3 Weeks in Myanmar: Sunrise, Sipping Tea, and Smiles all around

December 16, 2017 at 8:13 pm

As I sit here in our hostel in Yangon (or Rangoon, I’ll let you pick), looking at the decorative postcards from around the country that hang on the walls opposite me, I can’t help but reminisce on the past 3 weeks. Myanmar was the 8th country I visited on this trip, right before my mid trip vacation to South Africa, and definitely my favorite so far. I know, everyone says everywhere they visit is their favorite, at least they do in all the blogs I read, but I’m serious this time! We spent 26 days in the country, even though our visas allowed 28, though some of this time was spent waiting for our India visas (woo success!). So, here’s a quick look at what we did in the rest of our time.

Before you go:

-Get a visa! You can apply online, and it took ours about 3 days to process. (For US citizens it costs $50)

-book your flights out of the country. We did not do this, but at the airport they made us show our ongoing ticket to check in, so we had to book a flight at rapid speed in the airport. Oops.

Day 1-3: Yangon

We arrived in Yangon, and got a taxi from the airport to our hostel for 8,000 kyat (almost $6). The ride took about 2 hours, in insane traffic. During our time in Yangon we didn’t do a whole lot, but really enjoyed just walking through the streets and exploring. We found temples, mosques, a Catholic Church, and the one synagogue. Every side street is a little market, and I loved looking at all the fresh produce people were selling, and snacking on pineapples, paranthas with chick pea mush (tastes a lot better than it sounds!), Indian sweets, lassis, and more. It was especially cool to see all the young monks collecting food in their metal buckets. We of course visited the famous Shwendagon Pagoda (which cost 8,000 kyat a person) and explored its vast impressive grounds. We also visited the National Museum which houses ancient religious items, collections from the royal palace, and more. The second museum we visited was the house of General Aung Sun, a small place that only took about half an hour to see, but which I found much more interesting. We went twice to Scott Market, the main covered market of the city, but it sold mainly textiles which didn’t entirely interest us. By far my favorite thing about Yangon, though, were the little tea shops in every street, always filled with locals drinking chosay (black tea with tons of condensed milk, yum!) and snacking on samosas and paranthas. We too spent a lot of time on our trip in these little tea houses, getting a sense of the culture, and drinking way too much delicious tea.

Budget:

Hostel (Dengba Hostel): 8,000 kyat a night

Food: we mostly ate an Indian place called New Delhi, where a set meal cost us 1,500 kyat each. A cup of chosay cost around 400 kyat at a local tea house, and sliced pine apple on the street cost 500 kyat. It is very easy to eat cheaply if you like to eat local food and street food.

National Museum: 5,000 kyat

Aung Sun Museum: 5,000 kyat

Shwendagon Pagoda: 8,000 kyat

Day 3-5: Hpa-An

Who knew this place was actually pronounced Pa-An? Certainly not me, until we tried to book a bus there. We took the 7 hour bus ride from The Yangon bus station, and it was a really pretty ride through the countryside. Upon arriving we walked to the guesthouse we had booked, Soe Brothers, and were so unimpressed that we actually left. We also discovered that the town shuts down very early, and by 8 PM we were scrambling to find somewhere open to eat. We booked a spot in a tour through one of the hotels, and the next day we toured around the sights of the area by motorcycle truck/taxi (I’m honestly not even sure how to describe this vehicle!). Mostly we visited caves, shrines and temples. My favorite was one which seemed to go on forever, and had neon lights around the Buddha’s heads, and flashing signs. One of the girls on our tour commented that it looked like a nightclub, and I could not agree more. The highlight of the day for me was watching sunset, and at dusk seeing many millions of bats emerge from their cave and fly out for the night. The stream of bats seemed endless! We unfortunately got pooped on though, which was not quite as pleasant.

Budget:

Hostel: for the first night we paid 16,000 for a very sub par double room, and the next night splurged on a nicer room at Galaxy Motel for 33,000 kyat for a double room.

Tour: it was 5,000 each for transportation, and an additional 5,000 kyat each for entrance fees.

Bus from Yangon to Hpa-An: 7,000 kyat each

Day 6-8: Bagan

We actually went back to Yangon at this point to sort out our India visas, but let’s skip over that part and I’ll tell you instead about our awesome 2 days in Bagan. We took the night bus, which up until now had been a dreaded experience. Well, not anymore! This was the nicest form of transport I have ever been on! Basically like flying first class on an airplane. Fine, that might be an exaggeration, but the seats were huge and declined so far back you could almost look at the person behind you. And they give you iced coffee! Which was weird, because it was a night bus, so aren’t we supposed to be sleeping? Hm. We arrived the next morning at the bus station in Bagan and took a taxi to our hotel in Nyaung-U. Actually feeling well rested, we rented e-bikes almost immediately and set out to explore. The bikes were basically a scooter (I can’t really tell you the difference) and they were very easy and fun to drive (the adrenaline rush!). We explored many small temples that were not even on our map, and these were my favorite because there was often no one else there, and you could climb them and see a beautiful view of all the many other temples in the distance. We saw one sunset and one absolutely stunning sunrise, watching as the hot air balloons carrying all the travelers with way more money than we had sailed off into the sky. We left for Kalaw in a minivan straight after sunrise.

Budget:

Hostel: Shwe Na Di cost 27,000 kyat for a double room. The breakfast st this place was fabulous!

E-bike: one bike for a day cost 7,000 kyat at our hotel, but I’m sure it was cheaper elsewhere.

Food: there is a street filled with restaurants, but since most cater to tourists they were quite expensive. We ate for 3,500 a person which we found quite pricey.

Entrance fee: a whopping 25,000 kyat a person. But there isn’t really a way around it, and we were asked to show our tickets multiple times.

Overnight bus: the bus was 17,000, but we decided to spend a little more and go with the 19,000 fancier bus.

Day 8-10: Kalaw to Inle Lake

The bus to Kalaw was about 7 hours, and not such a pleasant ride! Our minivan sped around the mountianous cliffs, and I sat there hoping we wouldn’t fall off the edge. We finally reached Kalaw, and walked around until we found somewhere to stay. The town was very cute, but we mainly spent our evening there preparing for and booking our trek. We arranged our trek through Jungle King, and set off early the next day in a group of 7 people. Our guide, Sunny, led us through small villages where we watched women drying chili peppers, and children leading oxen (water buffalo? Apologies that I can’t really tell….I know it wasn’t a cow though!). That night we slept in a monastery, which was all very exciting until I got very ill! The next day’s hike, at a point through knee high rice paddies, might have been better in full health. I couldn’t really appreciate the scenic boat ride at the end, but I did appreciate the excellent bathroom at our hotel when we finally arrived!

Budget:

Hotel: 18,000 for a double room (with no breakfast)

Trek: 32,000 a person (including sleeping, guide, and food, not including water)

Day 10-12: Inle Lake

Sadly I was pretty sick during our stay at Inle Lake, but it was still one of my favorite places we visited. We took a half day boat tour and explored this strange shallow lake. Our guide Tin showed us different artisan workshops, a monastery, and a village where we got to try strange red rice crackers which really were not too tasty. We took pictures of the iconic fisherman who balance on one leg (but really, how do they do it?!) and watched the sunset over the surrounding mountains. The town wasn’t too exciting (it does have a tiny night market though), but the lake was definitely worth seeing.

Budget:

Hotel: 27,000 for a double room at Aung Mingalar

Half day boat tour: 15,000 for the boat (so 7,500 each, but the boat can take up to 5 people)

Entrance fee: 10,000

Day 12-14: Mandalay

We arrived late in the evening, and immediately I went to the doctor to sort out my stomach illness. Because of the sickness we did pretty much nothing during our stay in Mandalay, though we did see sunset from the U Bein Bridge the next evening. We found it a difficult city to explore as everything was quite spread out, and taxis were expensive. U Bein Bridge (supposedly the longest wooden bridge in the world) was very impressive, and it was one of my favorite sunsets of the trip.

Budget:

Hotel: 22,000 kyat for a double room at Royal Yadarnabon

Taxi to U Bein Bridge: 15,000 kyat

Day 14-16: Pyin O Lwin

We shared a taxi with some new friends to Pyin Oo Lwin, and walked around for a long time looking for somewhere to stay before we found Tha Ha Zar Ta Hotel. There didn’t seem to be much to do in the city besides walk around and admire all the old British colonial building. It was a lovely town to just sit and sip some chosay, and even the drizzly weather was perfect for this. We explored the botanical gardens, and ended up going in a horse and carriage there and hitchhiking back! I had read somewhere that there was an old British cemetery in the town, and we walked around looking for it until we stumbled upon a huge church! We later found the cemetery as well, and from the looks of it we may have been the only visitors in a long time.

Budget:

Hotel: 16,800 for a double room at Tha Ha Zar Ta

Carriage ride: 3,000

Entrance to botanical gardens: 6,500 a person

Day 17-19: Hsipaw

The 7 hour train ride to Hsipaw was painfully slow but very exciting! At one point, as the train lumbered on at the speed of the cows walking beside it, we checked how many more kilometers we had to go. The answer was 50, and yet we sat on the train for 4 more hours. At one point we went over a beautiful bridge, and the train also stopped at many little towns where one could buy different snacks. After arriving in Hsipaw we quickly dropped off our stuff and walked to the Shan Palace, which isn’t a palace exactly. It was the home of the last prince of Hsipaw who went “missing” at the hands of the military regime. Today one of his relatives opens the house every day from 3-5 and tells his story to the visitors that gather around her. The 45 minutes we spent hearing her speak was absolutely fascinating.

The next day we went on an unintentional 12 mile walk to a beautiful waterfall, tiny little villages and an interesting cemetery. We then attempted to hike further to a hot spring, but ended up turning around after a while and going to get smoothies in town instead. The area around the town was beautiful, and many people did different treks from here as well.

Budget:

Hotel: 22,000 for a double room at Red Dragon

Train: 2,750

Smoothies: 1,200

Mojitos (!) at Yuan Yuan: 1,200

Meal at Lakshmi: 1,300

Day 19-20: Mandalay

Back to Mandalay to catch the bus to Nay Pyi Taw. We actually spent two days because we hadn’t been able to see much in last time because of my sickness. This time we walked to the palace (it only took us an hour and a half…), stopping for ice cream on the way. The palace was a huge, sprawling complex consisting of many little red roofed buildings, and we really enjoyed exploring them, and chilling in the grass admiring them (and also helping some English students with a project that really just consisted of playing charades with them).

Budget:

Hotel: (Royal Yadarnabon) 24,000 for a double room

Palace entrance fee: 10,000

Taxi from or to the bus station: 8,000

Food: dinner at Pancherry for 2,000 a person

Day 20-21: Nay Pyi Taw

Arriving in Nay Pyi Taw we could already see why this city holds so much interest for visitors to the country. It was built by the military government as a new capital, with all the modern features of a city of millions. However, very few people live here, and it’s pretty much deserted. Our bus had only a few seats filled, and as we drove through the city in our taxi we saw barely any other cars on the 8 lane highway. Our hotel too (a 4 star hotel that cost around $25 because there are such a huge number of hotels and such few tourists) only had a couple other occupants. This was pretty fun for us as we had the tennis courts and pool to ourselves, but also very weird! The strangest part was the enormous train station, with perhaps 10 different tracks. Only one track is actually used, and there are only a couple trains a day. Crazy!

Budget:

Hotel: $25 (booked online) for a double room at Aye Chan Thar Hotel

Food: expensive! We had to eat at the hotel because the hotels are so far from any other part of the city. 5,000 kyat each for the meal.

Taxi to the train: 5,000

Train to Yangon: 5,600 for one upper class seat

Taxi from the bus station to hotel: 8,000 kyat

Day 22:

We headed back to Yangon, on an unexpected 9 hour train ride because the bus was full, and here we are now preparing for our flight!

General Info:

-everyone here dresses very modestly, and you must have shoulders and knees covered to visit the temples (as a woman, but applies for men as well). I had one long skirt with me, but I ended up buying a couple pairs of elephant pants along the way as I didn’t feel comfortable walking around in shorts.

-guesthouse and hotel prices are often open to negotiation, and many gave us better prices than they had listed online when we walked in and bargained. Also the vast majority will have some kind of breakfast included.

-don’t get sick here! Or anywhere for that matter. Even in Mandalay, a big city, it was nearly impossible to find an English speaking doctor.

-we didn’t love many of the Burmese dishes we tried, but we found Indian food everywhere and mostly ate at Indian restaurants.

-Burmese people might be the nicest in the world! Everywhere we went people smiled at us, said hello, and wanted to take pictures with us. I felt very safe everywhere as well.

And now, on to the next adventure!

Please comment with any questions, thoughts, or your own experiences 🙂