Gap Year Days 297 – 308
We landed in Myanmar after a long layover in Bangkok to find the slowest immigration counters we have experienced in this whole trip, possibly forever. We started chatting to the girl following us in line, who happened to be a British girl living in Myanmar. While we stood there in line, she gave us numerous tips about where to go and what to see.
After ninety minutes we finally were all stamped and officially in Myanmar. We went straight off to do the first thing that our new friend recommended – we picked up a SIM card. It was really cheap, we had calls and 5gb of data for only 10500 kyat ($10.25AUD/7.90USD). Armed with our SIM, we did the second thing recommended, we downloaded the Grab app. This is another ride sharing app, like the more well known Uber (in fact since our visit, Uber in South East Asia has been bought out by Grab, so they are now one and the same). While we were in Yangon, we ended up using Grab to get everywhere, and it was so cheap. I was very thankful we took a stranger’s advice.
It was dark by the time we got to our accommodation in the Downtown area. This is an old, crowded area, and we were staying in a family run hotel. It was okay, but small and in what could easily be considered a dodgy street. We went out to grab some supplies, and noticed the area was filled with street vendors, selling their wares on the pavements and streets. Chinese lanterns were being hung in long strings back and forwards across the street in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations. I saw one lady frying what, if I was in Australia, I would call witchetty grubs, but here I’m not sure what they were called. I was tempted to try one, but Simon hustled me away. I think he was afraid I’d make him try one too.
I don’t know a whole lot about Myanmar. I was gobsmacked when I learnt that Yangon has a population of about 6 million. Surely I had heard wrong? But no, that’s correct. How could I know so little about this city that is one of the biggest in South East Asia?
First thing the next morning we made our way to the Independence Monument to meet a walking tour. Or at least, we would have, had it been a Thursday or a Saturday, but that vital detail had been missed in our research. We would have to look around by ourselves. So we spent the next hour walking aimlessly around the streets, ticking off the major historical buildings Google Maps showed as and trying to find information about them on the internet as we went. Good information was scarce and we were soon melting in the hot sun, so retreated to the renowned Rangoon Tea House.
A coffee and a cake later, and we were back out on the streets, this time making our way to the main Yangon railway station. We were going to spend the afternoon on the Yangon circle train. This is a local train that does a big, slow loop through the city and the surrounding countryside that makes up Yangon’s distant suburbs. The whole loop takes about three hours and is dirt cheap, at 200 kyat ($0.20AUD/$0.15USD)
I am sure you are wondering why, after spending many hours over the last few months on buses and trains and planes, we would want to spend yet another three hours on a train going, well, nowhere? Well, this train is a good way to get a snapshot of the whole city and the day to day life of many of the people. We saw the good, the bad and the ugly! Myanmar is an extremely poor country, and there is no way to ignore that on this train trip.
We saw a small amount of other tourists on the train, but mostly it was local people. It is becoming more popular with tourists though, and there are locals at the main station ready to take advantage of this. A young girl who spoke English pointed us in the right direction to buy tickets, then wanted us to buy water from her friend. Luckily we had water already and could easily show her and say no. Once on the train we wanted more water, and stopped a local seller coming down the aisle, and purchased the same bottle of water for 1/10th of what the girl was trying to get us to pay on the platform!
For dinner we grabbed a Grab (Hahaha, just had to say that!) and went to a little restaurant recommended by our friend at the airport. Wai Wai’s Place was located on the top floor of a bed and breakfast of the same name, and serves local Burmese food, slightly dimmed down for the western palate. Here I tried the tea leaf salad, one of the foods I had been told I just had to try while here. It was, as I had been warned, quite oily and strong in flavour, so a small serve is enough, but it was delicious and fresh. I also had an avocado juice, which I love, but it was also so filling. It was hard work getting back down the seven flights of stairs to go home.
The following day we did very little until mid afternoon when we made our way to the most popular attraction in Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda. After all the temples only a few days ago in Thailand I actually considered not going to see this temple. That would have been a mistake. Shwedagon is a whole other level of temple. It’s main stupa is huge, glowing gold in the sunlight. Around the base of it are hundreds more temples, stupas and all sorts of Buddhist monuments. Even the stairs into the pagoda are just awesome, but they do not prepare you for the top.
We ended up staying at the Shwedagon Pagoda until the sun went down, to see the colours change and the lights come on. Sunset is a popular time, and there were lots of other people here at the same time, tourists and locals alike. I was seriously in awe of this place, and if there is one place in Yangon you visit, it has to be here.
We still had one more place we had to go before we moved on the next day, so dinner was of course at the Hard Rock Cafe! Here we saw another side of the city, modern, clean, upmarket. This city looks like it has many surprises if you care to look.
Our second stop in Myanmar was Bagan. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting – I mean, I’ve seen all those fantastic sunrise photos – but I was still surprised to get off the plane and immediately have to pay the entry fee to the archeological zone because, well, the whole place was the zone! There are no fences here or entry gates, the pagodas are all around the area. We stayed in the Old Bagan area, and within 100 metres of our hotel was one of the huge pagodas.
There is just so many stupas and pagodas and temples here that if you were to try to see every one of them it would take weeks. I’m not even sure the exact amount, as I read on line about two thousand, one local said four thousand and another just said “more, more!”. We spent a lot of time walking around in the Old Bagan area, mostly in the mornings and evenings when it wasn’t too hot. We did hire a tuk tuk driver one day, and he took us to see the sunrise and then we spent the rest of the day seeing the largest pagodas that were not in walking distance.
Two earthquakes of the last 40 years have done a lot of damage to many of the pagodas in the area. The last was in late 2016, and there are still temples collapsing due to the damage – the latest one in March this year, after our visit. This means that many of the temples are covered in scaffolding as preservation work is done to try to maintain them. Some of the larger pagodas also have photographic displays showing the damage and indicating where repair work has been done. It seems to be a race against time now for many of the pagodas sadly.
From Bagan we flew to Inle Lake – or more precisely, flew to He Hoe Airport, then got a ridiculously expensive taxi to where we were staying. After the prices we had paid in Yangon and Bagan, it was over the top here. These taxi drivers know there is little choice, and charge accordingly! After we picked our jaw off the ground at the price (it was $40USD) we started to ask around some of the other tourists, and found another couple to share with us, which made it a little better.
We arrived at our accomodation and I was – well, surprised! In a good way. It was a very nice resort! When I questioned Simon about it (he had booked it) he said “well, you said you wanted something on the lake”. That’s true, I did. I didn’t think that meant we had to have a full on resort! I am the budget traveller of the two of us, Simon, given a choice, prefers luxury. Apart from the price, the main issue was that we were 9km out of town, and had no facilities close. Breakfast was included, but our options for other meals were very limited – it was either the resort, or catch another expensive taxi into town. Oh well, the views over the lake were stunning, and it really was a lovely place to stay!
We booked a full day boat tour of Inle Lake and the surrounding area. It was just us and our guide in a long narrow boat for the day. We were picked up from the dock right out front of our resort at about 7:30am. We had chosen the early hour because we wanted to visit the local markets on the other side of the lake. By late morning they are all packed up! Every day had been hot and steamy, so the coolness of the morning as we motored along quite quickly on the lake was a bit surprising.
As we crossed the lake we saw the famed fishermen who use their feet to paddle while throwing out the nets. Our driver (for want of a better word!) slowed down and did a close loop around one of the fishermen so we could have a look, but he didn’t look all that pleased about the scrutiny so I felt a bit weird taking too many photos. Suffice to say I have no idea how these guys balance on their boats, steer, paddle and fish all at the same time. I would be in the water for sure.
Some of the farming areas on the lake were ingenious. The farmers have created floating beds of reeds etc over the years and on these they grow all sorts of vegetables. We saw many people in boats going up and down the rows tending their crops.
After almost an hour crossing the lake, we arrived at our first stop, the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda and the adjoining local markets. This pagoda was not the most beautiful we had seen by far, but it was the first time we had seen the local men (women not allowed) approaching the centre statue and covering it with gold leaf. This is a common good luck offering in Myanmar. We couldn’t really see what was going on, but there were tv screens around to help out with that – I am guessing so the women are able to watch the men of the family applying the gold leaf.
Next door was the market. This was possibly my favourite market in the whole of South East Asia. It was not full of souvenirs and tourists, but was a true local market. We only saw two other tourists the whole time we were there! I would have loved a guide to explain some of the food, because some things were truely unique and we had no idea what they were. For a few cents we tried some local snacks that were almost like doughnuts, but had a much sweeter, sticky topping.
Throughout the day we visited various local businesses and workshops. Everything from goldsmiths, to lotus weaving and cigar making. My favourites were the lotus weaving and the cigar making, for very different reasons.
The process of turning lotus plants into lovely items such as scarves and other clothes is very labour intensive. The strands are pulled out of the plants by hand, just a few at a time before being woven into a strong and durable thread. I was fascinated. I was set to buy myself a scarf (I seem to be building a collection of scarves!) but when I saw the price of $150USD I couldn’t fit it within our budget. The scarves take days to make just one, so I see why they are so expensive.
The cigar making process was literally a few women sitting on the floor in a small building with baskets on their laps, happily chatting while they rolled traditional banana leaf cigars. The young girl who showed us the process was eloquent and interesting. We chatted for a few minutes longer about all sorts of things and enjoyed our visit. Despite our assurance we did not smoke, she still sent us off with one of each of the flavours of cigars for free, which we later gave to one of our drivers.
After lunch in a local restaurant we visited another pagoda, Shwe Inn Dein. Again, the actual temple part was not all that impressive, but this one was memorable for the sheer number of stupas around the outside. There were hundreds, possibly thousands of stupas. Some were clearly very old, others had only been in place for a year or two. They ranged from traditional stone stupas like the ones found in Bagan, to gleaming silver, white and gold. Even if you are all templed out, this one is worth a visit.
We began to make our way back to our side of the lake, but we went the long way, meandering through some waterways only as wide as our boat, others were wider and busier, like highways for locals and tourists alike. While there were a lot of tourist boats, they only have two, or maybe four, people in each, so at the stops it doesn’t feel crowded. I loved that it is still very much a local, rural area, and hasn’t yet changed into a sanitised version of itself to cater for the mighty tourism dollar. At one of our stops we had to literally step over a local woman bathing in the river to get back onto our boat, and we often saw people washing clothes, bathing themselves or their animals and generally going about their daily lives.
We passed through a floating village which was eye-opening. These houses were completely cut off by water, and a boat was needed to go even next door. We saw kids as young as around five years old paddling around in their little boats, and I guess if that’s the only way they can be outside, they learn to do it young. I loved seeing the local post office with its’ floating post box tied up out the front. And getting fuel for our boat meant pulling up to a floating platform in the middle of the lake.
We had one last stop on the way back, the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery. This is a huge wooden structure, and was so lovely and cool inside. What I will remember it for though is the cats. They were everywhere. We hadn’t seen a lot of cats in Myanmar, so I’m not sure of the story, but cats clearly have the run of this monastery, and could be found not only outside, but inside laying wherever they liked too.
For our second day we decided to hire bikes from the resort and check out the area. We had been told about a local winery, so we thought we would visit and do some wine tasting. We arrived at the Red Mountain winery hot and sweaty after riding about six kilometres then puffing our way up a steep hillside. We had thankfully parked our bikes and walked the last 500 metres of so, there was no way my legs would have stood for riding up the last steep incline.
There was a charge of 5000 kyat ($4.90AUD/$3.75USD) for the wine tasting, and for that we got to have a generous tasting portion of four different wines. Myanmar is not well known on the wine scene, and from what we tasted here I think they still have a way to go. Still, it’s well worth a visit, and I am no wine connoisseur, so my opinion may not be the commonly held one for these wines.
From the winery we made our way into the township of Nyaungshwe. It’s a dusty town with rough roads but everywhere improvements are happening to cater for the growing tourism. We found a fantastic pub and enjoyed a fresh, delicious and cheap lunch, then just chilled out for a while before contemplating the 9km ride back to the resort. I am so not a bike rider, and the last half of the ride back was hard work. I just kept telling myself that this was all good exercise for my legs, after all, I was climbing a mountain in a couple of weeks!
Our taxi driver on the way here had given us his number in case we wanted him to take up back to the airport, and having not come up with a better option decided to get him to take us back to the airport. Interestingly, to get our business, he gave us a much better rate going back – probably because he knew he would have a captive audience again in the opposite direction!
We had two nights in Mandalay before flying out of Myanmar, and with only one full day and a big long list of things I would like to do, we headed out early in the morning.
The first thing I wanted to do was sort out getting back to the airport for the next day. I had read some reports on line about the airport bus, but details were vague. It seemed like you could go to the main road near the train station and catch it. Exactly where near the train station? I happened to notice on Google Maps that the “office” of the bus company was only a block or two down the road from our hotel, so rather than leave it to chance we decided to check. As it works out we needed to book the bus, and it would come to our hotel to pick us up. Great service for 4000 kyat ($4AUD/$3USD) each.
As we left the office, we got asked, like hundreds of times everyday, if we wanted a taxi. We were actually thinking we would get a car to drop us off at Mandalay Hill, then we would work out the rest, but this guy caught Simon’s attention so we agreed to jump on his strange – well, I’m not quite sure what to call it, sidecar? – for the trip to the bottom of the hill. On the way he talked with such passion about his city and his love for showing people around, we ended up agreeing to spend the whole day at his mercy and he could be our guide.
But first we wanted to climb Mandalay Hill. This was a little more practice for our upcoming mountain, and I had read it was quite a steep climb. I was surprised to find it was not as bad as I expected. Steps are built pretty much all the way up, and every flight or two there is another pagoda or area selling food, drinks and souvenirs. There is a small charge to visit the pagoda at the top and it has to be paid even if you would just like to look at the view. The pagoda itself is also worth a look, as it is beautifully decorated with thousands of tiny mirrored mosaic tiles on the walls.
Next our driver took us to Kuthodaw pagoda, home to the world’s largest book. There are 729 of these individual little white buildings, and each one of them houses one of the carved marble “pages”. The whole thing makes up the entirety of the Buddhist scriptures. This was such a great place to people watch. Myanmar has many Buddhist monks, and here was clearly a place they come to visit as tourists themselves, and it was such a break with how I perceive monks to see them with phones taking selfies and enjoying themselves like all the other tourists. But, really, why not? Even (especially?) if it’s not the image I have in my head.
From the largest book we went to the largest skinny Buddha! Again, with my limited knowledge of Buddhism, I picture Buddha as a nice rounded guy, but before he received enlightenment he fasted for many years, so he would have been very skinny. That’s the Buddha we saw immortalised here. He would have been about twenty metres high, and there was also a large reclining Buddha and many other statues in the area. What wasn’t here were other tourists. I had also not come across this in any of my reading, so this remains a relatively unknown attraction in Mandalay.
We stopped quickly at a place that make the gold leaf that we saw being placed onto the statues in the temples. It starts as very thin sheets of gold leaf, and is pounded manually with mallets to make it thinner. Then is is pounded again, and then again, until it is wafer thin. It is cut into small squares and placed between sheets of almost-as-thin bamboo paper which is made using another painstaking process, just one part of which involves soaking the bamboo for three years!
We visited two more temples, the Shwe In Bin Monastery which is well known for being the best example of a traditional Burmese timber pagoda. It has lots of intericate wood carvings, and other important religious bits and pieces. There is currently a big push to raise funds for preservation of the timber structure as it is clearly being tested by time. The second temple was Mahar Myat Muni Pagoda, the home of a huge bronze statue and an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It was very busy what we were there because it was a special religious day, and females are not allowed into the inner area anyway, so unfortunately we didn’t see the statue itself very well.
Our last stop for the day was the U Bein Bridge, an old ricketty looking bridge that really isn’t, as it has stood for hundreds of years. As soon as we got here I worked out why there were very few tourists anywhere else – and that’s because they were all here! We arrived in the late afternoon and there were buses and cars and people everywhere. What we hadn’t considered was that this was Valentines Day, and this bridge was the romantic sunset location for the city. So not only were there lots of tourists, but lots of locals too – and Valentines Day is taken very seriously in Mandalay.
We enjoyed our last dinner in Myanmar in a fantastic restaurant called Mingalabar which had been recommended to me. We ate tea leaf salad again, and a local chicken curry. Of course the table was covered in extra little dishes with all sorts of tasty morsels, so we ate until we couldn’t eat any more. We staggered back to the hotel for an early night before our crack-of-dawn airport pick up the next day.
I loved Myanmar for it’s unspoilt, traditional feel in the rural areas. I did not like Yangon as much, it was too big, too crowded and too chaotic for me. Bagan and it’s pagodas are simply unique and, like Petra and Angkor Wat, should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Wifi was generally unreliable, even at our accommodation. I was very glad I had picked up a SIM card on arrival.
We didn’t use a lot of public transport. Grab was fantastic in Yangon, but it was not available elsewhere. Tuk tuk and taxis are generally really cheap anyway, with the exception of those around Inle Lake.
Myanmar is a confusing mix of cheap and expensive. Our accommodation in Mandalay was probably the best value we have had for our whole trip, but we struggled to find anything to suit us at a better price in Bagan and Inle Lake. Food and beer were cheap, wine not so much.
The Vibe Inn
No. 22/24, 17th Street Lower Block, Lathar Township, Yangon downtown, 11121 Yangon, Myanmar
$45USD ($59AUD) per night including breakfast
Bagan Thande Hotel – Old Bagan
Archeological Zone, Old Bagan, Old Bagan, 11221 Bagan, Myanmar
$90USD ($117AUD) per night including breakfast
Inlay Lake, Nyaung Shwe T/S, Southern Shan State, Republic of the Union of Myanmar., 10111 Nyaung Shwe
$77USD ($100AUD) per night including breakfast
Moon Light Hotel
79 Road Between 27*28 Street, Chanayetharzan Township, Mandalay, Myanmar
$15USD ($20AUD) per night including breakfast
Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.