The Magic of Myanmar (Burma) in 4 Days

Yangon (formerly, Rangoon)

After 50 years of being closed to the rest of the world, Myanmar’s borders opened to tourists in 2010, and WOW. The development and progress was noticeable from the moment I landed in Yangon. The airport is much larger and more modern than I expected. You can find air conditioning in most buildings and hotels/hostels. Large apartment buildings that have been around for decades (at least) crammed with residents, which now feature numerous A/C units and satellite dishes on balconies and rooftops. An ex-pat I was talking to in Yangon told me that just a few years ago only a handful of people in the country had SIM cards because each one cost a few thousand $$ (and even with that networks were limited and barely worked). Fast forward to today, and I picked up a SIM card at the airport with talk, texting, and 5GB of data for just a few $USD. There’s a beautiful marriage of old and new, developed and undeveloped, and loads of charm to find in Myanmar.

Far more people speak English than I expected, given that learning or teaching English was prohibited until 2010. So in the span of just 9 or so years, a considerable number of Burmese have learned English well enough for English-speaking tourists to have no trouble finding someone to speak with in just about every place you go to in Yangon. That said, it’s still helpful (and goes along way) to make an effort and learn a few phrases in Burmese.

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A taxi into Yangon will cost you around 8,000kyat (1,500kyat = $1USD), or less if you use Grab, and takes about an hour, depending on traffic and what part of the city you are staying in. Clothing: while Myanmar is definitely more conservative than Thailand, you only have to cover knees and shoulders when visiting a temple or pagoda. There are plenty of female expats and tourists in shorts and tank tops, and I never once saw any locals giving disapproving looks. But if you want to be very considerate, then dress a bit more on the conservative side. The women do tend to be a bit more covered, though, nowhere near as strict about it as I observed in India or Morocco. The men still primarily wear longyi instead of pants, as you can see from many images throughout this post. Here’s a photo of a man at the Shwedagon Pagoda wearing a longyi.

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Myanmar Money Info: while there are very few places that accept credit cards, this is definitely a cash society. Most businesses accept kyat (there are plenty of ATMs in the airport you can use) or USD (and many also take Euros). However, if you plan to use USD or Euros, make sure you have brand new, uncreased bills; they will not accept folded, torn, or bent bills.

For accommodations, you can find dorm beds in hostels as cheap as $2-$3USD/night, including breakfast, up to fancy hotels that run over $100USD/night. I opted for a middle-ground; a private room in Little Monkey Hostel, located in Chinatown, which is super central to many restaurants and bars (though not walkable to the city’s most popular destination, the Shwedagon Pagoda). This area is also walkable to Sule Pagoda, the second most visited pagoda in Yangon. My hostel was fine, nothing I’d highly recommend, but nothing I’d discourage anyone from staying at either; the mattress was hard as a rock (typical of many beds in Asia) and my bedroom shared a wall with the bathroom (less than desirable in terms of light and noise), but there’s A/C in my room, a very simple (but free!) breakfast, and the family/staff who run it are incredibly nice. Best part was the location: right in the heart of Chinatown!

Apart from visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda, I didn’t have an itinerary or list for Yangon, which allowed me to just enjoy my time in the city. I had lunches and dinners at a few spots, but my two favorites were: Rangoon Tea House (they have the least oily tea leaf salad in Myanmar! And amazing Bao buns, including fish and veg options! Though service leaves much to be desired, so pack your patience) and Wai Wai’s Noodle Place (great food for super affordable prices, a nice rooftop, and lovely service; only downside is all of the smoking on the roof, which can make it a bit hard to enjoy dinner). No matter
where you eat, the best food in Myanmar (and where it tops the rest of the world, in my humble opinion): salads and curries. Tea leaf salad, ginger salad, and tomato salads were my three favorite salad choices, and the vegetable curries I had at several restaurants were DELISH. In fact, if you’re reading this and nowhere near Myanmar, see if there’s a local Burmese restaurant near you and RUN! You can thank me later.

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Rangoon Tea House’s Tea Leaf Salad. Gorgeous presentation (and without all the oil most places use)!
What tea leaf salad usually looks like. Still delicious. 

I can’t write about Yangon and not include photos of the incredible Shwedagon Pagoda, so here you go (video of time lapse walk through the massive Pagoda when you click the link). I was a bit bummed to see that it was under repair, so had scafolding covering the entirety of the main structure. But with the lights at night it was still beautiful. Cultural Tip: if you visit any temples, dress conservatively. For women, this means shoulders covered and a skirt or trousers that are below your knees. And if you decide to sit down at any temple, do NOT have your legs stretched out facing Buddha. Pointing the bottom of your feet towards Buddha is a sign of disrespect and cultural faux paus that I learned the hard way, when scolded by a 5yo little boy at the Pagoda. Let my embarrassing mistake help you avoid the same.

 

I spent lots of time walking around downtown, which also included passing by the other primary pagoda in Yangon- the Sule Pagoda.

I also decided to treat myself to eyelash extensions! Ever since my trip to the Philippines I noticed that so many women in SE Asia had the most incredible eyelashes, and knew they just couldn’t be real. I read up on the extensions, and learned that in the US (or most western countries) you’ll typically pay at least $150-$200 to have the original set put on. I initially thought: why would women do this? No way I would do that. HA! But I found the most wonderful place in Chinatown, The Beauty House- Lash & Brow (0979 606 1062), that cost only 35,000kyat ($23USD!!!), was clean, hygienic, spoke English, so I figured I had nothing to lose by trying it out. Love them! One of the things I’ve learned to embrace the most during my travels is treating myself to things that I had a hard time justifying back in the US due to costs, such as regular manicures and pedicures, massages, or things like having eyelash extensions. They are fun! Even with no other makeup on at all, you still look glam (from the time you wake up)! The photo below is from a couple days after I got them done (while in Burma), but it certainly does a good job of showing how big and beautiful my lashes are. FUN!

In addition to exploring the city by foot and pampering myself, I checked out a free stand-up comedy show at a local bar that is super popular with ex-pats. The comedians are all ex-pats, and just a few acts into the set I gleaned a lot about what life in Yangon as an expat is like: (1) primary careers are NGO and teachers, and women predominate in both fields; (2) the city is incredibly small and everyone seems to know everyone (within expat community); (3) the dating scene is hard, especially for women, white women in particular (I know, I know, cry me a river)- the women overwhelmingly outnumber expat men, and most of the men who are there are more interested in dating Asian women than white women. The guys didn’t seem too excited about the dating scene either; I got the distinct impression that it’s not the easiest or best place to be single. And apart from restaurants and bars, there’s not a lot to do in Yangon; very limited public spaces and I honestly have no idea if there’s even a movie theater. People seem to spend a lot of time traveling abroad for weekends and holidays (which isn’t a bad option, considering you can get a roundtrip flight to Bangkok for $150USD, probably less if you plan ahead). Note to self: scour Facebook for expat groups and events when traveling, because you get the pulse of a city very quickly.

Bagan

(One of the MOST magical places in Asia!)

It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t need to spend all of my time in Yangon; the 4 days I had in Myanmar would be better spent exploring more than one place. So at 11pm on 20 February, I jumped online and bought a plane ticket, and booked a hotel room, to Bagan (departing 21 Feb and returning the evening of 22 Feb- just in time to get repacked, sleep, and head to the airport for my flight to Laos the morning of 23 Feb). If you have more time in the country and aren’t as rushed, you can take the overnight VIP bus (8 hours, arrives around 5am) from Yangon to Bagan for about $35USD. Because I had so little time (flying to Laos on Saturday, so needed to arrive in Bagan on Thursday and return to Yangon by Friday evening), I opted for the 1.5 hour flight. Plus, the plane costs only $55 (each way) more than the bus, and avoiding an overnight bus was preferable to me; if you plan ahead, you can probably get flights even more cheaply. When you arrive, whether by boat, bus, or plane, you have to pay a 25,000
archeological zone fee ($19USD). Taxis at the airport have set fares, depending on whether you’re staying near the airport (Nyaung-U), in Old Bagan, or New Bagan, and the fares are posted on a large sign outside of the airport.

Bagan is a historical city, and during its height (11th to 13th centuries) was home to over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries. There are over 2,000 that remain standing today. It’s easy to understand why Bagan is known as Myanmar’s Angor Wat. Until about 1 year ago, visitors could climb and explore nearly all the temples; the government has stopped that and now there are only a couple of temples you can climb. (If you wonder why anyone would want to climb these, the primary reason was for sunrise and sunset views they provided.) This place made me think of Macchu Pichu, which was totally open when I visited back in 2001, but within 10 or so years, when it became one of “the” international destinations for people to explore, the government set up WAY more limits and imposed more fees, making it more expensive and difficult to explore. That is already happening in Bagan, so if you can, go sooner than later.
I stayed at the Amazing Bagan Resort, which is one of the more expensive hotels in Bagan (I paid close to $60USD/night). I wanted the convenience of having a hotel that I could rent a bike from directly. The pool was also very nice, and the hotel had no issues with me spending several hours post-checkout enjoying all of the facilities (including the pool) late afternoon/early evening prior to my flight. My favorite meal in Bagan was at Be Kind to Animals/The Moon and WOW! I don’t care if you’re vegetarian, EAT HERE! So, so good and so cheap!

Best ginger tea I’ve had (maybe ever), delish vegetable curry, and my fave- tea leaf salad! The entire meal cost me less than $5USD.
This tiny, sweet puppy was my dinner buddy. Shortly after taking this photo she climbed up onto a cushioned chair at my table and went to sleep. My heart melted.

Getting around in Bagan is easy: you can rent an eBike (almost all scooters you can rent in Bagan are electric!), or hire a tuk tuk, taxi, or private driver for a day. I opted to rent an eBike from my hotel, because it was easy and cheap. I paid 20,000kyat (about $13USD) to use a bike for 1.5 days; if I wanted to hire a car and driver to take me around for a full day, that would have cost me only 30,000kyat ($20)—and these are all prices from my hotel, which is more expensive than rentals from many other places. So you can fully explore Bagan on any budget, easily! The other benefit of the eBikes is that many of the temples and pagodas are accessible only by small, dirt paths that motorbikes and scooters can go on, but cars cannot. Everywhere you look is temple after temple, pagoda after pagoda. It is simply awesome!

Artwork inside one of the temples, dating from the 13th or 14th century!
More of the artwork from inside the same temple.

 

The real highlight, for me and most in Bagan, is catching sunrise and sunset overlooking this extraordinary landscape. Sunrise is THE thing to do/see in Bagan, especially if you are visiting during the dry season (October- April). If you can afford it, I have on good authority that a hot air balloon ride is the way to go (expect to pay $300-$500USD/person, and book well in advance). That was definitely not in my budget, so, I woke up shortly after 5am and left my hotel by 5:30am to find a place to see the sunrise and morning hot air balloon rides. Sunrise tips: (1) bring warm clothes, because it is downright COLD in the early morning hours! And (2) if you aren’t hiring a driver who knows exactly where to take you, leave earlier than you think is necessary because it’s hard (in the dark) to find the place you want to watch sunrise. The location my hotel gave me was useless because that temple was closed off to the public. To avoid missing sunrise entirely, I ended up going where I saw loads of giant tour buses. Yes, that meant fighting a massive crowd (literally, hundreds of people) but it also meant this was a prime spot to view the balloons flying at sunrise. I was standing right under the flight path and it was pure magic.

I took lots of videos, so you can see the live action by going here: https://youtu.be/rvg1OJ_KQY8

But I couldn’t help but add some still images to this page too, of course! To avoid overdoing it, I’m adding into a slideshow, with the exception of a couple of images, where you can even see a very detailed moon! (Seriously, the iPhone XS Max is amazing.) But don’t skip over the slideshow (or video above) because the hot air balloons flying at sunrise is one of the most magical things I’ve seen in my life, so I’m excited to share with anyone seeing this post! FYI about visiting temples or viewpoints: there will be locals trying to sell you clothes or other souvenirs. There will be children who are incredibly persistent about having you buy their artwork or postcards.

My favorite vendor. When I showed him my pockets were empty and I wasn’t carrying $$ with me, he skipped over me while persistently bugging everyone around me. 

I found it adorable; being told no 10 times will not stop them from asking an 11th. I had good laughs with the kids about not buying but what good salespeople they were. Be kind, buy if you want, or don’t, but no reason to let it upset you. They are doing what they can to create new opportunities for themselves in what is still a pretty new tourist economy.

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For sunset, I wanted to be up high to catch a view. The best way to find one of the few remaining temples that you can climb is to follow one of the local kids; they spend much of the pre-sunrise and pre-sunset hours riding around on motorbikes asking tourists if they want to see sunrise/sunset. Say yes, follow them (there’s no bad intention or risk of harm), and after you’ve enjoyed the view from above they will ask you to buy something from their “shop.” The sun transforms into this incredible, red ball of fire as it descends into the horizon. Photos below don’t have any editing, it really did look that red.

My “tour guide” for the evening was a 20 year old girl who spoke very good English (in long sleeve, gray tshirt in photo below), and was kind enough to be my photographer as I stopped for a few photos at sites along the way to the temple where I would watch sunset. I wanted to support her but wasn’t interested in any of the items she was selling, so I gave her a bit of money as a tip to thank her for showing me around. The sunset views I got from this temple (absolutely no idea its name or where I was) were totally worth it!

My final visit in Bagan was to Bagan House (http://www.baganhouse.com/), which is definitely worth a visit. Here you can take a tour and see how Bagan’s famous (and extremely ornate) lacquerware is made, and if you want, you can pick up souvenirs. The lacquerware is expensive (we’re talking as much as $30USD for a small tea cup, though I was told I could get a 20% discount so prices are clearly somewhat negotiable) but if I had a home to ship things to (they will handle shipping for you), I absolutely would have bought some. It is GORGEOUS. But even if you don’t want to shop (I didn’t), I found it fascinating to see and learn about the process. There are extraordinary artists involved at every stage of the process, beginning with the guy below who uses both hands and his toes to make super thin bamboo strips that are then turned into jewelry or pottery. Bonus: not sure if this happens all the time, or only if there are just a small number of visitors at one time, but he made me a free bamboo bracelet! (Yes, I did give him a tip, but there was no pressure to do so.)

The lacquerware at Bagan House is actually far more ornate and beautiful than what is shown here, but Bagan House does not permit photos inside the HUGE shop where finished products are for sale. So this photo was taken at a separate shop where I stopped in to buy postcards. 

Bagan was definitely the highlight of Myanmar for me. It was nice getting away from Yangon, though that city fascinates me in terms of how quickly it has developed. The people in Myanmar are friendly and trusting, and my visit served as yet another reminder of just how much good there is in our world.

Four days was a whirlwind through Myanmar, but I couldn’t let myself visit this part of the world (again) and miss Laos (again). So stay tuned for my next post about finally making my way to Laos!

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