If you haven’t been following, this is a series on our trip we travel hacked to SE Asia.
SE Asia Trip I – Intro
SE Asia Trip I – Hong Kong
SE Asia Trip I – Cambodia
SE Asia Trip I – Thailand
In 2007 I went to Thailand for work. And I had planned to visit Myanmar (aka Burma). Then some stuff went down [….] you know, like shooting people and monks in the street. I chickened out, probably for false reasons, and have regretted it ever since. So, this was a little “personal” for me. My wife is a good sport, and I’m grateful she comes along for these crazy trips with me.
We took Air Asia’s DMK – MDL flight, which was relatively new for the time. I opted for this flight because it put us upcountry where we wanted to be anyway and saved us the horrible overnight bus ride.
Despite everything I could dig up research wise for traveling in Myanmar, we should have had reservations for hotel rooms. Problem is the economic sanctions, so no one can take “collateral” for a reservation. Because of this, the hotels either tell you they are full but they really aren’t or they trust people to show up who end up making a boat load of reservations and then the hotel waits for them and then ends up with an empty room they won’t rent to you.
We just trusted things would work out and had no reservations. Against many people’s advice. But the best beta I could dig up was on Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet’s discussion board). There is a contributor there named Montyman and he has been to the country many times and willingly shares and helps people out. At the very least, he can fake a good traveler, but I think he’s legit. He put together some information in Thorn Tree’s SE Asia FAQ, and it is known as Montyman’s FAQ73 (which is really 75 somehow). Montyman seemed to be telling people just going would work out, and I trusted it would.
I had actually tried to make arrangements through a travel agent and they wanted $3000 or something stupid. That was the same amount I spent for our entire trip!
We landed in Mandalay which put us upcountry already. How I was sad to miss out on an overnight bus ride. We did our song & dance at the airport and as walked out – BOOM! Taxi drivers up the wazoo. Prices were being thrown around and we had 2 different guys attached to us. The further we walked, the cheaper it got. Then they started bidding against each other. I just stood there in what I thought was pure negotiating genius. Eventually, I could tell one was a little bothered by where the price was going and we accepted an offer. Then we realized we were being thrown in a shared Taxi, but the 2 “chaps” from the UK were nice enough and let my wife sit shotgun.
View of Mandalay from the Airplane
We asked to be dropped off at the train station, as we wanted to take the train. We followed the advice of the Man in Seat 61 which I believe to be generally good advice. Unfortunately, this is one of those times the advice sucked.
The Scene at the Train Station
How the Burmese wait for the train
We purchased our train tickets and then had 10 or so hours to burn. I had read somewhere that we could leave our bags at the tourism office at the train station, but we couldn’t find it and after asking many people, we gave up. We walked across the street [which is an adventure in itself] and there was a hotel. We decided to ask if we could pay a bit of money to have them store our bags until the evening – which they kindly did for free.
With the burden of our luggage literally off our backs, we roamed the town. My wife was disgusted at all the Betel Nut in the street. But, we had things to see. My wife loves antiques, so we went shopping for some. The first place we looked for was a bust. We then crossed town [and popped into a Cyber Cafe real quick to let our parents know we made it ok] and landed in heaven for my wife. We went to the Sunflower Arts & Crafts. The man had a lot of good stuff, and frankly I wish I would have bought more from him. My wife ended up getting a good sized laquered horse puppet for $100.
Market in Mandalay
Mandalay night market
With our shopping success behind us, we headed out to find some Dinner, check out the night market and then catch our train to Bagan.
We then headed to the train station to await what I thought would be a good night’s sleep on a train. Turns out, there was good reason we were the only westerners on the train. I also had to promise my wife I would never put her on a train in Myanmar again [….] done!
1st Class seat on overnight train to Bagan – not recommended
Bagan – Land of a Million Pagodas
Our overnight train got to the train station at some stupid time. It was still dark. As soon as we arrived some man walked on and said he was our taxi. Unfortunately for him, we hadn’t arranged any transport and I wasn’t ready to just hop in the car with some weird guy [which, btw, differs from a normal taxi somehow?].
My wife had to use the restroom and she asked a guy at the ticket office where one was. He shook his head like he knew exactly what we needed, grabbed a key and took us to a locked room which said “VIP” above the door. It probably had the cleanest western toilet in all of Myanmar. We decided to hang out in the VIP room until the sun came up and we would then walk into the city.
After some time passed and being a “VIP” in Myanmar had run its course, we walked the 2-3 miles into the city. Bagan has to be the only city on earth with an airport closer to the city than the train station. We enjoyed the walk and the friendly Burmese people smiling and waving.
Friendly Burmese girls as we walked into Bagan
Truck of Boys smiling, waving and saying “Hello!”
With all the scuttlebutt about not being able to find a hotel room, our number one priority when we got to town was to look for a hotel. Another reason we didn’t want to catch a Taxi to town at 4 am, there would be no place to go. We were wondering around town and a man with a horse cart offered to take us around and help us find a hotel room. By this time, it was about 9 am and people were checking out – so that was good timing. He wanted a couple bucks for each hotel we stopped at, but I just arranged for him to get us a room and then take us around Bagan for the day. My book published in 2008 [actually released in 2007] said it should cost about $6-$8. In all reality, it was $25 4 years later. Stepping back the 300% increase is a little stunning, but still an excellent deal to have help finding a hotel and someone to take you to all the sights for an entire day.
What’s a $25/nt room look like?
[….] and the bathroom
We went to about 6-7 hotels and it was nice to just have the guy yell through a window or door so we didn’t have to go in to all the places. We found an opening early on, but I didn’t think my wife would be happy with it for $15/night. So we moved on and found a place at the Eden Motel Bagan (old complex).
The rooms were decent with air con and much better than the first available room we found. And for $10 more per night, well worth it.
After dropping our bags off, we booked our bus ticket over to Inle Lake for the next day and then set off to see the sights.
Bagan is known as the “land of a million pagodas”
Larger Pagoda Complex
The laquerware we purchased from “The Golden Cuckoo” getting our name engraved in it
Our final stop was at Inle Lake. It is a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains in the Shan state. The bus ride, although it took all day, was a beautiful ride. And when we arrived, we were told there wasn’t a single hotel room available in Nyuangshwe – which is the town on the lake. Since foreigners can’t technically stay anywhere other than licensed hotels, we were told the loop hole was at the Buddhist Monastery.
We actually got a bit excited about the possibility of staying at the Monastery. We arrived, excited when a “representative” of the monastery told us they wouldn’t take us in. The story goes [….] hotels had rooms open and they were pissed at the monastery because foreigners would rather stay with the monks for next to nothing than pay a little more than next to nothing to have their own room. I asked where these supposed “open and available rooms” were, as I was at this point more interested in sleeping than arguing over where I was going to sleep. The monastery, of course, had no idea.
We left, feeling rejected that not even Buddhist Monks would have us, on a search for a needle in the haystack – the elusive “available” room. Some fellow foreigners told us to head to the Remember Inn which was close to where we were anyway. These people were way helpful and the guy called like 15 hotels for us so we didn’t have to walk all over. No dice.
We were then told by the guy working the front desk to go back to the Monastery and tell them he had called 15 hotels and none had rooms. If they still wouldn’t take us, he had a room his nieces lived in and an occasional bus driver would sleep in there when the rest of the rooms were full – that would be our room.
We headed back the monastery where the “representative” went back to the grand master or whatever he is and pleaded our case. While he was gone, we got the low down about the monastery from a guy who was stranded in town for the last 3 days. All you really need to know is this – 1 toilet, 60 people.
The grand master rejected us a second time, but we at least had an ace up our sleeve. We headed back to Remember Inn and the guy had the room ready for us.
The next step was finding our ride out of Inle Lake – in which my hope was an overnight bus to Yangon, tour the city for the morning and then catch our flight back to the states. Buses were booked for a week out, flights were booked for a week out and trains were booked for a week out. We worked with a “travel agent” who said she would call in the morning and try to get us a flight as that was our best bet. We also booked our boat tour with her the next day.
Exhausted and hungry, we ate at a little food stand across the street and I went to bed. My wife wanted to see a puppet show so I sent her out alone.
My Favorite Place to eat in Nyuangshwe – a Shan noodle “cart”
Shan noodle soup
The next morning we got up to take our boat tour. You may have noticed the fisherman on the featured image. That’s show with the traditional dress and old style fish net, but they really do fish that way. They stand on the end of the boat on one leg, wrap their other leg around the paddle to maneuver around and then they have both hands free to deal with their nets.
We then headed to Indein which one must fight all the touristy kitch to see the amazing pagoda ruins. We also dodged the “camera fee” by walking around back.
Inle Lake is shallow and large. So you can go to the middle of the lake and many people live there. We visited a weaving shop where they notably took lotus stems and turned it into thread, which they then wove into certain textile products. We bought a small scarf about 5″ wide and it ran about $60.
The last notable site to see while on Inle Lake are the floating gardens. The people “harvest” the plants growing in the lake and then pack around the roots of what they want to grow as the dirt. They then grow vegetables to trade at the market. Pretty cool stuff!
Our Longboat for the day
“Floating Village” home
Floating Gardens being tended to
Rainbow on the lake
We then arrived back to town and got the good news from our travel agent. She had booked us two tickets to Yangon for the morning we were suppose to depart back home. It worked out perfectly, but I’m a nervous nelly and I didn’t like there was no contingency plan [….] it was the only option I had. We got issued our “tickets” which we carbon copy books that the travel agent filled out. That didn’t help my nerves.
We caught our plane early in the morning and landed in Yangon right on time. The original plan was to ditch our bags and then head out to see Yangon. But we landed in hot & humid Yangon from the nice cool mountains. And we were at the end of an intense trip which left us exhausted.
We walked from the domestic terminal to the much more chaotic international terminal and found a seat to park our cabooses. It’s kind of a shame when the Shwedagon pagoda is so close to not go see it, but we were beat. We actually ended up switching flights to catch an earlier plane to Bangkok.
Myanmar has to be my favorite country I ever visited and I hope to return some day.
What is your favorite place you’ve ever been? Where is the one place you want to visit?