Myanmar

Trip Summary:

Dates:    October 1st to October 16th

Year: 2017

Main Language of Country:   Burmese

Transportation Used:   Plane, Bus, E-Bike, Scooter, Boat, Taxi, Back of Pick-Up Truck

Currency: Burmese Kyat (pronounce “Chat”) and USD

Accommodation: Hostels, Guesthouses

Number of Photos Taken: 4603

Favorite Place: Bagan

Average Cost of a Full Meal: 3,000 – 8,000 Kyat (MMK)

Average Cost of a Night per Person: 8,000 – 17,000 Kyat (MMK)

Best Foods Eaten: Tea Leaf Salad, Fish Curry, Shan Noodles

National Sport of Myanmar: Chinlone

Population of Myanmar: 52.5 Million

Capital City: Naypyidaw

Tap Water Drinkable: No (But we brushed our teeth with it)

 

The Complete Guide to Travelling Myanmar (Burma)

Ben overlooking temples in Bagan from Bulethi

Everything you need to know about where to eat, how to get around, places to stay, and things to do!

Myanmar (pronounced Mee-Ann-Mar), or formerly Burma, is a place that I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s a place that is fairly new to tourism since only opening up its borders in 2012. Because of this, the country has a relatively untraveled feel to it and lots of people say that it feels like Thailand 20 years ago. I can’t really speak to that because I was barely old enough to walk then so my experiences about the travelling conditions in Thailand were fairly minimal 20 years ago.

I’m not able to tell you anything about what Myanmar was like in the past, and I don’t think that anyone can really say where it’s headed, but I’d love to tell you as much as I can about the country right now!

 

First Things First, What About the Unrest?

It was an interesting time during our visit to Myanmar as there was a lot of unrest in the country. In fact, the first questions that we were asked by people that watched the news was about this unrest.

I’m definitely not an expert about the history of the country and know very little about what was going on besides what was being published in the media, but my basic understanding of the situation was this:

In the western areas of Myanmar, especially the Rakhine State there is a Muslim group called the Rohingya. They have always been segregated from the majority Buddhist population and the government claims that it was the British that let this group in from India when they were in control and they were therefore never part of the nation. Now, the government is in the midst of a transition from a military controlled state to democracy but things aren’t going very smoothly. Massacres and genocide of the Rohingya population are occurring in the Rakhine province and refugees are fleeing over the border into Bangladesh in the thousands.

Things are complicated, and not everything that is being put out in the media tells the whole story. The government is also very protective and cautious and by restricting access to areas and heavy permitting, foreign media has a hard time keeping up with the story.

This is pretty much the extent of my knowledge but needless to say, things aren’t really good.

The good news is that the tourism area (the area that doesn’t require extra permits beyond the generic entry visa) is quite isolated from the unrest. People talk about it and it’s always in the background, but otherwise being in those areas, you would never actually know that anything was going on in the country. People are super friendly, everything feels safe and secure, and it’s still a great place to travel.

 

Things to Know Before Heading to Myanmar:

Myanmar is welcoming more tourism to try to bring in more foreign money and things in the country seem to be changing very rapidly. There are still a lot of areas within the country that visitors aren’t able to go without proper visas and permits, but the common trail is beginning to become more and more travelled and everything feels like it’s on the verge of major changes in the coming years.

The People of Myanmar:

Hilary sitting with Burmese woman in front of temple

The country still maintains an untraveled and untouched feeling and the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming. It doesn’t take long to realize that the Burmese people really love their country and are proud to show it off to foreign visitors. In fact, I’d say that of all the places that I’ve travelled before, the Burmese people are by far the friendliest and most open.


TIP: Lots of people in Myanmar put a yellowish-white paste on their cheeks or forehead, called Thanaka. It’s similar to sandalwood and is basically just ground bark from Thanaka wood. It’s like a sun block or skin lotion.


 

They always greet you with a wave or a smile and love to tell you about their country and help you in any way possible. Just like everyone, this isn’t every single person, but the majority. Lots of people in the tourism industry have lost this a little bit such as taxi drivers and people in the hotels, but it’s still there to some degree.

Burmese Children posing for picture

To give you an idea, one day in Bagan we went to a temple that was far off of the beaten path in a place called Salay and while we were walking through the temple, groups of children were following us around, people were stopping to ask if we could take a photo with them, and people stopped to try to talk with us. It was a really cool experience and the people were genuinely excited to see us which gives the country a very untouched and original feel.

Like most countries, there are also a lot of hawkers and people trying to sell you things but they are generally not very aggressive and totally harmless.

 

Speaking English in Myanmar:

Because tourism is quite new in Myanmar, English isn’t very widely spoken. There are definitely some within the tourism industry such as taxi drivers, guides and hostel owners that speak good English. And as English becomes taught more in schools, a lot of the younger population seems to be picking it up.

That being said, the majority of people in Myanmar can’t speak or understand any English so communication is done through hand motions and signals at that point. And to be truthful, the most common communication is a smile and a big wave which always goes a long way, especially in Myanmar.

More than anything, don’t let the lack of English discourage you from travelling to Myanmar. If anything, it’s an indication of the untouched nature of Myanmar and, while it can sometimes be challenging, it adds to the sense of adventure.

 

Where to Eat in Myanmar:

Travelling throughout South East Asia tends to be synonymous with eating street food and at markets. While there is street food in Myanmar, we ate mostly at restaurants and cafes.

My guess is that there are two reasons for this. First off, it was our first country in South East Asia that we had travelled to so we weren’t quite up on our street food skills at the time and hadn’t gotten comfortable figuring out what to eat and what to avoid.

Second, the street food that we later ate in other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam were more westernized that Myanmar. There were signs and prices posted and you knew what you were getting. In Myanmar, however, street food was often just someone sitting beside bags or bowls of “something” which made it difficult to commit to.

So I guess my point is that there is street food in Myanmar in the traditional sense, but for the most part, we played it safe and at mostly at restaurants. I’ve listed all of our restaurant and cafe recommendations within each of the sections.

 

Getting Around Myanmar and Itinerary:

As we were only in the country for 16 days and we were trying to fit in as much as we could, we found ourselves travelling a fairly well beaten bath that most visitors take when they go to Myanmar. This is:

  • Fly into Yangon (2 or 3 days)
  • Head for Bagan (we spent 5 days)
  • Kalaw hike to Inle Lake (3 days)
  • Inle Lake (3 days)
  • Mandalay (2 or 3 days)

There are a few other stops and variations from this plan that can be made but these are the typical sights and places that people tend to visit. Some people also do these stops in the opposite direction or in another order, but they are the main stops.

To get around, there are several different options. Around the cities, taxis are easiest. Between long distances, overnight busses are the best, but trains (longer and more uncomfortable) and planes (quicker but more expensive) are an option as well.


TIP: For overnight busses, we either booked a few days ahead through our hostel, or booked online at 12go.asia. Lots of people recommend JJ Express as the only bus company to use and, while they are probably the best, we used others as well and found them to be similar. It’s best to book at least a day or two ahead if you can, although the only issue that we had was travelling from Yangon to Bagan where we couldn’t get a bus and had to fly.


 

There is also the option to go by boat in some areas such as the popular route between Bagan and Mandalay (although I’ve read that this isn’t recommended because it’s long, boring, and uncomfortable). Within places like Bagan you can also get around by renting scooters or motorbikes.

Riding an e-bike in Bagan


TIP: Most hostels and guesthouses rent scooters or bikes. Otherwise, places like Bagan have tons of places to rent from around town.


 

Therefore, getting around is quite easy, and there are usually several options depending on your preference and budget.

 

To Get into the Country:

Here’s an important one! In order to get into Myanmar, you’ll need to apply for a visitors visa beforehand.

This can be done online on the government website. It costs roughly 50 USD and takes a few days to get. You can then use it anytime in the next 90 days and once you enter the country it allows you to stay for 28 days. You’ll also need to have tickets booked out of the country and proof of this in order to enter. Also, when you’re completing the application, you’ll need to upload a colour photo of yourself. If you have a photo ready then you’re good to go, but we just took photos with our phones against a white background to upload and they worked fine. 

The other important thing is that you should have some American dollars when you are entering the country. People used to recommend that you had enough American money when you enter the country in order to pay for your entire trip, but we didn’t find that to be the case. The reason used to be that ATM’s weren’t very common and some didn’t allow visitors to withdraw money, but we had no issues with this and were always able to find ATM’s when we needed them. We were cautious because of things that we had read and took around $800 USD between the two of us, but if I were to do it again I would take closer to $200 USD each.

The reason to have American money with you is that you’re not able to get Myanmar Kyat (pronounced “chat”) outside of Myanmar. This means that once you arrive in the country, you will have no way to pay for things until you find a bank, money exchange, or ATM. American dollars are accepted everywhere, however, so arriving with some means that you can pay your way if something happens and you aren’t able to get your hands on any Kyat right off the bat.

As well, things in the country that are government controlled such as accommodation, train tickets, airlines, and some tours are all charged in US Dollars, so you’ll need some for that as well.

 

Yangon: (October 1st – 3rd)

Busy apartment building in downtown Yangon Myanmar

Yangon was the first place that we arrived in Myanmar after flying in from Singapore. The city is quite loud, busy, and crowded and I would recommend spending a few days here at most. On the other hand, however, there is a lot to do in the city if you happen to stay longer, but we didn’t have a chance to do a lot of it.

In fact, most of our time in Yangon was spent trying to figure out how to get to Bagan. It turned out that the day that we wanted to leave Yangon for Bagan was also the start of a festival. This meant that lots of the local people were travelling from the city to Bagan so we weren’t able to get tickets on busses or trains for 3 or 4 days after we had wanted to leave. We could have changed our plans and headed somewhere before Bagan but we had already booked our accommodation ahead in Bagan. Long story short, we ended up flying to Bagan, which was a lot more expensive than we had planned.

But, while we weren’t trying to figure out the next stage of our journey, here is what we got up to:

 

Things to do in Yangon: 

Yangon is a big city, but luckily most of the things that you’ll likely want to do and see are located in the central area of Downtown. Getting around downtown is fairly easy as all of the streets are in a grid. It’s also a bit claustrophobic in some areas because the streets can be quite narrow, while the buildings are very tall, making it feel closed in.

POW: Playing in the Streets of Yangon

It also doesn’t help that many of the streets are only wide enough for one vehicle and with the shops and people selling things on either side of the street, there isn’t much room left for walking. This means that walking and moving around Yangon is usually spent crossing streets from side-to-side, ducking into doorways to let vehicles pass, and generally just dodging things…all to the sound of constant honking all around.

 

Check out Sule Pagoda:

Sule Pagoda in Central Yangon

The Sule Pagoda is in the center of downtown Yangon and it is one of the most significant pagodas in the city. It’s also the central spot where all addresses north are measured from. I’m not exactly sure how that works or what it means but it’s interesting.


TIP: Just north of the pagoda, there is a walking overpass to cross a busy intersection where you can get a good view of the pagoda.


 

You can enter the pagoda for a few dollars, but we just checked it out from the outside. It sits in the center of a major roundabout next to the city hall and across from it is a nice park that makes a good place to sit down and take a break.

Yangon City Hall

But you won’t have the park to yourself!

 

Get Drinks from Rooftop Bar:

Just north of Sule Pagoda, you can get drinks with a view from the top of the Sakura Tower on the corner of Sule Pagoda Road and Bo Gyoke Road. There’s a good view of the pagoda from here as well.

 

Check out the BogYoke Market:

Bogyoke market in Yangon

I never got too excited about going to markets in Myanmar, but if you want to check one out, head to the BogYoke Aung Sann Market. They tend to be busy, crowded and slightly overwhelming but they are quite interesting to wander through.

Tailor and fabric in Bog Yoke Market Yangon

If you’re souvenir shopping you might also be able to find something here, although I found that they were mostly people selling fabrics, jewelry, longyi (the long sarong type pants that are traditional), or lacquerware.

 

Wander Through Chinatown:

Another area with the narrow streets and tall buildings to explore in Yangon is Chinatown.

 

Head to the Waterfront:

We didn’t actually have time to do this, but one night at our hostel we sat out on the balcony of our hostel looking over the city with a French guy that had invited us to join him. He mentioned that one morning at sunrise he had headed down to the river where many of the local people take their boats over from Dala (which is on the other bank of the river) to downtown to work for the day.

He told us that he had asked one of the boat drivers if he would take him out on the river. He gave him a bit of money and got a small tour by water and was able to see a bit of local life.

I very well may have gotten a few details wrong in this account, but the moral or the story is that if you have a free morning, it might be cool to head to the river and you never know what you’ll see.

 

Hire a Driver to Take you Around Yangon:

Traffic jam on Yangon Streets in Myanmar

Once again, we didn’t opt to do this ourselves, but lots of people recommend hiring a driver to take you around the city. There are a few things to see around the city that are quite far apart so having a driver that can take you exactly where you want to go can be super helpful. It’s also nice to be able to hop into an air conditioned vehicle between stops as well.

It’s tough to give you an accurate price on these types of things because they can vary a lot, but the best thing to do would be to ask at your hostel or guesthouse once you’re in the city, then decided if it’s something that you want to do.

 

Walk Around Kandawgyi Lake:

For a break from the busy streets, you can head to a small park just below the Shwedagon Pagoda. This might be a good spot to catch a sunset as well as you’re away from all of the taller buildings or downtown.

 

Take a Bumpy Train Ride Around the City:

Interior of the Yangon Circular Train in Myanmar

For a super cheap activity, you can hop on a train that does a circle loop around the city. It takes around 3 or 4 hours and costs something like the equivalent of a dollar or two.

Black and White railroad track behind train

It’s not comfortable, and it’s not particularly scenic, but I think that it’s definitely worth doing. If nothing else, you get to see some of the surrounding areas and a good glimpse into life in Yangon. While we were on the train we saw an older woman weaving baskets while joking and laughing with a group of men sitting across from us, we watched a young novice monk with his head out of the window wave to people as we passed, we saw groups of boys playing Chinlone (a game similar to hacky-sack that’s played with a low net and a woven rattan ball), and we saw women walking back from the market beside the railroad carrying baskets on their heads.

Young kids playing Chinlone in Myanmar beside village Villagers walking along railroad track beside train Young boy waving as train passes Passengers climbing off of circular train

The tricky thing about the train ride is that the trains are known to derail from time to time. In fact, some people that we talked to at our hostel were on the same train a few hours earlier than us and the car that they were in derailed.

But, if you’re up for a bit of an adventure, then I’d say go for it. Worse case scenario, you can always hop off the train at one of the stops and catch a taxi back.

 

Visit the Shwedagon Pagoda:

Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset

The main attraction in Yangon is definitely the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s not far from downtown and a taxi ride from downtown to the pagoda should cost around 2,000 Kyat.


TIP: When we walked into the pagoda and paid the entrance fee, there was a man standing with the people collecting the fees that asked if he could tell us a bit about the pagoda. We didn’t think much of it as we thought that there were some things that we had to know in order to be respectful at the site so we said “sure!” He turned out to be a guide who walked around the site with us and told us different things (all of which were very interesting) but then at the end he asked that we pay him money. So, just so that you are aware, you can definitely get a guided tour for a small cost which may be worth it, but it’s not a mandatory thing like we had naively thought.


 

We ended up visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda quite late in the day, which ended up being a great time. We were able to see some of it in the light, then we caught the nice colours of the sunset, and finally we were able to see it after dark when all of the lights are on and people gather to pray and light candles. Although the pictures were best during sunset, my favourite time was after dark because everything becomes very peaceful.

Candles lit in front of Buddha at pagoda

It costs about 8,000 Kyat each to enter the pagoda and if you have short sleeves or shorts you may be given something to wrap around yourself. I would also recommend carrying your shoes with you as there are 4 entrances so you may end up going out a different way from where you entered.

Swedagon pagoda after dark

If you do happen to be at the pagoda during sunset, there is a large diamond at the very tip that changes colours and apparently shimmers as the sun goes down. If you hunt around, you might be able to find the spot where there are some marks on the stone floor with times written beside them. The story is that if you stand on those marks at the specific time, the diamond on top changes colour with the light shining through it. We didn’t get to test it out as we were wandering around somewhere else at the time, but it would be cool if it was true.

 

Other Resources for Things to do in Yangon:

I know I dropped the ball a little bit exploring Yangon because we were scrambling to figure out the next leg of our journey to Bagan, so here is another good resource that I found with some good ideas of things to do and see in Yangon.

 

How to Get Around Yangon:

With the crowded and busy nature of Yangon, renting things like bicycles and motorbikes might not be entirely practical. Therefore, the best way to get to things near you is to walk, and if you need to go any further distance, it’s best to grab a taxi.

Traffic and taxis in downtown Yangon

Just make sure to ask for the cost of the taxi before you agree and hop in. They will generally start with prices quite high and you can usually negotiate a lower price. We found it helpful to either look up or ask at our hostel what the taxi should cost to get to a certain place so that we knew what to barter towards when we got a taxi.

For example, a 10 minute taxi ride from downtown to Shwedagon Pagoda cost us 2,000 Kyat, and a 45 minute taxi to the airport/bus station cost us 8,000 Kyat.

 

Where to Eat in Yangon:

999 Shan Noodle Shop

For some reason, for the first day in Yangon we couldn’t find anywhere to eat that we enjoyed. On our last day, however, we found two really awesome places:

  • Shan Noodle 999 (cost around 9,000 kyat for two meals and two drinks)
  • Suzuki Thai Food (cost around 9800 for two meals and two cokes)

I’m sure that there are several other good places to eat, but these two (especially Shan Noodle 999) we really good.

 

How to Get from Yangon to Bagan:

To get any large distance in Myanmar, the cheapest way to get around is by bus. Taking an overnight bus is usually a good idea because you technically save yourself a day of travel and you also save paying for an extra night somewhere.

You can also take a train or fly from Yangon to Bagan.

I think I mentioned this before, but you might need to book early. All of the busses and trains were booked because there was a Festival of Lights happening in Bagan while we were trying to get there. This meant that we had to get flights instead which cost $115 USD each!

 

Where to Stay in Yangon:

There are tons of options for places to stay in Yangon, but we only tried one and, as we really liked it, I thought I would recommend it. It was called the Chan Myae hostel in the middle of downtown. The only problem with it is that you end up walking up a lot of stairs (our room was 8 stories up!) The bonus is that there is a balcony at the top that has a cool view out into the city across the other rooftops. It’s a nice spot to sit with a cold beer and look out over the city after a hot and sweaty day.

The staff is very friendly and helpful and were able to give us great advice for getting taxis (and what the most we should pay was) places to eat, and arranging our onward travels. When we arrived, we had booked a room in a dormitory but they upgraded us to a private room for no extra cost because one was available. The breakfast was really really good as well.

We used Agoda or Booking.com for all of our hostel and guesthouse bookings throughout Asia as they are easy to use and don’t require you to pay part of the amount up front which makes it a tiny bit easier. You can also check out Hostel World or Airbnb. 

Just a heads up as well, some of the links to accommodation are affiliate links which means that if you use them to book your stay, a small amount goes back to me, although it doesn’t cost you anything extra. So if you end up using them, thanks so much!

Bagan: (October 3rd – 8th)

Sunrise view over Bagan from Shwe Gu Gyi Phaya

When most people think or hear about Myanmar, one of the first things that comes up is Bagan. It’s definitely gotten the most attention out of anywhere in the country and the photos of the temples strewn across a huge expanse of plains are what catches our attention.


TIP: When you enter Bagan you need to have to pay an Archeological Zone Tourist Fee. It costs 25,000 Kyat (around $20USD) as is good for 5 days or a week. They usually collect the fees at the airport, bus station, ferry terminal, or however you enter Bagan. We did get checked once while we were at Bulethi temple so it is important to have it with you.


 

Bagan is such a unique place and but it is also quite complicated to figure out at first. I mean really, it’s just a bunch of temples in a big plain, but I was completely overwhelmed when we first arrived and began to get frustrated when it felt like we were wasting valuable time figuring things out instead of having a strategy to tackle the area. So, my plan here is just to lay things out like I would with a friend over a cup of coffee. I’ll pretend that you are a friend heading to Bagan with the aim to get some photos and see as much as you can, and you know nothing about the place except that it looks cool in pictures. So let’s do this.

 

Where to Stay in Bagan:

There are three different areas to stay in Bagan, and each are a little bit different. They’re almost each like individual towns that are several kilometers apart and each one has its own perks and benefit for location.


TIP: Everywhere in Bagan seems to have really slow internet. It doesn’t make it very fun if you’re trying to do research and figure out where you’re going for the day, so try to do as much research as you can beforehand.


 

First off is Nyaung-U, which is where we stayed and spent most of our time when we weren’t out exploring temples. Maybe I’m a bit biased, but I think that it’s the best. There are lots of good restaurants, lots of good places to stay, plenty of places to rent bikes, it’s fairly close to some good sunrise and sunset spots, it has quite a local feel, and it’s even close to the bus station and airport. Nyaung-U feels more like a town and will have more places to stay and more budget accomodation than the others. At first, I found that it seemed busy and dirty, but it grows on you once you spend a bit of time there and find the quiet little areas and restaurants tucked away in the corners.

Nyaung Shwe town

Next is Old Bagan, which is in the middle of the three. It’s where you’ll find more of the fancy-pants resorts and hotels. There are lots of temples and pagodas right in Old Bagan and its location is probably the best as it’s closer to more of the main temples. It’ll also be a bit more touristy and will be filled with tour busses from sunrise to sunset, whereas the other two won’t. I would pass on Old Bagan because the accommodation is more expensive and it’s busier with tourists.

Last, is New Bagan. It’s the furthest from the bus station and airport, but still in the thick of the temples. You’d be able to find a lot of budget and mid-range accommodation here as well.

So, as for specific suggestions, you will likely be able to find lots of places in Bagan with pools which might be nice given the heat of the place. We stayed at Shwe Na Di Guest House in Nyaung-U and the rooms and breakfast were great. We rented e-bikes (scooters) from the guest house and it was walking distance to a lot of great places to eat. It was also nice and cheap, and as we spent lots of our days out exploring Bagan, cost was our major concern.

Having a place with a pool and a more social atmosphere might be nice as well though. A good place to check out that lots of other people that we met later on in the trip had recommended was Ostello Bello in New Bagan. This is a chain that is in every major spot throughout Bagan and is more of a traditional hostel. They have big common rooms, activities in the evenings, dorm rooms, and tours. We had heard that the Ostello Bello in Bagan is one of the best in Myanmar too.

We used Agoda or Booking.com for all of our hostel and guesthouse bookings throughout Asia as they are easy to use and don’t require you to pay part of the amount up front which makes it a tiny bit easier. You can also check out Hostel World or Airbnb. 

Just a heads up as well, some of the links to accommodation are affiliate links which means that if you use them to book your stay, a small amount goes back to me, although it doesn’t cost you anything extra. So if you end up using them, thanks so much!

 

Where to Eat in Bagan:

Tea leaf salad Burmese food

There are lots of great places to eat in Bagan and we definitely tried our fair share of them. Some good, and some not so good. For breakfast, we always ate at our guesthouse, so these suggestions are all lunch and dinner options.

Khaing Shwe Wha: Awesome vegetarian food near Old Bagan. The staff is super friendly! Although everything was good, my favourite was the pineapple curry.

Leos: A great place for dinner in Nyaung-U. It’s tucked away down a quiet alley and has some of the best food. Definitely try the traditional Shan noodle or Fried Rice with Kimchi.

Bibo: Another good spot in Nyaung-U.

 

Light Festival in Bagan:

We happened to be in Bagan in the middle of a celebration that everyone kept calling the “light festival.” It seemed to go on for an entire week and every night there were fireworks and parades. It’s actually quite tough to describe the parades without seeing them and for some reason I never had my camera when they went by.

The parades were basically just a couple of vehicles or bicycles driving around blaring super loud music with flashing lights. The first vehicle would be a truck with a bunch of kids loaded on top and in the back singing and dancing and a big loud speaker or megaphone strapped to the front. The next might be a cart or wagon of some sort with drums on top of it with more speakers. Eight people would push it and someone would be playing the drums. My favourite, however, were the bikes. The setup was usually 3 or 4 bikes in a row. One might have a generator tied to it, then an extension cord would stretch to the next one with lights and another cord would connect to the third bike which had speakers on top. Somewhere in the mix of all this was a man with a microphone that would sing along with the music at the top of his lungs! And finally, following the whole procession would be a parade of kids and families walking behind the floats all around town laughing, dancing and singing and cars and motorbikes everywhere were honking their horns as the parade went by.

Another night, we saw a different sort of float. This time it was just a big flat bed truck with a wall of speakers at one end. There were 5 or 6 people in costume on the deck of the truck who were acting out different scenes to the music. We happened to be sitting at a restaurant when this stopped in the street in front and one of the waiters who spoke very good English explained the different scenes to us. It was super cool!

 

How to Get Around Bagan – Renting an E-Bike or Scooter:

POW: The Secret Temple of Bagan, MyanmarBy far the best way to get around Bagan is on an e-bike (or a scooter/moped). As far as I know, they don’t actually allow tourists to rent proper motorbikes any more, so this is your best option. The only downfall with the e-bikes is that they are almost completely silent, so if you want those motorbike noises, you have to make them yourself.

Hilary riding electric scooter in Bagan

My favourite part about the e-bikes is that they made you completely independent. It would be impossible to explore Bagan completely by foot and hiring a driver limits you and hinders your freedom. Having an e-bike, however, means that you can head out of the somewhat busy little towns like Nyaung-U and in two minutes be completely by yourself along a dusty dirt road, surrounded by temples. You get to go where you want, when you want and it really makes it feel like a true exploration.

We rented directly from our hostel and it cost somewhere around $5 USD per day. We always just rented one and doubled on it.

A major concern when you first get on one is that your battery is going to die and leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere. This never happened to us, however, and we were often out on them for more than 4 or 5 hours at a time. Most days, however, we would come back to our guest house at some point throughout the day and put them on charge.

Another concern is that you might get a flat tire. This happened to us one morning as we were heading to a temple for sunrise. We had just turned off of the main paved road onto a dirt one and the back end of the bike started moving from side to side like we were on ice. Luckily, we were close to the temple so we pushed the bike the rest of the way, caught the sunrise, and then found someone who could phone our guesthouse for us using the phone number written on the bike.

This can be tricky as some people may be helpful enough to phone, but others will ask to be paid. In our case, the woman that phone asked us to pay a dollar or two after she had made the call.

Shortly after, two men from the guest house dropped off another bike for us and loaded our onto the back of a flatbed truck.

 

Day Trip to Salay and Mount Popa:

If you happen to be in Bagan for more than a few days, it’s nice to have a break from exploring temples and dusty roads in the scorching heat. A really good day trip is to check out the small town of Salay and Mount Popa.


TIP: To get the Salay and Mount Popa, you’ll need to hire a driver for the day to take you there. It cost us $45 USD for the day and the taxi driver that drove us from the airport into Nyaung-U told us that he could take us if we wanted. His name was Jelly and his contact info is: ryubgn86@googlemail.com. It ended up being Jelly’s brother that took us who didn’t speak as good of English but was still very helpful and friendly.


 

Salay:

Shin Pin Sar Kyo Temple near Salay

As we were in Myanmar towards the end of the wet season, all of the roads from Bagan to Salay chaos. It is a dirt road the entire way which had turned into thick, deep mud.

Traffic jam on dirt road

In some places, a river or a stream has actually risen so much that it was flowing right across the road. This meant that vehicles were backed up in both directions for kilometers, and it certainly made it a bit of an adventure getting there.

Flooded river crossing in Myanmar

Once we cleared the muddy sections though, the drive was really beautiful through rolling green hills. In some places the road was lined with overhanging trees.

Road to Salay

Arriving in Salay, we found it to be a quiet little town with a few museums and restaurants. We didn’t end up going into any of the museums but instead wandered around and explored some temples and pagodas. We ran into a group of young kids that laughed and smiled and followed us around some of the pagodas.

Then we wandered past a bamboo building when an older man waved us in. He showed us around the building which appeared to be some sort of monastery and another young girl who spoke very good English translated what he said for us. They were all sitting down to have a lunch of traditional Shan noodles and offered that we join them. Unfortunately we had to decline as we had just eaten, but these are the kinds of things that happen in Myanmar that make it so special.


TIP: If you happen to be in Salay around lunch time, you’re driver will likely take you to Salay House. It’s a restaurant by the river that’s quite nice, although a bit more expensive than what we had been going to in Bagan.


 

After exploring the town of Salay for a bit, we headed on a dirt road south of town to a temple in the middle of nowhere called Shin Pin Sar Kyo. I’ve tried to find it on all sorts of maps but haven’t had any luck. It’s about 15 or 20 minutes south of Salay and is definitely worth the visit. I happened to see a photo from inside of it on 500px, which is one of my favourite photo websites. There is a corridor of red wooden pillars that looks quite cool.

We asked our driver if he knew where Shin Pin Sar Kyo was and he was happy to take us there. As soon as we walked up the stairs of the entrance, everyone started to stop and stare. It was immediately clear that not very many westerners make it to this place. Pretty soon, we had a group of young boys following a few feet behind us, and we were constantly being stopped with people asking us with hand signals to take a picture with them.

Shin Pin Sar Kyo Temple near Bagan

The temple was also super busy, which may have had something to do with the festival that was going on that week, but it was difficult to move around, and it didn’t make things better that everyone would stop what they were doing to turn and look at us. Because of this, we didn’t end up staying overly long, and I realized after that I never did actually find the long corridor with the wooden pillars. I did, however, find one similar that I really liked. 

So we went to the temple in search of a cool photo, but ended up getting a different experience entirely.

 

Mount Popa:

Mount Popa from a distance

After Salay and the Shin Pin Sar Kyo temple, our next stop was Mount Popa, or “Monkey Mountain” as Hilary likes to call it. It’s a thin pinnacle of rock that has a long stairway all of the way to the top and a pagoda on the very top. The interesting part about it, however, is the group of monkeys that calls it home.

Monkey on Mount Popa

These monkeys are quite aggressive and we saw a few of them grab food and bags out of people’s hands as they were climbing the stairs. They run around and chase each other all over the mountain and along the roof of the covered stairways up the mountain. Because these roofs are made of sheet metal when a group of the monkeys runs over top, it makes a thundering echo.


TIP: You can also head up to a resort above the town on the hillside to get a really cool view of Mount Popa rising above the plains beyond. We didn’t have time to do this as it had taken a lot longer to get there because of the flooded and muddy roads.


 

The other issue is that about half way up the mountain, you have to take your shoes off. This means that you are walking along the stairs in bare feet and you are almost guaranteed to step in monkey poo.

Mount Popa view from top

Because of all this, I would have to say that Mount Popa is best viewed from a distance, but climbing the stairs to the top of it is most definitely an experience.

Stairway to the top of mount Popa crowded with people

Once we had finished at Mount Popa, we headed back towards Bagan as the sun was setting. Along the roads back, we passed people lined up along the road waving and yelling. We watch as cars and trucks in front of us would through money out of their windows to some of these people. We tried to ask, but never quite understood what this was all about. All that we understood was that it was some sort of donation.

As we were getting close to Bagan we ended up in a line of traffic into the town. Just after sunset seems to be the rush hour of Bagan as lots of people and tour busses are heading back to town after catching the sunset from one of the temples. Anyways, there was a man on a motorbike in front of us who wasn’t paying attention and he ended up hitting the corner of the car in front of him. He went flying off of his bike, just as a large truck was driving towards him in the opposite lane. His bike slid underneath the truck and was crushed and his helmet went flying. He landed on the pavement and his head was inches from going under the back wheel of the truck! Both of the other vehicles kept driving and no one seemed to pay much attention to it. We looked back as we were driving away and the man was sitting up and seemed to be okay, but it was a terrifying and sobering experience. It definitely made us realize why there are so many people killed from motorbike accidents in Asia every year and it made us much more cautious every time we hopped on a bike afterwards.

 

The Best Sunrise and Sunset Spots in Bagan:

By far the most popular thing to do around Bagan is catch sunrise or sunset from the top of a temple. For some reason, I had this idea that you would be able to just find any temple, climb to the top, and get beautiful views out across the plains of temples. This is partly true, but not completely.


TIP: Wear flip flops in Bagan as you need to take your shoes off to enter each temple and climb around on the pagoda. In fact, this applies throughout the whole of Myanmar as you spend a lot of time walking around in bare feet.


 

First, lots of the temples are now closed because of earthquake damage so there are actually only a few that you can get to the top of. Second, not all of them have great views or make for great picture taking spots. And third, some of them get super busy and crazy so it’s not very relaxing and becomes tough to move around and take photos. So below I’ve listed out a few of the spots that I went to and what they were like.


TIP: You can get maps from your hostel or guesthouse, but they’re usually not very good or detailed. We used the app called maps.me to get around Bagan. It had most of the temples and pagodas listed on it and we were able to mark off ones that we wanted to see or ones that we had seen. It’s good to have some sort of system for knowing where you’ve been and where you want to go as it gets a bit confusing after driving dirt roads all day.


 

Ben walking up to ancient temple

The tricky thing about getting recommendations for sunrise and sunset spots in Bagan is that a lot of the advice that we read is outdated and many of the recently popular spots are now closed because of earthquake damage in 2016. Because of that, we searched around for a lot of spots that were no longer accessible. So I hope that I can save you some time by providing a more recent list of recommendations.

 

List of sunrise or sunset places in Bagan:

 

Shwe San Daw: The most popular and busy spot. I would say that it’s worth catching one sunrise or sunset here because the view is very good, but you won’t be alone. Tour busses park beside the temple and, although it’s fairly massive and has many different levels, you’re almost guaranteed to be shoulder-to-shoulder. We headed to Shwe San Daw for one sunrise and arrived before 5:00AM. There were a few people there but we had our choice of spots. Shortly after, however, we were locked in with our choice. Try to give yourself some time to scope it out yourself, but I remember somewhere around the middle being the best for photos.

Shwe San Daw Pagoda Tourists on top of Shwe San Daw

 

Pagoda 842: We never checked this one out ourselves, but a friend that we met later on the trip said it was really good.

 

Temple With Broken Gate: Just southeast of Dhammayangyi Temple (the large square looking one) is an unnamed temple that has a broken gate. You can squeeze through the gate and get up to the roof for a really good view for sunset. Because it’s a bit off of the beaten path, you’ll likely have the place to yourself too.

South and North Guni

 

Temple East of Broken Gate Temple: Another unnamed temple is just east of the one I listed above. At sunrise, you would actually have the other temple and the stupa beside it in view which would make an awesome picture. We ran out of time to try it though.

Tourists watching sunset in Bagan

 

South Guni: One temple that is highly recommended for sunrise or sunset is South Guni (North Guni used to be recommended but is now closed because of earthquake damage). We rode past it but went somewhere else because it didn’t look as good as some of the other places that we saw. It might be worth investigating further though.

South Guni Temple at sunset

 

Stupa West of Shwe San Daw: While Shwe San Daw gets all of the tourists and traffic, just a few minutes west is a set of steep stupas that offer a good view. They might not be one of my top choices but worth checking out. These stupas are in front of another temple called Law Ka Ou Shaung that used to be a really popular spot, but it’s now closed down for access.

Hot Air baloons in distance beside pagoda Temples in Myanmar

 

Bulethi (or Buledi): We spent one sunrise at Bulethi as it was close to the road and easy to access in the dark. It’s maybe not the best spot, but it’s not the worst choice either. There is a pagoda across from Bulethi as well that you can climb to the top of that has a good view (I think it’s probably even better than Bulethi). We were lucky at Bulethi, however, and had one of the most colourful sunrises there. I did find that lots of people go straight to the top of the temple, but I found that the best photos were from around halfway up.

Bulethi pagoda in Bagan Ben Standing on top of Pagoda

 

Oak Kyaung Gyi: I don’t know what you’d call this flat topped building, but I guess it would be a temple of sorts. We went here for sunset one evening and had a great view. The sunset ended up being a bit of a bust but still a great spot to watch the sun go down. I especially liked the super narrow staircases and hallways to the top of the roof. Someone had lit candles through the hallways for light so it had a spooky and ancient feeling inside.

Scooter parked outside of Oak Kyaung Gyi Hilary taking in view from Oak Kyaung Gyi

 

Shwe Gu Gyi Phaya: My favourite spot of all for sunrise was Shwe Gu Gyi. We discovered it on our very last day and I snuck in one last sunrise before we caught the bus out later in the morning. It’s in the middle of Old Bagan and is quite a large structure. Through the day, there are people lined up along its base selling things and tour busses parked in front of it, but in the morning it’s fairly quiet. You climb the stairs to the top level and have a really good view looking north east across the treetops and in the morning smoke and mist gathers just above the canopy. For me, it was the typical view of Bagan with the canopy of trees, the tips of temples sticking out of the top, and smoke in the air. You can even climb one level higher although it’s a bit precarious. It’s nice to get up to the next level, however, because if it does get busy with other people, most people stay down below so you have the whole level to yourself. Bring a telephoto lens!

Birds flying over peaks of temple and pagodas in Bagan Tourists at sunrise in Bagan

 

 

Temple Near Ku-Tha: On our last afternoon in Bagan, we were exploring a new area and stumbled across a few near the temple called Ku-Tha. One in particular had roof access and an awesome view across the plains. There were actually a few others in the area that looked promising as well, but this was one of the best that we checked out. It’s right across from Pagoda 851.

Ben standing on top of crumbling temple

Bonus Temple: I have a temple listed on the map above called “Bonus Temple” because I couldn’t think of any other ways to describe it. It’s somewhat in between Ku-Tha and “The Temple with the Broken Gate” but the map will be much more helpful than that description. Anyways, the view isn’t great for sunset and I would check out some of the other ones that I have listed first, but it’s a cool one to explore at the least. Here’s a picture from one of the entrances looking east with Hilary sitting on the ledge.

View of sunset from inside temple door

 

Waking up for sunrise in the morning isn’t my favourite thing in the world to do, but as soon as I’m out there and the first light starts to spread across the sky, I’m always so happy that I did it. I found the sunrises in Bagan even more special because it’s such a beautiful and different place to be and there is a flat horizon so the sun rises really low and seems to go on for a long time.

I especially love the sounds in the morning. It’s different every place that you go around the world and in Bagan you can hear firecrackers  in the distance (I’m not sure who sets these things off at sunrise but anyways…) flashes of lightning and thunder rolling in the distance, birds singing, roosters crowing, and singing and music. As the sun comes up you’ll also see smoke from fires rising in the distance through the trees.


TIP: Lots of people try to get as high up as possible for sunrise, but some of the best spots are just at tree level so that you can get a cool view across the top of the canopy of trees. So make sure to test out a few spots high and low on a temple or pagoda before you settle in.


 

I figure that every sunrise and sunset is a bit of a different story with different areas, locations, and people so do as many as you can. You can always sleep later, and our best schedule was just getting up early for sunrise, exploring a bit, being back for breakfast around 9, then heading to sleep for a bit, then heading out around 1:00PM for lunch and catching sunset around 5:30, then dinner and sleep at 10PM.

 

Other Temples to Check Out:

Temple against blue sky background

Besides the best temples for sunrise and sunset, there are lots of others to check out as well. Lots of the smaller ones are really cool, but as they don’t have names and are difficult to describe, I’ll let you stumble upon them yourself, as I’m sure you will. But the big ones not to miss are:

Ananda

Ananda Temple in Bagan

 

Sulamani

Etchings inside of Buddhist Temple

Sulamani temple entrance

 

Gawdaw Palin

Gawdaw Palin Temple in Bagan

 

Dhammayan Gyi

Dhammayan Gyi Temple

 

Shwe Leik Too

Shwe Leik Too Temple in Bagan

 

Tha Gyar Hit Phaya

Temple in Bagan

 

Htilominlo

Entrance to temple and hawkers

 

Thatbyinnyu

Pagoda through window

 

Dhammayazika

Dhammayazika Entrance to temple


TIP: As you’re exploring Bagan, you’ll find lots of people selling things. They usually set up outside some of the major temples. Some cool stuff to look out for is lacquerware and sand paintings. They make great gifts or souvenirs.


 

Laquerware for sale

My best advice, however, is to head down some dirt roads, follow your nose, get a bit lost, and just have fun exploring. You’re bound to find lots of cool stuff. In fact, some of the places that I remember going to, I couldn’t even point to on a map, yet they were some of the coolest spots.

 

Photo Advice for Bagan:

Bagan is considered one of those “greatest hits” places to go for photography. It’s a place that almost seems as if it was built with the photographer in mind. You’ve got buddhist monks in their maroon robes, ancient temples, horse drawn buggies, awesome sunsets and sunrises, and dust filled air that catches the light perfectly.

Two Buddhist monks walking towards temple

With all of this, however, when we first arrived in Bagan I was immediately overwhelmed, confused, and somewhat frustrated. You see all of these awesome photos of Bagan and it makes it seem so easy to get a good photo. I had this idea that you would climb to the top of any number of temples, have the place to yourself, be within walking distance of town, and you would point your camera in any number of directions and have it filled with beautiful light, temples as far as the eye can see, mist and dust clinging to the trees, and hot air balloons scattered across the horizon. It’s not quite the case.

In reality, getting to a sunrise or sunset means riding your e-bike through the dark for at least 30 or 40 minutes, scoping out a temple that has roof access, getting there early enough to be able to claim a good spot (unless you’re lucky enough to find a less popular one like some of the ones I listed above), and then with all of that, the temple has to be one that has a good view. In a lot of cases, when you get to the top of a temple, you’ll only be able to see a few temples nearby as there is a huge distance between a lot of them.


TIP: I used a telephoto lens quite a lot in Bagan as it would bring all of the temples in the distance closer. Although a wide angle lens is nice for capturing the nice skies, the temples will often seem like little specks in the picture.


 

Likely the best thing that you can do is do as much research as possible. I try to fill these trip reports with all of the things that I wish I knew before I went so my advice is to read things like this so that you are a bit better prepared than I was. I would also use something like maps.me to mark all of the temples that you want to see (like the ones I have above) so that when you get to Bagan you can hit the ground running and have a bit of a game plan.

The way that I started to think about it was that there were three types of photos that I wanted to capture. The first was from high up on a temple looking out across the plains of Bagan at sunrise and sunset. The second was from the dirt roads connecting all of the temples. There are so many fields and cool roads that you can get some cool shots from ground level amongst the temples. And the last is from within the temples. The colours of the walls, the dust filled air, and the statues and carvings inside of them make for some awesome shots.

Ben standing inside of dust filled temple in Bagan wtih light coming through window

By looking at it this way, it somehow helped me focus a bit more. The first are easy, you just find some cool temples from the list that I made above, set your alarm super early in the morning and make it happen. The second is easy too. You’ll be riding around and doing a bunch of exploring and along the way you’re sure to find some cool roads leading to temples with dust in the air and trees on the side. So you’re bound to get some cool shots like this at some point during your exploration. The last is a bit trickier as it’s tough to capture the inside of some of the temples. But with some luck and persistence you’re bound do get a cool shot through a doorway, or even just before the sun sets you might get sunbeams through a window catching the dust filled air.

You’ll also find that some of the photos that you see online have been staged. People run photo workshops in Bagan quite often and they will setup something like a young novice monk reading a book with light coming in from the window behind him. So if you’re hunting around for these kind of shots, don’t be discouraged when you don’t see them.

The last thing that I’ll say about taking photos in Bagan is that you can’t do and see everything, things don’t always go according to plan, and the place is much much harder to photograph than you might anticipate. At least it was for me.

Temple at sunrise in bagan from Bulethi

So instead of being frustrated when things aren’t happening like you think they should or you just can’t seem to get a good shot, step back and realize that the place is absolutely beautiful and peaceful (once you get off the main roads) but not as simple as you might have planned for. So relish in the calm peaceful sunrises and sunsets, let yourself feel free checking out the temples and roads, and just enjoy the feeling of exploring a new place.

Temple in Bagan with Hot Air balloons in sky

Things have changed in Bagan over the past 5 or 10 years. You’ll see pictures from a few years ago that simply aren’t possible anymore. Trees keep growing up higher and higher and blocking more of the view, balloons are more regulated on where they can launch from, temples are closed that used to be accessible, and others and under construction and covered in bamboo scaffolding. There is a lot of information floating around that is now outdated. But don’t be discouraged, just go out and take your own style of photo and get something that no one else has.

 

How Long Should You Spend in Bagan?

Lots of people for for 2 or 3 days, but we were there for 5 (with a day trip) and could have still spent more. If you only want to do a sunrise and sunset and look around a bit then you’re fine, but otherwise I would try to spend at least 5 days in Bagan.

 

What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit Bagan?

The busy season in Bagan is during the winter when it’s a bit cooler and drier. This is from November to February. While this a great time to visit for weather, you’ll also have a harder time finding a temple to yourself and you’ll have to book in advance for accomodation.

The bonus about going after November, however, is that there will be lost of hot air balloons in the air during sunrise which makes for those awesome pictures that you see. While there were one or two off in the distance when we visited in October, it wasn’t quite like what you’d see in the photos.

The other thing to consider is festivals. We went in early October during the Festival of Lights which ended up being a really cool experience. It also meant that it was a bit busier though.

 

Kalaw: (October 8th – 9th)

kalaw mountain town in Myanmar

After Bagan, our next stop was the mountain town of Kalaw.


TIP: We took a very bumpy day bus to Kalaw for 15,000 Kyat. It took around 8 hours and we left at 8:30 AM.


 

Our plan was to do the 3 day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Although a lot of people take the night bus from Bagan, the arrive between 3AM and 5AM at Kalaw and then have to begin the hike at 8AM or 9AM that same morning. To avoid this, we headed to Kalaw the day before, stayed overnight, and then were well rested to start the hike the next morning.

Because we only had one day in Kalaw, we didn’t get to see much around the town. We also got the feeling that there wasn’t a ton to see. It was also pouring rain for most of our day there so that didn’t increase our ambition for exploring the town.

For a great place to stay in Kalaw, check out Nature Land 1. It had nice rooms, a good breakfast, and was a quick walk into town to start the trek.

And for a food recommendation, you can check out Thu Maung, on the main street through town. We had a really good dinner and a few beers before our trek the next morning.

 

Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake (Ever Smile Trekking): (October 9th – 11th)

Three Day Walk from Kalaw to Inle Lake

One of my favourite things to do in any country is to do a trek of some sort. In Myanmar, the most obvious one was a popular trekking route from Kalaw to Inle Lake. You have options to do either 2 nights or 3 nights and we opted for the 3 night.

Tea farmer hut in Myanmar

Before doing the hike, however, I hadn’t done much research on it besides which company to use and briefly what to expect. For some reason, my expectations weren’t that high and I was more looking forward to the simplicity that comes with walking for 3 days and the friends that you make when you walk in a group for 3 days and share all of the same experiences.


TIP: You should absolutely use Ever Smile Trekking. We researched other companies and they may be all the same and they may not. I really don’t know. All that I do know is that I’ve heard nothing but good things about Ever Smile and they have great guides (our guide August was fantastic) the guest houses that you stay in are cool, the information is great, the food is great and they are very helpful and reasonable priced). The only thing to be aware of on the trek is that there are mostly just squat toilets and bucket showers (the second night we had a western toilet) so it’s a bit of an inconvenience but nothing to really complain about.


 

But as soon as we started the hike and left the town of Kalaw, you realize how beautiful the countryside of Myanmar is. I was expecting low rolling hills, plain colours, and little variation throughout the hike, but it absolutely wasn’t. In fact, it was some of the most beautiful scenery I think I’ve ever been through. There were forested areas, jungle areas, open rolling hills, karst limestone cliffs, rice fields everywhere, bamboo thickets, red dirt roads, corn fields, small villages, and rolling hills and mountains. I can try to describe it and try to show you pictures, but it’s one of those things that you just have to do for yourself. So, I would absolutely recommend it.

Hikers walking through fields in Myanmar

Then, after 60km’s ish of walking and three days later, you finally emerge to the edge of Inle Lake. Here we had a final lunch before departing from our guide and being taken across the lake on a boat. This was probably one of the best parts as you get to sit back and relax and see even more amazing scenery.

Group photo of hiking group in Myanmar

All of this for the price of entry of only 40, 000 kyat each!

 

Inle Lake: (October 11 – 14)

Fisherman in Inle Lake

After our 3 day hike from Kalaw, we spent a bit of time exploring Inle Lake. We had a really awesome group on the trek and we ended up spending most of our time at Inle hanging out and doing things with them.


TIP: The fishermen you see using the big conical nets are the original style, but now they are only used for tourists. So they’re only doing this for tours to take photos of, and then they will ask to be paid.


 

I’m happy that we had friends to spend time with in Inle Lake because we found it a little bit less interesting than other places, such as Bagan. You can definitely go out on the lake on a boat but for us it seemed to get old after a morning or afternoon. Then there is the town of Nyaungshwe where we stayed and although there are things to see and explore, it’s mostly just filled with restaurants and accomodation. You can hire a driver to explore areas a bit further away or rent a bike for the day which is great, but then you’re basically at the end of things to explore.

I guess the point that I’m making is that if you’re doing the hike from Kalaw to Inle, then it’s a great place to rest up and hang out with the friends from the trip. But otherwise, staying in Inle Lake for 2 or 3 days should be more than enough.

 

Where to Stay in Inle Lake:

We stayed at a place called the Aquarius Inn which had a cool little courtyard filled with trees and flowers. All of the rooms were private so it was quieter and less social than a typical hostel would be, but we didn’t mind that.

If you do happen to want something more social and exciting, check out the Ostello Bello in Inle Lake. Some of our friends from the trek stayed there so we hung out at the hostel from time to time and it is definitely a younger crowd and a bit more exciting.

Both of these recommendations are in a town at one end of the lake called Nyaung Shwe. I think it’s best to stay in the town as you can walk to everything that you need and can go where you want. There is, however, the option to stay on floating hotels and isolated resorts in different parts of the lake as well. Another couple that we knew from the hike had stayed in one of these spots and they said it was great, but then you are forced to eat on the resort and to get anywhere you need to hire a boat.

We used Agoda or Booking.com for all of our hostel and guesthouse bookings throughout Asia as they are easy to use and don’t require you to pay part of the amount up front which makes it a tiny bit easier. You can also check out Hostel World or Airbnb. 

Just a heads up as well, some of the links to accommodation are affiliate links which means that if you use them to book your stay, a small amount goes back to me, although it doesn’t cost you anything extra. So if you end up using them, thanks so much!

 

Where to Eat in Inle Lake:

I guess we must have had a strong hankering for Indian food when we arrived at Inle Lake because it seemed to be what we ate the most.

Innlay Hut: For an entertaining dinner, a great place is Innlay Hut. The owner, Stan, is a Nepalese guy who claims to be Eminem’s biggest fan. His restaurant is plastered with D12 symbols and Eminem posters and Stan himself puts on a bit of a show with hand gestures, the occasional freestyle rap session, and more than one costume change throughout the evening. Oh, and the food is really really good Indian food!

 

Namaaste Kitchen: For more good Indian food, head to Namaaste Kitchen. I especially liked the Paneer dishes, the avocado smoothies, and the garlic naan breads.

 

Everest 2 Nepali: For really good Nepalese food (quite similar to Indian), check out Everest 2.

 

Sin Yaw: For something that isn’t Indian food, head to Sin Yaw restaurant. We had the fish fillet salad which was really good, and I don’t even usually like fish very much.

 

Things to do in Inle Lake:

Long boats parked in Inle Lake

The cool thing about Inle Lake is that it reminded me of Venice with the canals and the colourful long boats all moored to wooden posts on the bank of the river. I guess a few major differences are that it’s far cheaper, not a city, and…well…it’s pretty much different from Venice in every other way.

 

Ride Bikes to the Red Mountain Winery:

View from patio of Red Mountain Winery

There is a winery on a hill overlooking the lake that is really beautiful and a great way to spend an afternoon. We rented bikes from town for 1500 Kyat each. A word of warning though, between all of the 6 or 7 bikes, not one of them was completely functional. One of the bikes crank arm kept falling off, the bearings in bottom brackets were loose and rusty, most didn’t change gears at all, and only a few had brakes that worked. The bike mechanic in me was definitely cringing, but it also adds to the fun and adventure in a way I suppose.

Red Mountain Winery in Inle Lake

The winery ended up being quite nice and the view over the lake was great. If you’re expecting a French Chateaux, you’re likely going to be disappointed, but otherwise it’s excellent. And the wine isn’t too bad either! It was good enough for us to drink about 5 bottles!

Oh, and if you’re looking for a good place to watch the sun set, the winery would be a top contender.

 

Check out the Night Market:

I’m not going to hype this one up at all, as it was a bit of a let down. There is an empty lot near the middle of town where some vendors set up to sell jewelry and souvenirs, and a few small restaurants selling food. The real highlight is that there was a truck with speakers loaded into the back connected to a microphone where local people would sing karaoke style songs.

I’m not sure what is was about singing in Myanmar, but the people just loved it. And the best part is that it would always be super loud and the singers wouldn’t hold anything back.

 

Take a Boat Ride on the Lake:

Group photo on a boat through waterways of Inle Lake

We arranged for a boat ride through our accommodation and it cost 18,000 Kyat, which we spread between 5 people (I think you could take up to 6 people). He picked us up early in the morning and took us to the other side of the lake. Along the way, you pass fishermen paddling their boats in the traditional way with one leg wrapped around the oar, one leg used to balance, and the hands used to cast a net.


TIP: There is a 13,500 Kyat entrance fee to get into the Inle Lake area. We paid it on our last day of the hike, but I would imagine that if you come by bus you would just pay in before you can leave the bus station.


 

The first stop on the boat ride is usually a market. The market rotates where it is held each day and once or twice a week it’s a floating market (the village of Ywama is one of the spots that has a floating market). You might want to plan which day you do the boat ride depending on where the market is being held.

Traditional fishing method in Inle Lake

On the day that we visited the market, it wasn’t a floating market, but it was in a small village that had an area with a bunch of white pagodas across the river from the market. It was quite a cool area to wander around and explore.

Weekly market at Inle Lake Boats in canals of villages in Myanmar White Buddhist stupas in Myanmar

We also went to Indiin (or Inn Dein) which is a small village down a small tributary from the lake. Here you can walk from town to the top of a hill where there are hundreds of stupas all built together.

Stupas of Indein

It’s quite cool to check out, and there is a covered walkway that takes you to the top of the hill that also makes for some cool pictures.

Covered walkway with merchants on each side

We also walked from the main collection of stupas to another lone stupa that we had spotted further up on the hill where you can get a really good view over the valley and back out towards the lake.

Indiin stupas in Myanmar

I think the boat ride typically takes you to some other places like the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery, but some of the people in our group weren’t feeling great and it was also beginning to rain heavily so we decided to head back to Nyaungshwe instead.

They’ll also take you to different villages where they practice jewelry making and weaving, but as we had already seen that on our first boat ride across the lake after the hike, we decided to skip that as well. If you want to see a traditional long necked woman, they are the ones doing the weaving as well.

 

Hire a Driver to Take you to Kakku:

A few hours away is a place called Kakku that looks really cool. It’s a bunch of stupas all built together so that it looks like a giant bed of nails. It looks like a great place to get some cool photos.

You have to hire a driver and it costs around 55,000 kyat so we decided to skip it, but if you’re interested it looks like a great spot. Looking back, I wish we had gone ourselves, but at the time it just seemed super expensive when you consider that you can pay for several full days of food and accomodation for the same amount.

 

Do a Sunrise Boat Ride:

Boats and houses on banks of Nuang Shwe

One morning I woke up early for sunrise to head down to the waterfront for some photos. While I didn’t get any photos that ended up being good, I did see plenty of people heading out on boats to be on the lake as the sun came up. Along my walk, I had plenty of offers to be taken on a boat ride, and it got me thinking that if I had done it differently, I would have done a sunrise boat ride instead of going out later in the morning.

Colourful boats of Inle Lake

I also got some advice that I never had time to follow up on for getting good photos of fishermen around Inle Lake. Someone told me that to find a guide who knows a lot about the local area, head to Phaung-Daw-Oo Pagoda and talk to a man there named “Mr. Smiley.” I found this out a bit too late so couldn’t test it out myself, but I thought I’d mention it in case you were interested.

 

Getting from Inle Lake to Mandalay:

After our few days at Inle Lake, our next stop was Mandalay. We took an overnight bus, which was our first experience with this.


TIP: Most people only recommend JJ Express for long distance busses throughout Myanmar, but we took the SNT Bus between Inle Lake and Mandalay and it was really good. We got picked up from out guesthouse and were driven about 15 minutes out of town to the bus station (whereas the JJ Express one is right in town), but everything else was very similar. We paid about $14 each for the bus ride.


 

I realized later that I forgot to take a photo of the outside of the bus, but I did get one of the inside.

Interior of an overnight bus in Myanmar

Basically, the busses are big, similar to a tour bus. They have big reclining seats and sometimes come with a blanket and a small bottle of water. Some even have TV’s in the back of the head rests. People say that they are super cold because they have the air conditioning so high, but it wasn’t the case on the bus that we took.

The busses don’t have bathrooms, but they stop several times throughout the night at rest stops where you can use the bathroom or buy food. It’s a bit tough to sleep on the busses because they are quite bumpy and the seats only recline instead of being like a full horizontal sleeper like other countries in Asia.

In terms of the whole “overnight” thing, it sounds simple enough and you catch the bus around 7:30 PM and have an expected arrival around 4:30 AM or something outrageous like that. Easy. This means that you get to skip paying for a night of accommodation and it also lets you not lose an entire day to travelling. The thing that I found about this, however, is that it is very difficult to actually sleep on the bus. The roads were super bumpy, and the bus is always quickly accelerating to pass someone (usually on a narrow, sketchy bit of road) or slamming on the brakes around a corner. There were also a few times that I was woken up by a loud noise or a light in my eye and sometimes I would look out the window and get the feeling that we were going about 200 km/h. It’s just one of those things where you get a weird feeling doing things at night and you may end up sacrificing a bit of your next morning or day due to lack of sleep from the bus journey.

Either way, they’re a cheap and easy way to move long distances across Myanmar as they save you a night’s accommodation and don’t use up an entire day.

 

Mandalay: (October 14 – 16)

Young monk walking among stupas

Mandalay was the last stop on our Myanmar trip and we only gave ourselves a day and a half to see it. For some reason, I was expecting just another version of Yangon, but it was actually completely different and much more pleasant. I felt like there is quite a bit more to do in Mandalay and the city is much smaller and easier to process.


TIP: To give you an idea on taxi prices in Mandalay, it cost us 7,000 kyat from bus station to downtown (about 15 minutes from town). It was then 4000 each for shared taxi to the airport from our hostel (it’s 12,000 kyat total but we were able to share with some other people).


 

Where to Stay in Mandalay:

We stayed at the Four Rivers Hostel (11,000 kyat each) and really enjoyed it. The food was great, there is a good noodle place beside the hostel where we ate for about 2500 kyat, and the rooms and bathrooms are great. The staff wasn’t super friendly but I probably wouldn’t be either dealing with silly tourists every day, but they were helpful enough when you needed it. Also, they have 24 hour reception. Another popular one for a more social atmosphere would be Ostello Bello Mandalay (or Ozzy Bozzy as it’s known in some circles).

This proved to be very helpful after we arrived very late (or early depending on how you look at it) and were able to check it at 4:30AM. They also have to comfiest beds which are all in their own individual cubby holes which proved to be great for power naps.

We used Agoda or Booking.com for all of our hostel and guesthouse bookings throughout Asia as they are easy to use and don’t require you to pay part of the amount up front which makes it a tiny bit easier. You can also check out Hostel World or Airbnb. 

Just a heads up as well, some of the links to accommodation are affiliate links which means that if you use them to book your stay, a small amount goes back to me, although it doesn’t cost you anything extra. So if you end up using them, thanks so much!

How to Get Around Mandalay:

During out time in Mandalay, we used taxis to get to places such as Mandalay Hill, the Three Ancient Villages, and U Bien Bridge. In fact, the taxi driver who drove us from the bus to our accommodation the very first day when we arrived was really friendly and helpful so we wrote down his phone number and he was able to take us everywhere that we needed.

For places that were a bit closer to where we were like markets, we walked.

We did hear of other people renting motorbikes to visit the three villages themselves, but we decided to be cautious and opted to take a taxi. You can also do group tours, but for the small extra cost, we decided to hire our own driver which gave us a lot more freedom.

 

How Long to Spend in Mandalay:

We only spent one full day in Mandalay, and I think that you could easily spend more. Because of this we weren’t able to do everything that we had wanted, and we had to rush a little bit. We did get a lot done, but if you have time to spend 2 or 3 full days in Mandalay, it might be worth it.

 

Where to Eat in Mandalay:

Unfortunately, we didn’t find any really good food recommendations in Mandalay. We ate a few meals at a really cheap noodle place beside our hostel as well as a few places as we were out and about.

So my advice would be to either check the Mandalay trip advisor page or ask your hostel or guesthouse for some recommendations.

 

Things to do in Mandalay:

Check Out the Three Ancient Cities:

There are three different areas, or ancient cities, just outside of Mandalay which make a good day tour.

We looked at the different options of doing a shared tour through our hostel, renting bikes or motorbikes and doing it ourselves, or hiring a private driver to get around to these cities. After a serious bout of indecisiveness we ended up phoning the guy who drove us from the bus station to the hostel (we grabbed his number after he dropped us off) and arranging to go with him. It cost us 30,000 kyat total plus a 1,400 kyat each to get across a ferry. This even included a lunch which ended up being the cheapest way to do the tour and avoided having to try to navigate and find petrol for ourselves and gave us independence from doing a tour.

 

Sagaing

View from the hill of Sagaing overlooking the Irrawaddy river

So, first we headed to Sagaing which lies on the west side of the Irrawaddy river. It’s now an important place for Buddhist study and meditation as there are pagodas and monasteries scattered across the hillside of Sagaing. One of the most significant structures is the Umin Thounzeh which is 45 large Buddha structures places in a crescent shape on the side of the hill.

Crescent of Buddha faces in Sagaing

Our driver took us to the top of the hill where we walked around and explored for a while and took in the good views across the river and of the surrounding area.

Traditional Burmese lunch

We had lunch in Sagaing as well which was included because there was a celebration where a bunch of food was being donated to the monks and our driver invited us to eat with them. We were quite confused by the whole ordeal, but it was great food and a lot of fun to eat more locally like this.

 

Innwa (Ava)

Ferry crossing the river from Innwa Ancient City

Next stop was Innwa which at one point in history was the capital of the Myanmar kingdom. To reach the ancient city you have to take the ferry across a small river for 1400 kyat each. Once on the other side, there are a bunch of horse drawn carts whose owners hassle you to get a ride. The lowest price we heard was 7000 kyat which is quite cheap but we still preferred just walking around for a few hours. There is not much to see here but some remains of the city can still be seen.

Horse tracks and carriages on muddy roads in Innwa

We didn’t pay the archaeological zone fee so we weren’t able to enter some of the sights so we just took them in from outside. These were places like the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery, the Innwa Tower, and the Bagaya Kyaung Monastery.

The Innwa Tower with horse carriage in front

We had about 2 hours to kill exploring the area and wandering around and we weren’t overly excited about Innwa so as we were walking past a few small houses we saw a group of young boys playing volleyball outside. We stopped for a minute and watched them and when they saw us they began calling me over to play. So out Innwa sightseeing was put on hold for some Burmese style volleyball.

Ben playing Burmese volleyball Group photo of Burmese kids playing volleyball

For a quick primer on Burmese volleyball, you play on small dirt court with a low net strung between two sticks. I believe this court is actually for Chinlone which is like volleyball except that you play with a woven ball and only use your feet and head. But anyways, for Burmese volleyball, you actually use a soccer ball instead of a volleyball. As for the same person hitting it more than once, anything goes and a lot of feet and heads are used. There was also some other funny business going on with the rules but it was a lot of fun anyways.

 

Amarapura

Hilary standing on U Bien bridge

Our last stop of the day was the third ancient city of Amarapura. This used to be capital city before one of the kings decided to move the capital to Mandalay. So they dismantled the wooden palace and moved it down the road to Mandalay and only the watchtower and treasury buildings remain.

You can also see the Mahagandayon Monastery which is a popular spot as every morning monks and novices queue up to receive their food in bowls from the dining hall there. We didn’t have a morning free to see this but hopefully you can.

U Bien bridge at sunset

The highlight, however, is the U Bien Bridge which crosses Thaungthaman lake. It’s a teak bridge that is over 1200 metres long and it was built in the 19th century from the wood of dismantled buildings.

 

U Bien Bridge at Sunrise or Sunset:

View of U Bien Bridge and dead tree from water

One of the highlights of Mandalay is U Bien Bridge. It was the last stop of our day from visiting the three ancient cities and we arrived just before sunset. This gave us a bit of time to wander around and walk the length of the bridge.


TIP: The bridge is great at sunset, but I think sunrise might be even better. At sunset it is completely lined with people, but at sunrise there should be far less people. You might have a good chance of getting a photo of a monk walking across the bridge in the morning as well.


 

About halfway along our walk across the bridge a young monk asked if he could walk with us to practice his English which was quite fun.

 Sun setting behind U bien bridge

Once sunset approached, we found a place about halfway along the bridge where some boatmen were parked and we decided to hire one to get out on the water for a better view of the sunset. Unfortunately, this cost a fairly significant 15,000 kyat which was more than we were expecting. The view from the water is definitely better though!

 

Visit the Small Town of Mingun:

Across the river from the main city of Mandalay is a small town called Mingun. We ran out of time to be able to visit it ourselves, but to get there we were told it would be 5,000 Kyat for the boat ride across the river and another 5,000 Kyat for entry into the village. Mingun is famous for the Hsinbyume Pagoda (a giant wavy white one), the Mingun Bell, and giant block looking pagoda that was never completed called the Migun Patho Dawgyi Pagoda.

The boat ride is supposed to take and hour and it leaves from the Mayanchan Jetty every morning.

 

Catch the Sunrise or Sunset from Mandalay Hill:

Sunrise on Mandalay Hill overlooking the city

On our last day in Mandalay, we got up early and took a taxi (cost 15,000 kyat) to the top of Mandalay hill for sunrise. This ended up being a bit of a bust as the view is very nice, but it doesn’t work great for sunrise photos. The view to the west, however, is a bit more unobstructed which might lend itself better to sunset photos.

Sunrise from Mandalay hill

Whether you go to Mandalay Hill for sunrise, sunset, or in the middle of the day, I would make an effort to see it at some point. There are cool temples and pagodas built around the hill and it does offer a great view of the surrounding area.


TIP: I explored the entire area thoroughly, but realized that I had missed a separate pagoda about halfway up the stairs which from the bottom looked like it might have had better views of the city. I’m not really sure, but if you have some extra time you could check it out (probably about a 15 minute walk from the summit) and see if it has any good views.


 

Either way, Mandalay Hill is worth checking out and you can either take a taxi to the top, walk to the top, or taxi up and walk down like we did. If you only have one morning in Mandalay, however, I think that a sunrise at U Bien bridge would be more spectacular.

 

Visit the Pagoda of the World’s Biggest Book and Royal Palace:

Pagoda of the worlds largest book in Mandalay

After Mandalay hill, our taxi driver also quickly dropped us off at the Pagoda of the World’s Largest Book as well as the outside of the Royal Palace. They are just quick stops so you might be able to ask your driver to do the same if you go to Mandalay Hill.

 

Visit the Nay Cho Market:

On the corner of 26th and 84th is a fairly large market called Nay Cho. It’s a fun place to wander around and explore but it wasn’t really a highlight by any means. It’s apparently best to visit early in the morning or at night, but we were there in the middle of the day.

The highlight of our visit to the market is that as we were standing near the entrance to one of the buildings, a man approached us and started chatting to us. It turned out that he had a small shop on one of the upper levels of the market. He was a pharmacist who spent a lot of time in the northern provinces of Myanmar where he lived with tribes of headhunters and supplied them with drugs and medicines. Does that sound suspicious to you too?

Anyways, he brings back tools, carvings, and other cool things from these tribes and sells them in the city. He took us up to his shop and showed us some of these things which were actually really cool.

 

Other Places to Visit in Myanmar:

Just like any trip, we had to pick and choose where we wanted to go based on our limited time. Because of this we had to leave quite a few places off of our list for this trip. If you have more time or want to add a few places to you agenda, however, check out a few of these:

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda: The famous golden rock pagoda is a popular day trip from Yangon.

 

Hpa-An: A small town east of Yangon surrounded by karst mountains and caves.

 

Hsipaw: A mountain town northeast of Mandalay that is popular for trekking. A train journey from Mandalay to Hsipaw takes you across the Gokteik Viaduct.

 

Mruak U: An abandoned city in western Myanmar with hundreds of temples and pagodas that is supposed to be somewhat similar to Bagan.

 

Southern Coast: The southern coast of Myanmar is supposed to contain a lot of beautiful beaches. They may not be as perfect and pristine as Thailand or other part of SE Asia but they would be a lot more unique. You can also do cruises to see this area.

 

Conclusion:

As we were on our way to the airport in Mandalay, I did a bit of reflecting on our trip through Myanmar. I thought of all the people that we had met along the way, like the owner of the restaurant in Bagan who was very excited to see us and ready to chat every time we dropped by his restaurant covered in sweat and dust, or the group of kids that followed us around giggling and taking pictures with us when we visited the temple in Salay, or the man in Mandalay who we talked to for a while who “sold general pharmaceuticals to a tribe of headhunters” in the mountains of Myanmar. There were also a lot of other travellers that we met in Myanmar, specifically on the 3 day trek that we did from Kalaw to Inle Lake, which ended up turning into great friendships. And I think it’s the people of Myanmar and the people that we met along the way the really make it such a special place to visit.


TIP: You should exchange all of your leftover kyat before you leave the country at a money exchange as apparently you’re not able to once you leave the country.


 

Looking back I realized that Myanmar is such a unique and friendly country to visit. During our time there, there was a lot of unrest and the country was all over the news because of it, but we didn’t get any indication of it from within besides the people discussing or telling us about it. This is likely because travel is very controlled and tourists are only able to visit certain areas without additional permits which means that people generally travel around the same circuit within the country, but maybe in different directions or different orders.

If I had to list out my overwhelming conclusions from the trip (and I do love a good list so I don’t mind if I do), they would have to be these:

  1. The people in Myanmar are incredibly welcoming and friendly and everywhere you go, you’re greeted with “hello’s” or “mingalaba’s” which are most often accompanied by a big smile and a wave.
  2. The lack of western tourists gives the country an untouched feeling and everything feels like you’re seeing the country as it has been for many years. In the popular spots, you can be completely overwhelmed with tour busses of Chinese tourists, but it’s never hard to get away from them.
  3. Myanmar is a little bit more expensive than other countries in South East Asia, but is still relatively cheap to travel to.
  4. The country is very easy to get around and between all of the major spots (Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan, Kalaw, Mandalay and so on) you can find busses, trains, or planes.
  5. The food in Myanmar is really good. Even if you get tired of the traditional Myanmar food, you are never far from good Thai, Indian, Malaysian, or Phillipino food. The only exception, really, would probably be the western food such as Italian which usually isn’t very good.

 

In terms of taking photos in Myanmar, I found that I often struggled a bit. I had a lot of grand ideas in my head about the photo opportunities in Myanmar, such as the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the temples in Bagan, the fishermen of Inle Lake, or the sunset photos of U Bien Bridge in Mandalay. For some reason, however, none of the places ended up working out quite like I had imagined, and even though I’m happy with a lot of the photos that I did end up taking, they were either more challenging than I had expected, or just didn’t work out altogether. I think that this is just part of the country (and just travel in general) and instead of trying to be in full control of things all of the time and fretting over making all of the details line up, sometimes it’s just best to let things happen as they happen and make the best of it.

Myanmar is changing fast and it’s a really fun, friendly, and easy country to travel to so there is no better time to go than now. Even though there is only a limited area open to tourists, there is so much to see and do and some really incredible places that are completely unique. So if good food, friendly people, incredible landscapes, an off-the-beaten-path feel, and awesome photo opportunities sound good to you, then put Myanmar on your list of places to see.

With that, our next stop in our trip took us to Northern Thailand.


What is this site about?

This site is my place to share everything that I know about photography and travel. I'm not an expert, I'm just a guy who loves this stuff and I want to share everything that I learn, as I learn it, with complete honesty and transparency. So, whether you're looking to improve your photography or you want to learn more about travelling to a new place, I want to help you on your journey. Check out my about page to find out more and get in contact with me. I'd love to hear from you!