Myanmar, a land full of traditions that will leave you an indelible memory
Myanmar: abandon civilization and immerse yourself in a fascinating land between temples, caves and rice fields. Climb a temple, and admire incredible sunset and sunrise, a panorama you’ll never forget.
Let's start with an assumption: Myanmar, or Burma, is a country more difficult to visit than others. The double name of the state itself creates confusion. The mess does not end here: always remember that most cities have more than one name because the transliteration - evidently incorrect - has been done several times. Before leaving we require a visa in Italy on the website https://www.evisa-myanmar.com
We arrive in Myanmar by bus directly from Bangkok. I would strongly suggest you not to cross the Burmese border by land. It's much simpler by plane (there are low-cost airlines that offer Bangkok-Yangon daily connections for less than € 50), now I'll explain why ...
Booking the bus in 2016 was not easy because we had to go to an agency office in the middle of nowhere in Bangkok, but now it look like the tickets are sold online.
Bangkok's bus station, Mo Chi, is very difficult to find. The metro station Mo Chi is not the bus station (same name but different location). From there you will have to take an additional bus that will finally take you to the bus station. During the night trip you will have no way to sleep: the border police stopped us six times to check the documents as we were approaching the border. The bus stops at Mae Sot at four in the morning. From there a collective taxi takes us to the bridge that connects the two country. The bridge gates open at five in the morning, we get our passport stamped by the Thai clerk, we walk across the bridge of friendship, we arrive on the other side in Birmania, at Myawaddy. They take us to an office and the Burmese police verify our visas. At this point the agency had explained us that a certain Mike would come to pick us up. I could never tell if it was really Mike, the fact is that a guy loads us on a private car and we arrive in Hpa-An around 11 am. A mind breaking journey that I do not recommend unless you are in the mood for adventure.
Day 1: Hpa-an remains one of my favorite locations. We arrive at the Galaxy Hotel and the receptionist gives us a map with the local attractions. Rent a scooter on the street or directly at the hotel and go exploring the temples: Kaw Ka Thawng in the countryside, Kyauk Kalap on a peak overlooking the rice fields ... or my favorite, the Saddan Cave: enter this cave and cross it till the other side…find yourself on a lake surrounded by rice fields. Take a boat to go back and you won't regret it, the scenery is spectacular and if the weather allows it you will cross another cave whose ceiling is flush on your head!
Day 2: The next day we take another bus to Mawlamyine or Moulmein. Try to book the transport directly at the hotel: they are honest (in Myanmar they will always try to get rid of you both on the prices and on the routes), and take you exactly to the departure of the bus (there are no real stations or stops, they are at the discretion of the passengers but if you don't know what your coach is, everything becomes even more difficult).
We lay our luggage at the Breeze guesthouse and go out to discover the city that inspired Kipling in "the road to Mandalay". Follow the arcade that from Kyaik Than Lan Phayar St. will lead you to the Paya overlooking the city: enjoy the view from here to the sea. We return to the city, the sultry heat and the tiredness push us to opt for a taxi ride in the surroundings of Mawlamyine. We visit the Win Sein Taw Ya temple with the biggest lying buddha you will see in your life ... it occupies an entire hill horizontally! Then climb up to reach the Kyauktalon Taung temple on the top of a rocky spur (20 minutes uphill steps) and finally, next to it, a temple inhabited by monkeys.
Day 3: We take the bus to Mount Kyaiktiyo, an important Buddhist pilgrimage destination. From the bus station at Kinpun, which is located at the foot of the mountain, you need to take collective pick up that climb up a long and steep ramp. The sacredness of this place is due to this un-balanced rock which it is not clear how it could stay up... according to the legend this is possible thanks to the presence of a Buddha hair placed inside the stupa. This is enough to explain the hundreds of religious who especially at dawn and dusk meet here to pray and sing. The atmosphere is magical and it is worth stopping for a night to admire the scenery. The hotels are the most expensive of all Myanmar (pilgrims are welcomed in the temples and foreigners - rightly - they have to pay), about 100 € for a night, and don't expect luxury for this.
Day 4: The next day we return to Kinpun and take the bus to Yangon, whose bus station is outside the city. Take a taxi to the center. We leave our luggage at the Pleasure View Hotel. Now at sunset, we visit the Shwedagon Paya, the main temple of the capital (which we later discovered was not capital). The complex is really immense and it is worthwhile to hire a guide to understand the various spaces, or download a written guide before leaving.
Day 5: The next day we visit the surroundings. People's Park, the Kandawgyi lake and the Yangon Zoological Garden (animals are not always well kept, I do not recommend it).
In the late evening we take the bus to Nyaung Shwe, or to Inle Lake, or Inlay, we travel at night.
Day 6: As usual the bus leaves us in the middle of nowhere, we take a collective taxi that takes us to the respective hotels. We stay at the Album Hotel and decide to book the boat tour on the lake immediately. This excursion will take you around the villages and temples overlooking the lake: the temple on stilts of Nga Hpa Kyaung called Jumping Cat because the cats trained by the monks do acrobatics (not while we were there); the Phaung Daw Oo Paya with hundreds of golden pinnacles; handmade cigarette shops in the Nampan village and finally the weaving workshop in Phaw Khone.
Day 7: We book the Burmese cooking lesson at the Bamboo Delight Cooking School, an experience that I recommend to everyone. From the meeting point you go to buy the ingredients at the local market. You’ll need a strong stomach to help you eat the foods you will buy. Don't get me wrong ... the food is good and well cooked but the hygienic standards at the market may leave you hesitant when tasting. However the experience is really significant: an amount of the lesson is donated to charity to buy books for school, the couple that manages the activity is Burmese and will explain curiosity about the Burmese cuisine and culture. In the afternoon we relax in the thermal baths of the area (half an hour by bicycle).
Day 8 and 9: walking in the sultry heat of Burma may seem a masochistic idea, and I believe that, if I had known where to go, I would have run away after the first half hour of trekking. To our great fortune our guide, a 16-year-old Burmese boy already married with his son, spoke excellent English. We went on a trek that took us, in two days and one night, to walk on the heights of the lake. Where did we sleep? In a Buddhist shrine dispersed in the mountains. In the evening we also had the chance to chat with a monk about Western and Eastern culture, religion and lifestyle. Really fascinating ... and you wonder what the favorite sport of Buddhist monks is ... it's football! Even in a field a little uphill and a little downhill!
I have to thank our guide very much: he explained many peculiarities of Burmese religion and culture, and he cooked us delicious meals. If you feel like experiencing something special, contact him on Facebook: Khun Tee Maung! Many people opt for trekking up to Kalaw, but we haven't heard about it well: two / three nights with a silent guide, in the torrential rain. If trekking is not your favourite passion two days are enough.
Returning from the trek we were full of mud up to our knees. Fortunately, our hotel, the Album, left us a room to wash. In the evening we take the bus to Bagan, we travel at night.
Day 10: we arrive in the middle of nowhere as usual and take a collective taxi to the center. At the entrance of the city they charge us a tourist tax of € 20 per person. We arrive at the Shwe Nadi Guesthouse (in Nyaung U, the most lively town 3 km from the temples of Bagan) at 4 am. Obviously there was not a room available (the night was booked for the same evening but with check in from 2 pm) so we opt for a ride on a scooter in search of the dawn. We are tired but it is really worth it! Climb up the steps of a temple, sit back, relax and enjoy a breathtaking view: there will be many tourists but the silence is palpable ... the spectacle of the temples wrapped in the morning mist, the dawn of a timid sun, the balloons that rise quiet ... wow!
Everyone in Bagan moves with electric scooters: they are practical and are also the only mean of getting around. Bagan is indeed a sacred site, respect it and enjoy it. We rest in the hotel during the hottest hours to be able to hunt for the sunset. I cannot tell you which and how many temples we visited in Bagan: there are so many that you will be spoiled for choice. Get a map at the hotel and lose yourself exploring!
Day 11: We book a guided tour (which was not guided, but a simple transfer with stops) to Mount Popa: a volcanic formation owith a temple on the top. Charming and panoramic but unfortunately I only remember the monkey mother who tried to seize me an ankle because I tried to feed her puppy (my fault)! Seriously, the trip is worth it if you take a guide to explain what you are seeing. On the way back stop in a burmese ‘wine’ store.
Day 12: The Lonely Planet described the Irrawaddy River cruise, from Bagan to Mandalay, as a must-see, authentic. It was described as a real encounter with the population, and their chickens and goats ... so it was a shame that the manual was not updated and that had already set up exclusive cruises for foreigners. Result: wake up at 4 am and departure on this foreigners only ship towards Mandalay. The arrival is at 5 pm ... I let you imagine how fun it was to spend all these hours in scorching heat, zero activity, no view ... except for the dawn on the Irrawaddy, I do not recommend the experience.
Day 13. We reach Mandalay Hill by bicycle, leave it at the entrance and walk up the staircase that leads to the top of the hill. We go back down and visit the royal palace. Then we head towards the Kuthodaw Paya which contains the largest book in the world: 729 marble slabs enclosing the Buddhist scriptures.
With a taxi we visit the other temples of the city: Shwenandaw Kyung in wood, Setkyathita Paya with another stupa in precarious balance as in Kyaiktiyo, and at the end of the day the U-bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. The lake view at sunset is very impressive.
Day 14. We will also discover the ancient capitals of Burma by taxi: Inwa or Ava, Sagaing and Mingun. The taxi driver will drop you off and see dozens of temples (maybe even too many). The only moment of the day that I fully appreciated was the visit of Ava: you cross the river by boat and on the other dozens of buggies are waiting for you. Take one and discover the ancient ruins of this ancient capital.
Day 14: from Mandalay airport we return to Bangkok.
Myanmar remains an indelible memory of my travels. There are beautiful places but unfortunately many times they are difficult to reach: you won't sleep (the streets are hell) and you arrive destination exhausted. You never understand how long the journey is, no driver understands English so anything you ask him will answer yes.
It is a land full of contradictions: they voted for a woman President but women can not access the praying zone. The woman president Aung San Suu Kiy won the Nobel Peace Prize but allowed the genocide of the Rohingya ethnic group.
In the temples you have to take off your shoes but then you find yourself having to avoid the spits of bethel (chewed tobacco): so respect imposes bare feet but can you spit inside the shrine?
For those who do not like to eat spicy, it’ll be a long journey ... even if you ask for 'no chilly' your mouth will burn out. In Myanmar the big international brands haven't arrived: you don’t find any fast food! So arm yourself with bananas, at least you’ll be sure it is not chilly!
And now, have a good trip !!
Did you like the article? Are you curious to discover other trips? Follow my blog about mountain lifestyle and much more!
See more special content in my Instagram highlights: