I have been dreaming of going to Myanmar since we first moved to Asia almost six years ago. This Christmas we finally got the vacation time to go and it was an unforgettable experience! If you like to visit countries with a strong culture, free from chain establishments, filled with friendly people and spicy food, Myanmar is a must visit destination!
My first impressions/observations:
Burma is a country that is quickly trying to catch up with our globalizing world. Present seems to meet past. In contrast to five years ago, there are now ATMS within a block radius in most tourist cities, however many things are still done the “old fashion way.” There are nearly no chain stores. All of our boarding passes were hand written and we even saw typewriters being used around the city.
People are very friendly and intrigued to meet foreigners. If you smile you are almost guaranteed to receive one in return. Many people speak English but with a strong dialect that can make it difficult to comprehend. It is similar to speaking to a toddler but if you are patient you can have a conversation.
Things seem very safe, there is little police presence and we did not see a single armed guard or weapon during our trip. When we rented a scooter it was given to us with no paperwork or security deposit. There is a strong religious identity, with Monks of all ages on every corner.
Food is great! There were many new to us vegetables used that we had never seen in any other dishes in the world. Their dishes take influence from their neighbors with Thai, Chinese and Indian flavors represented. Their spicy green peppers are some of the hottest we’ve encountered in the world.
Tea leaf Salad
Almost every women and small child has a thick paste on their face used for sun protection. Men wear a wrapped skirt like fabric instead of pants.
Yangon – 2 days
When I first started planning my trip to Myanmar (December 2018) I met with a friend who had been there three years prior to hear about her experience. At that time, there was no cell phone coverage in the entire country. Merchants took advantage of this by running long phone cords to the side of the street so tourists and locals alike could use land lines to make a call. Today Yangon is wired and you can purchase a sim card for under $10 right at the airport that will last you the weeks stay. Taxi apps (grab) are available for you to pre-book a car with no hassle of negotiating the tourist rate for your trip. With that said, even though life is updating in Yangon, much of the countries culture and charm is still persevered in this magical country.
Locals get around the city by the circular train. A two hour loop, allows for the train to slowly chug around town. When it arrives at each station, it doesn’t even make a full stop, so do like the locals and hop on quickly, taking your seat on the wooden benches. This trip is an entertaining way to people watch, as locals hop on and off, creating a mini-market right on board and selling anything you can imagine. Do the entire loop, or hop off after a couple stops.
*Foreigners need an ID to purchase tickets so bring your passport.
Another great place to see local life is the Shwedagon Pagoda. This Pagoda is so golden that when the sun is high, you can’t look at it directly. Monks, locals and tourists visit frequently and you will surely see a ceremony or two. During our few hours at the Pagoda we watched small boys take part in the Buddhist Novitiation Ceremony. After leaving the temple we were in for another treat as the sun began to set and hundreds of monks formed a line to collect Oms around the city.
Next door to Shwedagon Pagoda is Kandawgyi Lake, a great place for a leisurely stroll. Come hungry and have lunch or enjoy a dinner show inside the golden Kandawgyi Palace, right on the lake.
Gaze at the Architecture and stop for a bite to eat
Speaking of hungry, Yangon is filled with fabulous local restaurants. Some must try foods are Mohinga- a fish stew, Laphat Thote- tea leaf salad and Kyay-Oh- a noodle soup along with a steaming cup of tea! We loved savoring these foods at Ragoon Tea Shop. This charming restaurant is located right in the heart of downtown and the perfect pit stop to make while checking out the local colonial architecture. Another not to miss restaurant is 999 Shan Noodles. If you are into more street eats, stop at one of the 100’s of tea shops that line nearly every corner
If diamonds are your best friend, marvel at the 100’s of diamonds and gemstones located in Bogyoke Market. While you are there pick up a longyi, the skirt both men and women wear in Myanmar, so you can dress like the locals!
From Yangon head to Bagan.
Bus- If you are on a budget take the overnight bus for $25 to your next destination. This journey will take 10 hours and keep in mind that the bus station is located a ways outside of downtown.
Flight- For $100 you can take a quick one hour flight from Yangon to Bagan.
Bagan- 2 Days
Upon arrival in Bagan each visitor will have to pay a local tourist fee of 30,000 kyat.
Two days is a good amount of time to explore the temples of Bagan. The best way to get around is to rent one of the many electric scooters located on every street corner. For $5 a shop keeper will hand over a scooter for the day, no license or security deposit needed. Make sure the battery is charged and you have a phone number in case there are any problems throughout the day, then head out to the temples. Spend your day driving around the hundreds of stupas that make up the area and be sure to stop and explore the inside of a few. Alone with these ancient structures, you’ll be sure to feel like Indiana Jones.
If you want some more exercise push bikes are available as well. Additionally, you can hire a tuk tuk or bus for a day tour. These vehicles will not have access to all of the pagodas but will take you to the major sites and can be more comfortable then navigating the sandy paths on an e-bike (but maybe less fun).
Sunrise and Sunset cannot be missed in Bagan! If you want to splurge, you can take a hot air balloon over the city. Prices start at $300 for the hour long trip. If you don’t have the funds no fear, for $5 you can visit Nan Myint Tower for stunning views. The ticket allows multiple same day entries so you can visit for both sunrise and sunset, when there is happy hour and live music at the top of the tower.
If you want to get off the beaten path, climb one of the pagodas for sunrise. I recommend going to Thisar Wadi Pagoda. You can no longer climb many of the temples, but this one still allows you access through a staircase located inside the temple. To find it follow these directions. You will come to a golden pagoda and it is located just behind.
Another great place to take in a sunset is on the river Irrawaddy. For under $10 we rented a massive 10+ passenger boat complete with snacks, tea and coffee and spent a few hours riding along the river and watching the sunset. To charter a boat go to the Old Bagan Jetty. Here you can speak to a shop or local driver to get a boat. Shared trips cost $5 a person or rent the whole thing for a round $10 and have it for yourself.
Inle Lake-3 days
Once again you have the option of flying or taking a bus overnight to Inle Lake.
Hike from Kawal to Inle Lake (2 Days, 1 Night)
A not to miss experience is hiking through the mountain towns from Kawal or Heho Airport to Inle Lake. Don’t worry about your bags, as the tour guides will have it dropped off at your hotel at Inle Lake so you can leisurely walk through the beautiful scenery that leads you to Inle Lake.
If hiking isn’t your thing, a 40 minute taxi ride will bring you from Heho Airport to Nyaung where you can easily find a boat driver to show you around the spectacular sites on Inle Lake. If you like markets, get up early and cruise to the rotating market to see locals selling everything imaginable first thing in the morning. Continue your trip by visiting the Pagodas in the hills of Inle Lake, floating gardens and some of the local craftsmen. Have your boat driver show you an itinerary prior to leaving and decide what you want to see. A day long boat tour should cost around $10.00, $5 more if you include the rotating market.
Inle Lake is another great place to feast on local food. Don’t miss the amazing local food at Sin Yaw, and for a real treat try their set menu.
If you are up for some entertainment, don’t miss a dinner at Innlay Hut Indian Food Restaurant. The Indian food is best of its kind in town and the owner is Eminem’s number one fan, a real character.
Where to next?
Want to continue your travels through South East Asia. Cross the Mae Sai boarder to Thailand and make your way to Laos or Chang Mai! Make sure to factor in some time to explore the massive market located here on your way out!