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Thread: Myanmar - The Trip Reports 2010 - 2013

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    Myanmar - The Trip Reports 2010 - 2013

    Reposting my trip reports originally posted on Phuket Info -

    Mingalabar Myanmar (1st Myanmar Trip Report - March 2010)

    Language: Burmese is perhaps simpler than Thai as there are ‘only’ 3 tones; 33 consonants and 12 vowels. However the way the Romanised script is used I found very difficult to the point that trying to speak or read (in the main) place names was a waste of time. Because of this I’m going to put in the phonetic (not quite IPA) names where I think would be useful. Note there is no ‘r’ or ‘v’ in Burmese.

    English was spoken by most where needed and would say there is no need to learn Burmese but of course a little effort goes a long way.

    Myanmar: magical Golden Land on every level – if you wish to be respectful to local feelings than Myanmar is preferred (to ‘Burma') and I asked several people about this from monks to taxi drivers and officials. Myanmar is a complex mix of many ethnic sub-groups and the British seem to have done a scant job in approaching these sensitivities.

    Money: Kyat [chaT] – exchange rate USD 1 = 1000 Kyat. [March 2010]

    The muslim’s seem to run the unofficial money exchange and be very careful as they will try and cheat you.

    Scam A: Offer you a really good rate – count out the money and then when you show your $ bill say that this serial# is no good bla bla bla …. Most times it was minor 2% out, but the FX trader in me did make me seek out the best rate where I could.

    Scam B: When changing bigger amounts (>$100) there are big stacks – they count the money and then it’s the old distraction technique to palm off a chunk of bills. Bill was with me when this happened at the money changer near the sports stadium/rail terminal – so be warned. As a follow on the cheat had swiped $60 (60000 Kyat) when I changed $200. I went back and they actually gave me $40 (40000 Kyat) back as I kept pretty calm about it. So was a $20 dollar net lesson learnt.

    Near Sule Pagoda I found a good money changer (no messing about with serial#) – but second time I went there they tried Scam B and put some really moth eaten notes in the bundle. Like before stayed calm and told them their ‘brothers’ had already taught me this trick and we laughed our way through the transaction successfully.

    Changing money outside Yangon expect to take a big haircut on the exchange rate -(like in excess of 30%).

    IMPORTANT: Take fresh, unfolded, unmarked USD bills (possibly Euro) – they are very fussy about the state of the notes and will NOT readily accept any note pre-2000. Also take some good quality small bills as hard to get change.

    There are no ATM’s and banks do not serve foreigners so apart from getting ripped off at top end hotels – take as much money as you need. There is no Western Union either - so be prepared!

    Food: I found Yangon food a bit disappointing as was hoping for a decent curry or few, but mainly ended up eating a pretty good Chinese places (especially evenings as its freshly cooked).

    Recommended:-

    19th Street China Town area – great Chinese street food.

    365 Café – good Asian food – especially enjoyed the Japanese teriyaki chicken they made for me.

    The Thirpyitsaya Sky Bistro, 20th Floor, Sakura Tower – I had breakfast here overlooking the city – early morning or evening the golden hill of Shwe Dagon is breathtaking. Fruit smoothies here – delicious and not overly expansive for the classy ambiance.

    Next time need to explore Yangon eateries with more vigour.

    Outside of Yangon the food was better IMO, especially on the boat cruise (see later) where I was spoiled with 2 cooks dishing up food that made me feel like a ****.

    Beer: Myanma Beer is IMO the best in Asia – crisp no aftertaste – fantastic!
    Dagon Beer (one for Hobbs?) I liked as well but not so widely available. Its darker and richer and the more representative Myanmar Beer.
    Tiger (unfortunately) has a big presence, so does the equally revolting Singha.

    Getting there (and away) …

    I flew (Air Bagan) from Chiang Mai to Yangon (1 hr 20 min) for 6000 Baht (one way) – Air Asia, Thai and Bangkok Airways fly from BKK cheaper, but I was impressed with Air Bagan.

    VISA: Via P&P Travel (Thapae Rd, Chiang Mai) I got a pre-approval letter (400 Baht and takes ~ 7 biz days). On arrival was whisked through immigration for $65 (that is $50 for a 28 day visa and $15 to the agent) which was smooth process. Yangon airport is small and there is little hustling going on. Taxi to hotel was $6.

    NEW INFO:- The land boarder at Kawthoung is open and for $50 you can get a 28 day visa here too via Mr Zaw at Mergui Princess, TMC , No. 1 GEC Building, Strand Rd, (near the jetty), Kawthoung. (Thai H/P 0800656573). This would be useful for anyone wishing to do boat trips through the Mergui Archipelago.

    Note: I arranged my boat tour and Golden Rock trip via Santa Maria Travel, #233-235, 2nd Floor Pededan Township, Yangon 11141 (+951 384 743) Email: sales@santamariatours.com. Also the contact there is another Mr Zaw – and very helpful he is too – very highly recommended. He arranged special exit clearance for me Kawthoung – Ranong which takes 3 days to be arranged.
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    Yangon

    General impression: was far better than I was expecting, wide tree lined streets that on the whole were clean although buildings in many places in poor state of repair. An architects dream of mix of style and pretty cheap to get around by taxi (short rides 1500 Kyat, hourly taxi rates were a bit pricy though – Mr Myad Thein at Thamada Hotel was knowledgable, reasonable English so worth paying a extra for).

    To my approval – motorbikes/scooters are banned in Yangon, and driver discipline is very good.

    Electricity can (and did) cut out – so be prepared to put up with more basic living conditions for some short periods. March was boiling hot: ~40’C early afternoon.

    Recommended:

    Inya Lake – pretty lake surrounded by a park. Yangon yacht club’s entrance is where the Yangon HHH leave from (3pm every Saturday and no – I did not do a run).

    Kandawgyi Lake – the most unfriendly place in Myanmar was the Karaweik (a golden concrete boat in the lake that perform ‘cultural’ shows (a la Phuket Fantasy?) for $12 – but no photo. Despite this the park and the lake are well worth looking around.

    Dalah – for $2 can take a short ferry ride across the Yangon River to the town of Dalah. Bill and I met 3 street kids who showed us around and this was the ‘real Myanmar’ – poverty stricken and still recovering from cyclone Nargis.

    St Mary’s Cathedral – Bakerloo Line inspired church of immense proportions lost in time but beautifully cool inside, perhaps one for the fans of religious architecture.

    Kheng Hock Keong Chinese Temple – bathed in incense and seeming very ancient with old men drinking green tea in the courtyard. Very close to the docks and river as well.

    Sri Kali Hindu Temple – was a puja day and had enlightening discussion with elderly temple warden about Hinduism.

    Mosque next to Sule Pagoda – I think I freaked out the Muslim’s but I went in and looked around – impressive architecture and a few of the bearded ones did say hello.

    Sule Pagoda - first of the key Buddhist sites – actually a roundabout over 2000 years old .

    Botataung Paya – I was lucky to have a insightful monk show me around and was eye opening change from the way Thai monks come across – Myanmar is indeed a very spiritually grounded society, and this beautiful temple is inspiring – especially in the evening. You can walk though the stifling heat of the inner pagoda where there is Buddha hair relic surrounded by gold and money offererings.

    And finally …. Shwe Dagon Pagoda – this is Myanmar’s most holy site and it truly is special. At its glittering best at sunrise and sunset the light and ambiance of this enormous (326’) pagoda I personally can only describe as spiritually majestic. 8 tonnes on gold (yes Seft … that’s > $300 million of gold) and topping out the ‘umbrella’ adorned with 3154 gold bells, 79,569 diamonds and the sein bu 76 carat diamond bud tip.

    For me this is Asia’s greatest building – a living building far more captivating that the dead but spectacular ruins of Ankor. I’d place it on the level of St Peter’s Basilica or the Western (Wailing) Wall for the aura it emits.

    There are four entrances at the cardinal points – the southern entrance is most ‘western’ friendly and for $5 (foreigner entrance fee) you get an elevator ride to the upper platform. Note: shoes and socks have to removed in all temples, pagoda’s etc and its worth taking a plastic bag to carry your shoes (except at Shwe Dagon where this is not permitted and in any case there are girls to wash your feet after you come down for foreigners) so not to risk walking barefoot back to the hotel!

    Yangon:

    Thamada - $23/night (2*) 5 Signal Pagoda Road – great location and 365 Café attached was good. GF.

    Park Royal $52/night if booked through Santa Maria next door to Thamada; walk in rate $115 (4*) and there is a $10/night ‘joiner fee’.

    Alternatives I’d consider are Central Hotel (opposite Scott Market) - $25/night if booked through Santa Maria who are located in the street to the side of the hotel or Panorama 294-300 Pansodan Road – also $25/night.

    Golden Rock – Mount Kyaiktiyo [gTea TI CHoo]:

    Mountain Top Hotel – $42/night (2.5*) booked through Santa Maria Travel and definitely book ahead – as walk in rate is very variable at least $80, the only alternative foreigners are allowed to stay is the Kiak Hto (sp) Government run hotel which has better views. Mr Ruwan Rathnayaka the Sri Lankan manager was a very good host and the location is breath taking, especially at sunrise.

    If you try and save money staying at the base camp you will not be able to see sunrise/sunset.

    Kawthoung

    I’d avoid staying in Kawthoung at all costs – this is the worst shithole I’ve ever stayed. There are 2 hotels – Honey Bear near the fishing pier or Kawthoung Motel which is quieter (euphemistically ‘better’) – it had 2 redeeming graces – Bloomberg and the fact it has a café karaoke. The filthy room with stinking unchanged bedding and worst oldest AC which shut down at 4am was $25/night – hopefully never again!

    Golden Rock – Mount Kyaiktiyo [gTea TI CHoo]

    This is Myanmar’s second holiest Buddhist pilgrimage destination and the locals go in droves – entire extended families and its quite an exciting vibe that is projected as they journey to this mountain site.

    Note the transliterated pronunciation – no-one will understand the official Romanised name! To get there options are aircon bus (leaves late evening and arrive early morning – tickets available in Pansodin Road); private car - $120 round trip (2 days) or harsh but most adventuresome normal bus – I took Win Express for 7000 Kyat each way (tickets from south side of Aung San stadium).

    The bus trip takes ~5 hours and the bus is packed – get seat# 5 ideally and buy in advance. The bus station is 45 mins out of the city and taxi there is more than the bus ride ($8). The road is mostly ok but bumpy in places – I found the people very friendly and the scenery was nice. I left Yangon at 8.30am arrived at 1.30pm to Kinpun – once there you have get a truck (1500 Kyat) up the mountain! Now this is one hair raising journey!!

    The best place is to sit in the cab for 500 Kyat more but this is booked by families so no luck there – on safety issue make sure you get a seat at the front so you can hold the rail – I shudder to think what happens if the breaks fail. 12km and 45 mins later you get dropped 2km short of the top. (Actually the road goes right to the top for locals but they drop foreigners short of the top so the porters and sedan chair guys have a chance to make a $). The final climb is steep but anticipation builds – finally get to the top and the amazing view of the Golden Rock hanging off the cliff itself.

    I got to the hotel at 4pm (impossible on the aircon bus) and note the trucks stop going up and down the mountain before sundown.

    There is a wonderful feeling on the temple platform – so many families camping down for the night and a great reverence for the location (no shoes). The rock itself is not very big but adorned in gold in the sunrise/sunset it casts a magical spell over the mountain. Women are not allowed over the small bridge to touch the rock. The rock itself dangles off the edge of the cliff – and is said to be held by 4 Buddha hairs – despite the poetic licence it is a sight to behold.

    I only saw 3 other Westerners but several Thai’s – was requested to be photographed with numerous families – felt like a rock star 55555 Spent a few hours learning more about Buddhism from a PhD monk teaching in Mumbai – fascinating and made the relevance of the trip very worthwhile.

    The second day after watching the stunning sunrise I trekked to the Kyuuk Hut Gyi [GJow T’H Geh] Pagoda deep in the jungle – as the only foreigner was very warmly welcomed by the villages and numerous tiny shops along the tough route. It took 2 hours to get there in the blistering heat but was well worth it. At the pagoda a guy climbs up a 40m bamboo ladder then shimmies along a tiny bamboo pole to place gold or a bell on the zedi – followed by a slide down to the ground – brave guy for sure!

    The return trip down the mountain was even more terrifying and at the Kimpun camp I found the hiking route up the mountain – yes I was tempted – looked like a fearsome Hash trail which takes about 7 hours!
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    Mergui Archipelago

    For a non-beach lover it takes a lot to get me excited but this area is truly exceptional.

    I originally wanted to work my way down the Andaman coast from The Golden Rock to Mawlamyine (Moulmein) to Ye (as far south as foreigners are allowed to travel overland then catch a boat to Dawai or Myeik to start my boat trip to end in Kawthoung. With the time I had and experiencing the roads its perhaps good that I was not able to do this route. Instead after travelling back by bus from Golden Rock to Yangon I flew to Kawthoung on Air Bagan for $132. The 2.5 hour (inc stops) flight was very good stopping en route in Dawai and Myeik.

    Myeik looked interesting from the air but the dirt road looked tough going. I later met a couple of Malaysian businessmen in Kawthoung who were in farming business – they told me Mawlamyine was not worth going to and that this road was indeed 'very tough'.

    Mr Zaw at Santa Maria Travel (Yangon) had arranged all the permits and boat trip (5 days/4 nights) for ~$1400 . I was greeted by Mr Zaw (#2) of TMC- Mergui Princess who gave me a tour of Kawthoung which in places was nice, but I explored the fishing village back streets alone and really this is one of the most environmentally poverty stricken dumps I have ever seen. To add further the hotel (Kawthoung Motel) was appalling as well – perhaps with a little investment and education this potentially beautiful southern tip of Myanmar could be much improved.

    The 32m boat had 1 aircon double birth (mine - but I didn’t use it) and 2 aircon twin (bunk beds). I instead slept on the upper deck – which was great! The boat had 5 crew for ‘Only One’ (me) – captain, engineer, 2 cooks and Mr Zaw as guide/travelling companion. We set off from Kawthoung at 9am – food provided but had to buy my own beer supplies. The first leg was north west to Nyaung Wee Island passing many small uninhabited pristine islands en route. Never having slept at sea before was quite an experience under the starry skies. I was served up 3 massive meals a day – I don’t do breakfast – so I asked them to scale back – the food was delicious – fresh seafood/fish etc – wonderful!

    Day 2 was north to Lampi Island (which is a Nature Reserve) and was the most beautiful of all the islands and went sea kayaking around the beaches and tiny islets. The next day went to the Sea Gypsy (Moken) village of Makyone Gallet.

    This is where they hold an annual festival in the 2nd week of February and one day will (sadly) become the next Phuket/Samui – already it has a ‘Beach Road’ of sorts – now a dusty track lined with fisherman’s shacks. I really liked the vibe of the place and as ever the people were very pleased to see the Only One Whitie !!

    TMC- Mergui Princess are building a 6 room guesthouse at the end of the beach – which should be ready for occupation next year and I’ll be tempted to return for sure.

    We then headed south east to Kyon Philar and went snorkelling in the crystal blue water – pristine coral and abundant sea life – it’s a pity my skin cant take too long in the scorching sun as I’d liked to have spend more time exploring. Overnight here - then in the morning headed to Nyaung Wee Island and went exploring the mangrove forest by sea kayak – felt like Livingstone and Mr Zaw was great company and informative.

    Spent time walking on these perfect pristine beaches and met with the Moken sea gypsy’s every now and then – twice went into the jungle interior of the islands following the ancient Moken trails to fresh water holes – I really enjoyed this adventure.

    The last day after some more snorkelling and swimming we headed back to Kawthoung – arriving at 2pm as I wanted to make the boarder crossing to Ranong and onto Koh Phayam to see Geir.

    Mr Zaw had sorted all the immigration formalities out and this took 10 minutes – my biggest headache over – no extra fees asked or expected and all efficient and friendly. They had even arranged my personal long tail over to Ranong – a Last Days of the Raj moment!

    The long tail stops at a hut in the sea – was a bit odd as this guy – I assume now an official but didn’t identify himself or speak English took my passport up the rickety stairs and they ok’d me – he asked for a tip so I gave him 2000 Kyat – I thought rather him than me up those stairs! The same on the Thai side past a small hut and the Thai military post waved me through with a smile then to the mayhem of the Ranong jetty – OMG – this was not fun climbing over 5 boats to get off – somehow made it then to Thai immigration. The have a separate counter for non-day-trippers (to the left as you face the river) – got passport stamped ok then walked 300m or so (out to the left through the PTT gas station – cross the road and turn right down signposted road 500m to the Speed Boat jetty for Koh Phayam.

    For those interested in nautical activities in the Mergui Archipelago I’d whole heartedly recommend Mr Zaw (of TMC Mergui Princess, Kawthoung) – for those with their own boats he can arrange entry and national park permits and for those wishing to charter one of his boats then his organisational abilities are exceptional and my big thank you to him and the crew for making my trip so enjoyable!

    This concludes my trip report – at some stage in a while I’ll get round to the boring job of re-sizing pics to post but I have to (sadly) get back to reality.

    Chezu ten ba deh Myanmar – I’ll be back for sure!!
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    Mingalabar Myanmar (2nd Myanmar Trip Report)

    As promised back in my April report I returned to Myanmar to continue my journeys or rather my adventures in this vast and complex country.

    Here is outline of significant changes since March 2010.

    Money

    Money: Kyat [chaT] – exchange rate USD 1 = 900 Kyat. [November 2010]

    I stress again the need to take pristine post 2000 USD bills and also Euro bills are acceptable.

    Note the 10% appreciation of the Kyat! Yes – Myanmar is on par with the Yen and Baht in its rampant strength in 2010, and I expect this to continue.

    If you are planning a long trip the try and change all your money into Kyat as needed in Yangon. The rates drop considerably up-country. In Mandalay USD 1 = 880 Kyat and in Bagan it was 800 Kyat! The more remote you go the greater the need for Kyat and due to the weak USD, Kyat was the preferred payment.

    I learnt that the best place to safely change large USD amounts is in the Summit Parkview Hotel (near Shwe Dagon Pagoda). Use the smaller entrance to the left of the main lobby and go to the back of the shops to a art shop – in the back there is quite a money changing operation! The rates here are good and its about as recognisably bank like as you will find in Myanmar!

    The largest note is 5000 Kyat (~$5) so to cut down on note ‘bulk’ – request these.

    Getting there (and away) …

    Repeating what I posted (Post #13), you still need to apply for a Visa at the Myanmar Embassy, Visa on arrival is still suspended as of writing but according to some sources it maybe reinstated in February 2011.

    Bangkok Myanmar Embassy was a straight forward process:-

    2x passport size photos on WHITE background. (Some were asked for 3 pics, so take more).
    Copy of passport info page.

    Fill in 2 forms they give you.

    For 3 day service its 830 Bt, for next day service 1035 Baht.

    Efficient and friendly enough, perhaps suggest going early afternoon (Opening hours 9 -11.30am and 1-3pm) - I got there very early and was first, but the whole day I reckon they are only processing about 80 visa applications.

    Pick up passport at 3.30pm (but I successfully asked for mine early).

    Once you get to Myanmar and have your entry stamp make sure to get lots (I needed >30) of copies of photo ID page and Visa/Entry page – you need these for check points/hotels/airports as you are not asked for your original passport except at entry/exit immigration.

    Santa Maria Travel

    This trip would not have been possible without the patience, dedication and skill of brother Zaw at Santa Maria Travel. I can whole heartedly recommend him and I hope none will be as difficult and challenging as I was!

    He was great fun, learned and informative and went way beyond the scope of any travel service I have ever received anywhere.

    Santa Maria Travel, #233-235, 2nd Floor Pededan Township, Yangon 11141 (+951 384 743) Email: sales@santamariatours.com. Mr Zaw Win Htwe. [The sales office is located just behind the Central Hotel].

    Yangon

    Nothing has changed here – I stayed again at the Thamada Hotel which is now $28/night (via Santa Maria). Staff there remembered me and even gave me the same (quiet) room I liked!

    Putao [pooT-OW]

    This was my main objective for this return visit – to climb the Eastern Himalayan mountains in the remote Kachin north of Myanmar.
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    Putao [pooT-OW]

    This was my main objective for this return visit – to climb the Eastern Himalayan mountains in the remote Kachin north of Myanmar.

    My specific aim was to get some experience of high altitude climbing on ice in preparation for my (now abandoned) trip to K2 Base Camp next year. The outline of the tour program I had chosen is here:-

    Myanmar Trekking - *Phonyin Razi Expedition

    Things however did not go to plan. The original plan was to work my way north and end up in Putao for the mountain climb. Due to time constraints and flights – after discussions with experienced Nepalese climber Mr Chetry at Putao Trekking House I agreed to climb 4,300m Phonyin Razi on the Myanmar/Indian border.

    Due to Putao airport being upgraded – my whole trip had to be re-organised – thanks to Mr Zaw in the final few days – what should have been a 12 day expedition was cut to 9 days (including flight days!). For the $2,400 I paid for this my expectations were pretty high and it did not take long for things to go wrong.

    The pretty flight to Putao was great and a very skilled pilot to land on the short runways was a relief. The flight took 4 hours as it stopped en route in Mandalay and Myitkyina with me arriving in Putao at ~3pm.

    Putao is the jump point for trekking in the North – a step back in time village of hill tribe farms, 2 restaurants, a market and little else. It was set in a wide river valley and the scenery was outstanding.

    So far – so good:- on arriving at Putao Trekking Lodge, a very pleasant 4 log cabin compound overlooking the Putao river valley I was told that my permit was not ready and I would have to stay the night there.

    Losing the first climbing day and most of the next day while the paper shufflers messed around with my ‘permit’ basically doomed any realistic hope of making the summit of Phonyin Razi – 6 months of preparation and training for what ended out to be a glorified and very expensive ‘Hash’!

    I was assigned a MTT guide [Myo] from Yangon who had been stationed in Putao for 3 years – it was a like/dislike relationship – with my feeling that the guy had been too long isolated from family and normal life. He is deeply religious (Buddhist) and in a region that’s overwhelmingly Christian I felt he must have a pretty tough time really blending with the local community. At times his chanting mumblings got to me , he was also sick with a chest complaint and often walked to close to me until I told him to keep a bit of distance for safety's sake.

    The local guide and climb leader and 5 porters were also assigned to me. All from the local Rawan hill tribe – they were infectious warm hearted and I grew to like and respect them very much. Local climbing guide leader [Joset] was a very intuitive and natural leader and great cook to boot!

    Waking early (5am) on Day 2 – I decided to take a wander into Putao village – it was a pristine sunrise – magical – and I got my first look at the distant ‘Icy Mountains’ beckoning through a morning shroud of mist. Village life barely changed from the Stone Age – with no mains electricity, the need to collect firewood was daily chore for all. I was met (hunted down?) in the village by the owner of the Putao Trekking Lodge - a Nepalese guy who initially came across as pleasant and welcoming. I was soon joined by the Myo and taken for a nice early Indian style breakfast. I was told I was lucky as it was the fist time in over 2 months the mountains had been visible.

    Alas that was where luck ended – as after waiting most of the day my permit finally materialised at ~3pm! Of we headed at last!

    I was very optimistic despite effectively losing 2 days – I’d trained pretty hard and really wanted to make the assent – so after heading across the Putao valley by Jeep, we started the climb after the road became impassable past the small village of Shangaung. It took about 3 hours from the drop off to scale the fairly easy 1360m Mt Shangaung (Jade Mountain) but it was dark by the time we reached the summit, so we camped there.

    The morning was greeted by a fantastic sunrise over Putao valley and then over the ridge line towards the high Eastern Himalayas. I talked with Joset and Myo and we agreed to push on as far as possible to catch up on the lost time. This was an arduous day – heading down Mt Shangaung into picturesque Wasandum then up the Namlang Creek valley via Awadum and onto Ziyadum [more on here later]. Past Ziyadum – the last village before wilderness proper in late afternoon and into the dense jungle and through the darkness crossing a freezing river we made camp.

    This was 11 hours of solid trekking and my left knee had picked up a minor sprain crossing a river at Awadum. I discussed with Joset about this and the time needed to make a summit attempt – and get back in time to make my flight. The next day should have meant a 2000m climb to Camp III, but I felt this was unrealistic and possibly dangerous. On further discussion I learnt that this expedition should take 14-15 days realistically.

    Last year Tay Za’s Htoo Corporation had driven a road from Shanguang to Ziyadum, making the this section possible by Jeep. Environmental destruction aside – the rainy season had decimated what was the road – if anything making the approach even more laborious. Just looking at the width and depth of the creek valleys the volume of water during rainy season must be simply staggering.
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    On waking on Day 3 – my knee still awkward – I decided that we should head back to Ziyadum to see what we could salvage; already I knew that making the summit of Phonyin Razi was impossible in the remaining time. On returning to Ziyadum – with time to relax and appreciate the stunning scenery, I actually could enjoy the time and place. I went off alone to explore.

    Ziyadum – this was by far my favourite village of the whole trip, nestled next to a deep gorge with the ice capped mountains in view – its one of the most special places I’ve ever been. The simplicity of the Rawan hunter/farmers. There was no pretence here – it’s a village lost in time. The bridge crossing the Ziya Creek into Ziyadum would not feel out of place to Lara Croft.

    Water from the hills was collected in pools and fed by bamboo ‘pipes’ to the houses. Fresh vegetables grown in the gardens, very healthy looking animals carefully cared for. Admittedly the kids could do with personal hygiene perhaps – as snotty nosed and muddy they were not what suits Western sensibilities. However is this what the West has lost with its sterile penchant for ‘cleanliness’? These mountain people struck me a very hardy strong and healthy – their animals looked far healthier than any in Thailand.

    Joset cooked and made great food to which I never fell ill – I drank the water and suffered no ill effects. Just perhaps in this haven free of Big Pharma – the people maintain a naturally strong immune system. I did wonder that when/if the world suffers a global pandemic – these remote people just might be some of the few survivors.

    Myo sensing my frustration and disappointment in fairness did try his best to make good of things. The village headman had hunted deer by longbow and he asked for some fresh meat for me – now knowing my carnivorous tastes.

    Despite feeling strong again – I felt it futile to head back to the jungle and climb with no hope of summiting, so the next morning decided that best option was to make our way back – at least could enjoy the scenery.

    The trails were at times very demanding and crossing many creeks on logs/bamboo bridges was not for the faint hearted. One single log bridge collapsed when I crossed and I was very very lucky to land on my backpack after falling 3m though foliage and not into the rock strewn waterfall – I was very happy to be pretty unscathed!

    So after another of Joset breakfeasts we set off stopping in Awadum for lunch. Awadum is set high on the creek bank – just outside Awadum the power of the swollen creek could be seen with the sheer cliffs scoured by the what must be violent waters of the creek a full tilt. Leaving Awadum we reached Wasandum mid-afternoon and decided to stay there the night.

    Bigger than Ziyadum, Wasandum another Rawan village had its charm too and we celebrated together with mountain deer, local whisky, Coke (from Thailand) and HobNobs (from England) – was a fun night.

    Next morning headed back over Mt Shangaung, stopping for lunch at the base of the mountain. Joset and the porters set up a fire by the river and Mt Shangaung did indeed live up to its Jade Mountain moniker, as one of the rocks used for the fire was a big lump of solid jade! I’m no gemmologist so have no idea of the value/quality of the jade but I started noticing jade a plenty in the rivers.

    With the Putao Treeking Lodge Jeep unavailable – they sent a local ‘tuk-tuk’ to pick us up – an interesting contraption of Chinese motorcycle and trailer.

    In all the travels thus far I had not been asked for my precious permit once! I find it hard to fathom the fears of what on earth as a lone climber what kind of risk I posed – why on earth make so much of getting a redundant piece of paper anyway – after all I had the Government’s MTT guide with me – total and frustrating madness.

    Now returning to Putao Trekking Lodge early – concerns over the porters wages emerged, so I sought suggestions of what other options we could do with the time and use the porters for. These guys are gems – work so hard for $6/day! Leader Joset got $7/day and MTT guide Myo got $15/day of the $30/day I was charged for him. I wanted to make sure all of them got what they deserved.

    Myo came up with a good plan – I asked him as he was most likely best placed to know where I could actually go with permit! As it happened a new suspension bridge was being ceremonially opened by No 2 General Maung Aye. Myo’s plans were shot down as of course no foreigner could go anywhere near such an event – why is incomprehensible to me – surely such a positive thing of building new high quality infrastructure is exactly what would be positive to show to the world. I would have actually enjoyed being there, and it’s a pity that the opportunity was wasted.

    Another plan emerged that was permissible – so after another night at Putao Treeking Lodge we set out (less 3 of the porters) to the Lisu tribal village of Namhtunkoo. The trek (moderate Hash in my book) took 4 hours to cover the 18km rough road/trail through jungle, valleys and interesting scenery. We arrived mid-afternoon in the Christian (Church of Christ) Lisu village. Despite being raised a Christian I felt something wrong with the Christian dominance in this region – the ancient belief systems appear to have been totally lost and this is a pity as it’s a loss of heritage too.

    Namhtunkoo while pretty was devoid of much to do and it was hard to make contact properly with the local people both on the count of language barrier and presence of Myo. I gave up trying and focused on the scenery/architecture, but I continued to feel much was lacking in the inability to interact with the locals. The Lisu I was told number ~ 150k, the Rawan ~ 100k. At night there was a night market of sorts – small shops opened to sell a bizarre range of Chinese, Indian and Thai imports. Little shacks showed movies and karaoke and the local kids followed me around. 1000 Kyat (~$1) brought 20 lollypops and it was easy to make the kids happy for a moment. Clearly very few foreigners are seen in these parts but I felt the locals were pleased to see me.

    The next day (Sunday) we set off for Mulashidi. Namhtunkoo’s biggest church en route was interesting to me architecturally and being Sunday I felt I should pop in and offer a prayer of thanks to God. Myo had other thoughts and banned me form entering – this did not go down well with me at all well – so off I stormed. They had no hope of keeping up with me – Joset finally caught me at a river crossing a hour or so later.

    This day got no better – the trek to Mulashidi was truly awful. Extreme Hashing would have summed it up – I wouldn’t send my worst enemy on this buffalo shit/pee leach invested muddy trail! Five hours of slogging though damp festering jungle with little scenery worth noting we finally arrived at the brand new road the Htoo Corporation had pushed from Mulashidi to the new hydro-electric dam (somewhat environmentally controversially). Anyway I was delighted to see the road and after Joset’s last fantastic jungle lunch marched my way alone into Mulashidi.

    Just before entering Mulashidi I passed a vast compound that turned out to be Malikha Lodge.

    Myo caught me here while I was talking to the Nepalese Adventure Manager and told me I could not go in – so much for marketing!
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    Mulashidi – a modest and very pretty Lisu town with a suspension bridge crossing the Nam Lang River. Myo did the guided tour bit round the town by which time I could not really raise my game. I crossed the suspension bridge – was a beautiful river and met a couple of girls from Myitkyina (also being guided) – Myo’s tour took us to a large wrecked compound of a Church of Christ – he explained that this was why the rule/law? banning foreigners from entering Putao region churches – since he claimed that in 2008 another church was jealous of the foriegn donations received by this church and had attacked it and inter church fighting had broken out. To prevent further fighting the regional Government had placed a ban on foreigners entering/donating to churches.

    After this gruelling and unpleasant day of wading through muddy buffalo shit, bitten by leaches it was a welcome relief to get in the Jeep of the 30 minute drive back to Putao Trekking Lodge.

    Before heading off – I’d complained to the Nepalese Lodge owner and to Mr Chetry who was at the Putao Trekking House office in Yangon about the permit issue and resultant impossibility to make a summit attempt safely. I left them to mull things over while on this ‘trek’. When I got back I asked what decision they had made – (I’d only asked for a 10% refund to make sure the porters were paid) – they actually wanted to charge me an extra $97/day ($75 for the room and $22 for food) for the nights I’d spent in the lodge. This was the final straw – after the trek, the permit issues, I abandoned Asian face and became 'very aggressive'. The entire staff came out to watch and for the remaining 2 days I was treated very well indeed!

    I had a chat with Myo and asked him what we could do together – in some ways I felt for him, and thought I’d try an 1 on 1 approach.

    We set off for Kungmulon [KumooLow] - the holiest northern Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. Alone Myo was much more relaxed and I enjoyed this bike trip across the open plain of Putao valley, though tea plantations and small villages.

    The pagoda itself had been rebuilt in 2005, but held a charm overlooking the banks of the beautiful Malikha River. Myo was in his element – his deep religious beliefs came to life explaining the details of what is a very spiritual place.

    Kungmulon was the place where the new bridge had just been opened and I was the first foreigner to ever cross it – this somewhat made up for the previous tensions that had run between us and we sat in the General’s VIP seats and made peace!

    Afterthought:- I’m torn between many issues in this northern section. The locals need visitors to help their economy and to open the area up. I am troubled that it seems that there is little by way of private development and that which there is can easily be taken by those high placed. The North is truly stunning – superlatives don’t do it justice and I’m privileged to have seen this region with my own eyes.

    I feel that if you’re fit – then this region is ready for trekking and some rafting too. For mountaineering I have reservations. If serious mountaineering then plan for lots of extra time and do NOT go to Putao until you have your permit(s). I don’t think its ready yet – there was no radio contact and should there have been an accident I shudder to think how an evacuation would have been handled. The local guides and porters are world class and I hope that in future this region will open up sustainably to climbers.

    I suggested to Myo and Joset that a helicopter pad at Ziyadum would make sense to cut the time/energy expended in the mountain approach. (It would be much less environmentally destructive and less expensive than a road too). This would also afford wealthier/older visitors a guaranteed view of the ‘Icy Mountains’. Ziyadum is by far the most beautiful of the villages I saw but needs more accommodation. Perhaps rock climbing could also be developed here as there are some massive boulders and cliffs close by that look a climbers dream and would give the guides work during periods of bad weather.

    Putao Trekking Lodge and a hotel (I didn’t see) owned by Air Bagan are the only choice in accommodation in Putao where foreigners are allowed. Putao Trekking Lodge is nice and could accommodate perhaps 30 when the forth chalet is complete. There is little to do at night – I suggested a Jacuzzi bar area so guest could relax after long treks. The food was expensive but good. Staff were good too.

    Putao Trekking House is under the umbrella of what I think is a MTT operation for this whole region called Journeys – I suggest to limit permit hassles perhaps going direct to Journeys based in Yangon might be advisable. I would strongly urge Journeys/Putao Trekking House to state clearly when booking that any early return to Puato could incur extra charges – trying to charge more after unforeseen events is outrageous.

    [NB: A group of 6 German climbers had tried to climb Mt Phangran Razi southwest of Phonyin Razi. Hampered by bad weather and 20+ river crossings they too abandoned their climb and returned early to Putao and were charged the extra charges [unlike me] – be warned!

    I spoke again with Mr Chetry the hour before I left and he offered to invite me on future trips at a discount - if this happens I will post about it. I'm not for hurting anyones business if treated fairly. However, if I feel cheated I will not sit back and accept it].
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    Myitkyina [merCHin-er] and Inn Daw Gyi Lake

    The flight from Putao to Myitkyina was only 45 mins – in the dry season the road (banned to foreigners) takes 2 days and in wet season up to a month. Myitkyina is a raw frontier town full of traders from all over the region. I grew to like the place but for most this would be a town of little interest.

    Brother Zaw met me at the airport as the focus for this section was remote and seldom visited Lake Inn Daw Gyi – the largest natural lake in Myanmar to which foreigners are supposed to go with a guide and yes you guessed – more permits!

    Zaw was a welcome sight and arriving mid-afternoon allowed a whistle stop tour of the town’s main highlights. Like so many a pagoda/temples – most are quite modern (less than 100 years old) – Hsu Taung Pye Zedidaw being the most famous ‘wishing pagoda’ being the only one I’d recommend. Myitkyina is the administrative capital of Kachin state and many different sub-tribes as well as Indian and Chinese co-exist there.

    Rather than take a overpriced car (quoted $400 return) to Lake Inn Daw Gyi – Zaw suggested a train ($6 top class) to Hopin and then via motor bike ($12/day) to the lake. The train trip took ~5 hours on what was indeed an old clunker, but I enjoyed the scenery and travelling local style. The motorbikes were hired from Zaw’s friend Gregory in Hopin and he came with us to the lake.

    Gregory proved a real friend and we ate with his family in Hopin as well as some distant relatives of Zaw at the lakeside. These were some of the best meals I had – lovely home cooked fresh food. Zaw and Gregory entertained with guitar and vocals while I relaxed after the bumpy dusty ride which took 2 ½ hours each way.

    We arrived at Lonetone village on the shores of lake Inn Daw Gyi in the dark – and as there are only 2 places to stay, had to stay in the $7/night very basic guest house instead of the slightly better $10/night guest house next to the large army base (and its annoying ¼ hourly water clock).

    Inn Daw Gyi Lake [In-Daw-Ji] – this lake should be at very least an area of special scientific interest if not a World Heritage Site. 775 sq. km of pristine lake is a sight to behold. The early morning mist gave it a ethereal feel and we set off early (8am) by boat ($60) around the lake.

    I asked to by-pass the obvious highlight of the Shwe Myitsu Pagoda sitting on the lake for our evening return – so we headed first for the village of Lwemon. Lwemon has a shrine depicting the legendary formation of the lake by a dragon/ogre and the grandmother who warned the villages to leave before the lake was flooded with two of her grandchildren and a buffalo.

    Back to the water and onto Namme Laaw and its 150+ year old teak Buddhist monastery as well as very unusual recently built rattan Buddha image.

    Next was Nyawan Pbin where Zaw’s distant relative lives and a great home cooked lunch. One of the fishermans wives had just given birth to a baby girl in their house that morning and in a village with no modern healthcare – she and baby looked well. I felt very close to the real life of the local people here and I decided to leave Zaw with his relatives and look around the village with Gregory. We found what looked like a fairly old pagoda near the lake side and breath taking views over the lake. I don’t think this village is on the normal ‘tour’ – but I really enjoyed it and seeing the people close up.

    Crossing the lake past 1000’s of birds he headed for Shwe Tuang Pagoda – this is where I start getting concerned as it became evident later that any true beauty spot becomes a prime target for yet another pagoda. This was a fine spot and the simple way of life of the monks building it was clear to see. The pagoda was still being built and on the top of the hill behind the main pagoda yet another pagoda was being built. The views were the best of the lake and surrounding area, but I hope they can be content with this fine building and not litter every other vantage point with more pagoda’s – natures beauty needs preserving!

    As the sun set we headed for the Shwe Myitsu Pagoda – this is the focal point for pilgrims in dry season when a causeway becomes passable to the pagoda ‘island’ and a large festival is held. The pagoda is very serine and the setting sun just added to the ambiance. [Note - woman are not allowed on the main temple platform].

    Off to bed after dinner and a few beers for a 5am start to make the (supposed) 7.30am train from Hopin back to Myitkyina.

    Heading off in the chilly dark damp lake mist at 5am was an adventure I don’t want to repeat, but Zaw did well to get us to Hopin in one piece. The train did not turn up (from Mandalay) until after 5pm – so Gregory entertained us graciously. I think for a very experienced bike rider this could be done – and well worth the effort.

    Back in Myitkyina Zaw took me to the Baptist built Jawlunchi Tower about 40 mins outside the city. This bizarre 1950’s communist architecture inspired tower gave panoramic views over the surrounding hills. After Putao was hard to raise the bar – but time permitting it is worth a visit. I noticed a cemetery close to the tower – so we went to take a look and found local Kachin’s living to close on 100 years.

    As we’d arranged a car we next headed to Myit-Son - the confluence of the Malikha and Maykha River’s. Little could prepare me for what I found – this sacred spot was being decimated by open cast precious metal mines – a real tragedy and I was saddened at the wanton destruction of such a unique location.

    I know people need work and I would not deny progress but preserving a 2km radius of this confluence would surely not be too great a sacrifice. Zaw and me decided to head up the Malikha branch about 3km past the mines and we found pristine conditions. He enjoyed a spiritual swim in the icy water while I enjoyed what will most likely soon be paradise destroyed.

    I would suggest leaving this trip out – the situation there is certain to get worse and I can only hope that someone senior enough stops this destruction so that this treasure is not destroyed for good. If you are determined then its reachable I feel by motorbike on a fairly good road. The car we took in comparison to the Inn Daw Gyi boat trip was expensive ($80).

    We returned to Myitkyina to look at the Manao Festival grounds by the river. The Manao Festival is held annually (Dec or Jan) over 2 days around huge ‘totem poles’ to the local nat (spirit gods) – I can imagine its one serious party on a huge scale!

    The hotel we stayed was the centrally located Xhin Xhan (Chinese) Hotel which was a bit pricy ($35/night) for the quality (or lack of it) but the room was enormous and breakfast was included.

    Afterthought:- Inn Daw Gyi Lake is a world treasure and I hope its conserved – there is a clear need for more accommodation, but transport for the hardy makes it a realistic frontier destination. Myitkyina itself would require only a day or two for most. Surprisingly there is some nightlife there but this is most definitely is not geared towards Westerners.
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    Mandalay (and environs: Sagaing, Mingun, Inwa (Ava) and Amarapura

    From here on things were a lot more ‘touristy’ and Zaw’s Buddhist and historical knowledge made this section more interesting than a mere jaunt though a living ‘museum’.

    By car we started off in Sagaing – to the hill and Umin Thounzeh (30 caves) – which is actually 45 Buddha images in a crescent colonnade – reconstructed/expanded relatively recently. There are dozens of stupas and pagoda’s and this very much is a living centre for Buddhists.

    About 8km frm Sagaing is the 'tit' pagoda - Kaunghmudaw Paya - a massive. erm well tit shaped dome rising 50m - perhaps not worth a close up look but made me smile!

    Next we headed to Mingun – **** Bodawpaya’s vast epitaph to monumental building. The four great sites are his great pool (linked to the river via a sand filled tunnel quite a distance from the other sites). Next is the great bell – the world’s second largest bell cast in 1808 weighing 90 tons – quite a sight and a testament to the impressive engineering skills at the start of the 19th Century here. Third are the remains of the twin massive guardian chinthe at the river side of the final and greatest site – Mingun Paya.

    Mingun Paya – if finished would be the world’s largest brick building planed to be > 160m high. What remains is ‘merely’ the earthquake (1838) cracked base – which can be climbed (barefoot) for stunning views across the river and surrounding plain.

    With time in mind we headed to Inwa (Ava) – the ancient capital of Burma for over 400 years (1364 – 1841) – more than any other of the revolving capitals of Burma. Reached by a short boat ride then horse cart – a somewhat rushed trip by the massive city walls along farm tracks to the Bagaya Kyaung teak monastery with its huge teak columns. Moving along to the leaning tower of Inwa – Nanmyin – a 30m leaning watch tower which for once can climb with shoes on for some great views over the plains. The structure itself would not survive another earthquake but the climb up is worth the risk.

    To make sunset at Amarapura (City of Immortality) headed back over the Awaddy (Irrawaddy in my old Geography textbooks) on the 2005 triple coat-hanger Sagaing Bridge (no photos supposedly allowed – do they know about Google Earth?) and next to it the British built (1934) 16 span Ava Bridge.

    Amarapura’s highlight is U Bein’s 200 year old 1.3km teak bridge and it’s definitely the highlight of the region. The sunset was perfect and while the safety conscious might freak out at the lack of railings above the 3m drop to the ground/water below – somehow its simple elegance has stood the test of time. The bridge was built to cross the shallow Taungthaman Lake to Kyauktawgyi Paya – if time permits this too is worth looking at. Despite the crowds I did really like U Bein’s elegant bridge and the stunning plains at sunset. There also some very talented and inexpensive artists exhibiting with little commercial eagerness for such an obvious tourist hotspot.

    It should be noted that in all pagodas/monasteries/temples/palaces shoes and socks had to be removed – even if they were ruins!

    Mandalay at little more than 150 years old was the site in 1885 where the Burmese monarchy was overthrown by British colonialism. I was far less aware of Myanmar’s history throughout my trip than I am now, but I found Mandalay a somewhat disappointing city for its considerable size.

    Coming from the walled city of Chiang Mai – I was hoping to find some parallels, but apart from the moat and Mandalay’s Palace’s vast (reconstructed) walls – there was little to compare. Mandalay Hill – a 230m hill to the north east topped with an elegant pagoda (of course). From the hill top its just about possible to make out the square of the Palace moat/walls but ideally more height is needed and the ambiance atop the hill doesn’t come close to Doi Suthep’s serenity.

    Very early I went (by taxi/bike - $5) to the sacred **** Muni Paya – the final one of the trilogy of Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist sites (the other two being The Golden Rock (Mount Kyaiktiyo) and Yangon’s great Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Also know as Payagyi – the highly venerated Buddha image from Rakhaing State may date back to 554BC. Only men are allowed to climb to place gold leaf on the figure and it is indeed a very spiritual site – especially early in the morning when there are no other tourists.

    Zaw being from Mandalay showed me around the remaining highlights – Sandamuni Paya by the NE corner of the moat consists of an array of whitewashed stupas erected as a memorial by **** Mindon to his assassinated (1866) brother ****** Kannaung. Close by is the Kuthodaw Paya the site of the 5th Buddhist Synod which houses the worlds ‘biggest book’ – 729 marble slabs inscribed with the 15 books of the Buddhist Tripitaka.

    Mandalay Palace’s only surviving original teak building is the Shwenandaw Kyaung – the Golden Place Monastery. (You need the $10 Gov Combo Ticket for entry). Penultimate Burmese **** Mindon died in this building – hence it was removed from the Palace and donated by Burma’s last **** Thibaw Min to become a monastery – a twist of fate that saved it from the WWII bombs that obliterated the entire Palace.

    Mandalay Palace is a modern reconstruction – but I feel worth visiting – as much if anything to find out what lies behind those massive curtain walls. Foreigners can only enter via the East Gate (Combo ticket needed and checked by friendly girls on the gate). The inner square is a military base of some sort – although I feel the lack of anything of any great military significant makes the zone control a bit OTT. Most of the soldiers seemed affable enough – it was only an old rickshaw driver who stopped me short cutting via the West Gate back to my hotel!

    The palace itself consists of numerous guest outbuildings and the throne hall and royal residence. There is a watch tower that you can climb (erm – why the security sensitivities when you can see everything from here??!!) – the stairs near the top are wobbly and the top platform has missing/rotten planks so some care is needed as no-one else was up there when I was there. Zaw told me about the Watch Tower which I saw later – en route I saw what turned out to be the Drum Tower – far more dangerous to climb – but climb it I did – better views too!

    In sheds near the Drum Tower the shards of what was left of the Palace were housed – I can only imagine what a fabulous place this must have been when the British arrived – such a shame that more planning and understanding did not go into ensuring Burma’s lasting legacy.

    Zaw being from Mandalay – I left him to be with his family in the evenings – perhaps because of Mandalay’s battered history I’m not sure, but there was an air of coldness as well as curiosity towards me. I was told (wrongly) there were no moat side bars – these are located on the North and East sides but I didn’t explore. Mandalay is set out on a New York like grid so its very easy to navigate. I found out there are bars on 80th/81st and 24th Street as well as 87th and 26th Street – I did check these out – but nothing most BM’s would get excited about. For a city its size (1.5m +) it’s probably the most boring place for nightlife I’ve ever been.

    The hotel I stayed – Mandalay City 82nd/83rd and 26th Street where Zaw used to work was a good choice and great value at $38/night including top notch buffet breakfast.

    Pyin U Lwin

    Having a spare day Zaw arranged a trip to what was the old British summer capital and now a significant Army town. Via shared taxi for a modest $12 for both of us it took about 2 hours to reach to south of Mandalay via a pretty good road. The hilly terrain was a change from the flat city of Mandalay and Pyin U Lwin was a chraming small town. For $8 Zaw hired a motorbike to take us to the sites outside the city.

    En route we’d stopped at the colonial British Governor’s Mansion – yet another of Tay Za’s acquisitions – currently being turned into a museum and luxury hotel.

    We headed first to the virtually freshly built Kyauk Taung Pagoda – impressive but its newness limited its impact on me.

    Pwe Kauk Falls (Hampshire Falls in British days) was a pleasant set of cataracts in a wooded area – it was not over crowded but the locals were swimming in some of the pools. Enjoyable enough and the best of the natural sights I saw in this area. Moving on to ‘sacred’ Peik Chin Myaung Cave – this is where I get disappointed; millions of years of natural beauty smothered in modern and hundreds of Buddha images, plastic pipe, concrete and plastic mango trees! Is this really what The Buddha would be happy with?! I found it a shame that what was clearly such an ancient natural wonder had been basically decimated since 1990!

    The trip back to Mandalay was straight forward and I shared some of my overall thoughts with brother Zaw on my trip (so hope he’s not surprised of upset to read any of this which I hope he does – he was and is a dedicated and real friend). He headed back to work and Yangon to recover from the strains I must have put him under and I headed to Bagan.
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    Bagan

    Finally then to Myanmar’s premier tourist destination – Bagan (Pagan) most of which flourished from 1047 to 1287 when Kublai Khan overran it.

    The flight from Mandalay to Nyaung U the airport town to the north of Old Bagan took barely 20 mins. I arrived at sunset and decided after my disappointment in the North to book a trip with Balloons over Bagan – (this also marked the 1st anniversary of my fathers passing). I’m very glad I made this decision as the following evening a very unseasonal storm meant the rest of my Bagan stay was wet.

    Getting up at 5am – I was picked up on a 1950’s bus and taken to the hot air balloon launch site to the north of Old Bagan. I light breakfast and safety briefing followed and the balloon was inflated and in we (8) got. Balloons over Bagan has been going 6 years and British pilot Ian (from Bristol) was first class all the way.

    Our flight lasted 55 mins and covered 11.5km (I took my GPS!) – this by far is the best way to see Bagan and the sunrise over Mt Popa was unforgettable. The track took us over the great pagoda’s and plain eventually heading to the south. A perfect landing and champagne breakfast followed. I’d say well worth the $280 (Zaw can arrange this for $250, but I wanted to be sure of the weather).

    After being dropped back at the hotel (The Bagan Thande in Old Bagan at $45/night – very pleasant and right by the river) - I headed off by car ($33) around the main pagoda’s of Bagan. I did a fair bit of pre-planning on the order I wanted to see them and if you prefer a quick overview I was pleased with my choice. The driver was clearly ex-army somewhere so it suited him well to be given a nice orderly list. I got on well with him (Mr Sai) and he did a good job getting me where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to cycle or horse cart (too slow) – the temples interiors become much the same to me – so it was principally the macro architecture that interested me.

    My circuit was as follows:-

    Thatbyinnyo Pahto -Bagan’s tallest.

    Shwe Gu Gyi - Good climbing paya near Tharabar Gate.

    Tharabar Gate - Original surving gateway with nat shrines and city walls.

    Palace (Reconstruction – I did not go inside but was worth seeing exterior.

    Ananda Temple - Perhaps Bagan’s most beautiful temple with good bas reliefs.

    Shwe San Daw Paya – excellent views.

    Dhammayangyi Pahto – massive ‘bad luck’ temple.

    Gubyauk Gyi Zedi – very elegant.

    Dhammya Zaka Zedi – the ‘ghost’ temple.

    Sulamani Pahto & Thabeik Hmauk (Monastery) - can no longer walk up but one of the best temples and the best art sellers – of note check out the original art of Mr Phyu Soe Myint Kyaw.

    Buledi (Temple #394) – my favourite – a good climb and great views and no-one else there!

    Pyathada Pagoda – flat top pagoda for sunset viewing – better than the over crowded Shwedandaw Paya for sunsets/sunrise.

    Outside the main Bagan area in Nyaung U the following are worth seeing:-

    Shwe Zi Gon Paya – this is the most currently sacred site in the area with both shines to the 37 nat spirit gods and impressive Buddhist images.

    Kyanzittha Umin – cave monastery – little visited but by far the best painted interior – original 11th Century paintings in the meditation chambers and even Moghul art in places – very interesting.

    I should add the ancient (reconstructed) Bupaya at the north of Old Bagan – possible the oldest and quite small gourd shaped pagoda dating back to 300 AD.

    Also – although I didn’t visit is Tan Kyi Paya on the hill on the other side of the river overlooking the Bagan plain – but the poor weather made a trip here pointless.

    At most of the pagoda’s – kids and hawkers would offer a variety of tourist garb – some was good (as noted at Sulamani Pahto), but most of dubious value. In the small restaurant strip just outside Tharabar Gate – I was hounded by horse cart drivers, hawkers and other beggers which was a bit annoying.

    Mt Popa

    Despite the rain – I had booked a trip to Mt Popa – the 250k year old volcanic plug of a volcano – home to Myanmar’s bewildering 37 nat. The weather was very poor but the road good to navigate the 2 hour journey to the mountain. En route we stopped a (seemingly staged) ‘farm’ – which showed handicrafts and palm whisky production. Far too inauthentic for me but I felt for the locals eking out a living being ‘zoo specimens’.

    Arriving at the damp and dishevelled town at the base of the mountain (shrouded in mist) – off up it I set off. The supposed 777 stairs were covered but as usual shoe removal was compulsory despite the crazy idea of slippery tiles all the way up!

    Most locals would have surely been put off when the gutter collapsed as I removed my shoes – perhaps the nats weren’t happy with me – or I with them!

    Up the monkey scat and pee infested steps and the usual hawker stands – although the hawkers were very polite and friendly. I pretty much had the mountain to myself.

    Reaching the top up the plethora of slippery tiled steps and ladders I was relieved – I just about got a glimpse of the valley below and of course the bewildering array of pagoda’s, shrines and spirit (nat) houses at the top. Try as hard as I could – but I only found 29 of the 37 nat.

    Perhaps this would be better in good weather but unless your very keen I think the $48 excursion was a bit of a let down. I made it back to the bottom of the mountain in one piece (thanks nat) – and back to relax at the Bagan Thande Hotel before heading back to Yangon early the next morning.

    Bagan was stunning and I enjoyed it – but deep down I prefer natural wonders and isolation over man made wonders.

    I feel I have seen all I planned and desired in Golden Myanmar and for that I am indeed priviledged.

    Mingalabar and chez u ten bah deh.
    Its My Life .....!

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    Mingalabar Myanma (3rd Myanmar Trip Report)

    Money: Kyat [chaT] – exchange rate USD 1 = 815 Kyat.

    Two years on from my first trip the Kyat has strengthened 20% and set to gain further (it got to 690 in Nov 2011). Next month [Apr 2012] is likely to see the Kyat undergo a managed float with $1 = 800 Kyat being muted as the starting level – finally removing the effectively defunct official exchange rate of 6.5 to the dollar.

    There are now many more proper foreign exchange booths – handy ones are in Central Hotel opposite Scots Market (Bogyoke Aung San Road) and 2 at the front of Scotts Market itself. Exchange booths are open 10am to 3pm (closed at lunch 12pm to 1pm and weekends/public holidays). There are still many money changer touts but you don’t need to use them.

    You can change USD/Euro/Sing $ currently – note below on condition of the notes tendered.

    VERY IMPORTANT: Take fresh, unfolded, unmarked USD bills (EUR or SGD) – they are very fussy about the state of the notes and will NOT accept any note pre-2003 notes. Also take some good quality small bills as sometimes hard to get change – as the Kyat is now stronger than 1000/$1 – Kyat is preferred for most payments.

    There are no ATM’s and banks do not serve foreigners so apart from getting ripped off at top end hotels – take as much money as you need. There is no Western Union either - so be prepared!

    I think once the Kyat is floated – the US/EU will lift restrictions on monetary transfers and would not be surprised for ATM’s to appear within the next year or so.

    Food: Previously I had found Yangon food a bit disappointing but this trip things were much better.

    Recommended:-

    19th Street China Town area – great Chinese street food.

    365 Café – good Asian food – still the same and I especially enjoyed the Japanese teriyaki chicken they made for me.

    The Thirpyitsaya Sky Bistro, 20th Floor, Sakura Tower – I had breakfast here again overlooking the city – early morning or evening the golden hill of Shwe Dagon is breathtaking. Fruit smoothies here – delicious and not overly expansive for the classy ambiance.

    50th Street Bar – new entry and a bit of a destination but very good food – they specialise in pizza. The Burmese beef curry I had was the best I’ve had in Asia! Mainly a bit of a higher end expat place with good vibe and Aussie manager Phil good to chat with.

    Getting there .. and away!

    I flew (Air Bagan) from Chiang Mai to Yangon (50 min) for 7900 Baht round trip.

    VISA: Via P&P Travel (Thapae Rd, Chiang Mai) I got a single entry tourist visa in 5 biz days for 2300 Baht. Taxi to hotel was $6.

    Note: I arranged my Ngapoli Beach trip via Santa Maria Travel, #233-235, 2nd Floor Pededan Township, Yangon 11141 (+951 384 743) Email: sales@santamariatours.com. My good friend Mr Zaw – and very helpful he is too – I very highly recommended.

    Seems the $10 departure tax is included in the ticket price (Air Bagan) – but suggest keeping $10 on hand just in case. Departure from yangon airport was quick and painless – large Myanmar beers at departure gates for $5.

    Yangon

    General impression: was far better than I was expecting, wide tree lined streets that on the whole were clean although buildings in many places in poor state of repair – adding from 2012 – there has been a major drive to improve the pavements and there is much evidence of a massive construction boom going on. Yangon is an architects dream of mix of style and pretty cheap to get around by taxi (short rides 1500 Kyat, hourly taxi rates were a bit pricy though – Mr Myad Thein at Thamada Hotel was knowledgable, reasonable English so worth paying a extra for).

    To my approval – motorbikes/scooters are banned in Yangon, but driver discipline has slipped I felt in the last 2 years – there is more of a rush feeling abounding.

    Electricity can (and did) cut out – so be prepared to put up with more basic living conditions for some short periods. March is boiling hot: ~40’C early afternoon.

    Recommended:

    Inya Lake – pretty lake surrounded by a park.

    HHH – YH3 have moved the meeting point where they leave from (3pm every Saturday). They now meet at the gates on the Old Yangon University on University Avenue – 300m from the junction with Pyay Road (know as Hledan Junction locally). Run fee is 4000 Kyat.

    Kandawgyi Lake – improved over my last visit! - The Karaweik (a golden concrete ‘boat’ in the lake that perform ‘cultural’ shows (a la Phuket Fantasy?) for $12 – but no photo. Despite this the park ($2 admission) and the lake are well worth looking around, at the north end there is Utopia – a concrete ‘tower’ modelled after Mt Popa – the restaurant at the top gives a good view over the park and city and is moderately priced.

    Dalah – for $2 can take a short ferry ride across the Yangon River to the town of Dalah. Perhaps not for the faint hearted – I hared the main run for this trip here – 12km – sights of time forgotten Burmese, Indian, Muslim and even Christian sub-communities. While most were friendly because we were a group of mad hashers running we did get the attention of the local police who did take some persuading we were not on some covert mission!

    Sule Pagoda - first of the key Buddhist sites – actually a roundabout over 2000 years old .

    Botataung Paya –Myanmar is indeed a very spiritually grounded society, and this beautiful temple is inspiring – especially in the evening. You can walk though the stifling heat of the inner pagoda where there is Buddha hair relic surrounded by gold and money offererings.

    And finally …. Shwe Dagon Pagoda – this is Myanmar’s most holy site and it truly is special. At its glittering best at sunrise and sunset the light and ambiance of this enormous (326&rsquo pagoda I personally can only describe as spiritually majestic. 8 tonnes on gold ( … that’s > $400 million of gold) and topping out the ‘umbrella’ adorned with 3,154 gold bells, 79,569 diamonds and the sein bu 76 carat diamond bud tip.

    For me this is Asia’s greatest building – a living building far more captivating that the dead but spectacular ruins of Ankor. I’d place it on the level of St Peter’s Basilica or the Western (Wailing) Wall for the aura it emits.

    There are four entrances at the cardinal points – the southern entrance is most ‘western’ friendly and for $5 (foreigner entrance fee) you get an elevator ride to the upper platform. Note: shoes and socks have to removed in all temples, pagoda’s etc and its worth taking a plastic bag to carry your shoes (except at Shwe Dagon where this is not permitted and in any case there are girls to wash your feet after you come down for foreigners) so not to risk walking barefoot back to the hotel!

    Hotels

    Yangon:

    Central Hotel (2.5*), Bogyoke Aung San Road - $28/night – from April 1st will raise prices to $80/night. I stayed here this trip and liked it more than Thamada – breakfast was included. GF.

    Thamada - $31/night (2*) – from 1st April will raise prices to $50/night. 5 Signal Pagoda Road – great location and 365 Café attached was good. GF.

    Park Royal $100++/night (4*).

    Panorama Hotel (2.5*) 294-300 Pansodan Road – $53/night. Tel 01 253 077.

    Winner Inn (2*), No 42 Than Lwin Road, Bahan Township - $35/night - stayed here the fist night - was OK but a bit far from down town.

    Hotel prices are going up in many cases over 100% from April 1st – this reflects the acute shortage of hotel rooms in Yangon. I would stongly recommend making a confirmed booking before you travel – finding walk-in accommodation was very difficult for a couple of my friends who did not pre-book rooms.
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    Ngapoli Beach

    This trip was principally to set a male Outstation hash Run in Yangon – because I had extra time, I decided to go to see Ngapoli Beach on the West Coast Rakhaing State on the Bay of Bengal.

    Zaw arranged my flights ($94 Yangon-Thandwe on Air Bagan and $78 Thandwe-Yangon on Air Mandalay) – both were pretty much the same and the flight time was 45 mins. Thnadwe is a small town to the north of Ngapoli Beach.

    Lin Thar Ooo was a good choice hotel – right on the beach – if possible get the new rooms, as mine was in the older section. Bamboo walls don’t have much sound insulation and unfortunately there was phone reception for the Chinese woman in the next room. Electricity only was available 6pm – 6am with aircon only from 10pm to 6am. Strangely there seems and absence of fans!

    Ngapoli is really a place to go and totally zone out – ideally with a partner! I’d say 2 nights would be enough for most not writing a novel or two! The food was very good – seafood naturally – not uber cheap at the hotel or the many foreigner aimed restaurants nearby, but good enough value I felt.

    After a good rest I got up – had a quick swim and decided the local hills looked tempting. Just outside the hotel was a small (tsunami evacuation route) hill of 40m which I climbed to find Ngapoli’s reservoir – very scenic, then arcing across the fiels back to the northern where many fishermen were drying fish (yes the smell was lovely! – NOT!) – ended up at a new resort being constructed into the headland – Natural Hill Resort and its here I’d recommend staying once its finished next year. The build quality is great as are the views. I met the owner who gave me water and offered to have his security guy – guide me along the hill trails.

    Barefooted with 20+ years on me – he showed me along great ridge top trails with some small pagoda’s and stunning views. Eventually I got to the golf course – which was deserted but well kept and beyond this some sort of old army camp resort – also deserted – or the soldiers were all napping!! I guess it was an 8km stroll in all and I enjoyed this section of coastline the most. Clearly ripe for some major development in future.

    Ngapoli Beach itself is 2km of pretty pristine beach – some vaunt it as Myanmar’s finest beach but the islands of Mergui and Makaone Gallet especially easily surpass it for me. There is no nightlife – except that cantered around hotel/resort bars and some restaurants on the road along the beach.

    I did see a sign for Myanmar body massage by Mr Dawlar – perhaps when he realises Mrs Dawlar might get better custom – humm – who knows!!

    I would say Ngapoli is currently not a place to go for P4P – the local villages – while friendly look in no way geared for it and are very traditional. Sadly this no doubt will change as progress and wash of foreigner money overwhelms local customs.

    The next day – I chartered a boat for a half day snorkel and cruise around the bay – for a very reasonable 15,000 Kyat ($18). First we went to privately owned Pearl Island and snorkelled there a bit – water was cloudy and coral damaged, but plenty of fish. Later we went further south to a couple of rocks which the water was much clearer and many more fish and undamaged coral – close by had lunch on a small islet with ‘castaway’ bar/restaurant – superb!!

    Heading further south to Lontha Beach – a full on fishing village with new (2010) Buddha constructed on the hill above – I decided I’d go and walk up there that afternoon.

    Perhaps not the greatest decision – the heat was intense and finding the right trail to the Buddha was difficult. From Lin Thar Oo heading south I checked out the luxurious Amata and Aureum Resorts which if money no object would recommend. Then, with things becoming ever more ‘local’ – the smell (should that be stench?) of drying fish as got closer to Lontha increased. I detoured to try and find the track up to the Buddha – going though extremely primitive villages with bemused locals looking at ‘Whitey’!

    At Lontha Village proper I found someone could speak enough English to find the right trail – hummm – straight down to the beach and up the mountain! Boy!! – was the beach full of drying fish – while in some way primitively beautiful – was not for most I’d venture – then heading south there were 100’s of dogs!! Once a few started to bark I headed back pronto – I found a trail round the back of the beach and eventually this linked up with the beach trail and then up the mountain to the Buddha and was I happy to finally reach him!!

    While the trek and views were good – it must have been >10km is stifling heat, humidity and the stench of drying fish. Water never tasted so good from the teen girl at the top of the track. The lone monk at the top smiled and I must admit I did feel like some sort of pilgrim for a moment. Knackered I wandered down the hill back to the village and got a motorbike-tuk tuk back to the hotel.

    I asked what else there was to do nearby – but was told I needed a permit to really explore futher. The area around was sun baked farmland. I think the best time to go would be Nov-Dec when its still lush and green. Even here there was a slight smog.

    Hotels

    Lin Thar Oo Lodge, Thnadwe, 043-42322, $50/night.

    Amata Hotel $150+/night

    Aureum Resort, Mya Pyin Village, 04342 360 $180+/night – go here if budget allows!

    This was a very enjoyable trip - the more time I spend in Myanmar (Burma) the more I grow to love it (and its people). Perhaps its age of innocence is already passing - the flag and t-shirts of the NLD are in some ways reminisent of the Red Shirts here in Thailand. Su Kyi was taken ill while campaigning just before I arrived, but the April 1st elections will no doubt see her and her party do very well. It would be hard to begrudge the people of Myanmar a better future - will democracy bring that?

    I doubt 'democracy' will alone bring a better future for Myanmar's masses - already the Chinese have stolen a march of the 'West' with development surging along with real estate prices. Around Inya Lake (where Su Kyi lives) - 1000sqm will set you back $6m !!

    Rents in good areas run at $2-3000/month - and with the acute hotel room shortage the massive hike in hotle room prices will make budget travel to Yangon at least not very attractive in the near term. With Yangon hotel more expensive than anywhere in SE asia (bar Singapore or HK) - can only hope the building frenzy will provide more affordable rooms quickly.

    The 'feel' of Yangon is a growing buzz for reform and progress - I think I miss the laid back, balmy tranquility I loved the first visit. I can only hope with Myanmar's long and deep rooted complex history it moves forward without losing what makes it so special.

    Mingalabar
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  13. #13
    K2
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    Burma (Myanmar) Part VII - Feb 2013
    Just back from another trip to Yangon, a small update on things ...

    Exchange rate USD $1 = 860 Kyat – this has held pretty steady for the last 6 months..

    According to a freind who I meet up again with – visa cards can now make withdrawals from ATM’s. The previous info regarding exchanging money remains in force. USD, AUD , EUR and Sing $ are exchangeable at bank exchange booths (still the need for pristine unmarked bills). The exchange offices (there are 2 now) in The Summit Park Hotel will exchange other currencies too and would recommend here for changing amounts over $1000 as they have the new 10,000 Kyat notes.

    From Chiang Mai – flew direct to Yangon with Air Bagan (Sun & Thurs only) for 8600 Baht RT.

    Hotel situation – despite some of the 17,000 new rooms available coming on stream slightly easing the current critical shortage of rooms, I'd still say booking a room if going to Yangon is essential at present as most places are fully booked.

    All my preferred hotels were fully booked, so I booked Thamada Family Hotel (just north of Shwe Dagon) for $29 via Agoda. The room was a bit basic, but very large, with an extra bed – could have slept up to 5! I did do some minor plumbing to get the shower to work properly and the water at times was a disturbing earthy colour. No restaurant but 2 (overpriced for me I expect) Myanmar food café’s nearby and the very good Mai Thai Restaurant next door (see below).

    Found 2 new eateries –

    Mai Thai Restaurant – just off U Wisira Road north of Shwe Dagon and right next to Thamada Family Hotel. I’d passed the sign many times over the years and always intended trying it with the MTB ‘link’. Was hoping just maybe it was a little like MTB and thoughts of recent events were certainly on my mind.

    The restaurant itself was more Chinese décor wise than Thai – with way too many very courteous (and cute) staff. Service was really on the overly fussy side for me, and a couple of lunch times I was the only customer – so had 9 staff waiting on me!

    The food was good – authentic enough Thai food with additional Chinese options available. More expensive than Thailand – typically $5-$8 per entrée, so a meal for 2 ended up with beer in the $40 region.

    Furusato – 137 Shwe Gon Dine Road – this traditional Japanese restaurant had really great food – delicious albeit not cheap - but if wanting a little luxury then worth a try (open 5 -10pm).

    Still very good and returned too -

    Free Myanmar - near Summit Park Hotel - big buffet kind of set-up but food excellent and very reasonable and very popular with better off locals and tour crowd. Highly recommend, still the best local food I've had in Yangon.

    Sakura Residence Cafe - opperated by the Thapittrisari (sp?) group that run the very nice resurant at the top of the Sakura Tower. Not cheap but great quality and if staying at Winner Inn a good alternative to the limited offereings there. It's on Inya Rd nearly opposite Winner Inn.

    365 Café, Thamada Hotel – my favourite eating place, particularly the teriyaki chicken burger (oh how I wish I could find the same in Chiang Mai) – perhaps the décor a little tired, but none the less – great service and a good haunt for local ‘stars’ and hi-so nouveau riche locals.

    General Thoughts

    It was the tail end of what this year – has been a very short cool season, so dry and upper 30’s in the afternoon and coolish at night. It was heaving with tourists and businessmen. All my preferred hotels were fully booked and while the new hotel rooms have at last stopped the crazy upward spiral of room prices, the room rates are still excessive for what you get for your money.

    Online via Agoda can now find some good options and I’d still recommend booking a room before arriving – unlike the hapless French chap at the airport who was desperately hunting down a room.

    Current demographic is for well healed tourists and businessmen splurging, so not the best of pickings for the backpacker on a budget traveller, although there are still options at this end, but for now I’d say that worth waiting a year or so for the authorities to relax things further to cater for the younger, less solvent crowd.

    The internet is still crap compared even to Thailand - but an option is to go wi-fi via mobile phone - not a cheap option as the SIM for this is 200k Kyat alone, then on top of this there is a 15k Kyat set-up fee for the internet (which I could not get to work properly). Locals tell me Red Link is the best internet option currently.

    This trip I stayed solely in Yangon – so alas no exotic tales to tell. Yangon has changed a lot in the last 6 months, for me currently, not for the better. There are many more cars with relaxations on used car imports/sales and lower taxes have made car ownership more accessible. There a 4 massive overpass construction projects going on the major down town junctions causing horrendous traffic jams – the worst at Hledden Junction near where I was staying. This is the downside of modernisation.

    To see the great Shwe Dagon pagoda now have internet terminals (for foreigner only) I found a bit sad – this is one of the worlds most sacred places and to see ‘progress’ like this is likely sadly to the shape of things to come.

    Compared to Phnom Penh say 2000, Yangon is still perhaps 5 years worth of frenzied growth off were they were, but if I’d guess as to when Yangon will be as developed as say Chiang Mai – I’d say 2020 was achievable.

    The people are still as warm and friendly as ever, but no doubt materialism will eat away at the unique fabric of this ancient society. Unfortunately I don’t see it as feasible for me to live in Yangon – (any banks/investment companies who might want to hire me - then send me a message) – as I’d truly like to spend some real time there but the internet issue is too much of a problem for me.

    So perhaps will be a while until I go back to Yangon – I think for most 3 nights would be enough there.

    Mingalabar.
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  14. #14
    Senior Member Pablo's Avatar
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    Nice reporting K2, thanks.

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    nice TR. would love to visit but sounds like a place you need a lot of time to see everything,unlike thailand where you can see bkk,and most of north and south easily in 3 weeks

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    K2
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    Thanks - yes, the more time the better and outside of the 'normal' tourist trail - its both time consuming and much more expensive than you would expect to get to the more remote sites.
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    Quote Originally Posted by K2 View Post
    Thanks - yes, the more time the better and outside of the 'normal' tourist trail - its both time consuming and much more expensive than you would expect to get to the more remote sites.

    only watched anthony bourdain's new show yesterday about Myanmar(parts unknown).the train journey from yangoon to bagan looks like a one off experience that could you could not get anywhere else

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    Good stuff Kev... They are great reports and useful to have here.

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    Thanks for re-posting Kev. Great Info here.

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