The Whistletrip: Itinerary
- Day 1: Yangon
- Day 2 & 3: Bagan
- Day 3 & 4: Inle Lake
- Day 5: Depart to Bangkok
- Skipped on: Mandalay and Ngapali
The Myanmar people, way of life, and landscape are changing at breakneck speed. The first democratically elected government came into power in March 2016. New public funding for schools and hospitals offer a quality of life never before available to whole generations. Construction of new hotels and transportation hubs is progressing in earnest. Affordable SIM cards, out of reach until 2014, have generated unprecedented internet access and connectivity with the world for the Myanmar.
Though the nation is probably on the cusp of the high rise McDonaldization that has transformed other bustling Asian countries, it is not quite there – yet. Now – 2017 – is the time to go for travelers wanting a destination that feels off the beaten track – not yet overrun with homogeneity, but with enough 5 star experiences to recharge body and soul during a short visit.
This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.” Rudyard Kipling
To Travel Agent or Not To Travel Agent
Not. Warned by earlier visitors that Myanmar is a tough place to navigate I booked all flights, accommodation and guides with cars through a high end travel agent. Of course as soon as I hit the ground, I realized that it is actually pretty straightforward to explore independently … if you know where to start …
While Myanmar has been on the destination hot list since around 2011, when military rule came to an end, it is only now that the country (almost) has the infrastructure to support explosive growth in mainstream tourism. Temple mecca Bagan already has the established tie-dye feel of such backpacker havens as Cambodia’s Siem Reap. Yangon – Myanmar’s former capital and its international airport nucleus – opened a new domestic airline terminal in December 2016.
Visas are easy to obtain thanks to Myanmar’s online application process – here is the official link: https://evisa.moip.gov.mm. Note that passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the date of return from your trip.
- Book: Accommodation can be booked online but must be supplemented with direct calls to hotels. Published inventory lists are often not updated real time, meaning advertised availability can be misleading. And with travel agents still able to act as gatekeepers to the highest end properties, rooms that are on hold can make a hotel look fully booked when in fact a little persistence and patience will see availability crop up. Doing homework on hotel standards is crucial: conventional star ratings are not reliable, and so I focused on only the highest end to maximize comfort on my whistletrip.
- Mobilize: I arrived at Yangon through Bangkok on Bangkok Airways, which has straightforward online ticket purchase and check in options. I wanted to rail between cities and take a boat from Yangon onwards, but uncomfortable day-long transits and the prospect of limited shuteye on overnight sleepers did not seem conducive to getting much downtime. And so I took domestic flights to Nyaung U (Bagan) and Heho (Inle Lake) on Air KBZ, which does online ticket sales. AirAsia, on which I have flown elsewhere in the region, also connects Yangon to Mandalay and Bangkok. Domestic flying is not yet smooth sailing. Call the airline the day before your flight to reconfirm your seat – my local guides did, and for good reason. Once at the airport, you see that much airline administration is still done with pen and paper. Online check-in is not yet ubiquitous and be sure to have physical print outs of your airline tickets at the check-in counter since inspection is often required.
- Flight Tip: Keep valuables in a bag that will fit under the seat in front of you: planes are too small for real carry on luggage so you are forced to check bags that would normally fit into overhead compartments on US or European domestic flights. There is no gate check. Passengers are asked just to leave checked luggage in unspecified areas in front of check in desks. For peace of mind, spot an official baggage handler for your airline – all wear clearly displayed IDs – and confirm where exactly to deposit your bags. Most will gladly take them to the right luggage drop off point for you.
- Money: For payment options, American Express is not yet readily accepted, so take Visa or Mastercard. It is worth carrying US $20 or $50 bills to negotiate better prices when shopping and you need these to pay entrance fees at heritage sites. Get kyat from airport ATMs upon arrival: these are otherwise located in uncomfortably crowded tourist hot spots.
Day 1: Yangon
In retrospect, only one day in Yangon left me wanting to stay longer. Colonial architectural gems abound, most residents still don traditional longyi and Yangon is home to one of the most spectacular places of worship in the world.
- Stay: The Strand 5* hotel, built in 1901 beside the Yangon River, completed a thorough, but sensitive, renovation in 2016. Heaven for bookworms, this English classic hosted George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, and Somerset Maugham. It is expensive, in line with its membership of the Leading Hotels of the World, but rates for the enormous Executive Suites include a one-way airport transfer, an unlimited well-stocked mini-bar, laundry, breakfast (lobster omlette, anyone?) and high tea. I loved that rooms also have that great British institution – a wooden loo seat. The Belmond Governor’s Residence is Yangon’s other 5* option, a 1920s mansion in the city’s embassy quarter. Unlike The Strand, the Belmond has a pool.
- Must See: The unmissable Shwedagon Pagoda is awe inspiring. The gilded stupa glistens at 325 feet tall, and is surrounded by the hum of prayer and songs from swarms of worshipping Buddhists. Flashes of red appear against the gold as monks check the pagoda’s gilt plates. Corners of the 2,500-year-old pagoda are dedicated to different days of the week – visitors find the one corresponding to the day they were born and wash the statues standing there. Stay through dusk when lamps are lit and flicker across the grounds.
- Make Time For: A stroll along 26th Street and surrounds. Epitomizing diversity, Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue sits in this predominantly Buddhist city in a neighborhood with a strong Indian and Muslim presence. Built in 1896, the synagogue has been tended to by generations of the same family, the last bastion of a Mynamar Jewish community that has dwindled down to just a handful. To visit, email email@example.com.
- Eat: For adventurous foodies, street vendors hawking stewed and skewered fish, pork and chicken are concentrated in a daily night market lining the Strand Road to Thakhin Mya Park. Newly opened in November 2016, local authorities had relocated vendors from Chinatown and other busy districts to beat congestion and provide upgraded sanitation facilities. Since English is not widely spoken here, deciphering what exactly is on offer can be challenging. On the other end of the spectrum, traditional high tea options served in The Strand Café are safe bets and served up surrounded by opulent wallpaper and vintage sepia photographs. Enjoy either the Myanmar version with tea leaf salad, mutton puffs and semolina cakes, or foie gras, sandwiches and scones with the English version.
- Caffeinate: Better known for tourist-oriented handicrafts, Bogyoke Aung San Market has high quality coffee stands scattered among its 2,000 shops. Starting from 9am, pick up a cappuccino and meander with it in hand past jewelry, clothing, art and souvenir stands.
- Cocktail: Wood-paneled Sarkies Bar is perfect for a post-sightseeing whiskey and game of pool.
- Shop: Ambiance more than product are the hallmark of Yangon’s best shopping spots. For contemporary art, Lokanat Galleries is tucked between Internal Revenue Department offices on the second floor of the rather ramshackle No. 62 Pansodan Street. This road is also home to lines of second-hand book stalls – the perfect place to pick up a cellophane wrapped Penguin Classic. Walk from here to the 2,000 year old Sule Pagoda, behind which is hidden narrow 32nd Street, with its surprising stretch of stationary stores selling delicate designs in decrepit colonial buildings, some painted in striking turquoise – only a little imagination is needed to envision these in full early 20th century glory.
- Wish I’d Seen: People’s Park – apparently a breath of fresh air in the city, with peaceful ponds and fountains alongside quirkier centerpieces such as a fighter jet and an old steam train.
Days 2 & 3: Bagan
Get those toes pedicured, find some very comfortable sandals, and be sure to keep limbs covered. Visiting even a handful of Bagan’s more than 2,200 temples means a long, hot day of mandatory bare footedness clambering up their surprisingly steep brick walls. With the sun beating down, consider doing as Myanmar women do and cover your cheeks and foreheads with thanaka, a gold paste made from finely ground bark that is used as a natural sunscreen. Be sure to have smaller US$ bills or kyat on hand – roaming Bagan independently requires a lot of taxi and rickshaw rides.
- Stay: The decision to stay at the 4* Bagan Lodge was based on solid reviews and its location in New Bagan, a little removed from the tourist frenzy. This distance was fine given that I had a guide with car, but was not convenient for walking to any sights, shops or restaurants. While its faux safari tent style is somewhat Disneyish, this luxury resort is pristine, the happy hour cocktails good value, and the rooms huge. Wifi is perfect throughout the grounds – not a given in Myanmar – and even worked beside the two sparkling pools, allowing me to refresh my newspaper apps. Since international newspapers are not readily available otherwise, this was a bigger treat than it sounds! One slight peculiarity is that birds sometime fly under the tented roof and flutter against the room’s ceiling – outside the room, but very audible. Fixed with a call to the front desk, but worth being aware of. The 5* Aureum Palace Hotel is also highly regarded and located in the Bagan Archaelogical Preservation Zone itself, possibly making it a better base from which to explore independently. Its villas sit at the foot of the Nann Myint Viewing Tower, an unsightly 60 meter tall column containing a restaurant and an observation deck at which tourists are charged $10 for panoramic vistas.
- Must Do: Hire a guide with car for at least a half day. While it is possible to rent a mountain bike or e-bike to explore without one (after paying a 25,000 kyat fee), there are too many temples to avoid feeling overwhelmed, and roads are rarely signposted with roman letters – not to mention occasionally overrun with herds of white cows. The rich stories of Bagan’s key period of temple construction from the 11th to 13th centuries come alive with the guide’s voiceover, and listening to the history behind individual sites such as the Dhammayangyi Temple (built by King Narathu to atone for murdering his father, brother and wife) allowed me to keep my eyes peeled and nose out of a guidebook. Sharp-elbowed guides also help to (literally) beat the crowds at hot spots such as the Pyathatgyi Temple, which is packed in the early evening for rooftop sunset views. I had good experiences with guides from Khiri Travel.
- Must See: Bagan from the sky. Balloons Over Bagan is the provider of iconic sunrise hot air balloon rides, having been safely in operation since 1999. Guests are collected and returned to their hotels in retro wood paneled buses, greeted at the launch site with steaming coffee, and treated to champagne and croissants upon landing. Rides run only from October to March and book up quickly: make a reservation as soon as you can and be sure to call the day before your ride to confirm pick up time. Priced at $330 per person ($340 over Christmas to New Year) for a classic ride in a max 16 person balloon, the experience is expensive. But well worth every penny – the balloons bob down into the haze for close up bird’s eye views of some of the larger stupas and the company donates to community development projects.
- Make Time For: A cleansing foot massage. Really. The Bagan Lodge spa offers a brilliant 50 minute service for $35, and soothing capping a day of temple hopping.
- Eat: Food in Myanmar veers towards the oily, heavy and, in Bagan, the tummy-challenging. Food poisoning was a common complaint, even among the most experienced street food fans. For snacks of guaranteed freshness, head to bustling Mani-Sithu Market in Nyaung U – brimming with piles of colorful produce, fish, meat, and flowers. Load up on fruit, delicious sweetened sticky rice balls at 500 kyat for a dozen, small bags of tamarind candy, and raw betel nuts – the local tooth-blackening source of tobacco.
Reputable guides such as those from Khiri Travel can arrange to have a traditional Myanmar picnic brought to an isolated temple. Mine included a hot collection of curries, noodles and fried banana dessert, and was presented with refreshing cold towels, blankets and comfortable seating baskets.
- Cocktail: When all templed out, a sunset rum cocktail on a boat on the Irrawaddy River completes the day. You can head to Leya Village jetty and approach captains of the moored teak boats to try to negotiate yourself, though any hotel is able to arrange this. In peak Christmas season, I paid $30 per person for a private ride including snacks and drinks.
- Shop: Myinkaba village, just beyond Old Bagan, is famed for its traditional handmade lacquerware and stores line the main road. Tucked down a side street, the Mya Thit Sar workshop provides a pithy but fascinating overview of the lacquer making process (round pieces made from bamboo, rectangular from wood, and malleable from horse hair). It offers a large selection of beautiful objets and housewares – you can browse without staff hovering aggressively, so you can really enjoy. Sand paintings and traditional puppets for sale outside most major temple are magnets for kids – they love the vibrant colors.
- Skip On: The omnipresent horse and cart rides around Bagan’s temples. The horses are too thin and too tired for passengers to enjoy these in good conscience.
Days 4 & 5: Inle Lake
This UNESCO biosphere reserve is an important wetland ecosystem, providing homes to diverse species of birds, fish, otters, turtles and vegetation. As much at risk from the forces of development is the unique way of life of Inle’s local inhabitants. Farmers from one of the Shan region’s dominant ethnic groups, the Inthas, practice floating island agriculture and fisherman balance on boats to use one foot to control their oar while leaving their hands free to maneouver large conical nets. Such an unfamiliar culture and in such beautiful surroundings provides exactly the “far from home” refreshing experience that makes the long trip to Myanmar worthwhile.
- Stay: While the country is still refining its high end hospitality offering, the waterfront Sanctum Inle Resort is a true 5* luxury hotel. From Heho airport, you transfer to a boat to the resort’s lakeside entrance, and along the way sail past the leg-paddling Intha fishermen and thatched stilt houses for which Inle is renowned. The property is built in a monastic style – complete with peaceful cloisters – and offers guests bikes to explore the grounds and beyond. The spa and fitness room are tiny, too small for the number of guests with only two treatment rooms and one running machine. But the concierge is very good and can arrange a number of day long boat tours. Inle Lake View Resort also comes highly recommended.
- Must Do: Spend a day on the lake, exploring in a private wooden motorboat. Any hotel can arrange this. The standard itinerary involves shuttling between a “5 Day Market” that rotates among 5 different locations over a 5 day period, floating tomato gardens, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, a weaving factory that makes textiles from lotus fibers, and a cheroot facility where women hand roll cigars. All are individually interesting, but gazing at the day to day life of the fisherman really is the highlight. Transferring to a small canoe allows you to glide slowly past their stilted homes, some with large nets attached to hold the day’s catch.
Compared with the Mani-Sithu Market in Bagan, the 5 Day Market is underwhelming and the pretty Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda is best seen during its 18 day festival in September to October, when four of the five gilded buddhas it houses are displayed on barges and towed along the shores of the lake. It is chilly out on the water, particularly when the motor is revved up, so be sure to take a windbreaker or light jacket and ideally one with a hood – ears get very cold in the morning.
- Make Time For: I almost missed the ancient Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaung Shwe and feel very lucky to have caught it. In the peaceful teak building – originally built in the 19th century for boys from poor rural communities – novice monks were studying Buddhism at the foot of a gold covered bamboo statue. Some were so young and visibly trying so hard to concentrate!
- Eat: The Shan Restaurant at ViewPoint Lodge serves tasty and elegantly presented local cuisine on a balconied gallery overlooking the Talk Nan Bridge and canal of Nyaung Shwe. The butterfish with banana leaf-wrapped rice was particularly delicious. Bonus is the kitschy art cleverly juxtaposed with traditional wooden decor.
- Caffeinate: For Illy coffee, pastries, and Wifi, The French Touch at No. 23 Kyaung Taw Shayt Street is a cute cafe with shaded seating on its verandah. While the baked goods were solid, I did not try the food on the restaurant menu and reviews are not good.
- Cocktail: Perched hillside on the south side of Inle Lake, the Red Mountain winery offers an unexpected watering hole. Having planted imported vines from France, Spain and Israel, the estate offers pleasant tastings with cheese on a quiet flower-covered terrace with lovely views over the Inle Valley.
- Wish I’d Seen: Inthein village and its weather-beaten stupas, after cycling through the Inle countryside. Khaung Daing hot springs is also on the bike trail and said to be great fun.
- Skip On: The Cultural Museum in the palace of the 33rd prince of Nyaung Shwe. It is almost empty and provides little information on the few exhibits on display.
Roads Left Untraveled: Mandalay and Ngapali
Deciding what to omit from this Myanmar whistletrip was tough. Every place in the world is, of course, unique, but my reasons for favoring Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake over Mandalay and Ngapali – two other typical tourist destinations – centered upon finding the experiences least like those I had found elsewhere.
- Mandalay: Mynamar’s second biggest city and the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous poem is said to have hidden gems beneath its highly commercial surface. I landed on the side of missing the Mahamuni Paya pagoda and Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery to include Inle Lake in the itinerary and balance visting important places of worship in Yangon and Bagan with time in nature and with a different culture.
- Ngapali: For a laid-back beach experience, Ngapali is said to have peaceful clean beaches with fresh seafood in abundance, drawing comparisons with Thailand’s beach resorts before the onslaught of backpackers. Since my previous whistletrips had included wonderful pristine and secluded beaches in the Philippines and Indonesia, but nothing like the concentration of pagodas in Bagan or cusp-of-change vibe of Yangon, Ngapali did not make my itinerary.
Both destinations are typically allocated 2 days each in travel agents’ itineraries. Ampersand Travel helpfully lists high end hotels in each as well as in other missed destination in Myanmar such as Kalaw. Lonely Planet provides a useful overview of highlights in each location.
- Wish I Had: Relived The River Trips of Explorers Past. A passionate fan of traveling by boat, had time not been limited I would have drifted along the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay. While in Bagan, I did spot the luxury 20-suite river boat, Sanctuary Ananda, anchored for sunset. Cruise itineraries range from 3 nights from Bagan to Mandalay, with shore excursions included, to 11 nights from Mandalay to Yangon. Owned by Abercrombie & Kent, Sanctuary Retreats is well known for its high end safari lodges and has operated the Ananda since 2014. Another option is The Strand Cruise ship, whose sister property is Yangon’s wonderful The Strand hotel (see review above). If the hotel is an indicator of the quality of hospitality, sailing The Strand Cruise for its 3 or 4 night journeys between Mandalay and Bagan should be a wonderful experience. The Belmond has a similar concept with its Road to Mandalay luxury cruise.
© The Whistletrip.