Myanmar – Dec 2012

Myanmar

Visa: took c. 10 days via post. Leave sufficient time. Use the official site:

Currency: Need to bring dollars. Best place to exchange at the time of writing is the banks at the airport

–       Asia Green Development Bank (AGD) in Yangon Airport

–       KBZ bank at Bagan airport

You will see it just after been through customs clearance. (Light blue colour sign).

Exchange rates:

–       The bank rate at December 2012 was $1: 847 Kyat.

–       On the street people were offering 1: 900.

–       At the tourist sites the government was using 1: 1000. (best to pay entry fees in dollars).

Amazing Bagan

Yangon

Transport into Yangon: The official taxi booking office is next door to the AGD. We booked through them. The price from Yangon Airport to the Traders Hotel was 8,000 Kyat in December 2012.

General impressions: dirty, pot-holed, friendly people, vibrant, polluted, past charms, present decay. Interesting to see but no lasting desire to return. Most of downtown feels like a big market, with small eateries and stalls running along the pavements making it fairly chaotic to get about (or go for a run).  Most people eat on the street. I’ll happily do this in many cities in Asia, but in Yangon it didn’t appeal due to heat/hygiene. We had considered Yangon as a possibility for property investment, but once there these ideas faded pretty fast. Would consider a hardship expat posting compared to other big grubby Asian cities such as Shanghai/Bangkok/Jakarta/Phnom Pehn/Saigon.  Limited night-scene.

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Hotel: Traders – Good downtown location, near the heart of all the action. Excellent breakfast. Good views (one of the tallest buildings in town). Has a gym with the bare basics (V small though). Rooms are pretty old. Network connections are slow. However, the property is undergoing significant construction –  the pool is closed and for the foreseeable future and I suspect there will be a lot of noise in the day. Limited in hotel dining options (expensive Korean and Chinese).

Best eating: Zawgyi House Café (next to Bogyoke Aung San Market) and across the road from the Traders Hotel. Hygenic, nice garden out back for dinner, draught beer on tap at reasonable prices, excellent food (really enjoyed both the chicken and duck noodles). Felt like a bit of an Oasis.

Best shopping: Bogyoke Aung San Market. Highlights: oil paintings and jade. Best section of art and crafts we saw all trip. Definitely worth half a day. Negotiate hard, walk away etc. We bought two large and excellent oil paintings for $50 each, and four jade bangles (at various prices). Our best value jade (on subsequent valuation) was from May Phyu Sinn Lin (ground floor, inner court yard). Typically with Jade the lighter and clearer the better, though watch out for clouded glass.

Best sight: Shwedagon Paya – have seen a lot of temples but this was stunning.

Getting around: Forget public transport. Taxis are cheap but don’t seem to have meters. They try to overcharge foreigners. Ask a local the correct price, and negotiate before you get in.

How much time? Two full days was enough for us.

Photos here: http://www.barnabyrobson.org/project/yangon/

Bagan

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Transport: Taxis between Bagan Airport and hotels in Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan cost K5000, K6000 and K7000 respectively. You cannot negotiate at the airport (Monopoly)>.

Hotel: Amazing Bagan. A little remote 2 miles from Nyang U, but have free attractive looking bicycles (the brakes don’t work brilliantly and the thin wheels are not suitable for the dirt tracks) – 10/15 min pleasant ride to restaurant street in Nyaung U if you know which way to go. Nice grounds/gardens, definitely get a bungalow suite (which are situated near the pool) rather than a room in the main block. Good size swimming pool, though the water is extremely cold (nice after a long run/cycle).

Average breakfast: squash not juice, coffee a little weak, though they do have proper bacon and an egg/omelet/pancake stall and fresh fruit.

Buy a proper map at reception – 1000 kyat. Bit of a rip to have to pay for a map the hotel gets for free (advertising) but it’s far superior to the free map they provide at the airport and the one in the lonely planet. Invaluable for getting around.

Taxis into Nyaung U should cost 3,000 Kyat. The hotel will charge 5,000. Prices to Old Bagan are 6,000.

Most people head into nearby towns for lunch/dinner/drinks. Drinks are overpriced at the hotel.

Best food: ‘Star Bean’, next to ‘Be Kind to Animals the Moon’ on Old Bagan. This restaurant had both the presented and most delicious food we had all trip in Myanmar. Correctly priced. Excellent Juice (tried Avacodo and Papaya flavours). The Aubergine starter in particular was a highlight. Highly recommended. They serve complementary fresh bread straight from the oven at the restaurant.  We also tried Queen Restaurant (which my wife preferred), Aroma 2 and Black Bamboo, which were decent but not in the same league.

Best shopping:  Lacquerware in Myinkaba village. Maung Aung Myin were my favourite by a country mile, and have their own workshop (not a middle man). The owner used to work for the Bagan Archaeological Museum. They have sold pieces to the British Museum.  Visit the workshop to get an appreciation of the process before you buy. They will happily explain the process. Best quality is in the back. Tourist buses don’t stop there. They don’t bargain (most you will get is 5% discount). Very expensive but easily the best quality.

Getting around: Mountain bike or Horse. We found an excellent Horse Man, with brilliant English and extensive local knowledge who really looked after his horse and cart (best guide I’ve ever had). We paid 13,000 k for a half day (2 – 6). A full day would be c. 25,000 k. Best to stay out of the sun from 11 – 2:30 when it all gets a little too hot. The horse cart worked well for two and provided welcome shade as we travelled.

Taxis are another option but the are damaging the local environment. The tour buses kicking up the dirt roads and destroying views are an abomination. Travel independently, much better for locals and the environment.

Best sun-set temple: For me, Pyathada Paya  – which is one of the furthest away, but the views were the most mysterious looking west across the main pagodas, with local cattle kicking up dust create interesting light effects. Unfortunately the remoteness is not an escape from the tour buses/groups.

How much time? Two full days was enough for us. Could stretch to three. The sites are stunning, Lacquerware shopping was fun and there a few decent restaurants and a good traveller vibe in Nyuang U. More to do than Inle Lake.

Photos here: http://www.barnabyrobson.org/project/bagan

Inle lake

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Err. Not sure what all the fuss is about. Would prioritize Bagan (I did the opposite). Spend a maximum of 2 days by the Lake.

The lake is quite beautiful and scenic (see my photos here: http://www.barnabyrobson.org/project/inle-lake/), but the charm this is lost a soon as you hear the millions of motor boats (starting from 5am), with ridiculously loud open air engines which sound very much like a helicopter taking off. The water is now polluted and much of the lake is in fact weed. The local villages are not especially beautiful and shopping is not particularly good.

Nyaungshwe, the main traveller center is ugly and I was only happy to pass through quickly on route to my hotel on the lake.

Transport: I think our car was circa $30 from the airport to Nyaungshwe. We then had to pay another $12 or so for the boat to our hotel to, the Paramount Inle restort. The car and boat took an hour or so each.

Hotel: Paramount Inle Resort – Friendly staff, good food (prices are high but portions are much larger than elsewere). We stayed in one of the lakeside cabins. The views are excellent, but it is excessively noisy due to the boats – bring earplugs (see above). The hotel is effectively on an Island. To get anywhere it’s a relatively expensive boat trip. We booked for four days and as soon as we arrived were scratching our heads as to what to do. The best thing to do on the lake is look at the lake, the villages nearby don’t offer a lot. We spent two days intrigued and two days bored out of our minds/reading books. The viewing tower at the Paramount Inle is a nice addition, particularly good for taking snaps at dawn. Overall, a good choice, but don’t book for more than two days.

Photos here: http://www.barnabyrobson.org/project/inle-lake/

Mandalay

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Transport: The taxi firm at Mandalay Airport are basically pirates. They’ll try and charge you 30$ for the trip then put you in a van, ram a load more passengers in there, and make you wait until the van is full before they leave. There are no other options (official Mandalay taxis do not wait there). We managed to negotiate our own car (at higher price) but would definitely request that your hotel send you a car to pick you up.

Hotel: Stayed at Mandalay Hill Resort. This was easily the best hotel we stayed in all trip for decor/food. Service was average – they tried to fob us off with a lower spec room than we’d ordered at first (a small with two singles), but if you are persistent they will change it for you. I would recommend a room facing Mandalay Hill (rather than the city). The breakfast was really very good by Myanmar standards.

Mandalay itself is a pleasant enough city, with wide avenues.It felt cleaner than Yangon. Mopeds taxis are the easiest way to get around.  I spent an afternoon just strolling round the older downtown area ( starting at 28th / 86th street).

Mandalay Hill is an easy  climb (can walk to the start point from Mandalay Hill Resort), with steps all the way up. Go at dawn or dusk to get the best views over the City.

Mandalay Palace is impressive from the outside, but in interior is basically a recent rebuild.

U Bein Bridge was fantastic (organised my own taxi the night before). I went at dawn, and was really pleasantly surprised to find limited numbers of tourists (and no big groups) on the bridge at sunrise. It was really a quite an etheral experience. Highly recommended.

Food: We tried all the top picks on trip advisor. Green Elephant, Rainforest, Spice Garden, Ko’s Kitchen – they were all very disappointing.

How much time? 2 days max. It’s worth the trip just to see U Bein bridge in the morning.

Photos here: http://www.barnabyrobson.org/project/mandalay/

 

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