A few packing tips. You can get clothes laundered quite cheaply in all good hotels, so pack less. Mosquitos weren’t a big problem but malaria tablets are recommended and mosquito spray is essential. Take hand sanitizer and wipes which are useful to clean your feet as there is a lot of walking around without shoes in the temples. Take flip flops for temple visits. Dress code is conservative. No one wore shorts in Yangon – men or women. Take loose trousers or a long skirt or go equipped with a large safety pin and buy a traditional longhi when you arrive. Elsewhere long shorts to the knee were acceptable in most places, and some temples will let you hire a longhi, but take a wrap or loose trousers to pull on just in case. Shoulders should be covered but sleeveless tops are okay if they are not strappy. It can be a pain to wear long clothes in the heat, but it’s often easier and you will feel more comfortable conforming to tradition. Tips to guides and drivers are okay in US$ but elsewhere it is a cash economy so change dollars ( which must be pristine, unfolded and brand new) to kyats at the airport on arrival or in large towns. Take a large bag to carry them in as you will get vast packs of notes! £1 is about 2000 kyats. Burmese food isn’t great, but there is a lot of Thai and Chinese food on offer.
First impressions as we landed at Yangon was a) the heat which was a sweltering 37C and b) the strange mix of a modern city alongside corrugated roofed houses with mud floors and the very faded elegance of colonial houses that are still used as government offices although they have fallen into disrepair. Then add in incredibly elegant people, heaps of pavement stalls and gridlocked traffic and you get the picture. Yangon is a fascinating, bustling, noisy mix of tradition meets modernity, and given all the construction that is happening will be a changed place in 10 years time.
Two days there is sufficient to get a feel for the city, see the local sites and visit Bago and then you need to escape the heat and go north into the countryside.
Myanmar food is not the best of cuisines, but the influence of Chinese and Thai saves it. My recommendation would be to avoid the traditional breakfast soup called mohinga ( fish stock soup first thing in the morning can be hard to stomach!) For restaurants try The House of Memories which was definitely the best. It was also the house of Ang San Su Chi when she was a child so is historically interesting too. Second best was The Green Elephant, and then Monsoon. We stayed in the Sule Shangri La which has a lively pool and also has a good restaurant. The newest hotel is Centre Point, nearby. Interestingly many Burmese still call the city Rangoon as they don’t like the fact that the military dictators renamed it.
After Yangon we flew to Lashio and then arrived by car at delightful Hispaw on the River Doatthawaddy. Getting an internal flight is a challenge as no one speaks English and the departure boards don’t tell you when the flight is boarding. Given that flights rarely leave on time its very confusing. Arriving at the River Side Hotel in Hispaw is like an oasis of calm. The traditional rooms and bathrooms are lovely and the staff are charming. Seeing the dawn mists rise over the river is truly special. The hotel river taxi will take you to the opposite bank where the bustling main village is, and where they go from the 4am night market to all day market almost without a break. It’s a great atmosphere. The huge leafed green tea is worth buying. The hotel is the perfect place from which to take a boat upstream and visit the monastery and riverside villages. Just being on the boat is magical.
The food in the hotel is ok for breakfast but to eat at night take the hotel river taxi to the Club Terrace. It will drop you at steps up to the restaurant and you just ask the hotel to agree a time for the boat man to return. The food was the best in town, and it’s a great way to travel to dinner, where it is impossible to spend more than £25 for two.
Whilst in Hsipaw try to make it to “sunset hill” for fabulous sunsets over the river valley. Other sites worth seeing are the Bamboo Buddha Monastery with its 150 year old Buddha which is made of bamboo strips under lacquered gold. The site is called ‘Little Bagan’ as it had some charming old stupas. One nearby has a tree growing out of the top ( Eissa Paya). There is also a pagoda dedicated to some of Burma’s 37 nats or spirits (green dragon lady) A visit to the Bawgyo Paya pagoda is a must. It is truly stunning, like a vast pillared palace with its gold leaf and mirrored walls and ceiling. Quite incredible, and made even more so by the fact that every 5 years the paint and mirrored mosaics are replaced.
Reluctantly we left Hsipaw and headed south down to Pyin Oo Lwin. On the way we sampled some delicious snacks of pounded sticky rice and sesame seeds, bound into a sausage, wrapped in a banana leaf and fried. Dipped in a bit of sugar it was like a yummy pancake!
Our guide decided to split the 4 hr drive from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin with a train journey over the mighty Gokteik Viaduct. (We got on at Naury Pain and off at Naury Cho, which took about 2 hours as the train travels very slowly.) Built in 1901 by the British to take supplies up north to support local tribes who were fighting off the Chinese, it was the viaduct was the second highest railway bridge in the world when it was built. The 100 year old train slows to a crawl as it crosses to avoid undue strain on the creaking 300ft structure.
The journey was great fun, the stations we passed through were full of activity, waiving children and food stalls. The start was made even more exciting by the fact that we pulled up at the station as the train was pulling out, so our guide leapt out of the car, yelling at the train driver, station manager and anyone else who would listen. We grabbed our back packs and leapt out too, wondering if we were meant to try and leap onto the moving train, and amazingly the train slowly ground to a halt, stopped outside the station and on we got!
In Pyin Oo Lwin we stayed in the Win Unity hotel -a typical government hotel. Vast rooms, huge bathrooms, wood everywhere and completely soulless. New hotels are being built, so stay elsewhere! We escaped to the tasty food and 1960’s music (!) of the lakeside Feel Restaurant, a 15 minute walk away. The botanical gardens are delightful, and if you have never had a 4-5 ft long hornbill sidle up to you or heard a miner bird squawk hello , this is the place.
The other main attraction of the town is its colonial style houses, many are of course owned by the government and are permanently “closed for renovation”. Why a government of a poor should want to “acquire” houses that they then let fall into disrepair escapes me. Candicraig is the main house – the governors residence and now being “renovated” into a hotel. The town also boasts the largest military academies of the country’s million strong army. Miles and miles of vast walled areas hiding lush grass, training colleges, good accommodation, leisure facilities, plentiful food shops and all amenities. Outside the walls the people eek out a basic life in dirty wooden shacks.
The drive from Pyin Oo Lwin to the plains of Mandalay is very scenic. The road is dotted with water sellers where lorry drivers pull in and hose their brakes to cool them off on the long drive downhill. Mandalay is much more appealing than hot, heaving dusty Yangon. Wide streets, light traffic and much more of a bustling community feel. We stayed in the Rupar Mandalay, an oasis of luxurious calm. For and authentic and tasty traditional lunch whilst site seeing go to the Golden Palace restaurant, popular with locals and tour guides with their clients.
Our guide had a degree in geology and was an expert on gem mining, so he took us to a well known local gem stone shop to see Burma’s famous rubies. Their gem stone prices were eyewateringly low compared to the UK.
There is a lot to see in Mandalay
Maharmuni Temple with its Buddha covered in so much gold leaf that the original 4 ton Buddha now weighs 7 tons. The parts of the statue that can be reached as quite lumpy with gold leaf.
The Royal Mandalay Palace (the Glass Palace made famous by the book of the same name), where the King had houses for his 3 queens and 64 wives / concubines and 125 children. The wives lined up each day for him to decide who he would sleep with that night.
The Golden Palace Monastery built of teak and with beautiful wood carvings around all four sides and massive teak poles that supported the building.
Kuthodaw Pagoda with Buddhists texts inscribed on 729 stupas each with vast stone slabs of text inside.
Centuries ago the King kept moving his palace to new places, so he moved from Ava to Sagaing to Amarapura to Mandalay, lock stock and barrel.
We saw gold leaf beating, to create the little squares of finest golf leaf that the people buy to press onto Buddha statues, and traditional weaving of fabulous silk cloths.
Amarapura and the iconic 1.2km long U Bain teak bridge built 164 years ago, built by Mr Bain who wanted to easily cross the river
Marhagandaryone Monastery with its 1,400 monks all lunching at 10.30am ( they are up early!). This is their last meal of the day, unless they are very young in which case there’s 3 meals. The monks spend a few hours each day carrying a large pot around the local houses and seeking food donations, so they end up with a pot full of a weird mix of unhealthy biscuits.
Ava is on an island so you have to cross the river and then as the road can be muddy ( and to earn money) one has to hop up into a little 3 person horse drawn carriage and trundle onto the all teak monastery with its single monk.
A visit to Sagaing and the U Min Thonze Pagoda with its long line of 30 ‘caves’ or doors covered in glinting glass tiles behind which sit 45 Buddhas is a must see and then once up there at the top of the hill there are views down over the hill with 700 stupas dotted around, connected by stepped paths and wooden covered walkways. On a clear day there are views for mikes across the Mandalay plain
I think there were 500 monasteries in Mandalay.
The nicest way to travel from Mandalay to Bagan is overnight by river boat. The vast peaceful Irrawaddy is magical. The river is vast even after the monsoon when the levels drop 30-50 feet. It is a reflection of the lack of industry and underdevelopment that there is no traffic on this huge river that cuts through the centre of Burma. Seeing the sun set and rise were unforgettable.
Bagan itself is a city of two parts. Old Bagan near the river, within the old city walls, and New Bagan a few miles inland, where we stayed in the Areindmar. It’s very comfortable, and well positioned for an evening wander. The old city is run down, dusty and bustling so best to visit rather than stay. Several new hotels are being built. The government decided to move everyone from the old city a few years ago and rehoused them in small houses that no one likes, as happens in a military state. The city is surrounded by over 3,000 stupas, temples and pagodas, some huge, and some small, some maintained but many just appearing out of the bushes along the road side. Look around anywhere and you will see 10 or so peeping over the trees. They were all built in the 11-13th centuries, some with amazing murals.
The main temples are to name few:
Shwe Zi Gone pagoda 11thC
Ananda Temple ( largest)
Prepare for temple overload!
Outside the city it is a very tough life living in bamboo and wood houses with mud floors and nothing in them other than bamboo beds and cooking pots. They farm like we would have done in the Middle Ages, using oxen to pull old ploughs, and harvesting crops by hand. Women and children squat in dusty hot fields pulling up peanut plants and then painstakingly picking off the nuts and shelling them. Men grind the nuts using an ox to turn the grinding stone to extract oil. Water is carried from local rivers by hand or bullock cart. Nothing is wasted on any plant or tree. It is truly humbling, and still the people smile.
Bagan has quite a few tourists- more than anywhere else, but you can still view the temples with hardly a soul about. Hiring a bike to visit off the beaten track ones is well worth it. Long shorts are fine in the majority of temples, and you can bike in shorts too.
The village schools in the countryside outside Bagan have nothing other than paper and pencil. It was the place where we most felt you could make a contribution. We took some outdoor games (frizbees) and crayons, sharpeners , and pens. I’d recommend some wipe clean wall posters with times tables, numbers, and letters too. Also giving the teacher money will enable her to buy books.
Mount Popa is worth a visit too, with the added plus of seeing some beautiful countryside and everyday village life
Eating in Bagan? There are lots of restaurants but no taxis. Meals for two cost under £15. Hotels have realised that they can charge high prices in $ so beware. The Black was by far the best. Rose Pho Cho was good, the Green Elephant is reliable. Only the Black Rose offered appealing “small” portions rather than the huge ones elsewhere.
Flying from Bagan to Hey Ho we had the usual scrummage for baggage and then before I got in the taxi an old man gave me an unexpected and quite forceful massage in the carpark – another £1 tip! Then on to Kalow hill station. The village itself is not worth seeing as it is relatively well off from its rich rural countryside and the houses are increasingly breeze block and quite sophisticated. But it is a great trekking centre.
The interesting site is the large number of colonial houses, mostly well cared for ( and mistily government owned and occupied!) we stayed in the Amara Resort Hotel on the hill above the town in an original 1902 colonial house. The hotel was delightful, staff charming and the large bedrooms and spa treatments were excellent. It was like staying in a little part of England – the higher altitude made it pleasantly warm, the gardens were so lush and green and even had lawns. On a wander down the road we passed a golf practise range ( for the military) and a brand new army vehicle drew up, a soldier got our, unloaded a golf bag and set it up on the range for his passenger, an army officer to practise. The town had a smart army base, their officers occupy many of the huge colonial houses and there were brand new army cars everywhere.
The next day we left with just a small rucksack each, picked up our guide I town and set off On our two day trek over the hills to Inle Lake.
Well the walk was amazing. We passed through fields where the traditionally dressed women still hoe by hand, past people harvesting rice on terraces, and past bullock carts trundling back and forth with crops. We saw the men thrashing the dried rice by hand, passed women picking and drying chillies, and as far as the eye could see the rich red soil was cultivated. It was a sight from England 700 years ago. No mechanisation – everything planted, weeded and harvested manually, and taken back to the villages by ox carts. Golden rice fields swayed in the light breeze and the hills and valleys were a patchwork of colour.
The little village houses were bamboo and mud and then we arrived at out overnight accommodation – a “home stay”. Our bed was a mattress on the floor, with a dubious duvet. The loo was round the corner outside and had no electricity after 8.00pm. The building was fully of trekkers and after lights out there was a constant flow of people clambering around to get outside to the loo. It was an experience not to be missed but not to be repeated too soon either. Thank goodness for wet wipes! However the supper was really delicious and we left ASAP the next day as the morning musts swirled around after a sleepless night.
Things are changing fast here though and whereas at the moment all trekkers have to stay in terribly basic village houses, we passes a luxurious new hotel being built 30 minutes down the track. Of course it’s in a stunning position, the land was simply ‘acquired’ by an ex military governor, and through the usual corrupt ways of the country over the past 50 years the guy has managed to acquire enough ‘private’ funds to build miles of new access road and erect an extremely smart hotel.
Inle Lake was hot after the cool of the hill station at Kalow, But we were met by a boat which took us and our luggage on a gloriously cool 45 minute trip up to the north of the lake to our lake side hotel – a fabulous way to travel. We stayed at the Inle Lake resort in a stilted house overlooking the lake. Delicious food, relaxing massages and of course delightful people.
Feeling slightly holidays out we were tempted just to rest for a day and enjoy the view from our stilt house across the lake, but we decided on a boat trip, and it was absolutely fascinating. We passed fishermen on their long boats hauling in nets, balancing on one leg whilst paddling an oar with the other one. We saw miles of floating gardens where the local people create floating flower beds and grow crops like tomatoes and gourds up bamboo sticks.
We visited a silk and lotus flower weaving factory which was truly incredible. The girls take a lotus flower stem, cut off a couple of inches and as they pull the two pieces apart a very fine silk like thread the size of a spiders web comes out, gossamer thin. These threads are wound onto a spindle and after 2 years of extracting the thread you get one full spindle. That is then spun into a thread, dyed with vegetable tree bark dyes like mango wood bark, or acacia, ready to be woven on a hand operated spindle when damp to stop it breaking. The resultant material is quite thick but has a unique natural, slightly slubbed texture. Not surprisingly it is expensive- a scarf about 8″ X 5′ cost $100, and large shawls cost up to $800.
Then there is the silk weaving, using silk thread from Mandalay. The silk skeins are dyed using chemicals and soaked in rice wine to soften the threads, then washed in water and dried. It then takes 2 weeks to count, prepare and set up a threaded loom with the 4500 long (weft) silk threads required for a metre width. To create a pattern in the cloth the threads are counted into bunches of several 100, tied at intervals along the length of the bunches and then fixed to a frame. The dyes are then applied between the tied sections as the pattern requires. The dyed sections are then waxed and wrapped and then the whole frame is dyed with the background colour. The silk is then very precisely threaded onto the bobbins by the weaver so that as the bobbin shoots back and forth the pattern set out in the frame when it was dyed emerges as it is woven. The whole process was incredibly painstaking. A good weaver can weave a metre a day.
They also weave a mix of silk and lotus flower which gives a slubbed appearance ( and was far cheaper than pure lotus material too)
Valet boat parking
We then went off to see a family paper making business. Mulberry bark is boiled for 2 days to soften it and then mushed up with a pestle. A square of cotton pulled taut over a bamboo frame is then lowered into a flat shallow bath of water, a dollop of mulberry mash poured onto the frame and then swirled about under the water by hand to ensure it settles evenly onto the frame. Flower petals like poinsettia and lotus are carefully placed onto the mash The frame is then lifted out, dried in the sun for an hour or so, and the paper pealed off. It is then used to make bamboos parasols, strengthened by layers of paint and lacquer.
Although lots of tourists come to Inle, if you avoid the main landing spots it’s actually quite tourist free and the lake is so vast that you hardly see anyone else on it apart from fishermen.
The sunsets are magical.
Then Heho by boat and car, a flight to Yangon and back home via Bangkok