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Burma? Laos? Cambodia? Vietnam? - I need some help!

Burma? Laos? Cambodia? Vietnam? - I need some help!

Old Aug 26th, 2012, 03:40 PM
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Burma? Laos? Cambodia? Vietnam? - I need some help!

Travel time - January and February 2013. Do we have enough time to arrange a trip to SE Asia? We started by looking at Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam [gottravel 9 wks report was wonderful and very informative] however after reading Kathie's excellent trip reports on Burma we feel we need to head there first. We are a healthly, older couple who love to wander - walks in the city, drives in the country, food markets, villages,workshops, a train ride, museums, temples but not too many.

Please recommend a travel agency and agent. I know that Santa Maria is mentioned for arrangements in Burma but do they work in Laos or Vietnam. Tonkin Travel - just for Vietnam? Sunbird Tours or Diethelm Travel? Min Thu sounds like a guide we would like; his email please.
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Old Aug 26th, 2012, 03:57 PM
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I agree - go to Burma as soon as you can! Do contact Santa Maria for flights and accommodations as soon as possible. Many hotels will already be sold out with the huge influx of visitors. Santa Maria will only make arrangements within Burma. MinThu can be reached at [email protected]

Decide which other countries you want to visit. I'd encourage you to spend as much time as you can in Burma. It is changing so fast, you want to explore as much as you can now. The maximum visa time in Burma is 28 days.

Then I would choose not more than two other countries. VN can easily take up three weeks of your time.

You don't really need a travel agent for the other countries, though a number of Fodorites have used Tonkin to make arrangements in VN. It is easy to book hotels and flights on your own for all of the other countries.

Do be explicit about what you want an agent to arrange. Without directions, most agents will offer you not only flights and accommodations, but also airport transfers (some of which make sense, but most do not), guides for all of the time you are there, and often a car and driver. You don't need most of this. If I want a guide somewhere, I tend to hire them on the spot, as I did MinThu.
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Old Aug 26th, 2012, 05:29 PM
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Kathie, I appreciate such a quick reply. We had thought about flying into Singapore, traveling up to Bangkok and over to Yangon. Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake are on our list. Undecided about including Mrauk U. Wanting to visit these areas, do we have to fly to each? Any possibility of a road trip or a train? From the northern part of Burma can you fly to Laos or VN? I read that the Strand Hotel is your favorite but do you know anything about the Alamanda Inn in Yangon?
Thanks from Portland, Oregon
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Old Aug 26th, 2012, 05:44 PM
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it depends on how you like to spend your time on a trip. The most efficient and comfortable travel within Burma is flying. There are trains, but they are generally considered to be less comfortable than the buses - which are highly variable. This is a country with little infrastructure. Most of the infrastructure was built by the Brits - so pre-WWII. Certainly you can ask for a car and driver to take you from one place to another, but the drives are long and the roads in bad to terrible condition (except for the Yangon to Mandalay road which was recently re-paved. Also, driving means you have to stop to overnight at a small town along the way, and the guesthouse facilities will be on the primitive side.

Mrauk U was a highlight - but with the ethic violence there it is unclear whether it will be open for visitors (it has been off limits for a month or two now).

There are no international flights from Mandalay except for a new flight a couple of days a week from Mandalay to Bangkok (oh, and a couple of flights to China). There are always rumors of new routes. I understand there is a flight from Hanoi or HCMC to Yangon and return. Plan that your itinerary will be a loop starting and ending in Yangon.

Sorry, I've never heard of the Alamanda Inn, but there are lots of places I haven't heard of. Use the expertise of your travel agent in Burma to recommend alternate accommodations.

Save your train trips for VN or Malaysia..
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Old Aug 26th, 2012, 07:13 PM
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We're in the final stages of arranging travel to Burma in January and are using Santa Maria Travel primarily because of the recommendations of Fodorites, particularly Kathie. Her advice on this forum has been invaluable. We're normally independent travellers but Din at Santa Maria has been excellent in responding to emails and booking flights and accommodations. It's best if you can have a basic itinerary planned, a budget range to suggest and if you want specific hotels list them in your initial contact with the agency.

Our 10 day itinerary includes: 1 day Yangon arrival and departure, 4 days in Bagan and 4 days at Inle Lake. The Alamanda Inn in Yangon appears to get good reviews and is only a short taxi ride away from the centre. It became our choice for an overnight stay. We really wanted to stay at the Inle Lake View hotel but it's booked for our dates. Apparently travel agents have been inundated with requests for assistance recently so based on our experience I'd recommend you act ASAP for January/February 2013. We've asked to be put on a wait list at the Inle Lake View and we're really hoping something will open up before we put a deposit on a room at another hotel.

I'd also highly recommend Vietnam. We've visited twice and on our second trip stayed with our guide and his family for a week during Tet. What an amazing cultural experience! We experienced things from a very different perspective .... a holiday we'll never forget. It's also quite easy to arrange travel in VN and 3 weeks will only scratch the surface. VN is a beautiful country and its people are wonderful.
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Old Aug 27th, 2012, 08:05 AM
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NL, I'm glad my posts have been helpful. It sounds like you have a wonderful trip planned! I do hope you can get a room at the Inle Lake View.
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Old Aug 27th, 2012, 01:19 PM
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Kathie, Just a few more questions. You suggest 4 days at Inle Lake. I read that one day you head south and visit Saga, another day you head north. Our lake visit in southern India was fine for a day but 4 days on a lake. Please explain what we are not considering. I read about Paukan cruises on the river between Mandalay and Bagan. Can you tell me anything about this cruise or any other I sure consider. We do like road travel and are thinking about the Yangon - Mandalay drive, is there a town that you know of that might have an OK guesthouse. Thanks so much for your continued help.
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Old Aug 27th, 2012, 01:28 PM
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NLspirit, It sounds like you have a great trip planned and I am planning to contact Santa Maria travel just as soon as I finish the basic outline of our trip. Did you send them the hotels you wanted, days you needed a car etc. I am not sure how much detail is needed. Working with an agent is new for me as we usually plan and arrange everything. You do feel that we can put together the VN portion of the trip without an agent? Thanks for your help.
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Old Aug 27th, 2012, 05:45 PM
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Hi Kathie. I'm really crossing my fingers and hoping we'll get a room at Inle Lake View. Din has reserved a room at another well recommended resort but my heart has been elsewhere for awhile. I've often read your comments and advice on Fodors and have always found them to be insightful as well as practical. My appreciation is long overdue ... years in fact! So finally .... many, many thanks!

Hi re. I understand your comment about usually planning everything yourself. I've only worked with an agent once (in Tanzania) where it's recommended primarily because of inconsistent communication patterns and infrastructure problems. There are dozens of agencies all over the world which offer package tours, but unless you're comfortable with group travel, working with a local agent is really the only option in some countries.

I contacted Santa Maria Travel on July 30 and gave them our basic itinerary. I had actually researched a trip to Burma a few years ago and still had it on file. Having read Kathie's reports we recognized that her travel style and interests were similar to ours and she had recommended a basic itinerary for spending 10 days in Burma. We had already decided that the Inle Lake View Resort was our first choice in that area and then chose the Alamanda Inn in Yangon and the Amazing Bagan Hotel in Bagan. We didn't want to spend a lot on a hotel in Yangon because we would only be there one night arriving and departing. There also didn't seem to be much to choose from in Bagan with many hotels getting mixed reviews regardless of category or price. I should also say that we'll be spending a week in Bangkok prior to going to Burma and a week in Chiang Mai afterwards. It often takes us two to three travel days to arrive in SE Asia (each way) which is another factor we have to consider.

So when I contacted Santa Maria I gave them the itinerary outline, specific hotels and asked that they provide transport services to and from the airports as well as domestic flights. Their initial quote also included tours but we declined. We have contact details for guides in both Bagan and Inle Lake and want some degree of flexibility while in each place. Din from Santa Maria is super to work with and efficient with detail and response time.

We've been to Vietnam twice and it's really quite easy to plan. On our first trip we were only there one week and used Hanoi as our base. Love Hanoi! It's a fascinating city with lots of amazing things to see and do. From there we organized a trip to Sapa by train for 2 days (an excellent Victoria Hotel and train package) and went to Halong Bay overnighting on a Chinese junk ... also great! They were both fabulous experiences and I'd highly recommend them. It was enough for us to realize we wanted to go back and the second trip for three weeks was even better .... lots of unexpected adventure the second time! Go ... you'll love VN too!
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Old Aug 27th, 2012, 06:24 PM
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re, I recommend four nights, three full days at Inle. One full day is for the trip to Sankar. We were out on the lake at 6:30 each morning, so we did two long half days in addition to the full day at Sankar. This gave us some afternoon time to relax one day. The other half day, you can go to Kakku (a road trip). Inle is really unique. We are very interested in Buddhism, so very much enjoyed the visits to various pagodas, monasteries and stupa forests. There are a lot of workshops on the lake. Mostly, we weren't interested except for the silk and lotus weaving workshops, but others may interest you as well. And you'll want to go to the 5-day market one day. Just don't go to the "floating market" whether or not it is the 5 day market. It's a zoo.

We opted not to do a cruise. The only ones that interest me are the ones that get you really off the beaten path, like the Chidwin cruise or the one to Bhamo. The cruise between Mandalay and Bagan is well on the tourist route, and the scenery isn't very interesting. I know there are several companies that do the two day cruise. Ask Santa Maria, I'll bet they are all fully booked for this year.

I'd say talk to Santa Maria about the road trip idea as well.

I'm not one who uses travel agents, the exceptions being Burma and Sri Lanka. I plan and book everything myself. In using a travel agent, I did it pretty much the same way, planned it all, then turned it over to the agent. I did ask Santa Maria's advice on where to stay in Mandalay, and they recommended Rupar Mandalar, which was excellent.
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Old Aug 28th, 2012, 08:47 AM
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NLspirit and Kathie, Thanks for your continued help. Is there and email address for Din at Santa Maria Travels & Tours? I have looked on their web site and only find a form contact. Also NLspirit can I please have the name and email address of the guide you are using at Inle Lake.In reading about Domestic airlines I find there are 3 - Air Mandalay, Air Bagan and Myanmar Airways. Is one recommended over another?
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Old Aug 28th, 2012, 09:02 AM
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re, the website lists email addresses at the bottom of the page. Send an email to both addresses. You may deal with Din or Zaw or someone else at Santa Maria.

You don't need a guide at Inle, IMO. You will get a mandatory Pa-O guide when you enter Pa-O territory (going to Sankar or to Kakku).

Other than Myanmar Airways, (don't worry, no one will book a foreigner on that airline) the domestic airlines are same-same. There ia also Yangon Air and there are now two more, Asian wings and one other that uses initials. Let your agent book you on the airline that gives you the best time for you.
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Old Aug 28th, 2012, 10:55 AM
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re: Din happened to be the one who responded to my enquiry but I'm sure anyone at SM will be great. And you may not need a guide at Inle Lake. It's a matter of personal preference, your interests and the kind of experiences you enjoy. We normally don't hire guides prior to our arrival (and frequently don't hire at all) but in places where we want to gain a more complete understanding of the living culture, we have, and for the most part it's worked well.

We've only had one guide (in Cambodia) who gave us lots of information but we didn't really learn very much. The woman at our B&B on the other hand was fabulous. Having lived through the PolPot regime and its horrors, she spent hours sharing stories of things we would never had known had we not stayed with her.

The guide who has been recommended at Inle Lake sounds like the kind of person we would like. Her name is Nan Thien May. She's also PaO which we'll need to go to Sankar. I don't have her email but her telephone number is +95(0)95216045. So far she hasn't answered but with such a large time difference my timing may be off. There's also a chance she may not be available while we're there. I'm going to check with Din to see if he can help.

Din also booked our domestic flights once I had given him our dates. Hope this helps.
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Old Aug 28th, 2012, 11:16 AM
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NL, ask your guide whether she can be your mandatory Pa-O guide to Sankar. Someone else (maybe Craig) found that even though they had a Pa-O guide hired for part of their Inle Lake visit, she could not be the mandatory guide for the Pa-O areas.
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Old Aug 28th, 2012, 12:07 PM
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Kathie, thanks for this. This kind of thing does happen I'm sure, especially if Sankar has guides with specialized training. BTW... I really like how you organized your days at Inle Lake allowing time for both guiding experiences as well as leisure time at the resort. I'm hoping we'll be able to do the same kind of thing ... and at Inle Lake View!
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Old Aug 28th, 2012, 12:28 PM
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NLspirit, I certainly appreicate both you and Kathie taking the time to answer my many questions. The more I get into planning a trip to Burma the more concerned I get that prehaps waiting a few years might not be the better option. Everything I read talks about price hikes, more tourists etc. So many changes have occurred in Burma. Jan-Feb in another country - what do you think??
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Old Aug 28th, 2012, 01:04 PM
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I say go as soon as you can. The country is changing rapidly. See it while it retains much of it's isolated charm. It will be a differnt place in a few years.
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Old Aug 28th, 2012, 01:42 PM
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re: I've already been waiting for years to visit Burma and very sorry I didn't go sooner. However my husband and I had differences of opinion. He thought if we went we'd be supporting the military junta and I thought by going we'd find ways of ensuring that our money was placed in the hands of local people. A small gesture perhaps but for me it would be important in the lives of so many. January can't come soon enough for me!

Burma has now opened up and with that comes change at an incredible pace. It will never ever be the same. By going now you will experience a very unique culture and help a people that live in hope that others will somehow support them. I think that prices have increased but are still very reasonable in comparison to other areas where we've traveled.

I live in a part of the world where change happened rapidly and even though I was an infant and had no say in the decision, I, along with many others, still mourn the loss of our culture, although it's still considered unique. There's no doubt that we've benefited and tourists now come in droves to visit but they no longer see the culture that once was. It's still fabulous but more contrived. However that's the price of change and in many ways our lives are richer. I realize change is inevitable and progress marches on.

Please don't give up the idea of visiting Burma. There are lots of people on this and other forums who can and will help. Santa Maria or other agencies will help you develop your itinerary very quickly. Even though many higher end properties may be booked there will still be lots of smaller properties and guesthouses that will be available. Please give it some more thought.
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Old Aug 30th, 2012, 03:18 PM
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Kathie and NLspirit, One more bit of advice please. Mandalay - I have been told, skip Mandalay its just a big city and if you are not too interested in temples you would be better to head in another direction. We have set up Bagan and Inle Lake allowing the number of days you suggested as well as 3 nights in Yangon. Is there another other area we should add? Thinking of heading to Vietnam or Singapore after Burma.
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Old Aug 30th, 2012, 04:35 PM
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re: I'm so happy to hear you've decided to include Burma in your plans. In my research I've read the same thing you have about Mandalay and because temples are not high on our list we decided to spend the extra time in Bagan and Inle Lake. I think Kathie will have a better response to this question as well as about other countries in SE Asia. Did you get a response from Santa Maria? If you have any questions you think I may be able to answer regarding Vietnam I'd be happy to do so. I haven't visited Sinatapore yet so can't help you there.
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