Trip Report - February 2009

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Feb 15th, 2009, 12:35 AM
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Trip Report - February 2009

This was my first return trip to Myanmar (Burma) in over 25 years.

Bottom line. Myanmar is a wonderful destination for travel in Southeast Asia. Bagan is a marvel with its thousands of temples. Unless you are a fervent temple-lover then two days is sufficient to see this area. Inle Lake is also an area not to be missed. Travelling by long boat on the lake is a wonderful way to see the area and the local sights. Without exception the Burmese people are open and friendly. The colorful people, markets, and temples are a delight for the photographer.

Some quick travel notes.

- The US dollar is the currency. I never obtained or needed any local currency. All of my bills were in dollars and when paid the change was in dollars. Therefore, bring cash with a good supply of ones, fives, tens, twenties, etc. Currency should be clean, no tears, and no marks.

- Internet at all of my hotels blocked access to many web sites - all news CNN.com, NYTimes, etc. - and every email system - Gmail, Comcast, Verizon, Hotmail, AIM, etc - were all blocked. Skype and Messenger were not blocked. There are Internet cafes that can provide unblocked access.

- You will have to work a bit to get authentic local food. Most restaurants tone the food way down. Even after my guide asked twice that his curry be made spicy it was not - we asked for chilli to give it some pep.

- Tourism is at 10% of what it was last year according to the operators.

08 February 2009. Bangkok-Yangon - Yangon.

Upon landing from Hong Kong I made my way to the transit desk and collected a boarding pass for my Thai Airways flight to Myanmar. I went to the Thai E Concourse Business Class Lounge. It was not bad but not outstanding. There was a reasonable collection of snacks and drinks. Surprisingly there was hard liquor but no wine.

The flight to Yangon was on a relatively new A330. The plane was largely full. The short 1+ hour flight included a cold snack. The Thai service was good.

Myanmar has a nice modern international airport - spotless. Immigration and baggage claim was very efficient. There were plenty of baggage carts. I was not asked any questions at customs.

My guide, Mya Mya - which means "emerald" met me as I exited baggage claim. Within a few minutes we were on our way to my hotel - The Governor's Residence - for the night. This was a short stay since I would be picked up at 5 AM for a 6:30 AM flight to Bagan.

The hotel appears to be very nice and as expected not very busy. My room was large and quiet with very efficient air conditioning. There was a small television with several English speaking channels to include CNN, BBC, and HBO.

There is free Wi-Fi at the hotel but the signal was weak in my room. I quickly discovered that the Internet was almost useless. All services associated with email were blocked! This included: GMail, Comcast, Verizon, Hotmail, AIM Mail, etc. Many web-sites were blocked - to include CNN.

Interestingly Skype and Messenger were not blocked. I was able to call Joanne on Skype. I may investigate circumventing the blockages when I return to Yangbon at the end of stays in Bagan and Inle Lake.

09 February 2009. Yangon - Bagan. Bagan

My wake up call was on time at 4:15 AM and the breakfast was open at 4:30 AM. It appeared all of the food items had been put out the night before. The breakfast buffet included meats, cheeses, juices, fruit, pastries, and some hot items. I was the only one at breakfast. My guide-driver arrived promptly at 5 AM for the return to the airport.

The domestic airport is the old International Airport. Check-in was very swift. I was flying Business Class which meant that I was personally escorted to a small but comfortable private lounge. The lounge provided drinks, snacks, and two flat screen televisions showing CNN. When it was time to board the flight I was once again personally escorted to a van which drove me to the aircraft.

The flight to Bagan was on Air Bagan on their F100 aircraft. There were 12 seats in Business Class and I was the only passenger. The economy section was full. Given the differences in fares it is a little crazy to pay the difference for a one hour flight. Then again... why not. On board the aircraft I was served a very nice breakfast but ate very little as I had a good breakfast at the hotel. All aspects of Air Bagan service were excellent.

I was met on arrival by Zoe who will be my guide for Bagan. Our first stop was the Aureum Palace Hotel where I checked in for my two nights in Bagan. The hotel is five minutes from the airport. The hotel is three years old and is said to be one of the most expensive in the country.

The check-in staff immediately informed me that they could not accept payment by credit card. I was aware of this situation and it is the case for the entire country due to financial sanctions against the governing military regime.

The hotel is extremely pleasant and spacious. There is a large inviting pool that looks out over some of the Bagan temples. The restaurant is an open and also provides very good views of the Bagan countryside. Many people enjoy and early morning balloon ride.

I am staying in a Lotus Villa. The villa is a two story duplex. The lower level has an entrance way, a large sitting area, tea and coffee making supplies, a flat screen television, and a small kitchen area which includes microwave oven. Off of the sitting area there is a large patio.

Upstairs is a large bedroom with a king size bed, another television, a mini-fridge, shower, Jacuzzi tub, and two separate outdoor sitting areas. The entire villa is teak furnished and attractive. There are three air conditioning units as well as a variable speed fan. The televisions have nineteen (19) channels to include CNN, BBC, HBO, Cinemax, Star Movies, National Geographic, Animal Planet, etc.

After a quick tour of my villa I packed a few items in my backpack and rejoined the guide for a morning of temple visits. The morning visits included the following temples.

- Iragonna Temple
- Shwezigon Stupa
- Buyaukgyi Temple
- Min Lo Temple
- Min Oo Chan Tha Complex

As expected the magic of Bagan is the endless vista of thousand of temples stretching to the horizon.

By 11 AM I called it "quits" for temple-going and returned to the hotel for some rest and lunch.

The lunch menu is largely western with a sprinkling of Asian dishes. I had a traditional Burmese salad of Tomatoes, Carrots, and Peanuts as a starter - $5 USD. For a main I had some a Grilled Chicken Breast - $14 USD - that was nicely presented with local vegetables, rice, and a lemon sauce. I also ordered a Coca Cola Light - $3 USD. Total lunch bill was $22 USD which is hugely expensive by Burmese standards.

I had lunch at 1 PM and was the only person in the restaurant. Lunch hours are from 12 PM to 3 PM. It will be interesting to see if there is a different menu for dinner.

In the afternoon the first stop was the large Ananda Phato temple. The temple has over 1,000 niches containing various Buddhas. The temple has an impressive exterior with a gold gilded stupa. In one of the courtyards some local Burmese people were gathering and drinking sap from one of the trees.

My last stop for the afternoon was the obligatory visit to the Shwesandaw Paya or "sunset pagoda". The pagoda is pyramid style with five terraces. I went to the third terrace. The steps are steep but there are metal guide rails. As might be expected this is a very popular place at sunset and teems with tourists.

I ambled over to the restaurant for dinner a little after 8 PM. As with lunch, I was the only person in the restaurant from when I arrived until when I left. Also not surprising, the menu for dinner was the same as for lunch. I had a nice dinner.

- Myanmar Beer - 650 ml - $5 USD
- Chicken Salad with Pumpkin Seeds and Vinaigrette - $7 USD
- Pork Chops with Vegetables and Rosemary Potatoes - $16 USD

Tonight their was a full moon and the weather in the evenings was lovely.

10 February 2009. Bagan

Breakfast was a nice buffet. There were actually a couple of people in the restaurant. The buffet had a selection of fresh local juices and fruits, several types of meat and cheeses, an egg station, some asian items, and the usual collection of baked goods.

At 8:30 AM my guide and driver collected me to go on our morning sightseeing. Our first stop was the morning market at New Bagan Town. The market is relatively small and has the usual assortment of stands selling vegetables, fruits, and a small amount of meat and fish. The disposition of the Burmese people is that they are not offended by tourists and picture takers.

We visited two temples this morning.

- Dhamayazika Stupa
- Toyokepya Temple

The Dhamayasika Stupa is a relatively large temple with a gold-gilded stupa. There were several workers on scaffolds repairing the gilding. The temple has several terrace levels so it was possible to one the upper terraces that provided excellent views of the temple-dotted countryside.

The second temple, Toyokepya, had a very nice facade with excellent carvings. The temple provided access via some internal stairwells to an upper terrace that also provided good views of the country side as well as the "watch tower". The latter is a concrete viewing tower built by the Government that is widely criticized as being inappropriate. UNESCO has told the Government that they will not grant World Heritage status to Bagan until the watch tower is removed.

As with the day before, I had the restaurant to myself for lunch.

The afternoon began again at 4:30 PM which is a good time as it starts to cool down. I went on a 30 to 40 minute pony cart ride. The ride was mostly along some dirt roads. It was nice but not particularly memorable. We went to another temple for the sunset. The area facing to the west was not as dramatic as the previous day location. I did enjoy talking with another guide who had spent time studying in Italy.

11 February 2009. Bagan - Inle Lake. Inle Lake

Breakfast was at 6 AM and at 6:50 AM it was time to make the short drive to the airport. Check-in was efficient. The flight to Heho (Inle Lake) came in early and departed 10 minutes early. By 8:15 AM I was at the Heho Airport. I was met by my guide - Thante Zin.

Today was the main market day in the town so we visited the market. This market was much larger than that in Bagan. Due to the proximity of the lake and river there were many sellers of fish as well as poultry, vegetables, fruits, tobacco, tea, and spices. A large section of the market was devoted to household goods.

The next stop was the cattle market where cattle and some water buffalo were being shown and sold. Cattle range in cost from $500 USD to $1,000 USD. By and large the cattle market was not all that exciting.

After a drive a of little less than an hour we arrived at the lakeside where I boarded a long-tail boat for the 30 minute ride to the hotel. The first part of the ride navigated the closer-in canals. We then crossed a small section of the lake and then wound our way through some small canals to the jetty which serves the hotel.

Inle Lake is approximately eight miles long and four miles across at it widest point. The lake depth at its deepest point, when the lake is full, is 11 to 12 feet. Most of the lake is 5 to 8 feet deep. The lake has several large open areas of water but other sections, especially the south end, has many canals, artificial islands, and floating gardens. Soil and seaweed dredged from the lake is used to create, maintain, and built the areas of solid land and the matted vegetation that forms that floating gardens.

All about the lake are fisherman using traditional techniques. One difference from my visit many years ago is the large number of long tail motor boats. The lake can't be called a place of tranquility but is nonetheless an interesting place to explore.

My hotel is the Inle Lake View which competes with the Inle Princess as the top properties in the area. As expected I just about have the entire hotel to myself. Wonderful. The hotel restaurant sits in an elevated position and you can dine in the garden or sit overlooking the lake. Since I am about the only guest at the hotel I have the best table permanently reserved.

Room-wise I have a detached villa that is immaculate. The main area contains a king size bed on a teak platform, an l-shaped couch, mini-fridge, television, desk, and several chairs. There are separate areas that include a closets and luggage storage, tea and coffee making supplies, a two person sunken tub, two basin vanity, and shower. The villa appears almost brand new. The television has eleven (11) channels that include BBC, Animal Planet, and several other English-speaking channels. Oh yes, there are eleven channels but only eight of them are functional.

The villa is not air conditioned but there is a fan and even during the hottest part of the day the villa is cool and comfortable probably due to the proximity to the lake. The villa faces the lake and has a deck with loungers. There is also a patio and the entire area is surrounded by vegetable gardens.

My guide, the boat, and the boat captain reappeared at 2 PM and we set off on an exploration of the lake. We cruised through floating gardens, visited a floating market, and a pagoda. Another stop was the Jumping Cat Monastery that features some very intricate wood and mosaic pedestals. However, the tourist highlight is that the monastery has a collection of cats that have been trained to jump through hoops.

It is very pleasant to cruise the lake and observe the fisherman employing their traditional methods of leg-rowing and fishing using conical bamboo baskets. They place the baskets on the bottom and then herd the fish into the basket.

We returned to the hotel at 5:30 PM and I enjoyed a Tiger beer on the patio while writing the notes on the day's activities and downloading pictures.

Even though the hotel is in a remote location there are some other places I could go to eat but I probably will not bother. The menu at the hotel is fairly extensive and the food is of a reasonable standard. The food, judging by my two meals to date, is not as good as the Aureum Palace.

12 February 2009. Inle Lake

The day dawned cool and with bright blue skies. I was the only person at breakfast. In total there now appears to be four people currently at the hotel. Three other people, Japanese, left this morning. Due to the small number of guests breakfast was ala carte. I had fresh local orange juice, fruit, pastries, an omelet, and coffee. Service was very attentive with many offers of additional pastries, coffee, juice, etc. The pastries were surprisingly good.

With a pickup at 8:30 AM the first stop was the Ywama Floating Market. This is a market that rotates among five different locations in the late. The floating aspect of the market is mostly boats filled with souvenirs and those boats are often outnumbered by the number of tourist boats. On shore there is also local people selling vegetables, fruits, spices, and tea. And yes, on shore there are also innumerable souvenir sellers. It should be noted that the souvenir vendors are not particularly pushy which is surprising given the poor economic situation. Before leaving the market I bought some oranges and tangerines.

The economic problems are not only a dramatic decline in tourists but a decrease in demand for agricultural products. Myanmar produces tomatoes, rice, bananas, and other vegetables and fruits. The demand for these products that they export to other countries has fallen. In the Inle Lake area there are huge areas of that are used to grow tomatoes that have fallen into disrepair. Fields that would grow garlic are empty since the costs of production, and even getting the product to the market, is less than the market prices.

After visiting the market we crossed to the east shore of the lake and began a walk through rice paddies and into the foothills. We stopped by a "factory" that was turning sugar cane into a brown taffy-like product and a family where everyone from the children to the grandmother was making bamboo products - mats, baskets, etc.

Three hours of walking and it was time to break for lunch. Rather than returning to the hotel my guide took to to the Mr. Tom Restaurant where we had lunch. Most of these restaurants serve a style of Chinese food. We ordered Fried Pork with Chillies, Chicken Curry, Vegetables, and a local soup. My guide drank a juice - Pureed Avocado and I ordered a large Myanmar beer. My guide was happy to help me consume not only the first but also a second beer. After close to an hour of waiting for our food the guide asked what happened. It turns out they forgot the order. No worries.

The bill for lunch was 6,000 kyat for the food and 6,000 kyat for the two large beers. The current black market exchange rate is somewhere between 1,200 to 1,400 kyat to the US Dollar. However, everyone is happy to just say a US dollar is equal to 1,000 kyat. I would be happy as well since the difference is 20 to 40 percent. I am not complaining.

For some comparison the hotel cost in the room for a can of local beer was $4 USD in Yangon, $3 in Bagan, and $2 in Inle Lake.

13 February 2009. Inle Lake

The day began with a visit to the Floating Market which was on this day located behind the Do Paya Temple. This was a much larger market than from the day before with many sellers. There was a large assortment of fruits, vegetables, spices, and dry goods. There was an area selling fish that were as fresh as you can get them. The fish were still jumping.

The next stop involved a 30 to 40 minute boat ride up a winding river to the Indein Temple Complex. At Indein, described as a mini Angkor Wat, there is a collection of small pagodas built on a small plain and up the side of a hill.

There was a huge number of souvenir shops from the landing and lining a long walkway to a temple at the top of the hill. Sadly, most of stalls were empty. The entire area was virtually devoid of tourists.

The final stop of the day was Inn Than Lay-2 Restaurant where my guide suggested that I try several of the local specialties. I started with a Mustard Green Soup. The soup is a light broth containing pieces of Mustard Plant and Bean Curd. My main dish was a Shan fish favorite. This is a fish that is opened, deboned, and then filled with a collection of herbs. The fish is covered in a sauce of tomatoes and garlic. It was very good. We also had some vegetables, a Chicken Curry, and several large bottles of Myanmar beer. Total cost: $11.50 USD of which $6 USD was the beer.

14 February 2009. Inle Lake - Yangon. Yangon

Pickup from the hotel was at 7:45 AM for my 9:50 AM flight. It was a one hour drive to the airport. The Air Bagan F100 arrived on schedule and take-off was at exactly 9:50 AM.

There was no Business Class seating on this F100 aircraft but nonetheless they found me in waiting lounge and walked me to the aircraft. On arrival there was a separate van to drive me to the terminal. They also took my luggage tags at the foot of the aircraft and brought my bags to me within three minutes of landing.

Once again Mya Mya, my guide, met me at the airport and we drove to the Governors Residence Hotel. This afternoon I may try the pool. My lunch at the hotel was the best food I have had in Myanmar. I had the set menu which provided three choices for a starter, main, and dessert. The cost was $17 USD for three courses. As noted, the food was excellent and plentiful. I started with Prawn and Pomelo Salad. My main was Tuna Steak with a New Salad of Greens and Potatoes. I finished with a Fresh Fruit Platter. All of this went down very well with a large bottle of Myanmar Beer.

On my return visit my laptop does not want to connect to their network. Not that makes much difference. I did use a computer in the Business Center. I found that while CNN.com is blocked the sites for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are not.

I chose to forego most of the city sightseeing in Yangon. At 5 PM I set off with my guide to visit the premier sightseeing location in Yangon - the Shwedagon Pagoda. Mya Mya was a delightful guide for our 1.5 hour stroll around the large and impressive pagoda.

Dinner like lunch was very good. I had some Vegetable Spring Rolls and then Grilled Sea Bass with Steam Vegetables. As with lunch they provided an ice bucket to keep the beer cold.

15 February 2009. Yangbon - Bangkok

Check-in and immigration formalities were very smooth at the Yangbon International Airport. The Business Class Lounge had workstations and Wi-Fi Surprisingly, no websites were blocked at the International Airport. The Wi-Fi was unsecured and could be accessed by anyone.
AlwaysOnTheRoad is offline  
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Feb 15th, 2009, 12:50 AM
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HI.

I just read your report and it's really great.

I'm going to be in Thailand with my wife in March and I'm thinking on going to Myanmar for a week. Do you think it is too late to organise it? As there are not so many tourist it shouldn't be a problem, isn't it?

Did you organise the travel by yourself or via and agency. I normally organise all my trips by myself but given he lack of time and the difficulties to book the internal flight online I'm thinking on using an agency.

Ir seems that you didn't go to Mandalay. Any reason?

Thanks a lot
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Feb 15th, 2009, 05:17 AM
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I don't think you should have any problem arranging a trip on short notice. The only issue is obtaining a visa. This can be done on an "arrival" basis but that still must be arranged weeks in advance by an in-country agency.

I used a Myanmar-based agency, Grand Lotus Tours. They did fine. No issues and very responsive. They are probably not the lowest cost organization but I was very happy with their service.

I believe you might be able to book Air Bagan on line. I was impressed with their operation. Schedules do change frequently. Depending on the type of hotel you may also be able to book them on-line or contact them via email.

Mandalay proper is a very busy, noisy, congested city. It has also seen a large influx of Chinese. There are some sights outside of the city that could be worth seeing depending upon your interests.

There are only two areas in Yangon that hold any interest for me. The first is the Shwedagon Pagoda. I favor an early evening - 5 PM visit - and like to stroll around. Sitting and watching is also quite enjoyable. You can also consider watching the action at the waterfront. Other than those two stops I do not find much interest in Yangon.

Good luck with your travels.


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Feb 15th, 2009, 05:37 AM
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Your report makes me realise how much I miss Burma. Sounds like things have changed in the three short years since I was there. I'm considering returning next year. I had thought it would be for a rather short visit, but it seems it would be a shame to cut it short.

Thanks for the report.
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Feb 15th, 2009, 06:16 AM
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Thanks for reporting, AOTR - sounds like it all worked out nicely.
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Feb 15th, 2009, 09:47 AM
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Wonderful report. It awakened my desire to go to Myanmar. You really portrayed it in a super light. Prompt report, no penalty.
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Feb 15th, 2009, 11:21 AM
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Thanks for your report. Did the travel agency you used book all hotels, flights and guides or did you make some arrangements yourself (internet booking, etc)?

Did you get a visa in advance placed in your passport or did you use the pre-arranged visa?
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Feb 15th, 2009, 02:14 PM
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Kathie,

I had the agency make all of the bookings. I had already done my research and knew where I wanted to stay and what to do. I had also researched the flight times on various airlines.

The visa was done in advance at the Washington D.C. Myanmar Embassy. It took about ten (10) days. The embassy notes that it can take then up to two weeks.

AOTR
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Feb 15th, 2009, 04:29 PM
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Thanks for your reply!
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Feb 15th, 2009, 07:57 PM
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Thanks a lot for all your comments AOTR
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