Back from Burma ….

… for over six weeks now [in early November 2013, when I started this post], and I’m only just writing about it. Why? Well, I know it’s probably heresy, but I wasn’t that wowed by the experience. I’d rank Burma below Laos and Cambodia, and probably Vietnam too. Super-friendly people (Min Gala Ba!) but Myanmar is far from “untouched by the outside world” (as Exodus put it), or at least that’s the case for the beaten track tour (which Intrepid’s Best of Burma definitely was). For me, the most notable indication is that free wifi was available everywhere on the trip. So, a gap between expectation and reality. I suspect that most people who are going to Burma, now that it’s got the green light from Aung San Suu Kyi (အောင်ဆန်းစုကြည်), are very well travelled (certainly the case on my trip) which tour operators need to take into account.

A trip leader really does make or break the group tour experience, and our local guide was a bit of a let down: charming, but didn’t provide much info / insight / recommendations at all – I’ve seen a lot of pagodas (and eaten in a lot of relatively expensive Thai restaurants) but I’m none the wiser on Myanmar’s politics, religion(s), culture(s) or history. Anything I learned I got from a German guidebook (a long story, codeword: AURORA!!) and my best memories were of the things we DIYed.

Yangon and Mandalay are sprawling cities with high rise skylines and roads full of buses/cars/scooters with air and noise pollution to match, and lots of Chinese influence. Yangon has its colonial past and the stunning Shwe Dagon pagoda to compensate, but I’d not bother with Mandalay at all (although, U Bein Bridge is lovely, even in the rain, and we did have the most genuinely Burmese dining experience of the trip at Super 81) and if you’re travelled along a big river such as the Mekong before, the Irrawaddy River won’t show you anything new.

Bagan and Inle Lake / Nyaung Shwe are both well worth seeing, and easy to DIY by hiring a bike/boat respectively. I really liked Kalaw too, but the “trekking” was disappointing and definitely didn’t feel like we were “explor[ing] tracks away from other tourists and traffic”, and whilst the surrounding hills might well be “home to various ethnic minority groups, including the Palaung, Danu and Pa-O”, we certainly didn’t see any. The Seven Sisters Restaurant provides a pleasant enough home-style setting for dinner, but it’s full of tour groups with a menu to match.

The Yangon/Mandalay/Bagan/Irrawaddy River/Inle Lake circuit is already very well geared up for tourists and backpackers – easy to get between the main places on tourist-oriented coach services and to sort out activities, find places to eat (with English menus) etc. Getting off the beaten track I think remains difficult – subject to government restrictions on travel to tribal areas where there’s dissent. Even on the main circuit, accommodation is gold dust, so my tip would be either (1) give it a few years and then go independently as, by then, there should be more accommodation built (and approved for foreigners to stay in), or (2) find a trip that takes you off the beaten track – I’ve started to see some being advertised.

Here’s the detail of my trip, with photos and notes.

Friday 18 October 2013: London to Kuala Lumpur (Photos)

Afternoon/overnight flight LHR to KL. Off to Myanmar with the excellent Malaysia Airlines!

Saturday 19 October 2013: Kuala LumpurYangon (ရန်ကုန်) (Photos)

Filled out the Union of Myanmar Arrivals/Departure card and the Customs Department Passenger Declaration Form at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, while waiting for 10:05 flight on to Yangon. Body clock all awry. A couple of hours later, we descended over the murky brown waters of the Andaman Sea, on over the proverbial patchwork of green fields and then some very smart residential villa developments before landing at Yangon International Airport at 11:15 local time.

Very luckily coincided with two fellow Intrepid travellers at the taxi queue, so we shared a taxi to the Asia Plaza Hotel – having stocked up with Kyat from one of the bank booths in the airport’s arrivals room. There’s an official exchange rate which all the banks have to honour, so the airport is as good a place as any to change your dollars. The taxi fares are regulated too – although only from the airport, and there’s a somewhat opaque tariff system factoring in aircon (or not) and number of passengers. The fares list for the branded taxis on the ranks outside the arrivals hall suggested they’d be better value.

Checked in at the Asia Plaza and got a lovely corner room with views out over the abandoned looking railway lines and over to Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံစေတီတော်). The views were even better from the 15th floor rooftop restaurant terrace – north towards Shwe Dagon but also east towards St Mary’s Cathedral and south east to the old British colonial quarter and the red stone of the Ministers’ Building / Yangon Secretariat (ဝန်ကြီးများရုံး) sitting beautifully with the green grass and trees.

My afternoon’s mission was to stay awake until the 6pm welcome meeting, so I headed out to explore, strolling the local streets leading down to the colonial buildings that line the waterfront (albeit a waterfront largely hidden behind a concrete wall and across a 4 lane main road) – the Myanma Port Authority building, the Strand Hotel, the Pansodan Ferry Terminal, the British Embassy. Turning north I found my way to Maha Bandula Park (မဟာဗန္ဓုလ ပန်းခြံ), the white obelisk of the Independence Movement and more relics from the Raj – the former Supreme Court and High Court buildings.

The highlight of my stroll was the Sule Pagoda (ဆူးေလဘုရား) sat majestically in the middle of its roundabout at the junction of Maha Vandula Road (east/west) and Sule Pagoda Road (north/south). A good first encounter with Burmese people and the Buddhist religion.

Back at the hotel, I pottered around my room before heading up to the restaurant to meet my fellow travellers and for the trip briefing (always a slightly tedious process) before heading out for dinner at the Zawgyi House, a few blocks west from the hotel. A very generously portioned meal, and a bottle of Green Dagon, my first taste of Burmese beer.

Sunday 20 October 2013: Yangon (ရန်ကုန်) (Photos)

The first full day of the trip started with a walking tour of Yangon (ရန်ကုန်) (map), which took us west along Bogyoke Aung San Road, past betel sellers, umbrella repairers, pavement builders and modern shopping plaza and hotel complexes as far as Bogyoke (Scotts) Market where we turned south into the grid of smaller roads, thronged with stalls and shops, people and the occasional (crazy) car. Each street (or section of street) specialised in selling specific things – fruit and veg, fish and meat, flowers, sewing machines, thread and other bits, bobs and bobbins of haberdashery, books and newspapers, glasses (spectacles), bags, clothes, computers, kitchen ware … With Josh leading the way we passed through the Chinese, Indian and Muslim quarters before arriving at Maha Bandula Park (မဟာဗန္ဓုလ ပန်းခြံ) and heading down Maha Bandula Park St to the PPQ Bakery, for coffee, cake, ice cream and loos. Then onwards through the old Colonial Quarter, and back to the hotel via St Mary’s Cathedral.

All done in 90 minutes, we had the rest of the day until 4pm as free time, so I headed over to the main railway station and caught the 1.10pm anticlockwise departure on the Yangon Circular Railway (ရန်ကုန် မြို့ပတ် ရထား) which proved a good way to spend three hours, watching some of Yangon’s suburbs and the surrounding countryside slide by at a suitably slow pace. I did have to leg it back to the hotel to make the 4pm rendezvous though.

Our minibus crawled through the traffic to Kandawgyi Lake (ကန်တော်ကြီး) where we made like the locals and strolled along the lakeside admiring the views out towards Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံစေတီတော်) and took photos in front of the gigantic “duck” barge (a mega restaurant in both size and prices). Then, on through the traffic to visit Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံစေတီတော်) itself where we spent a lovely hour circumnambulating the pagoda’s central spire as the afternoon turned to evening. The downside of being left to our own devices was that I had very little idea what I was looking at, or indeed what specific sights to seek out – it’s a vast complex of shrines. Great people watching though. An hour was nowhere near enough.

Making the most of the minibus hire, we were driven on to dine at the Padonmar restaurant, the lovely colonial villa setting compromised by the large number of tour buses and big tour groups that were there too. Eating in a sanitised, industrial scale restaurant, surrounded by lots of other tourists and with the only local people those taking our orders and serving our food was guaranteed to make me grumpy.

Monday 21 October 2013: Yangon (ရန်ကုန်)Nyaung-U (ညောင်ဦးမြို့) / Bagan (ပုဂံ) (Photos)

As the trip notes promised, it was indeed an early morning flight from Yangon (ရန်ကုန်) to Nyaung-U (ညောင်ဦးမြို့), the airport and small town that serves as the entry point for (old) Bagan (ပုဂံ). We said a 4.30am au revoir to the Asia Plaza Hotel and drove through quiet streets to Yangon airport, where we sat with lots of other tourists waiting for the morning departures to start. Air KBZ proved to be at the tail end of the manifest but a smooth flight took us north to Bagan, with a bird’s eye view of fields, winding rivers, vast lakes and forests, and, as we came into land, the famous plain of pagodas.

After we’d settled in at the New Park Hotel (very nice villa-style rooms), Josh took us on our orientation walk, starting with restaurant row (very handily located at the end of our street) and then on along the main road and into Nyaung-U where he left us to our own devices. In the company of some of the other single ladies on the trip, we explored the market, which was fascinating. I should have bought some souvenirs there, but it felt too early on in the trip.

After an early but lovely, tranquil lunch at The Beach Bagan open air restaurant, overlooking the Irrawaddy / Ayeyarwady River (ဧရာဝတီမြစ်) and accompanied by the occasional cooling breeze, I headed back into the markets for another mooch, and then wandered back to base and sat out on my veranda reading until it was time for our sunset visit to nearby Shwezigon Pagoda (ရွှေစည်းခုံဘုရား). Another lovely late afternoon to twilight experience, this time with everyone taking advantage of the opportunity to pick Josh’s brains as we strolled round.

Together with Anna and Miriam I lingered to watch twilight turn to night, before returning to Restaurant Row and joining the others for a smashing meal at Bibo: highly recommended, it’s a lovely place run by a young couple – he waits on the tables, she makes all the meals from scratch. It’s on your right as you walk along Restaurant Row towards the main road, just before Weather Spoon’s (which would prove to be much better than expected! Another Restaurant Row recommendation – don’t be put off by the name).

Tuesday 22 October 2013: Bagan (ပုဂံ) (Photos)

After breakfast at the New Park Hotel, Josh led us on a bicycle tour from Nyaung-U (ညောင်ဦးမြို့) along the main road and into Old Bagan (ပုဂံ) (map) and around some of the main temples and pagodas on the famous plain.

Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments (registered with UNESCO as a Tentative World Heritage Site) was one of the highlights of the whole trip – amazing architecture, beautiful decoration inside and out, and gorgeous red / green / blue colour combinations with the red stone pagodas set amidst the rich green landscape, with a cerulean blue sky above.

It had been frustrating to have to sail past some of the temples set along the main road (particularly given the beautiful the morning light on the fields), so Anna, Miriam and I left the main group at Thatbyinnyu Temple (သဗ္ဗညုဘုရား) and spent the rest of the day exploring by ourselves. I really enjoyed cycling from site to site, the plain setting making it easy going although last night’s downpour had turned some of the access roads turning into ponds. At one of the quieter temple sites, where a trio of temples formed a triangle by the corner of Anawrahta Road and the Bagan – Nyaung U Road (so, maybe Minyeingon Temple?) a young girl offered to unlock a small, unprepossessing temple and to show us the painting inside, which proved to be wonderful.

Back in Nyaung-U we had a late lunch at the lovely at Bimo, then rendezvoused with the rest of the group and the minibus for our sunset tour of Bagan.

Wednesday 23 October 2013: Nyaung-U (ညောင်ဦးမြို့)Mount Popa (ပုပ္ပားတောင်) / Popa Taung Kalat – Bagan (ပုဂံ) (Photos)

Faced with a free day, so I succumbed to the morning excursion to Mount Popa (ပုပ္ပားတောင်). En route we stopped off at a jaggery farm/shop where we got to try some of the sweet stuff, and tea leaf salad too. Mount Popa / Popa Taung Kalat itself proved to be a lot more free from monkey hassle and monkey shit than I’d expected from the reviews. It was interesting to follow local families making the pilgrimage to the top of the holy mountain and the views from the top were superb, but overall the trip felt rather tame; yes, there are a lot of steps, but they’re all under cover and there are plenty of benches built into the walls and shrines to investigate if you want to rest en route. Naturally, the price turned out to be a little higher than first suggested, due to the high quality, air conditioned, private hire car transport. No guide either.

Back in Nyaung-U (ညောင်ဦးမြို့), Clare, Anthony and I lunched at Weather Spoon’s before resisting the lure of chocolate cake (made with chocolate imported from Belgium…) and peddling off back to Bagan (ပုဂံ) to visit the excellent Archaeological Museum, which came with an added bonus encounter with a group of Buddhist monks. And let’s not forget the 55 ladies hair styles on show….

We made lots of scenic stop offs our way back to Nyaung-U, including a detour into the village of Taungbi in pursuit of some decorated ox carts (which turned out to be transporting tourists rather than the hoped for wedding party, but hey….), and an ascent of Gubyaukgyi Temple as the dusk gathered – no sunset again, but lots of photos.

For dinner, Anna, Miriam and I feasted on Burmese salads and fruit smoothies courtesy of Weather Spoon’s, with banana fritters for pudding. We’d all be sad to say farewell to Bagan….

Thursday 24 October 2013: Nyaung-U (ညောင်ဦးမြို့) / Bagan (ပုဂံ)Yandabo (ရန္တပို)Irrawaddy / Ayeyarwady River (ဧရာဝတီမြစ်) (Photos)

Early breakfast then farewell to Nyaung-U (ညောင်ဦးမြို့) and the New Park Hotel with its impressive array pedal and electric powered Chinese bikes as we clambered aboard our horse drawn carts for the next stage of our journey … to the banks of the Irrawaddy / Ayeyarwady River (ဧရာဝတီမြစ်) where we met the rather basic boat (a converted passenger-cum-goods barge) with the lovely crew, which, over the next two days, would carry us upstream to mystic Mandalay (မန္တလေး).

A gentle pace, with plenty of time to rest on the deckchairs or on the bitumen roof, watching life on the river glide by. We met a few large boats coming downstream – some carrying heavy cargos of timber or machinery, others rather swankier cruisers plying the same route. On the river banks, families farming, fishing, washing.

The afternoon visit to Yandabo (ရန္တပို) village proved to be a standard tourist activity. The trip notes make much of the fact that the village is where the treaty to end the First Anglo-Burmese war was signed in 1826, but in the village itself the focus is on clay pot making. Still, it was interesting to be given a tour around a village, although it was eerily empty of people. Again, no explanation as to why.

The boat’s cook produced great meals, morning, noon and night, and this evening we waited until we’d moored before having dinner so that the engines could be turned off while we ate. After dinner, a fire out on the sandbanks before retiring to sleep out on the top deck under mosquito nets slung from the metal framework above.

Friday 25 October 2013: Irrawaddy / Ayeyarwady River (ဧရာဝတီမြစ်)Sagaing (စစ်ကိုင်းမြို့)Mandalay (မန္တလေး) (Photos)

Day 2 afloat on our watery road to Mandalay started with a lovely sunrise, followed by a little more snoozing back on my open air mattress, and continued in that leisurely vein lounging around on deck watching the world go by.

As we neared Mandalay, the temples of Sagaing (စစ်ကိုင်းမြို့) materialised, covering the hills on the left bank of the Irrawaddy / Ayeyarwady River (ဧရာဝတီမြစ်). Having glided under the Inwa Bridges, we moored near a group of bathing ladies (responsible travel?), and tucked into our final excellent meal onboard before taking a van up to the U Min Thonze Cave / Pagoda, with its 45 beautiful Buddhas sat against mirrored walls in a curved, crescent line, and great views across the river to Mandalay (မန္တလေး).

We docked at Mandalay’s busy waterfront mid-afternoon, amidst dragonflies galore, and boarded our coach which then battled the traffic into the centre of town. Mandalay (map) was my least favourite stop of the trip – densely built with streets jam packed with cars, vans/buses, motorbikes all spewing out air pollution which the nearby mountains keep trapped over the city.

I settled into my room at the Silver Star Hotel, then headed out for a stroll – ending up at the south western corner of the moat that surrounds the Mandalay Palace (မန္တလေး နန်းတော်) before turning back to base, and picking up some throat sweets (I got a nasty cough in Burma which took me 5-6 weeks to shake once I got back home, and then only with the help of some penicillin and a ventolin inhaler!) and water en route.

As the rain was bucketing down, Josh had arranged a van-bus (1,000K each way) to ferry us to the Green Elephant, where we dined on expensive food in another tourist-filled, restored colonial restaurant. My gripe with these kinds of restaurants is that even when you’re presented with a menu full of local specialities, you can be 99% sure that they’ve been adapted for tourist tastes. A secondary grump was that we’d already asked not to be taken to them…..

Saturday 26 October 2013: Mandalay (မန္တလေး) (Photos)

Our free day in Mandalay (မန္တလေး) (map) started with a walking tour of Ze Cho / Zegyo market, led by Josh, which was really interesting. The group then split into those who did a sight seeing tour with Josh as an optional extra (why not include it – as we found out, DIY in Mandalay is far harder than elsewhere), and Joelle, Anna, Miriam and I who opted to try out hand at taking in the sights on public transport…. where we had variable success: finding the bus stops near the market was tricky, but we had lots of help from local people (and even more offers from taxi drivers who wanted to take us on a tour), but unfortunately our first bus got a flat type somewhere on 32nd Street, and the next bus we hopped on to get us up to the cluster of pagodas north east of the Mandalay Palace (မန္တလေး နန်းတော်) complex charged us 1000k each (I think the local fare was closer to 100k-200k)…. At least our adventures on public transport meant I got familiar with numbers written in Burmese script.

Along with the Palace, several of the pagodas are covered by a $10 combined ticket, but we decided to avoid those and focused instead on “the world’s biggest book” – aka the inscribed marble ‘tomb stones’ at Kuthodaw Pagoda (ကုသိုလ်တော်‌ဘုရား) (although getting into it we took the “scenic route” around the perimeter walls and through some goat-filled woods). We did get to see the beautiful carved teak of the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung / Shwenandaw Monastery (ရွှေနန်းတော်ကျောင်း) through the bars of the railings that surround it, and the outside of the Atumashi Kyaung (အတုမရှိကျောင်း) monastery next door. We did a lot of walking, in vain, in search of the Sandamundi Pagoda – I think our directions/info was wrong as we wandered along long N-S streets and the military compounds that sit to the east of Mandalay Hill.

Having sat on a very slow bus back to the Ze Cho / Zegyo market area, we cut out losses and negotiated with a private taxi driver to take us to the sights south west of the city centre, which proved 3000k each well spent as he took us to the quiet (free) entrances to the stunning Maha Muni Pagoda (မဟာမုနိဘုရားကြီး), where the (male) faithful stick gold leaf offerings onto the ever growing Sacred Living Image of the Buddha, and the Shwe In Bin Kyaung, where we got to go inside the beautiful carved teak monastery building and to wander around the grounds (almost) all by ourselves.

At 4 o’clock we rendezvoused in the reception of the Silver Star Hotel, and were driven to Mandalay Hill (မန္တလေးတောင်), where sadly the rain impinged on our sunset views over Mandalay but (re)visting the Kuthodaw Pagoda en route (would have been nice to have been told that this morning). Still, dinner at the really super Super 81 made up for the rain – a feast, and a bargain to boot!

Sunday 27 October 2013: Mandalay (မန္တလေး)U Bein Bridge (ဦးပိန် တံတား)Kalaw (ကလောမြု့) (Photos)

Up early for a long day’s drive from Mandalay (မန္တလေး) to Kalaw (ကလောမြု့), I headed out after breakfast to buy some water for the journey and coincided with a long train of monks on their morning tour around town collecting alms. Wonderful.

Although the trip notes said we’d be at U Bein Bridge (ဦးပိန် တံတား) for sunrise, we left the Silver Star Hotel in daylight, and by the time we reached the bridge it was raining. Still, the downpour (it got worse during our visit) made for an atmospheric stroll on the bridge out over the waters of Taungthaman Lake which was dotted with fisherman out in boats and bare legs.

Courtesy of the Chinese built road, and a lot of beeping of the horn, our coach made short shrift of the journey to the hill station of Kalaw (ကလောမြု့) up in the Shan Hills (ရှမ်းရိုးမ), with stops for morning tea and lunch at a roadside canteen/restaurant en route. The rain didn’t stop – which curtailed the scenic views somewhat.

I liked Kalaw; after Mandalay it really was a breath of fresh air, considerably cooler (quite chilly in fact!) than the cities and plains we’ve been in up until now. A lot smaller too, with the town centred on a few blocks that comprised the market area. After settling in at the aptly named Winner Hotel (big, clean rooms, plenty of blankets, complementary tea, a kettle/fridge and TV that worked – even a hair dryer!), Anna, Miriam and I ventured out in the rain to explore. The colonial railway station wasn’t worth the soaking, but we spent a happy hour drying off sipping sweet chai and tucking into fresh, sugared paratha at a local cafe before mooching around the market stalls and the surrounding shops.

Dinner at Dream Restaurant provided some with an opportunity to sample the local red wine, which got rave reviews.

Monday 28 October 2013: Kalaw (ကလောမြု့) (Photos)

Up early to explore the market, as recommended, only to find that the rain made for a delayed start to the day in Kalaw – so a largely empty market. Still it did mean that I was up in the Winner Hotel‘s rooftop restaurant breakfast room when the monks returned to the Thein Taung Paya monastery (just on the other side of the Union Highway from the hotel) after their morning tour of the town collecting alms. With the rain easing off, I returned to the market to see stall holders setting up shop and then climbed up the covered red step staircase to see more of the monastery which provided great (albeit cloudy) views out over Kalaw and some very, very young puppies (I’m not talking novice monks here!).

The day’s “12 mile trek through tea plantations and small villages, with a scenic descent back to Kalaw” included a local guide who was excellent, pointing out crops, orchards and birdlife, and explaining the tea leaf processing taking place in the village where we had an early lunch which included some local delicacies: To Hpu Gyauk (Burmese tofu crackers). Alongside lots of rich red mud, we encountered beautiful flowers, the occasional butterfly, vast spiders webs with large spiders holding court and gathering prey at the centre, hanging gourd gardens and rice fields glowing bright green when the clouds lifted for a while. All that said it did feel like a very well trodden route for tour groups to do as a day walk from Kalaw.

Back in town, I could have done with a guidebook to get more out of the afternoon’s free time. I headed out to explore a little beyond the central markets now that the weather had brightened up a little, taking some more photos of the mirror mosaic pagoda – Aung Chan Tha zedi – that nestles between the hotel and the market and of the view from the monastery.

The day’s highlight was trying some truly local food – a 500 kyat bag of Shan Tofu Salad – To Hpu Gyaw Thouk (I think…). Having watched two local men buying a bag each from a lady at a stall by the market, I just asked for the same, including the dashes and splashes that came from the 5 bottles and jars arrayed beside the tofu triangles. I wish I’d had the nerve to ask for a photo…. As I headed back to the hotel I was halloooed by Mac and Max, Clare and Anthony who were enjoying a Mandalay beer at a cafe bar perched above the Union Highway, which provided a perfect opportunity to tuck into a bottle of beer alongside my Shan State snack. The family running the bar were lovely, serving up my plastic bagged snack on a chintz saucer and with a spoon.

For dinner, Josh had booked a table for us all at the famous Thirigayha “Seven Sisters” Restaurant, which was OK but can’t really live up to the hype.

Tuesday 29 October 2013: Kalaw (ကလောမြု့)Pindaya Caves (ပင်းတယရွှေဥမင်)Nyaung Shwe (ညောင်ရွှေမြို့) (Photos)

Awake early, to clear skies which made for some lovely final photos of Kalaw – Aung Chan Tha zedi (the mirror mosaic pagoda) and (again from the Winner Hotel‘s rooftop restaurant) monks setting out from Thein Taung Paya monastery to gather the morning’s alms.

Bidding farewell to Kalaw, we boarded our bling bus and drove through the colourful Shan State (ရှမ်းပြည်နယ်) countryside to the Pindaya Caves. I’d taken “We venture into the labyrinth of tunnels with our guide to gain a better insight into its history” to mean we’d have a guided tour of the caverns, chambers and tunnels which house over 8,000 images of Buddha…. instead we were left to our own devices to explore the limestone caverns for an hour. Stunning – but I would have liked some explanation. Yet again, I regretted not bringing a guidebook.

Lunch at the Green Tea Restaurant – a lovely lakeside setting and set up, but catering solely for large western tour groups – then looping back through the fields and hills (I became a tad obsessed with getting a snap of the beautifully stacked cabbages and the wooden horse and carts collecting them) towards Nyaung Shwe, our Inle Lake (အင်းလေးကန်) base for the next few days.

We had a couple of stops en route: a viewpoint over the valley where the Myanmar Railway line loops back on itself (which apparently inspires poets), and at the fascinating Nan Cherry Bamboo Umbrella and Shan Paper shop near Heho (ဟဲဟိုး) where we got to see a family producing hand made petal decorated paper and traditional bamboo umbrellas. On the final approach to Nyaung Shwe we had some time to photograph the beautiful teak monastery of Shwe Yan Pyae.

Our home in Nyaung Shwe was the Hu Pin hotel, which provided a compact, simple but bijoux twin bed room and – most importantly – laundry facilities. The Explore and Exodus groups were staying here too – we overlapped with them both at various times on our trip. The lovely ladies on reception provided a map of the town, and Anna, Miriam, Joelle and I headed out to explore, visiting the Yadana Man Aung Paya as dusk fell.

For dinner, Anna, Miriam and I followed up on one of the suggested restaurants in Miriam’s guide book rather than going for pizza with Josh and the rest of the group. The Aurora proved a winner: family run, local food and plenty of it. Wonderful. If you’re ever in Nyaung Shwe, eat there.

Wednesday 30 October 2013: Nyaung Shwe (ညောင်ရွှေမြို့) / Inle Lake (အင်းလေးကန်) (Photos)

We walked from the Hu Pin hotel to Nyaung Shwe’s motor boat dock where lots of long thin boats were manoeuvring to allow tourist passengers to board in groups of four. Donning life jackets (‘responsible travel’) we then zoomed off down the river channel towards Inle Lake meeting local taxi/bus boats coming the other way, rather more heavily laden.

Out on the lake, the scenery was superb – fishermen dotted around the lake with the green mountains looming all around. Plenty of space, blue skies above.

Our first stop was at a local village where we had time to mooch around the market and tried some rice-in-bamboo sticks which seemed familiar (from Laos I think). To get there, we turned off the lake waters and into channel lined by floating tomato beds and houses on stilts. As we approached the dockside these gave way to shallower ponds and waterways filled with pink water lilies – beautiful.

Then on further, crossing the lake to the handicraft village which was our main base for the rest of the day. I was a bit disappointed as I’d hoped we’d get to see some of the temples and pagodas that are dotted around the lake – Inthein in particular. Instead we had a sequence of visits to souvenir shops and small scale factories – silver smithing and jewellery, lotus stem silk weaving, boat making, interspersed with a walk through the village to the monastery and market (just stalls, no sellers – the market wasn’t on in this village today – so why visit??) and lunch at a tourist place overlooking the water channels. Later after visiting the weaving sheds (the most interesting of the stops) we had another stop for iced coffees and a stroll along bamboo raised walkways and over bridges above shallow ponds filled with giant lily pads and beautiful water hyacinths.

Our journey back through the floating market gardens took us past (fast) the Phaung Daw Oo Paya (Hpaung Daw U Pagoda (ဖောင်တော်ဦးဘုရား)) and we were virtually in convoy with the other tourist boats motoring through the channels heading back to Nyaung Shwe. Both here and in the visit to the first village I felt very voyeuristic. It was clear that most of the people working in the tomato beds didn’t like being gawped at or photographed by relatively wealthy foreigners. Who would?

A lovely long day out on the water – I just wish we’d seen more of the real life on and around the lake.

Dinner was advertised as a traditional Shan banquet – but at 10,000 kyat the price seemed steep especially as there didn’t seem to be a veggie version (and I have to say I’d thought the meal was included in the trip price), so Anna, Miriam and I returned to the lovely Aurora to dine on Tomato salad, Carrot and Ginger salad, and a puffed rice beer snack starter.

Thursday 31 October 2013: Nyaung Shwe (ညောင်ရွှေမြို့) / Khaung Daing (ေခါင္တိုင္) (Photos)

My free day at Nyaung Shwe began with a glimpse of the local monks on their morning rounds before rendezvousing with Anna and Miriam at breakfast in the Hu Pin hotel‘s almost open air dining area. Our plan for the day was to hire bicycles and to find the hot springs on the west side of Inle Lake.

But first we headed into the town market in search of woven plastic baskets… First seen in Nyaung-U (ညောင်ဦးမြို့) and again at Kalaw (ကလောမြု့), the brightly coloured modern versions of the bamboo shopping baskets had been top of my souvenir list for a while but had proved elusive in Nyaung Shwe other than at tourist shops, where they came with tourist prices to match. We’d almost given up hope of finding them in the market when suddenly we saw a flock of ladies gather around a pair of opening shutter doors… through which bundles of packet baskets started to materialise. We had chanced upon the town’s best basket shop – and, after watching a few local ladies and gents make their purchases, three baskets were duly bought.

Next stop, the post office. Small and off the beaten track, we followed instructions from the hotel’s receptionist team and arrived just as the post office opened. Josh’s prediction that no post card would make it back home was to prove unfounded – which meant my recipients ended up getting two each, with stamps commemorating the upcoming Southeast Asian Games being hosted by Myanmar. Success all round.

Back to the hotel to drop off our baskets and to pick up hot springs kit, and then on to hire bikes from a stall on the far side of the market. Although not in as good condition as the ones we’d hired for our Bagan explorations, our Nyaung Shwe bikes were hardy enough to get us out and about along the lakeside roads which came both surfaced and not.

A smashing day out, albeit not successful in terms of our planned destinations: the hot springs at Khaung Daing (ေခါင္တိုင္) have been turned into a tourist spa, but we had a lovely time cycling through the countryside as far as the Hu Pin Khaung Daing Village Resort where we pottered around manicured gardens and up to the pagoda at the top of a long flight of steps, rewarded with beautiful views out over the lake, a chatty, tubby, monk and more glittering, mirror mosaic decor. It turned out the rest of our group were at the hotel too, lunching on the restaurant verandah along with two other western girls – the only guests we saw in the whole place.

Retracing our steps (tyres) towards Nyaung Shwe, we stopped off at the Innoo Ancient Pagodas and paused at Khaung Daing opposite the hot springs to climb up to the pagoda (and spotted the bubbling public pool at the base of the staircase), where the guardian provided tea and snacks as we rested in the cool interior. Lots of interesting village life en route in both directions – schools, markets, shops, restaurants, and temples of course, and super helpful people every time we stopped for directions.

Cycling straight through Nyaung Shwe, we went in search of the Red Mountain Vineyards from whence we’d hoped to watch the sun set with a glass of red wine… but we failed to find the sign or the road – I wish I’d seen this map before! Instead, after a refreshing, farewell, juice at the lovely Aurora, we headed back across the river to the tree lined avenue we’d cycled along in the morning, and found a sunset spot with a view out over the ponds to an old monastery and the hills behind with a lone fisherman checking his nets closer by. Both our days at Inle Lake brought beautiful late afternoon light.

Back in Nyaung Shwe and having returned our bikes, we stood firm in our resolve to deny ourselves a third dinner at the Aurora – tempting though it was – opting for the night market instead. Home to a handful of food stalls with a welcoming sign-cum-menu listing all the dishes on offer at the entrance, it was hard to choose between the family run stalls so we plumped for the one that offered a Shan style food with an English version of their menu. At 500 kyat a dish we feasted on dishes whose names took our fancy, and topped it all off with a takeaway sweet paratha from the adjacent stand.

A day which brought home to me my good fortune in hooking up with fellow adventurers, Anna and Miriam.

Friday 01 November 2013: Nyaung Shwe (ညောင်ရွှေမြို့)Heho (ဟဲဟိုး)Yangon (ရန်ကုန်) (Photos)

Up early for our Air KBZ flight from Heho to Yangon. A slow coach journey back to the Asia Plaza Hotel featured a photo opportunity at The Lady‘s decidedly unphotogenic Yangon residence. And that was the morning gone.

After a dash to Bogyoke / Scott’s Market and back to change a heap of unused Kyat back into US$, I met up with Jack and Maria and we headed out in a taxi tour of some more of Yangon’s Buddhist sites. Another slow, congested, journey brought us to the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, home to a huge reclining Buddha. Nipping across the main road we caught a glimpse of the inside of Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda but were put off by the demands for payment to linger. Next stop: a return to Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံစေတီတော်) where we spent the rest of the afternoon, our explorations aided by the free guide map leaflet – oh to have a copy on our first visit….

A taxi back to base and time for a wash and brush up before dinner. A dilemma – to eat with Anna and Miriam or to go for the group meal as it was our last night together… I chose the latter which turned out to feature another 1000 Kyat taxi van followed by expensive Thai. Plenty of veggie options but not the final meal I’d hoped for.

Saturday 02 November 2013: Yangon (ရန်ကုန်)Kuala Lumpur (Photos)

Thwa dau mal Burma.

My 4pm flight from Yangon to KL allowed some spare time in Yangon in the morning, but it was all rather lonely as the group started to go their separate ways from early morning. Breakfast at the Asia Plaza Hotel was chaotic – with the hotel fully booked, mainly with attendees at a tech conference, the food, cutlery and crockery kept running out. The coffee was as dire as we remembered… Still, that would be my only gripe as it’s in a great location and the rooms are top notch.

I headed out on foot for a final tour of the town, retracing my steps to the Chinese and Muslim quarters, revisiting the Hindu temple to see worshippers celebrating Diwali, then back to Sule Pagoda (ဆူးေလဘုရား), Maha Bandula Park (မဟာဗန္ဓုလ ပန်းခြံ) and the old Colonial Quarter. My final destination was Botataung Pagoda (ဗိုလ်တထောင်ဘုရား). Last night’s dinner had used up almost all my funds, which meant I didn’t have enough to pay the entrance fee, so I headed on to the Yangon river waterfront, then back along the main roads to the hotel for a final shower and pack before the 12noon check out – with a final detour into the excellent Ruby Mall to spend the last of my Kyat on snacks.

As with our arrival, Jack, Maria and I shared a taxi to Yangon International Airport (ရန်ကုန်အပြည်ပြည်ဆိုင်ရာလေဆိပ်), allowing plenty of time for traffic congestion. Easy check in left enough time for a coffee before boarding and an uneventful flight to Kuala Lumpur.

Following fond farewells to Jack and Maria, it was a case of killing time until my onward flight left KL at 23:55 and I landed back in London very early the following morning having watched a stack of movies en route.

Tips if you’re on the Intrepid trip

  1. In Yangon, assuming you’re staying at the Asia Plaza Hotel:
    • buy your water and snacks from the Ruby Mart (turn left out of the hotel and it’s on the left just before the bridge)
    • your room should come with a kettle (not all the hotels have one), so boil water for brushing teeth etc
    • the team at reception can provide a map
  2. Plus:
    • you don’t need to make a donation at any of the pagodas, but you will have to pay an entrance fee. Don’t confuse the two (easily done at Sule Dagon Pagoda)
    • if you want to do the circular train, there are notices up in English on the platform 6/7 where it goes from, and you buy your ticket from the ticket office on that platform too (US$1, and the ticketing team speak English)
    • ask for the free map/guide at Shwe Dagon pagoda – and allow time for a return visit
  3. Stock up on souvenirs at Nyaung-U / Bagan – it feels to early, but it’s the best market in terms of price and range of goods.
  4. Take the tour in Mandalay – getting around under your own steam is hard work (and feels like a waste of time).
  5. In Nyaung Shwe, eat at the Aurora and the Night Market!