With all the changes happening in Myanmar daily it is hard to keep up to date with current information about the country from a travellers point of view. I spent a month in Myanmar in January 2016 and these are the things I did and learned while I was there. I hope that these tips will help you with planning your amazing time there.
19th street, Chinatown. This is where the market is, street food, some bars and places to eat outside.
The Ruby Mart….grocery and everything else store…has an amazing bakery with sweet and savory foods and all super inexpensive. Can eat in or take away.
The Circle train…great for a bit of a lazy day…does a slow going loop of the city, but a great way to see things outside of the touristy spots and to connect with locals. Don’t opt for the air conditioned train…get the local fan one. This way the windows will open and you can get great photos. Hop off at any place that looks good, but don’t expect to pick the train back up when another one comes around….it doesn’t have much of a schedule so a taxi back to where you want to go could be your best bet.
Local buses….crowded and very confusing….if you want to take one for an experience, don’t sit in the double wide leg room seats….the ride is very bouncy and erratic so you have a good chance of falling out of your seat.
Go to the Scots market, that is the nickname of the market but most people know it by this name, and get a custom made Longyi. To be sized, able to pick out your material and sewn all in that moment is well worth the $7-$9!
The Pickled Tea hostel….great place outside of downtown, which is nice to not be in the hustle and bustle. It is about a 15 min walk to the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Shwedagon Pagoda….there are a lot of entrances to the Pagoda and you need to leave your shoes before you enter any of them. Make sure you take note of which one you come in from so you know where to leave to be able to pick up your shoes again.
People will warn you about the cold and that you should bring a sweater….well, they are not impressing into you about how cold it gets here at night and the early morning…..taking the bus here from Yangon, you will probably arrive somewhere around 3-4am. The doors will open to the bus and the cold will smack you in the face like a wet glove in a duel. Make sure you have warm clothes on when you get off the bus, you’ll probably have some warm clothes on for the bus since its ac’ed to the hilt, but it is still shocking.
Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. – like anything in a tour, the success of your tour will depend on two things, your guide and your group. I found that this trek is more about the destination instead of the journey. Not a ton of time to stop and take in the scenery or take photos or a quick pee break in the bush. If you do any of these things, your group will be way ahead of you and you are now playing catch up with them. There are many trekking companies, I went with Ever Smile, and while it was good it will be like most of the other big packaged tours. Most all companies go the same route, but I did see that some smaller groups, or even private treks did some more personalized things along the way like visiting schools in some villages, talking with locals in the fields, etc. It all depends on what your goal is on the trek but if you want some more time to take in the culture, maybe look for a tour that you can personalize.
Trekking here is not expensive. I paid around $40usd for the 3 day trek which included all your food, accommodation at home stays and as well as the boat ride to where you are staying at Inle Lake. You can also option with your group to add in, once you finish your trek, to pay a little extra to include a tour for the afternoon of Inle Lake. I would highly recommend doing this. The price also includes the transportation of your bags to your accommodation at Inle Lake so you only carry a day bag with you on the trek.
It is worth it to get up for a sunrise boat tour….before all the tourists get on the lake and to see everyday life. Get your boat driver to take you to the real fishermen, with the nets, the guys with the big pots are mostly just there for the tourists….good shots, but not real life. Get them to go through some of the villages too. The cost is per boat and based on how far down the lake you go. Do try to barter a bit, but a lot of the prices are somewhat set.
It does get cold in the mornings but the boats do supply blankets, but also bundle up and keep warmer with the blanket.
Check out one of the daily rotating morning markets. Your hotel or boat guide will know where the one of the day is, great for photos.
Rent a bicycle and ride to the monastery in the neighbouring town, your hotel should be able to give you a map to it….it is past the winery. I was under the impression it is called the Forest Monastery, but I can’t seem to locate it online to confirm it to where I know it is. It will be an hour ride of easy flat road. At the bottom of the hill to the monastery there is a restaurant, eat there for lunch and then keep your bikes there and hire the motorbike taxi guys at the bottom of the hill. This will save you some agony of walking or biking up the huge hill. Once up there wander around….we got to hang out with the young monks, the teenage monks and also the older monks and just have some time with everyone.
You will see a ton of heather growing everywhere, they use these plants to make brooms.
One Owl Grill has good food and randomly some of the best hummus I have had.
Hire a taxi or motorbike taxi for the day to take you around to the sights you want to see or have them plan out a day for you. It is cheap and well worth not having to get a taxi and figuring out where to go next. A full day cost me $17, from sunrise to sunset.
Ubein Bridge, I did both the sunrise and sunset here….I would highly recommend the sunrise over the sunset. Very few people here for sunrise so it makes for much better photos and a calmer day. The sunset is filled with people and makes for a hectic day.
Mandalay hill: was worth going to. There are two points of entrance. One at the bottom and one half way up….I did not realize there was one half way up or else I would have got my motorbike guide to take me to that one! There are a lot of stairs to climb!!! Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get all the way to the top for sunset. You need to keep going all the way to the top, it gets a little confusing knowing where to stop until you are at the very top. Near the top there is a man there that will read your palms. He is awesome and I would highly recommend him. Since most people that read palms or read energy only speak Burmese, it is quite hard to find one. He has good English and a wonderful personality. His name is Mr. Moe Jumes, Indian Bhabbman Astrologer.
Seeing the Buddha being washed at 430am at Maha Myat Muni Pagoda is not worth it in my opinion….it is very anticlimactic. You cannot get near this Buddha, and women have to be even further back than the men, and really its just a bunch of men washing the Buddha.
If you are flying Air Asia there is a free shuttle to the airport each day. I believe that there is one in the am as well as the early pm. Please check the time when you are there as times may change. Saves you the $10+ dollars to get there on your own.
The boat from Mandalay to Bagan…..I am not sure if it was because we were so tired, but it is not the most picturesque boat ride. It is a lazy day, but not the most comfortable, and this was the more expensive boat we took. I can only imagine what taking the two day slow boat would be like. You need to get here early early, to get a good seat. We got here about 45 -60 minutes prior to leaving and already all the good seats were taken. We got a seat outside which was better than inside with no view, but it got extremely hot during the day and there was no shade. The best seats were outside but under cover. Be prepared to be bombarded once you get off the boat in Bagan for taxis, people to carry your bag and to buy books and postcards. It is here you also need to buy your “ticket” to get into Bagan.
The train from Mandalay to Hsipaw is amazing and totally worth doing. It is an all day adventure, the train is slow, bouncy and stops a lot, but that is what it is all about. The bounciness of the train sometimes feels like you are riding a horse, haha….but never for too long and the motion of the train is not one of bothersome, but can lull you asleep. Book the upper class, they have the best seats for comfort but you can also still walk through all the other train cars, sit and hang with the locals when you want. Get off and buy some local food from the women at some of the stops. Some of the best noodles we had were at one of the stations. Even though it stops a lot, it is great to get off the train, take some photos, see what’s going on, buy some food…The highlight of this route is travelling over the Goteik Viaduct Bridge, soooo cool.
The town of Hsipaw is small and still feels very local. The restaurants and businesses are all very basic names….Mr. Book, Mr. food etc. LOL
Amazing cheap BBQ duck at the San Restaurant, it is located just down from the popular (but nothing special) Mr. Food.
Lilly’s hotel is wonderful and unexpected in such a small town. It is also one of the few elevators I have seen in Myanmar, and a glass one to boot. She is a really lovely woman and greets all her guests.
Trekking can be done through the ever popular Mr. Charles or through any of the guest houses, but they are all very scheduled and not very personal. I would recommend getting a guide outside of these “package’ tours and build your own. We went with Mitch Michael, and he was excellent. You can find him on Facebook.
The bus ride back to Mandalay is not fun. If you are susceptible to motion sickness then make sure you take gravel before you leave. I am not susceptible to motion sickness and I had to take gravel.
If you are looking for a tour guide while here, please look up Mya Mya Mon. She has really good English and an amazing personality. She grew up in the area so knows all there is as well she went to university in Yangon to study tourism.
Phone: 09401561096, she is near Aye Yar Hotel, Old Bagan.
If you are staying in New Bagan visit A Little Travel to get your e-bikes and bus tickets. They are a wonderful couple who run the business and have good prices on e-bikes and they open at 4:30am so you can always get one for sunrise. They are right across from Ostello Bello Hostel.
For some western food La Pizza has authentic wood oven pizzas and they are delicious! It may be a bit on the expensive side but worth it when you are craving pizza.
The Moon is a vegetarian restaurant and it is delicious….this coming from a full on meat eater is a big thing! Ha. It is in Old Bagan
Ostello Bello hostel, it is on the expensive side, but it does include breakfast and free tours at sunrise. They also have trivia nights and a few other perks. The rooms are really clean and have bathrooms in each room.
Download the Maps.me app as they have a lot of the pagodas marked on there so they will be easy to navigate there rather than carrying a paper map. Maps.me is also a great app for anywhere, it is an offline mapping system so you don’t need internet to use it.
Bagan is easy….get an ebike, ride around, stop at pagodas, look around, repeat.
Dress warm for the sunrise, it is cold in the mornings.
The e-bikes run out of charge by the end of the day……my suggestion is if you get your bike early in the morning go and see some places till after lunch then come back to your place for a siesta during the hot part of the day and then before you go out again for the rest of the day get your battery changed up at your bike place, that way you know you won’t be stuck prior to getting home that evening.
The one time that put a bad taste in my mouth about Myanmar happened in Bagan. I am hoping it is not a sign of things to come, but it worries me that it might. I was told about the Minnanthu Village, near New Bagan, where you can walk around the village and check things out. A woman comes out and offers you to show you around for no charge so that you can see their real living. I had asked if I was able to take photos and she said yes, also there would be no charge. Well as we went through the village any person I took a photo of asked for money, it made for a very uncomfortable tour, and not wanting to be there anymore. I ended up not taking photos after that, as I don’t believe in paying to take a photo of someone. I am more than respectful if they don’t want their photo taken or if they ask for money upfront, I will usually decline and move along. Once we made it through the village and I got back to my bike the woman who took me around started really hassling me for 10,000 and told me I need to pay her. I gave her some money, but not that much as she was clearly just wanting to rip people off. I don’t mind paying for a tour or service, but when you are told upfront that there is no charge and everything after is very deceitful that is what puts the bad taste in my mouth. I would not recommend coming to this village at all as it puts a bad name on a beautiful country full of wonderful people.
General Tips and Must Dos
Eat Tea Leaf Salad…this is not available in all of Myanmar I think it’s just in the Shan State, but look around for it. It is so delicious!!
Eat Peanut Candy….they taste like little bites of Butterfinger chocolate bar but with a candy coating and without the chocolate. Delicious! You can buy a bag of them from most food shops for 1000 kyat.
Accommodation is still going to be your biggest expense here. There are not a lot of hostels throughout the country, in the big cities and top tourist areas you will find them, but guesthouses are going to be your main type. It becomes cheaper if you are travelling with others or meet up with travellers to share the costs of the guest rooms.
Be mindful on what you eat, a lot of people seem to get food poisoning in this country.
Try wearing Thanaka, the white paste they wear on their face for sunscreen among other things. I picked up a few bars of it as it will make amazing face masks as it helps with acne, wrinkles, fine lines…..no wonder everyone here has such fantastic skin! 😀
Bank Machines are readily available, but your cards may not work on all of them. It took me trying 4 different banks to find one that would let me take money out, so keep trying if it doesn’t work on the first one.
Make sure you exchange your Myanmar money back to USD before you leave as nowhere outside of Myanmar will exchange the money.
Enjoy the wonderful people of Myanmar and be curious and open like they are. 🙂