In late January and early February of 2015, we traveled in Myanmar for three weeks.
We traveled with two other couples, Barbara & Todd and Inge & Scott. Cathy & Phil (Barbara's brother) joined us for part of the trip. We've known Barbara and Todd since 1985 when our oldest children were one-year olds. They moved to Florida in 1988, so we hadn't spent much time with them in the recent past. Inge and Scott are friends of theirs from Florida. This was our first time traveling in a group, especially with people we'd never met, and the results were incredible. The group bonded instantly, and got along famously.
The trip was planned by Todd and a local agency in Myanmar—Ayuda Travel. We were shepherded through Myanmar by a charming 34-year old guide, Ko Myo Thant Win, known as "Myo". He was terrific.
This day-by-day journal is based on a diary written by Todd and the itinerary from Ayuda Travel.
Myanmar is a visual feast—photographic opportunities abound at every juncture. As Ed is a fan of "crumbling man-made structures", he was in heaven. Crumbling buildings were everywhere!
And we were rarely out of sight of one or more pagodas. You can see Ed's favorite pics from Myanmar at his Memories of Myanmar 2015 gallery and pics of our traveling party at his Myanmar Companions gallery.
Since it became a democracy in 2012, the people in Myanmar have a new sense of optimism and pride in their country. We feel very blessed to have had this opportunity to experience this emerging democracy and meet many wonderful citizens. Everyone was incredibly friendly and warm. We give them all a shout out: "Mingalaba!" (which means, "hi, how are you?")
A note on "Myanmar" and "Burma": This distinction is confusing and political. "Myanmar" is the formal name of the country as mandated by the unelected generals twenty years ago. Previously the country had been known as "Burma". US and British policy has been to call the country "Burma" so as not to provide legitimacy for the generals. "Burma" is the name of the largest ethnic group of the country -- he Burmese. Some of the citizens including our guide Myo who passionately supports the move to democracy, call the nation "Myanmar" so as to be inclusive of the other ethnic groups. In a break with recent policy, President Obama called the company Myanmar on his recent visit; however, the State Department officially calls the country Burma.
1/23 Fri & 1/24 Sat: Flights to Myanmar: Departed SFO 9:00 am. SFO – Vancouver – Seoul – Yangon. We were able to use Frequent Flyer miles for free tickets. 25 hours in transit. Arrived Yangon at 11:00 pm and went straight to the Sule Shangrila hotel and crashed.
1/25 Sun: Yangon Day 1: We met Inge & Scott at the hotel, as we awaited the arrival of Barbara and Todd. We drove to lunch at the lively Burmese restaurant Feel Myanmar (pork, beef & prawn curries, $7/person). There was a huge amount of variety and in the Burmese tradition, many side dishes were offered at our table.
Afterwards, we walked through the colonial downtown and saw many buildings in semi decay: the Post Office (1908) and the Strand Hotel (1901). We walked on to a park with locals enjoying the lawn on Sunday afternoon & walked by the Sule Pagoda which we see from our hotel.
Then we drove to the magnificent Shwedagon pagoda complex (built in Buddha's lifetime 2600 years ago). We toured the pagoda and poured water (for blessings) on the altars representing the day of our birth. (All the girls are Friday babes!)
We had 6:30pm dinner at the Mandalay Restaurant at Governor's Residence Hotel. It was a wonderful Burmese buffet on the veranda.
1/26 Mon: Yangon Day 2: After breakfast buffet with many French tour groups (noodle soup, cappuccino, dim sum, papaya, dragon fruit), we drove to see the gate of the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, where she was held for years under house arrest. Many Burmese make a pilgrimage here, as she and her father, Aung San, the father of Burmese independence, are very highly regarded.
We then drove through the Golden Valley neighborhood with expensive homes, to the Chaukhtetgyi 70 meter Reclining Buddha (a spectacular colorful Koons-like statue, from 1907). We especially liked the Buddha’s feet, as the art told the story of Buddha's life.
Myo took us to an outdoor tea shop for strong local tea with condensed milk. The 'barista' cleaned the tea cups with steaming water, then expertly poured the tea and condensed milk to meet everyone's order. Interestingly, green tea is always free at these tea shops, and many folks linger there for hours.
Later in the day, Ed and I left the group and took a taxi to meet Jim Taylor at Proximity Designs. Jim runs a very successful social enterprise and is a colleague of Jim Patell. The Stanford Course, “Designing for Extreme Affordability” has done work with Proximity Designs, helping to design a pump for rural farmers. Recently Proximity has expanded into rural farm micro-loans and their results are impressive.
1/27 Tue: Mandalay Day 1: We rose at 4:45 am for a 6:00 am flight north to Mandalay. Mandalay -- from the word "beauty"-- was the capital of the last Myanmar dynasty (the same king who expelled the Portuguese in 1755). It is a city of 6 million, Myanmar's second largest. After landing, we drove on a cloudless 65 degree morning to walk the 1.4km U Bein Bridge (the world's longest wooden bridge) over Taung Thaman Lake with views of fish farming, ducks, peanut farms, & small brightly painted boats.
The local sales girls noticed that Jan, Barb, and Inge were not adorned with local jewelry, so they made a pitch to rectify this situation! We all purchased jade jewelry, and were charmed by the three sales girls' requests to individually sell items to each of us: "You buy me ... she buy she!"
We had fresh fried fish in a cafe by the lake and visited the Mahagandhayon monastery in Amarapura (1200 monks), where a newlywed couple & bridal party was serving lunch to the 1200 monks as a wedding gift. The entire wedding party participated, including the bridesmaids in their pink dresses.
Myanmar has 6-7 million monks among its total popular of 51 million people. We drove through the dusty town to the Mahamuni monastery to see the 4-meter Buddha stupa believed to be 2600 yrs old covered with millions of gold sheets placed by believers & watched the monks reciting Sanskrit texts of Buddha's teachings.
We checked in at the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel, took a needed nap, and at 4pm drove to the 18th Century Golden Palace Monastery, an elaborate gilded teak building. One block away we walked through the Kuthodaw Pagoda with 729 white shrines 25' tall each housing a carved stone Buddhist texts & together these shrines are "the largest book in the World". We then traveled up to the Su Taung Pyai Pagoda at top of the hill for a grand view over Mandalay at sunset. Jan made friends with this 26 year old monk. (As we perused the golf course below, she asked him if he played golf. "Not now", was his reply.)
1/28: Wed: Mandalay Day 2: At 9:00 am we drove to Kywe Sun Jetty on the River Ayeyawaddy & took a private launch up river 30 minutes to the village of Mingun.
We visited a lovely, cool, white pagoda; bought hats & clothes (Todd is a collector of bottle caps, and he found several new bottle caps, one of which he dug from the ground near the Mingun Pagoda).
We walked the steep outdoor stairs to the top of Migun Pagoda -- on a tall hill built by the king 1790 to 1808, but never completed due to an ill omen, & it was severely cracked in the 1838 earthquake. (Note that we all ignored the "do not climb" sign.)
At the top, there were great views of the landscape below.
We walked a block up the street to the Mingun Bell (1808, weighing >90 tons), the world's heaviest hanging bell, and in the Burmese tradition, we each rang it three times to represent three good deeds.
We returned to our boat for an enchanting ride back to Mandalay for lunch at Golden Shan Buffet (stews of fish, chicken, tripe, many different vegetable dishes, Winter Melon soup-- the Shan region borders on China; the people look Chinese & the food less greasy & less spicy--Mandalay Beer).
Then we drove 30 minutes to Ava, which was Burma's capital in the 13th - 17th C. Ava is reached by a 5 min launch across the river followed by a 20 min horse cart ride along the ancient walls. We visited the wooden Bagayar Monastery (1834) with its teak Leaning Tower & our last horse cart stop in Ava was the Mahar Aung Mye Bon San Brick Monastery (1822).
We drove back to Mandalay arriving at the hotel at 5:30. At 6:00, we taxied to the Unique Myanmar Restaurant for Burmese dinner that included a performance on the xylophone & bent harp plus a one hour terrific traditional puppet show, all this for $15/ person including Myanmar beers.
1/29 Thurs: Monywa: After a breakfast of Burmese noodles in soup & omelets, we took a 3-hour drive to Monywa. We saw busy downtown Mandalay, visited a small factory of traditional hand weavers in Amarapura & bought a scarf & hand woven skirt; crossed over the newly-opened bridge across the Ayeyawaddy River with dozens of gold pointed pagodas seen dotting the forested hills on either side of the river. We walked up the hill to visit the Pon Nya Shin Pagoda with a large Buddha with attractive LED lights (!) and a great view of dozens of surrounding golden pagodas.
Later, we drove to Monywa in central Myanmar. Monywa feels like like a small town but is a major agricultural trade center & metropolitan area of 2 million people. We had a nice Burmese lunch ($5.50 pp.) & we visited the amazing Thanbude Temple (1949-1952) with a stunning red & gold interior but most stunning is that it has more than a half million Buddha statues covering the walls floor to ceiling. (Jan and Ed bought one for Fulton, at a cost of 20 cents.) We next drove 1 hour through dry farmland & copper mining hills to reach at sunset the Pho Win Taung Cave Pagodas: sandstone caves carved from 16th to 19th century, lovely 15th century paintings of the life of Buddha in more than 500 caves filled with statues of Buddha; we fed cute monkeys.
There were no tourists here, only a local salesgirl who said she’d never even been in some of the caves.
1/30 Fri: Monywa to Bagan: After breakfast, on a clear warm day, we checked out at 8:30 for a 30 min drive to Bodhi Tahtaung Buddhas (1960), an outdoor park with one-thousand gold-robed Sitting Buddhas under a thousand Bo Trees (the type of tree under which Buddha was born).
Five minutes away & designed by the same monk is the second largest Reclining Buddha and the colossal tallest standing Buddha (1993, 413'). We drove on stopping at 10:30am to taste at the world's largest melon stand, then to Ma U village with dozens of small pagodas, 16-20th C, highly photogenic in states of semi-ruin, visited a school with cute kids, & had tea, fresh melon and salted "big beans" in a village hut.
We drove one hour more to the town of Pakkokku (a tobacco center) for lunch at "Ho Pin Restaurant" ($5pp, great mutton meatballs, fish, squash, french fries), & at 2pm boarded our private boat on the Ayeyawaddy River (past long sandy low islands, barges piled with giant teak logs, every 5 minutes a new cluster of spired pagodas gold, brown or gray on the shoreline) to Bagan.
We checked-in at the spectacular Bagan Lodge with elegant modern luxury bungalows, pool & orchids. We took a swim & then headed to meet Cathy & Phil and have outdoor dinner & puppet show at their hotel, Bagan Thande-- with Gilbey's G&T's with a wonderful sunset overlooking the river. The restaurant was located under a magnificent banyan tree. Lovely!
1/31 Sat: Bagan Day 1: Bagan became Myanmar's first Bhuddist capital in the 10th C AD. Bagan now has more than 3000 pagodas with about as many more lost to earthquakes in centuries past. Most of the pagodas were repaired after the 1975 earthquake. In the 16th C, Mongolian invaders burned many cities but not Bagan. We had breakfast by the pool (coconut soup with noodles , boiled egg, cilantro & chili) then picked up Cathy & Phil at 8:20am, spent an hour at the Nyaung U colorful covered produce & craft market. Drove to the Shwe Zi Gon Pagoda (meaning "Old City Pagoda", 11th C), a huge gold dome with tiers, built by the 1st Buddhist King, Anawrahta (1st Empire). Then, we visited the Gu Byauk Gyi Temple (12th C) with nice murals, then saw the large red-colored Htilominlo Temple with a large gold Buddha (1218 AD). Next we visited the the Golden Cuckoo lacquer shop. At 3:30, we visited the Ananda Temple (late 11th C), the most beautiful temple in Myanmar with 4 standing Buddhas. Finally, we climbed the steep steps of the Shwe San Daw Pagoda (12th C) to enjoy the sunset, then down to share a Clearview Hawkes Bay Chardonay 2013 brought by Phil and Cathy! Dinner at the elegant "Eden" (spicy prawn curry, $12 pp.).
2/1 Sun: Bagan Day 2: After breakfast, Inge & Scott headed for massages while Jan, Ed & Todd went cycling with Myo around in the monument zone photographing & climbing 6 pagodas.
These included Manuha Phata (late 11th C pagoda built by the Mon king when he was in captivity, with many small gold towers & 3 giant gold seated Buddhas in captivity in rooms barely large enough); Nanpaya Temple (a flat-roofed small pagoda in which was the Mon king was imprisoned, with fine stone carvings of women); Dhammayangyi Pagoda (a massive, pleasant 13th C. stone building with 50' ceilings & multiple long corridors); & lovely Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda (gold dome, 11th C with Sanskrit tablets). Biking among the pagodas was really fun. We traveled on lightly-trafficked roads and dirt paths.
We all returned to the Bagan Logde by Noon for a wonderful swim, lunch & reading by the pool. At 3:30, Myo rejoined us to drive to the Old Town to ascend onto horse-carts to tour the village of Taung Phi to see its traditional thatch homes & old teak-wood monastery, and then through dry fields of soybeans past more than 50 brick pagodas, We watched the sunset from atop Pya Tha Da Pagoda (late 12th C).
2/2 Mon: Kalaw in Shan State: We took the 7am Asian Wings Airways flight to Mandalay & then on Heho in Shan State. Shan is Myanmar's largest state, located on the eastern border with China. It has 60 ethnic groups. We drove East one hour to the town of Kalaw (1 hr), seeing on the way Red Silk Cotton trees in bloom, stopped to walk through the market at Aung Ban (4 bottlecaps), had in a cafe great Shan wide rice noodles with chicken & chicken baos. Price was 80 cents. Delicious!
Checked in at the simple Pine Hill Resort (great heated pool) in Kalaw, a British hill station with ethnic minorities living in neighboring villages. We took a 4 hour, 10 mile trek through fields of cabbages & ginger, and into the hills with steep fields of oranges, bananas, tea & coffee. We walked through the Palaung culture village of Pain Hgne Pin where cement block homes are being built all around; we sat with a family & had green tea. Saw Ba-O people with red headscarves. The locals dressed Jan in their traditional dress.
Back at the hotel, the staff was mixing a big wok of a rice dish --tamineg--for tomorrow's town celebration of the full moon. We took a rest before 7pm dinner at Thirigayha Restaurant (poor, wierd fish balls in banana leaf, bland curries, nice sour soup; $6pp.). Cold night—snuggled under the blankets.
2/3 Tue: Inle Lake Day 1: We awoke to a cool, sunny morning in low 60s. After breakfast of omelets and noodle-vegetable soup (Moke Hin Ka) we drove 1 hour to the bustling canal town of Nyaung Shwe on Inle Lake. On the way, we passed broad irrigated fields & visited the lovely small teak monastery Shwe Yan Pyay (1882) with colorful mosaics decorating the inside walls, cute young smiling monks, & in front of the Buddha were dozens of offering of flowers & cake for today's full moon festival.
At Nyaung Shwe, we climbed into 50'-long narrow boats, which were our taxis for two days. We passed quickly through the village and out onto the glistening, still lake with fishermen in narrow boats & the mountains reflecting onto the water.
At Aureum Palace we checked into our rooms on the lake—each was a gorgeous, elegant room with porches & a bamboo tub. There were even rose petals on the bed!
Unpacked & then headed 50 minutes south across the lake to lunch on the porch of the Green Chili Restaurant (nice Thai & Myanmar curries, roasted eggplant salad, Myanmar Sauv. Blanc, $15 pp.), looking out at the village on stilts, then motored to a weaving workshop making fabrics from lotus stem fiber & colors from from red plum, Inle & mango trees. Bought souvenir shirt for Ed and tote bags. From there we taxied through another stilt village to see a silver workshop (very simple designs) & bought earrings and finally we rode back to the hotel gazing at the red mountains reflecting red & purple on the lake as sunset approached.
After an hour nap we put on our longyis for a group photo in traditional Burmese attire & went in for an elegant Myanmar meal, local Red Mountain Estate Shiraz- Temperanillo 2013 that Cathy & Phil brought from the winery, & a local port (both quite respectful) & chocolate brought by Barbara.
2/4 Wed: Inle Lake Day 2: A lovely cool morning beginning with a clear sky & mist obscuring the mountains. Nice breakfast of Shan noodles in spicy soup, fried eggs, papaya & coffee, then at 8:30am we all launched from the Aureum Palace (minus Phil due to GI issues) to motor 45 minutes south to the large "5-day" traditional market. (The vendors move daily from village to village on a 5-day cycle). We bought a parade of monks (5 wooden statues). Inge and Cathy bought Jan a new colorful hat, which matches her shoes!
At the shore were hundreds of boats, stalls with piles of dried shrimp & fish, restaurants, colorful produce & crafts for tourists. We saw bright ethnic headscarves worn by Pa-O people, and Jan was draped in one by a young local merchant. Quite a hit!
We continued by boat to a narrow river lined with wooden & corrugated metal homes on stilts, then upriver through farmland for 30 minutes, and further through a bamboo forest to reach the Indein Ruined Pagoda complex (17th C), with dozens of brick pagodas in various stages of ruin. We walked among these, & then through a long covered arcade (30 minutes) of tourist shops. At 1:30 & quite hot we headed downstream to lunch on the deck of the Green Moon Restaurant on the river in Heya Ywama village (hot & sour fish soup, fried cashew nuts, spring rolls, Myanmar beers). We returned to the hotel at 3:30 for a rest with reading by the pool. At sunset we boat taxied to dinner at the Inle Princess Resort (nice food, odd ornate dining room,$30 pp.). We said goodbye to the rest of our group, as they fly out tomorrow.
2/5 Thursday Inle Lake Day 3: We spent a lovely day, lounging around the beautiful hotel, complete with massages (Myanmar style for Jan; Swedish for Ed; plus Korean foot massage for Jan.) We read books by the pool, and I enjoyed reading “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats”, a novel set in Burma. We stayed at the hotel for dinner. It was a very relaxing day, and nice break from our on-the-go schedule!
2/6 Friday: Inle Lake – Nyaung Shwe - Taung Gyi – Kakku – Nyaung Shwe - Inle Lake: In the morning, we left the hotel and took a boat back to Nyaung Shwe where we went by car to Kakku, a lesser known but impressive site comprised of 2500 small stupas in the Pa O region. This was another visual feast of carvings, statues, and gold. The tinkling of the bells above the pagodas created a magical effect.
We changed into our Spandex bike outfits and lunched on two bowls of delicious Shan noodles (50 cents per bowl) under the shady Banyan trees. We adjusted the new Bianchi mountain bikes and began riding back to Taung Gyi.
We enjoyed the wonderful views of the fertile lands of the Pa O people. But it was hot, hilly and had high elevation! So, the riding was harder than expected. After several miles, Ed decided to take the SAG wagon, and Jan and Myo continued riding. We stopped to give a group of local school kids the pens we had brought from home. They were delighted.
Then, Jan and Myo joined Ed in the van, and decided we were done riding for the day. The tasting room at the Red Mountain winery beckoned. We drove back to Inle lake, and enjoyed the tasting with the views. When we returned to the hotel, we had delicious Swedish massages.
2/7 Saturday: Inle Lake – Nyaung Shwe – Heho – Yangon: After breakfast, we transfered by boat from our hotel to Nyaung Shwe and then by car to Heho Airport for the flight back to Yangon. After check-in at the Shule ShangiLa hotel, we visited the National Museum. We saw the last Royal Lion Throne which was sent back by Lord Mt. Batten after Myanmar got her independence from British Imperialist in 1948. We also visited the Scott Market which sells many Myanmar traditional handicrafts.
2/8 Sunday: Yangon – Twente – Yangon: Dressed in our Spandex, we had breakfast in the lobby, and then adjusted our new bikes. At 7:30 we met ToTo, our biking guide and Myo outside. We biked through Yangon to Pansodan Jetty, going through cars, buses, and hustle and bustle. (Luckily it wasn't as crowded as usual, as it was Sunday morning.) We joined a mass of Burmese residents on the ferry to Dala, the fishing and farming village located on the other side of Yangon river. The views from the ferry to Yangon, or Old Rangoon, were beautiful, and they took us back to the colonial times, as we saw many colonial buildings dotting the skyline.
On the other side of the river, Dala was a different world. Few cars … mostly pedestrians, motorbikes and bikes. We biked for about one hour passing green rice-fields, local villages, and beautiful scenery. We enjoyed a cup of tea at the Junction where the road from Hlaing Thar Yar Satellite Town of Yangon joins the Dala-Twante Road.
Then, we headed onwards along the Dala-Twante Road up to Snake Temple where we visited the mid-water temple with dwelling pythons. (Out of respect, Jan donned her longyi over the spandex shorts.) Then, we passed more villages through the rice fields, bamboo forests arriving at a Ancient Glaze Pottery Site in the middle of nowhere. We loved riding on the single-track trail through the bamboo groves. Very nice! These villages have no roads … just narrow trails. Naturally there were no tourists here and folks were glad to yell “Mingalaba!” when we rode past. It was incredible that we were so near Yangon, yet a world away. We rode to Twente and had lunch at a local restaurant. Our ride was about 25 miles. Drove back to Yangon and ate dinner at 999 Shan Noodle shop, a hole-in-the wall shop down an alley near out hotel. Yum.
2/9 Monday: Yangon – Bago – Kyaik Hto – Kyaik Htee Saung – Kimpun Base camp: After breakfast at our hotel, we drove to Kyaik Hto via Bago. We had lunch at local “bus stop” restaurant and donned our biking outfits. We started riding to the Kyaik Htee Saung pagodas at around 2 pm. The clouds covered the sun and the breeze started to pick up. Nice! We started on our 35 mile bike ride on a local road through lovely rice fields en route to the Kyaik Htee Saung Village. The scenery was beautiful. We passed by the Mon Villages, and arrived at the foot of Kaylartha Hil. We left our bikes at the bottom, and drove up the Kaylartha Hill for the awesome views of the Mataban Sea and Bay. Then we continued biking to Kyaik Htee Saung Village and had fresh sugar cane juice at an outdoor cafe.
Kyaik Htee Saung village is very famous for its monk who is believed to have attained the last stage of Nirvana. Many pilgrims visit him daily. Myo is a devote of this monk, and he was very moved to be here. The monk had been ill and had been in Yangon, but he was coming back to his home this evening. All the nuns were getting ready for his arrival. We toured the area, seeing many animals that the monk had rescued (including a black bear, many snakes, and two crocodiles). We saw the ancient Granite Kingdom Wall and the monk’s many cars (which had been donated to him by believers!) In the dark, we drove to the Golden Sunrise hotel in Kyaik Hto.
2/10 Tuesday: Kimpun Base Camp – Golden Rock – Kimpun Base Camp: After breakfast, we joined 45 other pilgrims in a huge open truck to ride up to the summit of Golden Rock, on Paung Laung mountain measuring 1000 meters above sea-level. Jan was a bit nervous had sweaty fingers and hands … but Ed noticed that the $2.50 ticket included “life insurance”!
The truck was very powerful and it motored successfully up the hairpin turns and steep climbs! We held on for dear life, but we made it successfully. (Later Myo informed us that there had been no accidents since the trucks started this journey in 2003. Phew.) At the top, there were many pilgrims who were admiring the golden rock – a precariously perched rock at the top.
Stories say that this rock was placed here by a miracle. It’s a Burmese Buddhist tradition to visit once every year. We wandered through the shops that were nestled along the cliffs and took the truck back to the base of the mountain.
In the afternoon, we read at our hotel, and then enjoyed the delicious food at the hotel.
2/11 Wednesday: Kimpun Base Camp – Kyaik Hto - Bago – Yangon: After breakfast, we drove to Kyaik Hto. We visited the Kyaik Hto Morning market where we purchased spices for home cooked Burmese cuisine -- dried shrimp, chiles, fried dried onions and fried dried garlic. Then, we proceeded to Bago, where we visited the Shwe Maw Daw pagoda, the biggest and tallest Pagoda in Southern Myanmar. Also, we visited the Bago Central Market, and Shwe Thar Lyaung (Reclining Buddha) from the 11th Century. We also visited the Kyaik Pun pagoda with four Giant Buddhas sitting in back-to-back position. Then dove on to Yangon. We checked into the lovely Savoy hotel and enjoyed sitting by the pool. Dinner (steak frites with salad) at the French restaurant by the pool.
2/12 Thursday: Yangon Departure: After breakfast, Myo picked us up and took us to the Yangon International Airport. We checked in and started our 25 hour journey home. Yangon – Bangkok (for a neck and foot massage, plus pad Thai lunch) – Tokyo (for sashimi) – SFO. Leslie greeted us at Fulton. What a great trip!
We're happy to share more details with anyone interested in experiencing this type of journey. It's good to visit sooner, rather than later, as Myanmar is modernizing rapidly.