Myanmar – not the golden child of SE Asia but still worth a visit
Over the past five years or so, a growing number of friends have traveled to Myanmar. No matter their background, travel experience, or personality, everyone raved about it. As a results, we were excited to discover the country and came in with high expectations. Often a mistake, but it was inevitable.
We had a classic ten-day program: two days each in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan, an overnight trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, and another day and night in Yangon before flying back to Bangkok. The unaccounted for days/nights were buffers for bus rides across the country.
Yangon was great. The vibe is a fun mix of big-ish city, bustling street markets, trendy cafes, and of course pagodas. Traffic seems crazy but traffic lights are respected, and during the rainy season (which we were bang in the middle of), everyone brings out big, bright umbrellas that brighten every grey day. Flip-flops are the standard footwear, presumably easier to handle with the rain, heat, and humidity than any other kind of shoe.
As for food… We came across a number of delicious restaurants, including:
- Feel restaurant – local, inexpensive, very little English spoken and a buffet/shared meal approach
- Sharky’s – same owner as Feel but this spot is for expats and boasts local organic ingredients, pizza, and burgers
- House of Memories – historic building, extensive menu of both national and international dishes, delicious food, tourist prices
- LA Restaurant and Bar – new, trendy bar serving good food including the best fried noodles Francois had in SE Asia
- Rangoon Tea House – loft type setup that could have been in Brooklyn, national dishes that are absolutely delicious in spite of the expat price tag (we had mXXX soup and XXX)
Mandalay was underwhelming. The Kutadow??? Pagoda was interesting as it houses the biggest book in the world, i.e. a book where each page is inscribed on a stone stele housed in a small temple-like stone structure. Behind it, Mandalay Hill has a network of pagodas leading up to a 360 view of the city, where from a single spot I counted over 70 pagodas! However, the city overall was a bit bland. It rained hard while we were there, flooding streets to the point where cars could no longer drive on them – surreal. We did make it through to visit UBein Bridge (interesting but not worth going to Mandalay for that) and Inwa, a pseudo island with temples on it (ditto).
Bagan on the other hand, was wonderful. There are over 2000 pagodas in an otherwise mostly wild area just outside the city. Big ones, little ones, simple brick ones, white ones, ones you can climb… and you can freely explore by just renting an electric motorbike! Exhilarating.
Last but certainly not least, the overnight trek to Inle Lake. We LOVED it. Starting in Kalaw, we drove 30min outside town before we started walking (note: if you do the three-day trek, you walk this bit – so the extra day is not one of great landscapes). We went with Eagle Trekking, run by Pho a.k.a Alex, recommended by a friend. Alex was a bit out of it (in spite of 15 or so emails to plan the trek, he did not recognize my name and did not expect us to show up when we did, even when I pointed to my name on his board… go figure) but as a result we got assigned to Rhythm as a guide and grouped with five backpackers – Cynthia (from the US, another New Yorker!), Brian (from the US too), Alex (Canadian), Lukas (German), and Jen (from the UK) – traveling around Myanmar together. They were incredibly fun and entertaining, and upgraded our trek experience from great to absofrigginlutely brilliant.
Over the two days we walked about 30km, through fields of eggplant, peanuts, corn, ginger, and sunflowers. It was mostly flat with a few hills and one particularly rocky bit downhill to the lake on the second day. We stayed overnight in an upstairs dorm not far from a village shop selling snacks and beer (woohoo!), and throughout the trek we enjoyed the delicious local cuisine Rhythm whipped up for us. The weather was perfect – warm but with cloud cover and a light breeze.
We saw a swarm of yellow butterflies, buffalo being bathed, a stunning and humongous Bantan tree, children playing in fields, remnants of bamboo rockets from the water festival, and we chatted about a bit of everything along the way. Rhythm even blew bubbles out of a plant stem (the plant is used to make soaps)!
Landscapes were gorgeous, the company was wonderful, it was just the right amount of effort, and at the end of the trek we had lunch before taking a boat across the lake to town. Floating gardens, water pathways delineated by lotus beds, “bus” boats and houses on stilts, it was like a parallel reality out of “Waterworld” (but we did not spot Kevin Costner).
If we had not gone in with such exceedingly high expectations, Myanmar would have been off the charts. As is, we thoroughly enjoyed most of it but came a way a tad disappointed. Regardless, that overnight trek is a highlight of our time in SE Asia…
Ps. One thing I would do differently is that I would read the whole book “Finding George Orwell in Burma” before getting to Myanmar – it provides fascinating historical (and literary) context in a very well written manner, and the text is full of descriptions that may have influenced our itinerary.