Burma (Myanmar)

2017-02-10-06-31-45-2
Burma is all about the culture and the people

There are no direct flights from London to Burma. You can fly from hubs like Dubai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong to Yangon and Mandalay.

Trip Summary (Feb 2017)

  • 2 nights Hong Kong
  • 2 nights Yangon (Rangoon)
  • 3 nights river cruise Bagan to Mandalay
  • 2 nights Mandalay (too long, 1 day is enough)
  • 2 nights Lake Inle
  • 6 nights Ngapoli

01 – 2/2 Fly to Hong Kong
18:25 LHR to HKG 14:20 BA0031 (A380 Biz)

02 – 3/2 Arrive HKG 14:20
Hotel Shangri-La. Kowloon (See previous review – LINK)

03 – 4/2
Hotel Shangri-La. Kowloon

04 – 5/2 Fly to Yangon
Hotel Shangri-La. Kowloon Check-out
Transfer to airport 3 hours before departure
14:50 HKG to RGN 16:20 Myanmar Air UB-8028 T2
Transfer to hotel (booked with hotel)
Check-in : The Strand Hotel

Don’t try and cut the time fine. Leaving 2 hours before flying is probably too late. It can take an hour to get to the airport from the island and it can take at least an hour from the moment you walk in the terminal door to getting to your gate. The airport is ok but I’d go for the Japanese food rather than the Chinese as the former provide more normal food and the latter don’t. E.g. pigs stomachs (greasy).

Always pre-arrange transfers from and to the airport with your hotel.

screenshot-2017-02-15-10-38-09

Mingalabar! (welcome)

Tourist visas: you can get these online for $50 each. Don’t forget!

The most important word to describe Myanmar is : Buddhism. It is completely intertwined with their lives and defines the environment and the people and culture you will be enjoying.  They are not a people keen on possessions which is good because mostly they don’t have any. Very little has been done to the country since the British left in 1947 and so has a similar feel to Sri Lanka albeit not quite as poor.

There are tens of thousands of pagodas in Myanmar so, if pagodas with their temples and stupas are not your thing you may not want to be considering Myanmar as a destination.

Don’t even think about hiring a car, I’m not even sure you can. There is no liability insurance, mopeds rule and if you are involved in an accident with one it will always be your fault.

Yangon

The local currency is the Kyat which varies between 1000 and 1500 to the USD. There are plenty of ATM’s to get these from. You will need them for taxi rides, attraction entrance fees etc but expect to pay hotel, dining and bar bills in USD. American Express seems unpopular so take something else too.

Yangon is by and large a very run down city. When it gained independence from the British in the 40’s it was left with a functioning democracy that faltered after a few years due to regional dissatisfaction and political infighting that led to a military junta takeover in the early 50s that lasted until roughly 2010. Sadly the nationalisation that then occurred meant that nothing was cared for or improved for 60 years. Poor roads, dangerous pavements, decrepit buildings with trees growing out of the walls; there are even bombed out buildings left over from WWII. Nevertheless it’s a busy city full of lots of friendly people who snack a lot. Their most favourite snack is boiled quail egg which they can shell in a blink of an eye. Hygienic I suppose. The street sellers either carry their wares on their heads or set up little stalls or packing crates to attract the punters.

The most amazing place to go to is the Buddhist Shwedagon Pagoda which has the eponymous stupa standing 100m (300ft) tall covered in gold leaf in the centre. To give you an idea of scale the little round disk at the top is 12ft dia. You can buy a postage-stamp piece of gold leaf and apply it with a wish to this Buddha, men-only. Each evening a thin layer of adhesive is applied for the next day’s gold leaf to stick to. Some reach a foot thick before they are ‘harvested’ for the benefit of the pagoda.

It’s very popular with the locals, who revere it, and tourists alike. At 2600 years old I’m amazed it isn’t a world heritage site but, apparently it fails because they continually renovate it (every century or so!).

buddhas-eyebrows
Reclining Buddha

Buddhism is the most popular religion in Myanmar (pronounced ‘me’ ‘an’ ‘mar) with a following of 87%. Of course, as it’s really a philosophy and not a religion, many buddhists are also christian or muslim.

The Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda (reclining Buddha) is also very interesting and popular shrine but where Shwedagon is beautiful and sophisticated, Kyaukhtatgyi is gaudy and tacky. Still worth a visit.

Other places you may want to visit include the Botataung Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, the National Museum and Scott Market. We wanted to go to the museum and market but they are closed on Sunday and Monday.

I would recommend having a guide. The hotel should be able to provide one on short notice. Ours cost about $50. You can then walk about through the hustle and bustle without concern. It’s not dangerous it’s just impenetrable. Our guide encouraged us to take the small ferry across the Irrawaddy river and back to get a good view of the city. For me it was more fascinating watching the people making there way to work or wherever, buying egg snacks or freshly cut pineapple or pickled plums. They decorate their cheeks with a liberally applied yellowish powder made from ground tree bark called Thanaka. It’s supposed to have skin cleansing properties and also a UV block. I’m not so sure.

A word of caution : hygiene. This is not a hygienic country and so you should definitely not buy any street food unless it’s something you can peel. If you are in a hotel or western restaurant bar check whether the water is filtered otherwise: no ice, no salads, check the bottled water is unopened, no ice cream, clean your teeth with bottled water. You have been warned! Personally I’d avoid meat as they don’t seem to know how to cook it and they don’t waste anything. E.g all the gristly bits and skin of chicken will be in your curry.

Burmese food leans towards it’s Indian neighbour but is mildly spiced and may have some Thai hints too. They’re not good or imaginative cooks I’m afraid.

We only had one full day in Yangon which I consider to be enough. Stay for no more than two days.

05 – 6/2
Hotel : The Strand

Review : The Strand Hotel Yangon. A super swish hotel where service and attention to detail is second to none. Situated near the port, the hotel is a 3 floor colonial style building built in 1902 and recently renovated to a very high standard. High ceilinged colonial luxury updated by extremely tasteful contemporary interiors, the hotel has been host to many famous visitors like Rudyard Kipling, Earl Mountbatten and in recent years Mick Jagger and George Soros. You can imagine the story swapping in the lovely bar sipping on a cocktail or two. The operations manager Mark will personally greet you and introduce you to your butler who will look after your every need. He clearly runs a very well oiled machine despite the constraints imposed by a newly emerging economy. Minor criticisms were a cumbersome internet login, and a slow to deliver breakfast. Our bathroom (room 211) suffered from slow water flow and was in need of an update. Otherwise I can’t fault the room or the hotel. It has earned its place on the LHW list.

strand-hotel-lobby-copy

2017-02-06-07-29-31-2

Interestingly, the betel nut – a mild stimulant – is sold everywhere. Wrapped in a banana leaf with the white powder of slaked lime added to reduce acidity I suppose, it is often enhanced with cigarette tobacco and saltpetre added to the chewing mix. Yuck.

06 – 7/2 Fly to Bagan
Transfer to airport (45 mins)
10:00 RGN to NYU 11:20 AirKBZ240 (Nyaung-U)
Transfer to cruise ship
Check-in on board Sanctuary Ananda on the Irrawady (Ayerarwady) River

screenshot-2017-02-15-10-39-02

We used air KBZ for all our internal flights, allow about $120 for each ticket. They use new twin-engined ATR turboprops, encouraging. Flying is by far the safest and easiest way to travel turning a 14 hour drive into a 1 hour flight.

We had booked a 3 night cruise on a smart river boat called the Sanctuary Ananda, they collected us from the airport (you will pay extra) for the 5km transfer to the river. Don’t expect smart quays or pontoon walks out to the boat. We arrived at a beach where a small tender took us into the middle of the river to board the boat.

The river is home to literally millions upon millions of moths, whatever you do, don’t leave your window or door open. Your room will be covered in minutes.

2017-02-07-10-03-11-1-copyCruise : The Sanctuary Ananda is a very smart river boat of about 25 cabins.  Tim the operations manager greeted us with a South African accent and a welcome drink while we checked in. We had a suite of about 40 m2 with a nice ensuite and private balcony but I think all were of a high standard and that was reflected in the price. The head chef had spent many a year with the Mandarin Oriental group and was an accomplished chef delivering dish after dish of exquisite asian and international food throughout our trip. The suite was excellent with proper air-conditioning and a decent shower. There was even wifi but the internet connection was understandably hit and miss as on a boat in the middle of the Irrawaddy! Everyone was more than helpful with our needs, a free linen service, and the tours were carefully planned and executed. Well done, we look forward to enjoying some of your other venues.

Bagan

The afternoon saw us take a coach journey stopping firstly at the Ananda Temple. The classic layout is a square sometimes with one large Buddha or, as in this instance, four smaller ones on each side of the square. 

We then arrived at the Kayminga Pagoda to watch the sunset from the top of the stupa. This is shortly to be stopped and an observation platform to be erected to prevent tourist footfall wearing out the relic. Monks are universal in Myanmar and this one seems to have straddled the gap between old and new as he checks WhatsApp on his phone!

2017-02-07-13-29-46-copy
Nearly built ship on the banks of the Irrawady

07 – 8/2 River Cruise to Mandalay

Balloon flight over Bagan !

Buddhists are fatalists believing that the day they die was decided before they were born. Consequently the only professional balloon pilots are North American, British, Ozzie or Kiwi who have that sense of self-preservation that is so reassuring to us passengers!

We’d never flown in a hot air ballon before so we were really looking forward to the experience. We were not disappointed. We arrived at the (air) field in the dark and were ushered into ringed off areas, one for each of the 16 balloons flying that day, for safety instruction. Pretty straightforward really: sit down and hold on. Although you can stand up while flying. They use giant fans to start filling the balloons with the baskets lying on their sides. Once nearly full they use carefully the burners to lift the balloon upright whereupon all the passengers jump in. The burners are awesomely powerful and quickly lift the balloon off the ground into the pre-dawn sky. The tranquility is palpable and you quickly learn to ignore the burner blasts. We slowly drifted over the ground towards the pagodas of Bagan as the sun breached the horizon, (there are more than 2400) some just brickwork others gloriously clad in gold leaf, some tall some small: fantastic. After dawn we continued over the empty fields towards an isolated village of a hundred huts or so. It occurred to us that there was a huge sound system coming from the village playing the local radio station. The pilot said that the balloon Co. had just paid to have electricity installed at the village and they were celebrating by playing music from dawn to dusk. We could hear it from 2km away. Felt like a benign version of a scene from Apocalypse Now. Quite bizarre. As we floated 20 foot over the village we had kids waving up at us, Oxen bellowing and music blaring.

Our flight was 80 minutes in duration due to the wind direction and available landing fields, most are 40 minutes apparently. I was quite surprised at how the pilots can navigate using their knowledge of winds moving in different directions at different heights. Of course the pilots are a bit cocky but there is only about 300 world-wide so I suppose they are entitled.

It is a must-do on your bucket list, it costs about $200 each and it’s money well spent. We felt perfectly safe at all times. Don’t forget to book well in advance as these flights are always full.

We were too late to join the morning visit to Shwezigon Pagoda and local market so decided we’d rest up following the early start. After lunch the boat slipped it’s mooring and headed upstream.

08 – 9/2 River Cruise to Mandalay

Mandalay

In the afternoon we arrived in Mandalay and went to nearby Saigan Hill to see the Monastery and Aung Myae Oo School for disadvantaged children and on to the Soon U Shin Pagoda. You can see a pattern being established here with the Myanmar immensely proud of all of the pagodas but to be honest, we were a bit ‘templed-out’ by this point!

The best bit of the day was dusk at the U Bein Bridge which spans the Taungthaman Lake (southern) between the old capital of Mandalay and the even older capital Amararapura. U Bein means ‘thin man’ and was named after the clerk who managed the build 1.2 km bridge made of teak in the 1840’s. You should arrange this with a guide and arrive an hour before sunset where you will board a small rowing boat with a rower and room for two. There are many dozens of these on the lake and they make a beautiful sight as they row out to the middle ready to enjoy the beautiful sunset silhouetting the bridge. If you’re lucky your guide will have arranged for a glass of champagne to be in your hands at sunset.

09 – 10/2 River Cruise to Mandalay
Disembark then transfer to hotel (booked with cruise company)
Checkin – Eastern Palace Hotel Mandalay

Morning tour of Mandalay Mahamuni (called the Image of Buddha)  and Kuthodaw Pagodas UNESCO (worlds biggest book 1400 pages on 700 slabs of marble) and the Schwenandon Monastery (made of teak). We came across this fantastical procession en route to the temple to celebrate children initiating as novice monks. Amazing.

An afternoon of rest.

10 – 11/2 Mandalay – explore

Review : Eastern Palace Hotel
Originally a Best Western Hotel, it’s clean and functional but also spartan and bleak. Seems to lack any soul. Service level is not very good because they are inefficient and their foreign language skills are poor. To be fair they are keen to help, like all Burmese. The restaurant was very basic with basic food too. The Sky rooftop bar is literally a pop-up bar on the roof, it is not really a floor. I admire the entrepreneur who created the bar (not part of the hotel) but it was very basic. This would be a good place for a stopover between flights but not more than 1 night. We went to a local Indian curry house for dinner and it was very good.

2017-02-11-04-55-36Went shopping in morning, with a guide who charged about $35 and a private taxi who charged the same. We visited a gold leaf making factory shop. the gold leaf is incredibly thin. A 5g piece of gold, smaller than a pea, can be beaten out to a sheet 200ft x 200ft! I’m sure their are modern techniques but in Myanmar it’s manual once they’ve cut the piece of gold.

Mandalay is very dusty and poor though. One night is enough.

11 – 12/2 Fly to Heho (Lake Inle)
Eastern Palace Hotel – checkout
Transfer to airport (booked with hotel)
10:15 MDL to HEH 10:50
Collect from airport by guide for tour on way to hotel
Check in Hotel Villa Inle Resort & Spa

Lake Inle

12 – 13/2 Explore Lake Inle- explore en route
Check in Hotel Villa Inle Resort & Spa.

Collected from airport by guide for tour on the way to Lake Inle. We visited Taunggyi (The capital city of the Shan state 40 km and 90mins drive from the airport) to look at a local food market. It confirmed my decision to not eat meat as they don’t refrigerate or cover it resulting in a rotting smell and fly covered meat. ‘Very fresh’ said the guide, I don’t think so.

We then drove to Aye Thar Yar Winery. Don’t bother, the wine tasting flight started with a cloudy, off bottle of red followed by only two of the three promised wines. The food was pretty poor too. Shame as it was a nice location. Next was Shwe Yan Pyae Monastery, another teak monastery. Forgettable. Our last stop before the hotel was the Red Mountain Winery. There is a great view over the vineyards and a perfect place to watch the sunset. It does get busy. The wine is surprisingly nice but more like a Greek wine than French.

Review Hotel Villa Inle Resort & Spa
This is a beautiful hotel in verdant grounds overlooking the lake. Most rooms are separate wooden buildings on stilts. They are really nice with dark wood interiors, vaulted ceilings, air conditioning and large amounts of glass looking out over the lake. The beds are very romantic taking pride of place in the room with a high mosquito net covering it. Make sure you use the net and keep it closed! Bug spray is essential too. Sadly the restaurant, while trying hard, was simply not good enough. My guess is the chef had no international exposure and really didn’t know what good food tasted like. That said, the service level was exemplary from the cleaners all the way up to the general manager.

Which leads me on to hygiene. Several people had told us you will catch a tummy bug at Lake Inle as it’s too polluted and the Burmese appear to not understand hygiene. Despite our best efforts we caught it and it was the kind of bug that kept on giving throughout the rest of the holiday. 😦 Visiting the lake was a fantastic experience but I would think twice about revisiting.

We booked a private boat tour with the hotel ($35) to tour the lake and visit the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery, Floating Gardens, Inn Pawkhon. It was one of the most amazing experiences we have ever had and will be a life long memory. The floating beds of hyacinth held in place with sticks in the lake bed retaining fresh water tomato plants, the crazy engined dart-like boats pushing through the plants or jetting across the lake throwing huge spumes of water behind them, the aquatic bird life, the beautiful millpond surface of the lake itself reflecting the cloudless sky. Just beautiful. We also visited a local tribe who lived on the lake in stilted building to be met with weird brass-ringed long necked ladies. Apparently for beauty. I couldn’t see it myself. Don’t feel the need to stop anywhere else other than maybe the market. Stay on the boat and soak up the views.

13 – 14/2 Fly to Thandwe
Transfer to airport leave 2.5 hours before flight.
12:30 HEH to SNW 13:30 AirKBZ K7241
Transfer to hotel 10 min drive (hotel shuttle)
Check in : Amazing Ngapali Resort

heho-airport

He Ho airport is the worst maintained airport we have ever visited; disgusting.

Thankfully Thandwe (serving Ngapali beach) is the complete opposite.

screenshot-2017-02-15-10-45-59

Ngapali Beach

14 – 15/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort

Review : As the name implies, this is an amazing hotel. We had a separate beach front detached villa with private veranda and steps right on to the beach. Day room on ground floor and bedroom dressing room and bathroom on first floor. The bedroom’s large balcony had enough room to sit comfortably and gaze at the beach and sea. Waking up to the surf and being able to sit up and see the sea was remarkable. Similarly the sunsets. Unfortunately we shared our room with another individual, a little mouse whose daring and skill was quite impressive. The mouse ignored the poison the hotel laid and kept us awake for two hours a night running under the bed, nicking biscuits off the bedside table and making a racket. After the third night he visited, and our last at the hotel, we felt we had to complain. The manager and team were very apologetic and understanding offering one night free for our trouble. Reasonable. They also gave genuine help in sorting out a cancelled flight problem for us. Well done.

15 – 16/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort

16 – 17/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort

17 – 18/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort

18 – 19/2
Hotel: Amazing Ngapali Resort

19 – 20/2 Fly
Transfer to airport – courtesy of hotel (10mins)
13:45 SNW to RGN 14:35 AirKBZ 241
(2hr 10 min layover…)
16:45 RGN to HKG 21:20 UO1728 Hong Kong Express
(Check all way through to LHR via JetAirways)
(2hr 25 min layover…)
23:45 HKG to LHR 04:55 BA0028 (777 Biz)

A long, long day back to London.

screenshot-2017-02-15-10-47-16

20 – 21/2
Arrive LHR 04:55

Improvements?

A day less time in Mandalay. A longer layover between the return flights as delays are common.

One thought on “Burma (Myanmar)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s