Burma: Go now!

Jul 19th, 2012, 06:59 AM
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Burma: Go now!

Thank you to everyone who gave us suggestions for our trip to Myanmar, with a few days in Bangkok on either end. In my report, I'll focus less on the specifics of the temples, pagodas and other well visited sites because they have been beautifully described elsewhere. I'll give more details on the hotels, restaurants, prices, etc since these things change more rapidly. Fire away with questions, of course.

PREPARATIONS
DH and I have been missing SEA, as we haven't been since 2008. Although we had a trip to Borneo all planned for Feb 2011, some work related issues caused us to cancel flights and hotel reservations. In mid April, we were talking about when we might possibly be able to go again and we saw a few open weeks on our calendars for the very end of June through mid July. Best time of year to go? No, but better than not at all. We figured we would have to shell out big bucks for the air tickets but on a lark, I decided to call US Airways just in case I could use miles.

Agent: Where would you like to go and when?
Me: Into and out of BKK, 2 business class tickets, anytime after June 28 and returning around July 17
Agent: OK, let me check (comes back on the line in a few minutes). I can get you there and back but there is only one problem.
Me : Oh, what's that?
Agent: You'd have to spend the night in Hong Kong on the way back.
Me: That's NO PROBLEM

So, within a half hour of that first inquiry, we had 2 biz class tickets on United (Thai for the HKG-BKK legs) for exactly the days we wanted to travel with the bonus of a stopover in Hong Kong.

We’ve been wanting to go to Burma for many years but were reluctant because of the regime. But after the recent elections and the lifting of sanctions, I felt comfortable going. After rereading several of the wonderful trip reports posted on the forum, I sketched out a tentative itinerary. I knew that this would be monsoon season but hoped for the best.


Next step, making reservations at our favorite hotel, the Mandarin Oriental BKK for a day or two to adjust to jet lag and do a bit of shopping. Next pleasant surprise, there was a Stay 3, pay 2 special for the days we would be there. Then I began emailing Zaw at Santa Maria, although it took a while for him to get back to me because of the April holidays. Getting nervous about not hearing from him, I tried another agent who had been recommended by a friend but the responses were very disorganized and I got quite frustrated. I emailed Zaw again after the holidays and it was smooth sailing after that that. We finalized Itinerary 5.0, I transferred half the cost to the bank in Thailand, and started my prayers for good weather. One note on planning here: I originally wanted to do an overnight cruise from Mandalay to Bagan and we worked our itinerary so that we could be in Mandalay for the weekly departure. But soon after we settled on it, Zaw emailed to tell us that the cruise company (MV Paukan) had cancelled the trip because we were the only ones who had booked a cabin. I had a few options for the BKK-RGN tickets and decided on Bangkok Airways, mainly because of the flight times. They were quite a bit more expensive than Air Asia but we didn't want to get up at the crack of dawn (since we knew we'd be doing plenty of that later on, with no choice). I also snagged a harbor view room at the Salisbury Y for the overnight in HKG on the way home.


In the meantime, I spent much of my spare time rereading your trip reports, combing through the LP Guidebook, reading as much as I could online, etc. I also applied for visas here at the embassy in Washington. Piece of cake! Parking spot right in front of the embassy entrance, no wait at the counter, they took my money orders, photos and our passports with a smile and I picked them up 2 weeks later, again no wait. They had some nice maps and brochures which helped me get oriented to Yangon.

Also in preparation for the trip, I made several trips to local banks for crisp currency. Even after getting some from our own branch, I exchanged them elsewhere for crisper bills, as I noticed some center creases that worried me. I made sure to have lots of $5s and $10s, although it was almost impossible to get clean $1s. Otherwise we did the usual preparations for a SE Asia trip.

EMBARKATION
All did not go smoothly. No need to go into great detail but instead of arriving in BKK at 8:45pm on Friday, we arrived at 3:45am on Saturday. I'll only comment that the United Airlines staff in Chicago at the "service" desk in the lounge (our first delay) really need to better understand what that word means. There were a few positives-the ORD to HKG trip was very good, thanks to the service of the Hong Kong based crew in the upper deck of the 747; we thought we would not be able to get to BKK until Saturday evening, so when we were actually able to get there Saturday early morning, I was very happy; because of our actual arrival time in BKK, we sped through immigration, our bags were waiting at the carousel and there was no traffic at all- we arrived at the Mandarin Oriental exactly one hour after our plane touched down.

JUNE 30: we knew that we'd have to take it easy today after very little sleep in 36 hours of traveling. There was no point in trying to take a nap at 5am, we just settled into our lovely room on the top floor of the hotel and marveled at the view as we watched the night sky turn to daytime. Checked email, checked the Asia forum for Sunday night dinner recommendations, unpacked, showered and waited....until the Verandah buffet opened at 7am. There is something very special to me about having breakfast while watching life on the Chao Praya River. I love the activity, the breeze, the people watching, not to mention the mangoes. We had a very leisurely breakfast and made up in calories for lack of dinner the night before.

A bit later we ventured out with 2 goals: get some baht from the nearby ATM and go to Lin Jewelers to get silver "baby frames" for our two youngest grandchildren. Several years ago, we bought silver picture frames there that had special places on the frames for a baby's name, birth date and time, height and weight. Unfortunately, they no longer carry them, nor did any of the other jewelers on the street. Strike one. Next, the ATM, but neither or our cards worked. Strike Two. So we thought it would be a good idea to go back to the hotel before taking a third strike.

Next, we got on the sky train for a trip to Central Chitlom and wandered around for about an hour but didn't buy anything. Then back to the hotel for a nap and a wonderful "jet lag" massage at the spa. By then we got word that Table de Tee was fully booked for dinner, so we asked for a reservation at Ruen Urai based on one of Kathie's posts.

We had a lovely dinner there. Although I'm not a fan of fried things, the fried stuffed chicken wings we had as an appetizer were really good. I also especially liked the steamed river prawns with lemongrass. We also had a stir fry of BBQ duck in a black pepper sauce and also some sautéed morning glories. Both of those dishes were good and we had very attentive service in a lovely setting. With 3 drinks and rice, the bill was 2100 baht (apparently there is a discount if you pay with Amex). But getting back to the MO proved to be a challenge. The restaurant called us a taxi but after going a few blocks, the driver refused to turn on the meter. Not willing to be scammed, I asked him to let us out (across the street from Le Meridien, it turned out). So we went over to the hotel and asked them to get us a taxi. They did, driver turned on the meter after argument with the doorman, and after we went to blocks he told us that he wanted 100 baht for the short ride to the MO. When we refused he told us to get out. So we dumped the first taxi and the second one dumped us. We walked back to Le Meridien and the doorman was pretty outraged (we had tipped him nicely for hailing us the taxi). He flagged down another, wrote the taxi number on a piece of paper for us if there was a problem, and directed the driver to the MO. Well, the driver got "lost" a few streets away from the hotel, which added a few bahts to the total bill. I never felt threatened or in danger but it was quite annoying.
Back at the hotel, a quick night cap at the Bamboo Bar and a long awaited good night’s sleep.
FromDC is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 07:40 AM
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SUNDAY
After another wonderful breakfast on the verandah, we ventured out to the weekend market. I was looking for some cute T shirts and perhaps some small gifts. We arrived early enough so that it wasn't maddeningly crowded or hot but after about 2 1/2 hours I'd had enough. I only picked up a couple of shirts and a cute pair of tapestry flats from Chiang Mai.
Then back to the hotel for a rest and reading by the pool. We knew we'd need a lot of energy for the Chinatown food tour that evening. Thanks, Michael, for the recommendation. We really loved it. It was only about a 5 minute taxi ride to the meeting spot and there was only one other fellow on the tour so it was very personal. The guide ("chicken”, in Thai) pointed out lots of interesting things along the way about Chinatown and the food. I did make a list of everything and everywhere we ate but our favorites were the dim sum, the grilled river prawns and the duck cheeks. There was a lot of walking, obviously, over the 3+ hours and towards the end of the tour the streets were getting crowded. There is only one word of caution I have about this tour. One of the stops was at a very, very popular seafood restaurant. The guide took a ticket and then we had to wait for a table until our number was called. It was very hot and crowded while waiting outside and it was the one time I began to feel a bit queasy. We didn't have to wait too long, maybe 15 minutes, but apparently it can be quite a long wait on the weekends and in high season, sometimes 45 minutes just to get a table, then you wait for the food to be brought. What I felt best about on this tour was that I actually ate durian!!!! I was expecting to throw up but instead it was quite delicious. We had it with some sticky rice from a food cart where apparently the woman running it knows how to pick perfect durian of the variety that is not smelly. Bottom line, this is a great tour that we liked so much that we will probably do the daytime tour on the next trip.
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Jul 19th, 2012, 10:29 AM
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looking forward to more

any HK tips??
rhkkmk is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 11:15 AM
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We ended the trip with only a few hours in Hong Kong unfortunately. Didn't even have a full dinner.
FromDC is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 11:22 AM
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Great start! Keep it coming...
Craig is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 11:29 AM
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FINALLY, to BURMA
For our 9:15am flight to Yangon we had to leave the hotel by 6:30 so we had coffee and a pastry basket delivered to our room at 6. It was an uneventful flight on Bangkok Airways and we very quickly cleared immigration, picked up our bags and changed money (884kyats to the dollar, they rejected two of our $100 bills because of very very slight folds down the center where they had obviously been in someone's wallet). Joe from Santa Maria was waiting for us and drove us to The Strand. We were struck by how green and lush things looked, of course it is the rainy season. At the hotel, we went over the itinerary, got our vouchers and handed over the rest of the payment due.

We were shown to our suite at The Strand, quite spacious but otherwise lacking in amenities that you would expect from a hotel with a butler on the floor (ie, no tissues, shower cap, etc). But DH loved the flat screen TV with plenty of channels. I thought the hotel was a bit cold and indifferent and the quality of the service somewhat lacking. This was reinforced the following morning. But getting back to Yangon, we slept and the wandered around the neighborhood a bit and then it began to rain hard. Soaked, we made it back to the hotel and spent the afternoon reading and resting. At around 5:30, we went to the bar for a drink and then headed out to Monsoon Restaurant where we had an enjoyable dinner (grilled eggplants, pork with coconut and lemongrass, and chicken curry, 3 glasses of white wine from Myanmar, and one gin on the rocks, total around 40,000 kyats). We walked back to the hotel and put in for a wake up call at 4am for our 6:15am flight to Bagan.

TUESDAY, JULY 3

Coffee came to the room at 4:15 and we were in the lobby at 4:40am, expecting the taxi that we had asked for 3 times (asked for it at the concierge desk the evening before, called twice to confirm). No taxi. We were told to wait while they tried to flag one down and ten minutes later, more than a bit frightened, we drove off in a barely workable car with a trunk that couldn’t close, worried that our suitcase would fall out. I’m not even sure the car had working headlights. We did get to the airport when expected, but I felt the hotel was absolutely at fault for not arranging the taxi as we asked and then letting us get into one that was clearly dangerous.

Easy check in for our Yangon airways flight. Two notes here, things I wasn't expecting: we had to check our carryon because of the limited overhead bin space, this was like a regional prop plane, and we made a stop at Nay Pyi Taw that we weren’t really aware of in advance (fortunately, the flight attendant stopped us from getting off the plane).

Min Thu's brother (actually his "brother cousin" as we later found out, which means his first cousin who is male but who he also grew up with) was waiting for us and we enjoyed the comfortable car ride to the Tharabar Gate hotel. We were shown to our lovely room, very spacious and light. There was nicely carved furniture and interesting art, a small patio, flowers and a fruit basket, a small fridge, a safe, coffee/ tea pot and lots of storage space.

We met Min Thu and SuSu at 10am so there was still lots of time to see some temples and get an orientation to Bagan. The major morning site was Sulamani (we also stopped at Noa-Kwe-Na-Daung Pagoda and Tha-bin-Nyu temple). Although Min Thu wanted to spend more time with us, it was past noon and we were getting hot, tired and hungry and we asked him to take us back to the hotel. We had a lovely lunch at Sarabar II (a very cold Myanmar beer, a Thai omelet and Myanmar beef curry for about 11,000 kyats plus a tip). We enjoyed the restaurant quite a lot, very friendly service, fans for breeze, in a garden setting with all teak wood. Back at the hotel, we had a long nap before meeting Min Thu again at 4pm.

We spent a few hours visiting temples with lovely murals, Shwe-Kun-Char temple with a view of the river, and watching the sunset from Shwesandaw Pagoda. It was a great first day in Bagan. Dinner at the other Sarabra was good: fried rice with prawns, chicken curry and a Myanmar beer and water, equivalent to about $15US.
FromDC is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 11:37 AM
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I'm looking forward to more!

The taxi you took to the airport from the Strand is a typical taxi in Burma - missing large sections of the interior/exterior, non-functioning items, that's all standard. We always took note when we rode in a taxi that wasn't a wreck just in case we wanted to call the driver again.
Kathie is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 11:45 AM
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Yes, we took a few other taxis on the last leg of the trip as well, some were in better condition than others. But I expected better care from the hotel, especially because of the advance request.
I'm posting this a few days at a time so that no one segment is too long. Overall we had a stupendous trip, but for us Yangon was the weakest link.
FromDC is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 11:51 AM
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Yangon is the least intersting og the places I visited in Burma, Mandalay was a close second.

I'm sure it was a shock to your system to move from the Oriental in Bangkok to Burma. Burma is in a different time zone - by decades. And their ability to respond to requests that you may see as routine is pretty limited.

Anyway, looking forward to more on Bagan.
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Jul 19th, 2012, 12:08 PM
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WEDNESDAY, JULY 4
We did mention to a few people about the US holiday and it's meaning. There is a lot of excitement about bringing democracy to Myanmar.

As we were saying goodbye to Min Thu yesterday, he asked if we would mind if we went with his brother the next day because he had a opportunity to go to Salay with a photographer to learn more about taking photos. We had no problem at all with that because we liked his brother very much when he picked us up from the airport and we thought it would be nice to go to Mt Popa. So we spent the morning doing the usual tourist stop at the coconut sugar stand (even bought some jaggary and sesame seeds, it was quite a yummy combo)and then the drive through the hills to Mt Popa where we saw the nat temple and walked up the stairs under the covered walkway for the views. We were not planning to walk up to the temple. The monkeys left us alone but they were really all over the place. We stopped at the Mt Popa Resort for a drink where we admired the gorgeous views, then drove back and had lunch with Joe at Sunset Garden restaurant on the river in New Bagan. The sweet and sour fish was the best dish, the 2 other chicken dishes were rather bland. With a beer and a water, the bill was under $30US equivalent in kyats.

After a nap, we met Joe again for a visit to the lacquer workshops but didn't have enough time to make a decision about a big piece so we planned a return trip. As we were parting for the afternoon, Joe told us that Min Thu could not meet us the next day either. We agreed that Joe would take us to Salay the next morning. Dinner at Be Kind to Animals was the best meal yet: pumpkin curry, chalpouti, beer and water for about 15,000 kyats.

JULY 5

A different breakfast setup was waiting for us in the morning. The buffet was on the patio and had a larger variety of hot dishes, especially Chinese. Some tour groups seem to have arrived the night before, as there were large tables set up for breakfast and a billboard announcing a Chinese set menu for dinner that evening. We tried the pancakes this morning and they were quite good. The made to order omelettes were delicious, the pastries/breads not so good, a small but good selection of fruit and juices (some of the juices were fresh, others were labelled as "processed".

In two different places in The Lonely Planet guidebook, it states that Salay is 22 miles south of Bagan. NOT. It's more like 35 and the roads are quite bad. LP also suggest that you can do Salay and Mt Popa in one day. That would be almost impossible, even if you could find a driver willing to do both. Joe said he would not do both and I can understand why. It was a fascinating drive for us and we really enjoying seeing the different terrain, the oil rigs, passing though the market at Chauck, but 4 hours of driving to see the museum of the former wooden monastery was quite long (although it was quite interesting). We felt very bad for Joe and the wear and tear on his precious car. On the way back we had lunch at the restaurant at the Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort (I was interested in what it was like because it was the other hotel I was considering in Bagan). The grounds were certainly much more beautifully manicured than Tharabar and I thought the river view was spectacular from the site. I didn't see any rooms or compare room prices. There was very little shade on the grounds and it was a very hot day. I only observed that the lunch was about double the price of our other meals (food was just OK) and the prices at the boutique were high.

After a return visit to the lacquer studio, Joe drove us to the dock where his friend was waiting to take us for the sunset boat ride. The trip up river was very interesting because there were many families doing their bathing and washing, with lots of children playing in the water. The boat was quite basic, but there was a covered part where we sat when the sun was still strong and then we moved to the open area when it got a bit cooler. Going up river was slow, we rode for about an hour and a half, then stopped to watch the sun set (it was fairly cloudy, however) and then a very short ride back to the dock. For an hour and a half plus, the cost was 15,000 kyats. Joe came with us and it was great to have his explanations about the houses, the monasteries and other aspects of river life. Upon returning to the dock, the girls with bangles, post cards, coasters, etc descended upon us. They were sweet children but very persistent. I really didn’t want anything but I bought one postcard for $1, not the entire set of 10 for $2, because I had no more small bills with me).

We returned to Sarabha II for dinner, hoping to see the puppet show but there wasn't one that evening. The restaurant was quite busy, one large tourist group and several other families. We had two beers, a delicious green Thai chicken curry and an overly sweet, sweet and sour prawns, total of 21,000 kyats plus tip.

JULY 6
Our last day in Bagan, we decided to meet Min Thu a bit earlier so that we could finish the morning excursion before noon and get out of the worst sun. After a few brief temple stops, we drove to the market at Nyaung U. We spent a little time wandering through and bought some mangoes that we quite delicious. We paid 500 kyat for 2. The handicraft sellers were quite aggressive and followed us around and it was difficult to get away. DH bought a map of Myanmar that has a lot of information about the country. Min Thu has very good intuition about his clients likes and needs. As we were leaving Nyuang U, he pulled SuSu onto a side street and we all got off the cart. He brought us to a soya bean paste "factory", and we watched as every part of the process. This factory was only a shack with the most rudimentary equipment, with young men doing the hard physical work such as stirring the hot beans in water, and the young girls doing other parts of the processing such as measuring the paste and putting it into packages. There was very little physical capital for this process, such as some kettles, measuring cups, and a machine to seal the packages. This stop was one of the highlights of our trip because we were seeing the real daily life of Myanmar (and not the workshops set up for tourist visits).

Our last afternoon included some other important temples that we hadn't seen yet, including Ananda. We declined a final sunset viewing and we said our good byes to Min Thu and Su Su. Our final dinner was also our best meal in Bagan. We went back to Be Kind to Animals and while deciding what to order, we had a nice chat with the manager about our food preferences. He recommended the tamarind curry (because it was the season) and said he would get the kitchen to put in extra ginger for us. It was one of the most superb dishes I've eaten in a long while, especially for the price, what value!

Bottom line about Bagan: We’re really glad we had 4 full days and for us the balance of 2 horsecart days and two automobile days was just right. We also liked the combination of temples and countryside - I don't think we would have enjoyed spending 4 days only at the temples and pagodas. We loved both Min Thu and Joe and would highly recommend them as a team. We couldn’t have been more pleased with the time we spent with them, enjoyed their company immensely. We paced ourselves just right, it was quite hot so having the afternoons out of the sun was critical. We saw some people riding bicycles around to the temples but if you are at all affected by the heat, I don't think it is advisable. Also, having someone point out the highlights and history was very helpful. I was also very glad we stayed at the Tharabar Gate hotel. The location was great for nearby restaurants, the service there was excellent and our room was lovely. Also, they were exchanging dollars at 900 kyats, a rate we never saw elsewhere, but at that point we still had much of our original “bankroll” so we didn’t exchange any more. Meals at nearby restaurants averaged around $20 for two, typically two dishes, rice, and a large beer (sometimes water and/or an appetizer). Children and adults selling souvenirs were more persistent here than elsewhere. We bought a sand painting at one of the smaller temples, some cards in Salay, and some lacquerware pieces from Maung Aung Myin’s exquisite back room.
FromDC is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 01:12 PM
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Very interesting. Thanks for writing!
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Jul 19th, 2012, 01:45 PM
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JULY 7

An uneventful flight to Mandalay on Yangon Airlines (their motto is "you're safe with us"), we were met by the car we arranged with Santa Maria. I'm glad we did this, there weren't too many taxis out front. We checked into the Hotel by the Red Canal. The hotel is lovely and I'm surprised that we hadn't read more about it. It is in a quiet neighborhood not too far from the east gate entrance of the palace complex. There is lots of beautifully carved wood in the rooms on the ceilings, closet doors, etc. Our room was a Shan suite on the first floor (not the ground floor) with a small balcony overlooking the pool. The room was small but it was fine for 2 days. There are complimentary snacks in the afternoon and a cocktail hour with some fruity drinks and a chance to meet other guests. We had a Western lunch at City Cafe, a diner style restaurant close by and later in the afternoon we walked around the neighborhood in search of Rocky's, a souvenir place mentioned in Lonely Planet. I bought a few inexpensive jade bracelets. I had been planning to go to the jade market but we just didn't have the energy so we cooled off around the pool. Our dinner at Spices restaurant at the hotel was one of the most expensive meals we've had in Myanmar and probably the worst food (not bad, just kind of bland).

JULY 8
I realized that when I arranged with SM for a car to go to Sagaing and the ancient capitals, I didn't ask for a guide. The hotel arranged it with Mu Mu, who was very good. We made the usual stops at the gold leaf workshop, a weaving workshop, etc, and Mahamuni Paya. But one of the highlights of our entire trip, which was unexpected, was the time we spent at the nunnery in Sagaing. We went to the meditation hall and spent time watching the girls, then when their meditations time finished, they marched to the dining hall. We listened to them chant thanks for the meal, it was quite moving. Before leaving Sagaing we had a delicious lunch at the Sagaing Hill Restaurant, chicken and cashews, river fish curry which was really excellent, rice, water and a beer, 13,500 kyat plus tip with Mu Mu's vegetarian sir fry comped by the restaurant. Next we drove to the U Bein Bridge and enjoyed the walk across. We were stopped several times and asked if we would pose for a picture with various groups of young people (that hasn’t happened to us outside Borobudur). Although a typical sightseeing day might have continued until much later in the afternoon, DH and I were hot and tired and ready to return to the hotel at about 2:30. We put some ice into our glasses, poured a Tiger Beer and reflected on the terrific, though relatively low key, time in Mandalay. We strolled next door to the Canal Mandalay Restaurant and had a table on the lawn with twinkling lights and very attentive service. Red Mountain wines were on the drink menu some ordered a bottle of Sauvingnon Blanc which was quite good once it cooled. Dinner was spring rolls, stir fried mustard greens and crispy duck (which we thought would be like Chinese crispy duck but turned out to be deep friend pieces of duck in a heavy batter, quite tasty). Dinner was about 35,000 kyats.

Bottom Line about Mandalay: We really enjoyed the trip to Sagaing and liked Mandalay better than Yangon but if short on time, give it a skip. We really liked being outside the cities much more.
FromDC is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 02:02 PM
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DC - We actually followed the LP recommendation to visit Salay and Mt. Popa in the same day. I had to look back at my trip report for the details but because we attended a Buddhist procession in the morning, we did not get going until almost 10 am. The trip to Salay took 1-1/2 hours and the roads were indeed very bumpy. I don't know if it is a coincidence but 22 miles = 35 kilometers - don't know what it really was, other than slow going. From there it was another 1-1/2 hours to Mt. Popa over another very bumpy road. We did not climb up to the temple, although we did visit the nat "museum" at the bottom. And we did take in the view from the resort. It was another 1-1/2 hour drive over a better road to return to Bagan. Neither attraction is on our "recommended" list for Bagan. Perhaps we were disappointed because we tried to do too much or maybe because Bagan and Inle Lake were just so awesome, this day trip was just not very good by comparison.
Craig is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 03:33 PM
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I thought the best part of Mandalay was Sagaing, so I'm glad you enjoyed it. We didn't use a guide, just a driver, but we had done a lot of reading ahead of time.
Kathie is offline  
Jul 19th, 2012, 05:06 PM
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Nice report!

Just talked to a Burmese friend the other day and he said that there are only 1,000 rooms in Bagan's hotels. They are expecting that to double that within 1 year and more restaurants coming up as well. Even an old palace there is being converted into a tourist shopping mall.

Land in Yangon is now more expensive than Bangkok as there is a rush to build. So I definitely agree with your title "Burma: Go now!"
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Jul 20th, 2012, 03:57 AM
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We were so lucky to be in Bagan during the off season when it was relatively quiet and before a building "explosion". I guess it will become much like Siem Reap.

As you can tell from our report so far, we really scale back on how much we do in one day, given our ages and the heat. Even though we may miss some things, we aren't worn out so we can enjoy them more. Even though I sometimes feel that we are "wasting time", I know it makes for a better experience for us in the long run. We had the time to stretch Bagan and Inle into 4 days each, so we could go at a slower pace.
FromDC is offline  
Jul 20th, 2012, 06:11 AM
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With only 1000 hotel rooms in Bagan, it will be a long time before Bagan will become like Siem Reap even if the number doubles annually! Still, it's wonderful to be there when there are so few visitors.

I agree that it makes sense to slow down and enjoy in SE Asia.
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Jul 20th, 2012, 08:39 AM
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JULY 9

Not a good day. Woke up in the middle of the night feeling very ill, Mandalay belly I guess it's called. A quick flight to Heho where we were picked up by the SM car. I asked that we be taken directly to the hotel and skip the prearranged day at Kakku. When we arrived at the Inle Lake View Resort we were struck by how much it resembled Bali, with the lush vegetation and teak furnishings. Although we had booked a deluxe room because we thought the view of the lake would be better (it was), we asked to also see a junior suite and decided to pay for the upgrade. DH entertained himself while I slept all day. When I managed to get to the Lotus Bar for a cup of tea at 5pm, the GM came by and asked how we were doing. When he heard I was ill, he came back a few minutes later with a couple of packs of a French medicine for stomach problems. Between that and the Z-pack that I took, I felt much better the next morning.

Here are some details and about the hotel that I don't remember reading elsewhere (please note the word remember, they may have been there). (1)There is no air conditioning. Since I wasn't feeling well when we arrived, I was concerned about it, especially since it is relatively hot and humid in the rainy season. But it turned out not to be an issue because of the ceiling fan and good cross ventilation (2) In the junior suite, there is an enormous platform around the bed, making it a bit challenging to get in and out. (3) There are no alternatives to the hotel for dinner unless you want to hire a taxi to go to town (and this is probably true for all places on the lake). Now, none of these things turned out to be a problem for us, but I think it's important to know all the pros and cons of a place. The grounds are extraordinarily beautiful, the rooms are spacious and beautifully furnished, the staff is always smiling with a warm welcome and wanting to be helpful, the GM is very hands on and is highly visible. I chose ILV in part because it is set back a bit from the lake is therefore less noisy and that's a big plus.

JULY 10

We went to the reception area after breakfast and asked for a boat for half a day, since I was still recovering I didn't want to push things. We were taken to the weaving village, the blacksmith village and the cigar making shop. The production process in all cases was interesting (although these were set up for tourists, the real factories must be elsewhere) the obligatory tourist shop not so much. I did buy a cleaver and a decorative knife/sword (28,000 kyats for both), a silk scarf ($25), and star anise cigars (500 kyats). We were told by the guide at the cigar store that the girls make 1,000-1,500 cigars a day for a wage of 3,000 kyats.

Much more interesting to us than the tourist workshops was observing the activity, houses and vegetation on the lake. A major task is culling seaweed from the lake floor and piling it onto the boats to use later as fertilizer and soil. It is back breaking work but farming is the major occupation for the families who live on the lake (not fishing!). We had an excellent lunch at Inn Thar Lay restaurant and it is a lovely setting (1 can tiger beer, 1 special stuffed fish, 2 portions of rice (the only thing I wanted to eat but I tasted the fish) and green tea, the bill was 6,000 kyats.) We didn't get charged for the tea but we left a generous tip.

The boatman took us back to the hotel, the four hours on the lake had flown by. Because we booked through the hotel, the half day cost of the boat was 25,000 kyats and a full day is 35,000 kyats. From what I've read elsewhere, this is considerably more percentage wise than the rate if you book on your own or even with SM. But the boatman was excellent. Anytime we even reached for our cameras, he would slow the boat for us. The hotel provided blankets, ponchos and umbrellas and the seats were fairly comfortable. It was also an easy stroll from our room to the hotel's boat jetty.

After a nap and the hotel's complementary neck and shoulder massage in their small spa, and a light dinner of lemongrass soup and toast for me, delicious tomato soup and chicken biryani for DH, we went back to the balcony on our patio for a last look at the twinkling lights across the lake before bed.

JULY 11

A full day on the lake planned, we met our boatman at about 8:15 and stopped first at the floating market. The stalls are on solid land but near a marshy area. On this day, there were only a few people selling things like vegetables to locals-mostly souvenir stands, probably fifty of them, selling identical items. It requires hard bargaining as the asking price is usually more than double the closing price. Here, most vendors have a sheet of paper with numerals in kyats on one side and dollars on the other. The first question you're asked is dollars or kyats, then the vendor points the opening price. After you shake your head no, they say something like, " I won't get angry if you bargain". Point to something that is less than a third of what they ask and you end up near the middle. But we found the little souvenirs RELATIVELY expensive compared to similar markets in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos and the final prices higher than the identical items at Scott Market in Yangon. We overpaid for a few small things.

Next were stops at the paper making and silversmith demonstrations. High pressure to buy a souvenir at the paper making place and the prices were really out of line. Then to Inn Thien village. The boatman left us off at the jetty and pointed the way to the village and the site of the chedis and the long hallway to the pagoda which was lined with souvenir stalls. The sellers were not aggressive at all, selling mostly the same trinkets as the floating market. I did buy a small stone picture that looked like it had been on the stall for about 10 years.

Back in the boat, we pulled up to a restaurant opposite the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda just as a VIP visitor was departing the pagoda. We were able to watch the departure along with at least 200 soldiers escorting/protecting the uniformed man and his wife. About 5 minutes after they got into a boat, two helicopters took off nearby. Later, the soldiers began packing up their gear and rifles into boats and leaving the dock. Subsequently, we learned that the visitor was a Thai general on a friendship visit to Burma. After lunch, the boatman took us through the floating gardens and it was fascinating to see all the vegetables growing in the marsh.

We had another lovely dinner at the hotel restaurant. Fortunately, the food is quite good. There are both Asia (Burmese, Chinese, Indian) and Western (pasta, pizza, rack of lamb, beef, etc) choices but we stuck to the Asian dishes.

JULY 12
Up earlier this morning, as we planned to go on the full day trip to Sankar. When we got to the jetty, we found 2 boatmen waiting for us. We needed to have a second boatman familiar with the Sankar Lake. Almost half an hour into the trip, we stopped at the Golden Island Cottages to register, pay our entry fee and pick up our Pa Oo guide who accompanied us to Sankar. The ride there took 3 hours and it was more beautiful scenery, being closer to the hills and seeing the rich soil and lush vegetation and especially watching local life on the lake. Apparently, Sankar is a man-made lake, although we hadn't read that anywhere. The guide explained many of the things we had wondered about on the previous lake trips, some really appreciated having a guide with us for least one day. So, this being the rainy season, one ironic incident is that the channel that normally lets the boat pull into the village area was not open because the water level wasn’t high enough! There was a lot of head scratching about what to do, but the between the guide , boatmen and DH, we figured out a way to get us on land by walking into another boat, putting down some boards from the bottom of the boat onto the mud and then having us walk on some logs to more solid ground. That was probably the most interesting part of the land portion of the trip, as there was very little to see in the village. An elementary school was in session and we peaked into the classrooms. I was very sorry that I hadn't come prepared with notebooks and pencils, etc to distribute to some children. We had a really excellent lunch at a relatively new restaurant called Bwe Bai. A grilled eggplant salad, chicken with cashew nuts, rice and beer, about $12. It was in a lovely spot about 50 yards from where we pulled in from the lake and they grow their own vegetables. The very friendly owner, Khun Nay Win, had been a cook at the Golden Island Cottages but opened his own place about 4 months ago. Behind the restaurant was a rice liquor distillery owned by his in laws so after lunch he showed us the process of making the local al hook drink, which apparently comes in 20%, 40%,and 50% alcohol versions. DH tried a sip of the 40% version.

After a stop at the Sankar pagoda, we began the 3 hour journey back to the hotel. There were a few sprinkles on the return which we found very refreshing. As we neared the hotel, the late afternoon dense clouds gave the lake a truly mystical quality which unfortunately I could not capture on my camera. From start to finish, the tour took about 9 hours. The hotel charged 75,000 kyats for the boat/boatmen, the entry fees and guide were $30 plus tips to everyone.

As we walked up to the hotel, I saw a woman and a teenage boy sitting at the Lotus Bar and just knew it was Debnyc. We had a great time comparing notes on our trips and chatted again later that evening during dinner.

Bottom line about Inle Lake: This was our favorite part of the trip, as DH and I both love being on water. We found the life on the lake incredibly fascinating, the scenery was beautiful and we were very lucky weather-wise. I would recommend the Inle Lake View Resort and stay there again without question. If I had to redo the itinerary on the lake with the time we had, I would have skipped many of the "workshops" and explored the northern/western side of the lake for a bit. But I could not get enough of the rides on the lakes and watching all the activity and admiring the scenery. The only negative was some of the pricing at the hotel. We expected to pay more for food, which was fine as the menu was varied and everything well prepared. However we didn’t realize that booking the boats through the hotel would be quite so much more than the cost of booking on our own or even very much higher than booking through Santa Maria. This wouldn't have been much of an issue except that since we were running low on kyats, we needed to settle much of our bill (now added to over $600 in additions to the payments to SM ) in kyats and the conversion rate they gave us was very low - - around 825 kyats to the dollar. So this ended up being a very expensive 4 nights, although we could have spent considerably less by not upgrading to a junior suite ($120), booking boats with SM (probably would have saved $50), and being prepared with more kyat (we would have had almost enough if we hadn’t upgraded or if we had prebooked the boats).
FromDC is offline  
Jul 20th, 2012, 08:52 AM
  #19  
 
Join Date: Aug 2006
Posts: 1,735
I am so glad we went before the tourist explosion and building boom. When we were there just a few months ago, the purveyors of tourist stuff were friendly, and took no for an answer with a gracious smile. There was no persistence or insistence to buy. I wonder what the country will be like in 5 years. The only place we visited that probably will still keep its rural character is Mrauk U, because it is difficult and time consuming to reach. However, if they make a highway from Yangon or Mandalay to Mrauk U, even Mrauk U will change.

I am enjoying your report and am looking forward to more.
shelleyk is offline  
Jul 20th, 2012, 10:29 AM
  #20  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,892
We also stayed at the Inle Lake View Resort. Unlike you, I could not get used to the platform around the bed and banged up my shins pretty badly the couple of times I returned to bed in the middle of the night. Otherwise, we thought the place was great.

The lake at Sankar is actually a reservoir. Many villagers were relocated to make way for it. Did you see the submerged pagodas next to the shore at Sankar?

We also stopped at the rice wine distillery - when we were there, they were selling two grades: strong (40% alcohol) and very strong (60%) and yes, I did try some...
Craig is offline  

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