myanmar

“If you have not yet been to Myanmar don’t bother going; it’s already changed” is a comment that I’ve heard on more than a few occasions from seasoned travelers. I am writing the following pages to dispel this notion and provide a snapshot of the tourist experience in Myanmar today. I recently returned from my first ever visit to the nation formerly known as Burma, so this report will not talk about how Myanmar used to be, nor will it draw comparisons between pre-2010 Burma and today’s Myanmar. It will, however, provide an accurate description of what to expect when traveling to Myanmar as well as some personal takeaways, experiences, and opinion. My thoughts on Myanmar are: if you have not yet been, go today, go tomorrow, go as soon as possible; but bring an open heart, an open mind, and lots of space on your camera’s memory card!

I think the best way to approach this will be to break my feedback into sections, so first I will discuss Myanmar in general and then details on each of the major cities that tourists would include in their itineraries. Within the city sections I will also provide a brief review of the hotels that I visited during my travels. Given my short stay in each city I only saw a handful of hotels, there are plenty more out there and I encourage you to rely on your local DMC partner in Myanmar for further guidance. For the hotels that I did visit I will provide a 1-2 sentence description along with a personal rating from my NJURY scale (N = Not Usable!; J = Just barely; U = Usable; R = Recommended; Y = Yes Please!). Any/all ratings given are based on my experiences in working with the North American market and take into consideration accommodations, amenities, service, location, ability to meet traveler expectations, etc.

MYANMAR

I went into my visit with no expectations and also little knowledge on the history of the country with which I was about to fall in love. It was therefore a monumental task for my tour guides throughout to answer my many questions and provide me with all of the information that I required. I’m pleased to report that they stepped up to the challenge and all 3 were overwhelmingly impressive! Many of the guides are licensed freelance guides that work with a small number of DMC’s, however some of the larger inbound operators do have a few full time guides & drivers on staff. Guiding is very important in any destination so it is crucial that you work with a reputable DMC to ensure that your clients have a good guide to optimize their in-country experience. A vast majority (estimated to me at 90%) of tourists travel with one guide for the entirety of their time in Myanmar: usually 6 – 10 days and incorporating 3 or 4 cities/regions.

Here is some basic info on Myanmar:

Population: An official census is scheduled to be done next year, but it is estimated that Myanmar currently has 60 million citizens, with Yangon being the most populous city (approx. 6 million)

Religion: Myanmar believes in freedom of religion; however an overwhelming majority of the citizens are Buddhist. Almost all of the monasteries, temples, pagodas, etc. that you visit on your tour are Buddhist.

Seasonality: High season traditionally runs from mid-October through the end of April. The rainy/monsoon season is from May through September so it is very wet and not ideal for tourists. Given the recent spike in demand it is not easy to confirm rooms at decent hotels during high season so it is advised that you urge your clients to book early and also be prepared to make a significant deposit, or in some cases full payment, to secure their accommodations.

Currency: Local currency is the Burmese kyat, with an exchange rate of approximately 1000 kyat/1USD. US Dollars are widely accepted throughout the country, but most places (including currency exchange counters) will only take new, uncreased, crisp bills so be sure to go to your bank before travel if you plan to use USD during your travels. In the larger cities of Mandalay & Yangon you will be able to find ATM’s, and Visa and Mastercard are accepted at most Western hotels & restaurants and some shops. Almost all places outside of these cities are CASH ONLY. I did not see one single place that accepted American Express.

Food: The food was great, and inexpensive when not eating in the hotels (I had an amazing sandwich and cup of ice cream in Inlay Lake for $1). It is lots of rice and curries, similar to Thai but less coconut. Chicken and fish dishes are most prevalent, but pork and beef is also readily available.

Getting Around: The road conditions and traffic varies by city. One thing that I found interesting is that most of the motor vehicles in Myanmar have the steering wheel on the right side of the car, but you also drive on the right side of the road. This is a result of the sudden demand for vehicles leading them to purchase most of their cars from Japan (LOTS of Toyotas) which are designed to drive on the left. The traffic in Yangon is horrendous! When planning activities in an itinerary you should anticipate delays in transfer times. Unlike other Asian cities there were very few bicycles, scooters, mopeds in Yangon despite the traffic – it was later told to me that these vehicles are actually not allowed except for in certain sections of the city.

I was surprised to see 4 domestic air carriers. All of my flights (3) were with Yangon Airways so all info provided only speaks to Yangon Airways, but I was told that they all operate similarly. Yangon Airways has a small fleet of ATR-72’s (a twin prop plane that seats about 75). Their planes do a few circuits per day to each of the main tourism cities so you may have to make a stop before reaching your destination. Also, each of my 3 flights were delayed, from 15 minutes to 2 hours. I was told that about 50% of the domestic flights are delayed; this must also be taken into consideration when planning an itinerary.

Language: The local language is Burmese (or Myanmar language). I was very impressed with the level of English spoken by people in the service or tourism industry. All 3 of my guides’ English was exceptional (better than most other Asian countries I’ve visited) and hotel & restaurant staff spoke and understood English well. Even the drivers had a handle on basic English which shocked me.

Most visitors to Myanmar will start in Yangon (the international airport with the most access, I flew in/out of Yangon via Bangkok) and incorporate visits to Bagan, Mandalay & Inlay Lake. In the following sections I will briefly outline each of these areas. You will not find any information regarding Mandalay because my limited time did not allow me to visit; the main draw in Mandalay is the palace in the middle of the city. Mandalay is the second largest city (behind Yangon) and is a mix of big city and history/culture with pagodas and temples spread amongst residential and commercial buildings.

YANGON (formerly Rangoon)

Yangon serves as the major gateway to Myanmar and it is where I started and ended my journey. It is the largest city, but not the capital (that distinction belongs to Nay Pyi Taw, approx. 200 miles north of Yangon). The city sits on the Southern part of the Irrawaddy River, just before the river spills out into the Andaman Sea. The airport is north of the city and takes about 45-60 minutes with traffic to get downtown. It’s a small airport but has a coffee shop, some souvenir stands, ATM’s, currency exchange counters and free wifi (although service is very spotty).

Yangon is a very green city and it can be hot & humid but it is not as bad as Bangkok or other SE Asian cities that I’ve visited. The downtown area is built around the 2000 year old Sule Pagoda and includes the massive Scott Market – a shopper’s paradise for Jade pieces, textiles, jewelry, food, and more. The highlight of any visit to Yangon is a visit to Shwe Dagon Pagoda – this was one of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve ever visited! The pagoda stands almost 350 feet high and the main part of it was built around 2,500 years ago. Shwe Dagon Pagoda has now become a massive complex of temples and pagodas where locals and tourists alike come to pray and appreciate the impressive structures. It is most common to visit in the early evening to watch the sunset in this beautiful setting.

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Since Yangon is mainly used as a gateway, 2 nights is sufficient. While in Yangon I visited the following hotels that are commonly used for Westerners:
Chatrium (R – recommendable): 300 room hotel, ideal for groups or mid-range FIT pax. Opened in 1998, renovated in 2012. Free wifi throughout the hotel; really nice dining area/options and a large and inviting pool area. Located near a lake, not downtown which is great for traffic but not near market and other main attractions.
Traders Hotel (R): Beautiful lobby, but feels a bit corporate. Great location, right downtown near Scott Market (could prove to be an issue for groups b/c of access by buses with the traffic). Club floors are really nice and the club lunge offers spectacular views of the city and Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Free wifi throughout with great signal.

Governor’s Residence (Y – Yes Please!): This is an Orient Express property. The main building was constructed in 1920 as a residence for the governor, additional structures were built and renovations were done in 1995 and that is when it opened as a hotel (OE took over management in 2003). Beautiful boutique hotel (only 48 rooms), but it’s the most expensive hotel in town. Very colonial (almost stuffy) feeling but perfect for the right client. The property is beautiful – great pool area, bar, lounge & 2 restaurants. Free wifi and they also offer different complimentary activities on a daily basis.

Strand Hotel (Y): Built in 1901 as a hotel. This was my personal favorite for FIT pax. Only 31 suites on 2 floors, beautiful lobby, restaurant and bar. All check-ins are done in room which is a nice touch. Rooms have teak floor and high ceiling; bathrooms have double basin and separate bath & shower.

Other hotels commonly used for Westerners: Savoy; Park Royal; Sedona. Marriott & Novotel are scheduled to open in the next two years.

INLAY LAKE (also INLE LAKE)

Inle Lake is the main attraction in Shan State (the largest state of Myanmar). Access is via Heho airport which is about an hour drive to Nyuang Shwe, the gateway village to the lake. In Nyuang Shwe you are brought to the main jetty (dare I call it a marina) where you are met by your single engine boat to head out to the lake.
Inle Lake is about 14 miles wide and averages 3 miles wide; the climate is much cooler and more comfortable than the inland cities. The morning and evenings are actually quite chilly, but the sun is strong during the day and you are out on the water so sunscreen and a hat is highly recommended (you are also given an umbrella to shade the sun and/or keep you dry.

It is impossible to put the beauty of Inle into words. Throughout the day, as the light changes, photographic opportunities are abundant. On the lake you will see lots of boats, those of the local fishermen that utilize the unique leg rowing technique, as well as transportation boats carrying goods (such as rice) and other tourist boats.
The jetty at Nyuang Shwe is north of the lake, while most of the sights and activities are located south of the lake. The eastern and western banks are lined with hotels, villages, shops & restaurants. The hotels and permanent structures are a mix of being situated on land (the banks of the lake) and on stilts in the water or on floating pieces of land in the lake.

Driving through the villages on stilts each day is magical – passing by fishermen, Buddhist monks, children flying kites, pagodas, and local people just going about their daily tasks. The touring consists of stops at various pagodas and workshops to see how they produce the goods & products that are sold to support themselves and their families. The places I visited include: monasteries, pagodas, weaving workshop (silk, lotus & cotton), silversmith, goldsmith, cigar/cigarette making workshop, and floating gardens. The most impressive thing to me was Indein Pagoda, a 12th century complex featuring more than 1,800 individual stupas.

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While in Inlay there are lots of options for accommodation and more on the way (a major construction was going on during my visit), but here are the ones that I saw:

Inlay Paradise (J – just barely): The hotel is on stilts in the lake, all connected by raised bridges, which creates a cool ambiance & feeling. The rooms are spacious but very basic (especially bathrooms); all rooms have a small balcony on the lake. Rooms very close together so little privacy. Free wifi in the common areas but connection was weak. The food was average at best.

Inlay Princess (R – recommendable): Located very close to the main jetty on the north of the lake (which means it is further from most touring/attractions). This property is on the bank so it’s on land, not stilts. The rooms are huge and furnished nicer than Paradise but still basic. Large sun balconies on each room but not private at all. Rooms have A/C and free wifi; there is also a spa. Nice for what else is available in the area but by no means luxurious.

Inle Paramount Resort (R): This was my favorite property of the 3 that I saw. The rooms are smaller but much more nicely furnished than the others. They all of a small balcony, A/C, safe and flat screen tv. The lobby, restaurant and bar (on a 3rd floor viewing deck) are all very nicely appointed and comfortable. I dined here for lunch and the food was superb. This property is also on stilts so it has that cool feel to it.

Other popular hotels include Emete Hotel, Lakeview Resort Hotel, and Pristine Lotus – Pristine Lotus looks very impressive (I saw pics but did not visit); without question the most comfortable & luxurious. As mentioned there are more options on the way – major construction was going on in the southeast section of the lake.
Inle Lake was the most picturesque place I’d ever been in my life, until I visited…

BAGAN

My final stop on this trip was the ancient city of Bagan. Bagan is home to over 3,000 pagodas & temples and only 80,000 people. This is without question the most scenic and beautiful place I’ve ever visited – lush greenery gives way only to ancient pagodas protruding from the tree tops in every direction you look. The city is divided into three parts – Nyaung Oo in the north (this is where the airport is); and to the South, Old Bagan (the location of most of the pagodas and a few hotels) and New Bagan (newer hotels, restaurants and also some pagodas & temples).

The city is incredibly small so nothing is far away; there are only 3 major roads (the rest are one lane dirt roads) and no traffic lights. Bagan also sits on the Irrawaddy River and there are many boats that connect Bagan to Mandalay or Yangon via the Irrawaddy. The weather here is much hotter and dryer than either of the other two places that I visited. Midday can be very hot, so tourists often do early morning and late afternoon touring choosing to enjoy a rest, swim, or lunch in the shade during the hottest times of the day.

Almost all buildings are only one story (some are 2 stories) high, preserving the stunning views. A law has been passed forbidding any new construction in Old Bagan, assuring that the aesthetics of the historic area will be preserved. There is a market in Nyaung Oo, but it is not a major attraction and pales in comparison to Scott Market in Yangon. There is also another smaller market in New Bagan but that is only open for a couple of hours each day.

While in Bagan tourists spend their time visiting the different temples and pagodas so it is not uncommon for a tourist to rent a bicycle or even a motorbike to make their way across the city visiting temples on their own. Unlike Yangon bikes and scooters are okay in Bagan. It is easy enough to get around on your own, but if you do tour without a guide you risk missing the history, the stories, and some of the hidden parts of the temples that only an experienced guide can show you. There is a large number of tourist police based throughout the city – I was very impressed by this. They are there to offer any help/guidance required, mainly directions from tourists without guides.

One of the most popular activities offered is Balloons Over Bagan. Unfortunately my waitlist status did not clear for the day that I was there so I was unable to experience this, but I’m told it’s incredible. This expensive (approx. US$500) activity allows you to watch the sun rise over the city from a hot air balloon. It is very popular with guests, which is why it was not available when I was in town.

The prime time to visit Bagan is from September to February because this is when the city is green and beautiful; from February until May it becomes more dry and brown; then like the rest of the country June through September sees heavy rains.

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As with the rest of the country there are many hotel options (and more on the way) but here are the ones that I visited:

Aye Yar River View Hotel (R): Located in Old Bagan it is a large hotel, would be ideal for groups, but very nice. Open reception area with pool & restaurant also being open air. There is a nice pool and spa. The hotel is on the river, but they don’t make great use of this luxury – if you’re not staying in a river view you wouldn’t know it was there unless you walked the entire property. The good thing is that the rooms that don’t face the river have great views out to the pagodas.

Tharabar Gate Hotel (U): Located at the city wall gate of Old Bagan; this is an archaeological site. The grounds are very nice and peaceful (lots of gardens and trees). The layout and style of the property is similar to the Aye Yar River View Hotel, but not quite as nice. Large rooms have hardwood floors, high ceilings, patios, and flat screen tv’s.

Bagan Hotel (N – Not Usable!): Beautiful grounds and a great location, but the property is very run down, rooms and common areas very dark and poorly furnished. Such a shame because the grounds are great but I would not recommend using this for American guests (ok for backpacker level).

Bagan Thande Hotel (N): Similar to Bagan Hotel, but grounds not even as nice.

Bagan Lodge (Y): Brand new property in New Bagan – had soft opening in August 2013; opening Jan/Feb. 85 rooms (82 deluxe; 3 suites) made up of 44 units. 41 units will be split into 2 deluxe rooms (1 twin & 1 double) with interleading door and shared porch with dividing wall for privacy; the other 3 units are suites (the size of 2 deluxe rooms). Great layout; beautiful rooms & bathrooms; Beautiful pool, restaurant and bar; very nice modern spa with 8 treatment rooms. The only possible negative is the location, but as previously stated Bagan is small so nothing is too far. This was my favorite property of all that I saw.

I hope it is clear from this write up that I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Myanmar. The people are welcoming and eager to share their history and culture, the experiences are varied and authentic, and the sense of history is palpable. The country and all that is has to offer is like none I’ve ever visited and it is one that I cannot wait to further explore. As I’ve told my friends and family, I rarely take photos while traveling and I came home with about 1,000 pictures from a 5 day visit – if that’s not an endorsement for the beauty of this country I don’t know what is.

I was taught to end all speeches/papers with a quote, and I know that I’m ready to go back to Myanmar so in the words of Jerry Maguire – “who’s coming with me?”

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