It’s probably not the best idea to even attempt to see a country as full of wonders as Myanmar in 8 days. But when you’re not a professional traveler you do what you can when you can. Getting to Myanmar was a journey in itself. A 4 hour train ride to Frankfurt started it off. Then a 10 hour Air China flight from Frankfurt to Beijing, a short layover, then Beijing to Hong Kong. A mad dash through the Hong Kong airport to catch a 4 hour AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur. On that mad dash through the airport, Hong Kong security decided my tiny beard trimmer scissors were capable of ruling an entire country and confiscated them. The same pair of tiny scissors I brought in the country almost one year earlier. On a positive note, no beard means looking much younger in my vacation photos. Kuala Lumpur for 36 hours, great city by the way, then a late flight to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar.
Yangon, Myanmar 1 night
There isn’t much to say about Yangon. By the time the plane landed, travel to the hotel and check in it was almost 10pm. With a flight set to leave at 6:30am that unfortunately left very little time to explore Yangon. From what I saw its busy, loud, full of cars, and people walking around in traditional dress. I’ve never visited a country where in the capital so many people still wear traditional dress. I liked it. A lot. It added this very surreal feel to see teenagers riding new Yamaha scooters with fitted baseball caps cocked to the side repping the Brooklyn Nets rocking a lungi.
Another thing I can comment on is our hotel. I can’t give you a long list of places to stay, but if you need something close to the airport that’s clean, cheap and with modern amenities, I can without hesitation recommend High Five Hotel. Most people in Myanmar are nice, but I was extremely impressed with their professionalism and high standard of service. They even provide shower flip flops for you as the shower and the toilet share the same proximity. I have no discount code to offer as I get nothing in return for any recommendation I make. I also urge you to use Myanmar National Airlines if you are taking any internal flights. Having so few days to see as much as possible, decided at least one flight was worth it. I know airlines that not only don’t provide free water or small snacks on flights over 3 hours, but don’t allow you to bring your own drinks or any type of food onboard. Looking at you Air Asia! So imagine my surprise when they roll by with the cabin service handing out drinks and a breakfast box. You have a new fan MNA!
Bagan – 3 days
Everyone who visits Myanmar goes to Bagan. I’m convinced most people have an idea of this place even if they’ve never heard of Myanmar. The photos of the sunrises here with the balloons rising from the horizon are stunning. Experiencing it first hand is spiritual. The hotel was in Nyuang U which is closer to the airport and the town where most of the locals live and work. It’s not far from Bagan at all. One thing to remember about Bagan is to not forget to purchase your Archeological Zone Tourist Ticket at the airport. It costs around 25,000 kyat or $20. Your payment gets you a 5 day ticket you MUST keep with you at all times. They do NOT play around with that ticket in Bagan! If you’re caught in the archeological zone without it, they call the police, immediately. No questions asked or waiting for you to explain why you don’t have one. Now, if you are at a pagoda and you “forgot” to buy one at the airport they let it slide just long enough for you to pay for it there, cash only. If you are a tourist, they are going to check to make sure you have your ticket at every major temple or site. Everyone looks like a tourist who isn’t from Myanmar so forget blending in.
Sky View Hotel is in the Nyuang U area and my base for the 3 days/2 nights I was there. It gets its name from the fact they have a rooftop restaurant which does indeed have a view of the sky and Old Bagan. A very nice touch. The room had air conditioning, private en suite bathroom, good shower pressure and hot water. It’s a bit of a walk to the main strip of Nyuang U, and off the beaten path. If you’re not afraid of walking on pitch black dirt roads in foreign countries, please go ahead. I make it a point not to do anything silly like that. The hotel takes care of that by having a large selection of high quality electric scooters available for rent. A full day is 8,000, $6, kyat or 10,000 kyat, $7.50, if you share. Crazy right?? Renting an electric scooter all day for just $6!?!? Even better if the battery lasts as long as they advertise. IF being the key word. I E-scooted my black behind around Bagan the entire time with no worry of a Burmese boogy man attacking me on the walk back to the hotel.
For me, three days was more than enough for Bagan. There are over 2,000 temples and pagodas out of the original 10,000 remaining in the area. It’s gorgeous. However, I was templed out after two days. Waking up before sunrise to secure a prime seating place on a pagoda is exciting. Exploring on your own to find a temple not on a blog is even better. For that reason I won’t tell you where I took my photos. Discover your own and find your own magical place. After a while, all of the temples and buddha statues started looking the same. That’s my personal opinion. I believe having a local guide with knowledge of the area and pagodas would make it more interesting if you decide to do more than three days. It feels like I visited all 2,000 temples, but the ones that really stood out are:
Do NOT go here to see the sunrise. The only dirt road wide enough to get to the pagoda by tourist buses goes directly by here so 90% of the tourists are here for sunrises. The joke for Shwesandaw is you go to see a fight and happen to catch the sunrise. There are real fights between tourists jostling for the best position to capture photos. Wait until after sunrise and visit when there are fewer people. Because of the number of tourists, there are always permanent hawkers waiting outside to sell you something or another.
Great temple that isn’t visited as often because it’s close to another famous temple. Just as amazing as any other temple but less tourists and more locals doing what it was intended for, a place of worship. I’m not the religious type, but the spiritual energy here was intense.
This is the more popular temple next to Thatbyinnyu I mentioned. It stands out because of the very nice courtyard that was very peaceful and quiet even during the busy time I was there.
As Bagan is one of the must see places, the tourism industry is mature here compared to other cities. There is a well established tourist area with restaurants selling Western food. If you get tired of rice, curry and noodles you will easily find a burger, pizza or even Italian food. I would also suggest a sunset cruise. You’ll be alone on calm river with an unfettered view of the sunset with 100’s of your closest friends.
In other words, it’s not a secret, but still worth it. With all things in Myanmar it’s cheap and what you are provided far exceeds the price.
Inle Lake 3 days
To get from Bagan to the Lake Inle region I settled on a night bus. Inland flights are expensive and trains are so slow an electric scooter could get you there sooner. Besides, I wanted to try out the famed VIP buses in Myanmar. Bus left at 8:30pm and arrived at 5:00am. That meant not paying for a hotel and having more time to explore Lake Inle. The VIP bus lived up to its name! First thing you notice is the configuration, unlike most busses, on the right hand side there is only a seat instead of the typical two. Each seat is thick and plush and reclines to a almost flat bed level. Then, THEN, they provide those weird toilet shaped neck pillows and blankets. The blankets you’ll need because it’s the Arctic on those buses. Santa Claus must use the VIP bus on his off time it’s so damn cold. There’s a host who comes around passing out drinks and snacks during the bus ride AND they have seat back entertainment screens like on long haul transcontinental flights. Most of the available films are dubbed in Burmese but still! The bus also stops for a toilet break and proper food if you need it. All of this for only 18,500 kyat, $13.50! I remember in university being a poor student who experienced Greyhound more than I care to remember. A $15 ticket on Greyhound MIGHT have gotten you to the next major city in a cramped seat with weird off-putting smells making you nauseous the entire trip.
One thing that was unexpected is the Lake Inle entrance fee of $10. The amount wasn’t a surprise, but was not informed there was this fee. Luckily you can also pay in foreign currency. Don’t expect the exchange rate to be in your favor. Even though the bus arrives at the crack of dawn transportation is abundant. Numerous taxis are available. The cost is 2500 kyat, $2, per person for a shared “taxi”. Taxi meaning a small truck with a covered flatbed filled with as many people and bags as possible. They do however take you directly to your hotel. Luckily, Motel Album had rooms available. Normally, arriving at 5:30am to a typical hotel might get you a place to put your luggage and a long wait until check in. The owners of Motel Album are not your typical owners! Arriving that early meant being shown to the room even when protesting saying it was no trouble AND a small breakfast prepared. Room is not the best description. I would say it’s more of a bungalow style. You have your own small place not attached to any other guests. You also have a small porch area to sit outside if you’re so inclined. Goes great with the cold refreshing drink you’re always met with at the entrance when you come back from exploring. Above and beyond service. The breakfast is more than adequate and tasty. Every type of tour for the lake can be booked directly through the hotel. After investigating the first day and having a hundred offers for a private boat tour it was clear the hotel owners weren’t charging a premium on top for the boat tour.
If you go to Inle Lake, you take an Inle Lake boat tour. There is only one hotel that is located directly in the Inle Lake region. It’s a fancy all-inclusive resort that starts at €250/night NOT including the taxes and extra fees.
You will also see the famous fishermen of Inle Lake if you do the tour. They hold the paddle with one leg and row so they can use both hands to handle the nets. Personally, I think a few of the fisherman are placed there for tourism purposes. A little too convenient how they happen to be in the right place at the right time for tourists. But hey, the photos are nice momentos.
Be forewarned. Any place you are taken on the tour is a guise for a hard sell. Your visit to a traditional silversmith is a 5 minute explanation of the process and a 45 minute personal infomercial on their jewelry. A traditional craftwork area resulted in the same. There is a photo I have seen quite often on Instagram of Padaung tribe women.
The shop owners use her and her sister to lure the customers into the shop. Taking photos is free, getting out without feeling like you’re forced to buy something is optional. I’m convinced they have worked on weaving that cloth for at least 11 years. It should be long enough to wrap around the entire EARTH by now! It’s a ploy and it’s effective for many people. The lotus weaving, cheroot making factory, major temples, all of it are an attempt to get you add to the local economy. I don’t fault them, I’m only saying be aware of it. You can ask your boat driver to take you to more authentic places, but I would suggest paying them a little extra.
They obviously get a commission for taking you to the shops. If you are open to supplementing their lost commission you will see the real Inle Lake. Can’t miss is the floating and local market. The locals frequent these places and you see real life playing out here. It’s a truly authentic experience you shouldn’t miss. The entire 8 days in Myanmar it rained one day. Yes, you guessed it, the day of the boat tour. As a result, there are things that were missed as the further the day progressed the harder it poured until it was a torrential downpour. Until we decided to head in and at the dock getting out the sun miraculously appeared again. Such is life.
For Inle Lake I would also recommend a trip to Red Mountain Winery. The wine isn’t WOW, but the sunset views make the trip a must. Great views can make any wine decent. The full body massage from the grandmother of a family of massage therapists was.. Interesting. Three generations give massages in a small hut for about $2.50. Nice to the bone all of them. Can’t remember the name unfortunately.
Kalaw 2 days
A nice conversation with a 70 year old British woman traveling alone decided the final stop in Myanmar. Debra mentioned the old British colonial town of Kalaw and the exceptional train ride to get there. She sold me on the experience and once again a crack of dawn wakeup was called for. What Debra failed to mention is that a bus from the lake region to Kalaw is 90 minutes, the train is 4 hours.
Appropriately, it’s called the slow train. Slow or not, you should take the train. The views alone are worth it. And a $3 ticket for first class is just unheard of. There’s no need to book in advance. At the moment, not many tourists use the train so first class was half full at best. The train personnel all spoke enough English to answer all of my questions. I knew very little about Kalaw, but getting there was memorable. There are two daily trains that go to Kalaw. My choice was the 8am train which put us into Kalaw around 11:30am.
Checked into the Hotel Nature Land 2. The hotel location is very nice. It’s situated hillside. The reception is at the top of the hill, then there are stairs leading down to the private suite style bungalows. The rooms themselves are impressive, but they need to work on the cleanliness. Also, when a hotel says they have wifi on their website you of course expect to have wifi. Being confused when every guests asks for wifi is just unacceptable. Lastly, the hotel needs to invest in staff who speak a decent level of English. Asking if one can take a shower after they checked out after a 5 hour track has nothing to do with having a shower cap. That miscommunication almost ended my Myanmar trip on a down note.
An up note however was the Sprouting Seeds Cafe. A cozy cafe with home baked goods and with a great story behind it. Told it’s run by former orphans who grew up together who “adopted” themselves. The oldest learned to bake from a retired French master pastry chef. That’s why my cake created a party in my mouth! They also make a flat white even my Kiwi friends would claim. Go to this place with a book and an empty stomach and you’ll thank me later.
As one does you meet people on your travels. Ended up at the Bamboo Pagoda with some other solo travelers. The Bamboo Pagoda itself would’ve impressed me more if I hadn’t just come from Bagan. What I did love however is the Monk who took the time to explain the history of the Bamboo Buddha and invite us to tea.
The night ended with a dinner at the 7 Sisters Restaurant. Lord have mercy! If you only eat one place in Kalaw this place should be it! There really are 7 sisters who run the place. It’s too expensive for the locals so be prepared to only here European languages. The food is to die for. Easily my best meal in Myanmar. You get accustomed very quickly to paying a certain amount in any country, When the bill came for 7 Sisters and saw 17,500 kyat I was slightly shocked. It seemed so much more expensive than the 4 to 5,000 I had been paying! Then I calculated and realized it was only $13 for an alcoholic drink, starter and main dish. The most expensive restaurant in the city and one pays $13!?!? I was feeling like a baller and I left a $3 tip. The waitress almost gave me a kiss! Over $3!!
Kalaw is a popular starting point for multi day trekking tours to Inle Lake. As the time was very limited, I had to settle for a half day trek around the Kalaw hills. Although the guides were super nice, I had the feeling the A -team guides were all unavailable and I got the B-team. Matter of fact, my guide was the 19 year old sister of the owner who I’m convinced sent her husband along to make sure her sister behaved herself. She wasn’t inappropriate, but EXTREMELY friendly. As the brother-in-law spoke 5 words of English, my tour consisted of the names of the crops on the plantations we passed; strawberries, pineapples, rice, etc etc. I passed other trekking guides and they were explaining the different types of rice and why they grow them and the different growing seasons.
I got coy smiles and probing personal questions. Yeah, the b-team. After walking 20 km I feel I know the area around Kalaw now. My ass felt like a donkey kicked it afterwards, but it was well worth it. The positive about climbing up a mountain are the views. Oh man the views.. And the clean air. Felt like I had a peppermint in my nostrils the air was so fresh and clean.
A shower at the hotel after the trek, small dinner and another VIP bus ride to Yangon with a taxi directly to the airport ended my 8 days in Myanmar. A totally unexpected trip that will leave a lasting impression. The landscape is amazing, the food is wonderful, but the people, the local people I met on this trip made it unforgettable.