Bewitching Burma, 2014

Note : This trip report was originally written for the Fodor's Travel Forum.

It seems so much of the conversation about Burma is when to go. Years ago it was whether you should go because of the boycott, and now it’s whether it’s “ruined” already! Ahh, as an anthropologist I'm amused to see people competing over who has had the most “authentic" experience or who has seen the “real” thing, it shows a complete misunderstanding of culture.

So, as to the first question about Burma, is it over run with tourists? Yes, in the high season we saw a fair number of groups and it’s true that the accommodation is more expensive than other places in Asia - as there is currently a high demand and not yet enough capacity. However, everyone is going to the same places, so the only thing I can say is just step a few streets off the beaten path and you won’t find any foreigners at all, go to places further out and you’ll find the same. Don’t worry about not making it to Burma soon enough, frankly I think that it may be a better place to travel in a few years when they have a more developed tourist infrastructure with expanded mid-range or boutique options. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our trip, in fact we had a great time and I enjoyed the entire three weeks.

Here's a blog post on our itinerary and one on stepping off the tourist track.

Rather than give you a day by day report I’m going to  link  posts and photos over at my blog and give you some general ideas of what we found helpful, useful or interesting. I’d also be happy to answer any questions. Bagan and Mrauk U were for us the highlights and the places we enjoyed the most.

Getting Around: A lot of itineraries seem to send you  to and from Yangon and I wanted to avoid any doubling back, so here’s what I recommend. Consider flying into Mandalay and out of Yangon or vice versa. We found this a good way to go. We flew almost everywhere but took the boat between Mandalay and Bagan. It’s a tourist boat and it take 10 plus hours so be prepared. D. liked it more than I did, but it was nice to get out onto the water, here's the relevant blogpost.

We worked out our itinerary around the most direct flights which meant we went to the beach in the middle of our trip instead of at the end. Here was the route we took, Bangkok to Mandalay (3 nights) , boat to Bagan(4 nights) , flight to Heho (3 night Inle Lake), flight to Nagapali (4 nights) and Nagapali to Sittwe (for Mrauk U -4 nights) and then Sittwe to Yangon (3 nights). If I had to plan it again I would add a night or two in Inle, skipped Kakku and added a least night in Yangon. 

Planning/Travel Agent: We used Myanmar Shalom and I was very happy with them.
The price was reasonable and they gave me a breakdown on everything which meant I could opt in or out of everything, guides, drivers, transfers etc. They took care of the flight bookings which was particularly helpful as it seems you are often wait listed in Burma. Overall I would highly recommend them. On the last day they sent a car to transfer us the the airport in Yangon. I hadn’t opted for the transfer, as a taxi is far cheaper, but Mr. Tin (who I’d been working with) sent the car anyway with his compliments - which I found charming.

Guides: Because Burma is opening up to tourists very rapidly you’ll encounter a lot of new guides which is a mixed bag. We loved our guide in Inle, K2. He had just qualified and was filled with enthusiasm and energy. He had the perfect disposition for a guide and often this is the key issue. In contrast we weren’t thrilled with our Mandalay guide who was rather rote and answered, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, something like that…” rather too much! When we go back to Burma I'd be inclined to minimize the guides overall.

We'd read that you do not need a guide in Bagan and it's true. We had made contact with a guide recommended in the NYT and reserved him directly for three days several months before our trip. However, but once we arrived in Burma he failed to contact me back. On arrival in Bagan I was a little concerned, the driver knew the guide’s name, tracked down his number and called him for me. It was bad news, we were being blown off. Apparently he had booked with someone else, probably a group. Ok, I understand the economics of it,  it’s better for the guides to go with the travel agents, but it does get tiresome as an independent traveller and at the time I was mad. However, like so many things in life that you think are a big deal, it resolved itself favorably. We loved our three days touring Bagan without a guide and I highly recommend you look into the Approach Guide’s Guide to Bagan. 
What a fabulous resource. I can’t rave enough. It really helped us select certain temple groups as well as to understand the architectural form of the stupas and their development.

Mandalay is a modern, very Chinese style city, surrounded by important historical and religious centers. Like most people we weren't wowed. There is very much a tourist circuit which we did not enjoy and cannot recommend, but we loved our day walking through the enormous indoor and outdoor market which was fascinating. Further photos and details here. In the evening we headed out to see a folk dance show which I can recommend. Yes, it's a show for tourists but it is a great way to see and support local artists, musicians and dancers in a small theatre setting. I've also finished a post on the imperial capital of Ava.

Bagan We needed all four nights in Bagan and I wouldn't recommend anything less to anyone very interested in the temples. What a spectacular place. A lot of the stuff we read before we got there was just plain wrong. I remember one report talking about the touts and hassles, either things have changed dramatically or they have a very low tolerance for traveling in the developing world. Yes, we had people selling postcards and trinkets but it was nothing to worry about. The best thing about Bagan is that there are so many temples that you can get out there and really explore on your own. It's just so wonderful to see the enormous variety in the buildings themselves, and in the interior decoration, do bring a torch – you’ll be happy you have one. At one temple we climbed onto the roof in the late afternoon light and saw the farmers harvesting in a nearby field.

We took bicycles on day one, electric bikes on day two and rented a caron day three. The electric bikes are a death trap, I nearly killed myself and we had a great time! There are lots of details and photos of me looking a wreck on my blog! Lets just say I knocked over a brick boulder and they had to bring me another bike. No helmets of course!

Inle Lake On arrival at Heho we headed straight to Kakku and I wouldn't recommend it. Yes, the site is interesting enough and the drive through the countryside is pretty, but overall it was far too far to go for a one day jaunt and by the time we arrived at Inle I was exhausted. We had three nights in Inle but I had some sort of 24 hour bug and spent one day in bed. I had no ill effects the next day but it meant we missed a day out on the lake.
The lake is astonishingly beautiful and we enjoyed making our way down to Sankar in the south. We bumped into friends out on the water, we had met up with in Bangkok and Bagan but had not expected to see them in Inle, proving it is a small world for avid travelers!
The guide made a big difference and really told us a lot about the ways people live here which I appreciate. He took us to see a small village where they make pottery that is baked in a kiln in the earth. We also went to a small silk weaving factory, luckily it was the end of the day and the place was empty. I would have hated seeing this place crowded with tour groups. In all honesty this is a factor of travel in Burma, as an independent traveler you need to arrange your visit to avoid the set path the tours are on. If they are going to see the sunset go at any other time.

From the time we arrived in Heho we could see the diversity in Shan State. There are many different ethnic groups and you'll see quite a number of them at any of the weekly markets. However, I have to say I was deeply ashamed of many of the tourists who we saw at the market. They seemed to have no shame, taking intrusive pictures of adults and children without either buying anything or asking permission.
Tip: Remember to bring something warm, it gets cold on the lake in the morning.

NagapaliWe enjoyed a few days or relaxation in the middle of our trip. Ngapali has a lovely beach and at one end you can see the villagers sorting and drying small fish on the beach. There are lots of small restaurants serving meals right on the beach and there's nothing better than eating grilled fish with your toes in the sand, fab!

Sittwe and Mrauk U We loved this part of the trip and would highly recommend it if the Mrauk U area is open. I haven't started my blog posts on either Sittwe or Mrauk U so I can't like to any pictures but the entire area was fascinating. Of course this is the center of the government and the monks' suppression of the Rohinga minority and as we drove into Sittwe we saw the ruins of an old mosque. The Muslims here are horribly marginalize and many have been driven into camps, its a human rights tragedy. Up in Mrauk U you see a lot of NGO vehicles as they are working with the Rohingha. Interestingly however we saw a vibrant Muslim neighborhood in Mandalay though a man we spoke to outside a mosque in Yangon said that they are very nervous about the anti-Muslim sentiment spreading across the country.

Like everyone else we stayed in Sittwe only because it's a place to break the journey but we found the town interesting and in particular the early morning fish market - where the fisherman auction small lots of fish to the market women who sell them.
We were fascinated to meet a Brit in his 90s who had been in Sittwe during the Burma campaign (Second World War) and had returned with his family to honor a number of his army colleagues who had died there. Interestingly his pilgrimage was funded by the British Lottery Fund and a service was held for the dead at the Anglican cathedral.

The river journey up to Mrauk U was very picturesque and we enjoyed it very much. Each tourist group has there own boat which is entirely unnecessary but we didn't have time for the local boat and th travel agents locally want to maximize the money they make. There aren't too many options in Mrauk U but we opted for the midrange Shwe Thazin which was adequate.

Mrauk U has quite a number of interesting stupas in a fairly wide area. They are very diverse architecturally and scattered through the town itself. Other temples were out in the fields. One of the interesting things about this area for us was that the guide took the time to take us to visit a number of artists which was very interesting. These were lovely visits to individual ateliers and surprisingly there was very little for sale. He really wanted us to see the local crafts including a cast metal sculptor, a wood carver in his neighborhood and a painter among others.

Chin Villages We also went out to the Chin villages for the day which was quite a long journey involving a drive to the river and several hours on a small boat. I have considerable qualms about much of the “ethnic” tourism in South East Asia where natives are paraded for Western eyes and spent quite a bit of time thinking about whether to go up to the Chin villages or not. The guide really thought we would enjoy it and explained that the women sell their weavings to make money and that if we liked we could visit the Chin school and make a donation which we did. He understood that the concern was that the people locally would see a benefit from the visit.

We really enjoyed the trip and in addition to visiting the one room Chin school house we stopped at a larger town on the way back to meet a really charming monk who is running a vibrant school for the poor. The guide hadn't been there before but had heard about him and though we might enjoy meeting him which we did. Throughout Burma we had seen rural Buddhist schools but many of them looked fairly uninspired. This place was quite different and you could feel the commitment and passion of the man running the place.
Overall I would highly recommend a visit to this part of the country and if we return it will be high on our list of places to go back to.

Yangon – we really liked Yangon and I think it's a very underrated city.This is certainly somewhere we'd enjoy spending more time. It was fascinating to see the religious and cultural diversity in the city where you can visit a synagogue, a Hindu temple, a mosque and Buddhist temples within blocks of each other. We really enjoyed our visit to the synagogue which was interesting particularly after seeing the one in Calcutta. Shwedagon was far more interesting than I had anticipated. We didn't come for sunset but went to see the local forms of worship which were very interesting, particularly the shrines to the days of the week where you can make offerings to “your” birth day.
Some years ago we took a tour of colonial buildings in Calcutta and in Yangon we made our own walking tour from a book which I highly recommend, 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon. It is written from an architecture/urban planning perspective providing a history of the buildings along with suggestions for possible usages which was very interesting. It covers a lot of interesting buildings including the Secretariat where Ang Sung was killed. Afterwards we headed to The Strand for a drink in the colonial style bar. Here's a blog post onthe walk with lots of pictures of the colonial architecture for those who are interested.

Personally I'd skip Scotts Market which was touristy and held little interest to me and go instead to Pomelo a lovely fair trade boutique which supports a variety of good causes.

We enjoyed the main market and several vegetable markets around the center of the city. We ate some wonderful street food here and loved the great noodle soup which you can eat on small stools on the street. Here's a blog post on some of the street food we enjoyed. It's ridiculously inexpensive.

I'll try to add links to the blog posts when I get around to writing about Inle and Mrauk U. After Burma we headed to Bali for a week of complete relaxation and then on to KL and Penang for more street food and colonial architecture! Iat some point 'll cover them on the blog too. We were away for more than three months which makes for a lot of memories and pictures to sort through. Our Mad Dash took us first to Rome and then all over Asia. Right before Burma we were in Sri Lanka which we loved. Here are links to the Fodor's trip reports in case anyone is interested.

Ok enough of this babble, I hope this helps someone else who is planning a trip!