How to Spend One Week in Myanmar

February 5, 2014 by

Asia, Suggested Itineraries, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

While deciding which countries to visit during a recent trip through Europe and Southeast Asia, Myanmar was at the top of my list. Other countries came and went (next time, Hungary), but Myanmar steadfastly held its place, beckoning me with its ancient temples, fewer visitors and the chance to see a piece of Southeast Asia not yet overrun by tourism development.

The downside of multi-country trips is finding the balance between seeing as much as you can but moving slowly enough to actually take it all in. So my boyfriend and I gave ourselves one week in Myanmar, including the 12-hour flight from Istanbul. It was rainy season, so we skipped the beaches and hit three areas that form the typical tourist circle: the famed temple area of Bagan, the city of Mandalay and rural Inle Lake.

The temples of Bagan

The temples of Bagan

Getting Around

Time was of the essence, so by choosing the more expensive, but infinitely more convenient, route of flying from spot to spot instead of taking buses, we saved oodles of travel time.

The catch with flying, however, is that the domestic airlines haven’t quite caught up to the era of instant reservations and don’t do online booking. So, we emailed an actual travel agent to book our flights for us. There are several agencies; we went with Gulliver Travels.

From that point on, it was pretty smooth sailing, and we managed to do everything we’d hoped we would, often with the assistance of friendly locals. Use our day-by-day itinerary to help plan your own trip.

Day 1

After landing at the Yangon airport, we were greeted by our Gulliver Travels agent, who took our wad of cash and gave us our Air Bagan paper tickets (yes, paper) for each leg of our trip.

Our flight to Bagan was departing that day, so we walked down the road to the domestic terminal and exchanged our paper ticket for boarding passes on which the ticket agent wrote the date and destination. I was digging their low-tech style.

An hour and a half later, we arrived at the Nyaung U airport, where everyone must pay the $15 (or euro) fee to enter the Bagan Archaeological Zone, which encompasses the 3,000-plus temples and stupas dating back more than 800 years and stretching across miles of the flat land on the Ayeyarwaddy River. You can sneak out of the airport without paying, but when you tour the temples, you may be asked to show it. This is one of those tricky situations where you’ll be feeding money to Myanmar’s corrupt government, but unlike times when you have a choice (like with hotels), it’s harder to avoid here.

Bagan’s temple landscape

Bagan’s temple landscape

We were staying at the Thiri Marlar Hotel in New Bagan, the only accommodation we booked before our trip, chosen for its high TripAdvisor ranking and affordable price. We arranged with the hotel to send a driver, a local 20-something who met us outside the airport and drove us the 20 minutes to New Bagan (whenever you can, arrange transport with your hotel – it’s cheaper than negotiating cabs).

Our room was comfortable, the water was hot and the location was walking distance from New Bagan’s restaurants. Our hotel research paid off with this one, but it was the only planning we did in advance, and we needed to figure out our plan for tomorrow – how to explore the temples.

We didn’t have to look too far. The hotel manager, a smiley middle-aged man wearing a crisp white button-down with his longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, listened to what we had in mind and promptly wrote out a list of the 15 sights he thought we should see – a mix of temples (both well known and hidden gems), plus a monastery, a market and a cave. Then he called our driver friend and arranged for him to pick us up at 8am sharp and drive us around all day. Easy. We celebrated our first day in Myanmar with chicken curry and two bottles of the national beer (aptly named Myanmar; don’t confuse this with another local beer called Mandalay – it’s not nearly as good) at Sunset Garden restaurant on the Ayeyarwaddy River.

Day 2

After breakfast at the hotel, we set off with our man, stopping first at Nyaung U market, a tightly packed local bazaar where women sit on the dirt or up on tables, with their fruits and vegetables spread out for sale in front of them.

Nyaung U Market

Nyaung U Market

Following our hand-written list, we then visited each site. There was Shwezigon pagoda, an ornate temple complex decked out in gold leaf where young monks-in-training played in the rain; Gupyikgyi temple, with a history that includes its interior murals being stolen by a German; the Alopyit temple group, where a local man showed us how to climb to the top for a view of the surrounding temples; Htilominlo, a big, touristy temple with gold Buddha statues and a local man out front who saw me taking photos on my iPhone and asked if I knew how to ‘break’ his; the Ananda monastery, with well-preserved paintings on the walls; and the Ananda temple, a large temple with huge standing gold Buddhas (we had only seen sitting Buddhas until then).

Buddha statues in Sulamani temple

Buddha statues in Sulamani temple

This took us up to lunch, which we enjoyed at Golden Myanmar Restaurant (our manager’s pick). We were served typical Myanmar fare – a family-style set-up with a dozen small dishes of meat, veggies and spicy sauces.

After lunch, we went into Old Bagan with its city gate that still stands from the 9th century, and then checked off the rest of the temples on our list. At Shwesantan pagoda, we entered a mysterious-looking side building to find a gigantic Buddha in a horizontal reclining position. At Sulamani temple, we admired its impressive Gothic-looking design and big interior murals. And at Pyathada temple, we arrived just in time watch the sunset from the roof.

Ready for sunset at Pyathada temple

Ready for sunset at Pyathada temple

Every structure is impressive in its own way, but the take away is this: don’t be swayed by only the big temples – they’re stunning from the outside, but it’s the smaller temples that are often more interesting inside, with wall paintings and simpler Buddha statues.

An example of paintings inside the temples

An example of paintings inside the temples

Day 3

After an early morning 30-minute flight to Mandalay, we arrived at the Royal City Hotel (on 27th Street), which we had the staff at the Thiri Marlar recommend and book for us the day before.

Unfortunately, it rained almost the whole 24 hours we spent in Mandalay, and most of the streets around our hotel were flooded. This made it impossible to walk around, so after a lunch of pumpkin curry and mango lassis at an Indian vegetarian restaurant called Marie-Min, located in a alley two blocks down the road, we had the staff at the hotel organize a taxi to take us to a couple of spots. We visited Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery, a quiet teak building that dates back to 1895, and then went to a local market near the city clock tower (it’s a well-known landmark any cab driver will know).

Market in Mandalay

Market in Mandalay

A cheap, good dinner at a bare-bones restaurant called Mann Yada Napone 2, which we found down the street from the hotel and where we were the only non-locals, concluded our time in Mandalay.

Day 4

Another day, another half-hour plane ride, this time to the airport in Heho, the gateway to Inle Lake. Once again, we booked our accommodation over the phone from our previous hotel, and this time we were at the Min Ga Lar Inn in Nyaungshwe, the small town that serves as the hub for exploring the lake.

The early morning flights were killing us with the wake-up calls, but it pays off when you arrive in a new city and still have all day to spare. We took advantage by renting bikes (there are stands all over town and you shouldn’t have to pay more than a few dollars for the whole day) and riding about 6 miles (10 km) south along a winding road that took us past rice fields and temples.

Biking around Inle

Biking around Inle

When we passed a sign for the Myanmar Treasure Resort, we turned down the narrow path toward the lake, hoping to find a resort bar. We weren’t disappointed when we saw the stilted resort complex, with rooms perched over the water and a bar facing the lake. The place was empty (it was the rainy season, remember), so we enjoyed our beers in solitude before hopping back on our bikes to find a winery that the staff at the Min Ga Lar told us about. Wine from Myanmar? Why yes, and it turned out to be quite drinkable. Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery, located up a hill with views of the lake and surrounding mountains, is an impressive operation with modern facilities and a tasting menu that includes chardonnay and shiraz.

The view from the deck of the Myanmar Treasure Resort

The view from the deck of the Myanmar Treasure Resort

Sated and happy, we rode (carefully) back to town, stopping off at Aqua Lilies Day Spa, offering one-hour massages – in a surprisingly elegant and comfortable spa environment – for 12 bucks. How could we say no?

After returning our bikes, our only task was to find a boat tour of the lake for the next day. There are tour stands all over town, so we browsed a few and narrowed them down based on departure time, length and how many stops they make at workshops where, yes, you will see locals making jewelry, scarves and other goods, but you’re encouraged to buy something, and there are only so many times you can say to your guide, empty-handed, “We’re ready to go.” We found a tour that fit our needs and scheduled pickup for the next morning.

Day 5

The Min Ga Lar Inn left a lot to be desired in the bathroom department (cold water, for one), but its banana pancakes left me in a very good mood when we took off with our private guide for our tour of Inle Lake.

In order to get what you want out of your day, tell your guide if you have specific places you want to visit or want to avoid. We told ours that we wanted to see the silk and the cigar workshops but weren’t interested in the silver or anything else. He tried to push a few more things, but we mostly held firm, taking his suggestion for visiting a boat-making workshop.

Inle locals split wood for boats at the boat-making workshop

Inle locals split wood for boats at the boat-making workshop

Settled snugly into our canoe-like boat, outfitted with a couple of wooden chairs and bright orange lifejackets, we were motored around the serene lake, which looked exotic and mystical with the clouds hanging low across the mountains. Our guide drove us past the main sights, including the fishermen who are famous for the way they wrap one of their legs around their paddles to steer their boats, and the floating village where locals go about daily life on the water. The silk workshop is worth the stop to see gorgeous sarongs being made on big looms and to hear about the way they use the stem of the lotus flower.

Cruising through a floating village

Cruising through a floating village

We confused our guide when we asked to stop at the ‘cat cafe,’ a place we heard about the previous night. Our guide had no idea what we were talking about, and we gave up explaining it, so we were delighted to pass by it during our tour. Its actual name is the Inthar Heritage House, a part library, part art gallery, part restaurant that houses pedigreed Burmese cats as part of a reintroduction program. Don’t miss it.

Day 6

For once, we had an afternoon flight, so we spent the morning strolling around town, picking up a couple of souvenirs at the market and stopping for a lunch of noodle soup at a one-table sidewalk restaurant on the main road.

The town of Nyaungshwe

The town of Nyaungshwe

We completed our circle of Myanmar by flying back to Yangon, where we stayed at a hostel called Bike World Explores Myanmar. The place is clean and comfortable, with a British-expat owner whose wife whipped up banana milkshakes on arrival. The hostel is not in the city center, so you’d need a cab to see the sights, but it’s in an upscale part of town, across the street from Inya Lake and walking distance from a couple of restaurants.

Photos courtesy of Leah Still.

 - Leah Still

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One Response to “How to Spend One Week in Myanmar”

  1. Bencep Baygan Says:

    Wow! Great shots. Didn’t expect that what my brother told me was really true. I think I will visit Myanmar.

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