Myanmar: What to do in Bagan and Yangon

Hello all!

I’m writing from the plane en route to Singapore from Yangon, Myanmar, where I’ve just spent 4 days. The first period of the MBA is already over, and we had a few days off before period 2 starts. When I came to Singapore, I didn’t know too much about travel within Asia, apart from the more popular destinations like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Naturally, as soon as I arrived, I started asking people who’ve lived in Singapore for a while about where to visit. Almost everyone said Myanmar. I had heard nothing about this country, (previously known as Burma), before, but once I saw this picture I was sold.

I haven’t been on a holiday in my personal capacity (i.e not a press trip), in quite a while, so it was kind of liberating to pick exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to stay, without having to think about it in the context of a story. That said, budget constraints were challenging, especially as a student.

I thought the non-press trip nature of this holiday would be a good opportunity to travel in a group, so I posted about the trip on our INSEAD Facebook page and before I knew it, I was organizing a holiday for 28 people. Wow. I did not expect that challenge, but as admin intensive as it was, I loved planning it. The group was really chilled and easy going, and no one really gave me a hard time. I also got to know some of my classmates a bit better, and was really touched at what warm, loving, open- hearted people they are. I feel super privileged to be in the company of these people that I can learn so much from everyday. If you think I’m well travelled, you should meet some of these people. I’m probably the only person who has lived in one country all my life. These people are completely used to packing up their lives and moving across the world, multiple times. They’re brave and successful and inspiring. They’ve gathered enlightening memories and experiences along the way, and as I’ve said before, I love talking to them about their adventures, which I got to do a lot more on this trip.

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Anyway, enough about INSEAD and how great it is. Onto Burma.

Until very recently (about 5 years ago), foreigners weren’t allowed into Burma (now known as Myanmar) at all, so it’s only just opened up to tourism, meaning that hotels and restaurants are still very cheap, and even though it is spectacular, it’s not overcrowded by tourists just yet.

We started in Yangon, which reminds me a lot of India. Wires are strung across streets, traffic is scary, and the kindness in people’s eyes penetrates through to my heart. We did quite a bit of touristy stuff on day one, including visiting Shwedagon Pagoda, The pagoda is massive, and very impressive, especially at sunset.

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The next day, we went to Bagan, which is really the highlight of Myanmar. It’s about an hour’s flight from Yangon, or an overnight train ride away (which I wouldn’t recommend, a few people did it and got more than they bargained for- the journey ended up taking 20+ hours and the conditions were awful.)

What to do in Bagan:

Bagan is amazing. I’ve done a ton of temples and monuments and historical sites but this was something else. The only thing that blew me away as much was probably the Taj Mahal. Imagine 4000 ancient pagodas (like a temple but instead of being a place of worship with a hall, it’s more a memorial structure which is believed to contain relics) – I’m slightly ignorant so I’ll use the terms interchangeably here. These are concentrated in a space of only 14 square kms. We climbed to the top of some, with staircases so narrow my shoulders scraped against the side walls, and had panoramic views of thousands of these pagodas. It isn’t as well known as other sites of this scale and impressiveness, so most areas aren’t littered with tour buses and groups of people.

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I’m not a religious or even spiritual person, but something changed, something felt different in me after walking around these isolated pagodas. It felt peaceful, calm, uplifting. I was in awe of the grandeur of some of them, which are all dedicated to Buddha and his teachings.

The next day, we had some free time to explore the site by bike or horsecart. I went for the latter, and we journeyed through the rural villages, and explored a few pagodas at our leisure. Again, it was just incredible. I guess it just puts things in perspective when you see people who have so little, but are still so happy.

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Of course, being a group of almost 30, in between the exploring we had tons of laughs, great Burmese food and cheap wine, and a few fun activities like a sunset boat cruise. A few people in the group even went on a hot air balloon ride at sunset, but sadly our budget didn’t allow for that, so we watched the balloon riders from the top of a temple nearby.

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Good accommodation in Bagan:

We stayed at Hotel Areindmar, which I managed to pick up for SGD120 (1 SGD = 8.5 ZAR) a night on Agoda, and it was a great option. Rooms are clean and spacious and the hotel has a resort feel with a nice pool area.

Best restaurants in Bagan:

For food, I chose our restaurants based on Trip Advisor reviews and travel blogs. The thing with being a large group is that we didn’t have much room for flexibility, so we had all our restaurant reservations made in advance. We almost always ended up spending ages waiting for everyone’s food to arrive, and even longer attempting to split the bill. The good company meant that no one was too annoyed, but it is something to note when travelling to Myanmar in big groups: the restaurants simply aren’t equipped for tourists yet. For example, the bill is manually added up and tallied with paper, a pen and a calculator.

My recommendation of restaurants to visit is as follows. There are no websites, so just ask your travel guide upon arrival.

–       Weatherspoons for fabulous burgers (opposite Pann Cherry Guesthouse)

–       La Terrasse for authentic Italian food with a rooftop vibe (watch out for bugs though)

–       Star Beam for good curries, although after peaking into the kitchen I was a tad put off- it was really dark and looked slightly messy

–       Nooch for AMAZING fried rice with chicken and large portions.

Prices are relatively low at all these places, and you can pay with USD everywhere, although local currency (kyat) is accepted too.

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Early the next morning, we travelled back to Yangon, and half of us flew out while the rest of us did some more touring. We went to a few more pagodas and went to see the “white elephants,” which was really sad. At the pagodas, 40+ birds are kept in tiny cages, and locals charge 500 kyat (about USD0.50) to release a bird. We released 2, but then realized we were only perpetuating the situation. At this point I think most of us were “pagoda’d out” so we were in and out quickly. One thing to note: you have to go into all the pagodas barefoot, no socks either, so carry a big pack of wet wipes with you. It’s a little gross.

I saw “white elephants” on my itinerary and thought we were going to see a statue or something- I was horrified to see 3 albino elephants chained to the ground on a very short lead. They looked extremely distressed and had no food or water nearby. I noticed their other legs (that weren’t chained) were bruised and raw, most likely from being chained previously. Very heartbreaking and I’m planning to email to Myanmar Tourism Authority. They’re said to be a symbol of peace and prosperity but surely the conditions can be improved?

What to do in Yangon:

Apart from visiting the main pagoda, which a must, the thing that is striking about Yangon is the British colonial architecture. Today, the buildings are run down and dilapidated, which kind of makes them even cooler to look at. The best area to explore is around Sule Pagoda- just get dropped off there by taxi and walk around- there is street food, a market of starts and of course, the beautiful architecture.

I was researching what to do in the city early that afternoon, and I came across “Free Yangon Tours,” which happened to be starting at 4pm that day. We joined them, and the tour was great, despite being too big (try crossing a street in Yangon with 40 people- terrifying!) We learnt about the history of Yangon, as well as what the old buildings were used for previously. After a while, the hunger pangs hit, and this brings to me to my next recommendation:

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Where to eat in Yangon:

My research into good restaurants didn’t get me very far. On our first night, we lunched at Padonmar and had dinner at Sky Bistro, but both places were quite touristy and more expensive than food in Bagan, despite not being as good. I also came across popular tourist spots (read traps), Kandawgyi Palace and Le Planteur, but dismissed both.

Finally, after asking the walking tour guide for a recommendation, we ended up at The Union Bar, which was fantastic. We were a bit tired of Asian food and wanted something western, and this restaurant completely hit the spot. Think pizzas, burgers, grills and sandwiches- all excellent. We happened to get there midway during happy hour and could not believe the $3 cocktails and wine, so obviously we all ordered 4 drinks each right away. It was a great way to end off the trip.

I generally enjoyed the food in Myanmar far more than in Singapore- maybe that’s because each restaurant was well researched, but I think generally the food is good.

Where to stay in Yangon:

Because I was booking accommodation for a group of 30 with varying budgets and preferences, I looked hard for a well located hotel that was reasonably priced but a step above a hostel. I found Hotel Esta, which we picked up for USD85 a room. It’s a no frills hotel, but is clean and modern with everything you need- free wifi, breakfast included- there were even slippers in the room. Considering a shared hostel room with 4 beds costs USD22, I think USD42 per person for a room at Esta was a pretty sweet deal. Don’t expect great concierge recommendations, the staff can’t speak English very well.

Do you need a travel agent in Myanmar?

You guys know, it’s generally my preference NOT to use agents. I find them expensive and prefer booking stuff on my own. However, with a group of 30 we couldn’t afford to look for taxis etc and needed a prebooked bus.

You can probably get around in Yangon without a guide (actually you should- we overpaid grossly for our airport transfers booked through the agent), but in Bagan I would definitely recommended a guided tour or at least a horsecart- the drivers know which pagodas to go to.

With domestic flights, the airline websites aren’t very good- some don’t even have an online booking option and they don’t reply to emails. Also, schedules change frequently, so you may want to use an agent to book those for you.

I asked around quite a bit, and in the process of receiving quotes, Asia Pearl Travels was the cheapest. I was worried about them being dodgy because the agent I was dealing with had a gmail account and all his emails to me were in lower case, not very professional, but I cannot recommend them enough.

Our Yangon tour guide wasn’t very good, but in Bagan the entire 2 days was organized impeccably. Our bus was always on time, our guide stayed with us throughout, even at meals and to and from the airport. Being the organizer, they made it really relaxed for me. The tour was also flexible, we could change times at the spur of the moment, and it was great having someone with us throughout to answer questions.

I do think it is the guide and not the agency so much that made this part of the trip fantastic, because he was very precise about times and clear about meeting points, etc. He was also passionate about Buddhism and shared a lot of his personal insights with us. He freelances for the travel agency I booked through, so if you use them, make sure to ask for Aung Myo Than in Bagan. He managed to cater to our specific requests and took us to some hidden places that weren’t touristy, like Ananta, a beautiful temple, at night when no one else was there, and, at our request, even managed to find a temple from which we could watch both the sunrise and the hot air balloons simultaneously.

To give you an idea, the entire 4 day trip including tours, transfers, a boat trip, electric bicycles/ horsecarts and a bus at our disposal throughout cost about USD50 per person for our group. A bargain.

I’m writing this post in quite a lot of detail because there’s not a lot of travel info out there about Myanmar and I want to equip you with what you need to visit because you absolutely must go. It’s an easy stopover if you want to do Thailand or India, and it’s spectacular. If we had time, we would have added in a day in Mandalay but we didn’t- I hear that’s great too.

So that’s it from me- as always, let me know if you have any particular questions, as always, I’m happy to help! Xxxx H

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