Trip Report Myanmar: Kyats and Dogs

Old Dec 7th, 2014, 05:18 PM
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Trip Report Myanmar: Kyats and Dogs

The Fodor forum was helpful in planning my trip. I think my trip report will add a few more data points for those planning a trip to Myanmar in the future.

We used Myanmar Shalom (MS). The company was very responsive, professional and all around I rate them to be top shelf. My wife and I normally travel independently, and this was our first time using an agency, but MS offers a huge amount of customization to their services. Certainly not a package operation.

I'll divide the report my areas we visited. In short we did the normal tourist "circuit" but asked MS to add in as many village and countryside sites as possible.

One thing about me: I am a runner, logging 50+ miles a week. I ran in every place. This may not be interesting to most, but I'll try to add in some good running routes for those that do like to jog.


Hotel: Shangri-La (formerly Trader's Hotel). This one threw me for a loop at first in that the Trader has rebranded to Shangri-La. A very lovely hotel in a good spot. Excellent staff, and generally a 5-star western hotel. We only stayed one night at the hotel, so I can't say much more than that.

Yangon: My overall impression of the city is traffic, traffic! Oh the traffic. Whatever your plans, double the time to account for traffic. It was 35 C and we tried walking as much as possible, but simply wilted in the heat. The city itself did little to impress us. We both agreed Bangkok was a better "big city SE Asia" experience. MS provided a car and guide. The car was very useful. The guide was not. I would forgo a guide in Yangon, and just list the sites you want to see for the driver to get to. We ate at Padonmar with all the other tour bus groups. Don't go there.

I had jet-lag the first night and was up at 3AM jogging in Yangon. I cannot fathom running in that city at any other time--best off at the hotel gym. But at 3 AM the temps were cooler, the traffic minimal. I ran from the Shangri-La, over to the Yangon Zoo, around Kandawgyi Lake (use Nat Mauk Road). Two loops will give you about 10 miles. The hotel actually has a laminated jogging map they'll give you. Twice two cars pulled over and asked me if I was lost. Stray dogs were an issue, but never attacked me. I did see some really weird animals on the street beside the zoo--off a bit on the road. Not dogs, and too big to be cats. Honestly it looked like an anteater!


Early flight on Air Bagan. Zero issues with all the flights on tour.
Hotel: Tarabar Gate. This is a very nice hotel in an ideal location. The staff is a well oiled machine and knows their game. The hotel is right on beside Old Bagan and with easy walking distance to some nice off-site restaurants (think: less $$ than hotel food). The nearby Sarabah I and II are good. Be Kind to Animals the Moon was good. Be Kind to Animals (different place) was horrible. All these places were about half the price of the hotel food. Simply put: There is no reason to eat at the hotel if you are staying at Tharabar. The hotel breakfast, however, is wonderful and included. Directly across from the hotel is an unsigned place called Gyi-Gyi's. It's in Lonely Planet, and I think Bourdain ate there, but it was cool to site down with a place full of locals--and it was unbelievably cheap, if not overly tasty.

We spent 3 nights in Bagan which is plenty. We took one day at Mt. Popa which is worth the drive. Two solid days of temple viewing reached "temple fatigue" for us. For half of the second day we visited two villages about 10 miles or so out into the Bagan plains. This was a really special thing to do, and was profoundly eye-opening. The people were so welcoming, allowing us into their homes without asking for anything (or pushing any souveniers). I highly recommend it. The neat thing about Bagan is that we saw a lot of tourists, but at no temple were there ever more than a handful of us there--quite unlike our experience in Siem Reap. The MS guide in Bagan was outstanding and really made the trip.

Jogging is ideal in Bagan. A paved road runs directly in from of Tharabar Gate Hotel. From the hotel past New Bagan is about 4 miles (the best route), about 3 miles to Nyaung U. Start early and you can see the balloons taking off over the temples at dawn. It's pretty cool--and the temps are ideal. The motor bikes will beep when they approach so get over on the side of the road. Bagan even has a marathon, but I'm not sure I'd got all in for that! Got some cat-calls from locals but a loud Mingalabar set everyone laughing.

We skipped Mandalay based on input from this board. Short flight to Heho, and a drive/boat to our hotel. Very chilly temps! We spent 3 nights in Inle: 2 days on the lake, and 1 day boat trip to Samkar.
HOTEL; Inle Lake View. Ok, first the pros: the hotel is beautiful, the rooms lovely. The cons: there is something "amiss" about the staff. Communication was often tough as English was an issue. The staff just seemed to mill about bumping into each other. A stark contract to Tharabar. The French manager, on the job now 2 months, was lording about the place--though he did take time to speak to his French guests. Ahem. Which leads me to another finding: at the time I was there this was THE hotel for French tour groups. Another complaint of mine is that you are captive in this hotel. Even though it is on "dry land" the surrounding village offers no places to eat (that I could find). The hotel restaurant stretches far beyond its culinary capabilities, and the prices were downright confiscatory. $7 for a Myanmar beer that costs $4 at Tharabar, that costs $1.5 outside the hotel?! I understand a hotel mark-up but this one sat wrong with me. But the views were outstanding.

I'm not sure the alternatives were any better. We visited Golden Isle Cottages which appeared cute, and the menu prices were certainly within reason. The hotels we walked past in Nyaungshwe just seemed shabby and the town itself is nothing special.

The food at the tourist restaurants around Inle was really quite good--much better than the Inle Lake View hotel food which offered just a handful of local dishes--and we enjoyed every meal off the hotel property. The guide knew the good ones to go to, as he and a boat driver eat free.

Inle itself is amazing. 3 days on the lake was about right--I think you'd need more time going to Kakku, etc. Our MS guide was excellent and did a great job guiding us to the "hot sights" during the off-times. This means we started early (7:30 AM). Though we saw a lot of tourist boats, never did we encounter more than a handful at a sight (except for Samkar, more on that later). Everything in Inle is a must--just go where everyone on this forum says to go! One note: there are no longer jumping cats at the Jumping Cat Monestary. Well, none that jump for show.

On the third day we took the long trip to Samkar. We hired a boat and got the obligatory guide at Golden Isle Cottages. And yes, you can request an English speaking guide. And ours spoke decent English. MS suggested their own guide for this trip, but that is unnecessary. You only need: boat, driver, Pa-O guide. The trip down is beautiful. But once we got to Samkar: oh the tourists! I can officially say that Samkar is no longer "off the beaten path". Boatloads of French tour groups. Hell, the signs on one of the temples in Samkar are in French only. No English. No Burmese. French. What is it with these French groups? The Samkar area really offers minimal eating options--I think there are two tourist restaurants that I saw, and both were packed with the tour groups. There happened to be a market/festival going on at Tharkong Pagoda (opposite Samkar) which added to the experience and we grabbed some street food here. Not the best in the world but I didn't sick! All in all, both my wife and I think the Samkar trip was something to skip. Maybe substitute a day to go to Kakku? I'm not sure, but for you trip planners think on this carefully.

Running at Inle Lake View is easy and I ran the same route 3 days. From the hotel take a right and run. 5 miles to the Nyaungshwe turnoff on paved road. I started around 5:30 AM at dark. Dogs are an issue but they didn't chase me. I hate dogs that chase and bark. You'll pass some hot springs--which is a cool site to see on a chilly morning. The village around the hotel had a market day and on the return from running, I walked through it. It's neat to me the only westerner in a market, but the even neater thing was this was the real deal--no tourist trinkets or hawkers. On the return a lot of kids in the village wanted to run with me.

YANGON PART DEUX (a bow to French Tour Groups)
We left Heho and got into Yangon around 11 AM. Our flight didn't leave until 8 PM, so I thought another day in Yangon would be useful. Boy was I wrong. The MS guide, while nice, wasn't very helpful. We ended up just driving in traffic for 5 hours, ate lunch, and then it was up to 35 C. Roasting hot. What else to do but return to the airport and wait for the flight. Note: If you are planning a return, try not to have that wasted day in Yangon like we did!

All in all we rated the Myanmar trip a 3.5/5 stars. Culturally enriching, some interesting temples (though for a first time, I'd go to Siem Reap), and just wonderful people.
jannan is offline  
Old Dec 8th, 2014, 12:51 AM
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<<<Yangon: My overall impression of the city is traffic, traffic! Oh the traffic. Whatever your plans, double the time to account for traffic.>>>

Yangon must be the only city of any size in South East Asia that isn't blighted by motorbikes or tri-shaws of any variety.

A day trip with a driver out to the surrounding villages is very enjoyable, particularly so if you want to the test the abilities of a driver/guide for longer trips.

Shame you missed Mandalay. A bit of planning and it's well worth a couple of nights, and the traffic there really does mean that have to allow more time.

Pwin oo Lyin [and beyond] would have made an excellent detour from Mandalay, as would driving to Inle via Kalaw [lovely place].

Tbh the in-between places are just as worthy as all the major sights. You can only do that by road, but you need more time.

Agree about the temple fatigue.
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Old Dec 8th, 2014, 05:08 AM
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Good to hear MS looked after you-they are one of the 4 "most recommended Agents" on my list which also include Onestop,Santa Maria and Myanmar Delight.
Traders has always been part owned by Shangri-La but because of US/European boycotts at the time of the Generals they kept the connection quiet.
Like Lancaster Lad, I am fond of Yangon despite the run down areas and traffic-the old colonial architecture can be enjoyed by a walk around downtown and the lakes to the North are green lungs for the city. Trips South over the river to Thanlin and Twante are an excellent way to get away from the bustle.
Like you if I was returning to Inle I would not stay on the lake itself, you are cut off and are prey to the owners for overpriced f&b-a good hotel on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe is a better choice (and ask the agent if French/Spanish/Italian tour groups stay there en mass before booking!)
Shame you missed out Mandalay-yes it is a busy,dusty City dominated by Chinese but there are so many great sites around that I always recommended a couple of days there.
A visit to Myanmar needs a trip of at least 14 days to do it justice and many travellers, who have the time, go for 3 to 4 weeks as there is so much to see.

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Old Dec 8th, 2014, 07:06 AM
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It sounds like you had a good trip. I'm sorry to hear that the Inle Lake View has hired a European manager again. When I was there they had gotten rid of the European manager and the owner (a Burmese woman from Yangon) was acting as manager.and things ran very smoothly. And I'm appalled to hear that Sankar is full of French tour groups.

Things change, I'm glad we had a goodly amount of time to explore before the "opening" of the country.
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Old Dec 8th, 2014, 01:59 PM
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Thanks for the report. We will be there in March and Myanmar Shalom is our agent. They have been great to work with...glad to know they delivered for you. We are really looking forward to our time in Myanmar!

We will fly into Mandalay and out of Yangon, so hopefully will not have the dead time at the end.

I am glad they have started issuing the VOA at the Mandalay airport now.

Thanks for the comments on places to eat...Padonmar is on our list for Yangon along with a couple of other places...we will give it a pass.
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Old Dec 8th, 2014, 03:06 PM
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Jannan, thanks so much for your informative trip report. Myanmar Shalom is our agent for our February trip; so we are of course very happy to know how pleased you were with them. We are staying at the Tharabar Gate in Bagan also.

I have some questions. Were you able to use U.S. dollars for tips?
Were you able to easily find ATM's for local currency, and was that needed for purchases? Did merchants accept credit cards?

Did you bring cash to pay the balance to MS, or did you pay balance with credit card prior to departing for your trip?

We're planning on taking Malarone. Did you?

Thank you very much for your advice. We are getting very excited for our journey. I will post a TR upon our return, as always.
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Old Dec 8th, 2014, 03:30 PM
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@LancasterLad and @silverswimmer: It's yin-yang. My vacation time is limited and precious. Something had to be cut--would it be a day in Inle for Mandalay? We had exactly 7 nights and 8 days, and the combo I came up with minimized flying times.

@cwn: I get stomach sick just looking at the wrong type of food, so I was careful, and didn't get sick. I wish I could be more adventurous in eating. Monsoon we tried also--honestly all the Burmese "curries" started to taste alike. The only discernable difference being the quality of the meat.

@wkwb42a: I paid for the trip via Paypal on MS. Worth the 3% commission IMO. We took $700 cash in mixed 100/50/20/10/1s. I changed $200 at the airport at a rate of 1032:1 for $100 bills. For the entire trip I ended up spending $670 (meals, tips, souveniers).
The hotels accepted credit with a commission (5% at Tharabar, 3.7% at Inle). Charged as USD. I saw a few ATMs in Yangon, there was an ATM at Tharabar. Just plan on bringing cash.

Don't forget the tips to the guides. I never could get a straight answer on tipping, so here is what I did:
Great Guides: $25/day
OK Guides $15/day (just the one in Yangon)
Drivers: $10/day
Boat Driver: $15/day

How's that for advice? Hands down the straightest answer you'll find!

Now, I am a physician. Tropical Diseases are not my specialty. I did bring Malarone, and started it. But on the second day I mistook my Malarone for my Advil and took 4 pills in one gulp. Yeah, physician errors do happen. So I quit taking the Malarone. I think I saw one mosquito in Inle, but never got bitten! Please note this is not my professional advice. You should probably take the Malarone as the benefits greatly outweigh the risks.
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Old Dec 8th, 2014, 03:35 PM
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@wkwb42a: One other thing I read on the internet: the exchange rates are better at the Airport. This is somewhat true if you are trading $100 bills. The trade rate at Tharabar was 960:1 for all bills--which is a better rate that the airport for smaller denominations. The $200 I traded lasted the whole trip.
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Old Dec 8th, 2014, 06:32 PM
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jannan: Thanks so much for your prompt reply. Yes, we will take Malarone. We have taken it for other trips, with no side effects.
We plan on paying our balance to MS by credit card. Thanks for your guideline on tipping. Your info is very helpful. (If you think of any other advice, let us know).

This from my husband: When we were on safari in South Africa, about 5 years ago, an older fellow came to breakfast, all excited and nervous, because he had taken 4 Malarone in the morning, instead of his usual pills. His wife asked if it was dangerous and if he would have any problems. I said that I didn't know how it would affect him; but I was sure that he wouldn't die of malaria!
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Old Dec 8th, 2014, 07:39 PM
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We were in Myanmar in Jan/Feb this year. We used ATMs several times and had no problem finding them.
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Old Dec 9th, 2014, 04:46 AM
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Thanks for your interesting TR.

For those heading to Yangon and have a half day to kill, I recommend the 3 hour circular train ride from Yangon station. It is fun and interesting, and best of all, you are not sitting in traffic going nowhere.
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Old Dec 9th, 2014, 11:59 AM
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Shelleyk +1.

Perhaps there's not much profit in it for tour operators, so not a lot of folk take up the circular train tour.

It's a Pied Piper sort of thing, where too many folk follow in the footsteps of other people.

Be brave, take a step or two,left or right, and it'll pay off.
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Old Dec 14th, 2014, 12:33 PM
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We were in Myanmar last month, November, and used Myanmar Shalom to put our 11 day trip together. I highly recommend them. On our last day in Yangon, our guide took us by their offices. We met the people I had been emailing with for 11 months while planning the tour. I gave them some feedback, positive and negative, in dealing with American clients.

if you are traveling with a guide and driver, have them take you to a money changer; they know who has the best rates. I never used an ATM once.
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Old Dec 14th, 2014, 12:42 PM
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Thoroughly enjoying your report
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