Stupa Troopers – three things to love about Myanmar

Blogged by Anne  

We had a flight booked to Singapore and a little under 2 weeks free before heading to Thailand for Tammy and Andrew’s wedding so we searched Singapore to ‘anywhere’ on Skyscanner and looked at the three cheapest destinations – Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Yangon. Although Dave has been to Myanmar, I was excited to see it and Dave was happy to act as my tour guide. You can read Dave’s excellent blogs on his first trip, exactly two years earlier here:

Myanmar Meander

I’ll have the tea leaf salad, please

The 2011 Lonely Planet describes Myanmar as difficult to access, with tourists having to travel with US dollars in cash and no cellphone or internet access. By the time of Dave’s visit in 2013, it had already changed dramatically and continues to do so with Dave commenting a large increase in the number of ATMs, people using cell phones and western brands like KFC, as well as upgraded tourist infrastructure.  Interestingly he didn’t notice an increase in prices or numbers of tourists although this might be a low season thing. Despite the recent development, the country is refreshingly different from the rest of SE Asia and feels very relaxed and much less touristy. People are welcoming and stop to greet you with the traditional ‘where are you going?’ sometimes followed up by a gentle sales pitch but often just a chat.

 

Our itinerary was as follows:

1 night in Yangon (previously Rangoon) which is an interesting place to see modern Myanmar city life as well as relics of the colonial era

Overnight VIP bus to Bagan

2 nights in Bagan (staying in Nyaung U) exploring the temples by electric scooter

6 hour day time bus to Kalaw

2 nights in Kalaw, a sweet hill town well known for trekking, although in our case better known for constant rain

Train to Shwe Nyaung, tuk tuk to Nyaung Shwe (when in doubt, the town you’re in is probably called Nyaung. Or Shwe. Or some combination of the two.)

3 nights at Inle Lake for an exceptional cooking course and leisurely lake tour as well as some wine tasting

Overnight bus to Yangon

1 night in Yangon for an early flight to Singapore

Yangon traffic
Sula pagoda in Yangon
From the inside
Colonial buildings in Yangon
Two seasons in Kalaw
Kalaw trekking
Kalaw views

So here are my favourite three things about travelling in Myanmar:

1. Bagan

I was not prepared for the sheer scale and awesomeness of Bagan. The area was the site of ancient city which was completely obsessed with temple building, over 2 000 of which are still standing in an area of about 100 square kilometers. A number of the larger temples are still in use and these tend to be the bigger tourist attractions (complete with shops and food outlets) but there are hundreds of others to explore as well. Interestingly, although many of the temples date back almost a thousand years, they have not yet been UNESCO because of some controversy around restorations done by the military regime. There is some damage to the sight from the recent earthquake with a few temples closed or being repaired but it doesn’t really mess up the experience. We spent two days putting around on our electric scooters, sometimes going for extensive periods on muddy tracks and not seeing any other people. We recommend a two day visit, and staying in Nyaung U rather than New Bagan because it’s more convenient. The electric scooters are definitely worth the USD4 per day that they cost because the distances are quite large and it’s great to be able to explore independently.

#safetyfirst

Mud!!

Shopping in the temple entrance

Spot the flatscreen TV

We stayed at pleasant guesthouse called Motel Zein (https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/Hotel_Review-g303663-d7386005-Reviews-Motel_Zein-Nyaung_U_Mandalay_Region.html) Don’t miss Weather Spoons for the best burgers in Myanmar. A great spot for a vegetarian lunch is Yar Pyi opposite  the Moon restaurant behind the Ananda temple.

Lunch at Yar Pyi
Best burger in Myanmar 

2. The ease (and cost) of independent travel

The country is full of lovely guesthouses which typically cost between USD20 and 30 per room with private facilities and a substantial (and varied) breakfast. The guesthouses were of a consistently high quality and staffed by wonderful people. We stayed at:

Yangon – Backpackers Bed and Breakfast http://backpackerbnbyangon.com

Bagan – see above

Kalaw – Thitawlay House http://www.thitawlayhouse.com (highly recommended)

Inle – Aquarius Inn http://www.aquariusinn.com (a bit more expensive but lovely)

 

View from our Yangon hotel

Pretty much everything you need can be organized by your guesthouse, bus tickets, tours, scooter rental etc at reasonable prices and short notice. Some will even go and buy food for you at a local restaurant.

Although the roads are bumpy, the so called VIP buses are excellent and more comfortable than a night in economy class on a flight. They provide blankets, pillows and snacks and turn the aircon down to artic. Some even have a hostess. You may need motion sickness drugs, however. Travelling by train is like a trip back in time – old school coaches, vendors at every station and bags of post being handed out the window at every village. It’s not a particularly comfortable way to travel, but worth the experience. On this trip we did Kalaw to Shwe Nyaung (near Inle) but Dave recommends Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. Local transport is cheap and cheerful, with car, bike and pick-up style tuk tuk taxis.

VIP bus
Train on its way 
Kalaw station
Tourist toilet! (The standard of public loos is relatively good here)
Ready to go
Train views 
Traffic light?

Interestingly, organized tours of any kind escalate rapidly in price, probably because they serve the high end market. For example, you can rent a bike, cycle to the Red Mountain vineyard (near Inle lake) and do a wine tasting for under USD6. On Viator, you can find pretty much the same thing (admittedly, probably on bikes with actual brakes) for USD40.

Cycling to Red Mountain Winery

Wine tasting
Vineyards

Disclaimer: we were travelling in the low season. I understand that the high season is much busier which is likely to mean more booking ahead required and higher prices.

3. The food

Myanmar food is probably best described as somewhere between Indian and Thai food with rich spices and lots of hot, sour and pungent flavours. The most typical dish is a type of mild curry which is cooked until the oil separates out. A good curry will generally be accompanied by an array of side dishes such as soup, various veggies, assorted condiments and often some kind of (generally weird) dessert but exactly what you get in what circumstances is a bit of a mystery. The Myanmar salads are a major highlight, tomato, cucumber or some other veggie in a pungent dressing made with lime, ground peanuts and chickpeas, fish sauce and an extreme amount of garlic. The typical tea leaf salad is particularly delish. Although the food is generally quite oily, we felt that all the fresh veggies offset the oil nicely. We realised just how much oil goes into the food at the incredible cooking course we did through Bamboo Delight https://inlecooking.wordpress.com. This is an unmissable thing to do in the Inle lake area and you can pick up some recipes from their website.

Tea leaf salad
Shopping at the market for our cooking course

MSG anyone?

Burmese egg curry and tomato salad at Bamboo Hut
An example of a random extra that might arrive for free – this was at Feel Myanmar

In addition to good Burmese food, there is also a wide selection of excellent restaurants selling Thai, Indian, Nepalese and Chinese food, as well as good western food to be had.

Boiled egg curry
Didn’t last long

Some of our recommended restaurants:

Yangon:

  • Rangoon Tea House – upscale Myanmar food suitable for hipsters
  • 999 Shan Noodle – for Shan noodles obviously (closes at 7pm)
  • Feel Myanmar – a busy canteen style restaurant

Bagan

  • See above

Inle lake area

  • Inlay Hut Indian for amazing Indian
  • Bamboo Hut (near the vineyard) for traditional home cooking
  • Lotus ditto
Cherry at the bus station in Aung Ban – our bus stopped here on the way from Inle to Yangon and we had an amazing dinner for just over USD1

To finish off, here are some pics from our beautiful boat tour on Inle lake:

Floating tomato garden

In dien stupas (your boat driver will take you here for a few extra dollars)

Market day

 

Next stop: Thailand for the Tamdrew wedding

 

 

 

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