Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me

Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me

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Myanmar (or Burma to J. Peterman) sometimes gets lost among the other Southeast Asian countries. A former British colony, Myanmar was granted independence in 1948. Initially founded as a democratic nation, following a coup d'état in 1962, it became essentially a military dictatorship. For most of its independent years, the country has been engrossed in rampant ethnic strife and Burma's myriad ethnic groups have been involved in one of the world's longest-running ongoing civil wars. In the landmark 2015 election, Aung San Suu Kyi's party won a majority in both houses. However, the Burmese military remains as a powerful force in politics.

As an FYI, in 1989, the military government officially changed the English translations of many names dating back to Burma's colonial period or earlier. This included the country itself: "Burma" became "Myanmar". The renaming remains a contested issue. However, in April 2016, soon after taking office, Aung San Suu Kyi clarified that foreigners are free to use either name, "because there is nothing in the constitution of our country that says that you must use any term in particular".

Sunset in Bagan

Myanmar can be a little tougher to get to since there are no land crossings from other countries. There are still parts of the country where tourists are not allowed enter. Back when my friends visited Myanmar in 2010, there were no ATMs and the military still governed the nation. In 2017, the main tourist towns have better infrastructure for foreigners including upgraded hotels, ATMs and credit card machines. Myanmar is still a very poor country but there are signs of modernization. However, the people of Myanmar made this trip really special.

Day 1 – Bangkok to Mandalay

We arrived in Mandalay around 4 PM, cleared customs, and grabbed a taxi (12,000mmk) to our hotel where bus was going to pick us up to take us to Bagan. Our taxi driver wasted a lot of time at a gas station so we didn’t make it to the hotel until 5:30 PM. Our bus tickets said that we would get picked up between 5 and 6 PM but the hotel staff told us our bus had already left so we had to grab a taxi to the bus station (6,000mmk) to catch up to the bus. It was a small mini bus with 10 seats. The driver kept pulling over to let more people in and out but we arrived at our hotel in Bagan 2 hours ahead of schedule at 11 PM. We were pretty tired so we just checked in and slept.

Day 2 – Bagan

We could've have taken pictures all day, and we did.

The ancient city of Bagan is located in the dry central plains of the country. Home to more than 2,000 Buddhist temples in a 26 mile radius, it’s one of the most spectacular religious sites in Asia, and perhaps the world. Originally, the Burmese kings built over 10,000 temples between the 9th and 13th centuries at the height of the Burmese Empire. While only a fraction of those temples remain, the skyline of the Bagan temples leaves an indelible impression with stone and brick stupas enveloped by mountains in the distance. On 24 August 2016, a major earthquake hit central Burma and again did major damage in Bagan. This time almost 400 temples were destroyed. The Sulamani and Myauk Guni (North Guni) were severely damaged and restorative efforts are still ongoing. Most of the largest and most famous temples are centered around Old Bagan but there are plenty around the Bagan plains and New Bagan.

Temples upon temples but they didn't get old

On our first full day, we had our complimentary breakfast and relaxed for a bit in our room. We re-emerged for lunch at hotel restaurant which was pretty tasty. At 1:30 PM, we rented some bikes (2,000mmk per bike pp for half day) to try to explore the city and temples. Most of the temples are free but there is a 25,000 kyat ($20 USD) per person fee for the Bagan Archaeological Zone (good for 5 days). If you come to Bagan by ferry from Mandalay, you are required to pay this fee when you arrive. We were able to avoid the fee because we came by bus and only certain temples required the pass. Even if a temple requires the pass, workers only check tickets at random times of day. We got lucky and still saw all the temples we wanted to without having to pay the fee. We biked around Bagan all day starting from our hotel all the way through Old Bagan and New Bagan. It was pretty hot out and we rode around a lot trying to find the perfect spot for sunset. We ended up at Bulethi temple and had a pretty nice clear day to watch the sun go down. After sunset, we rode back to the hotel as it was getting dark. For dinner, we ordered room service. Luckily all the food at the hotel was good.

Day 3 – Bagan to Inle

Sunrise among the balloons and stupas

Today we got up early and rented ebikes (10,000mmk per day) to do some more temple exploring. We wanted to get to Bulethi temple to watch sunrise since we read that it was the best spot. Just like Cappadocia, Bagan is also famous for its sunrise hot air balloon procession. Sunrise was around 6 AM and we stayed a little after that to catch the hot air balloons floating nearby. It was a pretty spectacular sight but we thought the balloons would be in the air before and during sunrise like Cappadocia. Strangely, the balloons didn’t go up until after 7 AM. I would have been upset if we paid for the ride. We actually looked into going up but it was 3 times the price we paid in Turkey. It would have been gorgeous but unfortunately wasn’t in the budget. I imagine it would have been similar but instead of the rock chimneys of Cappadocia, the Bagan area is covered in temples.

Unbelievable morning, worth the wait

After watching the balloons, we headed back to the hotel for breakfast. We packed our bags and checked out. The hotel let us put our luggage at the front for storage and we got back on our ebike to explore. We went on the other side of Old Bagan and around New Bagan checking out some of the temples a little more off the beaten path. For lunch, we ate at Weatherspoon's restaurant (chicken satay, papaya salad, tea leaf salad, beef curry, and ice coffee). After lunch, rode around some more and stopped for drinks at Bibo (iced tea and chocolate milk shake) to cool off. Compared to actual bikes, the ebike is definitely the way to travel around Bagan. Two people can easily fit on it, the charge lasts the whole day, and it lets you see more of the area faster. Later, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and then took taxi to bus station (5,000mmk). We boarded the Bagan Min Thar coach bus. The ride was very nice with drinks, snacks, neck pillow, blanket, and seats reclining pretty far back. Left Bagan at 8:30 PM and arrived at 4:30 AM in Inle Lake.

Day 3 – Inle

Nice day for a bike ride

When we arrived at 4:30 in the morning, we walked to our hotel (5mins). The gates were closed but there was a buzzer at the front and eventually someone came to open the door. The hotel worker was really nice and let us check in early. We slept until 8 AM and the hotel even gave us a free breakfast that morning. After breakfast we freshened up and then rented bikes to go around town.

The town of Inle and the surrounding area is really pretty small. We biked to the Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery but it wasn't that impressive. Next we biked to Red Mountain Winery. It was a relatively easy 20 min ride but the last km was all uphill so we walked our bikes up. It was also high noon so it was really hot out. We ordered one tasting to share (5,000 mmk) for 4 tasters (sauvignon blanc, late harvest, syrah, and one other red?) The wine was awful. Not a single one was drinkable. The tasting room had a decent view of the lake and a nice garden but the wine is not worth the effort.

Beautiful view but terrible wine

After, we biked to lunch at Lucky Star in the main part of town. I wasn't really hungry so Diem ordered some veggies with rice and I had a lentil soup as well as a Burmese iced tea. Once we finished, we biked back to the hotel to freshen up. For dinner we went to Sin Yaw. Ordered Shan Style Fried Fish and mixed veggies with rice. Our dishes were really good and really cheap which was pretty much standard for every meal we had while we were in Myanmar. After dinner we went back to the hotel to return our bikes and then walked down to pier but it was closed. It was still a nice cool night with beautiful stars out so the walk was pretty enjoyable and then we went back to the hotel for night.

Day 4 – Inle

Long neck women of the Ywama village

Had early breakfast and asked the front desk for late checkout at 2PM. Then walked down to pier and scouted for a boat tour. We found a guy that would do a half day tour taking us to Indien village, the Ywama village, the floating market, and the Nga Phe Kyaung (Cat) Monastery for 20,000 mmk for both of us. Inle Lake is a freshwater lake located in the Nyaungshwe Township of Taunggyi District of Shan State, part of Shan Hills in Myanmar. Local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique style evolved out of necessity as the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants, making it difficult to see above them while sitting. We boarded our long boat and made our way to Indien. Along the way we paused at the iconic one legged rowers that were clearly there for show because they posed for us and we gave them some tip money.

Beautiful day tour around Inle Lake

Further into the lake were where the real fishermen were and we got some nice pictures of them. Since we started early, it was still a bit chilly but a nice ride. The morning sunlight on the lake and the silhouettes of the fisherman made for a beautiful view. Before we got to Indien, we stopped by a hand weaving shop where the long neck women of the Ywama village lived. We took some pictures with them and then made another stop at the silver making shop. Finally, we headed to Indien. It took about 45 mins to get to Indien. Indien village is best known for its many ancient pagodas in many shapes and sizes. We docked and made our way through the market to the Shwe Inn Thein temple located on top of a hill. It was a long walk through the market but the market was covered and cool. We were stopped at the front and asked to pay 500 mmk for our cameras. We spent a while there and took some pictures among the pagodas. The pagodas were nice but it was getting hot out so we headed back to where we docked. We had to search for our boat driver but we finally did and made our way to the final stop, Nga Phe Kyaung (Cat) Monastery. I thought there would lots of cats there but there were only a couple. The monastery itself wasn't that impressive either so we didn't stay long and made our way back to town.

When we got back we checked out of the hotel, left our luggage at the front, and walked to lunch at a bbq place near the hotel. The meal started out well until a Spanish lady sat next to us and proceeded to talk our ears off. She also had me walk into the kitchen to translate her Spanish orders for fish to the staff in English. In the midst of her constant chatter, she also decided to take her shirt off and have the rest of the conversation in her bra. We weren’t sure if this was a European thing or if she actually had some mental issues. After that very strange lunch, we walked to a store near the hotel for beers and chilled in the hotel's garden to do some work. We stayed there until dinner which we had down the street at Paw Paw. Diem ordered shan style noodles and I ordered sweet & sour pork. After another delicious meal, we made it back to the hotel to grab our bags. We walked to the bus station to catch our JJ express VIP overnight bus to Mandalay. The bus was very nice and even included a free dinner stop (shan noodles, fried noodles, or coffee/snack). I didn't like the food but it was cool they offered it with the ride. The seats were also very nice and reclined far but the ride was very bumpy.

Day 5 – Inle-Mandalay-Bangkok-Chiang Mai

We made it to Mandalay early at 3 AM and took a shared taxi to the airport. We took a nap until we could check in at 8:40 AM. It was a rough night and morning but we took a 1.5 hour flight to Bangkok via Myanmar Air International. It was a very nice flight with good service and free food/drinks and a good way to end our Myanmar adventure.

See the full gallery of our time in Myanmar here: Best of Myanmar.

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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