Our family was interested in traveling to Myanmar because it had been closed off to tourists until recently and we had heard about the amazing experiences our friends had there. We decided to go over October holiday at a turbo-tourist pace so we could see as much of the country as possible. The four locations we visited were distinct and equally captivating.
Our adventure began in Yangon, where our guide took us to the brilliant Shwedagon Pagoda, a place of worship with a 99m golden stupa. We walked barefoot on hot tiles with the gold glistening in the sun. We also caught the Htwee oo Myanmar Puppeteers, a puppet show set to music with beautifully-decorated puppet horses and dancers.
From Yangon, we took a short flight to Bagan, where we were met by our guide and driver and taken to Shwesandaw Pagoda. The view of Bagan was breathtaking and tranquil; the city is home to over 2,000 pagodas and temples that stretch into the horizon. We learned some local history and heard scary stories about kings, queens, and ghosts.
Our favorite meal was inspired by the last king of Bagan, who decreed that every meal should incorporate 300 different dishes. We enjoyed a picnic in Minnanthu Village under brilliant blue skies with 30 kinds of curries, rice dishes, desserts, and drinks. We also stopped at a local market selling fresh and dried fish, flowers, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. My daughter and I were honored to have our faces painted with thanaka, a yellow-white paste made of tree bark and water at the market – a 2,000-year-old custom for women.
The next day, we drove five hours through jungle to the Elephant Conservation Camp, where we met seven retired elephants and their caretakers. Our kids, especially our 2-year-old, were fearless beside the gentle beasts, feeding them bananas and sugar cane and giving them a bath in a shallow river. We also planted a teak tree sapling together to help conserve the forest. We stayed at the Kalaw Hotel, a colonial building that was turned into a hospital during World War II.
An hour’s drive from Kalaw is the enormous Inle Lake surrounded by Shan villages and the Intha people, who live in stilt houses. We explored the area by motorboat, visiting a floating tomato garden, a Burmese cat sanctuary, a lotus-weaving workshop, traditional longboat makers, and a silversmith. We were amazed by the artistry and talent of the local people. Our daughter fell in love with the cutest little white Burmese kitten that snuggled on her lap.
The boat ride gave us a vivid sense of the vastness of the river and the beauty of the mountains. In the evening, we traversed a crowded market where we stumbled upon a ceremony in which the men were laying gold leaf on a traveling Buddha. Jeremy and Jack each placed a piece on the Buddha, but as a female my daughter could not participate. She was very disappointed, which provoked an interesting discussion of culture.
From Inle Lake, we flew to Ngapali Beach where our bedroom doors opened onto the beach. The sunrise and sunset were spectacular and we were treated to the sounds of fisherman returning with their evening catch of shrimp at dawn. We played in the surf, collected seashells of all shapes and sizes, and made sand castles on beautiful empty beaches.
From Ngapali Beach, we took a boat ride to a traditional fishing village called Maung Shwe Lay. We rode by ox carriage along bumpy dirt roads to visit a local home, monastery, elementary school, and library. At the school, our family stood in front of the class and answered the children’s questions.
On our last day in Myanmar, we flew from Ngapali Beach back to Yangon, where we visited the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, the reclining Buddha, and played at a crowded local park. We left Myanmar late that night tired and hoping to return again someday.
Travelers: Barbara Kopicki, her husband Jeremy Nichols, and their three children: Ceanne (age 7), Jack (6), and Jasper (2). Ceanne and Jack attend 3e International School while Jasper attends The Children’s House Montessori Kindergarten.
Travel dates: September to October 2014
Travel plans: The Nichols bought their flights from Beijing to Yangon on Air China through Orbitz. All of their travel within Myanmar was organized through Khiri Travel. They visited four locations, staying at the Clover City Center Hotel in Yangon, the Kalaw Hotel in Kalaw, the Inle Lotus at Inle Lake, and the Yoma Cherry Hotel at Ngapali Beach.
Cost: Flights cost RMB 15,000 in total. The travel package from Khiri Travel came to RMB 39,900, including domestic air travel on Air KBZ, van transport, guide, hotels, and tourist activities. Breakfasts and most lunches were included in the overall travel package costs, while dinners were paid out-of-pocket on the trip. Visas cost RMB 200 per person.
- Tips are commonplace, but they can be confusing because there doesn’t seem to be a standard. We tipped our guides USD 10-20 and drivers USD 5-10 per day. We also tipped boat operators and families who hosted our lunches.
- Myanmar is instituting an online visa process; however, this was not in place when we planned our trip. Make sure to apply for visas in advance, as it can take a week to complete the process. The latter is detailed on the Myanmar Embassy’s website.
- Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure is not yet set up for easy online booking, so making arrangements with a local travel agency is the easiest way for now. Khiri Travel was excellent.
- Bring crisp new US dollars in $50 or $100 denominations without serial numbers starting in “CB.” These may be rejected due to the mass counterfeiting of US dollars with that serial number in the past. We had some bills rejected because they were too creased.
- Travel the week before or after peak periods. There will be fewer people and hotels will be less expensive. The best months to visit are November to February; some months are very hot or very wet.
- Buy a longyi, the traditional sarong-like garment worn everywhere.
- Go to Myanmar before everyone hears about it! There are currently few tourists, and the local people are very warm, genuine, and kind.
Photos: Courtesy of Barbara Kopicki