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Myanmar (1) The Plan

Myanmar (1) The Plan

In 1985 I was sitting on the front porch of my little bungalow on the Thai side of the Mae Sai River looking over to Burma. The country was available to the chosen few on a 7-day visa. But I was broke. In later years Burma, now Myanmar, has been boycotted by the world community. This is now changing: Sanctions have been lifted, foreign investment is rapidly increasing and from 2011 to 2012 the number of visitors went up 23 % to more than a million. It’s time to go, and this is my plan.

 

Aung San Suu Kyi: “Come to Burma with your eyes open. Use your liberty to promote ours.

 

Thailand - Mae Sai

Mae Sae River, view across to Burma from my bungalow in Thailand. This was my first photographic impression of Burma, in 1985.

 

Practical stuff

This entry is being posted 11 days before departing for Myanmar. It represents my documented planning efforts. Planning a visit to a country one hasn’t been to before, into the comparatively unknown, requires a top-down process in the first place: Get an overview, single out the highlights, get advice from people who have been there, and set up an overall itinerary. Secondly, do not be too detailed, certainly not in a country like Myanmar in the rainy season. This document is as much as I’m willing to plan before going – flexibility is a must.

Flights: I’ll catch a long haul flight from Norway to Bangkok, change airports and get a connecting flight into Yangon in one go. The return will be just about the same. I will have 14 days in Myanmar, arriving in Yangon on Tuesday, August the 6th, departing on Monday the 19th.

Visa: The nearest Myanmar embassy is in London and going there from Norway was not an option. Sending my passport, including prepaid return postage and visa fee was a challenge. I outsourced the task to Visumservice in Oslo who fixed this with a courier to London at the cost of 2500 NOK. Not cheap.

Electricity: 230 V with European type two pins as the most common option.

Money: ATMs are in 2013 being rolled out all over the country, even in smaller places. They are often out of order and credit cards are not at all widely accepted. Cash US dollars are still the best to bring along; apparently in pristine and fresh notes. Euro notes are possible as well, and they are easier to keep clean and spend later. There still exists a black market for exchanging dollars to Burmese kyat, but exchange rates are not much better and there’s a risk involved. It may be easiest to book (and pay) the most expensive services before arriving (flights and hotels).

Health etc: Tripprep offers updated information. There is a moderate risk of malaria depending on where you go. I’ll take the risk. Apart from that there is nothing in particular to worry about, apart from the usual travelling stuff (hepatitis, diarrhoea, petty crime) and what has troubled Myanmar: civil unrest, prohibited regions, occasional curfews, outdated public transportation and particular airlines to avoid. As with many countries in this region: It is considered offensive to touch or pat a child or adult on the top of the head.

 

Accommodation search

Tripadvisor has given an overview, as usual. Ho(s)tel search engines show little or nothing from Myanmar. For hotel booking Agora.com proved far better on Myanmar than Booking.com which I normally use. Yangon: 2 nights Orchid Hotel City HallMandalay: 2 nights. Bagan: 4 nights Blue Bird HotelKalaw/Inle 2-3 nights and Yangon (possible last night) have not yet been booked. Perhaps I shouldn’t until I get there to find cheaper accommodation than in Yangon and Bagan.

 

What to see

Rudyard Kipling in Letters From the East (1989):
“Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon—a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire. (…) ‘There’s the old Shway Dagon’ (pronounced Dagone, not like the god in the Scriptures), said my companion. (…) but the golden dome said: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” (Read more)

 

Overall guides to Myanmar

I have bought and will bring with me Lonely Planet’s Myanmar paperback guidebook. A few introductory web links for planning purposes: TravellerspointMyanmar Travel Forum on Tripadvisor; MyanmarBurma.comTravelfish (disappointingly poor content on Myanmar as opposed to the rest of SEA); WikipediaWikitravel is good to read up on and I will bring a downloaded version on my iPhone.

Myanmar has no places on the UNESCO World Heritage List. There are however a series of nominations from the country’s government, some more hopeful than realistic according to the linked sources. Being at least of national importance they all have a potential interest to the visitor. (I believe I will visit the first three.)

 

  1. Ancient cities of Upper Myanmar : Innwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Mingun, Mandalay
  2. Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments
  3. Inle Lake
  4. Wooden Monasteries of Konbaung Period : Ohn Don, Sala, Pakhangyi, Pakhannge, Legaing, Sagu, Shwe-Kyaung (Mandalay)
  5. Badah-lin and associated caves
  6. Mon cities : Bago, Hanthawaddy
  7. Myauk-U Archaeological Area and Monuments
  8. Pyu Cities: Beikthano-Myo, Halin, Tharay- Khit-taya (Sri Ksetra)

 

Travel agents

As a tourist destination Myanmar is still in diapers in terms of service offerings. Individual travelling may be more awkward than in other SE Asia countries. Therefore a number of agencies, foreign and national, offer tours well worth taking a look at, and get inspiration from. Here are a few links to agencies offering round trips of one to three weeks: Backyard Travel has an 8 day tour; Intrepid offers a 15 day tour; Myanmar Travel has a number of tours; Jambo Tours has two weeks with Scandinavian speaking guides and so has OrkidéekspressenWorld Expeditions is yet a two-week tour operator; Tours Myanmar has more trips and is a local firm. G-Adventures offer a fortnight as well.

These tours are basically the same. The standard route is to visit “The Big Four”. Fly in and out ofYangon (which has little to offer) and then travel north to the triangle of Mandalay (even less to offer),Bagan and Inle Lake. Many seem to include the beaches of the Bay of Bengal / Andaman Sea (Ngapaliin particular) which I drop, taking into account my limited time in the country and time of year (monsoon). (I remember my days in Sihanoukville). Some tours include a trek around Kalaw and Inle Lake. The big question is how much time I should spend on each place, and what day excursions may be made to what places. Here are a few itinerary examples.

 

Possible itineraries

Lonely Planet Two Weeks Myanmar’s Highlights

Starting in Yangon, visit the Shwedagon Paya at night, when its golden zedi (stupa) glows under floodlights. The next day, follow our walking tour of the city centre and shop for handicrafts at Bogyoke Aung San Market.

  1. Take a bus or flight to Mandalay, then climb Mandalay Hill and see the famed Mahamuni Paya and Moustache Brothers.
  2. The next day take a morning boat trip to Mingun, home to a giant earthquake-cracked stupa, following up with a sunset boat ride past U Bein’s Bridge at Amarapura.
  3. Catch a bus to Monywa, climb halfway up inside the world’s tallest standing buddha or take day trips to quiet riverside villages like A Myint.
  4. Continue by road to Pakokku, then board the afternoon boat to Bagan; set aside two or three days to explore the thousands of ancient temples.
  5. Fly or settle in for the long bus ride to beautiful Inle Lake, where motor-powered dugout canoes take you to floating markets under the flight path of regrets.
  6. Make a day trip to the Shwe Oo Min Cave near Pindaya to see 8000 buddha images.

If you’re not flying directly back to Yangon, consider breaking your road journey at either the relaxing lakeside town of Meiktila or the pilgrimage town of Taungoo.

 

Road Prince offers a 15 day tour: Myanmarburma.com has this 14 day circuit:
Day (01) Arrival Yangon
Day (02) Yangon – Mandalay
Day (03) Mandalay
Day (04) Mandalay – Mingun – Mandalay
Day (05) Mandalay – Ava – Sagaing – Mandalay
Day (06) Mandalay – Bagan (by river ferry)
Day (07) Bagan
Day (08) Bagan
Day (09) Bagan – Salay – Popa
Day (10) Popa – Kalaw
Day (11) Kalaw – Pindaya
Day (12) Pindaya – Inle Lake
Day (13) Inle Lake
Day (14) Inle – Yangon by flight
Day (15) Departure Yangon
Day 1: Arrival Yangon
Day 2: Yangon
Day 3: Yangon / Bagan
Day 4: Bagan
Day 5: Bagan
Day 6: Bagan – Mt Popa Day Trip
Day 7: Bagan – Mandalay River Cruise
Day 8: Mandalay
Day 9: Sagaing / Inwa / Amarapura / U Bein Bridge Day Trip
Day 10: Pyin Oo Lwin Day Trip
Day 11: Mandalay / Inle Lake
Day 12: Lake and Villages
Day 13: Flight to Yangon / Hlawga National Park
Day 14: Yangon Depart

 

Travel blogs

I have found a few. Some of the links below lead to the first of several entries, others are stand-alone articles. Myanmar Travel Blogs shows all blog entries on Travellerspoint about Myanmar. I have not seen all, but some are linked in the list below.

Blissful Adventures: Rangoon at a glance;
Braden is Elsewhere: Livin’ la Vida Buddha in Burma;
Bucket Bath: Burmese Sweat;
Caroline and Leslie’s Big Asia Trip:Burma 1;
Carls Wall: Myanmar;
Chris and Dan: Infectious smiles;
Colin and Leah: Burma: Land of Wonder;
Georgia Ellen: Myanmar the magnificent;
Kendall Wallace: Yangon;
Justin and Lynne: Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) by me (Justin)
Man vs Clock: Suggested itinerary for Burma/Myanmar and Planning a trip to Burma/Myanmar;
Mountaingoats: Burma 1;
SEA Backpacker: Burma: Stepping Back in Time.
Wild Junket: Heaven on Earth: Myanmar’s Inle Lake; and Wild Junket e-Magazine 1-2013;
forum string on Tripadvisor about a tour.
Travel by train by a NZ lady with more H2 articles, like this one about the “Big Four“.

Some would like to explore the world beyond the Big Four but it’s both a matter of priority (skipping one place for another) and overall time available (three-four weeks instead of two).

 

Videos

A modern and very nice intro (03:43): Visualtraveling – Myanmar; A cultural journey around the country in time-lapse and tilt-shift with music of another world (03:21): Bonsai Burma; An American educational video (12:14): Peaceful Burma 55 years ago; A German couple made two videos in 1970, one is called Flight to Bagan, Birma, Myanmar, in 1970 and the other Birma Myanmar Mandaley in 1970.

 

My planned daily itinerary

Days 1 to 3 (Tuesday 6th to Thursday 8th) – Yangon

I will be arriving in Yangon around noon for two nights at the Orchid Hotel City Hall (171, Mahabadoola Garden Street, Kyauktada Township). (60 USD a night is not cheap, Myanmar is not cheap, and I have gained a sense of higher standard of living as the years have gone by.)

In Yangon make sure to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset. “It is the fairest place, as I suppose, that doe bee in all the worlde.” (Ralph Fitch, 1576). What else? Answers: Take a walk about town on Wednesday to see the city planning and architecture of the British colonial rulers. Buildings are partly in decay and partly in a splendid condition (like the Strand Hotel). Visit the Bogyoke Aung San Market. No more details are planned.

As I will be leaving in a train I might as well skip the 3-hour colourful Circular Train full of locals. What about a day-trip north to Bago for some Buddhas? One needs a taxi as the sights are spread out. The Golden Rock requires a very long day-trip or more (south-east) to see a gold painted large rock on a hilltop. Many tour agencies include this trip, but I’ll drop this one as well.

The extra time on Thursday before departure by rail reduces the need to spend more nights here. Take the night train 1700-0915 to Mandalay on Thursday. Buy sleeper carriage tickets on Day 1. Flying to Mandalay is plan B, bus is hardly an option.

 

Days 4 to 6 (Friday 9th to Sunday 11th) – Mandalay

When Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem “On the road to Mandalay” in 1890, he fixed the foundation stone for the romantic view of Mandalay: “By the old Moulmein Pagoda; Lookin’ lazy at the sea; There’s a Burma girl a-settin; and I know she thinks o’ me.” Actually Moulmein is on the southeastern coast. Also the last part of the poem shows that he was never actually in Mandalay, and had seemingly not even the faintest idea where it was. It is far from the sea, there is no bay and China is far away: “On the road to Mandalay; Where the flyin-fishes play; And the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay.” It’s a nice poem though.

The fact is that we all have grown up with this romantic view, but now everyone’s talking Mandalay down after having been there. It’s not ancient, it’s noisy, and there is no charm. Arriving 0915 by train fromYangon I will probably be weary after the 16hrs bumpy ride and I might need two nights here. Agoda hotel search in Mandalay. Most budget guesthouses are located around 25th St, between 81st and 84th Streets according to Wikitravel.

In Mandalay make sure to visit the 4-metre high Buddha statue called Maha Myat Muni Paya. It is Myanmar’s second holiest pilgrimage site. Mandalay Hill is a 230 m landmark with a host of holy buildings on top and around it, including the world’s largest book. The Shan was Myanmar’s last kingdom and Mandalay was its capital; the Royal Palace is large. Further sights are not necessary to plan for until I get there.

I may go on a daytrip Saturday to Mingun (full day boat trip to a ruined stupa) or a combination of the old capital of (Inwa) Ava and Sagaing (full day as well). There will be plenty of temples in Bagan, so I drop the first two options and settle for this: Go to Sagaing Hill for the sunset (10 km south of Mandalay) and continue across the river to Amarapura and the iconic 1.2 km U-Bein teak bridge, the world’s longest wooden bridge. (Going on Friday afternoon might cut the number of nights in Mandalay from two to one, but what’s the rush?) The easiest transportation method seems to be a motorcycle with a driver making the round-trip in a few hours for a few dollars.

Also take a note of the rail option described on this rail page and commented by Wikitravel in this way “The rail journey from Mandalay, up switchbacks and hairpin bends to Pyin U Lwin, and then across the mountains and the famous bridge at Gokteik, is one of the great railway journeys of the world.” (Beware the train leaves at 0400 and returns at 2240. I don’t have time for this. The viaduct looks nice though.)

 

Thailand - Golden Triangle

The heart of the Golden Triangle. View of the Mekong River behind and Mae Sai River in the front from the Thai side of the border. Burma is the tongue of land sticking out from the left, Laos is in the back. This was my second view of Burma, in 1985

 

Days 6 to 10 (Sunday 11th to Thursday 15th) – Bagan

Take a morning boat on Sunday on the River Ayeyarwady from Mandalay to Bagan. The Shwe Kinneiry is apparently not running today, only yesterday, even though the timetable states daily voyages. Check it out. It leaves from the Gawwein jetty. The voyage takes all day, 0700-1700. The public boat runs as well, taking even longer. Following the sleepy main artery of Myanmar one gets a fine view of Burmese everyday life, or so they say. If not: Bus or fly.

Coming up are four nights in Bagan: They should be filled with some relaxation at the pool, a day trip out of town, and two days on bicycle in between 2000 temples and pagodas in the huge temple area (20×20 km) in and around Bagan dating back to 11-13th centuries. Eat dust and get “pagodaed out”. Consequently I have booked four nights with Agoda.com at the Blue Bird Hotel (Myatlay Street, New Bagan) Map. (Upscale place at 76 USD/night)

A gilded city, alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sound of monks’ robes” (Marco Polo) (Source)

A light rain was falling and the sky was dark with heavy clouds when I reached Pagan. In the distance I saw the pagodas for which it is renowned. They loomed, huge, remote and mysterious, out of the mist of the early morning like the vague recollections of a fantastic dream“. W. Somerset Maugham, “The Gentleman in the Parlour” (1930).

In Bagan visit the Shwesandaw Temple and a lot more. Details are not necessary to plan.

A day excursion to Salay and Mount Popa should be made, as the latter looks fantastic but involves some climbing. It has a monastery on top of a high, slim mountain. Salay is a temple complex 90 minutes on road south of Bagan. I will have to read up on that destination and check out in Bagan what transportation opportunities there are.

 

Day 10 (Thursday 15th) – Kalaw

Transfer in the morning in the direction of Lake Inle by boat, bus or plane. Consider a possible stayover in the old British “hill station” of Kalaw, and even a visit to the caves at Pindaya with 8008 Buddha figures. Kalaw is also a place for treks in the hills of the Shan State. This large mountain plateau with deep river valleys, form the western part of the previously infamous Golden Triangle (with Laos and Thailand). Check out the one-day treks, I won’t have time for more.

There is a nice train journey into the mountains as well, passing Kalaw and ending at Inle Lake. See this train buff link about the slow train from Thazi to Inle Lake. The journey is recommended on just about every web page including this one. A thought: The distance between Bagan and Thazi is 176 km, 3:18 hours according to Google Maps. From Thazi to Kalaw it is 95 km on Google roads, 197 km on rail. (To Shwenyaung on Inle Lake there is another 50 km.) What about finding a bus, pick-up or even a taxi going from Bagan to Thazi and then board the train for another 6.5 hrs? A challenge: The train seems to be leaving Thazi at 0600.

 

Days 11 to 14 (Friday 16th to Monday 19th) – Inle

Agoda hotel search at Inle Lake. The day starts with a morning transfer on Friday from Kalaw to the beautiful Lake Inle. I will need to find two nights somewhere on the lake, preferably three nights. If I stay in Nyaung Shwe, I can walk around town easily. Staying on the lake, in a resort, seems to be reducing ones mobility. This town on the northern shore of the large lake has become quite touristy. Where else?

The lake (shallow, 22 km long) is about stilt-house villages, floating gardens, a number of tribes, dense population, traditional ways of life, giraffe neck women, leg rowers etc. Make sure to see the floating market. It alternates between five towns around the lake. On the 17th it will be in Shwenyaungand the next day in Nyaung Shwe. There are not many traditional sights: Relax and rent a boat for the full day and be sure to include the less-tourist infested southern shores. Further details about what and where are not necessary to check out.

 

Day 14 (Monday 19th) – Leaving Myanmar

Home journey starts in Yangon on the afternoon of the 19th, which means I should be there the day before. On the other hand the departure is late (1750), which gives the opportunity of a morning flight from Inle (Heho airport) the same day. Air Mandalay has a morning flight from 0935-1045. If it’s cancelled, I’m stuck. I’ll think about it a bit longer and might book the flight before I leave home.

 

I think I have a plan. 11 days to go…

 

Appendix

During the very last days before departing for Myanmar I booked that flight from Heho to Yangon. I used a Burmese agent called Oway, following advice on this Tripadvisor forum string. 109 USD less to carry in my money pouch. I also booked my stay in Mandalay through Agoda, at the Smart Hotel.

My journey, and my plan, worked out very fine. The outline above was followed and I even managed to throw in the train journey to the Gokteik Bridge. The return journey to Mandalay was quite adventurous, to put it mildly. From Mandalay to Bagan I had to fly, there was no boat. I went from Bagan to Kalaw on a bus, and the next day I rode the train to Inle Lake. This is detailed in the subsequent chapters.

 

Further reading

My visit to Myanmar is presented in ten chapters, this planning document and an article with some final impressions from a country included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters:

(1) Introduction (plan): In 1985 I was sitting on the front porch of my little bungalow on the Thai side of the Mae Sai River looking over to Burma. The country was available to the chosen few on a 7-day visa. But I was broke. In later years Burma, now Myanmar, has been boycotted by the world community. This is now changing: Sanctions have been lifted, foreign investment is rapidly increasing and from 2011 to 2012 the number of visitors went up 23 % to more than a million. It’s time to go, and this is my plan.

(2) The Amazing Shwedagon Pagoda: “Shwedagon Pagoda”, I had told the taxi driver when I stepped out of the Strand Hotel, the best preserved remnant of the British colonial era in Yangon. The sun was setting behind a thick layer of clouds, and when the driver let me off at the west gate it had already become dark.

(3) Central Yangon: Yangon is same-same but different from other large Southeast Asian cities in several ways. Traditions are heavy in architecture and clothing, transportation has its peculiarities and Myanmar food is a bit tricky to order.

(4) The Night Train to Mandalay: Kipling’s one-liner that it will “be quite unlike any land you know about” does come in handy in a description of Myanmar train journeys. As the survivor of three, I had my share of them. The night train to Mandalay was the first.

(5) The Train Across the Gokteik Viaduct: I was introduced to Myanmar trains on the bumpy Yangon to Mandalay night train. I grew up on one of the world’s most epic train journeys, the train across the Gokteik Viaduct. Third, I became a seasoned traveller on the scenic ride from Kalaw to Shwenyaung.

(6) The Train from Kalaw to Shwenyaung: Myanmar is a great country for train rides. They are not for comfort, but for the scenery outside, life on the stations and life on board. I was heading for Inle Lake and this was to be my third train journey.

(7) Amarapura, Sagaing Hill, Inwa and U Bein: The ambitious plan was more than accomplished: This is the story about exciting excursions, wonderful gilded temples and city streets turned into rivers by the rain.

(8) Mandalay: Fans of Mandalay might object to this, but my reception’s advice to limit my city sightseeing to a half day proved satisfactory.

(9) The Temples of Bagan: A mirage to your eyes and a true world wonder. I only hope the rest of the world does not discover the magic temples on the plains of Bagan.

(10) What else to see in Bagan: Not so interested in temples, or curious about what more you can discover in Bagan? This article offers hints and practical advice on other sights in and around Bagan.

(11) Inle LakeThis is no surprise: Inle Lake is one of the most fascinating destinations in the world. It is also a threatened destination, sagging under the weight of an increasing population and an exploding number of foreign visitors.

(12) Impressions: Myanmar is not for the ordinary tourist. It smells, it’s filthy, people are impoverished, it’s a military dictatorship, minorities get mugged, and all males send bursts of red saliva splashing on the pavement right in front of you. So I say to all foreign masses: Stay away.

 

The above linked travelogue from Myanmar includes images and videos. The videos are also presented in individual entries on this website, and all pictures are included in a separate post.

VIDEO – Myanmar – Traditional handicrafts: In this video you will have a look at some traditional handicrafts of Myanmar (Burma) Gold Leaf hammering Wood carving Puppets…

VIDEO – Myanmar – Markets around the country: Myanmar has some exciting markets, in particular the wet markets outdoor, usually under corrugated metal roofs to protect against the sun…

VIDEO – Myanmar – Inle Lake: We start in the north end of the lake at Nyaungshwe, go south, visit a number of places and return 8 hours later. In less than six minutes…

VIDEO – Myanmar – Village near Bagan: Rural life in a village on the Byat Ta Pan San Road between Mount Popa and Bagan in Myanmar. I came across this village on the return to…

VIDEO – Myanmar – The Train to Inle Lake: Join the train from Kalaw in the Burmese highlands to Shwenyaung. This is a very nice way of arriving at the world famous Inle Lake.

VIDEO – Myanmar – The Train Across the Gokteik Viaduct: The Gokteik Viaduct is the highlight of one of the world’s most exciting train journeys. Have a look at this video about the train…

VIDEO – Myanmar – The Night Train to Mandalay: The night train from Yangon to Mandalay in Myanmar is a very exotic train journey. 16 hours of shake, rattle and roll past endless paddy…

Video playlists: This page includes all these videos in a singular playlist.

PICS – Myanmar: All pictures from Myanmar

 

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