Traveler: Breonne Eberhart
When: January 2018
Whenever I think of Myanmar I think of a land of mystery. A country that is sanctioned and off limits. Luckily over the past few years those sanctions have been lifted and tourism is welcomed more so than it has been in the past. Myanmar (aka Burma) has been unseen for decades by most of the world. It opened its borders in 2011 after 50 years of military dictatorship. And surprisingly tourism is not yet booming in Myanmar.
This country is indescribable with words… it is unlike anything you have ever seen in your life. The only word I really have is magical (even Marco Polo thought so!). With over 2,000 temples scattered across vast plains, welcoming smiles, and a unique culture, I highly recommend seeing this country before it becomes influenced by the outside world.
I took a two hour flight from Ho Chi Minh which cost about $120 USD. You need to obtain a visa prior to arrival. You apply at evisamyanmar.com for $50 USD. They email you within three days to verify if it has been approved or not and then you print out a copy of the e-visa to present at immigration. It’s a very simple process and found it to be much easier than some other countries. We flew into Yangon, which used to be the capital. In Yangon we boarded a domestic flight to Bagan. Transportation in Myanmar is sub par. They have trains which are uncomfortable and take forever, buses which are comfortable but also take forever, and flights which have a very poor safety rating but get you there the fastest. So we opted for the flights! It saved us nearly a day in travel and why not risk your life to have more time to explore lol.
There are a few airlines to choose from for domestic flights. We did a lot of research on which one didn’t crash this year and Golden Myanmar airlines won! Once you check in they will give you a colored sticker which determines which flight you are on. It seemed very basic but was actually very organized and we had no trouble boarding and figuring out where to go… all with just a sticker. FYI- Make sure you don’t lose it because it is as important as the boarding pass. During the flight you will make a stop in a little town called Heho for a few minutes to pick up more passengers and then you will arrive in Bagan. That flight cost $100 USD each way with luggage included.
Where to Stay
In Bagan, the Aureum Palace Hotel is insanely beautiful. I would recommend staying in the area of Nyaung U. It has the most restaurants, bars and night life. There are many budget hotels in Nyaung U but seriously the Aureum is magnificent. It is situated in the temple fields a mile or so outside of Nyaung U. At check in they give you a welcome drink, cold towel, and complimentary tickets to go to the viewing deck to get a panoramic view of Bagan.
We got the Jasmine Lotus room with a lake view. Make sure you do the lake view, not garden and ask for either room 101 or 102 as these have the best views. This room is not cheap at approximately $250/ night but is absolutely worth it! With views overlooking ancient temples, an infinity pool, luxury amenities, and your own little Lanai make this hotel worth the price tag.
Also breakfast is included in your stay which is very good. Try the Mohinga or Shan noodles for breakfast! They are delicious. And that brings me to my favorite section FOOD!!!
What to eat
I really didn’t know what to expect for food in Myanmar. I knew curries were popular and I was pleasantly surprised by the dishes I tried. If you see fish head soup on the menu, definitely try it. All of the salads were phenomenal. They were fresh, tasty, and even though they say not to eat anything you don’t peel I took a chance and never got sick. The curries are a mix of Indian and Thai curry flavors. Some restaurants that I really enjoyed are “A little bit of Bagan”, “Weather spoons”, and “The moon to be kind to animals”.
One of the staples in Myanmar is Fermented tea leaf salad -Lahpet Thohk. This salad is made exactly how you would think, they ferment tea leaves. It doesn’t sound or look very appetizing but rest assured if you try this once, it will be your go to dish.
Mohinga is a noodle type soup that you will see being brewed on the streets in the morning. We had this for breakfast every single day and Owish I could get some right now!
Things to See
Yangon: The Shwedagon Pagoda is the largest gold temple in Myanmar. It is said to have eight strands of Gautama Buddha’s hair along with other relics at the top of the temple and is highly revered in Southeast Asia. It is encircled with rubies and diamonds with one diamond at the top measuring 76 carats! After you are done exploring the temple go to a local market to experience the daily life in this large city. And get yourself a bowl of Mohinga! Did I mention that again?
Bagan: One of my favorite places in the world! Rent an Electric bike and go explore! It’s so, so much fun. The e-bikes here last all day if you go a reasonable speed. This is by far the best source of transportation in Bagan. You can get to all the temples in old and new Bagan with your e-bike and a little sense of adventure. Just make sure you turn the e-bike off before parking it or you may end up driving through a fence with some injuries like I did. I recommend renting the e-bike out in Nyaung U for $3/day. You will pay about double that if you go through the hotel.
I still get excited just thinking about the feeling Bagan gives you. You feel like you have stepped back in time, no rules, no Starbucks, no social media. It is a simple life and those who live there are genuinely happy! The locals have this contagious smile and I felt very privileged to be able to witness the beauty and history of these temples and get to know some of the local people who are some of the nicest I have ever met.
Sunrise and Sunset: Try to catch every sunrise and sunset you possibly can because they are simply gorgeous! We wanted to watch the sunset from the top of a temple and some locals told us that many of the temples are closed to the public and do not let you go inside or to the top.
But there are a few that you can climb over the fence to get into for sunset. One that we found was North Guni (myak guni). It is technically illegal I suppose but everyone does it, even the locals and the sunset view you get is totally worth it!
Hot Air Balloon Ride: Taking a hot air balloon ride in Bagan at sunrise is a must! We used the company Balloons over Bagan and they were phenomenal. It will run you $300 USD per person but it’s just something you have to do. They pick you up in a rickety old wooden mini bus from your hotel and you’re on your way. It is a bit chilly in the morning so I would recommend a lightweight sweatshirt or my go to, a packable puffy jacket. You get to the balloons in about 20 minutes and each basket holds 16 people.
This is a great way to get a bird’s eye view of Bagan and was by far one of my most memorable mornings. You’re soaring hundreds of feet over ancient temple fields as the sun makes its slow ascent into the sky and you’re greeted with the most beautiful sunrise. Oh I almost forgot to mention they end the tour with fruit, croissants, and champagne at 8am…pretty good start to the day if you ask me!
Thanaka: When you get to Myanmar you will notice everyone has a sort of brown paste swirled around on their face. This is called Thanaka. This paste is made from the bark of trees and is said to protect against sun damage and keep the face smooth. And it clearly works because look at this beautiful girl!
Kayan Lahwi Tribe: The women of this tribe adorn their neck with brass coils as a sign of beauty, position and wealth. The rings do not actually stretch the women’s necks – the weight pushes down their collarbones and compresses their rib cages making their necks appear longer. Some coils can weigh up to 20lbs. Kayan women are now usually given a choice as to whether or not they want to wear the neck rings. Most of those who still do, do so because they see them as beautiful or because they want to preserve the tradition.
- Many places will only accept US currency that is in perfect condition and I mean getting it directly out the bank teller hands perfect. If it even has the slightest crease they will reject it. So keep your bills pristine!
- Temple manners – Cover your shoulders and legs
- There is a war going on right now and even though I’m sure you don’t agree with it, there are local people who rely on tourism to make ends meet. It truly helps them survive so if you plan on visiting make sure you use local companies that aren’t government owned. And don’t let the war prevent you from going, we didn’t have any safety concerns at all and everyone was so welcoming.
- Traffic in Yangon is pretty bad so bad that we actually missed our flight to Cambodia and ended up in Thailand. Even though it was a nice little pit stop I would recommend leaving at least two hours prior to your flight.
- Uber is available in Yangon and the larger cities but didn’t work very well. I also used the Grab app but found the taxi service to be the most efficient.
- If you have to choose between Yangon and Bagan definitely choose Bagan. We actually switched our flight and stayed longer because we loved it that much.
- Cute little kids will ask you to buy their artwork of hot air balloons and temple drawings. They tell you not to because it teaches them to panhandle instead of go to school. But we caved and bought a few…I mean how do you say no to this face!
I hope you get to explore and fall in love with Myanmar as much as we did!