2017 TRAVELLING: The year in review

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It’s not every year that I get to travel for six months, so 2017 was full of adventures!

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  • In April we went flower-spotting in chilly Amsterdam;
  • Later in April we followed the steps of Indiana Jones in an eventful Egyptian journey;
  • In May we were lucky with the weather in artsy Oslo;

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  • In June I went to my friend’s fun wedding in photogenic Croatia;
  • In July I started my globetrotting eating the best food in India;
  • In August I followed the footsteps of Cezanne in Provence;

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  • In September we continued our little tradition of visiting the Biennale in Venice;
  • Later that month I train-hopped across some of my favourite places in Eastern Europe;
  • In October I had way too much fun getting lost in translation in Japan;

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  • In November I ate all the cakes in Greece;
  • In December I finished the year in style biking around beautiful Myanmar.

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I only have one trip planned for 2018 so far, but it’s a good one – so here’s to another year of exploring!

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THE RIGHT TIME TO VISIT: Reflections and how to plan a trip to Myanmar

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I’m so happy I’ve visited Myanmar. It’s a beautiful country and a great place to explore.

People are friendly, helpful and keen to make a good impression. There’s always someone smiling and waving at you or asking for a photo. And there’s no hassle, so you can happily engage with locals as they’re really just being nice.

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I was surprised at how easy it was to travel and get around different places. There’s a good level of infrastructure and things work very well. Hotels were good, planes reliable and WiFi fast in most places.

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Things are changing fast, so this was a good time to visit. You can see that places like Bagan and Inle Lake will soon be too touristy. On the other hand, some things get easier, as there are ATMs easily available and credit cards are accepted. Even online information can’t keep up with the speed of change, so some things were different from what I had read.

I think this was a good time to visit Myanmar – I’m keen to see how the country changes (and what happens politically), but I’m happy to have got a glimpse of its old ways.

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HOW TO DO IT:

Itinerary planning:

I went to the most popular places, but spent a good amount of time in each. I spent:

  • 4 days in Yangon (at the beginning and end of the trip)
  • 2 days in Mandalay
  • 4 days in Bagan
  • 4 days in Inle Lake

That was a good range of places and a good amount of time. I wasn’t very lucky with the weather in Mandalay so I didn’t particularly enjoy it.

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Travelling solo:

I knew Myanmar was a good place to travel alone, but it was better than I imagined. It’s really safe and there’s not really any hassle. But what made the biggest different was how easy it was to explore, either independently or in tours. Places are easy to navigate, people are helpful and things work well, so it’s an ideal place to discover by yourself.

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Food:

Food in Myanmar is really delicious – you can get great curries and a wide range of dishes made with local ingredients. Especially the salads are really unique and yummy. It’s very easy to find veggie dishes as every restaurant has a good selection and there are lots of great local vegetables.

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Getting around:

I chose to fly around as distances in Myanmar are huge, and I wasn’t really keen on spending ages on buses or trains. I found flying a good option, the service always worked well and tickets are not very expensive. I flew with Golden Myanmar and AirKBZ.

In cities you can get around by taxi, or in smaller towns by bike or e-bike. Everywhere I went it was easy to navigate and you can actually do a lot on foot too. I downloaded maps of all the places I visited onto Google Maps which was really useful.

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Money:

People say Myanmar is more expensive than most places in Southeast Asia, but in comparison to the UK it’s still really cheap. A good hotel room will cost £15 (always including breakfast), a meal £3-4.

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Tipping is not a part of Burmese culture but it’s always appreciated. ATMs have only been around for a few years, but are already easily found in all tourist destinations, which is a better option than carrying all your money in US$ everywhere.

There are lots of exchange places and most hotels can change money too. Nowadays you can pay everything in Kyat, so dollars aren’t really needed anymore.

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BALANCING FISHERMEN AND LOCAL WINE: Exploring chilled Inle Lake

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I really enjoyed Inle Lake, there’s lots to do and you can choose different activities. The lake is beautiful and huge, and it’s good to see it at different times with different light. I also really liked getting a bike and cycling around the lake – this is a bit more DIY and you can skip all the tourist stuff if you want.

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Nyaungshwe (the town where most people stay) is quite small and easy to navigate on foot. There are a few streets where all the restaurants are, and also plenty of places organising tours and renting bikes.

The atmosphere is quite chilled and there are plenty of places for a break and a drink. You don’t need long to explore it but it’s nice to walk around in the evenings finding a place for dinner.

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There’s a central market which is interesting to visit, selling all sorts of stuff mostly to locals.

The most popular activity to do in Inle is to get a boat tour around the lake (15,000MMK). You get to see lots of villages on stilts with people going about their lives. There are also some nice monasteries, lots of bird life and even floating vegetable gardens.

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The famous balancing fishermen are few and far in between now, but you still get to see some of them. You also stop at many local workshops where you can buy all sorts of handicraft – this is a bit touristy but can also be interesting. I bought a scarf made by Kayan women (known for their elongated necks).

Overall the boat trip is definitely a highlight, but it’s obvious that every tourist does it, so with more tourists coming to Myanmar things will probably become a bit fake. The trip takes about 6h, and it can get really cold in the lake, so you need to bring a good jumper but also wear lots of sunscreen.

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I rented a bike for the day (2,000MMK) and set off exploring. I followed this useful itinerary and did the Inle Lake loop, which took about 5h. It’s good to start early when you get cooler temperatures.

My first stop was Shwe Yan Pyay, a wooden pagoda with a unique design. I then cycled southwest past the hot spring. You can get a boat to take you to Maung Thauk, at the other side of the lake, and that’s the best part of this bike ride. You get to see Inle Lake, which is great, but also you end up at a little village with a long wooden walkway which is very picturesque.

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I then followed the road on the east side up to Red Mountain Winery. This is a popular place with tourists and definitely worth a visit. You can taste 4 types of wine for 5,000MMK enjoying the view. There’s also a restaurant on site where you can have a meal with a glass of local wine.

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A great place to visit is Htet Eian Cave, a huge cave filled with thousands of Buddha statues. It’s not too far from Nyaungshwe, but it’s mostly uphill on a bike (in my case pushing the bike up the hill) so it’s best to go early when it’s not too hot.

The site itself is really interesting, the cave is really huge and there are Buddha statues wherever they can fit. Further inside the cave it gets really muddy, hot and slippery (you need to leave your shoes at the entrance).

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I followed this with a visit to Lavender Spa II, which had great foot reflexology (19,000MMK for 1 hour – expensive for Myanmar, but absolutely worth it). Then a little trip to Red Mountain Winery for a glass of wine and snacks with a view. You can do all of this on a half-day trip.

From there it was back a Nyaungshwe at 1h30pm when it was really hot.

This whole trip is a fun thing to do as you get to see lots of villages on the way, farmers in the fields and kids playing around.

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I went to Aung Puppet Theatre (tickets 5,000) one evening. It’s a marionette theatre that carries on a dying tradition of puppet theatres in Myanmar. It’s a cute show and an interesting thing to do for something different.

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Food:

  • I went for dinner at Live Dim Sum, which served the most delicious food (a big dinner for one including drinks, dessert and tip for 11,000MMK).
  • Pub Asiatico: this is a cool bar clearly set up for foreigners, but serving cheap cocktails (2,000MMK at happy hour) and with good atmosphere.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Stay: There are plenty of options, but I stayed at Aquarius Inn, which was simple but nice and had a great breakfast.
  • Getting around: Staying in Nyaungshwe is the best option, as there are good places for food and it’s easy to explore independently. Every hotel as well as lots of shops around the town can arrange boat trips, trekking, rent bikes and plan other activities, so it’s all really easy to do. My preferred option was exploring by bike, as you can see lots of things off the beaten track.

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