The first stop was 'The Shwedagon Pagoda' - the 1st of many Pagodas on the trip but this one is seen by many as the Holiest in Myanmar. At 110m tall and over 2,500 years old it's pretty impressive. The space was full in the early morning until late at night. Full of tourists, locals and of course monks (who seem to like a selfie as much as the rest of us). The atmosphere was calm, friendly and relaxed but with an undercurrent of excitement and joy at being there.
Wandering the streets in Downtown Yangon was also on our must do list. The old, run down colonial buildings based there are stunning. Many of which are brightly coloured and with greenery growing in and around. The 40 degree heat took its toll though so we found rest-bite in the charming and high-end hotel 'The Strand' which used to be the hotel to be seen in back in the day. Now its a well polished hotel with an excellent bar serving some delicious cocktails in a well air-conned room #liquidlunch.
Exploring the area was GREAT fun. We hired some E-bikes (low power scooters) to explore the area of our own. We got lost but didn't crash. We found some quiet temples and some busy temples, some ancient temples but also some newer temples. We had our photos taken with locals - it seems blond hair and pale skin is still a funny sight here. We got stuck in the sand and discovered that being significantly lighter allowed me to beat James in any scooter race.
To make a change over the 3 days we hired a man and a car to take us to a place called 'Mount Popa'. It is a Buddhist temple of a Rock about a 90 minute drive from Bagan. You climb around 800 steps to make it to the top where you are rewarded with spectacular views as well as a sense of satisfaction. Wonderfully the whole walk up is sheltered so the beating sun didn't cause us too much of a problem. Just watch the cheeky monkeys.
One of the 'Musts' of visiting Bagan is to watch the Sunset from one of the temples you are allowed climb to get a good view over the plains as the sun goes down. It is very busy on the major temples (but there are only so many open to be climbed). It was beautiful but as always the photos cannot do it justice - but I tried!
What is better than a Sunset? A sunrise!!! It was incredible (after nearly missing it because we got lost in the dark on our E-bikes - my fault as I insisted we took a 'shortcut'). It was the highlight of the trip for me and there was hardly anybody there - it was so quiet in comparison to the night before. The hot air balloons also fly at sunrise which really does add to the view.
We had two full days in Mandalay. Not always a popular spot for tourists and in many ways I can see why (it's hectic and incredibly hot and humid) but it was a fascinating city where we were able to learn a lot about the cultures and people of Myanmar.
The first morning was spent heading on a boat to the local town of Minguin. Famous for a large temple that was never finished and more recently damaged by an earthquake. I was also keen to get onto the Arrawaddy River to see local life on the shores.
The afternoon was spent exploring some of the Pagodas and Monasteries of the city but the heat was unbearable (45degrees) and we had to cut it short and yet again find rest bite in a air-conned hotel bar - tough!
The next day we booked onto a Mandalay Bike Tour. A 35km, 10 hour bike ride visiting local villages, city workshops and finishing at the famous U-Bein Bridge. Although a 35km bike ride is not in itself a challenge when you add the extreme heat and a distinct lack of shade we were a touch nervous about our decision to embark on the tour. Having said this we saw and learnt so much that I didn't care too much about my sweaty face and incredibly dirty and dusty feet. The tour was run by a local guy who had made links with a German tourist who had help set the business up. In was wonderful to get more of a feel for local life - particularly in their equivalent to the 'burbs'.
We only had two nights in Kalaw so went for a full one day trek. We went with a company called Eagle trekking who organised a well planned and informative trip through local villages and lovely scenery.
We had 3 days to relax so we took things really slow and easy. Given however it was by birthday while staying here we went on a boat trip to see the fisherman, the floating gardens and Indein Village on the shores of the lake which was not only hosting the famous 5 day rotating market but also has the Indein Pagodas, many of which are now ruins with trees growing out of the sides/tops/backs etc. A really beautiful sight.
My birthday was actually the start of the Burmese new year - also known as Thingyan. They celebrate with a 'Water Festival' and the cities are full of people celebrating. This involves groups of people of open back trucks vehicles getting soaked by other vehicles or water stations based at the side of the road. Water stations generally get ither people soaked or host water parties which involve pedestrians dancing by their station. We decided to go out onto the streets to get involved. Naturally we got wet and as tourists we were even bigger targets. Great idea for a festival!
- Flights have to be booked on arrival through travel agencies (the planes are not even close to be being full so this is fine). We used EXO travel in Yangon.
- Bus travel is tough - we took one and no more - so flights are better if you can afford them.
- USD notes are accepted (particularly in more touristy places) but they need to be perfect and new
- Travel is really easy - just like the rest of SE Asia
- Food/Drink is super cheap (unless you go to high-end hotels)
- Taxis are cheap but agree a price before you get in the taxi (Mandalay - all journeys between 2000-5000Kyats)
- ATMs - always have money in them - blogs suggested it was hard to get money - its not and they are now everywhere even in the smaller towns.
- Credit Cards - Hotels will accept these but tours, taxis and restaurants (unless organised by your hotel) will need to be paid in cash