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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2,000 PAGODAS AND A MISTY SUNRISE: Biking around magical Bagan

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Bagan is the highlight of any trip to Myanmar, so I had high expectations.

Getting around by bike is a good way of seeing many of the temples. You can basically just go anywhere around Old Bagan and start temple-spotting.

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The main temples are a bit busy and there are usually stalls selling handicraft around them, but most smaller temples are completely empty and you have the place to yourself. You can also just take a turn into any side road to find lots of little temples, they are literally everywhere.

You can climb up some of the temples to get stunning views of nearby pagodas – this way you get an understanding of the scale of the place.

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The most famous temples are usually larger, but in truth it doesn’t really matter where you go. The smaller temples can sometimes be more interesting simple because on an unusual detail or because you can explore by yourself.

From the most famous temples, my favourite was Ananda as it’s really unusual inside, full of Buddha statues in little carved nooks. But the most fun I’ve had was simply exploring aimlessly and stopping where it looked good – I don’t really think you can go wrong in Bagan.

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The best thing is to actually find a temple off the beaten path to climb up and enjoy the view by yourself. You just need to wander around a bit until you find one (locals will often point it out). In these you may sometimes meet locals who will always eventually try to sell you postcards or paintings – although it’s obvious that they will want you to give them some money, it’s also a good opportunity to have a chat and learn a bit about local life.

At the most popular temples you’re approached by locals but you don’t have a chance to engage much.

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Another popular activity is to watch the sunrise and sunset from the top of a pagoda.

I took a taxi (15,000MMK, a bit expensive) to watch the sunset. The pagodas can get quite busy, and especially since the 2016 earthquake, not many pagodas are available to climb, so everyone ends up in the same places.

I wanted the sunset at Bulethi temple, which has amazing views. It is a truly magical experience, seeing all the pagodas in the changing light and the countryside in different colours.

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Watching a sunrise from a pagoda is a highlight of any trip to Bagan, so I woke up at 4h30am. A big crowd gathered at Bulethi temple, but it was definitely worth it. You have plenty of time to take in the atmosphere (and take a million photos) of the light changing over the misty pagodas.

When it’s time for sunrise, hot air balloons take to the skies and give the place a fairy tale atmosphere. It’s a unique and magical place and the sunrise alone brings it all together.

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Mount Popa:

I took a shared taxi to Mount Popa, which is about 1h30 from Bagan. Mt Popa is a sacred mountain (of volcanic origin) with a pagoda at its top. Climbing the 777 steps to get there and fielding monkeys drinking from half-empty cans of Coke, you are greeted with great views over the countryside.

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This is a nice trip to do as long as you have enough time in Bagan. You can book a shared taxi for 10,000MMK which picks you up at your hotel at 9am and drops you off at 2pm.

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Food:

  • I went for dinner at Sanon, a social enterprise training local youths to work at and run restaurants. The food is really great (dinner for one including drinks and tip for 8,500-11,000MMK) and it’s a good place to go to if you’re staying in Nyaung U.
  • I had lunch at Moon, a popular vegetarian place close to Old Bagan. The food was really delicious and the place is great (lunch for one for 6,700MMK). They also have a great selection of juices.
  • Weather Spoons is a popular place with tourists (and much better than its British counterpart). It’s a good place with a varied menu and strong cocktails for £1.50 (lunch including drinks and tip for 8,000MMK).

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HOW TO DO IT:

There are many ways to visit Bagan. I chose to book everything independently but spending a bit on comfort.

  • Go: I chose to fly in, which is definitely the fastest option. From Mandalay it was only 30min and $70 with Golden Myanmar.
  • Stay: I stayed at Royal Bagan which was a great option – I paid £17 per night for a comfy double bedroom. Nyaung U is the area where most people stay, and that’s where you’ll find most restaurants and a few handicraft shops. In the evenings it’s a good place to go for dinner and a drink.
  • Get around: Most people rent and electric bike to get around, but I got a normal bike (2,000MMK for half a day). You can cover a lot of ground just riding around and stopping at some pagodas along the way.

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Bagan is a unique place. The countryside landscape filled with thousands of pagodas in a place that otherwise would be completely unremarkable really makes for a surreal sight.

I spent 4 days in Bagan which is a good amount of time to see everything without rushing. You can get a map with the key temples, but it’s more the scale of the site than the individual temples that matters, so you might as well just wander around and stops where looks good.

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A few people I know said it was a good idea to come to Myanmar now before it’s too touristy, and I think this is good advice for Bagan. Even though my experience was always great, the large crowds for sunrise and sunset on the pagodas just don’t fit with the place.

Many pagodas were damaged in the 2016 earthquake so there aren’t that many left to climb. And with the large number of tourists, there is risk to their structure. So I think this was definitely the right time to visit!

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JUMPERS IN THE HEAT AND THE LARGEST BOOK IN THE WORLD: Quick stop in Mandalay

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Mandalay is not super easy to like – walking downtown there doesn’t seem to be that much to do, and the busy roads are not in great condition. But you do find interesting things around, like the odd street market with nice food stalls.

I was unlucky with the weather in Mandalay as it was cloudy and a bit rainy (very cold for locals at 22 degrees). So I skipped Mandalay Hill as I wouldn’t get much of a view and instead explored the pagodas at the foot of the hill, including Kothodaw pagoda that has a claim to fame as being ‘the largest book in the world’.

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I don’t think Mandalay is a necessary stop in a trip to Myanmar, but as I walked around the city grew on me. The area to the east of Mandalay Palace has less traffic and so is nicer to explore on foot.

For dinner I went to the popular Mingalabar, a restaurant serving delicious food with the most insanely large portions (a small feast for one including drinks and tip for 9,500MMK).

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I stayed at Diamonds Inn, a really nice hotel ($25 per night including breakfast) that was centrally located and perfect for a break after a hot day exploring.

I went for a foot massage at Innwa and it was great. The service was excellent and it cost only 7,000MMK (about £4!).

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COOL RESTAURANTS AND A LIVELY PAGODA: A good time in Yangon

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I didn’t have very high expectations about Yangon and I was pleasantly surprised.

Downtown Yangon is easy to navigate and you can go everywhere on foot (if you can stand the heat). It’s definitely not as busy as other cities in Southeast Asia. It’s a mix of large roads with big offices and little streets with food and vegetable stalls. You can lose yourself for a few hours covering the many different areas to see.

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Bogyoke Aung San Market is a large market selling lots of different types of handicraft, and a good place to explore even if you’re not planning to buy anything.

Shwedagon Pagoda is the main highlight of Yangon. To avoid the heat it’s best to visit at sunset, and you also get to see the lights come on when it’s dark. The place is incredible, there are lots of amazing buildings and you can easily spend a few hours taking in all the details and people-watching.

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Sule pagoda: this is not the most impressive pagoda (tickets 2,000MMK), but it’s worth a visit as it’s quite central. Next to it there’s a big park and lots of street food stalls.

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Health Blessing: at the end of my trip I decided to visit this massage spa for a foot massage (1h for 12,000MMK). The service was very good and they have many locations around Yangon.

Circular line: You can take a train around Yangon. It takes 3h for the full loop, and you see busy markets, farmland and people going about their lives. Inside the train, people selling all sorts of snacks come and go. My carriage was taken over by vegetables being taken to markets, which was an unusual sight (but there are many). This is definitely a fun thing to do in Yangon. Buy your ticket for 200MMK at platform 7 at the Central Station. It’s best to go early to avoid the heat.

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It’s easy to spend a few days in Yangon – underneath the surface, there are lots of cool places: nice restaurants and a modern feel to Myanmar living.

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Food:

  • Nourish is a vegan place catering for expats and tourists. The food is good (meal with a drink for 14,500MMK, expensive for Myanmar) and it’s a good place to go for a change. They also have a yoga studio on site.
  • Monsoon is a nice restaurant serving food from Myanmar and beyond. Friendly service and big portions (lunch for 10,500MMK).
  • Kafe in Town: this is a great spot for coffee and dessert (for 6,500MMK). It’s a brand new cafe where you can chill and lounge about for a bit.

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