Burma: Go now!

Jul 20th, 2012, 11:13 AM
  #21  
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Shelley, it could be that because there were so few tourists, the vendors were desperate for sales. Most of the time it wasn't too bad, just a couple of places in the Bagan area where it bordered on uncomfortable. At Inle And Yangon, there wasn't any pressure but i was disappointed with most of the "workshop" setups at Inle. Craig, I didn't dare try the rice wine after my tummy troubles a few days earlier but DH said it was STRONG. Didn't see the submerged pagoda, everyone was so focused on our crisis of trying to get on dry land!
FromDC is online now  
Jul 20th, 2012, 11:32 AM
  #22  
 
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The boats through Inle Lake View were more than through SM? It was the opposite when we were there. It was $25 or $30 a day though the hotel (more for Sankar), more like $50 through Santa Maria. Please check the prices, as if it was more expensive though the hotel than Santa Maria I will give different advice to people.

We avoided the floating market. I'm sure the prices there were more expensive than anywhere else. We also opted to visit only the weaving workshop on the lake - no other workshops.

Did you visit InDien?

The dollar to kyat conversion rate you got at Inle was actually quite good (825), given that you got 884 to the dollar in Yangon. The conversion rate in other part of the country are lower - usually much lower.
Kathie is online now  
Jul 20th, 2012, 12:33 PM
  #23  
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Kathie, when we told Zaw about the cost of the boats, he said that they charge less but didn't give me a specific dollar figure. It was 75,000 kyats to Sankar, that's about $90 at the ILV conversion rate. The full day boat through the hotel was 35,000 kyats or about $42. I was basing the surprise of 825 kyats per dollar on the fact that Tharabar Gate was exchanging at 900 per dollar two days earlier and that's a pretty big difference. So the advice should be to get a quote from SM and compare it with the current charge at ILV.It is certainly more conventient to book through SM and not have to worry about carrying around a lot of kyats if the prices are about the same.
FromDC is online now  
Jul 20th, 2012, 12:38 PM
  #24  
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JULY 13

An early morning start to the airport, on time departure to Yangon with a stop at the capital, Santa Maria car waiting for us and our "welcome back" greeting at Strand Hotel. After a surprisingly good pizza at the Strand Café (the key was the buffalo mozzarella), the Strand car dropped us off at Scott market where we spent a few hours wandering around. After some of the hard sell markets in Bagan and Inle, it was refreshingly harassment free. We easily found a taxi back to the hotel. Although we didn’t buy anything there, we did browse in Yoyamay textiles and they do have lovely things.

On Fridays, the Strand Bar has a happy hour, half price drinks and it becomes a very busy(and smoke filled) place. We had a drink and then taxied to Singapore Kitchen for a great dinner of deep fried morning glory, grilled river prawns and chili crab (one of our favorite dishes which we've never been able to find outside Singapore). With rice and water, the bill was 29,000 kyats. One of the reasons we picked the restaurant was its proximity to Shwedagon Pagoda, which we wanted to see in the evening.

We thought it would be a quick and easy walk from the restaurant based on how we read the map. Two things we didn't take into consideration: how to cross the street with the crazy Yangon traffic and how to find the closest gate. It was a challenge, a much longer walk (in the dark) than we realized but we finally found the west gate and walked up the steps which wasn't that easy for us. (We liked very much the small plastic bags to carry our shoes in). When we finally reached the base of the pagoda, we knew it was more than worth the effort. Simply put, it is a magical place. Guidebooks and other trip reports give much better explanations than I ever could but it is truly magnificent. We were really glad that we chose to see it at night. After about an hour, we left by the South Gate exit, walked the down the steps and flagged a taxi to take us to our hotel. I was very grateful that this would be the final Yangon taxi ride of the trip.

JULY14
Zaw picked us up with a car and the same driver for a sightseeing trip and it was really a delight to spend the day with him. He is charming, knowledgeable and his English is excellent. First we went to the Botataung Pagoda to see the shrine with Buddha's Hairs. I thought it was one of the more interesting pagodas that I saw on the trip. Next we went to the synagogue (I asked Zaw to arrange this for us), where Moses Samuels greeted us and showed us around. Our next stop was Kandwayi Lake and a lovely walk through the park, where we stopped for a cool drink at Mr. Guitar. Then to lunch at Pandomar Restaurant, which was really excellent- chayote and egg, chicken curry with coconut mile, tea leaf and ginger salad, rice and beer for 16,000 kyats (Zaw's dish of mutton with lentils, also excellent, was complimentary since he had brought us there ). After a visit to the reclining Buddha, we were ready to go back to the hotel. It was a leisurely day with Zaw and the excellent Santa Maria driver and we enjoyed spending so much time getting to know Zaw. One of our only regrets of the trip was that we didn't have Zaw meet us on the first day of our arrival in Yangon and do some sightseeing with him to get a better orientation to the city.

That evening we were still stuffed from lunch. We went to the Strand bar to have a drink and saw that they had a Saturday night special of bar food and drinks at 2500 kyats each. This was perfect for us and so for our last dinner in Myanmar we had a light “tapas” meal – small portions of meatballs, chicken satay and samosa.

Bottom Line about Yangon: We didn’t care for the city and found it difficult to get around. There is very little I would have done differently in retrospect, but the main things would have been about Yangon. First, I would have stayed at the Governor’s Residence which hopefully would have been cleaner and had better service than The Strand. Second, I would have stayed only one night on each end of the trip and would have had Zaw take us sightseeing directly from the airport on the first day and the last day. It would have been nice to use the extra day in Pyin Oo Lwin or an overnight (or two) cruise if I had been able to arrange something.
FromDC is online now  
Jul 20th, 2012, 12:59 PM
  #25  
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JULY 15
After breakfast, it was a fairly quick trip to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. We arrived at back at the Mandarin Oriental around 2pm and shown to our room top floor of the Authors Wing. After a quick dip in the pool, DH and I had massages at the spa, then out to La Table de Tee for dinner (finding it was tricky even with map in hand). It was a really great meal, certainly one of the best we've had in BKK. The menu is fixed except for two choices, 900 baht per person and we had a bottle of wine that was 1300 baht. Here's what we ate: a light peanut based soup with mushroom truffle and poached quail egg; tiger prawns tempura/sautéed prawns with asparagus and hollandaise sauce; mushroom risotto, tilapia in ginger sauce, duck breast with garlic and bok choy; coconut and mango pudding tart with chocolate ice cream; peanut macaroon and fruit jelly.


JULY 16
Checked out in late morning, another very fast ride to the airport, yummy goodies at the Royal Silk Lounge and a very full meal on board Thai Air to Hong Kong. Easy taxi ride to the Salisbury YMCA for the great harbor view room on the 13th floor. We got there just in time to cross over to Avenue of the Stars for the sound and light show. It was a good thing we didn't make advance plans for dinner because at 8:20, the skies opened up and we ducked into the Intercontinental Hotel, and ended up just having drinks and light snacks (still not very hungry after the big meal on Thai Air)

JULY 17
Woke to the lovely view, had a quick breakfast at the Y buffet and taxied to the airport for the final legs of our trip back. Going back, United was on time and we had the same seats in the upper cabin of the 747. Long layover in Chicago, but made it home to DC exhausted and exhilarated by our travels.

OVERALL NOTES ABOUT MYANMAR:

I was quite concerned about money during the trip because of not having access to ATMs or being able to use credit cards. We probably would have spent more on souvenirs if we’d had ready access to cash. As it was, I brought about $4300 in cash and really didn’t feel comfortable travelling with much more than that. I exchanged a total of $1,100 into kyats (we came back with only about 2500 kyats), and paid Zaw about $1,350 (a bit more than half the cost of everything we arranged through SM). Between US dollars and kyats, we spent about $200 per day in cash which included lunches and dinners every day, admissions fees, souvenirs (spent around $300+), taxis, tips for all guides and drivers and a few others who provided us with great service or who expected tips (luggage handlers at the airports), Min Thu and Joe at Bagan, the boatmen at Inle, and the guides at Inle and Mandalay and the upgrade at ILV.

Even though it was rainy season, we had almost no rain (except Yangon our first afternoon), and there were not very many tourists (some Americans in Mandalay at our hotel but few elsewhere). Domestic air travel was easier than I thought it would be mainly because the airports are so small and the flying time between places is brief. Because our flights were early in the morning, it meant we didn’t waste any days travelling so in the end, I was glad we had those flights. All flights were on time and there were no schedule changes (although we didn’t get the flight times until very close to our departure from home). When we realized how difficult it was to travel around Yangon, I emailed Zaw and added the car to and from the airport for the final leg in Yangon. I also wish I had prearranged the guide in Mandalay as well as the boats through SM, but these are small things. One positive surprise was the relatively good (and usually available) wifi access at every hotel except ILV (where I paid for half an hour of internet access at their computer - -no wifi at all at the hotel) so we were able to use our iPads and even Skyped home a couple of times.

The main message is: GO NOW!!!! Our time in Myanmar was fantastic and we are so glad we went. Although it required more energy than our other trips to SEAsia, it was well worth it. Things are likely to change rapidly but it will be a while before the infrastructure improves significantly. We loved the people and the scenery, the temples and pagodas everywhere, learning about the history and the present day challenges, observing daily life and enjoying some lovely accommodations and good food. I would encourage everyone to go there as soon as possible, it is very hard to know what lies ahead.
FromDC is online now  
Jul 20th, 2012, 01:41 PM
  #26  
 
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Great report. I really enjoyed your perspective and your attention to detail. It's been 5 years since we were there and while some things have changed, much has not. Thanks for posting.
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Jul 20th, 2012, 01:43 PM
  #27  
 
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I'm so glad that you had such a wonderful trip, DC. You are so right that people should GO NOW!
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Jul 21st, 2012, 08:59 PM
  #28  
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What a great report. You provide so many helpful details and impressions about the places you stayed, visited and ate in. We will be visiting Burma in late November for 24 days, ten days of which will be on a Pandaw cruise on the Irrawaddy. We also have reservations for The Strand when we arrive in Yangon and the last two nights of our visit; your experience there is certainly not heartening--and I have read reports on Trip Adviser saying much the same--and many saying what a great experience they had--as has Kathie many times in her posts. We tried for The Governor's Residence, but MM at SM was told that it was booked for our dates and unlikely to have any openings. And there have been mixed reports on TA about it as well. Perhaps it's just the luck of the draw although with the rates they're both now charging, one would expect/hope for a consistency of service!

Interestingly, a recent poster using a TA in Cambodia has been able to get reservations at TGR for our November dates--as well I believe as at the Inle Princess Resort, which we also tried for but SM was told the same thing--it was fully booked and unlikely to become available.

Your reports about the various restaurants and dishes you tried are excellent, and I plan to use them. And your experience with the dollar bills that had creases in them being rejected also reminded me that the crispness is still being monitored carefully.

We, too, are stopping over in Bangkok en route to--and HK on our return. We only have one night and half a day in Bangkok, unfortunately. From everything I'm reading here, I wish we'd been able to spend more time there. Hope to visit it again.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your experience so thoughtfully.



Your good report on SM though fits very much with the experience we have had so far.
520 is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2012, 01:26 AM
  #29  
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Thanks,520, you are very lucky to have so much time in Burma, especially being able to do the cruise. DH and I have thought about a possible return trip if we could do one of the longer cruises.

The thing about the Strand was that it was by far the most expensive hotel we stayed at and had the Leading Hotels of the World branding, so one has certain expectations. My negative feelings about it after the first night were reinforced when the service at all our other hotels was superior. And I used the word "relatively", many times in my report - The Strand wasn't horrible and it would be very easy to make improvements to bring it to a higher standard. The rooms are quite spacious, and perhaps by November they will have responded to some of the criticism they're getting.

Where are you staying at Inle?
FromDC is online now  
Jul 22nd, 2012, 07:25 AM
  #30  
 
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We all know that places change - in developing countries places are less consistent than in developed countries in my experience. We had superlative service at the Strand both stays, and the things DC mentioned like no tissues or shower caps in the room was contrary to our experience. So is the Strand going down hill? Was this an off-season anomaly? Who knows. Also, the Strand was the same price as the riverfront suite at the Thiripyitsaya, so while it has the reputation as the most expensive place in Burma we found that was barely true.

The Strand Manager when we were there in 2009 was very "hands on" and I was surprised that the manager didn't greet us on our 2011 stay. We both thought the menu at the Strand wasn't as interesting in 2011 as it was in 2009.

The Governor's Residence is an entirely different kind of an experience from the Strand. It was a resort-like feel, while the Strand is a city hotel. We haven't stayed there, but have visited for lunch both trips. The food was much better in 2009 than in 2011. We also observed the very harried manager at the Governor's House in 2011 who seemed unhappy about the huge busload of tourists who were to have lunch there (i don't know if they were staying or not). And it struck me what big adjustments places have to make to the crush of visitors. One couple we met on this trip had stayed at the Governor's Residence at the beginning of their trip and complained to us about mildew in the tiny bathroom. When we had toured the rooms in 2009, they were lovely, though much smaller than the Strand. So which is the better place to stay? Part of it is personal preference, part of it is no doubt luck of the draw.
Kathie is online now  
Jul 22nd, 2012, 08:19 AM
  #31  
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From DC and Kathie,

What upsets one visitor may not even register with another, which is why it's always helpful to either have the experience of someone one generally agrees with or to have many reviews to put into the hopper when making hotel, restaurant, etc. choices for a trip--and really for the destination itself. When we originally booked our Yangon stay(s), it was going to be our first stop after the long journey from JFK. Recently we changed our JFK departure flight (and upgraded to 1st) so that we now have a stopover in Bangkok. We should be able to get some catch-up sleep there, I hope--unless, DC, we experience delays as you, unfortunately did. So our main consideration when making the Strand reservation was we wanted to be sure we'd be comfortable for our quite brief stay. A friend stayed at the GR last summer and loved it--but when it wasn't available, we, in many ways, thought the Strand might be more to our taste for our very brief stay (in looking at the photos, it reminds me quite a bit of The Imperial in Delhi, which we loved). The rates for both are so close as to not make a difference--but they are quite high for not providing good service.

The reviews for both seem to be up and down. Burma is experiencing such a huge tourism spurt I'm sure these places and their staffs are overwhelmed and trying to cope--and often having a tough time doing so. I'm glad that we'll have the first night in Bangkok. The most troubling comment you made, DC, was the Strand's failure to awaken you for your early morning flight and not arranging a car for you. We're booked on a very early flight,also--so guess we'll have to make sure to have alarms aringin'!!

INLE: We're staying at a b & b, The Princess Garden Hotel, in Ngaunshwe. when the Inle princess proved to be booked for our dates, MM at SM recommended it --along with The Lake View and another one or two. Its reviews are almost uniformly excellent and some of the trip reports have written glowingly of it. We liked the idea of being close to town, and of its intimacy (8 cottages)--and it's beyond reasonable. And we like to vary the places we're staying so that it's not all "five star"--or budget! The Lake View sounds lovely and probably if we weren't taking the cruise, we would have gone the route of staying on the lake. Sm DID check with them in early June, right before we confirmed with TPGH--there was One room left for our dates, but we decided to stick with what we have. All limbs crossed.
520 is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2012, 11:13 AM
  #32  
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Just a quick correction, we got our wake up call at The Strand but not the taxi/car as I requested several times. I only mentioned a few of the issues, if it was only shower caps missing, that would have been way too a thing to even mention....there were many things that accumulated. But again, the rooms are spacious and the hotel has great "bones", it reminded me of the E&O in Penang which we loved. These are short stays, I'm sure it will be fine, we might have had other issues with the GR, who knows!
FromDC is online now  
Jul 22nd, 2012, 12:24 PM
  #33  
 
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DC you mentioned using your ipad -- so it was not an issue bringing electronics into the country? I just read on the US State Dept website that tourists have had problems with electronics, even toys, being questioned on arrival so I'm trying to decide whether to bring a kindle and/or ipad or not.

I know the state dept site is probably going overboard in their warnings - I'm glad to see a recent traveler had no problem with an ipad.
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Jul 22nd, 2012, 12:36 PM
  #34  
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FromDC:
Awesome report! We are doing much the same as you at the end of October, all organized by Santa Maria, with one difference being that SM has booked guides and transfers for everything (while we usually like to organize things ourself, we decided to let someone else do the groundwork this time). We worked with Karene, who (I get the feeling) seems new to the organization. While she/he was generally good about emailing and making an effort to meet our needs, we had to make major concessions both with our accommodations and itinerary. We presume most changes were out of the control of SM and they did what they could. The hotels that are booked have not got the stellar reviews we had hoped (all our first and second choices were full).

We really appreciate the restaurant reviews and have duly noted them. Also appreciated the "heads up" on shopping at Inle and Bagan.

Two questions:

-Did you encounter a mosquito problem anywhere and did you take malarials?
-Was the visit to the elementary school in Sankar planned by your guide or did you just happen to see it? As a retired teacher I asked SM about visiting a school and was told it was difficult and we needed government permission. I really wanted to spend a hour or so, visiting the children and perhaps giving them something...

Trip reports like yours are so invaluable to others!!!
Thank you for posting! I will be certain to do the same when home.
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Jul 22nd, 2012, 12:55 PM
  #35  
 
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Leslie, the State Dept website is at least a decade out of date on the electronics issue. I haven't heard of anyone having a problem in at least 15 years.
Kathie is online now  
Jul 22nd, 2012, 12:56 PM
  #36  
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RE: The Strand and per the response just now from LvL, we're not going to make any changes at this time, but perhaps we'll ask SM to provide a car to the airport--although it's much pricier, it may just be worth it. Thanks for clarifying. We also have asked them to provide a car and driver for a half day for the only day we have in Yangon before going to Inle.

I was also pleased to see that you visited the synagogue in Yangon; I haven't yet arranged that, but intend to for the day and a half we'll be in Yangon after the cruise. Although we're not observant, we usually try to visit the local synagogue when we travel and have always found the experience rewarding. My friend who was there last summer said "Rabbi" Shalom (I think) was very nice and interesting. He has a travel agency also, and I had thought of contacting him, but.....was already on the path with SM.

Also, it was reassuring to hear that you were thinking of taking a cruise for a second visit. The entire trip started through my extremely well-traveled friend's recommendation of the Pandaw cruise. We were very resistant to the idea at first as we've never been interested in cruises--but neither is she and have gathered from others who have taken Pandaw that it's a very different and special experience...and MM at SM also encouraged us to do so. Just read about a 645 passenger cruise ship that will be going on the Irrawaddy in '13!!!! Soooo glad we're going now!

Electronics: Haven't been paying attention to whether it's a problem to bring them. Will be interested to hear your response to Leslie_S.

And finally (maybe ) was also glad to hear that all went so well with Min Thu; he--and his "brother cousin" sound very special, and we booked him for our stay in Bagan some time ago--but have read in some TRs that he's become v. v. popular and overbooked. Will check in with him again.

Looks like Kathie has launched him on quite a guiding business.
520 is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2012, 01:23 PM
  #37  
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Leslie, on Electronics: no problems whatsoever. No one looked at our bags when we entered Myanmar. You only need the plug adapter. Our iPads worked whenever there was wifi. The wifi wasn't on 100 pct of the time. In some places it worked in our rooms, others in the common areas, not at Inle anywhere.
Mossies, we rarely saw any, maybe a few in Bagan. But we usually sprayed with Deet before we went out at night especially and we did not take malarials
Sankar, the village is very small. Our Pa OO guide walked us around by the school and we looked in the classrooms. We didn't know who our guide would be until we picked him up so it wouldn't have been possible to prearrange a visit there. But I would guess that you could could bring some supplies with you and tell your guide you'd like to give them to the school. The only other suggestion that I have is that when you get to Inle, you tell the manager at the hotel that you'd like to spend time in the school and see if they can work it out in advance. Everyone will know who you are, the hotel has to call the Goldden Cottages in advance to get the guide. When we picked up ours, they knew we were working with Santa Maria even though the hotel made the arrangements for Sankar.

520: On the synagogue, Zaw from SM arranged it in advance for the day we went out with him. I don't think Moses is a rabbi but I might be wrong about that. We are talking about the same guy because he gave me his card for his travel agency. He opened the Torah for us, I was quite surprised. It was a short but satisfying visit. One note, the car can't park there so we had a walk a few blocks to meet the car after the visit so if you don't have a guide with you, you'll have to clarify with the driver about where and when to meet.
You should DEFINITELY have SM pick you up from the airport and take you there. It's worth the extra $15, trust me that you don't want to rely on a randomly waved down taxi. And we have never done a cruise and I have never had any interest except perhaps Burma or the Mekong. I'll be interested in you report. I'm really surprised to hear that such a large ship is expected to cruise there. The stops will be completely overwhelmed and the experience will be very different
Don't despair if Joe takes you around for part of the time if Min Thu is doing something else. We really liked them both.
FromDC is online now  
Jul 22nd, 2012, 06:13 PM
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Great job with the report! Thanks.
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Jul 22nd, 2012, 06:48 PM
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I'm one of those odd people who finds taking a taxi from the Yangon airport to be part of the adventure. The taxi line is very orderly, you pay inside and are directed to a driver. Our first trip, the guy who drove us to the Strand was really interesting. We arranged for him to take us back to the airport the next day and then to pick us up from the airport when we came back to Yangon at the end of our trip. This was despite the state of his taxi - missing the back of the front seat and the interior door panel and the air conditioning and I expect many more things. BTW, these wrecks cost US$30,000 in Burma, when you'd be paying someone to tow it away in the US. We did use (and appreciate) the Santa Maria pre-arranged transfers in Mandalay and at Inle, where the drive to the hotel is an hour or so. In Bagan, we used Min Thu's brother, Jyew (pronounced Jaw) Swe for airport transfers. He charges the same as the taxi line inside, 6000 kyat in Nov. 2011. But do what makes you feel comfortable.

To make an official visit to a school, you do need government permission, but to wander by with a guide and perhaps donate some supplies is easier - especially in Pa-O country with a Pa-O guide. Craig and Jeane did this when they went to Sankar.
Kathie is online now  
Jul 22nd, 2012, 08:00 PM
  #40  
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Kathie, you may have forgotten but I posted awhile back that SM now requires that they pick you up at the airport. I'm surprised that they didn't require it for From DC. I e-mailed quite a few times that we wanted to make our own arrangements to get to the hotel and was told that it now obligatory for SM to pick up arrivals so that all the vouchers can be handed over.

So far we haven't done anything about arranging the car to the Yangon airport for our departure, but it does sound like a good idea given From DC's experience (not the taxi's condition but the hotel not having arranged for one). Anyway there's time for that.

We also have pre-arranged transfers for Mandalay and Inle--from the airport, but are arranging with our hotel for the transfer on our departure.
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