I’m sitting in a great organic veg café in Kuala Lumpur airport on a long layover. After an amazing trip to Burma and surfing in Sri Lanka, my friend Ana and I are on our way home with a heavy heart. Traveling always inspires me, softens me, gives a taste of freedom, presents new friendships, and opens new perspectives. It isn’t easy to say goodbye to all of that. I spent the last hour sorting out over thousand photos I took (you can find them here) and now I’m trying to recap the past ten days in writing, while the impressions are still fresh in my mind.
Myanmar (Burma) is a beautiful country, with a rich (mostly troubled) past. But, more important than any countries history or landscape is the people and the feeling you have when you are there. I found Myanmar to be welcoming and its people warm, modest and friendly. The country is slowly but surely growing in popularity as a tourist destination and is a bit more touristy than I had expected, but still not nearly as much as most other Asian countries I’ve traveled to. Much of Burma is still closed for foreigners, some parts need a special permit to enter, but most of the main attractions are open to visit and, surprisingly, with good tourist infrastructure and very well organized given the fact that it opened to tourism only five years ago.
This was our first trip to Burma and we only had ten days, so we visited usual top destinations – Mandalay, Bagan and Inle lake. Doing some research and booking hotels in advance proved to be a smart thing to do on a short visit. Hotels in attractive places like Bagan fill up quickly and, if you do manage to find a room it will be either in one of the very expensive hotels or not very nice. Apart from most hotel staff English is still rarely spoken, even in restaurants and shops, but everyone is so genuinely nice and helpful that in the end all works out.
We flew Air Asia from Bangkok to Mandalay, a former royal capital, today cultural centre of Burma. We arrived late morning and had enough time during the afternoon for lunch and exploration. The hotel provided free bicycles and we cycled towards Mandalay Hill which was an adventure of its own in 5 PM traffic – busy but we felt safe even though you ride on the road as there is no bicycle lane. We rode next to beautiful palace walls, but missed the palace itself as it closes at 4:30 PM. Walking up many steps to watch the sunset from the Pagoda on Mandalay Hill was great and besides a few locals, we were up there alone.
Next morning we took a private taxi tour to visit many sights in and around Mandalay. First stop was Mahamuni Buddha Pagoda, a beautiful golden temple where many locals come to worship. A monk greeted us here and told us he would like to show us around so he can practice his English which was very nice. As we said our farewells, he gave us a blessing, a nice start of the day ahead. Next stop was a Monastery where over 1000 monks live and study. Another monk greeted us here and showed us around, which was again a blessing as we haven’t seen other visitors getting a guided tour. Everything here was nice but the main attraction – monks lining up for a meal. Not because of the monks but because of the visitors. We felt really uncomfortable and almost embarrassed being there with other people who behaved like they are in a zoo; pointing their huge lenses at monk’s faces without permission, stepping on the path where they line up, pushing each other, being disrespectful. We even witnessed a fight. I’d say don’t skip the Monastery, but come either much before 10 am line up or much later.
We visited a silk waving shop and bought some beautiful lungis that were more expensive than on stalls and markets elsewhere, but of better quality and nicer design. Our car took us up hill to Sagaing, a beautiful white and golden Pagoda and stupa-dotted hill with an amazing view of the valley and the river. After lunch we took a short boat ride to Inwa (AVA) village and took horse and carriage tour that takes you around the sights (more Pagodas, stupas and Monasteries).
The trip ends with the sunset visit to Amarapura’s U Bein Bridge, a 1.2 km wooden bridge over a lake. It was beautiful but so packed with people (mostly visitors) that we skipped the walk across and went for a beer instead. Had I known every tourist in Mandalay will be on that bridge at sunset, we would have come earlier in a day.
About ten hour long, but comfortable and nice boat trip from Mandalay down Irrawaddy River brought us to Bagan, or rather Nyang U, small town next to Old Bagan. We stayed in a nice, comfortable hotel in Nyang U which I thought was a better option than staying in New Bagan; its closer to all the sights and transport to and from Bagan, more restaurants, local market, more of a local town feel.
The next morning we rented electric bikes, small scooters that run on battery. Great way to explore this big area which is hilly, hot and with many off road sights. The whole area of Nyang U and Old Bagan is covered with over 2000 Buddhist pagodas and stupas that bear witness to a very rich Pagan Empire during which time over ten thousand pagodas, stupas and Monasteries were built. It’s a shame that many of the Pagodas are badly restored, without paying much attention to the original design or materials so, even though it is awe inspiring, due to the bad restauration and bad politics of former government, it never became a UNESCO heritage site.
Some Pagodas are open and you can climb up to get amazing views of the valley, especially at sunset and sunrise. At sunrise you can watch balloons flying over Bagan in the beautiful morning light – quite an amazing thing to see. We were skipping the more popular Pagodas and were on the mission of finding those you can enter and climb on that were sans people. Basically we spent two days just driving around on our e-bikes, burning two batteries a day, exploring all the roads, going into local villages, exploring the market, looking for best views and the most distant Pagodas. Two days were perfect to explore the area.
We took a mini bus from Bagan which, very conveniently, came to pick us up at our hotel in Nyanung U and took us to our hotel at Nyanung Shwe, a town close to Inle lake. This was also a long ride (about 7 hours), but the road goes through villages and later up the mountain, so you get some nice views. Our hotel was ok, not the best value on this trip, but with a good restaurant we spent most time in when not round and about. On our first day we rented bicycles and took a ride to the lake, a 10 km long but fun one. It takes about half an hour to reach the first lake village, passing through villages and rice fields. A boat took our bikes and us across to the other side of the lake where we cycled back to Nyanug Shwe on the other side of the lake passing hot springs.
Next day we took a full day boat tour. We left early, just after 7 AM to avoid the crowds which was a good idea. It’s very cold in the morning so dressing warmly and in layers is smart. It also gets very hot round noon so sunscreens and hats are also a good idea. Blankets for the morning chill and umbrellas for noon heat are provided on most boats. We avoided Pagodas (temples) as we’ve seen many on this trip, and asked our boat driver to take us to see villages and village life around the lake which was really beautiful to see. They will also take you to silver smiths, black smiths, lotus silk manufacturing shop etc. which is only for tourists but nice to see a few. However, you can buy most of this stuff cheaper (you need to bargain) at the market nearby. We saw floating gardens, villages on stilts and many fishing boats and fishermen rowing the boats using their feet – something Inle lake fishermen are famous for.
There are many different tribes in Burma, many live around Inle lake and you can see tribal people in the villages and markets. It was nice to have a chat with a beautiful 16 year old Kayan people girl, better known as the long neck tribes. Boat trip lasted almost a full day and was a nice way to say goodbye to Myanmar.
We arrived to Yangon, a former capital, at 6 AM on a night bus from Nyaung Shwe (Inle). Not the most comfortable journey. The road is bumpy and the air con was on freezing regardless of our pleas to the driver. Not sure if there is another option, perhaps a flight or a day bus is better. I’m looking forward to going back and exploring this beautiful country off the beaten track.
Hotels we stayed at:
Mandalay – Hotel 8 – good value, clean, good staff35 US$
Bagan (Nyaung U) – Six stars, great value for Bagan, good location 40 US$
Inle (Nyaung Shwe) – The Manor hotel, nice place but not the best value 50 US$
Restaurants and cafes:
Bagan (Nyaung U): Shwe (across from the hotel) – great for dinner
Bagan (New Bagan): (in the nature reserve) – great for lunch, natural shade, close to the river
Nyaung Shwe (Inle)
- Blue Bar (in the Manor hotel) – great for lunch, dinner or drinks
- The green chilli (Thai) – great for lunch or dinner
- Chillax – coffee (Illi!) and pancakes with chocolate
Mandalay: full day private taxi tour – 20 US$
Inle lake: full day private boat tour – 20 US$
Mandalay – Bagan – boat (12 hours) 42 US$
Bagan – Nyang Shwe (Inle lake) – mini bus (7 hours) 12 US$
Nyang Shwe – Yangon (night bus, try to avoid!) 20 US$
Book accommodation ahead if you’re on a short trip
Tourists can’t rent motorcycles so bicycles or taxis will be a good way to explore
If you can bring US $. As in most Asian countries, the euro conversion is almost the same as dollar. Exchange rates are better for larger notes (100 $) and make sure your notes are as new as possible and not folded.
Most budget hotels only accept cash payments and will give you a dollar rate. It’s better to pay in US$.