Myanmar in 11 days

Myanmar, or Burma as it was called in the past, was another destination very high on the must-do list ever since it opened again for travel and tourism. Burma is an old and legendary country. A former British colony, once hailed as the next Japan, well before China. None of that remained when the country spiraled into economic disaster and isolation under the military dictatorship. From 2010 onwards, after almost 50 years untouched in a time capsule, the county liberalized and opened again. In those few years, this has massively changed the country already. Myanmar is an amazing place and you should go and see it before it is altered even more by the opening.

Trip details:

Day 0: Friday noon departure and arrival on Saturday 9am in Yangon
Day 1: Yangon
Day 2: Early morning flight to Bagan
Day 3: Bagan
Day 4: Early morning car to Mandalay
Day 5: Mandalay
Day 6: Early flight to Heho and Inle Lake
Day 7: Inle Lake
Day 8: Flight to Ngapali Beach
Day 9: Ngapali Beach
Day 10: Return flights back home. Arrival 6am the next morning (Tuesday). So just in time for work 😉

Trip Date: 2018
Trip duration: 11 days
Vacation days required: 6 (due to a national holiday in between)
Budget total: ~1700€/p.P (~150€/day)
Cost rating: Moderate (100-200€/day)

We chose Singapore Airlines to fly to Yangon. This was not the cheapest option and 40% of the total trip cost. But Singapore airlines is excellent and the flight times were ideal. You can get cheaper options with middle-eastern carriers.

Day 1: Exploring Yangon

We arrived early Saturday morning in Yangon and had almost the full day. Didn’t get too much sleep on the flight, but we were excited and felt quite fresh. There are lots of new hotels in Yangon and credit cards are accepted in all of them (3% surcharge). We had picked the Hotel G – a modern and stylish place.

Transfer from the airport is fast and cheap with a taxi. We paid 6000 kyat or so. You no longer need to bring mint-condition USD for Myanmar. ATMs are now widely available and you get by just fine. After freshening up, getting a “vacation kickoff” cocktail at the bar, and arranging our flight with the hotel (you can and should always do that in Myanmar – no need to book domestic flights in advance) we headed for the city center. You can do the essentials of Yangon on foot if you stay in the city center. This way you will see some of the old colonial houses, all crumbling and falling apart. Giving a morbid feel next to the bustling new Yangon.

DSC_0009-01We took a shortcut through the zoo gardens – foreigners pay 2000 entrance fee – and headed onwards for the Kandawgyi Lake. The Zoo is [not recommended]. Actually the park itself is nice and they tried really hard with beautiful statues and plants and all that. But the animals are kept in tiny cages and under bad conditions. Not a nice sight. Crossing the street we quickly entered Kandawgyi park around the lake.

A word on street crossing: there are only few traffic lights and in most cases you just have to make a run for it through the traffic. Similar to Vietnam and works fine when you get used to the flow. Not many pedestrian walkways, so often taxis are better. The hotel on the lake burned down so that sight is no longer there, but the lake and park are very beautiful. There is a balloon that takes you up for city views, but we had another city skyline spot prepared and did not do that. Instead we strolled for a long time through the park, got ourselves some ice cream and waited for the sunset:

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Sunset at Kandawgyi Lake
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Sunset at Kandawgyi Lake

As soon as it was dark, we continued to the famous Shwedagon pagoda. This is the number one sight for all Yangon tourists and the most sacred pagoda in all of Myanmar. So it is crowded by locals and foreigners alike. According to legend it is almost 2600 years old. In reality probably more like half of that. Does not make it less impressive:

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Shwedagon Pagoda

You also pay a “foreigner” entrance fee. This applies to almost all locations and there are also archeological zone fees. All is free for locals, but tourists are charged. Makes sense. The fees are reasonable and usually 1000 for a site and 5000-15000 for the zone fees. The latter are valid for several days. I read a lot of backpacker “tips” how to cheat your way around these. Please don’t! The Burmese are very kind, open and trusting to foreigners and behaviors such as this will ruin all of that.

We stayed a while to watch the different ceremonies and then took another exit to head for a local market and dinner. Lili will publish a separate article about all the restaurants and food specialties of Myanmar. So I will skip this. You can check that one out +here+ once it is done.

After dinner we jumped into a cab (~3000kyat) and went to Sakura Tower, just north of the Sule pagoda. Sule is the second most famous Pagoda in Yangon, supposedly even older than Shwedagon. It is also infamous as the site of the 1988 and 2007 uprisings.
On top of Sakura Tower is a nice rooftop bar called ‘Yangon Yangon’. The city view from here is good, even though Yangon does not (yet) have much of a skyline. But you get good views of both illuminated pagodas. On Saturdays the bar almost always has live music and we got lucky as on that night they had a performance of a local hiphop shooting star. I have zero clue about hiphop, especially not the Burmese version. But the crowd was great and it was an amazing experience.

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Yangon Skyline

Day 2: Bagan and Mount Popa

Not much sleep as we had to get up at around 5am head for the airport. The hotel staff was amazing and even prepared a lunch box. Our flight was to Bagan, the capital of ancient times and land of over 10.000 temples.

Note about domestic flying: none of the local carriers are at international safety standards and incidents do happen. The machines are ATR-72s and fine. Its more the lack of training. If you want to explore this vast country you do not have much choice. Even though it was often messy and disorganized, we never felt unsafe.

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ATR-72

We got talking with the taxi driver on the way to the hotel and negotiated a price for a tour to mount popa. (30.000kyat) So we just checked-in at the hotel, threw our stuff into storage, and went off! Popa is another holy site, located on an inactive volcano about 50km south-east of Bagan. Popa means ‘flower’ in sanskrit and is used as a name for both the volcano and the monastery on top of the cliff. 777 steps lead to the top. The shrine there is the legendary home to many animist spirits, which were of crucial importance to the ancient rulers. Nowadays the monastery is haunted by monkeys instead of spirits. Watch your camera and food!

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Mount Popa near Bagan

In Bagan you can essentially stay in three areas: old Bagan (where the temples are), new Bagan (where the locals got moved to) or Nyang U (near the airport) We did neither and were located a bit further out, past the railway station. But this was no disadvantage because all the temples are so spread out – you need transportation. So for sunset we rented an e-scooter (foreigners can no longer rent motorbikes) and went searching for a sunset viewpoint.

Note about viewpoints and temples: In the past you could climb any of the temples to get the perfect sunrise or sunset view you wanted. This is no longer possible. Almost all temples are restricted now. Partially due to damage caused by the tourists, partially due to safety concerns with unrepaired earthquake damage. It is still quite chaotic, some are open, some closed, others change back and forth. At the end of this post, I will provide a list of photo spots that worked for us.

Scooter rides are great fun in Bagan. There is very little traffic. Some of the gravel roads can be tougher, but even without experience you can easily handle them. Scooters go about 60km/h max and last for ~50km one charge.

The recommended sunset spot on a little hill near the popular Sulamani temple was crowded. Hundreds of tourists were shuttled here with big busses and dozens of bothersome hawkers. The views were very nice, but I will recommend better places and more beautiful temples later. Everyone left as soon as the sun was gone. I stayed behind together with a few more serious photographers and enjoyed the blue hour:

The price for this was a ride back in darkness. Roads have many potholes and are not illuminated. So be careful when you drive after dark. We made it okay and had a nice dinner at the rooftop terrace of our hotel. After a last nightcap we fell into bed for another early rise the next day.

Day 3: Balloons over Bagan

Another 5am rise. We had booked a morning sunset Balloon ride. (Balloonsoverbagan.com) This is *very* expensive, but one of the “must-do / bucket list / once in a lifetime” things you have to do. Its a full-service affair. They pick you up at the hotel, warm you up with coffee (its cold!), and let you watch as they set everything up. The company was very professional and had international pilots. There is no issue with safety. Here are some impressions. (Almost looks like in a computer game 😉 )

16 people fit into one balloon and our company alone launched 8 (there are 3 companies). Still all were full and tickets sellout fast. After landing we got served Champagne and croissants – balloon captain tradition. 😉 I had started chatting with one of my neighbors and turned out he was staying at the same hotel. So after the drive back we went for breakfast together and decided to join forces for exploring. Back again on the scooters and off to see some of the 2000+ temples that still remain. There were over 10.000 temples during the peak period ~1000 years ago…. Just mind blowing.

The day quickly passed as we went from temple to temple and pagoda to pagoda. Skip new Bagan. Nothing’s there. Ending the day with another sunset spot:

Day 4: The Road to Mandalay

Third time in a row getting up before 5am to catch once more the sunrise over Bagan. We had booked a driver to take us for the sunrise and then north to Mandalay. The drive takes about 3hours and we paid 100.000kyat – much cheaper than a domestic flight. Again same procedure at our hotel in Mandalay: Book the onward flight and get a car to go sightseeing. Last sunrise images:

Mandalay is the second largest city of Myanmar and yet another former capital. It is also the economic epicenter of the north, in particular for trade with China. The biggest contrast to Yangon is the vast number of bikes and motorcycles. This city feels much more like Saigon or Bangkok than Yangon did. You shouldn’t ride a scooter here unless you have practice. There are three main areas for sightseeing. Mandalay itself with the palace and surroundings, the south with Inwa / Sagain, and the other riverside in the Mingun area.

So for the afternoon we headed south to Inwa. We paid 35.000 for the driver to take us to all the stops in that area. You pay also the Inwa/Mandalay zone fee (10.000), valid for several days. After that you take a small boat across and then a horse carriage around the small district. I am normally all for self-walking and hate stuff like horse carriages, but you really have no choice. Distances are too far for walking and you would be trampling through “horse manure” most of the time. Alternatively you could do it by bike I think. There are several stops at pagodas and monasteries. In particular the Bagaya teak-wood monastery is nice.

Inwa will take you around 2-3hours. Afterwards we went to U Bein bridge for sunset. U Bein is the world’s longest and oldest teakwood bridge, built from over 1000 pillars.

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U Bein Bridge at Sunset

Back in the city, it was off to another rooftop bar as I wanted to get another night skyline shot. This is not recommended…there is no picture-worthy skyline and for a city view during the day Mandalay Hill is better.

Day 5: Mingun & Sagaing

The next destination was the second sightseeing area: Mingun.

Before leaving the city, we went early to the Mahamuni temple. While it does not look like much on most of the pictures or from the outside: don’t skip Mahamuni! I really liked it and you can get some amazing pictures inside.

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Mahamuni in Mandalay

On the way there we also visited at Mahagandhayon Monastery, right next to U Bein. This is one of the most famous monastic colleges of the country and home to hundreds of young monks. At 10:30 all the monks have their lunch together, which has become a major tourist attraction. We went as well… But I have a hard time recommending this. Hundreds of tourists on the sidelines taking pictures of the little boys queueing for their food. If you go: at least bring some gifts with you. And not money. Monks are not allowed to touch money. Some people brought toothbrushes others candy. Be creative! Don’t touch the monks and don’t block their way.

Onwards to the other side of the river into Mingun. This requires a separate zone fee of 5000. The Pahtodawgyi stupa is famous for three things: that it was built by one of the most excentric (crazy?) rulers in the countries’ history, that it was intended to remain forever unfinished, and that it was impressively damaged in a major earthquake in 1839.

Next to it are two other stops: the Mingun Bell. The second largest in the world after the one in Moscow. And the pristinely white Hsinbyume. Another site nearby I can recommend is the Buddha Academy. There was no other visitor and it was so quiet.

Our last stop of the trip was to Sagaing Hill:

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Temple on top of Sagaing Hill

For the evening we met-up with our friend from Bagan who had taken a full-day boat trip from Bagan to Mandalay. According to him very relaxing, but the average age of the passengers was 60+ and it is a whole day gone. [Not recommended] if you are more active or short on time. I had to take my friend to the hospital (also an interesting experience) so we only had some time left after dinner for the outer walls and moat of the palace. Actually the inside got destroyed in the 2nd world war and what you can see now is a 1990 reproduction. Wasn’t for me. For the way back we had trouble getting a taxi. One local guy offered to take us. UBER does not yet exist. Myanmar is safe, so this was no issue. Probably only other two locations I’d have done this without concern would be Korea or Japan.

Day 6: Inle Lake

The next morning we flew to Heho, which is the closest airport to Inle Lake. Still almost 1hr by car from there. Price should be 15000-20000. Inle, a huge shallow sweetwater lake, is the most famous and touristy region of Myanmar, so be prepared for the standard tourist touts such as overcharged taxis and prices. We stayed in Nyaung Shwe, just north of the lake.

For the afternoon we rented bicycles. Where Bagan is for scooters, Mandalay is for cars, Inle is for bikes. The route south, even though it is the main road, is very nice. You pass cotton and sunflower farms and people drive actually quite restrained. It is about 45 mins bike ride down to Maing Thouk – the floating village with its famous wooden bridge. Get a local guy to drive you around. Don’t take one of the motorized boats. Peddling is slower, but you will enjoy a more tranquil ride and see more of the village. 1hr ride for 3000.

On the way back we went up the hills into the Red Mountains. The last 100 meters are steep but there is a stand where you can leave your bikes. Be careful tough – the parking area is uneven an I managed to recreate one of the typical movie scenes where my bike tips over in slow motion, hits the next one and so forth… Until about 35 bikes had tipped… Getting all of that back in order got me pretty worked up (although Inle is much cooler than the other regions it was still very warm) and luckily the vineyard had a cafe that was open. I am no expert, but I think Burma might not have the best wine in the world. But after that uphill battle and with this view, it tasted sweet and perfect.

Cycling back was tough. All the rental bikes are in ok condition, but they have no lights! Neither do the roads. Even though it is not far (15min) back to town, it feels a bit dangerous. Better not linger too long, like we did, and head back straight after sundown before it gets fully dark.

Day 7: Fishermen of Inle Lake

I had booked a private boat for the whole day (only 25000). The advantage is that you can tell your captain when and where to stop and go at your pace. And this is important, because I actually do not recommend many of the stops. The whole thing with the lake tours is very much a tourist trap. The floating market no longer exists and is replicated for tourists. The blacksmiths, silver smith’s, weaver’s etc. just exist for tourists and work with imported raw materials. Stuff is overpriced. I do not recommend any of those. There is one place where you can see the famous longneck women. Although they are technically from a totally different area and also just here for us tourists…

Instead you should go and see the floating tomato farms. And you must go upriver to the Shwe Inn Dein Pagoda and the Nyaung Ohak ruins. The hundreds of stupas and the overgrown ruins are fantastic and the ride upriver is beautiful. Also not so touristy and crowded. The Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda is okay for the Buddha statues inside and local snacks at the market around. But otherwise you will have seen more impressive examples up until now. Inthar is [not recommended]. An old monk lived there who trained cats to jump through rings. He died in 2012 and that tradition with him. Without that it is not worth the stop.

If you want the famous sunset fishermen pictures: the local fishermen have long understood they can make more from tips than from fishing. They will show up for sunset and “perform” the fishing for you. But if you want to observe real ones – same guys just different time of day ;). The sunset on the lake is beautiful. It gets quite chilly though, so bring a sweater and maybe a scarf. If you wish to stay longer there are beautiful hiking and biking options through the valley and around the lake. For us two days were perfect.

Day 8 + 9: Ngapali Beach

The last two days of our Myanmar trip we spontaneously decided not to spend in Yangon and booked a flight to Ngapali Beach instead. White sands, turquoise waters and pristine air. There are two larger beach stretches and a third smaller one. The northern beach is occupied by the luxury resorts and directly next to the airport. The south has the older resorts, but is equally beautiful and you can walk to lots of small local seafood restaurants. I had not brought any swimming shorts, so quickly bought a pair after arrival. The rest of the day was just swimming and relaxing on the beach…and of course a seafood dinner plus (too many) beach cocktails.

The last day of the tour and, still moderately hungover, time for a snorkeling trip to Pearl Island, just off the coast. The corals are not so good here and many are dead, but you will see lots of colorful fish and the boat ride + fishing is just great fun. We ended the last vacation day with another seafood dinner and a sunset stroll along the endless beach.

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Day 10 Return 

Just a long travel day back home. But totally worth it! Myanmar is an amazing country that offers ancient history, tropical beaches, bustling city life, great food choices and so much more. Presented by the most open and friendly people I have ever encountered in my travels around Asia. I can fullheartedly recommend for anyone to go there. And better soon before the negative sides of (mass) tourism change the country and its people.

Shoot

Myammar is amazing for pictures. Here are my recommendations at each location.

Yangon:

  • City skyline from either Sakura Tower or Sky Bar
  • Shwedagon Pagoda at night / evening
  • Kandawgyi lake for sunset
  • Old abandoned colonial houses

Bagan:

  • Sunset: Sulamani (very very crowded)
  • Sunset (also full but better): Shwegugyi Temple
  • During the day: Thatbinnyu, Shwesandaw, Dhammayangi, Ananda, Htilominlo, Gawdawpalin,
  • Sunrise: Tiny temple just west of Dhammayazika Pagoda

Mandalay:

  • U Bein for sunset
  • Mahamuni golden portals
  • Buddha academy
  • Pagoda on top of Sagaing Hill
  • Pahtodawgyi (go to the back!)

Inle Lake

  • Sunset from red mountain vinery
  • Sunset on the lake with the fishermen
  • Water reflections in Maing Thauk
  • Hundreds of Stupas at Shwe Inn Dein Pagoda and the Nyaung Ohak ruins. If not hazy, go to the upper viewpoint

Plan

  • During high season, hotels sell out quick. Best to reserve a cancelable option.
  • You need a visa. There is now an e-Visa process that needs just 3-5 working days.
    Important: turn off java script blocking and pop-up blocking in your browser before you start that. Otherwise you’ll get stuck halfway through.
  • Balloon rides over Bagan fill up fast. Better reserve. Expensive (300$)
  • Check in advance which Bagan temples are open for sunset and sunrise. That changes. Don’t rely on just one source and define backup plans.
  • Scooter batteries are not accurate! They go from 100% to 0. Check KM. Fully charged 50km range.
  • No need (and mostly not possible) to book inland flights in advance. Just ask your hotels to help. Ususally between 50-100 USD.
  • Taxis are honest and safe. You always haggle about the price in advance.
  • You no longer need to bring brand-new unfolded dollar bills like older guides recommend. Credit cards work fine at ATMs
  • Bring a strong high DEET mosquito repellent! Dengue, Malaria, Jap. encephalitis and many other diseases are endemic outside of the cities. Medical care is bad.

Avoid

  • Myanmar is very safe. Punishment of crime is severe. For travellers that means very low crime risk.
  • Military presence is very restrained and you will not see or encounter much. Still – when you do remember it is a country under military rule.
  • Burmese are very friendly and open. Many speak good English. You get into longer conversations all the time, which is great. I was surprised how many also bring up sensitive topics and I got into several talks about the Muslim minority and other hot topics. Be careful.
  • But as a normal tourist you will not encounter any issue due to the current tensions. It does not impact normal travel.
  • Avoid the tourist traps on Inle lake, most of the artisan shops only exist for tourists.
  • It is a strictly Buddhist country. Be respectful. Shoes off in all temples. Do not touch monks or babies on their head. Just to name a few examples
  • A construction worker makes ~4000kyat per day. Thats 2.50€. Keep that in mind when tipping or haggling.
  • Tap water is not potable. Restaurants are controlled and mandated by law not to use tap water for food preparation. Your call if you trust a street kitchen to adhere. Peel it, cook it, or leave it.
  • There is no need to book a fully guided tour. Many locals speak good English and you can get the same content much cheaper and tailored to your preference by just checking with your hotel or taxi driver.


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