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Trip Report Myanmar: Kyats and Dogs

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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.

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