig. I'm excited for you! Yes, I would definitely point out what your interests/expectations are as far as sites to visit.

It seems to me that the Burmese have a very fixed set of ideas about what tourists like, and it is very hard to sway them from that.

I am not a big fan of long walks in flip flops either. Glad you mentioned the Tevas. I couldn't remember what they were called. A lot of tourists were wearing these, and it seemed to work well. Makes it easier to rinse the mud off should you encounter any.

*Helpful Hint- Take good mosquito repellent, and be diligent about using it. Everytime I became lax I was bitten.

For instance, early on I would use those refreshing wipes liberally. Then I discovered I would be bitten soon after because I had wiped off my repellent. I learned to just stay grimy and protected!
Femi is offline  
Sep 20th, 2006, 06:57 PM
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Loved the photos. Thanks for all the useful tips. Nan sounded really helpful.Glad that you had such a great time.
Gill and Tony.
GillandTony is offline  
Sep 25th, 2006, 09:00 PM
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Craig: I made a slide show of more of my photos. If you would like to see it send me a note at Femi1atmsndotcom and I'll e-mail you.

Also: One correction I wanted to make is that I'd forgotten that on the ship, most of the lunches were Asian, served as a sort of sampler platter.
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