Myanmar. it was formerly known as Burma, a name coined during the British colonial rule. the military junta changed its name to Myanmar in 1989 and it remains the official name ever since.
Myanmar is relatively new to tourism, having only recently opened its doors to foreigners and democratic ideals.
i went to Myanmar in December 2015, shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy won the elections. the country was in a jubilant mood at that time and i remember seeing many posters and banners celebrating her win.
traveling to Myanmar requires a lot of preparation in advance because, as mentioned, it’s a relatively new tourist destination. there aren’t as many hotels to book at the last minute. transportation between different states or cities can be difficult. the domestic flights aren’t very reliable (or safe), so you might have to resort to overnight buses.
nevertheless, don’t let that put you off as Myanmar is an incredible place to visit and i would recommend it to anybody considering a visit.
1 week in Myanmar is really too short to fully appreciate what the country has to offer (then again, there is never enough time) but here’s how i did it:
Day 1: Race to Sunset on U Bein Bridge
i arrived at Mandalay Airport via Bangkok Airways at nearly 2p.m. i took a shared taxi at the airport (shared, meaning, you wait till there’s a enough people to fill up a taxi and then you leave together. it was the cheapest option i think. about 4000 kyat (around USD 3-4 at that time)). by the time i got to my hotel, it was already 4p.m.
i wanted to catch the sunset at the famous teak bridge, U Bein Bridge. this bridge is often the front cover for most of the travel guide books about Myanmar.
so i took a motorcycle taxi to U Bein Bridge. it was a whole lot of fun. the traffic in Mandalay was pretty bad and we were weaving in between trishaws and cars and motorcycles. the view on the way to the bridge was quite scenic so i really enjoyed the motorcycle ride.
plus i managed to get to U Bein Bridge in time for the sunset. yay!
i spent some time walking through the entire length of the bridge. to my surprise, a lot of locals came to me asking if they could take a photo with me. the last time this happened to me was when i was in India. so it felt rather strange. but they were really friendly and nice about it so i didn’t mind it too much.
the same motorcycle taxi guy drove me back to my hotel.
for dinner, i ate at a local food stall, squatting down on the tiny tiny stools. everyone in the stall was local and i could see them watching me from the corner of my eyes.
i had really delicious fried rice with chicken. and it only cost me 350 kyat (about 30 cents if you’re talking USD).
Day 2: Boat to Bagan
i took a 9 hour ferry cruise from Mandalay to Bagan. the company i booked it from was called MGRG Express. it departed for Bagan in the wee hours of the morning, before the sun rose.
it was a very comfortable ride. the ferry was an open air ferry. we sat / slept on rattan chairs and had comfy blankets to keep us warm as it was pretty chilly in the morning.
i met a number of awesome travellers on this ferry and was hardly ever on my own throughout the trip since then – there was a Columbian social media star, a German who worked for BMW and a really funny British ex-military man turned author.
friendly chatter and newfound friends aside, the view from the ferry journey was quite empty and similar throughout, although we did cruise past an island with some pretty golden pagodas.
we got to Bagan at about 5p.m. and shared a taxi to the hostel. it turned out that we were all staying at Othello Bello, Bagan. it’s a typical backpackers’ hostel. maybe a little too typical with the drinking and the noise. i stayed in a female dorm and my dorm mates were really nice and decent – we all slept at about the same time and nobody was crazy drunk or anything like that.
upon arriving at the hostel, i got a huge scare as i could not find my phone. i thought that i might have dropped it at the ferry. so my newfound Brit friend accompanied me on a taxi to the ferry. the staff on the ferry were really nice. they had just finished cleaning up the place and did not see my phone but they still went out of their way to help me search the entire place.
but nope, no phone.
dejected, i figured it was time to move on. the taxi driver tried to console me, which was really nice.
after reaching the hostel however, i found it. hidden underneath my cap. on the bed. gosh. i felt terrible because i just wasted nearly an hour of my Brit friend’s life. thankfully, he forgave me.
worries abandoned, we spent the rest of the night chatting over drinksand playing bingo.
Day 3: Hot Air Balloons and E-bikes
riding a hot air balloon was on my bucket list of things to do before i kick the bucket.
so, i decided to splurge on a hot air balloon ride in Bagan. my other option was to do it in Cappedocia at some point of my life but i had no idea when i would ever travel to Turkey so i figured, carpe diem, do it now.
there were 3 companies that did hot air balloon rides over Bagan and i chose Oriental Ballooning. it cost me a whopping USD 380. yeah, i know, i could probably have used that money to fund another trip or something, but it was rather difficult for me to take days off from work at that time and i really wanted to cross one off my bucket list.
the staff picked us up at 5a.m. and we got to this open lawn area where all the balloons and baskets were already laid out. it was interesting to watch how they fired up the balloons. all that guilt over spending that amount of money dissipated when i was up in the air. i was ecstatic. and giddy with excitement.
we watched the sun rise among the fog. the sun beams fell upon the many stupas and temples, which made them look all the more majestic. it was a lovely sight to behold. my camera phone didn’t do it much justice so i only snapped a couple of photos for remembrance and just folded my arms onto the basket and rested my head onto them while enjoying the stunning view.
initially we were really high up in the air. after a while, our pilot adjusted the height so that it was just gliding above the trees, so we got to have a close-up of the villages, the people getting about their business and of course, the temples.
it was definitely a worthwhile experience for me. it made me feel better when i noticed that almost all the workers were local, although the pilots were all foreigners. at least some of my money is helping them earn a living. the local workers get to ride on the hot air balloons at least once a year, as a treat, and they seemed to really enjoy getting the hot air balloons up to the sky.
after arriving at my hostel, i had a simple breakfast and then rented an e-bike to explore the many temples in Bagan.
this was a bit of a terrifying but thrilling adventure. for those who know me, i am terrible on two wheels. just terrible. i can drive a car. but i probably won’t be able to pass a ‘safe roadside cycling’ exam. i can’t do rollerskates either. so an e-bike was a bit difficult for me to handle.
i kept praying that i wouldn’t crash into anyone. or die. there were heavy vehicles on the road and every time one swooshed past me, i swear my heart must have stopped beating for a few seconds. i rode super slowly (i’m just grateful people were polite enough to not cuss at me). i took multiple breaks along the way and pretended that i was looking at the map when it fact, i was just calming my nerves.
luckily, i didn’t kill anyone. though i did scare a dog half to death when i almost crashed into him. poor thing was sleeping at that time. he got so startled, he kept barking at me afterward. i made a break for it and just scooted off as quickly as i could. i did apologise – said “Sorry” multiple times – but the dog didn’t seem to understand English.
while i was lost in one of the many stupas there, i bumped into a local villager named Pao Kyi. he was a very friendly guy. he’s a party member of the National League for Democracy and was standing behind Aung San Suu Kyi when she was on stage for her swearing-in. he showed me photos of her and him, as well as music videos dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi. awesome stuff!
he also took me to climb a stupa, which had great panoramic views of the temples all around it. we talked about Bagan and how tourism has changed it over the years (he’s from Bagan). he offered to take me to the best stupa to see the sunrise the next day and i accepted his offer.
after my encounter with Pao Kyi, i did some more exploring. while i was walking around a beautiful temple, i met a middle-aged American man and his apprentice, a young local guy from Yangon. the American was setting up an NGO in Bagan, to help create job opportunities for the locals. the young guy from Yangon was going to work with him on the NGO project.
i ended up chatting with them the entire afternoon. we climbed a stupa and watched the sunset together.
it was a beautiful day, and i did not die from my bad driving.
Day 4: Another Sunrise and Bus to Inle Lake
the next morning, a few of the other travellers i met in the hostel tagged along to meet Pao Kyi, for the promised beautiful sunrise. we shared e-bikes this time, and i got to ride behind someone who actually knew how to drive an e-bike.
he took us to his favourite sunrise spot at some unknown stupa. we climbed all the way to the top and was treated to a brilliant sunrise. my first sunrise in Bagan was when i was in a hot air balloon. this time, i was watching the hot air balloons float across the sun, high above the many stupas below.
after the invigorating start to the day, i made my way to the bus station. i booked a day bus to Inle Lake. i would have preferred an overnight bus but my short leave could not afford me that luxury. so i took the 8 hour bus ride to Inle Lake, which turned out okay because there were still stuff to see out the window along the way.
after i arrived and checked into my room, i walked straight to the canal to negotiate a boat trip for the next day.
a boat trip in Inle Lake is the typical thing to do if you’re a tourist there. you can book a boat trip through an agent, or you can go to the canal to negotiate with the boat drivers directly. the latter would allow you to set your own itinerary, and usually at a cheaper rate than what’s offered by the agents. this was what i did, and because i went to the canal pretty late, i got a full day boat trip at a rather reasonable price as the boat driver hadn’t got any customers all day and she was just about to leave.
happy with my itinerary for the next day, i had dinner with a few Malaysian tourists i met while wandering around town and we had a lovely chat about Myanmar and Malaysia and seafood. they escorted me back to my hotel, which was really nice of them, and i had a good night’s sleep.
Day 5: Beautiful Inle Lake and the Overnight Bus from Hell
my boat driver picked me up from the hotel with a motorcycle at 5 in the morning.
i got the boat to myself. the first item on the itinerary was watching the sunrise on the lake.
if you were to find yourself negotiating for a boat trip in Inle Lake, i would recommend a few things:
- ask for it to start on time for the sunrise. that is also when the fishermen start catching fish. there won’t be as many boats on the lake either so it’s extremely calm and serene.
- do not stick with just the North Lake. the North Lake is where they take you to all the touristy stuff in order to try and get you to spend money on random goods. the South Lake is way prettier. you have to spend more to get the driver to take you to the South Lake but it’s worth the extra money.
after catching the sunrise and gazing at the fishermen hard at their work, the boat driver took me to a local market. it was fun watching the locals do their grocery shopping at the market. i got to try their yummy Shan noodles there.
while at the North Lake, the boat driver took me to a few workshops (it’s an obligation for the boat drivers to take you to at least a few workshops, where they might earn a bit of a commission if you buy stuff. most of the workshops are on the North Lake, which is why i recommend going to the South Lake too if you don’t like being taken to so many workshops). i visited the silversmith, lotus-weaving and rice wine-making workshops. to be fair, they were quite interesting, especially the rice wine-making one as i got to try their local wine – 40% alcohol – and there was a guide who explained how the wine was made.
the South Lake was definitely the best part about Inle Lake. the scenery was picturesque, as though something out of National Geographic. you also get a picture of how the locals live in those houses on stilts. there were kids bathing in the river, locals out to catch fish or transport goods on their boats etc.
i spent 9 hours on the lake.
soon afterward, i was on the overnight bus to Yangon.
i usually do quite well on any mode of transportation, for whatever duration of time. but this bus trip was horrible. not because of the bus. or the duration. but because of a certain passenger.
i shall call her, the passenger on A3.
the passenger on A3 was a Western woman who sat on the seat in front of mine.
having absolutely no regard for another human being, she reclined her seat so far back, it was almost 180 degrees (bus partly to blame for having such a ridiculous design). my legs were crushed. i told her several times to kindly put her seat up a little, and she would oblige for a short while before pulling the bloody lever to send that seat crushing my leg again. i couldn’t sleep. couldn’t move. tried to find another empty seat on the bus for refuge. no luck. had to bear with it the entire journey.
the silver lining to this, however, was that i got to make new friends. 2 Singaporeans and 2 Aussie vets noticed my predicament. we joked about it during dinner and ended up taking a taxi together to my hostel in Yangon upon arriving the next morning. we also spent some time together, exploring Yangon.
Day 6: Yangon
i stayed in the Pickled Tea Hostel. i write this on purpose because it was truly a really good hostel, and i like the name. Pickled Tea. cute.
upon checking in after the terrible overnight bus experience, i immediately took a well-deserved shower. the 2 Singaporeans and 2 Aussies sneakily showered at the hostel too, though they weren’t staying there. fortunately, the staff was really cool about it.
feeling fresh and clean, we had breakfast together at a Mohingya stall. we came across many child monks while exploring the area. they came up to us asking for money while chanting sutras, which was kinda weird because i thought monks were only supposed to ask for food instead of money.
we tried a lot of street food, had coffee and tea at a local cafe, laughed as the girls shrieked every time we had to walk pass (massive) flocks of pigeons, and got stared at quite a bit. we came across a grassy park near the national monument and just laid on the grass while watching the sun and water fountains mate to produce a pretty little rainbow.
my newfound friends had to leave to the airport. so i spent the rest of the day with a familiar face i met in Bagan – it was the young local Yangon guy who was working on an NGO. he showed me around the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. along the way, he took me to see his friend, who was a singer, promote his debut album at a shopping mall as a show of support. it was my first time shaking hands with a legit singer.
after walking around the pagoda, we went to a massive local park to hang out and he taught me some simple Myanmar phrases and how to count from 1 to 10. after the sun had set, he took me to an apartment near my hostel to show me a pretty night view of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
after that, i got back to my hostel, only to find 3 other familiar faces in my dorm. they were the same few girls who were my dorm mates back in Bagan. we were very excited to see each other again and spent the whole night chatting and watching Justin Bieber kiss a mannequin on Youtube for some very strange reason.
Day 7: Goodbye Myanmar!
my young local friend took me to the airport and paid for my taxi. which was a really generous gesture but also a bit embarrassing because i was 4 years older so i should be paying my own fares.
nonetheless, i guess it just goes to show that the people from Myanmar are just really friendly and hospitable.
i truly enjoyed my time in Myanmar. if i had a bit more time, i might had added a trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake as i heard that it was pretty enjoyable, and i like hiking.
maybe next time?