Sitting here, trying to write the intro for the last 3 weeks in Myanmar, as we approach the end of 2016, I am left without words. I feel the only way I can describe the country is through comparisons and illustrating the contrasts, of which there are many. Myanmar reminded me a lot of India; busy, dirty, polluted, full of terrible drivers, but without the loveable kitsch neon charm. There is a lingering sadness that still remains with the people and their land; a sense of struggle and disappointment, alongside their generous offers of help and hospitality, pride and hope.
I have mixed feelings about this country. At times I felt like I was living out the peak adventures of an Indiana Jones movie, filled with jungles, ancient treasures and spectacular scenery. I was filled with awe and wonder, and had infinite gratitude for the people and their kindness. At other times, I felt deeply sad at the level of oppression, poverty and difficulty evident amongst the people, especially as I choked on the dust of the cities and sweat saturated my clothes within minutes of stepping outside. After 50 years at war within itself, Myanmar is still very much under the political control of its military government, even if it boasts of having a new democracy.
This particular travel guide is a little bit different. Even though the title says that it’s mine, in truth it was mostly written by my dashing partner-in-love-and-adventure Julien, who loves to provide helpful, practical insights, hints and tips, for people who also want to explore this rapidly changing country. His pragmatic descriptions stretch far beyond my capabilities, so throughout this article you will see that my notes and words are italicised, and all the rest are his.
I hope you find our extraordinary 3 week travel guide to mystical Myanmar (Burma), entertaining and useful.
TIPS, TRICKS + TRAVEL ADVICE
The Arrival: Arriving in Yangon (Formerly known as Rangoon -RGN Airport) was an absolute breeze. The new addition to their international airport is literally like landing in a brand new airport somewhere in the western world. It had snappy internet, a tourist desk, some ATM machines, a couple of modern cafe’s, bars and lounges, and air-conditioning. It was pretty safe to say that I was impressed.
The Money: Unfortunately, withdrawing money in Myanmar isn’t so great. With an average service charge of 6,000 Kyat (pronounced CHAT) you can only withdraw a maximum of K300,000 which is just shy of 300USD. That, combined with your average bank conversion and your own personal banking fee will stack up to approximately 25USD in charges…depending on how you roll. That’s just over 8% in fees, so if you can bring cash with you in large, clean bills, you’re better off doing that. Money exchange bureaus and banks are plentiful and you can always bargain for the best daily rate.
Getting There: Depending on where you stay in Yangon you’re looking at about a 15km road trip to get into town from the airport. The easiest way by far would be to take a taxi. There is a taxi desk just before you leave the departure lounge and they have fixed rates and ticket sales. K8,000 will take you directly to your hotel in town. It will take you between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours because of Yangon’s ridiculous traffic.
Having said that, there are 2 far-cheaper ways to get into town that will take you about the same amount of time, but you have to walk a bit. Leaving the terminal, and brushing past the taxi drivers you can take a quick 10-15 minute walk to the right to catch the locals bus, or you can take a 30 minute walk to your left and head toward the local train. You can either get a town map from the tourism travel desk, or use the free wifi to connect to your favourite mapping app. Please note that most online maps are currently being updated in Myanmar and you will often find errors.
The buses are frequent, and there are many different types. We knew which bus number we needed, but that didn’t help at all. Every single large bus is a mad, crazy, lurching beast with very little signage in english, or in our case none (that I could see). We stood for about 15 minutes before finally getting fed-up and just asking one of the riding cash-jockeys “City Centre? Yangon City?” and he urged us to quickly come aboard. Most busses running South along Pyay Road will eventually end up in the city, along the main drag (Maha Banndula or Strand Road) which is right in the thick of Budget Hotels, cheap eats and the tourist center. This trip will cost you a mere K200…less than 20 cents US. Be careful though, if they see you are a westerner they may try to charge more. Be firm, and check with a local before you board what price you should be paying.
When we got on the bus the cheeky bus-cash-jockey tried to rip us off a whole 10c (K100), oh the horror (!!!) haha, but Julien didn’t believe him, and told him so, to which he uproariously laughed and nodded. In the end he admired and respected Julien for holding his ground, and gave him a big hug and a handshake when we got off. People are funny.
The Sim Card: Just before we got on the bus I noticed a mobile phone shop that was open not 15 meters away. Although there are still very few people that speak english in Myanmar, they do try very hard and I have found them to be quite helpful if you’re patient. If you have an unlocked phone I would suggest getting a SIM card while you stay in Myanmar. They’re cheap, and data sure comes in handy sometimes as a lot of Hotels have insanely slow wifi, and being able to use your maps while travelling is a massive timesaver.
At this point in time there are 3 main brands. MPT, Telenor, and Ooredoo. MPT is the National Network and has been known to have the most coverage and the best service of all the brands. Telenor is also quite well known and Ooredoo is a fairly new addition to the competition. Based on what I had read, and based on where we were headed, I opted for the best deal as opposed to the best carrier, as all 3 had fairly reliable reviews (for Myanmar). Seeing as we weren’t going to be hiking in the jungle for days on end we went with Ooredoo.
The sim cards will run you anywhere from K800 to K1500. Cheap. The data plans generally run in the 1GB to 10GB range, depending on the prepaid package. And text/minutes generally come off of your top-up credit between K20-K50 per text/minute. I opted for an Ooredoo Sim with a bonus welcome package. Sim: K1500; 2.5GB: K12,000 with an extra + 2.5GB (Free Bonus) Credit: K500 Total: K14,500 (Approx. 12USD) For 5GB and the full set-up, I’d say that’s a WIN!
The Hotels in Myanmar: If you’re a Solo traveller, finding a bunk between K6,000 and K15,000 (5-12 USD) per night is generally a breeze. As a couple though, we like a little more comfort and generally go for a budget Double with Private Bath if possible. If you’re like us you will notice a serious increase in Hotel/Guest House prices compared to the rest of Asia. Be prepared for this, because at this time the only accommodation options available to tourists are registered Accommodations. Very few people are willing to defy the government on this so it is more difficult to find local homestays or guest rooms. A private room in most mid range places will run you anywhere between K18,000 and K40,000 (15 – 35USD) and almost ALWAYS includes a small breakfast.
The majority of Hotels will only take cash or they will add about 3% to your credit card bill. You’ll also notice that online bookings are scarce in Myanmar unless you’re in bigger centers. Many hotels would rather you call, e-mail, or contact them through their Facebook pages. Always compare your quoted price with one listed online if possible, but generally it’s easier to pay direct to the Hotel upon arrival or at check-out.
Having said that, we booked 90% of our hotels online using Kayak and Agoda.
The Food: Burmese food is diverse, tasty, fun, and downright interesting! I found that Cooked street-food was generally safe and will run you between K800 – K3000 depending on your meal. For example: Rice K400, Vegetable Curry K600 and choice of meat K800 = K1800 (or cheaper) – So, less than $2. Most meals come accompanied by some chilli sauce, marinated garlic and fish sauce, or a small plate of selected greens which may include: Green Beans, Cucumbers, Cabbage, Herbs and More!
Family-Run Restaurants with short plastic chairs, fans and a bit more lighting and service will run you between K1500 – K5000. Most Vege/Egg fried rice/noodle options generally start around K1500 and the more expensive dishes with Meat, Fish, or Large Vegetable Platters will be around K3000 (however they are usually for sharing).
While Julien really enjoyed the food for the most part, I found it much for challenging. There are basically two choices: Myanmar curry with rice, usually served with vegetables; or greasy Chinese food. I learned very quickly that I wildly preferred the former, but overall every meal is some kind of variation of high carbs and fats, which is quite the opposite of the high vegetable and fruit diet I prefer. Even though it was often tasty, I noticed over the weeks that I felt less healthy and couldn’t wait to be able to eat more fresh, light, nutrient-rich foods.
The Drinks: Green tea is generally served for free with every meal you have and you will often notice a large tea dispenser with mini-mugs on every table. Soft Drinks and Water run between K300 and K800 depending on the size and brand. Draught beers can be anywhere from K500 to K1000 and big bottles usually run around K2000.
Myanmar tea is a very sweet, strong, milky concoction that the locals often drink throughout the day at local tea houses, made of black tea and condensed milk. It’s delicious but so strong it makes me little dizzy.
The Water: Anywhere you see a water jug with a tap, FILL UP! You may notice that everywhere you go there are jugs of water usually accompanied by little steel mugs. Water in Myanmar is clean and it’s FREE. You will find these jugs at every Hotel, every Restaurant, every Temple and Monastery, and even at every street corner in Yangon. In Myanmar it is a RIGHT that every person within the borders of Myanmar should have access to clean drinking water, and the locals believe it to be rude if clean water is not shared with those in need. Both the government and local businesses provide water as a source of personal pride and people are thrilled when we fill up our water bottles with them. With the insane amount of plastic waste growing in the world, this is by far the greatest surprise to find in Myanmar.
Basic Etiquette: There aren’t a pile of rules in Myanmar, and even if these folks find something you’re doing offensive, they’ll let you know. But here’s a couple of tips to keep you from getting frowned or yelled at:
- Take off your shoes when entering homes, temples, or religious pagodas. Barefoot only.
- Both men and women are reminded to always wear non-revealing clothing when around religious establishments. Knees, cleavage, and bare torso should always be covered.
- A friendly “Mingalaba” is always welcome anytime, and will usually win you a few polite smiles, no matter the circumstance. (Mingalaba = Warm Regards)
- Wave only to children, or those who wave to you first. Amongst adults it is seen to be silly, and childish to wave. A polite head nod is generally more acceptable, especially in more remote locations.
Arriving in Yangon was a wildly sensory introduction to the country: market stalls spilling over into the streets, people busily rushing through the tight lanes between fresh fruit and vegetables, clothes and household items, people yelling from one side of the road to the other, sounds blaring from loud sound systems intended to enchant passers-by into purchases. I think I spent the entire 3 days with my eyes wide open like saucers. The nightlife full of university students had a familiar feel, and I could sense that this city is at the forefront of what Myanmar is hoping to become: a bustling, modern metropolitan to rival other well-known cities in Asia.
I’ve never been to India, so I’m not quite sure what it would be like. But, in my imagination, Yangon was as much a shock to my senses as I had imagined India would be. From the crazy, lurching, manic busses to the sights, sounds, and smells of a Thursday night on the fringes of night markets and chinatown, my senses were in overload.
We spent a couple of days in Yangon, walking to various sights, checking out the government tourism office, sitting around in the beautiful parks and eating ridiculous amounts of interesting food. Yangon is constantly bustling with energy and simply meandering around and weaving streets in the Hotel arena could take you a week. Nothing is efficient in Yangon, so getting anywhere or even crossing the road takes time and patience.
Our Hotel was OKAY at 22USD per night, but we felt that the price was a bit steep for a double room, with no windows, and a shared bathroom. We decided to check out of 20th street and try our luck heading to the other side of Maha Bandula (the main drag). We ended up finding a very decent room for a fair price (booked online) at the Agga Bed and Breakfast. It was one of the 3 AGGA businesses in the area and it was superb for Myanmar prices.
Highlights for me in Yangon were definitely just the sights and sounds of the street markets, the food stalls, and the ridiculous ingenuity of some of the construction works being done with limited materials. I also immediately loved the free drinking water provided around town and the beautiful Kandawgyi Park; which is totally worth a picnic and an afternoon nap beneath the trees.
After about 2 days I was ready to move on. As interesting as it was, the city itself doesn’t call to me, and I was ready to leave the pollution, the smells, the honking, and the general noise behind in search of quieter, greener digs. We booked our overnight bus Yangon to Dawei for K18,000 with the amazing lady at the Ministry Tourism Office across from the Independence Monument in Maha Bandoola Park and got a few more sweet tips while we were there. Our bus company was called Man Yar Zar and had been recommended to us by some friends. They were known to be a good mid-range option for less than K20,000.
Being that the main Bus Terminal is about 1 hour outside of the city centre, we had to make a journey (yet again) back out towards the airport to catch it. We had 2 options: 1 Take a Private Taxi for about K8,000 or catch a mini-bus shuttle taxi for K1000 each from the west side of the Parliament Buildings. We took the latter.
It was a lot easier than expected and there were tons of minibuses from the same company all lined up. They were easy to find, and no bartering necessary. K1000 each and away we went. 12 hours later and we arrived in Dawei.
Despite arriving at an ungodly hour, Dawei had a really cute feel with it’s bright pink-and-purple buildings, and the children already chanting their lessons out loud at 6am. For us, it was only a pit-stop on our way down the peninsula, but based on first impressions, it’s a place I would have spent more time in.
Dazed, confused, uncomfortable and unfriendly. Those are all the things I felt after our bumpy over-Air-Conditioned night bus. We arrived in an absolute shit-hole of a bus terminal which was really just a garbage dump on top of mud with a few broken buildings that housed a few inexpensive restaurants. We were bombarded with offers from Taxi drivers and after negotiating a good price of K1500 we were surprised to find that our moto-taxi was actually just one scooter operated by a very large burmese man wearing a hard-hat. Not the Motorbike Tuk Tuk Taxi that my tired-drunk brain had anticipated. Too stubborn for anything else Vienda got sandwiched between myself and the fat driver and we balanced our bags all over the place. 10 minutes of bottoming out the back tire and skidding my feet gently over the fast moving concrete and our pyramid disassembled in front of a fancy Hotel; supposedly in town.
The driver demanded K1500 from both of us. A con-trick I had not quite experienced yet. I was under the impression that our pre-arranged price, combined with an ass clenching 10 minutes of riding – with an additional bonus of having my girlfriend be the driver’s sexiest big-spoon he would ever have – would have at least merited a fair deal at 1500 Kyat. I grumpily negotiated K2000 total and he smiled cheekily, barring an array of broken teeth stained black and rust colour from the famous betel nut chew. He offered me some. I declined.
We decided that we didn’t have much time in the country, and although Dawei itself seemed kind of cool, we were more keen on the top prize. The beaches, jungle, and villages of the Dawei Peninsula. We had some great tips from some friends we had met up with in Yangon and we decided to wait out the morning hours before hiring a motorbike at Focus Motorbike Rental and heading south to the beautiful beaches at Paradise Beach Bungalows. It was a speedy process, and rigged with the best semi-automatic Honda 125cc and a handy hand-drawn travellers map we were off.
Despite being only 60kms long, it took us nearly 3 hours to finally reach our destination. Having said that, the beaches, mountains, pagodas, and villages along the way were absolutely precious. The scenery was something only my boyhood dreams of Asia would have looked like. Deep, Dark, Rich, Green. All around us we were surrounded by a saturation of depth of natural colours. I loved it. And every town we glided through we were called after and greeted with friendly smiles and happy waves and “Mingalaba” from the children. We had stumbled across something special here.
Even after missing the sign to Paradise Beach and landing ourselves in knee-high rain puddles in the middle of the heat, stalling out the bike by submersion, and having to traipse through mud and jungle to finally reach our “Paradise” bungalows we were happy. Stiff, tired, wet and dirty, we were still happy.
SAN SA AW / PARADISE BEACH
Due to strong rains, making our way down the peninsula was a delightfully dangerous adventure, with potholes and landslides, that made everything feel that much more wild and raw. We were on our way to a beach resort that had been recommended to us by a friend; a place without wifi, electricity, all run by solar and with its own quiet beach. It was not the most beautiful beach in the world. It’s hard to beat Australia or Thailand or even Mexico, but it definitely the most relaxed I have felt in about 6 months. With nothing to do but dive into the cleanest water in Asia, read books and write, it truly felt like an idyllic tropical heaven.
The beaches on the Dawei Peninsula are beautiful. I’ve seen many beautiful beaches in my travels, but I have to say, the one in front of Paradise Beach was one of my favourites in Asia. Being that Paradise Bungalows is the only resort in the whole area you really have the feeling that you have the beach to yourself. In the entire bay the only people that access it are a few locals and the guests staying at the lodge. That’s about 1km of sand, driftwood, coconuts and beach access that very few people have ever seen before. Despite this — like everywhere in Asia — there was still plastic waste and old fishing equipment that would make its way up the beach with each high tide. Most of it from the poorer surrounding fishing villages. However, it was nothing compared to places like Indonesia or Borneo and with the help of a daily plastic cleanup initiative from the resort the beach is kept to a very good standard.
What was meant to be 2 nights easily turned into 3 as Vienda and I spent the sunny hours playing in the ocean, and the cloudy times reading books on our porch; the sounds of the waves gently serenading us 24/7. There were hammocks, beach fires at night, a yummy free breakfast and tons of coconuts and nature to absorb. And best of all, NO WIFI. No service at all, in fact. It was the perfect disconnect and we loved it.
I used most of my free time either eating or working on my body-surfing skills. Something that was incredibly easy to do as Paradise Beach hosts the best body-boarding waves I have ever had the pleasure of playing in. It was easy to make friends at the bungalows and we would spend hours in the water practicing our surfing; by the end we were all averaging between 10-25 metres! How awesome is that!?
Run by a coalition of locals with some western management and influence, the Paradise Beach Bungalows are a great project. I was particularly impressed with their Solar Energy, Free Spring Water Fill Station, Beach Cleanup, and general eco-friendly initiatives. As a young business in Myanmar, it’s already a competitive contender as one of the most progressive accommodations in Asia.
Another 3 hours back to Dawei, we dropped off the bike without issue and made it to a little corner restaurant just in time. We bought the earliest tickets we could find and were disappointed to find out that we would be leaving at 17:00 and arriving in the colonial town of Mawlamyine at a horrible 02:00am. Our only option left so we ponnied up the K12000 each. We were promised a good bus. Ugh.
Skip. This. City. Unless of course you want to see the real side of Myanmar in all it’s filthy, crazy, saddening poverty. In which case, please spend time here, and bring help. Despite the man shitting into the river off a railing in front of us, and the flea-ridden children and animals begging for alms from us, Julien lead the way to finding the best parts of Mawlamyine: the beautiful golden pagoda, and a cute little night market that sets up its stall each night.
A rainy, K2000 (per person) Tuk-Tuk ride back to the shithole bus depot of Dawei and we were disappointed yet again. The nice, big bus we were promised was in fact a local Mini-Bus. Said to be faster and just as comfortable; but I knew better. A local visiting from Thailand did his best to translate for us and help make me feel more comfortable about the fact that we had been duped. He would be riding the same bus and promised there would even be Air-Conditioning. I was annoyed.
The mini-bus was junk. Only filled at half-capacity, I was certain we were going to break down or crash somewhere along the way. It had literally zero power while going uphills and would overheat at odd times during the night. We had to pull over several times to let the engine cool down. The Air-Conditioning only worked while we were going down hill.
With only a few Kyat left in our pockets, we were told by our new friend that the mini-bus would take us into town and make a stop somewhere in the Hotel district. He was wrong, of course, and the bus did no such thing. A 02:30am arrival and we negotiated with the last Kyat in our pocket to get a Tuk-Tuk into town. A bargain at K2000.
Now, you’d think that we would have this all sorted out by now, but obviously we aren’t so good at this. We gave the last of our money to the driver and said “Thank you, Goodnight!!”. He counted the money and then told us that it was K2000 per-person. Yes. The same trick. Again. Only this time, we had actually given him every single last piece of money we had. I opened my wallet and even offered for him to take my bank card. I was mad, and was short with him. He angrily yelled something at us, and tore off. The Hotel he took us to was gated and locked. Great.
We walked for about an hour. Despite the hour it was actually nice outside. Cool, calm, quiet; with only the odd pack of dogs sniffing and stalking us. We finally found a Hotel with a reasonable price, and they even modified their 3 person room to a Double Room price for us because it was the last available room in the hotel. It was called Sandalwood, and for K25000 per night, it was excellent. We were so happy to have a big room, comfortable bed, functional air-conditioning and a powerful shower. I slept until noon the next day.
It didn’t take long for us to realise that Mawlyamine wasn’t the place for us. It was extremely dirty, noisy, and just had rough vibes. We walked all day and did find a few highlights, but nothing worth staying an extra day for. We loved the Kyaik Than Lan Pagoda, the river-view night markets, and our hotel. That was it.
The next morning we checked out and walked to the local bus station in the downtown center. We had our last look at the dirt, poverty, and plastic waste and caught a K1000 bus to Hpa An. Our rickety bus resembled a local north american city bus. We whizzed past beautiful countrysides and within 2 hours we had reached Hpa An.
In contrast, I absolutely adored Hpa An. On my favourite day I woke up, pulled my laptop out of its sleeve into bed and organized some of my writing, procrastinated a little, woke Julien up for breakfast and then traipsed downstairs to be served fat slices of fresh watermelon, steaming mugs of instant coffee and samosas. We jumped on a motorbike, got lost, found a Buddhist temple guarding the most spectacular stalagmite caves I have ever seen, climbed through them for 20 minutes, were greeted by some locals who gestured us to join them in a boat, and were rowed through a lake and under some caves, while a Burmese girl held my hand. Back at the bike I asked someone for directions that were hard to explain so he said “follow me” and we did until he stopped and invited us to his family house for lunch. We feasted like royalty on vegetables and tofu and deep fried fish and rice and then were taken to a deep blue lake colored by limestone to cool off in. It was a long day, a magical day, a day where no photos or words could possibly relate the epic beauty, infinite generosity and joy that it contained. Hpa An was awesome.
Arriving to Hpa an (Pronounced Pah-Ahn) was generally quite easy. We were both quite relieved to be away from Mawlamyine and although the bus ride was somewhat uncomfortable, the views along the countryside were beautiful. The bus rode along the riverside and rounded a bend, it was close to downtown so we flagged the door-man to get off. A quick stroll down the street and we were at our Hotel; Galaxy Motel.
Hpa An was far quieter than Mawlamyine and there was a general feel of calm here. Fruit and Veggie markets, and shops line the main streets and they even have a cute little shopping mall near the clocktower in the town centre. We spent the first evening catching a quick longboat ride from the jetty across the Thanlyin River where we disembarked and made our way quite casually along the road before climbing Hpa-Pu; a large limestone hill garnished with buddhist spires and a fantastic view from the top. We watched the sun go down and the storms brewing in the distance. It was beautiful up there. About 35 minutes from the boat and another 20 back, it was the perfect afternoon hike and only cost us K1000 each.
Our second day we rented a scooter and decided to do some spelunking. The Hpa An is absolutely riddled with limestone caves, caverns, bats and swimming holes and we intended on covering some ground. Unfortunately, our hotel gave us an over-simplified map that left us somewhat confused about the location of the majority of the sights. After finally finding the famous Saddan Caves we decided just to take things a bit easier. The heat was getting to me and I was frustrated about the time we had wasted with the poor directions on the map. Not to mention we had already been riding about 2 hours.
We were not disappointed. The caves were HUGE and interesting. Costing only a small donation of K1000, we were greeted quite generously by an elderly monk who tried his best to wish us warm welcomes in english. Saddan cave is like an enormous pipeline that ebbs and flows through the limestone mountain, emerging out the other side toward the sunlight and the flooded lakes. For an extra K2000 we caught a fisherman’s longboat back and we ducked gracefully through the underbelly of the limestone mountain and through the fishing ponds back to our scooter. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.
After asking for more concise directions for our way home from a local driver, he generously invited us to follow him back towards town. We followed for some time, and when he pulled over to give us further directions, we were surprised when invited us to join him at his aunties house where she had prepared a local, burmese feast for us. We accepted — of course — and were warmly welcomed. It was just in time too, as we began to eat it started pouring! The timing was perfect, and so was the lunch. What chance to be so well received and given such a great experience. Despite the morning’s frustrations, the day turned out to be fantastic.
Unfortunately for me that was the end of my adventuring in Hpa An. Besides going out to try the cheap (and delicious) local eats, I was mostly confined to our room by a mild lung infection and common cold. I blame Mawlamyine.
The amazing staff at Galaxy were so concerned for us – and specifically my cold – that they let us check out EXTRA late without any charges. They organised our next bus for us at K15,500 and even offered to drive us for free to the bus stop – which was only a few blocks away. They were so amazingly generous and helpful, there is nowhere else I would rather stay in Hpa An. By the time we caught the bus I was already beginning to feel better, as the bus we had been booked on was one of the best yet. Score.
Apart from choking on the heat and dust in this busy epicentre, I very much enjoyed the rooftop views, free sunset whiskey-sours, pastel-coloured temples and pagodas that were unlike anywhere else in the country, the very long walking bridge, and the street-food. Being a big city at the centre of many other places you might wish to visit, it’s unavoidable; and yet – despite the the madness – brings its own kind of charm and sweetness from the way the people interact with you, and go about their daily lives.
We left Hpa An around 18:00 and after 1 dinner stop we were truckin’ along all night, arriving around 06:00 in Mandalay. It was one of the most comfortable busses we took and I actually managed a few hours of sleep despite some serious snoring and disgusting hacking and spitting from the locals around us.
We got off the bus and arranged a private taxi car for K8,000 to take us to the hotel. The taxi driver also brought his buddy along with us so that he could talk our ear off about local sights and interesting places, finishing of course with a sales pitch to be our tour guide and driver for the following day. It was too early, and by the end of our ride I was ready to vacate the taxi and the non-stop chatter.
We checked into our Hotel Man Shwe Li which we had booked online for $17 USD per night. It had closed down in early 2016 but had re-opened with a few renovations and new owners. For the cost in Myanmar the place was an absolute bargain. It boasted big rooms, nice views, peace and quiet, and decent facilities. Unfortunately there was an issue with our double room and the only room they had left was two single beds instead. I couldn’t have given two shits at that point. I was tired, grouchy, and ready for a good shower and a nap. We accepted the change and went upstairs.
Originally we had planned on only staying a couple of nights in Mandalay. One night at the beginning of our stay, and one more before taking the slow boat down to Bagan. This was an extremely wise choice as Mandalay itself was just a giant, stinking, hot, noisy, dust-bin. There were only a couple of things that I really enjoyed about Mandalay, but in general I found Mandalay to be rather tasteless and without any real cultural center.
Mandalay favourite number 1. Every night between 17:30 and 18:30 at the Ayarwaddy Riverview Hotel they serve free cocktails to anyone coming up to the rooftop bar to watch the sunset. The cocktail is a pre-determined one that the bartender will make and over the course of the hour the servers circle around the rooftop patio topping up your glass and offering dishes of peanuts. If you’re looking for somewhere a little higher scale to have a dinner or a couple of other nicer drinks, this is the place to do it. Overlooking the Ayeyarwady River, you can’t deny that it’s the best place in town to watch the sunset, and we couldn’t help ordering a couple of other nice beverages from the menu before leaving. With an attractive menu, amazing service, and the best view in town, this was a tip I’m glad we took advantage of.
Mandalay favourite number 2. Mandalay hosts an incredible array of diverse food places and shops. Although everything is pretty spread out and not easily accessible, we found that there wasn’t really a “Downtown Core” to check out. However, we were fortunate enough to be staying in an area that had a great artisan market at night, and also the best Myanmar food we have had in our whole adventure here. From 6pm every single night there is a busy little street restaurant Shweyiwin Street Restaurant that is in full swing on the corner of 30th and 84th street. If you’re not afraid to try the local eats, this little curry restaurant was extraordinary. With about 15 different curry-style dishes to choose from, 2 different types of rice, and unlimited tea, soup and fresh vegetables – and the best home-made sweet chilli sauce made by the Mama – it was an instant favourite for both of us. To top it all off, the average meal is between K600 – K1500. Delicious and affordable. A ridiculous deal.
Despite everything, I didn’t like Mandalay very much. We had heard about waterfalls and the beautiful mountain scenery of Pyin Oo Lwin, about 2 hours North East of Mandalay, and that sounded a lot more like what I’m into. We had a couple of days to kill before the Sunday slow boat so we went out in search of transport.
At this point I was sick of busses and being that Pyin Oo Lwin was only about 2 hours away we opted instead to find a semi-automatic scooter and go our own way; with the freedom to stop where we wanted and do as we pleased. Unfortunately, the prices in Mandalay are laughable for scooters. Averaging from K10,000 for a manual and K15,000 for an Automatic, they doubled the Asian average for daily rates. Lucky I’m a stubborn son of a bitch. I felt sorry for Vienda, as I dragged her around, but it was all worth while in the end.
It was the last corner we tried and I was almost ready to give up, then a couple of older guys sitting on the back of a truck asked me “Motobike”?! I said “YES!” . They coaxed a rather large lady with an insanely infectious smile from behind her little shop-cart and she joyfully showed us her bikes. They were no ‘Honda’, but after a quick test-ride, it would do. I bargained for K21,000 for 3 days and within moments we had the key. The locals laughed loudly as I made a small contract in her notebook, complete with my passport details and phone number, and made her sign the payment agreement. It was a really fun experience, and I could tell they liked me. I liked them too.
PYIN OO LWIN (Maymyo)
You can practically see the ghosts of the British officers in their blue and white uniforms, swanning around with ladies in lace and cotton, sweating their little tushes off, remaining from over 100 years ago. The whole area is steeped with the magic of two worlds colliding and trying to understand one another and live alongside each other. I loved it and wished we had a little more time to hang out here. I did not, however enjoy the walk to the waterfall, which was steep, muddy, slippery slope in the middle of the ghastly heat. If your boyfriend tries to drag you on such an expedition, say “no”. It’s not worth it. I love waterfalls, and walking but this was neither.
We packed our little scooter tightly with our bags, said “goodbye” the the overly attentive staff at Man Shwe Li and headed East. It took about 30 minutes before we were clear of the construction, pollution, dust and concrete quarries and refineries; then we were rolling. Up and up and up we climbed into the mountains, following switchbacks and navigating past large semi-trucks and crazy taxi pickups. We were lucky and arrived safe and dry by mid-afternoon. Just our luck too, the rain began to POUR.
I hadn’t quite thought that one through yet. Mountain weather. Hmmm…
No matter, we checked into our amazing little hotel just outside the city limits and were thrilled with the room. Set on the grounds of the old colonial Captain’s and Officers grounds, our house was one of a few gorgeous buildings set about the property. Each house had several living quarters for their respective tenants and were built in the early 1900’s. Check-in was painless, and then we were shown to our room. It was enormous! We had an entranceway, bathroom, bedroom and even a private office at the back overlooking the gardens and the back gates. It was pretty safe to say we were happy paying $17USD per night at Orchid Nan Myaing Hotel. As per usual, try online first to find the best available prices.
Unfortunately, all that travel combined with a few nights of restlessness and lack of sleep finally caught up with me. Day 1 in Pyin Oo Lwin was half-spend on me trying to get over my chest infection, my sore throat, my sore body, and my lack of sleep. After our free breakfast I climbed back into bed and slept until noon. Vienda worked and typed away quietly at my side.
We had a few things planned that day, but with most of it being tossed out the window we opted for just 1 of the activities. A 2 hour round-trip hike to a local waterfall and swimming hole. We drove 10 minutes down to the small town of Anesakhan, followed the bumpy path to the end, parked the bike and began the decent to Dat Taw Gyaint Waterfall.
The hike was tough. In the heat of the day we walked a slippery and rugged 35 minutes down, stopped for a swim, and then returned back in about 45 minutes or so. If you do decide to swim – and fancy yourself a decent swimmer – swim under the right side of the falls and check out the cave in the back! If not, stick to where the locals hang out and just take in the mist and freshness of the falls.
If you do decide to tackle the adventure make sure you have decent sandals or walking shoes. You’re looking at about 500m or more in elevation from the top of the path to the bottom of the falls.
The waterfall itself is magnificent and beautiful, which (unbeknownst to me) actually has a secret path back up past several others that feed into it from the top. However, the path and the beautiful natural surroundings are littered with waste from tourists, locals, and the vendors that have market stalls on several switchbacks on the path. You’ll find anything from plastic bottles to clothing, but one thing that stood out like a sore thumb was the amount of broken, abandoned, pairs of flip-flops. Don’t be a local. Wear good footwear!
In an attempt to prevent Vienda from killing me after our hot and exhausting hike, we went back to the hotel and had a shower and a fruit smoothie each. I promised her that we would save more adventures for another day, and instead we decided to check out the town.
Pyin Oo Lwin is a really neat town. Architecturally it represents a time when colonialization was in full swing and since then has been filled by many different cultures. The town boasts great markets, horse and carriage rides, interesting architecture, local wine shops, and all kinds of great shopping. We loaded up on an incredible selection of local fruit and vegetables and got ourselves a couple of Indian Pancakes to go. I even bought a few more Longyis at the very fair price of K4,500 each! We were set, and in preparation for our fasting day, our dinner consisted of Pancakes, Dragon Fruit, Guava, Bananas, Watermelon and local Peanuts. Talk about a cleanse!
Day 2 in Pyin Oo Lwin Vienda and I felt a lot more rested, and although I still had my chest cold, we both felt better. We had until mid-afternoon to get the scooter back to Mandalay so we really only had time for one more adventure. From the famous Viaduct to secret local swimming holes, we had lots to choose from, but as the storm rolled in we decided to keep it close to town and check out one more local hangout, and waterfall, Pwe Gauk.
To say it was overrated is an understatement. Filled with rowdy local weekenders and asian tourists, we were bombarded with noise, pollution and people. At K500 each, I seriously wondered where the money was going. Sure our motorbike was safe, and the paths were clean, but there was generally disregard to the state of the falls or the local environment. We stayed for a bit, checked out some of the shops and I went for a swim under the small falls. I cut it short when I saw locals throwing their plastic bags and glass alcohol bottles into the stream. I wasn’t subtle either.
We left, and finally the rain caught up to us. We got soaked. We hurried back to our Hotel, checked out, found a break in the weather and took off as soon as we could. For the first part of our trip we were actually cold! A first in Myanmar. But after about an hour we dropped back down into the valley and were inundated with smoke, dust, debris and the heat of Mandalay. We checked into our hotel, had dinner at our favourite street restaurant, and got ready for our 4am wake up call.
Love. If there is one word to describe this one place it’s: love. I am so deeply humbled by this place of spectacular beauty and high-vibing atmosphere, and incredibly grateful that this was were our Myanmar adventure came to a close. I couldn’t think of a more magnificent and awe-inspiring ending. Though it was the most touristic place we ventured in — but understandably so — we managed to visit most pagodas and temples where we were the only two, living out our own magical ancient temple adventure fantasies. Getting on our bike and riding around those temples, was something out of a sci-fi film. My mind was blown, and I loved every single moment there. Bagan made the entire trip for me.
We got up at 04:10. An Un-Godly hour at the very least. We picked up our things, our packed breakfast and lunch and headed off. We walked 45 minutes to the end of 35th street; the main Mandalay Pier. Vienda and I had opted for the local boat operated by Inland Water Transport at K18,000 for foreigners. The boat leaves every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday morning at 05:30am. You are given plastic chairs to sit on, or you can lay down a towel or mat and sleep (As we did) for the first few hours. There are toilets, a water fill station, and a basic mini-restaurant on board that even serves rice, noodle soup and curries. We stopped about 10 times on the way down at various locations and I think the ride was totally worth it. We sat with locals, saw local villages and were a part of the craziness that is the shipping industry of the Ayeyarwady River. We arrived around 18:00. Just in time to watch the sun set over the river.
Bagan is set up in 3 small townships. Kyaung-U (where the port is), New Bagan, and Old Bagan. We had booked a double room at Bagan Central Hotel in New Bagan because for a double room with private bathroom they seemed to have the best rates. We made some friends on the boat headed in the same direction and we all decided to share a taxi to our end. It cost us K5000 each, plus the Regional Government Fee of K25,000 per person. A tourist ticket good for 5 days from the date of entry. Ouch!
After checking in, Vienda and I decided that for about $14USD per night, we were getting one of the nicest rooms, for the best price in all of Myanmar. With a fish pond, fantastic breakfast, big rooms with incredible, vintage wood-decor, functional bathroom and air-conditioning…we were stoked. So stoked in fact, that we opted out of spending any more time in Yangon and booked the remainder of our nights in Myanmar, in Bagan.
We wouldn’t be disappointed with that decision. Besides the horrific wifi connection at our Hotel, everything was smooth as butter. After all the hustle and long-distance travelling we had been doing, I was thoroughly relieved to be taking a break and settling in somewhere nice for a short time. It also gave us really good flexibility with the weather and the time we spent exploring the Bagan area.
First off, the food. Food in Bagan is either totally westernized and expensive, or it’s local eats with a “foreigners tax”. It’s not a real tax, they just add about K500 to K1000 to all of their curries or local dishes when they see your whiteness. Especially in New Bagan, I found it very hard to find any vegetarian, Myanmar curry plates for less than K1500. It’s do-able, but on average you’re looking at K2000 to K2500 for your average veggie meals. If you are looking to get your feet wet and actually give the Myanmar traditional food a try, I would highly recommend Ma Mae Naing (Unforgettable) which is directly across the street from Bagan Central Hotel. It serves a very easy menu which comes with rice and a variety of vegetable curries. It is clean, simple, and slightly westernized… which makes it great for first timers and veterans alike. I liked it a lot and Vienda and I ended up eating there frequently. K2000 for Vegetarian, and K2500 for Meats.
Next, the exploring. With over 2,000 Pagodas, Temples, Shrines and Statues to observe, it can be a bit of an overwhelming experience. Let me simplify it for you. Whether you stay in Kyaung-U, Old Bagan, or New Bagan there are actually hundreds of monuments right in your own backyard. In the cooler times (05:30 to 11:30 – and – 15:00 to 18:30) you can easily walk! It’s free, and there are plenty of things to see this way. Most of the Temples and Pagodas are all simply tucked away off of the main streets, which makes it super easy to guide yourself.
On the other side, you will be – and I don’t say this lightly – bombarded by “E-Bike” rental services. They are on almost every corner and vary in price dramatically. An E-Bike is like a 50cc scooter. It can carry 2 average-sized people quite easily, but don’t expect it to do any more than 30km’s per hour…despite what the speedometer might tell you. Hotels will rent them between K5000 to K10,000 for 1 and 2 people respectively. This is generally on a 12 hour agreement, however, if you go out and do a little bit or price comparing you can usually get closer to K5,000 for a decent E-Bike for 2 people and even get a bag of free laundry included in the deal. What a bargain! If you do rent an E-bike, just make sure you’re supporting a business that you respect and I would recommend getting one from Sunrise to Sunset, and take a small nap in the heat of the afternoon.
If you are planning on doing a bit of self-guided E-Biking or Walking, don’t discount the idea of cycling! It’s my only regret in Bagan and after seeing so many people pedalling around, I was envious. For about K2,000 per day you can hire a classic cruiser bicycle. There are very few hills in Bagan, and cycling in the cool hours of the morning, or off to the Temples for sunset would be an absolute dream.
I’d say, if you have a couple of days in Bagan, try all 3 of the self-guided methods! Don’t forget to check the weather, and get up at 05:00 am to see the sunrise at least once. You won’t regret it!
Bagan Area. You’ll notice immediately that the towns are small. The roads are often ill-equipped for the weather and will flood often, or be hot dry and dusty. The local government is slowly working on infrastructure, but you will likely be surprised at how basic these townships are. Even the workers are mostly young adults; here only for the tourism money. Make sure you take time to rest, relax, and drink plenty of water. And remember, it may seem overwhelming…but you will NOT see all of the Temples in your short visit here. Accept this, and decide to take it easy, see what you want to see, and enjoy the somewhat modern and touristy edge that this small area can offer.
Although the entrance fee is a bit steep, and some of the lesser known temple areas are heavily polluted in plastic waste (around hidden corners); this could easily be one of my favourite areas in Asia. Sure there are loud vendors, aggressive sales tactics, well-fed children begging for change in every language….but this place is MAGIC. Every time I saw a Temple, I had this feeling that I was somehow living my childhood dream of being Mowgli from the Jungle Book. Vienda and I made a game out of trying to explore only Temples and Pagodas that would lead us off of the beaten path…and for the majority of our explorations, we were completely alone. Just us, the local farmers, some rice fields and goats. A few sunrises, and a few sunsets, and the time had come. It was time to go. We booked our bus tickets online: Bagan to Yangon for about K15000 for a mid-range tourist bus.
There are no Motorbike Taxis allowed in Bagan. Both the rental of Motorcycles or use of them for tourism are strictly prohibited at this time. The only real option you have is a regular Taxi for about K7000 to the Bus Depot – standard fixed rate. Unless you’re me. Given that we have very light, small bags for our Myanmar adventure, I somehow managed to work a deal with our E-Bike lady, who agreed that we would secretly meet the morning of our bus departure and for a cool K2000 each, they would E-Bike us to the bus depot. The perfect loophole.
One massive, and persistent day ahead of us, and we were back safe and sound at our favourite budget Hotel in Bangkok.
A very long and rapid-fire 15 hours of travel — bike, bus, taxi, plane and taxi — we left Bagan on our last day at 7am, arriving in Bangkok at 11pm. While we are still assimilating everything we have experienced in these incredible 3 weeks in the mystical lands of Myanmar, I know these memories are etched into our memories and hearts forever with deep gratitude.