Myanmar in Ten Days: Days 1 – 2

This past February, I took a trip to Myanmar with my good friend Sarah. As we were both teaching in Shanghai at the time, we wanted to take this opportunity to explore Southeast Asia during the Chinese New Year holiday. We visited Mandalay, Bagan, and ended our trip in Yangon. 

Day 1 – Mandalay

We landed in Mandalay at around 3pm on a Sunday. The airport is fairly small and underdeveloped. Depending on the time you arrive, there may or may not be services available. From what I remember, the only place that was open at the time was a shuttle service and a money changer. 

 

Our priorities for the day: get to our hotel and get food! We exchanged what RMB we had in our wallets and took a taxi from the airport direct to our hostel, the Moon Light Hotel, which cost maybe 30 CAD (for reference, the exchange rate at the time of our travel was about 1 CAD to 1000 MMK). 

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Small but cozy. Our room was very neat, clean and tidy (until we arrived, that is).

 

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We stayed at the Moon Light Hotel for 3 nights, which cost us about 50 USD. The hotel is very new, staff are extremely friendly, and breakfast is included. 
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Breakfast featured both Asian and Western cuisine.

 

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View of the city from the dining room.

 

If you haven’t traveled Asia before, some of the imagery you encounter can be pretty jarring. While our hotel was tidy imitation of some Western hotels, just outside you can see signs of impoverishment; unpaved roads, large piles of garbage, stray animals, and the like. Not a vacation destination for the faint of heart. 

 

For dinner, we walked to Mingalabar, the #1 rated restaurant on Trip Advisor in Mandalay, and boy – did it live up to those standards! For bout 15 CAD, we had a beer, lime soda, soup, rice, a main of lamb curry, and dessert. The main course comes with all the side dishes you see below, the idea being that you can customize each bite according to your taste preference. The side dishes they serve vary from night to night, but ours featured peanuts, fish, potatoes, cauliflower, a shrimp paste, and some raw vegetables. 

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So good we went back the next day!

 

A word of caution… 

Our biggest mistake on this trip was not bringing enough CASH! We had read online that there have been many improvements in the big cities in terms of ATMs being available. Having come from China, both of us have UnionPay cards that are accepted at many ATMs throughout Myanmar, according to research. We did not, however, factor into account that these ATMS may not be regularly maintained, so many that we visited were out of cash! 

 

[For some mysterious reason, I was not able to withdraw ANY money on my UnionPay card, but luckily Sarah was able to to do on her Canadian bank card.]

Long story short, to avoid running into this issue, I would recommend bringing enough cash with you to last the trip. But beware of pickpockets, especially in touristy places! 

Day 2 – Mandalay Palace

Our second day was spent getting acquainted with the city, hitting up every ATM we encountered, and getting SIM cards. I would highly recommend getting a SIM with a data plan for your travels, as it makes life significantly easier (access to GPS, Trip Advisor, etc.) SIM cards are fairly cheap and top ups are easy to come by (most convenience stores will have them). Popular carriers include Oredoo and Telenor. 

 

In the afternoon, we asked our hotel to help us call a taxi to take us to Mandalay Palace. If you call a taxi through your hotel, the prices are usually set (though still very reasonable). If you choose to hail your own transport, usually there is a bit more room to negotiate. Keep in mind that these are not “taxis” in the Western sense, but rather random strangers you’re waving down in the streets who happen to have a car and want to make a few extra bucks driving people around. 

To get into the Palace grounds, you need a visitor’s pass. You’ll be asked to leave your passport with the guards in exchange for one. We did not have our passports with us, but luckily, they accepted Sarah’s drivers licence (phew!). In the area surrounding the palace there’s a park and some temples and pagodas. We just walked around and took our time exploring the area. 

At one of the vendors, a girl offered to paint our faces with thanaka, a yellow-white paste made from tree bark. We later learned that wearing thanaka is like putting on clean clothes; worn by people of both genders who may perceived as “unruly” if you did not put it on, though trends seem to be changing in the big cities. 
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Thanaka is used for both cosmetics and as sun protection.

 

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In the afternoon, we ate at a restaurant in town and freshened up at the hotel before heading out again in the evening. We went back to Mingalabar (which means “Hello” in Burmese) for dinner, and walked to the bar across the street for cocktails.

Day 3 – Mandalay Hill

Early next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel and took a taxi to the Lion’s Gate entrance of Mandalay Hill. Mandalay hill is a popular destination at night time, as many tourists often go to see the sunset. I found the views in the fresh morning air just fine, and seeing as there were hardly any people around during the hike up, wonderfully peaceful. 
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Entrance to Mandalay Hill.

 

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The majority of the climb is done under a covered walkway. The climb must be done barefoot, so we left our shoes by the entrance. (You pay 1000 ks for someone to “look after” them).

 

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You’ll meet many strays along the way. Cats, dogs, turkeys even!

 

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Lots of buildings, sculptures and pit stops along the way to the top.

 

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Part of the covered walkway up the hill.

 

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There are many scenic places to stop and take photos along the way!

 

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You’ll know you’re at the top once you reach the giant escalator that takes you down Mandalay Hill. We opted to take a shuttle down for 2000 ks instead. 
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Blue shuttle bus that took us down from the top of Mandalay Hill.

 

Final verdict: Mandalay Hill is a must! Definitely enjoyed our morning hike. We took our time, and stopped a lot to take photos and enjoyed the scenery. 

 

I can’t remember what else we did in the evening (ate food somewhere definitely), but the morning hike did take up a lot of our energy. A day well spent overall. 

​NEXT UP: A private tour to the ancient cities in Mandalay (click here for Day 4 details). 

Myanmar in Ten Days: Day 4

Day 4 – Ancient Cities in Mandalay

For our final day in Mandalay, we opted to hire a private car and paid about 35 000 ks for a “three city tour”. As it is common for taxi drivers to advertise private tours of the surrounding area, it wasn’t necessary for us to book ahead. We had collected a few business cards from taxi drivers during our first few days in the city and opted to go with the driver who seemed the friendliest and spoke the best English. 

 

For our first stop,  our driver took us to a monastery in Mandalay where we had the opportunity to speak to his friend, a monk who teaches English there. We were shown around to various buildings (the dormitories, dining hall, study halls…etc.) and learned about life in the monastery. Becoming a monk is a well-respected and esteemed route to take for boys and men of all ages. A family’s status is elevated if they have a son who decides to become a monk. Of course, not many choose to stay one, some quit years, months, weeks, or even days into monkhood, which is not uncommon. At one point, both our taxi driver and tour guide (whom we would meet later in Bagan) had taken up monastic life.  

At the monastery, we met an especially charming and charismatic young monk who went by the name of “Drake.” Funnily enough, we would later run into “Drake” again three days later in a totally different city, at sunset, on the top of a temple, where he would re-introduce himself as “Maha Raja,” and add us as Facebook friends. To this day I am still not sure if he is using his real name. 

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Our friendly guide around the monastery.
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Notice to foreigners about proper etiquette and dress.
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We were told to stay for the monk procession, in which 1000 monks would line up according to rank and seniority for their second and final meal of the day. If I’m completely honest, the sight made us feel uncomfortable in comparison to our calm and quiet morning around the monastery. In an instant, the empty streets became crowded with tourists, with their big cameras, tablets, and cell phones; we witnessed a few elderly women handing out sweets and loose change to the younger monks, perhaps out of charity or something else, I don’t really know. It just seemed like such strange way to sensationalize their lunch time… It was good to finally get out of the crowd. 
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Heads bowed, bowls in hand, the monks walk in procession to get lunch.
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Tourists looking to get a shot of the action.
Next, our driver took us to a location where they made longyis, a long sheet of cloth commonly worn as a skirt by both men and women in Myanmar. We were shown how the longyis were woven and taken to a nearby store were they could be purchased. Sarah suspects we were taken to what is known as a “tourist trap,” but heck, it was cool and we bought one for ourselves anyways.
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Afterwards, we ate lunch at a restaurant of our driver’s choice. The food was pricey and not particularly noteworthy. 

 

Like Mandalay Hill, U-Bein bridge is a popular tourist destination at night time, as people like to go for the sunset. We decided to go earlier in the day to avoid the crowd. Here, we purchased some coconut ice cream (DELICIOUS) and walked about halfway across the bridge before turning back… on account of some uncomfortable cat calling. We weren’t dressed in scantily clad clothing by ANY means but my Sarah does happen to have strikingly blonde hair and fair skin which drew a lot of unwanted attention. We definitely had to check our privilege at that point. 

PRO-TIP #1: Please don’t do what we did and walk the entire length of the bridge! We missed out on exploring Amurapura city as a result, but we ended up having a great day regardless (read on to find out!)

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A tasty snack in the February heat!
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U-Bein bridge is said to be the world’s longest timber bridge (according to Wikipedia).
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Various vendors and stalls at the entrance of the bridge.
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Along the walk back… a sight for sore eyes. Two young boys flying make-shift kites out of plastic bags and string along the side of the bridge.
Now at this point we had been to half a dozen temples and seen a ton of pagodas so if you can forgive me, I do not recall the name of the temple our driver took us to next. The highlight for me, however, was watching the line that quickly formed as soon as Sarah agreed to have her photo taken. One, led to another, and then another… People wanted group shots and individual shots. Blonde, white-skinned, and beautiful, Sarah quickly became a hot commodity! (Only 2000 ks for a photo with this beautiful foreigner! Anyone? 1000 ks special discount just for you!)
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“Save me” she whispers without speaking.
Having my friend taken from me for photos would be a common occurrence throughout the entire trip. Me, on the other hand, being of Chinese descent, and having been told I have a face that can pass for a variety of Asian ethnicities, was able to (at times) conspicuously blend in with the crowd.

 

The next part of our journey would be my favorite in Mandalay. That was our brief tour of the ancient city of Inwa. 

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First, a pit stop in one of the smelliest, but by far not the worst, porti-potty I had ever encountered.
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Then, a short ferry ride to our destination, Inwa Ancient City.
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Once we arrived, we hired a horse cart and driver to take us around the Ancient City (~9000 ks). It’s possible to do on foot, but you’d need at least two hours and we were running short on time. He took us to a few notable locations before dropping us off for the last ferry back.

 

PRO-TIP #2: Keep in mind most places you visit will require you to go barefoot (temples, pagodas, ruin sites…etc.), so bring comfortable shoes that slip on and off easily! 

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A journey via horse cart.
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Bagaya Monastery, built entirely of teak wood in 1834 A.D.
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Beautifully cultivated green pastures.
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​On the way back, we saw a little boy and a dog at one of the ancient ruin sites.

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It looked like they were friends.
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(The dog was likely a stray).

 

But still, it was a fine friendship. 

​We decided to explore the area.

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Some post-card vendors preparing to close up shop for the day.
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But we noticed that someone kept showing up in our photos… 
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“Follow me!” he said.

 

And so we did.

And saw the most breathtaking statue.

There was something about the way the light fell, the little boy giggling and running around us, the other little one who turned out to be his brother, prodding us along, telling us to climb here, sit there, pose like this, not like that… Making faces at us when we did something they didn’t like and giving us the thumbs up when they deemed we had the perfect pose…

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Moon running to bring me a leaf!
Moon trying to hid behind the broken pillar so I would have the perfect shot. I liked it better when he was in it
We had so much fun running around with  those two that we didn’t even break a sweat when they eventually busted out their post-cards and offered to sell us some. 

 

What fine salesmen they turned out to be. 

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Sarah bonding with the little ones.

NEXT UP: Bagan!