Trip made in January 2017

Introduction

Myanmar was full of surprises. Other than knowing that it was formerly known as Burma, and that there was an oppressive regime for a good many years, I didn’t know much about Myanmar. In fact, if it weren’t for my parents, it wouldn’t have been on my radar, and it would’ve been a shame to miss it. Myanmar has very friendly people, wonderful cuisine, and has a lot to offer for archaeology/history and architecture enthusiasts, as well as people interested in religious studies, namely Buddhism.

Myanmar has undergone significant changes in the past decade. For one thing, Myanmar wasn’t officially open to foreigners before 2016. What does this mean? Foreigners could still visit, but the trip would be challenging. As an example, currency exchange wasn’t well-regulated. Within Yangon Airport, the exchange rate would be the “official” rate, but outside, since there were no ATMs or regulated exchange houses, you could get wildly variable rates off the street, though these rates would almost always be better than the exchange houses.

Another significant change that’s come to Myanmar within the last three years is internet, as well as lower cost of mobile phones and SIM cards. These are only some examples of the changes that the country has recently undergone, so the country as a whole is working on catching up with what they’ve missed, particularly technology-wise from the past decade or so (like FB and Google). Technology and Infrastructure haven’t been the only changes in Myanmar though. The capital of Myanmar used to be Yangon until 2006, but was changed to Naypyidaw.

One final note that I wanted to make about Myanmar is that the main cities to visit reminded me of the four nations from Avatar: The Last Airbender series. To me, this analogy illustrates just how diverse and wonderful each of the places was. I’ll leave it up to you to match which nation best matches each city.

Cultural Information and Extra FYIs

You may hear many locals still refer to Myanmar as Burma, and refer to the people as “Burmese”. However, it is important to remember that “Burmese” doesn’t always refer to all the people of Myanmar. Why? Myanmar is composed of ethnic “Burmese” people, as well as 135 distinct ethnic groups native to the country. Because of the confusion (and seemingly non-inclusive nature) between the ethnicity and nationality, the government officially changed the name from Burma to Myanmar.

So why do some locals still call Myanmar Burma? It’s not always out of habit or insensitivity. In old Burmese (or is it Pali?), the pronunciation of “Burma” and “Myanmar” actually sounds quite similar, so they see it as synonyms.
Myanmar quite literally has millions of temples and pagodas. This is not an exaggeration or hyperbole. In the olden days, whenever the rulers and the ultra-wealthy had an excess of money, they either improved upon existing pagodas or temples by adding gold leaf to the stupas (the dome-shaped structure), or they built new pagodas. That habit hasn’t gone away in modern times. It’s not uncommon to see dozens of new pagodas spring up, and this is the very reason why there’s no official count of the number of them in the country.

One characteristic that you may notice about the temples and pagodas is all the gold coloring. Much of the time, it’s not just coloring – it’s been covered in gold leaf. It’s hard to believe unless you see people adding gold leaf, but most of the stupas on pagodas have had gold leaf applied to them. You should be able to see people applying the gold leaf somewhere because it happens constantly and there’s so many pagodas that your chances of seeing it is pretty high.

You may wonder, “what’s the difference?” Usually, pagodas have a solid stupa, while temples have space inside to walk around in. I say “usually” because there are exceptions where the stupa is hollow and people can walk inside them, like the Botataung Pagoda in Yangon.
Most of us have seen at least two depictions of Buddha – the slim Buddha and the Buddha with the belly. There’s actually hundreds of depictions of Buddha, ranging from the original Hindu Indian to various ones all across Southeast Asia, as well as China, Korea, and Japan. The various depictions have differences in the hair, the eyes, elongation of the ears, and even his build. The differences reflect time period too. As time went on, there were more varieties of depictions depending on the group of people. Myanmar has been the first Buddhist country that has explicitly highlighted the differences. In fact, you can even see many of these depictions in statue form in Mandalay.

Myanmar, of course, is a very religious, very Buddhist country. However, you may notice that the practices of the people and the monks may seem to counter your notions of what devout Buddhists are allowed to do, such as eating meat. This is because there are two major categories of Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. While there are common underlying core principles that both groups share, Theravada is more flexible with some of the practices, including monks eating meat.

General Travel Information

Myanmar requires visas for tourists. You can either get a tourist visa by mailing in your passport to your closest Myanmar embassy, or you can get an e-visa. I opted to mail in my passport because it was cheaper, and I was able to get my passport back within three days.
For the most part, we stayed in hotels catering to westerners. Still, the hotels varied in quality regardless of star ratings. More on this in the “Accommodations” sections in the pages for each place.

A word of caution – book your hotels early because there aren’t many hotels as is, and due to the influx of tourists and business travelers space is extremely limited regardless of quality.
The best way into Myanmar is through Yangon International Airport. There are other airports that you can fly into from international places, like Mandalay, but those flights are usually from the countries in that region (like China, Singapore, or Thailand). For most routes, you’ll have to fly through Yangon anyway.
Roads have improved quite a bit in the past few years, and so travel time has improved by road. However, not all roads have improved; some are still unpaved and bumpy. Adding to this, vehicles in the country are mostly older at the moment, and can be uncomfortable for long distances (more than 2 hours), which is basically all of the places.

I would recommend flying for domestic travel. The are several local airlines, like KZB (which is what the travel agent booked us on). The fares are inexpensive and save a significant amount of time, not least of which is because many of the airports are small with less hassles. As an example, to go from Yangon to Bagan takes at least 4 hours by car (buses take longer), while the flight is only 40 minutes.

Be aware that the flights are small propeller planes and so carry-ons/hand luggage is limited and there’s no assigned seating, though you may be asked to move to evenly distribute the weight on the plane. (I know this sounds scary, but it really wasn’t any different than the planes that operate between Caribbean countries or from Vienna to Croatia/Bosnia). They have weight limits for the carry-on luggage, but it wasn’t enforced when I went.

There is a railway system in Myanmar…but it takes considerably longer to go on trains than by road primarily because it’s single tracked in most of the country.

For flight itineraries, take note that the flight routes are scheduled in a circular loop. Flights from the south to the north are scheduled in the early morning, while north to the south are later in day (usually mid-to-late morning and early afternoon).
Custom and Private vs. Specific site tours vs. Completely Self-Guided

I normally don’t advocate using a tour company to arrange the entire trip for nearly all of my trips. However, I used private guided tours in Myanmar, which in hindsight was a good idea for a few reasons.

It’s very, very difficult to do self-guided tours in Myanmar because infrastructure and technology is still a working progress. These difficulties became evident when I was planning the trip, and found that there was conflicting information and logistics were becoming increasingly difficult.

By using the travel agency, I was able to fit my entire trip into 8 days (7.5 days to be exact), and all of our arrangements, including transfers between sites was taken care of. This was particularly important because the cities themselves aren’t walkable and we didn’t have cell service (to use Google Maps to get around), and some of the sites were hard to get to by traditional means (aka car/bus or walking). As a bonus, we were able to visit some sites that are inaccessible without a local guide, like the monastery schools in Mandalay, and our knowledgeable tour guides gave us excellent historical and cultural information that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Another problem that we were able to mostly circumvent was cash issues. Since Myanmar is a predominantly cash-based country, we needed cash for nearly every transaction. Unfortunately, getting cash out of ATMs wasn’t that easy, as I mention in the Money section. Getting out $50 in a single transaction was a challenge many times, which would’ve been a problem considering that meals were about $20, and in places where there were many sites, like Mandalay, the cost of admissions would have come out to $40 per person.

That being said, I understand that custom private tours can be expensive. Viable alternatives are to:
 
  • Hire a guide for each place, and arrange your own hotel and inter-city travel, OR
  • Ask the local tour company to do specific tours within the cities (such as “Mt. Popa Tour”, or “Sagaing/Inwa/Mingun Tour”)
The upside to these options is that they’re more affordable, so let’s explore the disadvantages so that you can make an informed decision.

  • Hire a guide for each place, and arrange your own hotel and inter-city travel
You may still have to go use a (local) tour company for this option, as many of the high-quality guides don’t operate independently. Though this may be a little costlier, it’s still going to be a cost-effective option. The potential hassles are (1) how to pay the local tour company and the airline, since payment for credit card transactions is difficult (2) flights logistics. What I mean by point 2 is that certain routes are known to have delays regularly, and this is something that the tour companies have better knowledge of than someone who doesn’t travel on those flights regularly.

  • Ask the local tour company to do specific tours within the places (such as “Mt. Popa Tour”, or “Inwa Tour”)
Normally, I do this in other places, but I tend to ask my local hotel once I get there, so my notice window is pretty small. I don’t know whether hotels can do this without much advance notice in Myanmar, but it might be difficult to find good guides and drivers at the last moment because tour companies reserve them ahead of time for tourists who use guides for the whole day. The disadvantages here, as with the previous option, are with payment and more logistics that you’re responsible for.

Contacting a local tour company for tours is probably your best bet, though for Inle Lake, you can ask your hotel to make the arrangements on your behalf. This may also help you avoid payment issues too, since online bookings tend to take credit cards. I don’t have experience with this in Myanmar, though, so your mileage may vary (YMMV).
There’s not a whole that you need for a trip to Myanmar, but this is what I recommend:

  • Sunscreen, Sunglasses and/or hat – It’s a tropical climate, and most of the time it’s sunny.

  • Walking shoes and sandals – sandals are better for pagoda visits, but for longer walks, you may want good walking shoes.

  • Light jacket – this only applies if you’re going to Inle Lake.

  • Ample medicines, especially if you’re prone to digestive issues.

Myanmar is mostly a cash-based country, so credit card acceptance is poor currently.

You can get money from ATMs or exchange booths since rates are pretty much the same across the board, but ATMs are more prevalent than money exchange booths. Some of the local ATMs had issues with foreign ATM cards, and when that wasn’t the case, we couldn’t get money out because the ATM’s network link (to verify funds and such from the foreign entity) were down. We didn’t have too much of an issue though because our hotels took credit cards, and we didn’t have to pay for site admissions, except if there was a camera fee. We also had US dollars though, just in case.

Some places do take credit card, but it’s usually when the transaction amount is high and the clientele is mostly foreign. As a rule of thumb, about 15000 kyats (~$10) per person per day should be enough if you’ve used a tour company. This covers photo fees at the sites, food and beverages, as well as for getting a few souvenirs.

The currency of the country is the Myanmar Kyats (pronounced “Chyat”).
Myanmar has Burmese cuisine, of course, but there’s also cuisine from some of the indigenous peoples, but more than likely, these indigenous cuisines are available in the regions where those groups live.

What is traditional Burmese food like? Since the roots of the Burmese people can be traced back to India (and India is a neighboring country), there’s a lot of shared foods, particularly in the curries and fried foods, though with small changes. For example, the curries are similar to Indian curries but not as spicy or with slight modifications to the taste (like sweet instead of salty), samosas with onion only instead of potatoes and peas, dosa, dal (lentil soup), and other foods. Curiously, one food that I didn’t find there in any form was yogurt, not even the western packaged kind (yogurts are a staple food in nearly all Indian cuisines). There’s also a bit of Chinese influence and it shares a border with Thailand, so it’s not uncommon to find Chinese and Thai food as well, or a fusion of the two.

I’ll go over more of what to try in the food sections in each place’s page.

Eating safely at restaurants: The rule of thumb for restaurants is to eat in the touristy restaurants. It may not always be 100% authentic, but at least you won’t get sick. The one exception is meats in Inle Lake, which I’ll cover in the Inle Lake section.

In terms of pricing, for four people (three of us plus guide), lunches and dinners typically came out to about $20 – $30, for four or five entrees/appetizers plus water, juice, tea, or coconut water. This is at non-hotel restaurants. With the exception of Inle Lake, hotel-restaurants charged western prices, which was roughly $8-10 per entrée. Breakfast was included in all of our hotels.
Most of Myanmar is a pleasant warm to hot in the winter (up to 33C, or 91F), and unbearably hot in the summer (40C, or 104F). With the heat and humidity, it’s problematic even for locals, some of whom suffer with nose bleeds from the heat. The guides mentioned that because it gets so hot in the summer, tourism only occurs in Myanmar in the winter – from November to March.

The exception to this is Inle Lake, which is in the mountains, and gets as low as 9C, especially when it rains. It’s a good idea to take a light jacket if you decide to go to Inle Lake.
Please use common sense, especially for travel to a hot country, and one where refrigeration isn’t as prevalent. So:

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Use Hand Sanitizer
  • Take a roll of toilet paper with you everywhere
  • Be careful of where you eat. If in doubt, go vegetarian
  • Bring medicines like Imodium and, if possible, Cipro
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any local yogurt in Myanmar (which is odd, as I mentioned in the food section).

Myanmar also has mosquitos in some places, which is not surprising considering that it’s a tropical location in southeast Asia. Though Myanmar doesn’t have any cases of Zika, it’s better that you bring insect repellent. It’s useful in Bagan, and really useful in Mandalay.

Temples, pagodas, and meditation centers: All of the temples in Myanmar require everyone to take off shoes AND socks, and walk barefoot. I mention this warning because most of these temples aren’t strictly indoors, and the ground that you’ll walk on outside is most definitely rough and dirty, and probably hot. There are no exceptions to this rule, so watch your step. If you use a tour guide(s) for your trip, which I will go into further in the sites sections, they should have wipes with them and are supposed to offer it to you each time after you visit a site where you go barefoot.
As I mentioned in the introduction, internet in Myanmar is new. Expect the internet to be dial-up speed slow, but feel even slower than dial-up because web pages are now far more advanced than they were in the mid-90s.

Additionally, mobile data is very expensive irrespective of whether you use your international roaming or get a SIM card. From what the guides told me, SIM cards are USD 100, and you have to pay for data usage on top of that.

I only used the internet when I was in the hotel room and the WiFi network wasn’t saturated.
Most of the areas that attract foreign tourists are very good about having western toilets with toilet paper and soap, such as the airports, restaurants in Bagan, hotels catering to foreigners, etc. However, there are still places that use the squatting toilets, so be prepared for that. Even when there are western toilets, there may not always be toilet paper (TP) or soap, so it’s best to take a roll of TP with you when you’re sightseeing, as well as soap and/or hand sanitizer.
One other very important note to make is that it is forbidden to wear shoes and socks in temples and pagodas in Myanmar, meaning you have to walk barefoot. This poses two issues in some places. Some of the areas are rough and sharp; at worst, you’ll be walking on roads and concrete, and even if you’re not, the floor can get very hot. Therefore, be careful where you step.

Also, your feet are definitely going to get dirty, but if you’re using a guide, he or she should have wipes for you to use after your visit. In any case, it may behoove you to use flip flops instead of shoes unless noted.

Lastly, please respect the “no shorts”, “no miniskirts”, and “no bare arms” rules at the temples, which applies to both men and women. Although it seems antiquated, the country is still pretty religious and they have other reasons for putting the rules in place. Besides that, we’re a guest there. Following the rules may seem obvious to most of us, but it apparently went over the heads of far too many people.
While there are many handicraft items that are available in specific places or regions, the items below are available in all the places:

  • Pants: I’m not sure what these pants are called, but they are made for women from light weight cloth and are very comfortable to wear on a hot day. You won’t see any local women wearing these pants, and they usually have local patterns on them. You can get them from street vendors near the sites in Bagan and Mandalay, though I’d recommend getting them in Mandalay, where they’re better made (proportions and stitching) and are cheaper.

  • Lungees (or Lungyis): These are wraps for men and women. The origins of lungees are from India, but lungees in Burma are worn most of the time, and are available for any occasion, and thus fancy lungees are available. (Lungees in India are for men only, and mostly function as night wear or during the day in rural areas). Another difference is the pronunciation. In India, the word is pronounced with a hard g – “lun-gi”, while in Myanmar, it’s pronounced “lun-ji”.

Places to Visit

I was able to see Myanmar pretty well in 7.5 days without blitzing through the sites. I would recommend budgeting around 8–10 days. If you have extra time, you can go also go to Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar (as of 2005), though locals have described this place as “bureaucratically boring looking” because it looks nothing like the rest of Myanmar with the new government buildings.

You can decide for yourself which place to keep or cut if you have less than 8 days, but I’d highly recommend keeping Inle Lake. I’ve outlined the reasons for keeping Inle Lake on your trip in the Inle Lake page, but obviously, this depends on your preferences, schedule, and budget. If you’re having trouble deciding what to cut, I’d recommend cutting time out from Yangon or skipping it completely since it’s the city that’s the easiest to visit later. Here’s a quick list to help you decide:

Approximately 1.5 days to see:

  • Botataung Pagoda
  • City Walk
  • Sule Pagoda
  • Shwedagon Pagoda
  • Chauk Hitat Gyi Pagoda
Approximately 2 days to see:

  • Bagan Market
  • Shwezigon Pagoda
  • Htilominlo Pagoda
  • Lacquer Workshop
  • Ananda Pagoda
  • Shwesandaw Pagoda (for sunset)
  • Sugar Workshop
  • Walk in the villages near Mount Popa
  • Mount Popa (Taung Kalat Monastery)
  • Sunset Cruise
Note: What I’ve listed below are zones, and there are sites within the listed places below. The sites within the zones are detailed on the Mandalay page.

Approximately 2 days to see:

  • Sagaing
  • Inwa (aka Ava)
  • Amarapura
  • Mingun
  • Mandalay Hills
  • City Center
Approximately 2 days to see:

  • Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery
  • Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda
  • Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery (Jumping Cat Monastery)
  • Indein Village and Pagodas
  • Western and Southern Villages, and Floating Gardens
Note: With an extra day we could have also seen Pindaya, which requires an extra day

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