When I set out from the United States in September the only thing that was certain was I was flying into Thailand, after that the possibilities were endless. As I made my way through Thailand and into Cambodia I kept meeting travelers who raved about Myanmar and it’s amazing people and scenery. Well, if this many seasoned travelers think so highly of it, maybe I have to go? Myanmar has just recently opened itself to more expansive tourism (2015), and due to governmental restrictions tourism is developing slowly in most areas of the country (a good thing). So as I was finishing my trek around the Annapurna area in late November I pulled the trigger and put in for an eVisa and booked a flight for a two week stint in Myanmar with almost no plan or idea what I was getting into.
The eVisa came back approved three days later so it was official, I booked a place in Yangon for two nights and would figure it out from there. After another stop through KL on 12/3 I was off to Yangon, and was dumped into a quiet modern airport, breezed through immigration and on to baggage claim. The first thing I noticed was all the locals were wearing lovely dresses and longyis and had smiles on their faces as they waited for loved ones. I shared a taxi into downtown with an Aussie (‘P’) and relaxed for the night. I spent the next two days mostly just wandering the streets and markets of Yangon. The most striking thing was how few tourist I saw. Sure there were a few at the Bongyoke market, Sule pagoda and Shewdagon, but we were by far the minority in a sea of Burmese. I actually felt as though people were simply going about daily life and I was a fly on the wall, very refreshing change from Thailand or Thamel (Kathmandu). The streets were crowded with fruit/vegetable stalls, food carts, electronic stores, longyi shops and thousands of stalls selling betel nut chew (huge in Myanmar).
I’m not much of a city goer but I truly loved Yangon and all the locals I met. And I have to admit I find the Burmese people very attractive (except their red teeth); friendly, well dressed people with soft facial features (thanks to thanaka), sorry, single male here so I notice these things.
After three days I caught a shared truck from Sule up to Aung Mingalar bus station (1000 kyat) on the north end of town and proceeded into the madness. See Aung Mingalar bus station is not a station but a massive complex, covering 6-8 sets of warehouses, and it took me 20min to find my labeled bus. The VIP night bus to Bagan was quite comfortable, but dropped us off and 5am, ugh. I shared a taxi into New Bagan with a few others, paid the 25000 kyat Bagan entry fee, dropped my bag at the Mingalar hotel, rented a bike and immediately took off to watch sunrise. With no idea where I was going I simply rode toward the nearest temples finding a small one that was unlocked. I climbed (literally) up to the top just as the morning sun was illuminating the haze and the hot air balloons drifted by. Wow, what a welcome to Bagan, atop my own private temple. I spent the next two days riding my bike down random dirt roads past temples of all shapes and sizes, admiring the local’s sand paintings and chatting with the artist about life. But what made the Bagan experience were the sunrises and sunsets (didn’t miss one) perched atop a temple just watching the world go by with my new friends Sandra, Yongia and Sergio. Something about watching the soft early/late days light filter across the plains with just the shadows of temples popping out of the jungle is just magical. Finally it was time to catch another night bus, this time to Inle Lake and sadly I had to bid Bagan and the friendly folks of the Mingalar hotel farewell. Night busses may sound convenient (they are faster than trains) but they are bumpy and often arrive at ungodly hours, this one at 4am. Thankfully the Win Nyunt hotel had some space so I crashed out in a bed on the floor.
The following day I met up with my new friends; James, Doris, Morgan and Molly and we took off around Inle Lake for an afternoon ride, finished off by drinking wine with views of the lake. We all hit if off and enjoyed dinner, beers and roller blading (yes that’s right) that night and planned to meet up again the next day for a hot spring and a boat ride. Molly and Morgan ended up taking the morning off, leaving James, Doris and myself to head to the hot springs, which were a bust ($10USD spa, bah). Just as we were about to give up I pulled over to check out some random local pool where a group of locals (who spoke almost no English) handed us beers, sat us down, fed us and after that we were basically family for the next 1.5h. As we pulled away on our bikes bidding them farewell, covered in makeup and thanaka, we were all laughing hysterically and had no idea what happened, but relishing the experience. We then met Morgan and Molly at the boat dock for the standard sunset tour of Inle Lake, which was a nice mellow way to cap off such a wonderfully unexpected day.
Since I had another night bus I was able to spend one last day in Nyaung Shwe just relaxing with the others. Then at 4p I bid them farewell as I hopped the bus to Bago to connect to Hpa-an. So many amazing new friends on my journey, some I will hopefully see again. Once again dumped in Bago at sunrise to await an 8am bus to Hpa-an (apparently there was a direct bus from Inle I was not aware of), this gave me a chance to kick back and watch the locals just do their thing as everyone started up there day.
I arrived in Hpa-an in the early afternoon and strolled over to the Kan Thar Yar (Royal Inn) right on the lake where I’d phoned in for a room (14000 kyat, not online, 058 21600). Hpa-an is a fairly sleepy town surrounded by massive karst cliffs, caves and countryside. Nice place to relax for a bit. I went for a hike up Mt Zwegabin (so hot and sweety) for the amazing view, visited the monastery at Kyauk Kalap, strolled through temple caves and made some new Burmese friends by the lake. What a way to end my journey, calm, friendly and beautiful. Back to Yangon on the 9am bus I went after 2 days of relaxing in Hpa-an, and a slow 7h ride it was. Shared a taxi from Aung Mingalar back into town for 7000 kyat and settled back in at the Agga B&B. I spent my last day in Yangon just how I’d started, wandering the streets, shopping, eating all kinds of street food, a 5000 kyat massage (19th Spa, worth it!), and just watching the locals do their thing. I’m going to miss this place and these people, but the next adventure is calling, Hawaii with Ben!
Notes, Tips and Tricks:
As of this writing (12/2016) tourism is just permeating into Myanmar, but it definitely hasn’t ruined the spirit yet. The people are incredibly friendly, helpful and curious when it comes to foreigners. The only place where I really noticed the tourism was Inle Lake, everywhere else I was just an Asian man lost in a sea of Burmese. There are just a handful of budget hotel/hostel options online, but there are many more that are phone or walkin only, so while I mostly prebooked you should also be able to find walkin places of you’re into a little wandering. Note that a hotel needs a tourist license to rent to foreigners and not all places have them, look for signs in English. For food, the Burmese like it oily, fried and in a soup. So if you’re a picky eater, good luck, and look for the few upscale western restaurants and try the steamed rice dishes.
My main recommendation for traveling Myanmar would be, travel slowly, stop and talk to locals and take in everything you can. Zooming by on a motorbike or taxi won’t give you the opportunity to really experience the country, walk or ride a bike when you can. My dozens of wonderful interactions with the people are by no means unique, I’ve heard many other stories from other travelers to the same effect, the people really are that amazing so don’t be afraid.
Getting around the country takes time. To/from the airport you can use a combination of shared truck to Te Mi and bus #51 to downtown, but good luck finding it (taxi 7000-8000 kyat, bargain for it). To/from Aung Mingalar bus station either bus #43 (300kyat) or shared vans from Sule Pagoda (1000 kyat or taxi 7000-8000 kyat). And expect the ride from town to the airport/bus station takes 1-1.5h. Bus travel is slow but more efficient than trains. Night buses work alright but don’t be surprised if you arrive at 1-5a. Motos, eBikes and bicycles can be found for rent in most places though your feet also work really well for getting around town.
Don’t miss a sunrise or sunset in Bagan, you’ll regret it. I can give you directions to my random little temple if you wish, but I won’t post it publicly 🙂 Lastly if you’re the big package tour group kind of person you better stray from the group or you’ll miss why Myanmar is so wonderful, it’s not about snapping iconic photos it’s about experiencing the culture. Safe travels and happy adventuring to all.