It is my last day in Myanmar. I'm in a car on a 5-6 hour trek from Ngwesaung beach to the airport. This is the drivers second leg of the day. We're happy it's not his third (but yes, he was driving back that night). We pass by an ox cart hauling a load of straw, a naked boy playing by the side of the road, a dump truck heading towards us stacked full including 3 people on the mound at the very top, and a lone man at the roads edge is maneuvering an upright vertical bamboo ladder taller than hydro poles at home. Except when reaching the capitol, no roads have stop lights, or stop signs, yet intersections are navigated with opposing traffic with the efficiency of a perfectly choreographed dance. A motorbike crosses in front of us, over 20 chickens are strapped across the back hanging upsidown by their legs. None of this is a surprise or culture shock any more. It's just normal life here in Myanmar, and no more a surprise than passing a pedestrian at home.
In 2.5 weeks, this adventure will cover cities of Yangon (their capitol), Bagan, Mandalay, Kalaw, Inle Lake, and finally Nwesaung beach. If the idea of getting off the beaten track sharing roads with both (somewhat) modern traffic along side horse and buggy, incredible people, and delicious food intrigues you, this is a top recommendation!
Yangon for 3 nights
We've got a full two days in Myanmar's capitol, Yangon (pronounced "Rangoon"). From Vancouver, it's a 13 hour flight to Hong Kong, then another 3 hours to get to a different world. Arriving just after midnight, we take advantage of the airport money exchangers. They are reliable, and have the best rates to get local currency.
I exchange two crisp, not torn or folded, new, $100 USD bills for 274,400 Kyat (pronounced "chat").
The books say to bring in all the money you need, in new bills and mint condition.
ATM's however, are available in the major tourist destinations if the idea of carrying a full trips worth of cash bothers you. My advice here, is bring in what you need. Then if you need more you've got a failback. With only hotel and travel agencies accepting credit cards, you need cash for your daily adventures, and money goes far here.
Coming in K10,000 bills, this is a thick stack of money. But I'll quickly learn it's a cash driven society, where forking over up to 10's of thousands is the norm. I always felt safe, even late at night in downtown streets, and this was a consensus among fellow travelers we met. Credit cards are a new concept, and only useful for hotels and flights. Finally, while most businesses will accept US cash, odds are you'll pay a premium. After two relaxing 2 hour massages, our place wanted USD at par... a 35% penalty! Alternatively tea time at the Strand hotel offered USD at just under the airport exchange rate at 1.35.
Day 1 - Downtown, Chinatown, Strand Hotel; markets and amazing street food
After an amazing nights sleep we prepare for a day out on the town. In the next two days, we'll cover over 32,000 steps. It's a very walkable city, where when you are done walking, taxis around town are K2,000 (just under $1.50 USD) to get where you need to go.
Breakfast at the Bogyoke Aung San Market. A Must!
This dish (at this market stall) ranks on my last meal list. Yes... it's that incredible!
Wandering down the street market I get adventurous, and have a taste of another local delicacy - Sago worms...
a thin crust on the outside, and a soft inside that has the texture of a custard and tastes fresh with a touch of richness...
Day 2 - Shwedagon Pagoda at sunrise, ferry to trisaw guided tour in Dalah, Chinatown, and 1 hour massages for $8
We rise at 5:00 am and are out the door at 5:10 to catch sunrise at one of the top sights on the must see list - Shwedagon Pagoda. This Pagoda rises above the city and is a different world.
Breakfast - eating like the locals
Just before the ferry terminal we grab a quick bite. A chai tea, with samosas, wonton like yumminess, Mohinga - a bowl of rice noodles in a fish based soup with deep fried fritters, and finally a delicious fried rice with an egg on it. I am thinking we have breakfast all wrong in North America!
Dala - a must do 10 minute ferry ride to another world!
An incredible experience awaits you a short ferry from downtown.
Awaiting you on the other side is a flurry of guides all wanting your business. One man chose us as his customer. I knew he was new to sales (saying what you want to hear, even if it may stray slightly from the truth) and following my first instincts said no... but after a short walk through the options, he was awaiting us on his trishaw and it was meant to be. He was with his friend telling us its illlegal to have two persons on one bike (me seeing two seats questioning this non-logic)... after a decline for their business on the merit of wanting one driver we eventually agreed on him alone, and on a rate of K7,500/30 minutes and a 1.5 hour tour.
The Strand Hotel - go for a super nice bathroom, afternoon high tea, and/or a cocktail at the bar.
The famous Strand Hotel is a must stop. Expensive by local standards, but decadent and affordable compared to home it is an oasis to it's own. If you enjoy cocktails, try out their bar. If high tea sounds good.... it's a must do. Just have one of you try the Myanmar high tea, a local variation to the more common sandwich and pastry based version. You won't be disappointed.
Walking around town...
While getting the beverage shown above, the vendor next watches us and is selling Betel nut. We're laughing and enjoying exploring the thick white drink, and when we decide to try two betel nut preparations in leaves, he insists we don't pay! We don't feel like tourists. We feel like honoured guests.
Bagan - 3 nights
Bagan is a fun city and must stop. Most hire an e-bike but we chose taxis and horse and carriage instead.
Stay in Nyuang-U, just north of Old Bagan
Hotels are in New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyuang-U. The best food, market, massage, and walking area is around Nyuang-U so it's recommended to stay there.
Bibo's is delicious and the massage place next door gives a great 1 hour massage for $12.
Also try Aroma 2 - a yummy Indian restaurant with a charming owner, boasting a slogan "No good, no pay". If only all restaurants were so confident! Apparently only three people ever have taken them up on this offer.
Horse and buggy full day tour a highlight!
Hire a horse and buggy for the day for a relaxing tour of what this charming area has to offer. Or get an e-bike if you are confident on a scooter.
This is a country where horse and buggy are not just for tourists. For some families this is the family business and car, and you'll often feel like you are living in a western movie shot where they forgot to remove the cars and roads.
Mandalay - 2 nights
City tour by taxi for a day, puppet show, and getting off the tourist track.
If you have time, go to Mandalay, but this was our least memorable location on this trip. We hired a taxi for the day (K35,000) and got a good taste of the area. There is clearly a route the drivers take, so we recommend getting a driver who speaks good enough English should you wish to tailor the trip. Mid afternoon he was suggesting a boat then buggy ride on a local island but it was an apparent tourist trap with long line-ups to top it all off. When we declined this portion of his itinerary, our driver wasn't sure how to fill the 2 hours, and asked if he could stop for to buy some flour. This turned out to be a gift as he quickly realized we enjoyed getting off the tourist track. That then followed by a trip into a village full of smiles and happy locals. We loved it.
The most amazing (random) stop was at a local longyi manufacturing family house, where we were spontaneously invited in for tea and tea leaf salad. The ladies all wanted a photo of the family and after a stiff shot I showed them and miming long faces and stiff they all broke out in heart felt laugher. After that was the keeper shot!
3 day Trek - Kalaw to Inle Lake (or not!)
Day one. We cover over 36,000 steps. Almost 30 km. And only two villages (including our evening stop). We made a mistake. Too much weight in the backpacks, and insufficient footware. Imagine a segment hiking up and down inclines for 3 hours on a rough rocky road with unavoidable jagged pointy rocks under your every step. Now imagine wearing non-hiking shoes without solid soles. I convinced myself it was a discovery walk with a self exploration of my foot pressure points. Only issue is it was stuck on repeat.
If you do one of the Inle treks, ask lots of questions, and I suggest a game of "minimalist who lost his luggage". Send all your luggage ahead (the trekking company's transport excess for you) and pack in one bottle of water (you can buy replacements on the way), up to one camera, one toothbrush, a headlamp, and one fleece for cool evening warmth. And some Tylenol and ear plugs. That's it. Oh yeah, and toilet paper and wipes.
The problem we learned (at least with our outfit, which was the top recommended and had over 4 groups that day), was each guide was responsible for the choice of path, stops, and homestay arrangements. Your experience is less dependent on the trek company than the guide you end up with.
2.5 days in Inle Lake
Inle lake full day tour by boat, amazing street food, more cheap massages, and a walkable city.
Inle lake was a highlight of this trip and is a must stop. Get your hotel to arrange for a full day tour by boat (under $20)
Arriving a day early...
We decided to abort the 3 day hike on morning number 2. And it was the right decision for us.
Following our instincts, it all worked out..
We were dropped off at our operator to arrange for our ride to Inle Lake. They called ahead to our hotel (booked for the 2 following nights) to see if they have room to checkin a day early only to learn they were full. It was strongly recommended to book an alternative on the spot, but we decided to figure it out where we can explore options in person. Turns out this was another great decision!
We chose to get dropped off at our hotel for the following two nights that was apparently full. We decided to ask again, in person. And sure enough there was now one room left.. their Presidential suite. For $160! Considering the previous night was spent sharing sleeping quarters with 10 others and bedding washed who knows how many trekkers ago, this was absolute bliss.
Inle Lake - night market, walking around town
Inle Lake is a fun town. Walkable. Nice feel. Good options for food, massages, and exploring the local life. And cleaner toilets.
We left just after 8:00 and got back around 3:00. This was a highlight of this trip!
Ngwesaung Beach - 3 nights
The beach is beatiful. The local food excellent. The hotel experience - you may have mixed feelings here if you compare hotels and resorts from other locations. Just don't compare. Enjoy what the hotel has to offer, (a nice bed, grounds, pool, and beach access), then get off campus to eat and experience life with the locals.