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Just back from Burma - observations to help trip planners

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We just returned last night from two weeks in SE Asia - the bulk of it in Burma. The trip was spectacular - and I planned most of it based on recommendations off of this website. So wanted to pass along our thoughts and observations along the way.

YANGON; We changed money at the airport and got 815 which was the best we saw throughout the country. Apparently each city has a different rate. Please note - when we were leaving Yangoon we went out of the domestic terminal - and there was no money changer there that we could find. So don't count on getting money when you are headed to your next destination unless you make time to go to the international terminal first.

On that subject - literally everywhere we went not only were US $ accepted - most of the time that is what they asked for - even children selling postcards at tourist sites. When we changed $100 bills at banks etc, they were picky about bills being new and crisp - but apart from that other vendors weren't too picky.

We stayed at the Governors Residence on the way in and liked it. The food was good (had excellent breakfast there both mornings, and nice dinner), and we enjoyed the pool. The only thing I wasn't crazy about was the bathroom - single sink, shower didn't work particularly well, and water took a long time to warm up.

We stayed at the Strand on the way out of Burma. We had a suite which was lovely and the bathroom was much nicer. We did not have much time at the Strand - just overnight. Because I like a pool - I would return to the Governors Residence. BTW - one thing to know- since it was our last night I had the hotel mail postcards for me. Most hotels do this as a courtesy and just charge for postage. The Strand charged $1 each to do this. I had no choice and paid it - so just be aware.

We ate at Monsoon - mostly because it was close to the Strand and we didn't like the menu at the Strand (continental). We liked Monsoon - but please understand we were not expecting much foodwise on this trip. So I thought it was pleasant, and edible. Dinner for two was $100 which included a bottle of wine which was around $45. Two appetizers and two main courses.

For sights in Yangoon - I loved the Schwegadon Pagoda - thought it was quite magnificent. I was not overwhelmed by the shopping at Scott's market - thought I bought a lot of things on the trip - just nothing there. Maybe it had to grow on me.

BTW - Zaw handled the whole trip for me with the exception of guide and transportation in Bagan which was Min Thu and his brother. Hotels, internal transfers, guides, drivers, balloons over bagan etc came to appx $4,000 for two of us for 10 nights. Happy to give further breakdown if people need it.

We did rent a cell phone from Zaw and it was worthless. It didnt work when we tried to use it, other than in Yangoon. It was $15 to rent it and we had to buy a $50 sim card. I thought it was a waste of time. We used it to call Zaw a couple times - and we could have had a hotel do that for us. We could not get it to make or receive calls to/from the US.

We did the usual sites of Yangoon - I was basically unimpressed and would minimize and future visits there.

We stayed at the Mandalay Hill Hotel at Zaws recommendation. It was clean and good location. We were upgraded to a junior suite on the 8th floor "executive lounge floor". There was a lounge there but nothing was served - looked like once upon a time they must have used it as a club amenity - but not when we were there. The hotel is quite large - tour groups etc. The buffet breakfast is decent. We had appetizers one night at the bar (Kiplings I think it was called). The were vile and inedible, and took over an hour to arrive. I think stick to the buffet breakfast if you eat there.

I enjoyed the sites in and around Mandalay more than I thought I would. I would go back again. We did the 1/2 boat trip to Mingun - the sites there are OK not great - I think the boat ride was to get a taste of being on the river (some tours take a 2 or 3 day cruise down the Irwadiddy - we did not have time to do that). We loved the U Bein Bridge, enjoyed the Monastery & silk weaving in Amarapura. Enjoyed Kyauktawgi Paya & Mahamuni Paya. We hired a driver for a full day in Mandalay, and then we had one the second day who took us to some sites and then to the airport. One thing I got a huge kick out of was the Snake Pagoda in Paliek,
We went there enroute to the airport. There are 3 HUGE snakes that live in the pagoda. Everyday at 11 AM they bring them out to give them a bath - and then they are hand toweled dry. You can touch the snakes and have your picture taken with them. The snakes then crawl back into the pagoda and wrap themselves around the buddha. Maybe it is touristy but I was fascinated - and I am also terrified of snakes so I kept my distance.

We had dinner at Kathie's hotel - the Rupar Madalar. Our food was good - though it was cold so we ate inside - and inside lacked atmosphere. It would have been nicer to eat outside by the pool.The hotel looked nice - but frankly it seemed too far away from the action for me. I have read about the Sedona Hotel - and would like to research that if I return.

Exchange rate at my hotel was 700 - but they directed us to go to the "zone" for a better rate. The driver knew where that was - and the rate was 800.

Again - we landed and left out of the domestic terminal in Mandalay - so no money changers there.

Shopping: We went to a place suggested in LP (the old version) called Soe Moe. He sells puppets, lacquerware, fabric etc. Claims some is new and some is old. Not sure if it is old or just made to look old. I bought a medium sized marionette for $25 - he originally offered at $35. He said they were professional quality - and frankly the face looked better than most that I saw on the trip. I also boat a lacquerware Shen "lunchbox". He claimed it was 40 or 50 years old. I have no idea if it was or not. He offered it at $80 and I paid $50. It was rustic looking - and I never saw another one like it - but still not certain if it was vintage.

At U Bein bridge they were selling items made out of watermelon seeds that were dried and strung. I bought two hair clips, one bracelet, and a small purse for $10. I never saw the stuff anywhere else in Burma. I know the stuff sounds goofy but it is kind of pretty for that sort of thing.

We stayed in a suite at Tharabar Gate. Huge room with 2 bathrooms. There was a private terrace but it was sort of run down and tired. The water in the bathrooms took quite a long time to warm up. The swimming pool was freezing cold. We had dinner there one night - a buffet - and the food was good. Breakfast was good as well.

We went to the Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Hotel for a drink at sunset. The setting is lovely. For some reason I had imagined a river side location as being jungly and buggy. It is not - it is a wide open view of the river. If I returned I would check it out. The one thing that really irked me - is we brought Min Thu there for a drink our last night. We all ordered drinks. They brought mine and my husbands, and we had to ask THREE times before they brought Min Thu's watermelon juice. It really really made me made because there was no apology - i think it was on purpose.

We hired Min Thu for two days - and really enjoyed it. His horse cart is much nicer than many of the others we saw, and he drove at a nice pace. We did see other drivers (one was drunk) driving way to fast and recklessly. Min's english is quite good, and his stories are interesting. I would recommend him.

We hired his brother for transfer to and from the hotel, and one night we had dinner at the Green Elephant which required transportation - so we used him. Green Elephant food was decent. We had lunch one day at Saraban I - again food was fine.

We took the Balloons over Bagan trip. Very very fun trip. We were lucky we got to go - a lot of times this trip gets canceled due to wind or weather. One tip: the balloons carry 8, 12 , or 16 people. Regardless of how many people in the balloon - the balloons are broken into 4 sections. I was in a balloon of 16 people, so there were 4 people in my section. I was the last one to get in my "section" - which meant i was in one of the corners of the balloon. That is the best place to be in order to take pictures.

Shopping: OH my word. The lacquerware here is not to be believed. We went to the 3 places listed in LP guide (again I do not have the brand new version). I bought a lot at the
ART GALLERY OF BAGAN. His things are exquisite. There is cheaper stuff in his front room (if you want lower quality there are other places to go for better selection if you want souvenirs to bring home at low prices). I bought everything in his "back room". He had several large pieces of furniture - most were already spoken for and awaiting shipment. I purchased a large chest of drawers. He had one that was completed and being readied to ship - I bought one that was partially done (ie lacquered black but the layers of etching and colors need to be applied). The chests take about 14 months - mine will be ready in August. I paid $6000 and $520 to ship to Chicago (via Singapore). I also bought some gorgeous lidded lacquer bowls - ranging from $30 - $50. The work is exquisite - and he has a piece in the British Museum. AGain - there is all sorts of quality and prices to pay - to me this stuff was by far and away the nicest. He will discount about 10% of the small pieces.

We stayed at the Inle Princess Resort and really liked it. We had a room overlooking the river - I believe it was a suite or deluxe or something. The food was good at the hotel and the staff was very nice.

We arrived on the first flight in (landed around 9:30 am) - and hired a driver (to the hotel) , guide and a boat for the day. We saw the 5 day market (it was on a Sunday - better to see it on a different day when it is less crowded) then headed to the boat. We went to the Heritage House (at my request) to have lunch and see the Burmese Cats. OH MY WORD. OK - If you are a cat lover this is NOT TO BE MISSED. The owner of the Inle Princess Resort is breeding Burmese cats to reintroduce the purebreds to Burma. At the moment - there are 37 cats that live at the Heritage House. They are beautiful and friendly. You can play with them. I sat down on the floor and immediately had two on my lap. My husband had one crawl up his leg and up his back and wrap around his shoulders. There is a little foot bridge that they are free to cross over to a little island with 5 or 6 miniature "cat houses" on stilts. It is truly a delightful happy place for anyone who likes cats. They serve luncheon and tea as well. I would highly recommend..

BEing the obvious cat lover - of course we went to the Jumping Cat Monastery. OK - sorry but that place really upset me. We were there at the end of the day - around 4:30 - so perhaps I saw something others have not seen - but the "handler" takes a round plastic ring and sort of "snaps" the cats chin back in order to get the cat to jump through the hoop. Well - one of the cats was tired (he kept yawning) - and he would not jump. Well the handler kept snapping his head back HARD, repeatedly. She was angry when he would not obey . Eventually she left him alone - and another cat or two performed - then she tried him again and he did it - but I could tell the handler was mad and I bet she spanked him (I dont know that for sure - she just seemed really mad). Then - to make matters worse - on the way out I see this small cat sitting on a shelf with and uneaten bowl of food. His face was deformed. My guide asked a monk about him - the monk shrugged and then told the guide that the cat was in a cat fight and got scratched and it was infected. Ok I doubt the cat is alive now. Really? You have these cats perform - you are mean to them - one of them gets hurt and you leave it untreated to die? I dont think so. I would not go there and donate money there. It made me sad.

I did return to the Heritage House to have lunch the second day and to play with the cats.

We also went to Indein Village - left our hotel at 8:15 and were there by 9:00 AM. We were there in time to beat the crowds (first people up to the top). I am afraid leaving any earlier would have been too cold for me. It was quite chilly as it was.

I bought and oil painting of some monks for $50.00. He originally offered it for $140. The painting was gorgeous - sort of impressionistic. The best one I saw all trip. (with the exception of the art at the strand - but the gallery was not open when we were there - and of course the prices were higher :-) though I thought good value given the nature of the work there) Anyway - the painting had endured the elements - being displayed outside in the heat and the sun - and I will have to have it stretched and framed - so $50 was about all I was willing to invest.

We went to lotus weaving (very interesting) black smith (boring). At the weaving place I bought a cotton "coolie" jacket $15 (which was a nice additional layer for early morning boat ride) and a silk shawl $40. Just being on the water was very interesting. In the future I would make the trip to the south lake - it is just nice to be on the water. I was afraid to commit to that long of a boat ride - sometimes I get bored on the water. But I didn't - so would do so on a return trip.

We rented bikes ($2 per half day) from the hotel and took a bike ride to the vineyard (Red MOuntain - wines were bad) - then turned around and rode into town. The 5 day market was there - much less crowded and easier to walk around and get good pictures. I bought a beautiful mother of pearl tray $20, two MOP soap dishes for $8, and a MOP q-tip holder for $15 (another vendor and he ripped me off IMO but I wanted it and had to get going). They did not have kleenex holders (all of the above is for my bathroom at home). I did find one at the airport in Yangon - it set me back $92 but it completed the set. That stuff is all expensive at home - so happy to get the pieces I did at the market.

A few additional tips about the trip

It has repeatedly been mentioned on this website that it can get cold at night. I guess I didn't believe it. Wrong. Both at Inle Lake and Bagan it was chilly at night and early in the morning. A fleece , hat and gloves - as recommended elsewhere - is a good idea.

I have been to many parts of SE Asia visiting temples pagodas etc. No where is it more strictly enforced to remove your shoes AND socks to enter a temple. I would recommend some sort of Tevas or sandals - it is a pain to be taking sneakers on and off.

A flashlight is handy - both in temples as well as dark hotel rooms.

Also - as previously warned on this website - the flight time change often. Our flight from BAgan to Yangon was scheduled at 1:30PM as of Monday, changed to 4 PM as of Tuesday, and then on Wednesday (our departure day) unbeknownst to us it was changed to 3:30 PM. Fortunately we arrived at the requested 1 hour in advance - so we did make the flight. They change often over there.

Children will approach you everywhere with plastic sleeves of a set of 10 postcards. They always start out at 5 dollars. Just so you know - they will sell them for $1. Up to you what you want to spend. We bought our first set at $5 and didn't want anymore. After being begged to "tell them how much we would pay" (for something we didn't want) we said $1. We ended up buying 3 more sets of postcards. :-)

The trip was magical - I really enjoyed it and would return.

We spent two days in Bangkok at the St Regis. Fun to try a new spot - but I wouldn't return. They seem to be catering to the Chinese. I disliked the decor - and the concierge pretty much got EVERYTHING wrong. The location was handy - but I think I would return to the Peninsula...I just like it there better.

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