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Myanmar - Our thoughts and experiences from our recent trip

Myanmar - Our thoughts and experiences from our recent trip

Old Jan 11th, 2015, 12:25 PM
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Myanmar - Our thoughts and experiences from our recent trip

In November, I made my fifth trip to Asia (my DH’s third). We spent a total of eight days in Myanmar, before heading off to Chiang Mai, Malaysia and Singapore.

Our trip was not unlike others on this forum, so instead of going through every aspect of our itinerary, I thought I’d focus on things that might help future trip planners.

MONEY
Yes, it’s true. You need pristine U.S. bills. I was unable to order new money from my bank, but it was easy to acquire $100 bills, which is pretty much all we needed. I ended up with a stack of smaller denominations, which I ended up converting at moneychangers throughout our trip. I changed $300 in Yangon and $300 in Bagan. This was more than enough, having prepaid for hotels, most activities and guides. I did not use an ATM during our trip, so I cannot comment on their availability or reliability.

TRAVEL PLANNING
We went back and forth on whether we wanted to book our hotels and guides on our own, or work with a travel agent. In the end, we ended up working with Zaw at Santa Maria. For the most part, he was able to give us better rates that booking directly with the hotels, or having hotels arrange guides or drivers. In the cases where the pricing was about the same, the added bonus was paying SM for our services in three installments, which meant we didn’t have worry about carrying as much cash with us as we travelled. Zaw was quite wonderful to deal with and we took him out to lunch on our last day in Yangon, as he was leading a photographic tour when we arrived.

AIRLINES
We traveled on Air ZBZ, whose slogan was “flying beyond expectations”. Not really knowing what to expect, our expectations were exceeded. Air KBZ was fine (and we got to all our destinations safely), aside from some slight delays, which we would have liked to know about beforehand since we couldn’t understand the airport intercoms. It is amazing that their manifests are hand written and when you check in at the counter, your names are checked off from a list. The same list is crosschecked when you go through security. By the way, we were able to take water with us through security. The baggage tags are hand written too, and the bags are generally hand carried to the plane. They are hand carried upon arrival too. As an FYI, our planes boarded and exited from the rear; on the flights that you can get a seat assignment, plan accordingly. You cannot get seat assignments that originate elsewhere, and people do move toward the back for the next leg of the flight.

We flew Air Bagan to Chiang Mai, and they were much more modern, having computerized records and able to make seat assignments.

LODGING & OTHER THOUGHTS

Yangon
In Yangon, we booked our own stay at Classique Inn, which is in Golden Valley. On a map, it didn’t look far from town, but with traffic, it wasn’t the ideal base location as there is nothing around there, although it is in an upscale residential neighborhood. We spent our first and last nights there. For the first night, it was fine, since we were totally jet lagged and had them prepare us an early dinner. For our last night it ended up being a pain, since from the airport we dropped off our luggage, then headed into town for lunch with Zaw and some final sightseeing before having dinner at Sharkey’s, which was on our way back to the hotel. In retrospect, we would have stayed in town but the original hotel we'd requested increased their rate 50% between 2013 and 2014, which totally annoyed me, so the Classique Inn booking was done as a reaction.

Bagan
Like a lot of people on this forum, in Bagan we stayed at the Hotel@Tharabar Gate. I guess I was expecting to be able to walk somewhere in the evening, but the November nights are very dark (bring a flashlight!), so our nighttime outings consisted of walking to watch the sunset at the river and walking across the street to have dinner at Yar Py or Starbeams (Be Kind to Animals the Moon is there too) or next door to Sarahba II. In retrospect, we’d probably do more research into possibly staying in New Bagan.

We did have a Santa Maria-arranged guide for our stay in Bagan. This was after the infamous Min Thu never definitively said he could guide us and stopped answering my emails until I fired him. There are plenty of very qualified guides available. Don’t feel that the one or two names on this forum are your only options.

I did do the Balloons over Bagan ride, which was a highlight for me. Santa Maria was able to arrange this for me at a much cheaper rate than my fellow riders traveling on an OAT tour. We also took at trip to Mt. Popa, but sickness and heat precluded us from walking to the top. It is an amazing sight and I don’t regret including it in our itinerary.

We only used our credit card once during our entire stay in Myanmar and that was to buy lacquerware at the Lotus Collection near New Bagan, which had a more modern selection. We were not charged a surcharge (but the cynical me thinks it was already built into the price).

[NOTE: for those enterprising folks out there, a fish pedicure or foot massage business would do well in Bagan.]

Inle Lake
I thought I’d done my homework when I picked Inle Lake View Resort for our stay in Inle Lake. Silly me, I figured between the road and lake access, we could take a boat or taxi into “town” after spending the day on the water. Since the boats don’t run at night and the taxi ride to Nyaungshwe would take 40 minutes, we didn’t have the chance to go there. Staying at Inle Lake View Resort, you are a captive audience. After our first night eating at the resort’s uninspiring and overpriced restaurant, we walked down the dark road to eat at Myat Thek Kaung for our other dinners, which was much more to our liking (again, bring your flashlight!).

We did meet the Yangon woman owner of the resort. We gave her some menu suggestions for the restaurant, which she seemed to take to heart. She told us that she had just opened a boutique hotel in Yangon. I think it’s called the Loft. How I wished we’d stayed there instead! She was quite lovely, as was the French manager and the local assistant manager. We were quite pleased with the level of service there, particularly when we had an issue with our shower. Unlike western hotels, we were shocked that the problem had been fixed when we returned to our room later that afternoon.

Upon arrival in Heho, we opted to go to Kakku. We really enjoyed seeing the small towns (and even Taunggyi) on our way there. Our Pa’O guide’s English was even less understandable than our driver, but it was a memorable side trip none-the-less.

Again we went through Santa Maria to hire a boat driver and a guide. Between the trip to Kakku and the boat driver, the prices were about the same that was quoted by the hotel, but we were happy to have paid for these expenses at the beginning of our trip.
The guide was a splurge, costing more than our guides in Yangon and Bagan, but she really did add value to our stay.

On our first day, we left our hotel by boat around 0700. The lake was idyllic in the early morning light, with the fishermen casting their nets. Our first stop was Indien, which was peaceful when we got there. No one was at the pagodas and the vendors were just beginning to set up their stands [NOTE: the items at the stands were not unusual at all. Recommend you go to Pomelo in Yangon instead]. We wandered down a side street and went to a house to buy some big rice crackers. By the time we left, hoards of tourists were headed there. I kept thinking: this is not Kathie’s Indien. It is now definitely part of the tourist circuit. From Indien, we went to Sankar, which we didn’t enjoy as much as Kakku, but it was quiet there and we loved going on the less visited part of the lake.

Our second day on the lake, we did do a more “tourist” circuit. The five-day market was at Paungdaw Oo Pagoda, where the village was getting ready for an alms ceremony. It was extremely crowded, mostly with locals and inside the pagoda was a glorious sight – novice monks sitting alongside Pa’O women in their turbans.

Wanting to buy a typical Shan bag, our guide took us on a walk, over bridges and through the village to the factory where the bags are made. We saw the looms, and met the family who makes the bags for the villagers to sell. Because they didn’t have a finished bag in the color I wanted, one of the men took the unassembled fabric and sewed up a bag while we waited. We felt this was a priceless experience, as we didn’t think this was a common tourist destination. The walk there was a big contrast from the hubbub of the market and the pagoda.

We did stop at Ywama silversmith village as well as the infamous Myat Pwint Chel, the lotus and silk weaving workshop. Both places now take credit cards, but discount for cash. I paid for my purchases with kyat, but the prices were quoted in dollars.

The places we liked the most this day were the floating gardens (they take up 25% of Inle Lake!) and the boat building workshop, where they build the boats you see on the lake using manual tools, dowels and screws – no nails. Lunch was at Inthar Heritage, which is a Burmese cat sanctuary. Sitting outside, we were able to watch life on the lake – fishermen, tradespeople, as well as tourist boats.

As you can probably tell, our favorite place was Inle Lake. We thought it was a magical place and hoped that the inevitable influx of tourism doesn’t change things too much.

One of our conversations with Zaw was on the lack of a central reservation system for travel agents. My response to him was that Myanmar could take all the lessons learned from western systems and be up and running in a fraction of the time. I think this holds true for the country in general. The service levels of hotels and restaurants generally met our expectations, and were much better than one would find in many other third world countries. Whether that’s indicative of the kinds of places we stayed, the gracious nature of the Myanmar people, or Myanmar following the lead of other successful hospitality examples remains to be seen. I’ll be curious to see how things change over the next five to ten years.
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Old Jan 11th, 2015, 12:57 PM
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It sounds like you have a fine time - I'm so glad! Things are changing rapidly in Myanmar, and our wandering alone at so many places just a few years ago is now ancient history.
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Old Jan 12th, 2015, 06:06 AM
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Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed following along.
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Old Jan 13th, 2015, 03:06 PM
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Great and recent information Internetwiz. V. Helpful for our potential trip later this year
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Old Jan 15th, 2015, 10:56 AM
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Question. I have travelled to many places in Asia and many times to Cuba. You always need "pristine" bills.

However, I have never seen "must be pristine" statement fact stressed as often as I have in the Myanmar forums. Must the bills be BRAND NEW? Or, just in excellent shape (no tears, marks, folds). Banks are not quite as happy giving you new bills anymore, but I had her go through each bill. Frankly, I think it would have been easier for her to order new bills for me, but whatever : )
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Old Jan 15th, 2015, 07:25 PM
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We had a couple bills turned down. I was very careful to take bills that were crisp,clean,no marks etc,but for whatever reason a couple were refused. However those same bills were accepted later by another vendor. We were in Myanmar in jAn/Feb 2014.
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Old Jan 15th, 2015, 08:21 PM
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Thanks for writing about it.
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Old Jan 19th, 2015, 11:13 PM
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Thanks-some good utd info in there,especially on Inle.
SS
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Old Jan 20th, 2015, 07:32 AM
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BostonHarbor, banks typically have new $100 bills. My friends have found ATMs that dispense new 20s. It's a lot easier to bring the appropriate amount of new bills than run the risk of having them rejected. I figured my upfront time of finding new currency was better than wasting valuable time on vacation.
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Old Jan 20th, 2015, 12:32 PM
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internetwiz Thanks for your timely report, especially about your cash needs.

DH just placed our order for new bills at our bank today. They should be here later this week or first of next week. He had asked earlier and was told they could/would order what we needed in new bills, just needed a week or so. Better safe than sorry is our approach to trip money. We will be in Myanmar in March.

I am not looking forward to our to in country flights, but at least they are short and at this point Myanmar Shalom was able to get direct flights, though I know that can change at the last moment.

We applied for our evisa for entry at Mandalay airport ...it was approved and email in hand in 48 hours. That was easy to do and our agent had really encouraged us to go that way as apposed to sending our passport off to DC...cheaper too.
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Old Jan 21st, 2015, 10:38 AM
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cwn, have a great trip. Be aware that a direct flight could mean a stop somewhere to drop off/pick up passengers. It's not a big deal, you just need to go with the flow.

I live in DC, so I was able to go to the Myanmar Embassy to get our visas. It was very quick. We had them back in a few days. I hope the evisa is just as painless for you.
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Old Jan 21st, 2015, 01:44 PM
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Thanks...we leave two weeks from today. I am so excited. Seems like I have been planning this forever! The bags are almost packed, I have learned over time I need to get it done. For long trips it doesn't matter whether the clothes are in the suitcase four days or four months we still look like we slept in them! So we make it easy and avoid that last minute rush to get the bags closed and weights checked.
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Old Jan 27th, 2015, 06:57 PM
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As future travelers to Myanmar, I enjoyed reading your report very much.
I think people now often neglect Mandalay, especially those who're in Myanmar around 10 days. Any good reasons for this?
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Old Jan 28th, 2015, 07:48 AM
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I think everyone has their reason for not going to Mandalay. For us, it was a combination of time restrictions and the worry that we'd be templed out. By going to Bagan and Inle Lake, you have a good balance of temples, history and natural beauty. I'm sure there are others that can chime in about Mandalay, but I'm sure you've already seen the trip reports of people who have gone there.
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Old Jan 28th, 2015, 08:44 AM
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We opted to skip Mandalay on our first trip, but visited there our second trip. After visiting Mandalay, I thought skipping it first trip was a good decision. Be aware that everything on Mandalay Hill is s figment of the junta's imagination. There is nothing left of the old palace, the generals just built their idea of what the old palace should have looked like.

We enjoyed the ancient cities - especially Sagaing. Ava/Inwa is very regimented - no options to see what you want, and that was a minus for us.
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Old Jan 28th, 2015, 08:50 AM
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We started our trip in Mandalay and it was the low light of the remainder of the time in Myanmar. I thought the sights were the least interesting, the city busy, loud and dirty. We did enjoy our brief afternoon in Mignum though which a lot of people find boring. So to each is own. Here's a link ot our TR and you can read all we did in Mandalay.
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...transition.cfm
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