Thank you: Jay zoo tin ba day
Currency: Kyat. Dollars are also accepted in some circumstances if you have new bills, unmarked in any way and in perfect condition (not folded, creased, or torn). Exchange rate: 1000 kyats = $1.00.
Myanmar is opening up to tourists and already the full buses are starting to haunt the popular destinations such as Bagan and Inle Lake. Areas such as Mrauk-U and even Mandalay had relatively few tourists. It certainly couldn’t compare to the hordes I saw in Thailand and Cambodia. I wanted to visit the country before the sights become overrun with tourists. Fortunately, I had two friends who were also eager to visit and we were able to coordinate timing to travel together.
We traveled on our own for about $40/day excluding hotel and internal flights. Hotel costs averaged about $33/day; flights totaled $400 for 3 flights.
We spent 27 days traveling and our itinerary included:
We saw fewer Americans than Europeans and the friendly Burmese were eager to talk and ask questions once they found out I was from the U.S. In fact, this was one of the only countries I’ve been to where the locals took pictures of me and my friends! At one temple, a Buddhist monk gestured a bit frantically to make sure me and my friend would stand on either side of him for a photo. That was a first! I was even asked to take a message to Obama after our trekking guide in Kalaw found out I was American. “Obama,” he said, nodding in approval. “Please give him a message for me. Tell him I said ‘Hello’.” “Sure,” I replied. “Next time we have lunch.”
Cultural Differences: So many countries have adapted to Western ways in dealing with tourists. Myanmar is still offering a genuine experience. Some of the things you will enjoy seeing:
Are you really ready to travel to Myanmar? The travel can be a bit more rustic and prices are higher versus other southeast Asian countries. Of course, you can find luxury lodging but if you are not traveling with a tour group, you will spend some time arranging transport and searching for good places to eat.
Other things you may want to consider:
This is the second biggest city in the country. Although there are sights to see within the city, we found some of the most intriguing areas to be outside the city.
Mandalay Palace - Allow about an hour to walk around the Royal Palace compound. We were dropped at the East Gate and walked down a long road to the entrance. Once you enter the compound, you can wander through the buildings, the key building being the temple. Other key buildings include the main throne room and the water tower. Climbing the winding staircase in the water tower will allow you a view of the entire complex. Once you exit the main compound, you could eat at one of the small restaurants before you head to Mandalay Hill and the numerous pagodas along the way.
If you walk north along the main road on the east side of the palace, parallel with the moat surrounding the palace grounds, you will find additional pagodas starting at 14th street.
Shwe Nandaw Kyaung - teak monastery
Atumashi Kyaungdawgyi - decorated with peacock motifs, series of terraces
Kuthodaw Paya and Sandarmuni Pagoda
Mandalay Hill - After exploring the pagodas, you can negotiate a ride to the top of Mandalay Hill. Technically, motorbike taxis are not allowed and as there were 3 of us, we negotiated a pick-up truck ($10 total) to take us to the top of Mandalay Hill, wait while we reached the summit (believe it or not, there are escalators to the very top and an elevator back down), and then take us back our hotel. On the way up the steep switchbacked road, there is a standing Buddha where you may want to stop for photos.
If you do decide to walk to the top of the hill, you will find the entry to the walkway guarded by two chinthe (lion/dog creatures) and the walk to the top will take about 45 minutes. With the afternoon heat and our backpacks, we decided against the 45 minute walk up the hill and the truck ride took only minutes.
Sights outside of Mandalay: It’s easy to make Mandalay your base and take several day trips for more interesting sights. In fact, we thought the best sights were in the surrounding area. We arranged a private car with a driver through our hotel and the cost was about $50/day. It was worth it to have the freedom to stop and alter the itinerary as we pleased. The other advantage is that our driver, Lu Aung, took us to some local restaurants for lunch instead of relying on the usual “tourist” type lunch spots. And his choices were cheap and excellent. Since there are so few tourists who eat in the local restaurants, everyone seemed eager to please. You can also find drivers on the street around your hotel. We did use another driver for a shorter trip within the city but you may have to negotiate hard with them. I’ve provided suggestions for two day trips below.
Day Trip One:
Pyin Oo Lwin - This is a small city about an hour away from Mandalay. There are military training schools here and you can ask your driver to take you to the Governor’s house (which is now a resort spa). Within the city itself, the Purcell Tower contains a large clock in the town center and a yearning to be something more impressive.
If you’re up for a sweaty little hike, stop at Anisakan Falls to see the Dat Taw Gyaik waterfall. Our driver stopped at the top of the hill and some local women escorted us down the very steep dirt road to the waterfall and small pagoda at the bottom. On the way up, things didn’t go as quickly. It was very steep and very hot and if you are not fit, you may have some problems. My friend Isabel was moving very slowly and the local women decided to make her journey easier. One woman took her bag, while two others pushed her from behind. Of course, this provided ample entertainment for me! I laughed as the last woman walked beside me, fanning furiously. With several stops, we made it back to our car and, of course, the women made a sale of one cold soda to Isabel. It should take about 1-2 hours for this excursion.
The Peik Chin Myaung Cave is a worthwhile stop as it is one of the many caves in Myanmar stuffed with Buddhas.
Another destination within this day trip is the National Kandawgyi Gardens. This is a beautiful place to end your visit by walking through the flower festooned fields with the lovely water views of Kandawgyi Lake. It seems to be a favorite for the residents and we were stopped by people wanting to take our picture or pictures with us. And on the way back to Mandalay, you can stop at a local market to buy fresh strawberries.
One of the day trips will probably include a stop at a gold leaf making factory. You will see gold leaf throughout your excursion in Myanmar, as men apply the gold leaf to Buddhas (women are not allowed to do this) and gold leaf designs adorn small boxes and other pieces of local art.
Day Trip Two (many arranged tours will include all five sights):
1. Sagaing - Two main sights include the Sittagu Buddhist Academy and Tilawkaguru, a small cave with ancient paintings along the walls. Tilawkaguru requires contacting the gate keeper for access and our driver knew exactly where to go to find her. As we were viewing the ancient paintings on the walls and ceiling, a monk happened to come inside and was very curious about the foreigners. Translating through our driver, once he learned I was from America, he was excited to understand what city I was from and how many days I had traveled to reach Myanmar. It is easy to forget how exotic we can seem to someone whose entire world exists within one small city. He was amazed at the concept of how many hours it took to reach his country and I was left with the feeling that he was flattered that I had decided to come to his small corner of the world.
Other temples along the top of the hill: Soon U Ponya Shin Paya and Umin Thounzeh
Mingun Paya - The world’s biggest stupa. This enormous chunk of rock seems to have been plunked down on the plain with no specific plan. It is notable not only for its size but for the large crack down one side.
Hsinbyume Paya - It’s worth your time to see this temple from both the front and the back. It’s whitewashed walls glow in the sunlight against a blue backdrop of sky.
Settawya Paya - Footprint of Buddha
Mingun Bell - For years it was the largest functioning bell in the world and is a tourist draw for the people of Myanmar.
3. Inwa - You must take a small boat and then travel by horse cart to see the key sights. Our driver helped coordinate this and it was only about $4 total. It makes for a novel journey. The regular circuit includes Bagaya Kyaung, a teak monastery; Nanmyin, a decayed but still standing leaning watchtower; the
Mahar Aung Mye Bon San Monastery and Htilaingshin Paya.
4. Maha Myat Muni Pagoda - Ancient Buddha image.
5. Amarapura -This site is best known for the U Bein Bridge and at almost a mile long, it is thought to be the world’s longest teak footbridge. It crosses Taungthaman Lake and at sunset expect large crowds on the bridge, surrounding the base of the bridge, and in boats to witness the beauty of the setting sun. It is worth the trip.
One of the most common ways to reach Bagan from Mandalay is to take a day long boat trip along the Irrawaddy river. However, we opted to hire our own driver and we paid 130,000 kyats (approx. $130) for a one way journey in a mini-van (with AC and seat belts) which took about 4 hours. How else can you enjoy looking at the country? We stopped to watch an ox hitched to a yoke walking in circles to grind peanuts. At washed out sections of the road, from annual floods, we waved to the local women who diligently rake over the uneven road to render it acceptable for cars and trucks. And we listened to the endless beeping of the car horn as our driver passed countless motorcycles, bicycles, horse carts and trucks. The roads were pretty good and it was an easy trip.
Driving into Bagan, I found the landscape to look like something from a movie set. Everywhere we looked, on either side of the car, there were temples dotting the landscapes, their weathered towers defiant in a dry landscape of palm trees and scrubby bushes and trees. Complexes of several pagodas surrounded us. How can you make a decision on where to start? And this is the reason people go to Bagan. Temple Hopping. Upon entry to Bagan you will probably buy a temple pass for entry to all temples. As we entered with our own driver, we somehow bypassed this and didn’t learn about the temple pass until later. However, we successfully visited all temples without a request until the very last temple on the last day.
For temple hopping, the question becomes horse cart, electric bike or bicycle? Rent a bike for at least one day and you can actually cover quite a few temples. You have more flexibility and for about $3/day, you can get a pretty good bike (only one speed) with a basket for carrying your bag with essentials. It is very easy to find someone selling water or other drinks at many of the temples.
One of the things I enjoyed the most was being able to explore the many, many temples without hoards of people crowding in front of me and around me, spoiling the peace of viewing the many buddhas, and infringing on every photo. Some temples were quiet surprises, hidden at the end of dusty roads. At one temple, an old woman was the keeper of the key and carried flashlights so we could go in and look at the numerous paintings adorning the walls. In some areas, panels had been restored, but she actually came in and led us around pointing and saying, “Buddha, Buddha’s mother, Mongols, Khmer Buddha.” It only took these few words for us to understand the fascinating pictures. At another temple, a young woman proudly took us around, saying, “This is a quiet temple. No buses, only bicycles.”
If you want to avoid the high pressure touts, then go in the afternoon. At many of the temples, the vendors have already left as most people visit in the mornings when it is cooler. In the afternoon, you will have many of the temples to yourself.
If you do hire a driver, he will probably offer to take you to a lacquer ware factory. Since this is where most of the artisans are located, if you plan to buy lacquer ware, this is the best place to do it.
Suggestions on temples accessible by bike:
Since many temples are a little further, you can improve your access by negotiating a driver for the day. We embarked on a Tour de Temples - one day, three women, and a dedicated driver. We visited 22 temples. It can be a bit overwhelming, so I made notes of at least one feature for each:
Outside of Bagan:
Most visitors take a day trip to Mount Popa - About an hour and a half outside of Bagan, it is the highest mountain in Myanmar and is an inactive volcano. From afar, you can see the temple perched at the top of a hill. There doesn’t appear to be any way to reach it until you arrive at the base of the hill and see the covered stairway snaking its way to the top, with Buddha pit stops along the way. We shook off our shoes and stored them in a small locker, giving a small donation to an old man, then started the ascent, avoiding the hordes of monkeys looking for food. To distract them, you could buy small rolls of paper with peanuts hidden inside which seemed to keep them occupied while people continued climbing. Since we were barefoot, we tried to avoid the monkey poo, fairly easy since people are cleaning the steps and asking for donations to fund this service. But I couldn’t help but be worried about any wetness that I detected. Was it monkey pee? Or just freshly washed?
On the way back to Bagan, make sure to stop at the fruit market for fresh strawberries or fruit and the freshly made potato chips. Yummy!
Kalaw is a small city nestled in the mountains east of Bagan. Many tourists come here to go on treks through the surrounding countryside and it is a pleasant change from the heat of Bagan. It is also a nice stop if you are working your way from Bagan to Inle Lake.
We booked a day trek through Green Discovery, a trekking guide service run by a man named Alex. Two other people joined us for the seven hours spent hiking up and down the hills, with a stop for lunch with a hill tribe.
Other sights in Kalaw: Shwe Oo Min Paya, a cave full of golden buddhas and Hnee Pagoda, a 500 year old bamboo Buddha covered in gold lacquer. Our stop here included an invitation to share in snacks and tea offered by a Buddhist nun. Once she found out I was American, she tried very desperately to talk to me in Burmese once she had exhausted her limited English. Of course, we had no idea what she was saying, but responded with polite nods and thank you’s before we left.
Outside of Kalaw:
Pindaya which has the Shwe Oo Min Natural Cave Pagoda, a cave thoroughly stuffed with Buddhas and accompanied by a story of a warrior and a giant spider. If you make the journey, it is easy to hire a driver for the day and also stop at the umbrella shop. We watched them make the lovely paper umbrellas, including the large crimson umbrellas made especially for the Buddhist monks. The entire process included making the rice paper, complete with leaf and flower designs, and the carving of the wood for the handle and umbrella supports. They offered bean snacks, deliciously addictive peanut brittle, and tea. Of course, this resulted in some sales but in hindsight it was one of the most original souvenirs offered in Myanmar.
We arranged to stay in Nyaung Shwe which is a perfect base for exploring Inle Lake. It was hot during the day but pleasantly cool at night. We knew we wanted to spend at least a day on the lake, visiting some of the villages and other sights. To hire a boat, it is easy enough to walk down to the main pier. Chances are, someone will approach you on the street, as in our case, and negotiate a price for the day. We met a young man who offered his services as a guide for $18 for the day for the three of us. There are several villages you can visit on the lake but you will need to understand which villages have markets on which days as the “5 day market” rotates from village to village.
Our main goal was to visit Inthein (Indein), which had a market on that particular day and also has some ancient pagodas worth viewing. We visited the Nyaung Ohak stupas and Shwe Inn Thein Paya which is a mix of ancient, restored, and new pagodas. Also on the lake, we visited Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda with buddha images believed to be around 800 years old and covered in gold leaf so thick that they are merely large gold indistinguishable blobs. Only men are allowed to apply gold leaf and several signs reminded us “No women allowed”.
We were particularly looking forward to seeing the Nga Hpe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery). However, this now seems to be the Sleeping Cat monastery as we were told the jumping cats were “finished” and the cats were lazily doing what cats love most, sleeping and graciously accepting head rubs and chin scratches from the visitors. The monastery also has a collection of ancient buddhas.
As we made our way back to Nyaung Shwe, we traveled through the Floating Gardens observing rows and rows of tomatoes and other greens grown and harvested within the lake. It was a complex and amazing garden close to the floating villages where people spend their lives. Long, skinny boats passed us with young men paddling and pushing their boats in an erotic dance with long oars. That alone was worth the trip.
One final stop was to see Maing Thauk and its 450 yard wooden bridge that leads people from the lake and the stilted houses to dry land.
The most difficult aspect of travel is to go where few have gone before as journeys of less than a hundred miles can take a full day. In the case of Mrauk U, a flight to Sittwe begins the journey. Since our flight arrived in Sittwe in the afternoon it left us with limited options for the continuation of the journey upriver (there is a morning ferry on some days but we had already missed it). We had arranged to meet a guide who helped us negotiate a private boat for our river ride, a journey of 40 miles which takes 5-6 hours. Once there, hotel options are limited resulting in our most rustic experience. When planning this trip, the timing on flights and boats seems to be arranged so that you are almost forced to spend a night there, either before or after your boat ride to Mrauk U. There isn’t much to see in Sittwe and there are few hotel options so try to spend as little time as possible there. In our case, we spent one night in Sittwe on the journey back from Mrauk U, waiting for a flight the following day. If you have time, the morning market in Sittwe is interesting to walk through to see all of the local fresh fish and vegetables for sale. And you will probably be one of the only tourists there.
Sights: Temples and pagodas are a contrast to Bagan because of their unique structure. Again, it is easy to rent a bike or hire a driver to make your way around to many of the temples. The days are hot and dusty but the temples are fabulous. Some of the temples and sites that we visited:
Maha Muni Paya in Dhanyawadi - You can hire a driver for the 25 mile trip to see this temple. On the way there or back, you can also stop to see Wethali/Vesali, a Buddha said to be carved from a single piece of boulder.
We spent a few days in Yangon, traveled to Bago and Golden Rock, and then stopped back for two more days after Mrauk U. There are are a couple of noteworthy pagodas to see and another fun activity is to take the circle line train around the perimeter of the city.
Circle Line Train - The train runs in one direction and as a foreigner you are required to buy a special ticket which costs $1.00. The entire circle takes about 3 hours and allows you to see the city, markets, the outlying farms and area and, best of all, the local people. One woman boarded the train and started a conversation with me when she found out I was from the U.S. (Yes, we are easy to pick out in a crowd.) She was from Myanmar but now lives in Brooklyn and was back to visit family. She showed me her photos of her house in New York and was quite excited to see another American and was very friendly and curious about my visit.
Shwedagon Pagoda - It contains relics of four buddhas who attained enlightenment and is probably the most visited tourist site in the city.
Sule Pagoda - Located in a central part of the city, after visiting this pagoda you can walk towards the river on Sule Pagoda Road to Strand Road, take a visit to the Strand Hotel and then continue walking to the Botataung Pagoda which is believed to house a hair from Buddha. It is worth a visit to see the crowds fighting for a glimpse of this sacred hair.
Outside of Yangon:
Bago and Golden Rock (Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda)
We arranged an overnight trip to Golden Rock with a local tour company called Shalom Myanmar (which was hilarious since none of us are Jewish!). They did a great job in providing a driver and arranging our hotel for one night at Golden Rock. Since the trip requires driving through Bago, we stopped to see some of the key sights, breaking it up over the two days.
Key sights in Bago include:
Golden Rock - How do you feel about driving on mountain roads in the back of a converted pick-up truck? It is truly a unique journey to see a huge rock balanced precariously at the top of a mountain and encrusted with gold foil. And the best part? Women aren’t even allowed to touch the rock!
Crowds of people gather at this site and I didn’t seem to be the only one nervous about the sketchy truck ride. The mode of transportation looks like a dump truck retrofitted with rows of bench seats in the back. The ride up the mountain was definitely uncomfortable as we were squeezed in, six to a row fit for five, and bounced along, backs smacking into the metal bars behind us, until we finally reached the top. Thank God we reached the top! Some of the inclines towards the end of the ride were probably a 45 degree angle and I was silently waiting for the truck to roll backwards. The massive trucks seemed adapted for the trip but my confidence was not. I lost sleep that night worrying about the ride back down envisioning all sorts of mayhem. As long as the brakes held, we would be okay....
Once you reach the top, it is a short walk to the ticket office and onto the main attraction. The place is crowded with tourists but most seem to be Burmese as this is a sacred site and popular attraction.
Is it worth the trip? It depends on how you feel about transportation on mountain roads. I was very nervous about the trucks but going back down the mountain was fine. Our driver was slow and careful and the trucks are well suited to the situation. However, even the locals seemed nervous and three Burmese women sitting behind me kept their heads down during the entire ordeal. At the end, I think everyone was happy to have their feet back on the ground.
Snake temple, (Baungdawgyoke Pagoda). Our last day in Yangon, we had to end the trip with one last unique destination. The Snake Temple. The journey began with a taxi ride to the ferry pier across from the Strand Hotel -- Pansodan Jetty. This is where you buy a tourist ticket for $4 for the round-trip ferry ride to Dala. You will need to go inside to a small office where they will help you. The ferry leaves about every 20 minutes. Once the young men in the waiting area spotted us, they began their earnest endeavors to sell us “tours” or motorcycle taxi rides once we reached the other side. Resist. Once you reach the other side of the river, you can bargain for a shared taxi or mini-van for about 2000 kyats ($2) per person.
Once we reached the other side of the river, we found one of these mini-vans, paid our fare, and climbed into the back. The goal is to maximize the profit on this ride. There were three rows of seats, each with four people squeezed together, two people shared the front seat with the driver, and one last young man crammed himself into the small space behind the last seat and the rear hatch door. And then we were off for the temple. The ride lasted about 30-40 minutes and I had the pleasure of having the woman next to me fall asleep on my shoulder. I just laughed.
We were dropped on the main road where we walked down a long dusty dirt road with only the tops of pagodas in the distance to guide us. The extreme heat made the walk seem much longer. We soon reached what seemed to be a small village and after asking a few people for the snake pagoda, making slithering motions with our hands, we were directed down a narrow road to the right which opened on to a small lake traversed by four bridges leading to a pagoda in the center. We quickly walked into the temple searching for the promised snakes and were greeted with coils and coils of Burmese pythons. There must have been about 20 snakes intertwined around each other, adorning the tops of barred windows and decorating a central tree around which Buddhas were placed. There was a young woman there serving as a guide for two other tourists and I asked why the snakes stayed. She disclosed that the local belief is that the temple is holy and the snakes are there to worship the Buddhas. But then she added, “The snakes are fed every day and also protected, so why would they leave?”
To return, we went back to the main road to wait for another mini-van or bus and took refuge from the already baking sun in the shade of a small structure serving as the local bus stop. I questioned the young men sitting there, “Bus?” and an affirmative nod gave us the the confirmation we needed. We waited, all eyes fixed on the road, and then one young man sighted a taxi and asked “Taxi?” to which we nodded. Why wait for a bus if the price is right? He helped negotiate our ride, 1000 kyats each. Not bad! And off we went to the pier for a ride back across the river to Yangon. Total for the snake temple trip: about $7.
Food: We referred to the Lonely Planet recommendations and Trip Advisor. Some of our favorites:
Hotels: We booked most of our hotels through Agoda. Overall, we had a good experience and the ratings were accurate. We did make sure to leave our own ratings to advise future guests. For the larger cities, I’ve listed the hotels we used.
Mandalay: Hotel Yadanarbon - Great, helpful staff (and we had a fabulous driver, Lu Aung).
Yangon: Hotel War Dan - Staff was great and the hotel was very comfortable and relatively close to main sights.