Mingalabar = hello!
Myanmar was a very unexpected addition to my travel plans and it is a country I’m now so glad I threw into the mix. I heard great things before arriving, but didn’t really know what to expect – considering it’s tumultuous history and very recent tourism influx – but I gave it a go and really loved it. I spent a total of 19 days in the country but I think you can see the main sights in around two weeks, if you’re pushed for time.
First stop: Yangon
When arriving in Myanmar, flights into Yangon tend to be the cheapest option. The city itself wasn’t my favourite – it felt claustrophobically busy and noisy, but there were a few places I enjoyed visiting whilst there. I stayed in Scott Hostel @ 31st Street, which was located near to the Sule Pagoda, but was slightly overpriced for the quality of the room/breakfast (£7 per night).
A pretty and centrally-located pagoda built around 2,500 years ago – pop in while you’re in the centre, it’s open daily from 4am to 10pm and costs 4,000 Kyats or $2 to enter.
Chinatown was a good place to stroll around, look at the food stalls and take in all the hustle and bustle. For a cheap meal, head to BBQ street (19th street). This famous street houses vendors selling vegetable and meat skewers that they’ll put on the BBQ in front of you. The beer on 19th street is also pretty good value too!
From Yangon to Kalaw (by bus)
My friend and I took a 12 hour bus from Yangon to Kalaw where we arrived at 5am, found a tea shop to sit in for a few hours (these are famous throughout Myanmar) then immediately started a two day trek to Inle Lake. We booked our trek through the company Everest Smiles and I can’t recommend them or our trekking guide Aki enough!
Our trek was brilliant, we were always provided with so much food and the price was really good too (2 day/ 1 night trek for 32,000 kyats – around £16).
Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake
As mentioned, this was brilliant and probably the highlight of my whole time in Myanmar. The trek wasn’t too strenuous, although the 35/40 degree heat did tire us out pretty quickly. We trekked for about 18 hours over the two days and during the night we stayed at a traditional farm house, where we were served delicious meals and a beer or two!
Inle Lake itself was beautiful and we chose to stay at Gypsy Inn, which was comfortable and clean and provided us a nice breakfast each morning (around £10 night for twin room). There were a lot of activities to get involved in around Inle Lake. For example, we rented bikes and visited Red Mountain Estate vineyard (5,000MMR/ £2.50 for 4 tasting wines), had 1.5 hour massages in Gemini Spa for 7,000 MMR / £3.50 and took a sunset boat tour of the lake to see the dancing fishermen.
We also ate at some great restaurants, specifically:
– Sin Yaw Restaurant: On our first night, we had a vegetarian sharing platter for two people which was huge and absolutely delicious!
– Sunflower Restaurant: the eggplant curry was to die for
– Inle Pancake Kingdom: UNREAL. Our favourite place – we came back twice and had to stop ourselves from eating there for every meal! They have sweet and savoury pancakes, main dishes, great coffees and milkshakes, all for a reasonable price.
Bus from Inle Lake to Bagan
Most people who have been to Bagan absolutely loved it, but for me it just didn’t live up to the hype. Granted, we did get very unlucky with our sunrise/ sunsets and didn’t manage to see the typical balloon-filled view which I was really excited for.
The best bit of Bagan for me was renting the e-bikes and visiting some of the nearby areas (New Bagan, Old Bagan and Nyuang-U) and also the many temples and pagodas. Although there are around 2,000 temples and pagodas, many of them have been closed for renovation following a previous earthquake and a recent tourist death.
If you do choose to go to Bagan, do your research on which sites to visit at what time, otherwise you may drive around for hours trying to find a specific place, only to later learn it is closed to the public. Download maps.me for (relatively) up to date information on the closures.
Bagan to Mandalay
Some tourists choose to miss out Mandalay during their time in Myanmar and after visiting, I sort of understand why – there isn’t too much to do. We stayed for two nights in Mansion Hostel which was really comfortable, had a good breakfast and friendly staff for around £5.50 per night.We booked an ancient cities tour through our hostel, which allowed us to visit Amarapura and Sagaing. Although it was enjoyable, it was not worth the $30 price tag as our driver did not explain anything about where we were visiting, so we didn’t learn much.
In Amarapura we visited the U Bein Bridge, a Monastery, Pahtodawgi Pagoda (closed for renovation February 2019)
In Sagaing we visited Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, Sitagu Buddhist Academy and U min Thonze Pagoda (beautiful).
Final journey: Mandalay back to Yangon
Back to Yangon for our flights out of the country and this should have been a pretty easy journey, however, be careful with which bus company you use. We chose E-lite express’ Executive class bus and it was the worst decision we could have made. Having used JJ express company in Myanmar beforehand, we were so impressed with their service and thought the standard would be similar across the board – how wrong we were. E-Lite Express provided an arctic temperature bus and woke us up at 2am when we stopped at the services, telling us we couldn’t stay sleeping on the bus and had to leave (whilst it was freezing). DO NOT USE E-LITE EXPRESS!
Final Thoughts on Myanmar
I had no prior expectations when arriving in Myanmar, which meant that everything was a surprise for me and all the good bits were bonuses. Unlike its’ neighbouring countries of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, Myanmar hasn’t yet been infiltrated with mass tourism, meaning you often see the ‘real’ country. Burmese people are by far the friendliest people I have encountered during 6 months of travelling SE Asia – they really will do anything to help you and make you comfortable. If you get the chance, try head to Myanmar – you won’t regret visiting this beautiful country.