Myanmar in three weeks: what to do and where to go
Welcome to Marta’s Blog! Today I will tell you all about our (Hugh and I) experience in Myanmar (Burma), that we visited in January 2016. Myanmar is an absolutely beautiful country which is still relatively unspoilt by mass tourism…. Here below you will find handy notes, tour tips and (of course!) great photos taken by us along the journey with our Nikon D700 and Canon 5D Mark III. Please don’t forget to leave your feedback! That will help us to improve our traveling journal and share our insights on further journeys at best
OK, let’s start with some quick facts that will help you organize your trip to Myanmar:
-Visa: A travel visa is required to enter Myanmar. As we live in central London (UK) it was very easy to have our Visa requested and collected at the Myanmar embassy in only 3 days but you can now also apply online and get a Visa on arrival.
-Where to go in Myanmar and how long to stay: On this occasion we have visited the most popular sites and I created a route accordingly, considering that we wanted to travel by land only being the internal flights still expensive compared with other Asian countries. Our trip starts and finishes in Yangon, touching Mandalay/Bagan/Inle Lake/Golden Rock and Ngwe Saung Beach, first of all because we wanted to meet some friends who where also traveling there at this time and secondly because there are better flight deals to Yangon than Mandalay from Bangkok. We enjoyed all the places in our list and it turned out as a great round-ish trip route for a twenty days trip in Myanmar. Moreover although traveling at peak time, we didn’t feel the places to be overcrowded with tourism at all, excluding some very popular mementos such as watching the sunrise from the temples in Bagan or visiting the Golden Rock in the Mon State.
-The weather in Myanmar and when to go: The weather can change greatly depending on which part of the country you are staying. We traveled in January and jumped from a sweaty 30 degrees in Yangon daytime down to 5 degrees in the mountains in Central Myanmar surrounding Inle Lake in the evening…make sure you carry a foldable warm windproof jacket in your luggage. The best season to go is from November to March as the heat is still bearable and it does not rain so much. March to May is much hotter while from June to October the Moonson season is in place so there will be a lot of rainy days.
-Money change and Myanmar currency: Although they accept (only) pristine no marks or bends USdollars, their local currency is the kyat which is now accepted everywhere we went. You will find money changers and ATM’s in all major tourist places such as Yangon/Mandalay/Bagan/Kalaw/Inle Lake/Golden Rock/Ngwe Saung Beach.
At the airport there are a also a few money changer offices although I lost 80$ in commissions to change 850 Euros, which equals 10%… look around until you find a fair money changer! They are accepting their local currency (kyat) everywhere now, I would say there is no point to bring cash dollars although some hotels will give you a slightly better rate if you pay $ for the rooms. At Jan 2016 the standard rate is 1USD=1300k. 1 Euro is 1420k. Make sure that they don’t go too far with the exchange rates!
-Advance bookings in peak time (December to January): We have booked hotels mainly through Bookings/Agoda or by phoning directly hotels that were listed in the lonely planet a few days in advance and we always found space within our budget, although if you turn up or call on the day and look for a specific hotel that may be fully booked. Same goes for transport: on the major destinations such as Yangon, and Mandalay,there are frequent buses departing throughout the day and evening, but we always booked our tickets with the hotel one or two days before for peace of mind. For the train instead we were told that as we are tourists there will always be a seat for us and it was best just to buy the train ticket at the station.
-If you fly to Myanmar from Bangkok: Only Yangon and Mandalay have international airports. All the other airports in Myanmar are for domestic flights only. If you fly from Bangkok just remember that you may need to commute between the Shuravabunmi? and Don Muaeng airports: now there is a free shuttle and it takes about one hour without traffic.
-Wi-fi or not Wi-fi...At the time of travelling (Jan 2016) I found Wi-fi working OK in almost all hotels, I could make my bookings online, check emails and call with skype and whats app – ish. However I strongly recommend to get a local SIM – Telenor being the best so far – as you will browse much faster and everywhere with no wi-fi needs.
-Calling home: If you haven’t got one already, create a skype account and put some credit on it so you can call anyone on or offline (provided that you are connected to the internet). If the person you are calling is online you can try calling with whats app or messenger, it worked for us most of the times.
-Local SIM: At the time of writing (Jan 2016) we were told the best local network is Telenor as the signal is all over the country, not just the main cities. A local call costs 25k, and is 5kper MB download. The SIM supports 3 GB. The cost of the card is 2000k and comes with a few minutes local calls available. Add an extra 10000k and you will be able to browse,make local calls and the odd international call too for a 3 weeks stay. The only place where it didn’t work was in some of the rural areas during the trekking route from Kalaw to the Inle Lake. As it is working much faster than the wifi in the hotels, I strongly recommend to get one if you need the internet.
-Water: Remember to drink water only from the bottle. Brush your teeth with bottled water also. Avoid fresh fruit and veg unless they are pealed right in front of you and avoid ICE. Also if you drink fresh juices from local Myanmar restaurants make sure they do not add water unless it has been purified.
-Vaccinations: It is suggested that you have a jab of Hepathitis A/Typhoid/Tetanus.
-Malaria Risk: They say Myanmar is at moderate/high risk of Malaria. In the peak season -being the weather rather dry – we haven’t experienced many mosquito bites so we only used deet spray at dusk and dawn and we were OK.
-Don’t forget to bring: An electric strip to charge all your devices at once and the adaptor. We have experienced some power cuts especially in budget hotels and we didn’t want to take the risk of not having our phones and cameras charged.
A torch for power cuts or to walk in the night in rural areas
A medicine set against food bugs/diarrhea attacks including dehydration salt sachets.
A toilet roll/antibacteria hand gel /freshener tissues/ eye mask/sun lotion of around 30spf or 50spf for very white skin.
-Safety: Myanmar people are lovely and think very highly of tourists. It is a very safe place to travel both for men and women.
-How to budget your costs in Myanmar:
Hotels: rooms can be very expensive compared with other South East Asian Countries like Thailand or Cambodia..Generally speaking for one simple but decent double room (with a window, a private bathroom, TV and clean you will spend around $30).
Transport by land like buses and trains is very cheap, like 10000k from Yangon to Mandalay on a VIP 10 hrs bus…taxis can be very expensive, like 10000k for one hour drive.
Food: Food eaten at their local restaurants or street stalls is very cheap also, you can easily have a full meal with 5000k, unless you choose to have dinner in upmarket restaurants, where you should expect to pay about 10000k for a complete meal excluding alcohol.
Transport: flights are still expensive compared to other SEA countries, i.e. 100-150$ for domestic destinations. Buses are the cheapest, quickest and sometimes the only option for most places.
For example, Yangon-Mandalay by bus is 11.500 kyat, Mandalay-Bagan 9000 kyat. Taxis are expensive, about 10.000k per hour of driving. Consider taxi costs for transfer to and from Airports or bus stations which sometimes are far from the city centre.
Staff Tips: They are not expected but they are very welcome. I always leave around 10% with meals and local transports.
How much shall I set aside for my Myanmar holiday trip altogether: We have spent around 900USD per person for a 20 days stay in peak season (Nov-Jan) and we got decent budget rooms ($30 per room/day), we ate international food/fish a few times a week and could spare enough money to cover for site entry fees/tips/laundries/transports around the country/the odd glass of wine and about 50$ worth of souvenirs. If you are in a strict budget you can do with 30$ p.p/ day, if you are a bit more loose like us you should allow around $45 p.p/day.
(Note: The budget above does not include any domestic or international flights/visa fees/travel insurance)
OK, are you ready to follow us on our exciting trip in Myanmar? As they say, LET’S GO!!!
The Road to Mandalay…
We started our trip with an overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay. I was a bit concerned to find a seat because I didn’t get the chance to book from London. But once here I found out that there are about 20-30 overnight buses on the road to Mandalay every night! (having said so in peak season the bus stations are packed with locals as well as tourists waiting to get a ticket..although the chance of all the buses to be fully booked seems unlikely, I would still book the bus ticket one-two days in advance from the hotel, they all have this facilities. Make sure you ask for a VIP Express Bus which is more comfortable.
I had heard online that they put loud music on and the air conditioning makes you freeze so I came prepared with eye mask, socks an a few layers to put on. We were lucky that on our bus TV and lights were off throughout the whole journey and you could dim the air con mouth to be totally off too.
There are different companies operating, our bus was from Mandalar Minn. Their new Scania travel buses are very comfortable with reclining seats, a cushion, a blanket and a bottle of water provided for each seat.
We left at 9pm, with only one stop after 3 hours at a dedicated restaurant on the motorway for a 30 min break. From then we didn’t stop anymore until arrival in Mandalay at 5pm! I am not sure whether the bus stopped at midnight because it was New Years Eve and they wanted to give us some time to celebrate or if it just happened that we were scheduled to stop at that specific place and time but a local band was playing live outside the restaurant and as the midnight hit we could enjoy fireworks too, what a nice surprise!!
As you get off the bus you will be met by thousands of taxi drivers that will take you to the centre for about 8000k.
Mandalay, my highlights:
Considering that Mandalay is the second most populated capital in Myanmar I found it relatively quiet in terms of traffic. People are really laid back here comparing to other major cities in South East Asia. It’s like traveling back in time, we liked it! Apart from the horrible pollution due to engine fuels and the fires htat the people set in the evening and at sunrise to both warm up and get rid of the plastic waste… If you have enough time, set three days to visit Mandalay and the surrounding areas. Don’t miss:
Walking on top of Mandalay Hill Pagoda barefoot! Climb the 1729 steps is a fun experience! It takes about 30 mins, but the path is clean and it won’t hurt I promise! You will find many monks along the path, like Ashinnyanadaja, they walk up the hill in the hope to engage with foreigners and learn English, in exchange of sharing their knowledge on Buddhism and their experience as a monk. A great panorama can be enjoyed from the top!
Mandalay Royal Palace: The Mandalay Palace has been rebuilt since it was damaged from the WWII, but is still worth a visit if you wish to gain an insight of how royal life was back then. Photo Tip: Climb the stairs of the stupa on the left of the palace and you will be rewarded with a stunning view of the site!
Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery: Another must see in my opinion. Built in fine teak is famous for his carvings of the past life-stories of Buddha. It was once part of the royal palace, precisely this was supposed to be the royal apartment of King Mindon, until King Thibaw decided to move it outside of the royal complex. This monastery survived the WWII bombing, which destroyed the other monasteries that were inside the Royal Palace…
Mahamuni Paya: Worthwhile a visit as it hosts the famous giant seated Buddha, which has become the nationally celebrated Buddha image. I didn’t get the chance to visit this but I have heard that every morning at 4am a polishing ceremony of the Buddha Face is held…it must have been quite magical!
Ubein Bridge in Amarapura , at Sunrise:
Most tours include a sunset stop at the attractive wooden Ubein Bridge in Amarapura that comes together with a visit to the 3 ancient cities near Mandalay during the daytime.
But I preferred to see the sunrise instead: first of al as there are only locals tourists, monks and workers crossing the bridge. We hired a private taxi for only 20000k who waited for us about 2hrs.
Buddhist chants made the experience very mistycal, . we walked on the bridge and back when it was still dark, and slowly as the light was coming out we could see the bodies and faces that were populating the bridge.
3 Ancient Cities Tour:
Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa have all once been burmese capitals. If you hire a motorbike you can visit them by yourself although going on a minitour will save you time and money. A tour can be booked at your hotel, they are around $18 included lunch&water. You will also have to purchase a combo ticket for 10.000k to enter various religious sites. It lasts a week and includes also the entrance to the Royal Palace. I enjoyed our tour guide Ian from firstname.lastname@example.org 09797523384.
Where to Stay:
We stayed at the Hotel Victory Point t.084642211 in central Mandalay, very near the Railway station at the corner between 81st and 30st. Booked through Agoda, we seemed to have got a very good deal for $30 a night for a double bedroom with a big window, private bathroom, tv and coffee,continental breakfast included. The hotel features also a roof top with 2 small swimming pools where you can chill by day and enjoy a small folk show at night, at the time we went it was pretty empty but it’s still nice to have the option!
Where to eat:
Just a little further in 81st up between the 30 and 29th street you will find a street food restaurant called Sha ma man with very good and cheap local food. In 30st the chinese family owned Aung Restaurant is also a good choice.
You will most probably need a taxi at some point as Mandalay is bigger than what you may think, we were very happy with Zin Ko 09797489249 or Mazinga, as many Italian tourists call him, he jokes! Koko is also a very affordable taxi driver 0933846114.
Which Bus to get from Mandalay to Bagan?
There are different bus company operating, most of them offering minibuses which take about 4-5hrs. If you wish to stay more comfortable you can book a big bus with Shwe Mann Thu 02 22365. Their bus that leaves at 7.30am, it will take around 8 hrs but it is a nice drive through the countryside.
TO BE CONTINUED ASAP, PLEASE STAY IN TOUCH!