Travel

Myanmar is The Most Underrated Southeast Asian Country

Sunrise in Bagan Ancient City

Never in my life would I have ever thought that Myanmar would be one of the safest countries I would have visit in Southeast Asia. Other than the usual pick-up truck and tuk-tuk scammers, locals are honest, friendly, kind, and respectful.

Myanmar (Burma) slowly opened its doors to tourism in 1992. However, the number of visitors is relatively low even compared to her small neighbouring country, Laos. That makes Myanmar the least discovered ASEAN country, unlike Thailand, Vietnam or Malaysia.

I was in Myanmar from 19th December 2016- 5th January 2017 which was the peak season for tourism. Despite being the peak season, travelling in Myanmar was a shockingly pleasant experience because of few tourists. This was due to reports by the media on the Rohingya crisis. I will not be discussing the ongoing crisis in this article. However, I would like to state that my heart is with those who are in need.

To read more on responsible travelling, and my view on travelling in Myanmar despite the ethnic cleansing, kindly click onto this link.


myanmar, mandalay, yangon

E-visa application

First of all, I strongly believe that the reason that Myanmar is underrated is not only because of media reports on their ongoing Rohingya crisis. The main reason would be due to the expensive visa. Regardless of the country you are from, you are required to pay 50 USD per visa for tourists and 70 USD for business purposes. More information on the visa can be found on their government’s e-visa site 

It takes 3–5 working days to receive the application confirmation through email. You will need to print the physical confirmation letter, proceed with on arrival visa application once you land in Myanmar. It was pretty much hassle-free compared to my visa application to Beijing.


So, what was the plan?

Mandalay was the first stop. Why not Yangon?

Simple. Flights were cheaper to Mandalay from Kuala Lumpur and to return from Yangon. It would cost an additional 100 USD from Yangon to Mandalay. It also felt more natural to go to Mandalay to central Yangon. On a side note, there are still parts of Myanmar that are restricted, such as the state of Kachin.

I stayed in an Italian chain hostel named Ostello Bello in Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Bagan. This hostel chain offered me with the best hostel experience in Asia. It might be slightly pricier than the average hostel, but it is worth it.

A HUGE REMINDER: Make sure you bring enough cash either in USD, Kyat or EURO. The exchange counters there do not accept any currencies other than USD or EURO. There are ATMs everywhere but only certain ATMs allow overseas card withdrawals. As usual, it is cheaper to pay in local currency than in USD. I spent a total of 1,200 USD for my 3-week trip, but I would still advise visitors to bring extra cash. Do NOT fold your USD notes or they will be rejected! Everyone in Myanmar only accepts clean and crisp USD for exchange or payment.


What is in Mandalay?

Mandalay is the second most modern city after Yangon in Myanmar, excluding the new capital Napithaw. On the side note, there is nothing much in Napithaw other than government buildings. The people of Myanmar (also known as Myanma) refused to move from Yangon to Napithaw despite overcrowding issues and traffic congestions.

View of Mandalay Hill from the top. Image credits to Stein Ola Driveklepp.

Mandalay Hill, Kuthodaw Pagoda, and the temples by the foothill

If you are planning to visit Mandalay Hill, please be careful with pick up scammers. My best friend and I rode in a truck after having a broken English negotiation with the driver. He agreed to bring us back to the hostel after I showed him the location on Google map. However, he dropped us at the foothill and requested us to pay for the full ride. We had help from a local who could speak better English and the angry driver literally told us to “get out”.

Other than that miscommunication, we really enjoyed our time on Mandalay Hill. Mandalay Hill provides you with the best view of Mandalay as it stands tall at 240 metres. It takes quite a long climb to reach the top. So, do train your stamina before taking up this challenge. According to my hostel mates, Mandalay Hill is a great place for sunrise as well but I did not make it.

Kuthodaw Pagoda which is located on the way down from Mandalay Hill will not fail to amaze you. This pagoda contains the world’s largest book: 729 inscribed marble slabs. That’s the whole book of Tripitaka, the entire Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism.

U-Bein Bridge

Take a long walk on this wooden bridge. Half-way across the bridge there’s a stairway going down that leads to a restaurant. Enjoy your sunset with a bottle of cold beer or a fresh coconut after a long day there — thank me later!

Sunset view at U-Bein Bridge, Mandalay with a bottle of cold beer to unwind. Image credits to Stein Ola Driveklepp.

Across the river – Min Gun and the old ruins

Although the above places are great, my personal favourite would be the trip to Min Gun, which is across the river from Mandalay town.

Once again, I would like to remind you to beware of cunning pick-up drivers who are out to scam trusting travellers. Once you reach the other side of the river, you will be ushered by a group of pick-up drivers who claim that it takes 2 hours to reach Lions of Stone (Min Gun). That is utterly untrue; it took me about 20 minutes to walk there and I have short legs.

Min Gun or better known as Lions of Stone. As there are many other temples on the way, go towards your destination first then visit the others to make sure you have enough time. Image credits to Stein Ola Driveklepp.

Ancient city of Bagan

Bagan has been on my bucket list for ages. Once you have experienced the wonders of Bagan, you will have to agree that Myanmar is absolutely underrated for tourism.

The lowest temperature in Bagan was n between 10–12 Celsius at night. In the day it got a lot higher to about 25 Celcius.

Sunrise in Bagan over the ancient library, Dhammayan Gyi Pagoda. Take this shot at either the Myauk Guni or Taung Guni pagoda (check Google Maps). Remember to bring your focus lens for the best shot.

 

This ancient city consists of more than 2,000 Buddhist monuments built from 1091 onwards. You will be asked to pay 25,000 Kyat, about 20 USD for a ticket for Bagan Archaeological Area. However, some of my hostel mates did not pay for the tickets. They managed to roam freely in the area without getting caught.

Donations were required at some of the pagodas despite having the ticket. Any amount is sufficient.

I am not a morning person but I woke up every morning for 5 days at 4.30am to catch the sunrise. Every morning I went hunting for the best sunrise lookout point with my hostel mates. Do be sure to wake up early to rent e-bikes because good bikes are only available before 5 am.

Mt Popa and Taung Kalat

The Mt Popa look-out point is where you want to spend some time taking photos like the one shown below. It is located 1.5 hours from Bagan city. Clearly, it was a long and exhausting walk up the stairs. There are monkeys along the stairs that may not seem too hygienic to some visitors.

Personally, I enjoyed my walk up the stairs and wandering around Taung Kalat, which is located at the peak of Mt Popa. There were numerous market stalls selling food, drinks and clothes by the 777-step stairway to the holy site.

As you stand at the top of Taung Kalat, you will be rewarded with an amazing panoramic view of Bagan. Search for the northernmost corner of the temple to enjoy the massive solitary peak of Taung Ma-gyi mountain, which resembles Mount Fuji in Japan.

The major reason one might not enjoy Mt Popa is the number of foreign and local visitors that you will have to deal with. Be sure to visit this well-known pilgrimage site as early morning as possible. As a reminder, do not wear caps, wear respectful clothes, and hold on to your bags as resident monkeys may show interest in your belongings.

Image credits to Stein Ola Driveklepp.

Bagan’s river cruise

No explanations needed. Just know that you need to do it when you are in Bagan. This is one of the best ways to meet other travellers and have a great time. Alcohol and snacks are included in the ticket price, and you will enjoy an amazing sunset view.

The most fun and relaxing sunset in Bagan. Image credits to Stein Ola Driveklepp.

Chill and unwind at Inle Lake, Shan State

Locals and tourists commonly refer to Nyaungshwe Township as “Inle Lake”. However, Inle Lake is not the official name of the area, but actually a freshwater lake located in Shan State.

Ok, so here is a heads up. There was basically no information that stated we need pay an entrance fee. Officials came up onto the bus and demanded each of us to pay 10 USD at the Inle Lake border.

Real fishermen don’t wear the traditional white top and brown fisherman pants. Image credits to Stein Ola Driveklepp.

It was a solid 12-kilometre bicycle ride to reach the lake from Ostello Bello. The rooftop BBQ party was great on a cold night. The boat ride on the lake was not too fun on a sunny day but dropping by the shops and temples located on the lake was very educational. The boat ride across Inle Lake is a must.

Cycling to a Myanmar’s vineyard

Did you know that there are wineries in Inle Lake, Myanmar? I never knew about that until I ended up cycling to one. It was 5 USD for 4 glasses of wine and a cheese platter. The wines there are surprisingly good. Well, of course, please do not compare the wines in Myanmar to those from France, New Zealand or Italy.

This was the view at Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery. Image credits to Stein Ola Driveklepp.

Yangon = Burma?

Before I went to Myanmar, I always assumed that Burma was the old name for Myanmar. However, the locals corrected my assumption. Burma was actually the name for central Myanmar in the past. Thus, Burmese refers to people from central Myanmar.

Shwedagon Pagoda (8 USD), Nga-htat-gyi Buddha Temple (2 USD), and Bogyoke Market (free entrance) are places you must visit. Shwedagon Pagoda is the main attraction in Yangon, while Nga-htat-gyi Buddha Temple, located in Ashay Tawya Monastery, is a lesser-known destination. There is a 14 metre tall Buddha statue built in 1900 at the Nga-htat-gyi Buddha Temple.

Heads up! Bogyoke Market is full of affordable gold jewellery and art pieces. Please do not buy any gems from unauthorized dealers as it is illegal. Gems are controlled by the military government. Don’t mess with them!

If you are in Myanmar, Shwedagon Pagoda is a must visit. Once in a lifetime at least. Image credits to Stein Ola Driveklepp.

Lessons To Learn From My Trip

All in all, the number of things that I learned in Myanmar was far beyond whatever I have ever read on the Internet. Everything reported in the media about Myanmar is relatively negative and does not represent Myanmar as a whole.

In the future, I would like to revisit Myanmar for Bagan, Napithaw, Chin state and all the other restricted areas. Here is a list of what I learned throughout my trip:

  1. The people of Myanmar are called Myanma. Myanmar’s currency is Kyat.
  2. Always check Google Maps for the distance before agreeing to any prices with drivers.
  3. Myanmar is very safe for tourists. For example, my hostel mate left his iPhone lying around everywhere we went, including leaving it in his e-bike but it was never lost or stolen. I forgot my change multiple times but vendors would come after me to return it.
  4. Ask your receptionist/locals for the best places to visit. The most awesome places to visit are not well promoted nor are presently found on the internet (other than this article).
  5. Alcohol is super cheap at 5USD for 1 litre of liquor. Mandalay whisky and vodka are smooth.
  6. Long-neck ladies, or better known as Karen tribe ladies are originally from Myanmar.
    You may know them as Karen long neck ladies in Northern Thailand but in Myanmar, they are called Kayan or Padaung. Image credits to Stein Ola Driveklepp.
  7. Go with free local bike guides from your hostel to learn the most about Bagan. These guides are tourism students at the local university.
  8. Rock climbing skills can be really helpful in getting the best sunrise photos.
  9. Boat rides are one of the best ways to unwind during sunsets.
  10. from that in the rest of SEA. One thing that shocked me was the fact that they believe in building pagodas instead of schools. They believe that if you have any money, you should build a pagoda to praise Buddha. This practice is unheard of in the rest of the Buddhist world. Growing up in a staunch Buddhist family, I learned that Buddhism encourages education and morality above any worldly possessions.
  11. Myanmar is pretty much undiscovered and is totally worth every single penny!

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