Myanmar – the magical country that opens and closes to the world at large like a revolving door. Some of you may know I have strong Burmese roots, although I’ll be the first to admit, I know very little about Myanmar. This past summer I jumped at the opportunity to visit this mysterious country while in the neighbourhood. I did all the classic things to do in Myanmar and a couple of added highlights at the end of my trip. Over the next few weeks I’ll share my tips, starting off with things to do in Bagan.
Before you head off… hear’s some mental prep:
- Prep for a – LOT of sunrises
In the two weeks I travelled around Myanmar I would venture to say I saw more sunrises than I have ever voluntarily woken for at home (walks of shame do not count). Up at before the crack of dawn it is definitely work the slight fatigue to capture the “sunrise over Bagan” “sunrise at the U-Bein Bridge” “sunrise at the sunrise” you get the idea. Luckily the Myanmar highlights are not all bunched in the centre of the country so the travel time allows for some well earned naps.
- Culture Shock
When I landed in Myanmar I was distraught, I forgot to take out US dollars before I left and was convinced I would be destitute for the whole 13 day tour. I had no way of contacting anyone and had essentially and careless ignored all the advise my family members (who travel their often) had offered up. This turned into a blessing! Aside from the squat toilet at the airport, everything else about Myanmar had changed in the five-years since my Auntie had visited. There are ATMs everywhere, everyone has a smartphone, you can buy data packages and SIM cards and no one asked for $US the whole time! My linguistic struggles being a poor Australian without any foreign language skills also proved to be fine as most people spoke conversational English. As a country that has adopted modernity at an exponential rate, who knows what Myanmar will be like when you journey – so get ready for some culture shock!
- Be culturally sensitive
It’s a warm place but don’t pack too many short-shorts. Unlike neighbouring countries most people in Myanmar still wear the cultural Longyi or knee-length+ pants and skirts. While no one will say anything if you wear short shorts, it’s not necessary. I myself bought a couple of cotton pants from Vietnam before leaving for $8 and they did me well for the majority of the trip. I also purchased a few longyi although this isn’t really necessary – just thought my Dad would get a tickle out of it.
Let’s hit up those highlights, first stop things to do in Bagan…
Things to do in Bagan
The UNESCO world heritage area is indeed the land of a thousand Pagodas. No one knows how many pagodas they are due to the changes in architecture and size of the area. Bagan is a popular destination for tourists, almost everyone who goes to Myanmar stops there for at least a night.
Side note: Pagodas are enclosed and you cannot go inside, often relics of Buddha or associated with him are said to be enclosed within the dome of the Pagoda. On the other hand Temples are open and you can walk in, they generally have at least one (but often hundreds) of images of Buddha. Bagan has both and in fact there are pagodas and temples scattered throughout the country. Most cities had at least ten temples – no matter how small the actual town.
How to get there:
Bagan is about a six hour drive from Yangon, there are a number of bus services or private cars that will take you to the area. We arrived in style on a 19 hour sleeping train. I have been on a lot of sleeper trains in my time and while this was not the most well equipped I still slept just fine! You’ll need to pack your own food (it’s amazing how much people think they eat in 19 hours) and either self-dehydrate or prepare for a pretty… minimal bathroom experience.
What to do:
Organise a driver to take you to the main pagodas and temples around the are: This was not included in our tour and cost about $20 AUD. You also have the flexibility of choosing which temples you visit (should you have a wish list) or letting them act as almost a tour guide, taking you to ones they may think you enjoy. It was helpful for us to use their local knowledge as many of the pagodas were still damaged from the earthquake at the end of 2016, making some Pagodas unsafe to visit.
Hire a bike and travel into the town: Bikes can be hired from $2 all day. It is relatively easy to cycle around Bagan, but obviously keep an eye out for traffic and where possible grab a helmet! This allows you some freedom to visit the town and some temples and pagodas that aren’t always the main desitinations. We used this opportunity to visit the local market and purchase our Longi– but beware you will be targeted. I totally overspent on my first Longi one account of being overwhelmed and terrible at Maths (sorry Mum and Dad). However you can pick up one for between $5-8 AUD depending on the pattern, whether it’s imported and how intricate the pattern is.
WAKE UP AT SUNRISE – Lolz, but seriously do it, check out the video below on why!
If you got the dollarz and make the list get on a balloon ride – I didn’t which I felt so terribly hard done by about but then again they made an excellent time lapse for me, but have only heart fantastic things.
Visit Mt Popa- Personally I think this is an optional trip. It was very memorable. A more commercial temple than most others Mt Popa is up 777 steps, which is a bit of exercise, plus you have the added cardio of batting off allegedly trained stealing monkeys. Who will legitimately take the water right out of your hands! With the strong smell of urine to accompany this journey, you’ll definitely have loads of stories to tell when you get home, perhaps just not the most positive.
What to eat:
Try the Bagan curry specialty. The curry Pon yay gyi is made from what our guide described as Bagan Vegemite. It’s a fermented soy based curry paste. As a part of our day tour we visited the factory, which seemed to be a common thing to do and I’m pretty sure they accept walkins as they have a tip box. It was a fantastic look into how terrible obsessed with food safety laws we have become, because I ate the curry a couple of streets away and it was delicious and I did not get sick.
Where to stay:
We stayed here as a part of the tour so I’m sure they have enough business through there but also it was actually really nice! The rooms are all double rooms so may be a bit more than you need, but gives you a good indication of the type of Budget accommodation available in the area.