Having started my new job (teaching ICT part time at St Paul’s School), I’ve two weeks’ holiday for half term to make the most of in October. Not long enough to do a decent trek in Nepal (Dolpo and Shey Gompa… one day!), and, having done some research, I realised that my options narrowed down to the southern hemisphere, and Asia. Having just returned from Peru, flying back out across the Atlantic didn’t appeal, and I’ve still not clicked with Africa (other than places where I’m worried about safety – internal flights in Ethiopia and more generally in Egypt and Sudan). I’ve done the standard highlights of North India, and much of south east Asia on the World Tour.
And then I spotted Intrepid’s Best of Burma trip and Simon Usborne’s 2012 article about it in The Independent. With Myanmar back on the ethically approved list, the number of tourists visiting Burma seems to have exploded, so it’s a case of get there ASAP (sorry Hazel…). Intrepid’s trip fits perfectly in terms of dates, destinations and group profile; the only question I had was timing, as October is at the tail end of the end of the monsoon, but fingers crossed we’ll have some dry spells, and it’s not so hot. So, having checked finances, I booked earlier this week – getting the 12th and last place. Round the World Experts sorted out flights with Malaysia Airlines via KL.
So, with the annual insurance policy I bought for Peru running until next February, that just left getting a tourist visa. As The Telegraph‘s expert says, the application form (warning: their website comes with music) which you download as a PDF is blissfully simple, and on Friday I headed over to the Embassy of the Union of the Republic of Myanmar in London’s swanky Mayfair armed with one completed copy of the form, two passport photos and £14 cash. Arriving half an hour after opening time for submissions (10am – 12noon), I had to wait a while for my turn at the issuing desk window, but the queuing system was well organised and the waiting room calm. The process seemed pretty straightforward – I’ll find out for sure when I return this Friday afternoon to collect my passport complete (hopefully) with FIT visa. I could collect on Wednesday as the turnaround time is 3 days, but Wednesdays and Thursdays are my teaching days.
Day 0: Afternoon/overnight flight LHR to KL
Day 1: Fly Kuala Lumpur to Yangon landing mid-morning, which leaves the rest of the day free until the 6pm welcome meeting and the official start of the trip. Our Yangon base is the Asia Plaza Hotel, close to Bogyoke (Scotts) Market and the main railway station.
Day 2: A full day in Yangon / ရန်ကုန် (map), featuring a city walking tour, Kandawgyi Lake / ကန်တော်ကြီး and Shwedagon Pagoda / ရွှေတိဂုံစေတီတော်.
Day 3: Early morning flight to Bagan / ပုဂံ (map) and its famous plain of pagodas and temples. Bicycle tour of some of the temples and after a short rest back at the hotel we’re off again, for sunset viewing at Shwezigon Paya / ရွှေစည်းခုံဘုရား and dinner.
Day 4: Free day in Bagan. Not keen on the sound of Mt Popa / ပုပ္ပားတောင် – I’m willing to be convinced, but at the moment I’m more likely to visit the Archaeological Museum and return to the Bagan Archaeological Zone on a DIY tour for more photos….
Day 5: Another free day in Bagan, so maybe a DIY trip to Chauk, Salay and Taung Kalat, 22 miles / 90 mins from Bagan.
Day 6: We set off on our two day cruise up the Irrawaddy River / Ayeyarwady River / ဧရာဝတီမြစ်, with a late afternoon visit to Yandabo / ရန္တပို village, where the treaty to end the First Anglo-Burmese war was signed in 1826. Overnight on the boat.
Day 7: Day 2 afloat on our watery road to Mandalay / မန္တလေး (map), eta late afternoon. En route we stop off at the temples of Sagaing / စစ်ကိုင်းမြို့. Evening visit to Mandalay Hill / မန္တလေးတောင် for in sunset views over Mandalay.
Day 8: Free day in Mandalay. Possibilities include more time on the river to visit the World Archaeological site of Mingun / မင်းကွန်းမြို့, and/or visiting the sights of Mandalay itself such as the last Royal Palace / မန္တလေး နန်းတော် and the Shwe In Bin Kyaung (? Shwenandaw monastery / ရွှေနန်းတော်ကျောင်း).
Day 9: I suspect that today’s main memory will be the long day’s drive to the hill station of Kalaw / ကလောမြု့ up in the Shan Hills / ရှမ်းရိုးမ, albeit travelling along the “new super highway built by the Chinese” according to the trip notes. It’s an early start, so that we can be at U Bein Bridge for sunrise.
Day 10: A 12 mile trek through tea plantations and small villages, with a scenic descent back to Kalaw. Fifteen years ago, Hazel and I were on the eastern, Thai, side of the Hills in Mae Hong Son and Pai.
Day 11: We drive the 37 miles from Kalaw to Nyaung Shwe / ညောင်ရွှေမြို့, our base on Inle Lake / အင်းလေးကန် (map). After about 28 miles, we stop at the Pindaya Caves / ပင်းတယရွှေဥမင်, with a guided tour of the caverns, chambers and tunnels which house over 8,000 images of Buddha.
Day 12: We tour Inle Lake by motorised boat, stopping for lunch in the shadow of Phaung Daw Oo Paya (Hpaung Daw U Pagoda / ဖောင်တော်ဦးဘုရား). Dinner is due to be a traditional Shan banquet. I shall report back on the veggie version… I’m hoping for some hnapyan jaw (twice-fried Shan tofu).
Day 13: A free day at Inle Lake (although Nyaung Shwe is on a river channel a few kilometres north of the lake itself). Options include more mooching around the markets, wandering around the Nyaung Shwe waterfront and visiting the teak monastery of Shwe Yan Pyay, cycling around the nearby countryside visiting villages (memories of Mae Hong Son – I think … – again), and trips to the Indein Temples or into the hills on a Pa-O and Tero hill tribe trek. I’m leaning towards a visit to Inthein (aka Indein) which involves a “boat trip down the narrow waterways to reach the village under bamboo bridges and through mini-dams built from straw“, where you find Nyaung Ohak and the 1054 pagodas at the hilltop temple, Shwe Inn Thein Paya.
Day 14: The main itinerary item for today is the flight back to Yangon, which will require a 1 hour drive from Nyaung Shwe to Heho / ဟဲဟိုး airport first. I’m guessing there will be an end of trip dinner that evening, but I’ve no idea how the day as a whole pans out in terms of the time we have in Nyaung Shwe or Yangon. I want to travel on the Yangon Circular Railway / ရန်ကုန် မြို့ပတ် ရထား today if timetable and time allow (it takes about 3 hours to complete the 15 mile loop, and the Man In Seat 61 says there are departures every 30 mins during daylight hours – although not all departures do the circuit in one go). If not today then tomorrow morning.
Day 15: Goodbye Burma, although I’m hoping that my 4pm flight from Yangon to KL will allow some spare time in Yangon in the morning. My onwards flight leaves KL at 23:55 and lands back in London very early the following day….
- Audley Travel’s rough guide to the monthly average temperatures and rainfall in different parts of Burma, with map.
- XE’s useful info about the MMK (Myanmar Khat) and currency converter.
- Burma Tour’s Useful phrases
- UK Embassy of the Union of the Republic of Myanmar’s tourist visa information page (warning: with music)
- Vegetarian Survival Guide to Burma (Myanmar) – the magic word is thatalo
- A Vegetarian Photo Guide to Burma (Myanmar) – yummy!
Update – 20 September 2013
Mayfair mission accomplished: