Myanmar through my eyes

I have just returned from an amazing trip to Myanmar/Burma with several friends. This is a country that is ready to explode with tourists. They have doubled their American tourists in the past 2 years and you could see in each city changes that are occurring. Before I begin to talk about the country and its people a few house keeping notes.

First we organized our own tour with the help of Country Holidays, a travel company out of Singapore,— http://www.countryholidays.com.sg. This is the 2nd time we have engaged Country Holiday to assist in Asian travels and I must tell everyone, they once again organized an over the top trip.  Our direct contact is Sheena Seah, her email is sheena@countryholidays.com.sg. I can not say enough great things about Sheena, every detail was addressed and since we were conducting business over the internet that is saying a lot.

We departed from Singapore for Yangon for our first night. We were met by our guide and ventured out to the Gem Museum to see all the fine stones that are found in the mines of Myanmar, sapphires in every shade of blue. There were also rubies and many different sizes and types of pearls.

A couple of the ladies did buy pearl earrings and one purchased a beautiful ring. The prices were very good and everyone loved the opportunity to negotiate for the best price available. (Dr. Khin at May Mon Jewels was a great help, be sure to stop by her booth.) We felt that by shopping for high quality stones in this museum we were guaranteed to be buying good quality and that the stones/pearls would not be fakes.

We continued on a quick over view tour of the city and headed to lunch at Monsoon Restaurant for our first real Myanmar food.  The dishes we enjoyed were a mix of Indian and Chinese flavors. It is the way that the ingredients are combined that makes the cuisine different. You will find a mild version of curries using fish, pork and beef. The vegetables are clean and crisp, much like Chinese stir fry or wrapped in banana leaves then steamed or grilled. Many dishes come with a version of the noodles of China and rice or chickpeas. You will love the use of palm sugar, coconut milk and sour tamarind in main dishes as well as their many sweet deserts.

On the way to our hotel, The Governors Residence, we stopped for a tour of the old grand hotel of the city, The Strand Hotel. It was lovely and I am sure it was the best in its day. However, I vote for our hotel with a beautiful pool and large cool rooms in a garden setting, including an open air bar and restaurant for dining or just enjoying that before dinner drink.

We dropped our things off at the hotel and had a rest before heading out to the most unbelievable spiritual Shwedagon Pagoda. It is hard to describe the energy you felt as you walk through this massive structure. There were hundreds of families sharing moments in their own special way, some in celebration of young men going to expereince monk hood, others celebrating a passing life. You will need to remove your shoes at every pagoda so having bare feet is something you will get use to as you venture through this country. After we watched the sunset from the high walls of the pagoda we ventured back to the hotel where we ate dinner and got to bed early. Most of the flights in Myanmar will depart early.

We boarded our 6 am flight to Mandalay after only one day in Yangon. Arriving in Mandalay we were met by our new guide and headed out to see a few of the temples along the way. We stopped in Palelk to visit the snake temple. Yes, there are real snakes wrapped around the Buddha’s neck and arm. They seem to be very happy protecting the place, and were well taken care of. There are over 300 lesser know temples some of them now grown over by trees and vegetation. We wandered through the area and visited a fabric weaving project and wonderful small village along the river.
We stayed at The Sedona Hotel, a large modern structure across from the Royal palace, surrounded by a mote the walls are almost 2km long. with 12 entrances. We dropped our luggage and went to lunch behind the hotel at a restaurant called “Unique”, good local food, the menu offered Thai and Chinese as well as a few of Burma’s curry dishes. Then out to Kuthodaw Pagoda which is surrounded by over 729 individual pagodas. Each of the smaller structures house 1 stone tablets upon which over 2,400 monks carved the entire Tipitaka, reproduced page for page.
We then went to watch the process of making gold leaf, a worker begins with a small 2.5 cm x 1 cm gold leaf and after pounding with a wooden mallet for about 6 1/2 hours with several rests and resizing the end result is a piece that is cut into a packet of 10 ultra thin 2.5 sq.cm of gold.  We then visited a couple of local work shops, wood carvers making masks and puppets. We did buy a couple of fun puppets and a few antique lacquer pieces, be sure to negotiate for price!!!

Our guide No Nyan Lwin: nyanmyohtel@gmail.com, was so patient as we shopped in the markets and asked many questions about how these temples and structures were built. We did a quick stop at one of the holiest pagodas of the area, Mohamuni Pagoda, before heading out to watch the sunset as we walked across the U Being Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. What a way to finish the day.
We had a simple dinner in the hotel and went to bed early since we had to get up early for a short cruise on the Ayeyarwady River. We boarded our wooden boat for a cruise to visit Mingus. When we pulled into where the boat would be held while we walked through the area we were met by carts drawn by cows/bulls, their taxi service.
There are ladies and kids running after you trying to sell you beads, cotton pants and hats. If you do decide to buy something, remember the price they ask is about double what you are going to end up paying, enjoy the art of bargaining! As you walk through the ruins in this area you will realize that the king of this time, 1790, wanted to have everything be created to be the biggest. You will see the world’s largest working bell. Then walk a short distance to see Bodawpaya’s pagoda, at first it appears to be a huge pile of bricks, 330 ft. tall., There is a story that the tooth of the Buddha was a gift to the king and he had this pagoda built to house it. It was really never finished and then an earthquake struck and caused a lot of damage. Close to the other memorable sights sits the Hsinbyume Pagoda, worth the climb up the flight of white stairs. We jumped on one of the cow drawn carts and headed back to the boat for lunch of stir friend pea pods, carrots and chicken curry with a lovely dish of rice. While we were sharing lunch and watching the busy work along the river banks pass we enjoyed the leisure two hour cruise to AVA.
When we arrived on the river banks of AVA we boarded horse drawn carts to travel on the dirt roads through the country side and visit many ancient temples that must have been majestic building during the 400 years that Ava was the capital. After about an hour we were back at the river banks to transfer across to the landing where our  driver pick us up and on the way back to the hotel we had a stop at “The Phaung Daw Oo School and Orphanage—www.phaungdawoo.org—. This was a very special moment in our day. The school houses kids that attend school during the year and then stay during the vacation since many of their families live to far away. Plus they have an orphanage for children that have no family. We gave them things for the school and visited with the staff. Before we left we pooled a small amount of cash as a donation. If you are in the area try to stop for a visit.
Up early for a flight to Bagan, we were the only 4 people on the flight with a whole crew, a true private flight better than net jet. It was very hot upon our arrival, about 100, so be prepared. After a short drive and visit to two beautiful temples, Ananda and Gubyaukgyi known for  its famous frescoes.  While driving along the back roads you will see temples, stupa and pagodas in every direction.  All of the sudden, we arrived under a huge tree and were treated to a fun picnic of local food. They had set up rugs on the sand, a huge red umbrella protecting us from the sun, and a picnic basket full of  simple pork curry, fresh veggies with noodles a chilled bean salad topped with local crushed peanuts. Plenty to drink and nice china plates, chopsticks  along with cookies and candy to finish our surprise lunch. Our guide and driver came back in about an hour and picked us up with a big smile on their faces.

Then off to our hotel, ” Aubeum Palace, Jasmine Villa” for a dip in the infinity pool and a rest before an early evening tour through the many ruins in horse drawn carts. We ended by climbing the Pyathagyi Pagoda to watch the sunset then back to the hotel. There were two restaurants at the hotel so we just rested and enjoyed local fare at the hotel.  (PS. there is a cash machine in the lobby and good WIFI connection in the lobby, since you will need small local money for tips and to buy any small souvenirs)
Up early, 6am, for a magical hot air balloon ride over old Bagan and back at the hotel by 8:30 for breakfast. (Be sure to go on the hot air balloons it was wonderful)!!!
We ventured out to visit the local markets in Pakokku, it was about an hour away but great people watching and huge array of food and products all being sold to locals. We were the only Americans that we saw. On the way back we stopped for lunch at a place called “Queen”, it was along the highway but a great find. The entire lunch was about $15 for the 4 of us including fruit drinks. Be sure to allow yourself time to rest during the heat of the day. Then at sunset we went on a river cruise along the Ayeyarwady River, enjoyed all the river traffic and watched the sunset with a backdrop of many stupa’s and pagodas.
Next day we flew to Inle Lake and the cool air of a region, about 3000 feet above sea level. We arrived at Heho airport and our driver and guide pick us up and we headed out to a huge local market in the town of Nyaung Shwe. It is called the 5 day market because it rotates cities and only is back in this village in 5 days, so the selection of food to buy and fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and home products was over whelming. When we left we made a stop at the Yan Pyay monastery, where the young monks were having lunch and we watched them looking at their cell phones and chatting. It was a wonderful stop and the small temple next door had many little shrines dedicated to visitors from around the world.
Off to lunch at a local restaurant called “Viewpoint Lodge” located along one of the many canals. The lunch was one of the most interesting selections of local fare, served on small plates. We shared small servings of fish wrapped in banana leaf, taro chips with a dip of chick peas. Fried prawns like tempura, served with Burmese Balchaung, a combination of fried garlic and onions, dried pounded prawns, vinegar and chili powder. Sour, hot, salty and crisp. The Viewpoint lodge also had rooms to rent and the location next to the new bridge being built was fun people watching.
After lunch we boarded long boats for our 45 minute ride to our hotel “Villa Inle Resort”, our bags had gone ahead and were waiting for us upon our arrival. The lake is about 60 square mile lake. The trip was a wonderful snarl of weeds, fishermen rowing their wooden boats with one leg wrapped around the paddle. Our hotel was located on the banks of the lake about 36 individual cabins with every detail taken care of. We all headed to the spa, I enjoyed a great 90 minute massage for $50.00 and went back the next day for another, we had a massage that combined the Thai and reflexology, it was a perfect choice after so many days of traveling.
We had dinner at the hotel dining room since there is no place to go, they had a nice menu of Thai and Burmese cuisine and a simple wine list, but good values.
The next morning we were picked up early, stepped into our wooden boat and headed to tour the floating gardens. These gardens, called Kyunpaw are cultivated from boats, usually by the women. We saw rows of tomatoes, beans and cucumbers, but they grow crops year round rotating flowers and vegetables. These gardens are another good source of income for the Intha people. The men are fishermen rowing their slender boats through the water with one leg wrapped around the ore their eyes looking for any movement so they can drop their nets.
When we left the floating gardens we headed out across the lake to visit Phaungdaw U Pagoda and our boat driver worked our little boat through narrow channels. We passed several other hotels along the lake, Paradise Resort was over the water and we also saw a lovely resort, Ana Heritage. Both were more centrally located but we liked our place on solid ground.
It was time for lunch and our guide had reserved at “Inthar Heritage House” we had a great lunch and spent time enjoying the beautiful Burmese cats that are being breed here. This area is home to the Pa O Village people, they are very proud weavers, and have a big factory making cheroot cigars.
The last morning we were picked up early by our boat and guide, we headed back across the lake, about 45 minute ride, to the boat launch to meet our car then off to catch the airport. We flew to Yangon to connect to our flight back to Singapore. Since we and several hours in Yangon we had a driver take us to lunch at Padonmar Restaurant for our last feast on local food.
Back at the airport waited for our departure to Singapore, loaded with all our treasures and memories.

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